Edgeler on free speech and boycotts

November 22nd, 2013 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

Graeme Edgeler has a lengthy post at Public Address on the consequences of calling on advertisers to boycott shows. I recommend people read it in full, as it is hard to do justice to it with just some extracts.

I don’t like advertiser boycotts; especially not boycotts of advertisers for the content of the programmes during which their advertising appears, and especially not if that programme is news or current affairs.

Yes, has consequences. But the exercise of in response also has consequences.

There are several aspects to this. I do not think that advertisers should exercise control – even indirectly – over content. For advertisers, the programming is the medium, not the message; a programme is a conduit to the audience of a broadcaster, not something they should generally been seen as supporting. Especially when we are dealing with news or current affairs, those advertising during a particular programme should not be seen as endorsing the views expressed in it. And I think that if people generally treat advertisers as bearing responsibility for editorial content, they are more likely to either want some control over it, or to spend their advertising dollars in a way that has that effect.

We have ad-supported broadcasting. While there might be a place for a real public broadcaster, most of the radio and television we have will continue to be ad-supported. I like that there is a variety of things to watch and to listen to (most of which I don’t). But if we really start holding advertisers to account for the content of programmes or channels on which their ads appear, then they will be more circumspect about placing ads, and some voices may be lost.

That is not to say that those calling for boycotts should be stopped. Their speech is just as worthy of protection as the speech they seek to shut down. I simply ask that they consider not only the consequences of the speech they are protesting, but also the consequences of the speech they engage in.

I may agree that the speech targeted in one boycott is ill-considered, or harmful in some way, but next time a boycott succeeds it might have the effect of reducing speech I like, or think is valuable. Targeting Freeview over something Willie Jackson and John Tamihere have said, or Heritage Hotels for something Paul Henry said over which they had no control (and shouldn’t have control) in order to punish their broadcasters for airing them, isn’t fundamentally different from arranging a boycott of Four (or Mediaworks) for airing an episode of South Park about the abuse by Catholic clergy, or someone else for airing pro-homosexual propaganda like Queer Nation or The L Word.

Well said.  Again, I recommend people read the whole post.

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25 Responses to “Edgeler on free speech and boycotts”

  1. OneTrack (2,726 comments) says:

    Free speech in Aotearoa 2013 means you are allowed to say what the left agree with.

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  2. wikiriwhis business (3,883 comments) says:

    “Targeting Freeview over something Willie Jackson and John Tamihere have said, ‘

    This case proved context is not tolerated. Only the approved script.

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  3. berend (1,660 comments) says:

    Very well done Graeme Edgeler. I hope your views are indeed widely read.

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  4. Liam Hehir (115 comments) says:

    Good (though lengthy) post about the chilling effect that boycotts present. As Milton said in Areopagitica, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

    It’s also nice to read some thoughtful analysis on a subject that doesn’t end by calling for knee-jerk legislation to fix something he has a problem with. Anti-boycott laws are equally problematic since individual consumer freedom is so important to a free society.

    I have a more prudential problem which is that once you start resorting to boycotts, it’s very hard to stop. I don’t actually like the idea that everything I do or write is a political action. I prefer to set aside some time of my day to think about those matters – but then to listen to music I find pleasant, read detective stories and enjoy the fruits of my labours without having to weigh up the other views of their creators or those they advertise with. Obvious exceptions where the stakes are so high that morality demands.

    The politicisation of everything soon makes for a toxic environment.

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  5. igm (1,413 comments) says:

    I will and have, boycotted advertising supporters around Campbell. We have even updated with Toyota company cars in preference to Mazda. Some things I feel, need action!

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  6. adze (1,931 comments) says:

    I haven’t yet read Edgeler’s full article (perhaps I should), but I still think that boycotting advertisers is a legitimate action. Free speech doesn’t mean commercial grade access to a large audience. WJ and JT could still say the most hurtful base trash on their own blogs if they wanted to. Likewise, Paul Henry, who seems to have been mentioned as an afterthought (I don’t recall any lengthy angst-filled essays on Public Address in the wake of his exit – though I could be wrong), paid the price for his boorish remarks. He didn’t serve any jailtime, he still has a career in broadcasting.

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  7. WineOh (570 comments) says:

    I cautiously disagree with Graeme’s comments, television and radio broadcasters deliberately employ outspoken and controversial personalities to drive up ratings… they will have more listeners where there are people who fervently agree and disagree with the content. But the convenience of this goes both ways, you take responsibility for their fuckups as well as their victories. Where a talkback host steps out of line badly, it reflects poorly on the host themselves, the station that broadcast it, and all other businesses and individuals that associate with it.

    As private citizens we vote with our feet on all other issues, if we don’t like the way a business is behaving (eg- palm oil in cadburys) then we switch to another brand. If a car manufacturer is cavalier about safety or reliability, we stop buying them. If a politician acts like a total tosh, even if legal we are free to vote for their competitors. Why should it be any different for corporate citizens? I would be aghast if an advertisement for my business was displayed next to a hate spouting bigot.

    Perhaps a slightly more cynical perspective, financially it makes sense from the advertisers perspective too, they avoid the drop in listener/viewer numbers for the show in question… but they also get the positive benefit of free promotion from the boycott in the first place.

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  8. Simon (706 comments) says:

    The boycott was voluntary, an attempt at persuasion nothing wrong with. Just like GE attempt to persuade the advertisers that should have voluntarily stayed with the two leftist shit heads.

    “That is not to say that those calling for boycotts should be stopped”

    Thats right the boycott call itself is a legitimate form of free speech.

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  9. Fentex (891 comments) says:

    I disagree with him completely.

    Society and it’s standards are a cooperative effort, even if you wish to be left alone and free of intrusion and regulation you want your desires respected as a liberty we all uphold for each other, how is it we can find a way to know what we accept of and from each other but through social expression and competing pressures that establish and enforce the standards we agree on?

    For advertisers, the programming is the medium, not the message;

    Who cares what the advertisers think? The point isn’t their possible indifference or even opinion but their participation and the public wallet, as we are constantly and consistently reminded, is the weapon to be used to achieve the popular will, is it not?

    If advertisers are participating in a market then the public’s manipulation of that market by purchase or boycott is the arbiter of their success and former of their behavior, so their opinion about why the public might refuse to deal with them is irrelevant so there’s no point or place for complaining about it.

    Unless you don’t think free markets are the forces that should shape the world, but if you don’t believe that, if you don’t believe wielding power in a market (as your own expression) is correct are you not proclaiming that freedom to direct a market through personal decision is not permitted expression? Is it not saying that the public should not come together if they agree on what they will not tolerate, that the public has no right to express displeasure?

    To say that boycotts are misplaced because they target the advertisers and not the offenders is nonsense – beside advertisers funding expression are participants in it’s promulgation the pragmatic effect is justification enough.

    There is room to argue the merits of any particular call for boycotts, but not against social cooperation in disciplining transgressors, unless you wish to argue we are simply economic units not to be permitted agency to shape our world.

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  10. RRM (9,585 comments) says:

    He’s right; but there are some very good comments on here in disagreement with him that are also right.

    The real world is a lot less politically charged than regular contributors to Kiwiblog or Public Address might imagine.

    If you are in the small minority of New Zealanders currently weighing up whether to buy a brand new Toyota or a brand new Mazda, lucky you.

    If you are in the small minority of THOSE people whose decision is based on the political leanings of shows where Toyotas and Mazdas advertise, rather than price or features, lucky you again!

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  11. Johnboy (15,377 comments) says:

    No one should ever attempt to impede free speech in a freedom loving country like Godzone.

    Unless the speech in question picks on Murri’s special situation of course. :)

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  12. slijmbal (1,223 comments) says:

    His entire argument is based on the incorrect premise that advertising should not affect what is broadcast and vice versa. Purchasing advertising is a commercial relationship where the advertiser is not only buying ear or eye time but also attempting to get some of the enjoyment and/or kudos of the program rubbed off on to their product or brand.

    They are also quite correctly seen as part funding of a particular program if their ads are during that program. They are intertwined and both benefit and are disadvantaged by whatever that program does. He is being very naive.

    Not that I agree with either the boycott or the suspension of the two idiots. It’s a complete over-reaction and symbolic of the PC era we now live in but that’s a whole other story.

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  13. Jack5 (4,745 comments) says:

    It’s logical for advertisers to place their advertisements where they will get most attention from the consumers they target. If Jackson and Tamihere were reducing listener numbers, it’s logical and fair for firms to withdraw their advertisements.

    Edgeler leaves the commercial imperative out of his argument.

    He also leaves out a remedy for listeners, viewers, or readers who disagree with advertisers withdrawing under pressure – a counter-boycott. If Jackson and Tamihere’s supporters felt strongly enough they could target any advertisers who brought pressure on the station.

    It seems to me that a company withdrawing advertising differs only in scale from a reader cancelling a newspaper subscription or a listener or viewer switching station or channel, or spending more time on the Internet.

    The final argument of Edgeler’s 3590 word piece seems: be tolerant, the broader picture is more important than your little gripe, so soldier on and ignore it. That’s idealistic and trite for anyone thoroughly pissed off with something in the MSM.

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  14. KevinH (1,141 comments) says:

    With regard to the Willie Jackson and John Tamihere situation it is a case of the advertisers flexing their muscle, their dollars, to censor or silence commentary, this is clearly inappropriate. In many respects it’s a chicken and egg argument, who is more important and relevant, the advertisers or the hosts.

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  15. Jim (404 comments) says:

    Gan’t say I agree with Graeme on this. Nothing that happened is a free speech issue. Equating it with book-bans is also a step too far; more like an advertiser not using the book or it’s author to attract sales or promote their product.

    He forgets that the show, the advertisers, and the hosts are all there to make money – not to serve as a platform for the equal sharing of views. There’s nothing lost if these hosts’ views are unpopular and they go off air. They can still take their ideas with them and share them as much as they like in their own time. They can even round up a bunch of like-minded cretins and chip in for a “she was asking for it” billboard – or organise a hikoi or whatever. They are not being silenced.

    He also forgets that Willie and JT control the speech on the show, can cut off their callers, and in this case pushed their own view over that of the victims. When you’re doing something for money then you can expect that comes with some obligations.

    As for the other side of Graeme’s argument: the possible consequences of advertiser boycotts in suppressing free speech – hardly seems a worry. According to an earlier post on this blog 92% of NZers use the Internet. Willie and JT can get a free web site too.

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  16. nostrils (53 comments) says:

    Let’s be realistic here. Very few people listen to Radio Live. The furore over a couple of dickheads comments has given the station exposure it could only dream of.

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  17. Scott Chris (5,940 comments) says:

    Hmm, I don’t know. Why should advertisers have to be apolitical? I think I’d rather they were.

    I certainly know not to buy Chick-fil-A next time I visit the States.

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  18. ChardonnayGuy (1,168 comments) says:

    I do support boycotts. They’re expressions of consumer sovereignty and designed to show corporates that particular potential market segments find certain acts, practises, product lines or other corporate attributes are objectionable. They promote corporate accountability and are therefore justifiable. And if you’re opposed to the political stance of a particular boycott group, organise an anti-boycott campaign against the boycotters. I note Graham didn’t include references to substantiate his position. Well, here’s mine…

    Monroe Friedman: Consumer Boycotts: Effecting Change through the Marketplace and Media: New York: Routledge: 1999.

    S.Sen: “Marketing and Minority Civil Rights: The Case of Amendment 2 and the Colorado Boycott” Journal of Public Policy and Marketing: 15: 311-318.

    N.Craig Smith: Morality and the Market: Consumer Consumer Pressure for Corporate Availability: London: Routledge: 1990

    Wendy Leung: “Faith in boycotts- can religious groups affect the bottom line?” Globe and Mail: 28.02.12: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/faith-in-boycotts-can-religious-groups-affect-the-bottom-line/article2351906

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  19. Tom Jackson (2,476 comments) says:

    The appropriate response in this case would have been for Radio Live to allow critical callers to criticise Willie and JT and for them not to be allowed to personally disconnect callers on this topic for a week or two.

    Edgeler is basically correct, although he can’t cover all bases or permutations. However, looking though various blogs the amount of insanity posted on this issue is incredible.

    The internet is nothing more than a baying mob.

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  20. Nigel Kearney (902 comments) says:

    I do not think that advertisers should exercise control – even indirectly – over content.

    But someone does have to control content. Everyone in the country with an opinion cannot get paid a salary to broadcast those opinions over the airwaves to the entire country. Advertisers will use whatever control they have to do what the public want, because it is the public that are buying their products (or not). Alternative ways of deciding what gets broadcast will tend to involve the public less, not more.

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  21. wikiriwhis business (3,883 comments) says:

    When there’s no room for context there’s no room for tolerance

    That’s why JT and Willy are gone.

    PC is almost god now

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  22. Tom Jackson (2,476 comments) says:

    Advertisers will use whatever control they have to do what the public want, because it is the public that are buying their products (or not).

    Edgeler quite reasonably asserts that the effect of Willie and JT’s comments on the bottom line of the advertisers, given their audience, is effectively nil.

    And we aren’t talking about the general public here. We are talking about a subset of left wing blog readers, numbering under a thousand in NZ and probably much fewer, who have a massive axe to grind about gender politics and rape in particular.

    This has gotten silly. A couple of the lunatic radical feminists have left Bomber’s blog, so that’s at least a plus, but the whole episode has shown, yet again, how the left is unable to exclude people who are on the verge of mental illness from the movement. The right seems to be a lot better at keeping their nutters under control, but the left’s insistence on inclusiveness means that they are too tolerant of a significant number of lunatics who want to run the show. None of these people really care about women, rape victims or people of colour, but only about their own weird, pseudo-academic views being forced on the general public.

    I was on the cusp of deciding to start voting again, but the insanity of this episode has turned me off politics again. Reading Russell Brown’s blog comments just reminds me that the left has a twat infestation.

    All of this hoo ha on the basis of a few news reports. Apart from the cops and the participants, nobody really knows what went on with the Roast Busters, but that hasn’t stopped people from making all sorts of wild and deranged claims.

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  23. ZenTiger (425 comments) says:

    I disagree with Graeme. His proposition is just another excuse to remove freedom of choice, supposedly for the right for people (or a programme) to have other people (or advertisers) pay for “freedom of speech”.

    Graeme said: “There are several aspects to this. I do not think that advertisers should exercise control – even indirectly – over content.

    This is ridiculous. Withdrawing advertising dollars exercises control indirectly, but the opposite is being forced to pay for a program (for example) that goes from a family values show to suddenly promoting rape, violence and cruelty is suddenly an issue of protecting freedom of speech? I wouldn’t worry about making a point about this. Most advertisers pay huge dollars to get behind Game of Thrones and Rome…. /irony

    If this sort of thing happened a lot, contracts would soon change to have penalty clauses for cancelling half way through the contracted period – probably do anyway, so when an advertiser withdraws funding, it’s because it really wants to, and that should not be curbed further by any side effects of guaranteeing “free speech” by removing other freedoms.

    It’s about time people stopped separating ethics from actions, as if consequences are only for people that don’t agree with this faux liberalism.

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  24. ZenTiger (425 comments) says:

    Hang-on, I’ve read his full post now. I can see Graeme was arguing a slightly different point. I stand by my point above – it’s important for advertisers to have freedom of how they spend their money. With regard to boycotting advertisers who support current affairs programmes, I can see the issue is cloudier. I would still support people’s rights to boycott those advertisers. It does send a message to the media organisation that they need to present balanced journalism – not opinion masquerading as journalism.

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  25. ZenTiger (425 comments) says:

    There is a problem in this debate on free speech where the default is that bad ideas must be given more protection than good ideas, on the pretext that all ideas must be protected equally, or we lose freedom of speech.

    The example Graeme used about protecting the book “Down By The River” was turned into an issue about an author’s right to say something important. It’s hard to argue against that, and indeed, I wouldn’t. However, I would argue that his right to say it doesn’t necessarily mean it should be promoted to school age children, as the modern age Catcher In the Rye.

    His next book might be an eloquent story on the journey of a serial killer who starts off by torturing animals, progresses to people, and the whole process is vividly and accurately described from the perspective of the serial killer, in such a way that it romanticises or normalises the concept of torture. Perhaps he finally gains his humanity, and the final message is that other people matter. Wonderful. Bravo. Well said Sir. Except, like the children (I mean under 13 year olds) watching porn and then going out and raping others with no understanding of the damage they have suffered and that they inflict, you don’t want that story promoted to those minds who are too immature to handle it. Freedom of Speech doesn’t excuse greater social responsibility – and it’s not necessarily the right to say something I would disagree with, but where it is said and the context it creates.

    Society continues to lose the concept of “age appropriate” and it’s got to the point that we are seeing a bit of a backlash, and just maybe the pendulum is swinging the other way. Perhaps it is this Graeme is noticing, and whilst he points out the dangers of the pendulum swinging too far, I note that it hasn’t even got back anywhere near centre yet.

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