Attacks on democratic rights – real and imaginary

After considerable public outcry over the misogynist comments on air by broadcasters Willie Jackson and John Tamihere, during the debate on the Roastbusters question, their show has been taken off air. Some voices have been raised warning of the hand of censorship in this.

Broadcasters John Tamihere, left, and Willie Jackson. Photo: RadioLive

Broadcasters John Tamihere, left, and Willie Jackson.
Photo: RadioLive

Political commentator Chris Trotter wrote of “experiencing a chill of foreboding” when the show was taken off air, and asked “Has no thought been given to how – or even if – the demise of The Willie & JT Show can be reconciled with the NZ Bill of Rights’ guarantee of freedom of expression?”

Freelance journalist Karl du Fresne writes, “Here we go again: the tyranny of the mob…. the outrage over the Roast Busters has triggered a potentially valuable national conversation about how such attitudes could exist in a supposedly enlightened, civilised society, and everything should be on the table. If we genuinely want to understand what’s been going on in West Auckland, a few awkward questions need to be asked. One of those questions is whether the behaviour of the victims may have been a contributory factor, consciously or otherwise. Asking that question doesn’t excuse the contemptible behaviour of the perpetrators. Neither does it mean blaming the victim… If we don’t ask those uncomfortable questions, an opportunity will have been lost. And the enemies of free speech and open debate will have triumphed again.”

Let’s keep this in proportion. Neither broadcaster has suffered any injury to their right of freedom of expression. They have not been threatened by the forces of the state in any way, nor hit with crippling legal action by a powerful opponent. They remain free to speak their views on street corners in the same way as any other free citizen.

The market forces that govern broadcasting placed Jackson and Tamihere before their radio audience: the RadioLive corporation, in its quest for advertising revenue, count on these broadcasters appealing to a large audience. The same market forces removed them, when popular outrage over their comments reduced that audience.  Judging by past experience in similar cases, as soon as the discussion blows over, market forces will likely place them back in front of their influential microphones. That’s the way it goes, as long as the content and personnel of broadcasting is largely controlled by private profit-driven corporations.

There is certainly something wrong about the control of broadcasting by private corporations (and indirectly by the advertisers who provide their income.) Yet that is not what gives these defenders of free speech their ‘chill of foreboding’ – in fact, rather the opposite. It is the influence of ordinary people, mobilising public opinion through discussion, using whatever means of communication are at hand to present their arguments and express their outrage publicly and – weakly, indirectly – asserting some influence over the advertisers in the process; this is what constitutes ‘the tyranny of the mob’ in their eyes.  The impertinence of these ordinary people – majority female, what’s more – in attempting to interfere with the conduct of this discussion!

This was an imaginary attack on democratic rights.

On the other hand, there have been two recent cases in which legal action against a widely-despised figure has been used to advance an anti-democratic agenda.

John Banks outside Parliament building. Photo: Jevan Goulter

John Banks outside Parliament building.
Photo: Jevan Goulter

The first of these is the prosecution of John Banks for violation of the rules requiring disclosure of the names of donors to his electoral campaigns. What began as a private prosecution was taken over by the state once it achieved a degree of political traction.

It is difficult to think of a more unpopular bourgeois political figure than John Banks at present. Defeated in his campaign for the Auckland mayoralty, he squeaked into Parliament with less than the usual claim to a popular mandate, and began actively asserting his influence. There will be no small number of people rubbing their hands in glee at his current misfortunes.

However, for working class organisations, ‘transparency’ rules requiring political parties and electoral groupings to disclose the names of their supporters, and of donors to their fund appeals and electoral campaigns, are entirely reactionary and should be opposed. Such lists increase the vulnerability of workers organisations to spying, discrimination and harassment by both state and rightist vigilante forces. They violate our right to organise independently, away from the prying eye of the capitalist state.

On the other hand, such laws serve no useful purpose when they are applied to bourgeois political organisations. We already know that the bourgeois parties are organised, funded, supported by wealthy capitalist individuals and corporations. Which particular individuals stand behind which particular party is of little interest, and will never be fully revealed through such transparency laws anyway. The hunger for this information mostly comes from those who rely on conspiracy theories to explain the workings of capitalist society.

In the United States, the Socialist Workers Party is an organisation with a history of at least seventy years of legal existence, which publishes and distributes a legal newspaper. It stands candidates in bourgeois elections including every presidential election since 1948. The party defends its right to exemption from disclosure laws, because throughout that seventy years its members and supporters have been subjected to political firings and employment discrimination, physical threats, arson and other forms of vandalism against its bookshops and campaign headquarters, in addition to spying, harassment, and disruption campaigns by the state agencies themselves.

Among those who are currently cheering the ‘electoral fraud’ prosecution of John Banks there will be many who will live to regret it, when this weapon is turned against its intended target: the fighting organisations of workers.

Allan Titford in 1992  Photo: TVNZ

Allan Titford in 1992
Photo: TVNZ

If there is anyone less popular than Banks, it may be Northland man Allan Titford, Far North Mayoral candidate and long-time campaigner against Maori land rights. On Thursday Titford was jailed for 24 years on 39 charges of sexual violation and assault against members of his own family, as well as arson. The arson relates to the act of setting fire to a property on his own farm, which he then blamed on supporters of Maori land rights.

Titford deserves a long jail term for these crimes; I have no quarrel with that.

But that is not the end of the matter. Titford was convicted two months ago, and was a candidate in the recent Mayoral elections, contesting the Far North mayoralty, where he won 414 votes.

According to a report on Radio New Zealand, “Internal Affairs Minister Chris Tremain wants to know why a Northland man was able to contest the Far North mayoralty after being convicted of serious sex and violence crimes against his family.”

“Convicted prisoners cannot register on the electoral roll, let alone stand for office, and Mr Tremain wants to investigate further. His concern is that the 414 people who voted for Titford in mayoral elections held on 12 October were supporting a man whose candidacy could have been illegal.”

In fact, convicted prisoners had the right to vote and stand for office in elections in New Zealand until recently. In most of Europe, Japan, and some African and South American countries, prisoners retain the right to vote (according to the not-always-reliable information on Wikipedia). Disenfranchisement of prisoners, which not only prevents them from voting but also from standing for political office, is another weapon aimed at the working class. By seizing on the case of an isolated and widely detested individual like Allan Titford, the Internal Affairs Minister Tremain seeks to win support for this anti-democratic measure.

Mural depicting Bobby Sands,MP, in Belfast

Mural depicting Bobby Sands,MP, in Belfast

There is a long history of working class fighters imprisoned on political charges using participation in elections to break out of the political isolation their jailers seek to impose. In 1981, Irish nationalist Bobby Sands stood in a parliamentary election from his cell in the notorious Long Kesh prison. At the time of the election, he was leading a hunger strike by nationalist prisoners in support of their demand to be granted the status of political prisoners. Sands won the election, and the electoral victory registered a huge gain for the nationalist movement in Ireland. (He continued the hunger strike to his death a month later, and 100,000 people lined the route of his funeral procession.)

Working class militants opposed to imperialist wars have also been jailed by the militarists in an effort to silence them. In the United States in 1918 the Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs was jailed for sedition for a speech he gave denouncing the war and the military draft. He ran for the Presidency in 1920 from his cell in Atlanta prison, and won almost a million votes. Many of the working class anti-war militants who formed the Labour Party in New Zealand in 1916 had likewise done jail time for sedition.

Working people should let the Internal Affairs Minister know that we recognise that his efforts to further restrict prisoners’ political rights are an attack on the rights of all of us.

One response to “Attacks on democratic rights – real and imaginary

  1. Pingback: Racism and race-baiting | A communist at large·

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