Putting a price on free speech

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009

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The rather breathless reporting of last weekend's demonstration against the Electoral Finance Bill – "These aren't your normal protesters"; "this is about as far from the usual rent-a-mob as you can get" – was entirely predictable.

It isn't every day that the mostly middle-class membership of National and ACT feel sufficiently aggrieved to take a leisurely stroll down Queen St. And it isn't every day that New Zealand's young, white and overwhelmingly middle-class political journalists get to see their mums and dads, or people who look very much like them, waving placards and chanting slogans.

And that, of course, is the point.

In our sort of democracy, members of the "owning" class don't expect to have to wave placards or shout slogans. And that's because, in our sort of democracy, the promotion of capitalist values, and the protection of capitalist interests, are generally supposed to constitute the unalterable default settings of our political system.

In fact, one could be forgiven for saying that New Zealand's entire political system "belongs" to the owning class. As the former LibertariaNZ Party candidate, Terry Verhoeven, explains in a letter to The New Zealand Herald (a major supporter of last Saturday's demonstration):

"It is only on the basis of property rights that free speech (or the sphere and application of any individual rights, for that matter) can be defined in a given situation.

"Without recourse to property rights (which includes one's right to buy and sell advertising space), there is but a single other avenue left to obtain the means to promote one's political views in a social context: to hijack someone else's property."

These extreme, unvarnished – and refreshingly candid – ideological assertions were prompted by the contents of a letter submitted to The Herald by the Prime Minister's husband, Professor Peter Davis.

"The Electoral Finance Bill does not diminish 'free' speech," wrote Professor Davis. "It restricts speech that is 'purchased' through advertising – and only in an environment that is electorally sensitive."

We owe a debt of thanks to both Professor Davis and Mr Verhoeven, for taking us to the ideological heart of the dispute between the supporters and the opponents of the bill.

By the most generous definition, the owning class constitutes barely 20 per cent of the New Zealand population. The rest of us are obliged to earn our living by hiring ourselves out to this fortunate fifth.

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In a pure democracy, such a grossly unequal economic and social arrangement would be overthrown in an instant. It is only "on the basis of property rights" – as Mr Verhoeven reminds us – that the dominant position of the owning class is preserved.

So when these "owners" talk about the right to "free expression" what they're really referring to is the right to restrict ready access to effective mass- communication technologies to people like themselves.

How else are ideas which threaten the hegemony of this wealthy minority to be filtered out?

The question becomes even more acute when the owners are faced with an electorally entrenched governing party whose policies are beginning to undermine their dominant position. Filtering out the messages of a left-wing government is a much tougher job than filtering out the messages of a left-wing opposition. Faced with prolonged left- wing incumbency, the owning class's access to almost unlimited quantities of cash becomes crucial. Cash can buy think-tanks, front organisations, full-page advertisements – even street marches. Cash can fund media campaigns designed to undermine the public's trust and confidence in the Government. Cash can whip up popular support for the imposition of crippling political fines on the governing coalition.

So it's easy to imagine the dismay of the owning class and its media proxies when they learned that the Government, in self- defence, was proposing to limit the "Owners' Party's" access to its chief; its most effective; and its only readily available weapon – cash.

In the sense that Mr Verhoeven understands the term democracy: "the right to buy and sell advertising space"; this was, indeed, a mortal threat.

The rest of us, however, like Professor Davis, can simply relax. As he put it: "I would be concerned if 'free' speech was being constrained, but limits on the rights to 'purchase' speech are justified to protect our democracy from money politics."

And, he might usefully have added, the machinations of an owning class that has disdained to learn any other kind.

- The Dominion Post

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