by Chris Trotter

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Last week, Sean Plunket was awarded the DCM. Mere days after John Banks, standing-in for his fellow right-wing broadcaster, Peter Williams, was driven from Magic Talk Radio’s microphones, Plunket was abruptly advised that his services as the station’s “Magic Afternoons” host were no longer required. 

Magic Talk’s decision was made amidst the furore created by Banks’ failure to fight on-air racism with sufficient zeal, and the subsequent threats from its major advertisers to withdraw their support. Did the prospect of the right-wing contrarian’s imminent return prompt at least one of those major advertisers to issue Magic Talk’s proprietor, MediaWorks, with an ultimatum? Something along the lines of: “If Plunket stays, we go”?

Plunket’s position at Magic Talk was already somewhat precarious. In December of last year, the Broadcasting Standards Authority found against the veteran broadcaster for what it deemed to be his “offensive and harmful” comments to a spokesperson from Te Whānau ā Apanui – the Maori iwi manning Covid-19 check-points in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. Magic Talk was reprimanded and fined $3,000 for Plunket’s breach of broadcasting standards. Already acutely sensitive to accusations of racism, their top shock-jock’s outspokenness was, almost certainly, top-of-mind among the station’s bosses – and advertisers.

MediaWorks’ decision to take Plunket off the air, if it stands, raises some very disturbing questions.

On the face of it, his fate appears to have been determined by the opinions he holds, which, if established, would constitute a clear case of discrimination on the grounds of political belief. If upheld by the Human Rights Commission, such a violation of a New Zealand citizen’s rights and freedoms, as set out in the Bill of Rights Act 1990, could end up costing his employer a great deal more than $3,000.

Presumably, a broadcaster in Plunket’s position, would argue that he was hired because of, not in spite of, his right-wing political beliefs. Having failed to enlarge its listenership by delivering a programme-mix tailored to the prejudices of centrist and left-leaning New Zealanders, MediaWorks (via Magic Talk) would be accused of re-orienting itself towards a much more conservative demographic. In this regard, Plunket’s right-wing contrarian style would have been exactly what they were looking for: a feature, not a bug. To take a person off-air for doing exactly what his employers’ business-plan required of him, seems just a tad unfair.

In its current form, however, it is difficult to imagine the Human Rights Commission wanting anything less than the responsibility for determining whether or not the rights and freedoms of a citizen in Plunket’s situation have been violated. Indeed, it is hard to avoid forming the impression that the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990 has become a source of considerable embarrassment to the Human Rights Commissioners responsible for its enforcement. In the current “woke” climate, the key sections of the Act are inconveniently uncompromising.

Section 13 of the Bill of Rights Act 1990, for example, guarantees to all New Zealanders freedom of thought: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief, including the right to adopt and to hold opinions without interference.” Even more inconveniently, Section 14 grants them the freedom to express those opinions: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.”

In the past, radio stations and television networks have guarded these rights and freedoms jealously. Indeed, there was a very strong tradition in both public and private broadcasting that “news and current-affairs” and “advertising” – like matter and anti-matter – should never be allowed to meet.

This tradition was about more than the broadcasters’ attachment to liberal-democratic principles. Radio and television, no less than newspapers and magazines, pitch their product at different socio-economic segments of the media market. Among the many factors contributing to the profile of these “demographics” is ideological predisposition. Newstalk-ZB, for example, makes its profits out of an older, whiter, less credentialled, and generally more conservative demographic of listeners. Advertisers buy air-time for products and services tailored to fit this demographic profile. They want Mike Hosking’s audience: and, until very recently, that required them to, at the very least, tolerate Mike Hosking’s listeners’ less-than-woke political views.

It is very hard to believe that MediaWorks’ advertisers were unaware that Magic Talk Radio had pivoted right, away from RNZ National’s demographic and towards Newstalk-ZB’s. It is equally hard to credit that Sean Plunket and Peter Williams were not presented to them as powerful magnets for the folk who were missing Newstalk’s arch-conservative host, Leighton Smith. Surely, they would have understood what sort of political discussions their ad-breaks would be interrupting?

What are we looking at, then, when we see corporations threatening to pull their ads from programmes whose listeners come from the very demographics they are targeting? Are we witnessing an intra-corporate triumph of woke PR mavens over hard-working marketing grunts?

The answer is, almost certainly, “Yes”. Overwhelmingly, the graduates pouring out of this country’s “communications studies” courses and into corporate PR are young women who, for years, have been schooled in the uncompromising dogma of social radicalism – especially feminism and anti-racism. When they learn (via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook) the awful truth about the latest shock-jock’s racist outrage, their first instinct is the get their employers’ brand as far away from the perpetrators’ “toxicity” as possible. Failure to “get ahead of the problem”, their bosses are cautioned, will lead directly to consumer boycotts. The “Roastbusters” precedent will be cited. To date, their bosses have demonstrated little need for further persuasion.

This is politics – albeit of a particularly bizarre kind. Attempting to homogenise ideologically an irreducibly diverse market makes as little sense for capitalists as it does for political parties. Imagine what would happen to the National Party if it produced a policy programme that matched Labour’s in every respect. How would conservative voters respond? Either, they would pressure National MPs to force the abandonment of their party’s new centre-left orientation, or, if that proved impossible, they would begin casting about for a new party to champion their values and beliefs.

At some point in the near future, it will occur to senior corporate executives that what’s sauce for the woke goose might also be sauce for the aggressively right-wing gander. Take too many conservative voices off the air and eventually their fans will band together and announce a boycott of their own. At that point, corporate CEOs are going to have to do what politicians have always done: learn to count: “What is the volume of sales that we are likely to lose if the woke boycott us? Is it larger or smaller than the volume we will lose if conservative Kiwis stop buying our products?”

Similarly, how long will it be before one or more local (or overseas) capitalists grasp the possibilities of establishing a Fox News-type media entity right here in New Zealand, and using it to seize more-or-less the entire conservative demographic? How biddable will corporate leaders be if the size of its right-wing audience turns out to represent a clear plurality of the New Zealand population? Whose threats of boycott will count for more then: the Woke’s or the Right’s?

If the New Zealand news media persists in the folly of “cancelling” all those listeners, viewers and readers who fail to pass ideological muster, then we will see the emergence of our own version of Fox News – with all that entails for the health of our country and its democratic institutions. Who would lead it? Do we have a Hannity, or a Tucker Carlson, waiting out there in the wings? Where to start looking for a talented right-wing contrarian, boasting years of professional broadcasting experience, who is currently between jobs?

Chris Trotter is a political commentator who blogs at bowalleyroad.blogspot.co.nzThis essay was originally published on the Interest.co.nz website on 8 February 2021.