John Drinnan: Dark days ahead as kiwi media turn their backs on ‘free speech’

Megan Murphy
Local Women’s Rights groups found few allies in the NZ press when they invited Canadian, gender-critical feminist Meghan Murphy to New Zealand to speak at Massey, an event the university shut-down.  


It seems like New Zealand news media companies no longer care about freedom of speech.

Partly, many journalists now reject unfashionable concepts like objectivity and balance. But also, media do not want to be involved in contentious issues, topics and opinions that can annoy advertisers.

Once the editorial policy of news media was jealously guarded by journalists. Now it is divided between marketing departments and busy editors. Bizarrely, in this context, young, cheap and inexperienced journalists are encouraged to let their opinions all hang out. The reality in 2020 is that many newsrooms are religiously “woke” and built around the views of this liberal elite.

Journalists do not regulate their own biases because are no longer required to.

The trend is not unique to New Zealand, but our media is worse because it is small, chronically understaffed and desperate for content. There is widespread copy sharing. We have all seen a biased story on one media site turn up untouched on another. We expect “The Spinoff” to provide a woke middle class view of the world, and “NBR” to write for the business world. But mainstream media once kept religiously to separation of news, opinion and balance.

Now, media have become promoters of a woke ideology that labels sceptics “racist” and “bigoted” and demands apologies for perceived wrongs.

Twelve months ago, Justice minister Andrew Little promoted himself as a champion of free speech. But he has drifted into the Party machine. He is developing more controls on what can and cannot be said in partnership with the strongly ideological and censorious new chief commissioner of the influential Human Rights Commission, Paul Hunt.

The news industry’s Media Freedom Committee once fought tooth and nail to resist controlled speech. Last year the media actively worked with the government to self-censor and restrict it.

Bauer Media's “North & South” and “The Listener” have written editorials about the growing threat to free speech from censorship. But, “Radio New Zealand” and the “Stuff” newsrooms are culturally woke and the “New Zealand Herald” is complacent.

Sometimes, media are just scared of woke mob. The “ODT” quickly caved when activists campaigned against a cartoon by Garrick Tremain. The cartoon was labelled as racist and fascistic, when it was simply a witless, dumb pun.

The New Zealand Herald parted company with its best female writer in Rachel Stewart who had opposed the Massey University ban on world-famous gender-critical feminist Meghan Murphy.

The Herald’s cowardly censorship was embarrassing but it is also a lost opportunity. If there were an activist backlash against Stewart’s (mainstream) views, the Herald could’ve said that it backed neither side, but maintained Freedom of Speech. Instead the Herald showed that it is easily frightened and susceptible to activist bullies pushing advertiser boycotts. For fear of being offside with a perceived important demographic in the current zeitgeist – a pro-censorship elite - The Herald surrendered in advance to activists.

The clash between the rights of women and the trans activist movement is global. It is the canary in the coal mine for media and free speech. Media censorship and the mishandling of the topic exposes how bad a shape New Zealand journalism is in.

Three journalists told me that the topic is forbidden by mainstream media because it is too contentious. According to one journalist an editor made it clear to them that she “hated” women’s rights campaigners who insisted that trans women are not women.Her publication would not give space to their views, the writer was told. 

Two top New Zealand writers said that, after being rejected for stories examining the gender issue, they were told that if they sold the stories elsewhere, they should use pseudonyms or risk future employment.

Several corporate advertisers maintain activist LGBT consultants such as “Rainbow Tick”, which played a key role in the Massey University ban. With the lack of courage at a corporate level, some media have simply thrown in the towel when it comes to ensuring balance from staff and protecting against bias. There is nothing wrong in Radio New Zealand and Stuff hiring former LGBT activists to be “gender reporters” But feminists have found RNZ digital and Stuff (though not the Sunday Star Times) refuse to cover their oppositional views.

Controversy and debate were once welcomed by media. They sought to create controversy and clicks. Now media's focus is avoiding legal costs for claims to the Press Council or BSA lawyers’ fees.

What’s most disconcerting is extreme woke views are backed by institutions like the Human Rights Commission. The Labour Party and Green MPs read from the exact hymn book on many of these issues.  

John Drinnan has been a journalist for 40 years. He has written on media for the NZ Herald, The Dominion, Variety, and Financial Times Screen Finance.

As free speech defenders, the Free Speech Coalition publish pertinent material and views that are not necessarily those of all Coalition members, and may not entirely represent the views of any. Accordingly attributed pieces are the views of their authors. If you would like to submit a piece for consideration for this blog, please email coalition [at]