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[Trigger Warning: Contains discussion of media reaction to sexual assault]
The Dirty Politics were no surprise. Aw sure, we were outraged, and as we went about demanding resignations we felt our due moral vindication. But the deepest revelation was that Whale Oil and its National Party friends had corrupted the moral heart of our politics, and we’d known that one for a while. And so we wandered back into intellectual speculation. Was publishing hacked emails an expression of the right to free speech, or an attempt to take that right from others? It was a fun question to poke, but not one that ever gave much of an answer.
Two months ago, Whale Oil published a blog attacking the victim of a sexual assault. A Malaysian official accused of assaulting the young Wellingtonian had claimed diplomatic immunity and been allowed to flee New Zealand. This embarrassed the Government, and so their friend Whale Oil published conspiracy theories about the victim’s political motivation, demanding to cross-examine the victim about the details of her assault. The blog was part political manoeuvre, but it had a deeper purpose too. In forcing retribution, it threatened anyone who might shame Whale Oil’s friends in the future. Like much political speech, the blog post’s goal was to silence.
Free speech sounds like a wonderful idea, but its problem is its impossibility. To give someone free speech is to let them silence someone else. If free speech can exist, it is as a thing to be engineered, an environment to be constructed. If free speech can exist, we have to choose to be quiet.
Last year, shortly after the Roast Buster rape cases were made public, John Tamihere and Willie Jackson were hosting their talkback radio show. A friend of the Roast Busters’ victims telephoned in. Tamihere and Jackson chose to berate the young woman, accusing her friends of inviting the attacks. We were outraged, we asked businesses to pull their advertising from the show. Many did. The show was cancelled.
Perhaps it was a victory for a free media, self-regulation in the marketplace of ideas. But it was a victory won by corporate power silencing dissent. Of course there were those who snarked “free speech doesn’t mean you get a free radio show” and “those attacking the show have free speech too”, and I guess they were right. But they also missed the point. We value free speech because we value being heard. People don’t hear you when your show has been cancelled.
Free speech is an artificial idea. That’s fine, but it means we can’t find it any deep solution. Of course the rights of those leaked are in conflict with those of the leakers. Our only real solution is to pick a side. Luckily, we find that pretty easy. Free speech is deciding who chooses to be silent. That becomes tricky when we’re out of volunteers.