Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 11 June 5, 1968
'We don't deserve it'
'We don't deserve it'
I'm a member of a lucky generation, in terms of freedom of speech.
I believe that the individual's right to say and write what he likes, indeed to think what he likes, is the most important value in any social system.
For my generation, now the middle-aged fringe, the only real threat to what we held most dear was from fascism and Stalinist communism.
We were lucky because both these threats were defeated for us—of course, not finally defeated because no evil is finally eradicated, only repressed for a lifetime.
Fascism was defeated for us by our older brothers, in the 1939-1945 war. Communism, or at least the Stalinist Line, was stopped by the massive application of power by the United States.
I agree it was applied sometimes naively, sometimes stupidly. But, it did the job, and made possible ideals of freedom to assert themselves within the Communist bloc.
We were lucky, my generation, because we had ample opportunity to go our own ways.
We wandered over the village called Wellington in the early 40's like young animals who had never known a fence.
We had access to every idea expressed by man.
Our explorations took us from the Unity Centre in Cuba Street, headquarters of the Communist Party, to suburban halls where Peter Fraser, Bob Semple, Rev. Scrimgeour and Adam Hamilton, then leader of the National Party, spoke.
We called on the churches, a favourite being St. Mary of the Angels because it had a good chair.
We were lucky because we were unhindered, and developed according to whatever talents we had.
As far as society was concerned, the only challenge I was involved in concerned a libel suit from the Y.M.C.A.- they lost.
Caught up in Latin American politics, I saw just how fragile freedom can he when soldiers of the State can steal off a street, drag a man from his house and shoot him dead while he struggled.
What horrified me, fresh from that village called Wellington, was that after it was all over the people around went about their normal lives pretending that nothing had happened.
The State had killed a man, and the ordinary citizen had to look the other way. The State had the power you see; the citizen had none.
Later there was a revolution that failed, and a friend of mine from those Wellington days was accused of complicity and briefly jailed.
I left in a cattle boat.
In the heat, sprawled in the stinking pens, I remember thinking back to that town called Wellington and how I left there thinking it had nothing except a rather provincial dullness.
Now I realised that it had, in fact, achieved, or at least inherited the achievment of, a quite incredible freedom and this was the most important value of civilisation.
It is still true today.
I don't know about you. but I am prepared to acknowledge that incompetence, stupidity, ignorance, corruption, sloth, pride, greed, all the sins of man in fact, may be found in our society.
Yet it also has freedom. I am prepared to be part of it and defend it.
Point to any social system that claims to have eradicated any of those sins but is not free, and I want no part of it.
Surely one of the saddest claims, in a political context, about a society has been made about Red China.
No flies, we are told, exist there.
I am willing to allow that there are all kinds of flies on us, and the more racial or revolutionary among you have plenty of swotting to do.
But, for God's sake, don't let anyone convince you that the presence of flies means that we should restrict our freedom in order to get rid of them.
If that should ever come to pass you'll find me on the side of the flies.
I have been in the business of journalism and writing for a quarter-century now and in that time there has been only one major deprivation of our freedom.
That was the 1951 strike's emergency regulations which denied strike leaders the right to speak at public assemblies or be reported.
It was a disgrateful episode in our history I regret to say it was condened by our newspapers but not by many of our newspapermen.
With that single exception, which still makes me ashamed. I cannot think of any genuine interference with our freedoms.
Instances of individual misjudgements, stupid decisions by authorities, yes; but not calculated deprivation of the rights of the individual by the social system.
Nobody with anything of importance to say has been denied the right to say it somehow or other.
Many complaints can be traced to passionate believers in a cause who believe the media is obstructing his message, simply because headlines and columns are not devoted to his argument or belief.
I do not regard a wrong decision or attitude by a newspaper, editor or broadcasting official as a threat to freedom of speech. It is ordinary human fallibility, timidity or predjudice.
The News Media Bill is pointing in the direction of deprivation, but nobody wants to prevent a particular form of journalism.
As a writer, I find the law on censorship unsatisfactory. But I must admit that, so far, it's application has been eminently sensible and allows us valuable liberal freedoms.
Yet the definition of what may be suppresed or censored haunts me—the law refers to material "injurious to the public good".
Surerly there is a danger that one day, a Government in some authoritarian convulsion, could have that interpreted to cover critical or dissenting political writing.
Anyway on occasion, it can be the legitimate purpose of a writer to "injure" what the public regards as "good".
Some day, I am convinced, we will regret that wording.
My real concern is that we New Zealanders are not worthy of the freedoms we have, simply because we scarcely deign to use them.
The dangerous restrictions on New Zealand freedom have been our own inhibitions, lack of imagination, lethargy, and unjustified fears.
An army general was once bellowing with rage at something I had caused to be written.
A aide in the next room at Army HQ who had tilted his chair back in order to have his ear to the wall without appearing to be eavesdropping, actually tipped out of it with an awful crash, so appalled (he afterwards told me) by what he heard.
I have recalled that clatter in recent years. My television criticisms have created a similar response from many onlookers.
If they haven't fallen out of their chair they have certainly expressed surprise.
It's surprising the number of people, some of whom approach me almost furtively, who have muttered "Keep it up mate . . . Don't know how you get away with it . . . but keep on going while you can".
Some highly intelligent people have actually told me, "You won't last much longer—they'll shut you up." When I've gone off the idiot box in some way it has been assumed I have in fact been suppressed.
My criticisms have been thoroughly documented and, even though I say it myself, scrupulously fair. I mean I don't shoot until I see the whites of their eyes.
The things I said were, given the documentation, pretty damn obvious, yet they lead to widespread assumptions that I was taking a personal risk.
Here I think is the great New Zealand weakness: fear of bogeys, a widespread belief that indepent criticisms of institutions or vested interests or prevailing thought, means that "they" will get you.
This is not true.
If you have respect for the truth, and the medium you're using, and not on some kind of propaganda mission under another guise, "they" can't touch you, because "they" do not exist.
It is timidity that inhibits freedom of speech in New Zealand—a timidity that people won't admit to, and excuse themselves on the ground that "they", the supposed suppressors, are too powerful to deal with.
Perhaps all this comes from our inborn respect for the "thought" of supposed authority; a part of being a colonial society.
All our cultural patterns are established by sources quite beyond the reach of the ordinary individual.
Virtually everything we see around us that has been shaped by man has been shaped according to the design of impulses quite external to us as individuals, or as a nation.
Given all this, it may be natural for us to fall into the habit of accepting prevailing through; to attribute to it authoritarian strengths it docs not in fact, possess.
I am convinced that too many New Zealanders feel guilty about responses that do not conform to an accepted pattern.
They have no confidence in these responses.
So much so that they abort them, rather than allow them to become expressed ideas. That is the greatest single threat to our freedom of speech—our failure to use it.
If we were to behave differently, we would have a much more interesting society.
We are a land of silent devils, because even they are inhibited, which also means our angels can also fold their wings and go to sleep.
I would like to hear prejudices, fears, emotions, ideas that appal me, expressed, so that all of us would be stirred to the discovery of our true nature.
Expression in a society should reflect everything that a people feel or think and our mediums of expression should be a stream of national consciousness.
I want the bad and the good that goes with freedom of expression At the moment we are not getting much either.