The shocking massacre that took place in Christchurch on 15 March 2019 brought into horrible focus the lethal damage that can result from hateful and discriminatory ideology, and the sharing or publicising of this via the internet. The government and media were swift to condemn the gunman’s hate speech manifesto circulating on social media and there followed a unified response from many sectors of New Zealand society that “this is not who we are”.
However, hate speech is not limited only to the extreme right or those with racist views and since 15 March the public debate about what actually constitutes hate speech has cranked up to a new level. University of Waikato professor of law Alexander Gillespie, referring to the Bill of Rights, and Human Rights Acts made the point that “rather than the public battling back and forth over what is, or is not” in breach of these acts, the Government needs to “give much clearer guidance of what (and why) speech or words are legally acceptable/ or not”. 1 In 2016 the New Zealand Law Society published an informative article that reviewed several cases that had attracted widespread media attention titled: When is it hate speech? 2
But what about when media outlets, or media personalities, become the propagators of hate speech? One example played out in mid-March but was immediately overshadowed by the 15 March massacre. In the first weeks of March national media attention was on the Canterbury measles outbreak which attracted wide ranging media commentary. Duncan Garner on NewsHub’s AM Show gave a malicious rant that was later reported with the headline: Anti-vax murderers shouldn’t get access to the welfare system. 3 Characterising tens of thousands of New Zealand parents as ‘murderers’ and all parents that do not vaccinate as ‘Anti-vaxxer’, Garner included such hateful remarks directed toward parents as being “a selfish idiot”, “murderers”, “you might just die early”, and “truly delusional flakes”. If this is not considered a form of hate speech then I wonder, what is?
Media commentators frequently target non-specific groups such as parents, beneficiaries or the homeless with vitriolic attacks that often appear to go unchallenged. In the same week, on 15 March, NewsHub published another opinion article about the measles outbreak, this time by managing editor Mark Longley titled: Not vaccinating your kids is a form of child abuse.4 Longley’s article was more measured in tone than Garner’s rant, but accursed parents of child abuse and used retributive language such as “being stupid” and “you can punish them”. What kind of punishment did Longley have in mind?
In both instances Garner & Longley made intimidating accusations, and used discriminative language that denigrates and threatens. If either of them had directed this kind of language toward Muslims or Māori they would probably have lost their jobs by now.
As a university community we all have a part to play in combating the use and spread of hate speech wherever it occurs. Academic staff and students have the of academic freedom to enable them to publically criticise individuals or organisations that may be overtly, or covertly, discriminating. General staff can be mindful of this in the workplace, and at a personal level can call-out discrimination in their own social circle. Discrimination and denigration in the media can be challenged by submitting a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority by any person.
We have an opportunity to be a more loving, caring, and inclusive society through accepting people’s cultural, religious or ideological differences that are not hateful or divisive. To be more caring and inclusive in the ways we communicate with each other. And to be less tolerant and more vocal about hateful or divisive attitudes or messages in the media that for some time now have gone unchallenged.
Malcolm Scott, University of Canterbury.
1 The Press, 27 March 2019, https://www.pressreader.com/new-zealand/the-press/20190327/281762745605019
2 NZ Law Society, 1 Dec 2016, https://www.lawsociety.org.nz/news-and-communications/latest-news/news/when-is-it-hate-speech
3 NewsHub, 13 March 2019, https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2019/03/duncan-garner-anti-vax-murderers-shouldn-t-get-access-to-the-welfare-system.html
4 NewsHub, 15 March 2019, https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/lifestyle/2019/03/opinion-not-vaccinating-your-kids-is-a-form-of-child-abuse.html