By Chris Trotter*
Haverford College is an elite liberal college situated in one of the more the picturesque parts of Pennsylvania. Annual tuition fees are an eye-watering $US54,000 – so, a refuge for the wretched refuse of America’s teeming cities it ain’t. What it most definitely is, however, is “woke”. Pretty much from top to bottom, Haverford College subscribes to the ever-more impenetrable statutes of “intersectionality” and identity politics.
As if to prove the point, the student body of Haverford decided in late October to go on strike. Against what, precisely, it is difficult to fathom. The strike movement grew out of the College authorities’ response to its students’ participation in a Black Lives Matter protest. This was not a case of reactionary racist administrators undermining students’ efforts to register their disgust at the police shooting of yet another Black American. Haverford is a strong supporter of BLM. No, the strike arose out of the College President’s call for students to be conscious of the risk of contracting Covid-19 at protest demonstrations and spreading it among their fellow Haverfordians.
For this insult the College was shut down and its administrators and academic staff subjected to the sort of “struggle sessions” made famous by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Students who failed to show sufficient enthusiasm for the strike were denounced on social media. The future employment of academic staff who refused to cancel their classes was threatened.
Throughout, the College’s administration made nothing but approving noises. Harangued by undergraduate twenty-somethings, distinguished professors and long-time anti-racist activists dutifully “confessed” to their manifold shortcomings and promised to do better. Virtually all of the student “strikers” demands (except the one requiring the College to hand back the land it was built on to its original indigenous owners) were met.
In spite of the “strikers” comprehensive political victory, however, nothing much at Haverford has changed. The people who were in charge before the strike are still in charge afterwards. The number of students owning-up to “conservative” beliefs is still less than 3.5%. The quantum of student tuition fees is, however, predicted to rise. Implementing the strikers’ anti-racist agenda will have to be paid for somehow!
The difference between Haverford College and the NZ media giant, Stuff, is, of course, that the staff, students and alumni of the College (as well, presumably, and the long-suffering parents footing the bill) are all perfectly at ease in their own very liberal skins. The same cannot be said of the subscribers and purchasers of Stuff’s newspapers. Whether the enthusiasm of the publisher for the anti-racist project of its journalistic staff is matched by the readers of Stuff’s newspapers remains to be seen.
Their biggest concern is likely to be that by aligning itself so closely with what is, after all, a decidedly radical race-based political agenda, Stuff will feel obligated to tailor its coverage of race-related stories to conform to the principles of its new “anti-racist” kaupapa.
Almost immediately, however, Stuff’s readers’ concern has been justified. Just days into Stuff’s new regime, two of its newspapers have elected to reject an already approved and paid for advertisement from local opponents of Maori wards. Embarrassingly, the ad in question is entitled: “It’s About Democracy”.
The editors of the Whangarei Leader and the Bay Chronicle, who according to Democracy Northland had previously accepted their ad, have subsequently reversed their position. Democracy Northland asserts that the decision, made by a three-person “editorial panel”, and communicated to them by a sales rep, was said to reflect “the core values that we are paying extra attention to at this given time. Particularly with our current value realignment, they believe the ad may not align with the message that the company is trying to push forward at this stage. While I appreciate that there should be a certain element of freedom of voice within all publications, it appears that at this time our editorial team is being extra cautious with what is going into our papers due to the sensitive nature of our current value realignment.”
Nothing could better illustrate the ethical, political and commercial pitfalls of the path Stuff has chosen to follow. Democracy Northland, if the results of previous referenda on Maori wards offer any guidance, may be articulating the concerns of a solid majority of local electors. No matter how “racist” those raising these concerns may be in the eyes of many of their fellow Northlanders, denying space to a legally unobjectionable ad which has, reportedly, passed muster with the Advertising Standards Authority, on the grounds that it “may not align with the message that the company is trying to push forward at this stage” – i.e. is incompatible with the political views of the publishers – is a very dangerous thing to do.
That danger has nothing to do with the right of the owner of a printing press to determine who may, and who may not, avail themselves of its communicative power. The danger arises out of the fact that those purchasing the paper and/or advertising space within its pages have an equally unassailable right to withdraw their support – and dollars. A boycott of the paper by individuals and groups representing only a tiny fraction of its readership may be shrugged-off with ease. But, should a significant fraction elect to “vote with its feet” and exit the market, then the commercial viability of the publication will be threatened. This is the point American conservatives are making when they share the meme: “Go Woke, Go Broke”.
It is to avoid this fate that the concept of newspapers having a responsibility to “hold the ring” for the free and open debate – even of the most controversial issues – within their pages became a staple of publishing ethics. The point, presumably, being to make the issue the focus of fierce public debate – not the newspaper.
How will the Whangarei Leader and the Bay Chronicle respond if the Local Government Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, responds positively to the arguably anti-democratic request of a Northland Regional Councillor, by imposing “a moratorium or the like on the ability to demand a poll”. To strip local electors of their right to gather sufficient signatures to secure a referendum on the creation of a Maori ward, is to make a bet that the resulting political damage will be repairable. Big bet.
Acquiescing to that regional councillor’s suggestion would tell New Zealanders two things. The first is that Nanaia Mahuta, the Labour Government, and the proprietors of Stuff newspapers are unwilling to entrust a majority of Pakeha New Zealanders with the power to determine the shape and purpose of their constitution. The second, which follows logically from the first, is that there is a layer of New Zealand society subscribing to convictions it believes to be morally superior to those of their fellow Kiwis, and that these convictions entitle them to strip those holding what are judged to be morally unacceptable views of their civil and political rights.
When the student strikers at Haverford College attempted to actualise these anti-democratic ideas they encountered an administration that was more than willing to entertain and even embrace their demands. New Zealand, however, is not Haverford College: push its people to far in this direction, and they are certain to push back.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.