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]


New campaign launched asking VUW to adopt Chicago Principles

A group of academics have launched a campaign calling for Victoria University of Wellington to adopt the University of Chicago's statement on free speech.  The campaign is being led by VUW's Associate Dean of Education, Dr Michael Johnston.  

Dr Johnston sat down with Patrick on the Free Speech Coalition's podcast to discuss the campaign and how educational institutions do their students a disservice by trying to 'protect' them from controversial or offensive ideas or speakers.

You can listen to the podcast interview by searching "Free Speech Coalition" via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your chosen podcast app.  To listen online click here.

The Chicago principles are available here.

A copy of Dr Johnston's letter is below.

Media Release: FSC Offers Help To Massey On Free Speech Policy

25 October 2019

Free Speech Coalition offers help to Massey University in drafting its policy on free speech on campus and points to the University of Chicago's statement on free speech as a template.

"The most recent affront to free speech on the Massey university campus involved staff tearing down pro-democracy posters. Massey University administrators have said this was a mistake and that they are reviewing their procedures." 

Free Speech Coalition Spokesperson, Rachel Poulain, says "there are good examples of policy that could simply be adopted without much effort. Massey don’t need to waste time reinventing the wheel. The Chicago policy is world leading, with many of the world’s best universities signing up to it." 

"Massey should walk the walk and not just talk the talk on free speech by adopting the policy. If not, it should say what exactly is wrong with it."

"It’s not long or complicated. Massey has made weird excuses that the free speech problem needs “nuance”. The world’s great centres of learning have found it pretty straightforward for decades. We set out part of the Chicago statement below." 

“Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn . . . . [I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” - An excerpt from the Chicago Statement.

Media Release: Massey’s disgraceful capitulation on feminist event reinforces its anti-speech position

16 October 2019

Responding to Massey University’s decision to cancel the upcoming ‘Feminism 2020’ event, Free Speech Coalition member Melissa Derby (who had been scheduled to speak at the event) says:

“In September, Massey said it would host the Feminism 2020 despite objections, and that it was ‘committed to free speech as a fundamental tenet of a university’. It looked like Massey had learned from the public backlash against its cancellation of last year’s event with Don Brash.”

“Yet, as of today, Massey has shut down the event, seemingly due to pressure from a vocal group of activists. Today’s announcement reveals the University’s true position is one of absolute weakness. Massey says it values free speech while its actions prove the opposite.”

“Not only has the University refused to uphold its stated commitment to free speech, it is being deliberately vague about its reasoning. Massey cites health and safety concerns, but it’s completely unclear whether this refers to threats of protest, or concern over ‘harmful’ speech. This is the most feeble use of a ‘health and safety’ excuse we’ve seen at a university yet.”

“Whoever thought we’d see the day when feminism is on the banned list at a New Zealand University? Ironically, I was going to speak at this event on the dangers of identity politics and the need for people to talk to one another.”

“If a University’s default response to ‘any risk of potential harm’ is the cancellation of speech, then it ought to shut up shop. Universities have traditionally been a space for free expression, protest, and the contest of ideas. Massey has disgraced this tradition.”

Media Release: Free Speech Coalition Set To Appeal Phil Goff/ Regional Facilities Auckland Decision

07 October 2019
The Free Speech Coalition is to appeal last week’s decision of the High Court in relation to the Coalition’s judicial review of Regional Facilities Auckland’s decision to de-platform two controversial Canadian speakers last year, for which Mayor Phil Goff’s claimed responsibility.
The High Court determined that the Council’s decision was not ‘governmental’ in nature as no ‘public power’ was being exercised by RFA and the venue was not owned directly by the Council.
“This was a missed opportunity for the Court to deal with the substantive issue: whether the ‘thugs veto’ will be tolerated as a legitimate means of censoring speech,” says spokesperson for the Free Speech Coalition Dr David Cumin

“Our argument was that threats to health and safety to don’t provide a trump card for managers of publicly owned venues to pull the plug on controversial events. But the Court didn’t even look at the substantive question.”
“Regional Facilities Auckland receives tens of millions of dollars of ratepayer money every year to run the venues for the public good, yet the High Court said no public law or human rights duties apples. That cannot be right and it sets a dangerous precedent for Councils to get around the Bill of Rights Act. We need to challenge it. Public bodies should not be allowed to discriminate on the viewpoint of the speakers or the listeners or use weak threats as an excuse without taking into account our fundamental rights enshrined in law.”
“New Zealanders who believe that politicians and officials should not be allowed to dictate who we can and cannot hear from at publicly-owned venues helped get us this far and we need your support again to appeal. We are seeking judicial support for free speech against the hecklers who threaten protest and violence to force timid officials to pull the plug on events and shut down debate.”
“To fight for free speech over the thug’s veto, we’ll go to the Supreme Court if we need to.”
Donations to the appeal fund can be made at

Media Release: Free Speech Coalition astonished with winning of ‘thugs veto’ over use of Auckland public facilities

30 September 2019
Reacting to the decision of His Honour Justice Pheroze Jagose, Free Speech Coalition Counsel, Jack Hodder QC, said:
“With our clients, we will need to consider carefully what the judgment does and does not say, and consider the options, including rights of appeal.  The judgment effectively avoids having to engage with the main driver of the judicial review: that an essentially public body appears to have yielded with speed and without serious inquiry to the 'thugs’ veto'.”
“There is a long tradition of local authorities providing facilities used for political dialogue, notwithstanding that these may attract protests; and the essence of the judicial review was whether Regional Facilities Auckland’s existence changes that.  According to this decision, it does.”
Coalition Spokesman, Jordan Williams, said:
“We are astonished by this decision – which concludes that the decision to de-platform the Canadian speakers is not reviewable because the Council has vested the speaking venues in Regional Facilities Auckland.  It is differing the rights of freedom of speech and assembly, on the basis of the Council’s preferred ownership structure.”
“Effectively the Court has said to Phil Goff and other Mayors, if you want to shut out unwelcome speakers in the future, just give control of your community gathering assets to a team of hand-picked trusties who will safely suppress those you disagree with.”
“This is the kind of decision for which past generations of bullying local elites would have dreamed. For example they could have shut down access to unpopular religions (like the Salvation Army when it opposed the interests of publicans during the temperance campaigns) or workers promoting unions, or anti-war activists 40 years ago.”
“This decision could allow politicians to set up front organisations to gag the spread of vegan or vegetarian ideas in farming communities. It would also allow councils to cancel meetings held by women’s rights groups discussing whether transgender women should have access to women's toilets and changing rooms.”
“If we can raise the money to appeal the decision, we will be looking very closely at doing so.”


Media Release: Free Speech Coalition Disappointed to see Canterbury University’s about-face


Canterbury University’s about-face on neutral role regarding the controversial student law revue is a disappointing display of censorship.

“Two weeks ago, Canterbury University courageously declared that ‘it does not play the role of censor’.  But now by doling out punishment to the creators of the Canterbury Law Revue, the University performs its role as censor in spades,” says Free Speech Coalition spokesperson, Jordan Williams."

Forcing community service and placing a stain on the creator’s academic record illustrates a disappointing departure from that measured and neutral.

“Canterbury’s flimsy assertion that it protects offensive speech is now only lip-service to its free speech duties. Free speech is clearly not a value on campus.”

"Sadly, Canterbury University joins Massey University as a once proud institution and bastion of free speech, thought, and student culture giving in to paternalistic censorship."



Media Release: University of Canterbury Correct In Not Interfering with Student Comedy

26 August 2019
Free Speech Coalition urges University of Canterbury to resist bullying calls to suppress student freedom of speech.
As an arm of the state, Canterbury is bound to uphold the freedom of speech assured by the NZ Bill of Rights Act. As a university it must also comply with section 161(2)(a) of the Education Act, to allow students ‘to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions.’”
“So it was reassuring to read of the university’s refusal to jump to the prune-faced demands that it suppress the irreverence, and bad taste mockery that is a time-honoured celebration of student freedom of speech. We commend the acting law school dean, Professor Elizabeth Toomey, for stating that “the university does 'not play to the role of censor.' Given the cowardice displayed recently at some other universities, that showed courage."
"It appears possible the university pressed the students to apologise to a thin-skinned individual who was lampooned. He appears to have played the victim card to derail what sounds like essentially political satire. But that does not detract from the refusal to be panicked into condemning the students."
“As a lawyer I’m also reassured to know that young lawyers have not all become de facto priestlings, confined to pious recitations of a new morality. We want lawyers to be brave gladiators for their clients, but too often the law establishment now indulges the snowflakes who want to be protected from anything that offends them. Who’d want lawyers who can’t take sick jokes or challenges to their orthodoxies."

Media Release: Government right to protect free speech from foreign actors

5 August 2019

The Government deserves praise for taking proactive and public steps against the Chinese Consulate’s attempt to interfere with speech at universities, says the Free Speech Coalition.
Free Speech Coalition spokesperson Dr David Cumin says, “It would have been easy for the Government to do nothing, for fear of offending a key trading partner. Instead, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has reminded the Chinese Government that free speech is a fundamental New Zealand value. Even more importantly, the Prime Minister has publicly confirmed this action, drawing attention to illiberal and surreptitious interference that the Chinese state would rather keep quiet.”
“Obviously, it never should have come to this. AUT shouldn’t have even considered scrapping an event based on pressure from a foreign government, peaceful protests at the University of Auckland must be allowed, and violence should never by encouraged. The silver lining to this issue is that Universities can now have confidence in hosting contentious speech with the backing of the Prime Minister. Well done to her.”