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Dr Muriel Newman

Inspiration and exasperation

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The rescue of the 33 Chilean miners, trapped half a mile underground for almost ten weeks, has been a remarkable story of human innovation and progress. In another age, they would have all died. But technology and international cooperation banded together to create an inspirational feat of recovery, which some have called a ‘smashing victory for free-market capitalism’.1

The point is that the leading-edge technology used in the rescue was developed as a result of the wealth-creating incentives that underpin free-market economies. The special hammer bit that enabled rescuers to drill 2,200 feet down through rock and earth in record time, was manufactured by Center Rock, a small drilling machinery manufacturer in Pennsylvania, USA. The drill rig came from Schramm, also of Pennsylvania. The high strength cable used in the operation came from Germany. The flexible fibre-optic communications cable that linked the miners to the rest of the world came from Japan. Samsung Electronics of South Korea provided a cellphone with a built-in projector so miners could watch movies and videos of loved ones. Kiwi inventor Brian Russell of Maryland based Zephyr Technologies developed the special harness which monitored the miners’ vital signs, and Jeffrey Gabbay from Cupron in Virginia provided the copper fibre socks that eliminated infection and odour.

The ‘Phoenix’ rescue capsule was designed and built by Chile’s navy with help from NASA.

Each of the innovations used in the rescue is a tribute to how the free market rewards those entrepreneurs who can create leading-edge technologies at affordable prices. It represents the progress of mankind, creating jobs and wealth in the process.

It was however during the final weeks of this amazing international rescue attempt that an incident occurred in New Zealand that has been blown out of all proportions. It was, of course, the Paul Henry affair.

Like him or not, everyone knows Paul Henry. He is one of only a handful of colourful New Zealand broadcasters. Like the others, he calls a spade a spade. And when combined with his mischievous sense of humour, this can lead him into hot water.

On this occasion, the Governor General and the Chief Minister of Delhi were on the receiving end. But they are both high profile politicians – and everyone who offers themselves for a career in politics knows that brushing off comments that could be regarded as offensive is just part of the job. So the incidents should have ended with apologies and a suspension, but not Paul Henry’s sacking.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, journalist and broadcaster Lindsay Perigo, examines this whole sorry affair in his article The Tyranny of Umbrage:

“The abiding disgrace of Paul Henry’s forced resignation is not that an unworthy standard-bearer of Political Incorrectness has lost his job; it’s that TVNZ, in shutting Henry down, has capitulated to a lynch-mob professing hurt feelings—and that hurt feelings are regarded as sufficient justification for a lynching.

“In more robust times, stupidly implying that the current Governor-General doesn’t look or sound like a New Zealander would have been subject to just derision, and that would have been that. And we could have enjoyed the hilarity of the name of the Indian cabinet minister called upon to sort out the dysfunctional sewage system at the Commonwealth Games being Dikshit without an international furore, an orgy of apologising, Security Council resolutions … and local losers quacking that, like, they, like, felt they had been, like, stripped of their, like, identity, and were, like, so totally offended.

“No longer. Now, we all must tread on eggshells lest we cause offence to someone (anyone). Free speech, including the irreverent humour which it subsumes, is out the window. TVNZ’s behaviour has just helped clinch its demise.”

The right to offend is enshrined in our right to free speech found in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. Clause 14 states “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind and in any form”.

That right to say whatever we like is however tempered by the Human Rights Act, which makes it an offence to express an opinion that could be deemed to be ‘threatening, abusive, or insulting’ on the ground of the ‘colour, race, or ethnic or national origins’. Quite how Maori Party MP Hone Harawira escaped prosecution – up to 3 months in prison or a fine of up to $7,000 – for his well-publicised and very abusive ‘white mother…’ tirade, is difficult to understand!

However, in Paul Henry’s case, left-wing activists, led by John Minto, ran a campaign calling for his sacking and it is a tragedy for free speech in New Zealand that Television New Zealand – or anyone else for that matter – bothered to listen! For the point is that he did not intend to stir up hatred nor did he have evil intent.

Attacks on free speech by those with a totalitarian bent are not uncommon. A few years ago, when the then Labour Government tried to curtail free speech in Britain, comedian Rowan Atkinson led a campaign defending the ‘right to offend’.2 He believes that the right to say things that might offend someone is one of society’s fundamental freedoms: The freedom to criticise or ridicule ideas – even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is a fundamental freedom of society”.

He explains, It all points to the promotion of the idea that there should be a right not to be offended. But in my view the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended.”

This is an important point in an age where some people seem to regard ‘being offended’ as part of their life’s mission.

The right to ridicule is far more important to society than any right not to be ridiculed because one in my view represents openness – and the other represents oppression.

What a prickly, grey old world it would become if no-one was allowed to criticise or poke fun anymore. Worse, what a straight jacket it would impose on society if the right to offend was vigorously outlawed, since, as we all know, most people are capable of being thin skinned and easily offended, and similarly, most people are equally capable of causing offence!

In a free society, our freedom of speech is something we should never take for granted. The obvious political pressure brought to bear on Television New Zealand to remove Paul Henry is a sinister reminder that threats to that freedom of speech are never far away. And in light of his sacking, the government’s announcement that it intends to regulate bloggers, Facebook, Twitter, and all internet-based publishing, is an insidious development.

Announced last week, the Minister of Justice justified his “Review” of the Internet, with claims that “It’s a bit of Wild West out there in cyberspace at the moment, because bloggers and online publishers are not subject to any form of regulation or ethical standards”.

He claims that the review, to be carried out by the Law Commission, is needed in order to protect the integrity of the justice system, and he expects an issues paper dealing with these matters will be ready for release by December next year.

This development reinforces the importance of the words of Thomas Jefferson: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”!