Easier to build racist stereotypes

Last updated 09:25 10/06/2013

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OPINION: With freedom of speech comes responsibility - "huge" responsibility in the case of newspapers, John Minto argues.

Alot of nonsense has been written in defence of The Press and Marlborough Express newspapers' decisions to print Al Nisbet's racist cartoons.

We've been told that free speech should triumph and we are heading down a dangerous path of censorship if we stop the likes of these cartoons being printed in newspapers. This would apparently start us on a slippery slope to some sort of totalitarianism.

But free speech is never an unfettered right. Remember the "freedom of speech" used by a radio DJ in Uganda to stir genocide? Remember the "freedom of speech" which led to the demonisation of Jews, communists, gays and Gypsies in Nazi Germany?

The reality is that with freedom of speech comes responsibility, and in the case of newspapers with wide community coverage it's a huge responsibility. Every day editors make numerous free-speech decisions. They accept or reject letters to the editor and opinion pieces and decide which stories will get prominence and which will appear as a "briefly" at the back of the paper.

They are under no obligation to print anything that comes across their desks.

Another reason given for publication was that it would provoke discussion, and cartoonists had the right to "push the envelope" and that was a good and healthy thing for democracy.

But whose views get to provoke discussion? Does this mean newspapers should give space to a racist Nazi group to tell us why we should hate Jews? This would be rejected without a second thought by any newspaper editor in New Zealand. Being controversial for its own sake is usually not acceptable for even Britain's bottom-feeding tabloids.

If any New Zealand cartoonist submitted a drawing making fun of the desecration of Jewish graves, for example, no New Zealand newspaper would touch it. And rightly so. So why is it not OK to publish an anti- semitic cartoon but it is OK to publish cartoons which are deeply racist against Maori and Pacific people?

This is the question our newspapers should be answering.

Taking a wider look at the situation is particularly ugly.

Low-income communities have been a deliberate target of government policy for a long time. Especially during capitalism's regular recessions, these attacks are intended to take the focus away from the lack of jobs and the failure of markets and shift it to the victims of economic policy. The unemployed are somehow to blame for their predicament and don't deserve dignity and respect from their fellow citizens.

In New Zealand, Maori and Pasifika have become shorthand for low incomes and high social problems as a result of endemic poverty, and the inevitable result is the manufactured racism reflected in Nisbet's cartoons. They amount to little more than an attack on the most vulnerable children in our community.

He may as well go to school and take the Weet-Bix from the kids' mouths.

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One of the many ironies of his latest cartoons is that for many years these communities have been fighting to close the pokie parlours, booze shops, loan- shark operations and even fast-food outlets in their neighbourhoods.

However, the same Government that demonises the victims of economic policies while enriching the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us steadfastly refuses to allow this.

I don't expect to see a cartoon on this because it's easier to help build lazy racist stereotypes than provoke a discussion on the cynical abuse of low-income communities by politicians.

In Mana's original criticism of the cartoons I said that the views expressed in them are better out in the open than left to fester in dark corners but this doesn't mean they should be printed in newspapers.

Nisbet can exercise his freedom of speech by stapling his racist cartoons to his front fence, but as far as newspapers are concerned, they should have been filed in the reject box.

John Minto is co-vice president of the Mana Movement.

- The Press

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