NZCPR.com

Dr Muriel Newman established the New Zealand Centre for Political Research as a public policy think tank in 2005 after nine years as a Member of Parliament. A former Chamber of Commerce President, her background is in business and education.

Late last month the Minister of Justice announced plans to set up a special government unit to combat misinformation and manipulation in the lead up to next year’s General Election when two controversial referenda will be held. Andrew Little wants a team from within his own Ministry to “fact-check” information relating to the legalisation of cannabis and voluntary euthanasia.

This development could be a chapter out of George Orwell’s novel, 1984 – akin to the establishment of a ‘Ministry of Truth’ – given the State Services Commission and the Cabinet manual make it quite clear that government officials are there to follow the instructions of their Minister (Big Brother) and deliver government policy.

Minister Little says that his officials can be trusted to be non-partisan – Yes Minister, of course they can Minister – but his motives are being questioned.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, leading political broadcaster Mike Hosking is scathing about Andrew Little’s plan, likening it to the sort of system you would expect to find in a communist regime:

“Looks like Andrew Little has already dug himself into a hole over his hare-brained scheme to monitor, and somehow regulate, our views and opinions next year when it comes to votes on weed, euthanasia and the government itself.

“The first and obvious red flag was his desire to have his own ministry do the job. What’s the first rule of good oversight when it comes to government operations? Independence.

“What is independent about a government department? And what’s independent about a ministry overseen by the minister who wants the regulations in place?

“It’s the sort of system you’d expect in North Korea and China.”

The Minister explained it would be the first time core public servants have taken on such a role. While the Electoral Commission would be responsible for looking after the nuts and bolts of running the referenda, Andrew Little’s justice team would manage public information, websites, respond to public queries and have a monitoring role.

The Minister wants his unit to actively police what is said and written so they can direct voters towards information they deem to be ‘reliable’. Special Government websites would be set up featuring what he describes as “independently prepared information relevant to the issues”. Advertising and marketing campaigns would be run as part of the mix.

The Minister says that if someone claims to have a highly authoritative piece of research, his unit would check it to ensure that it’s “not some sort of highly partisan, highly sceptical or dubious piece of information”. They will also be monitoring social media and other platforms to hunt down those posting “misleading” information.

Don’t underestimate the scope for this unit to influence the democratic process. Why should we trust the Minister or his officials to be impartial. Mr Little is, after all, a politician, and his officials serve him.

What oversight will there be regarding the activities of his censorship team and who will monitor what information is being approved and declined?

Most importantly, who will determine what is misleading information? Minister Little? Will he be the referee in a game where he has a vested interest in the outcome?

The question of who will monitor the Minister’s agency is an important one. Given the highly controversial nature of both referenda, the public need to be assured that the information unit is not pushing the government’s preferences by supressing opposing views?

If it is the Minister’s role to monitor his staff, what’s to stop the Ministry of Truth from becoming the Ministry of Lies and muzzling those who wish to take a contrary view to the Government’s position.

Indeed, if the Minister’s scheme goes ahead, Mike Hosking warns Andrew Little “every time a controversial decision is made in a debate like this – and let’s be honest every decision will be controversial – you’ll be accused of yet more controversy that a state department is gerrymandering a state-run vote and manipulating what is said, and by whom.”

The 2020 election will not be the first time that two referenda have been held on election day in New Zealand. The last time was in 1999 when voters were asked whether they wanted the number of MPs reduced from 120 to 99, and whether they wanted the government to get tough on crime.

They didn’t need a government censorship bureau to control the flow of referendum information – they were quite capable of deciding for themselves.

In other words, the existing system of checks and balances was quite adequate in ensuring voters received sufficient information to decide how to cast their referendum votes.

At the present time three main agencies monitor published information in New Zealand to ensure it is within the law and abides by community standards. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is an industry body that has jurisdiction over all advertising content in the media. The Broadcasting Standards Authority is an independent statutory authority that controls programme content on radio and television. And the Media Council is an industry body which has oversight over editorial content in printed media, broadcast journalism, and websites.

During an election period the official scrutiny of political information intensifies. While the Electoral Commission sets out the rules for the registration of advertisers and promoters, their spending limits, and authorisation requirements, those other bodies are responsible for monitoring and regulating the content of political messaging.

To be clear, while it appears as though the role of Mr Little’s Ministry of Truth will be limited to the 2020 election referenda, concerns are being raised about whether this signals the beginning of New Zealand’s Big Brother. Especially as the Minister of Justice appears to want his information unit to replace the role of the ASA. 

There is speculation that the catalyst for Andrew Little’s plan was the loss of a complaint he had made to the ASA against his political rival Nick Smith. The National MP had written an opinion advertisement in his local Nelson newspaper criticising the Government over the Pike River mine re-entry. As the Minister Responsible for the Pike River Re-entry, Andrew Little challenged the facts in the article through a complaint to the ASA. But after investigating the case, the ASA decided in Nick Smith’s favour.

The long and short of it is that the ASA investigated the Minister’s allegations and, satisfied with the explanations provided by Nick Smith, ruled in his favour, stating that “in a free and democratic society, differences of political opinion should be openly debated without undue hindrance or interference from authorities such as the Complaints Board, and in no way should political parties, politicians, lobby groups or advocates be unnecessarily fettered by a technical or unduly strict interpretation of the rules and regulations.”

The decision is important because it recognises that in politics a certain amount of licence should be given to lubricate debate.

But Minister Little described the ruling as “ridiculous”, claiming it would have a detrimental effect on democracy: “The concerning thing is, a year out from the next general election where there will be political advertisements… if we can’t have the ASA upholding a standard that means you can’t lie or state things that are factually untrue, then that is very disturbing for our democracy. Unfortunately the ASA has now held itself up as an authority that is prepared to tolerate lies in advertising.”

This has now led to accusations that a very bad case of sour grapes is what is driving the Minister’s plan to side line the ASA and set up his own agency. In other words, he did not get his way so he now wants to rewrite the rules, so his way is the only way.

On its website the ASA highlights the importance of Section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act 1990, which guarantees our right to the freedom of expression – just so long as that right does not infringe on the rights of other people. It explains that as a body, it strives to uphold the freedom of expression as far as possible: “People have the right to express their views and this right should not be unduly or unreasonably restricted by Rules”.

The ASA believes that robust debate in a democratic society is to be encouraged by the media and advertisers and that advertising Codes should be interpreted liberally “to ensure fair play by the contestants”.

As a result of this stance, the ASA takes a relatively light handed approach to regulation. That means that while the agency deals with literally hundreds of complaints about advertisements every year, most of them – like the Minister’s – end up being dismissed.

For instance, a complaint was lodged against a well-known Heart Foundation TV ad, that shows a variety of people acting out a heart attack with the voiceover asking, “Who gives the most realistic performance of a heart attack?”. It alleged the ad degrades heart attack victims, causing them and their families unnecessary distress. But the ASA rejected the complaint on the basis that since it is an advocacy ad designed to raise awareness about the early detection of heart attacks, a robust expression of opinion is allowed.

However, a recent ASA decision was deemed to be so controversial that it hit the headlines – not because a complaint was dismissed, but because it was upheld.

The complaint in question centred on a storefront Unilever advertisement promoting their Streets ice cream brand. It featured a Paddle Pop, a Magnum and a Splice with the words “Ice cream makes u happy”. The complainant was concerned that the words promoted an unhealthy relationship with food and that the ad was therefore “extremely irresponsible” given obesity and mental health issues in New Zealand.

In a split decision, a majority of the Complaints Board said that because of the implied link between ice cream – a high fat, high sugar food – and a universal desire for happiness, the ad was not socially responsible and could undermine the health and well-being of consumers.

But a minority of the Board disagreed, saying ice cream is widely recognised as an occasional treat, and since the ad did not make any scientific or nutritional claims, it was socially responsible and didn’t undermine health, nor well-being.

In defence of their ad, which had been in use for five years, Unilever said, “ice cream makes u happy” was a “puffery” statement — an “exaggerated, fanciful or vague statement that no reasonable person could possibly treat seriously or find misleading”.

The company is now appealing the ASA’s ruling to take their sign down.

This bizarre decision has been described by the public as political correctness gone mad. Most people agree that ice cream does make them happy. They also believe they should be free to say so.

By siding with the PC brigade on this matter, the ASA has let New Zealand down.

Quite why it did so, in light of a what appears to be a sensible track record of decision-making, is open to conjecture. Some say the ASA takes a lot of heat from public health campaigners who argue that industry self-regulation does not work and that State control is needed. Perhaps they thought that banning an ice cream ad, may defray some of that criticism.

But while the ASA appears vulnerable to political correctness and clearly does not always get things right, the Minister’s proposal has sinister overtones.

After the Government’s last crack down on free speech following the Christchurch mosque attacks in March, armed police ended up knocking on the doors of people suspected of having the ‘wrong’ sorts of views.

That’s the unfortunate reality of life under Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government. The threat to our freedom of speech and expression is growing stronger. And under Andrew Little’s Ministry of Truth proposal, it appears that 1984 is alive and well in 2019.