The muting of political fulmination: how pamphleteers were brought to book by NZ’s advertising police

Emma Vere-Jones – according to a website in that name  – describes herself as a journalist, author and copywriter.   What distinctions she draws among those different forms of writing are a moot point, assuming she is the same Emma Vere-Jones who has brought a bunch of political pamphleteers to account as “advertisers” for disseminating material with which she disagrees.

Pamphleteering – we should not forget – was an early form of journalistm and in the days before the advent of the periodical press, pamphleteers were the world’s proto-journalists.

As a paper platform for a spectrum of religious fanatics, eccentrics, social commentators, and satirists, the pamphlet evolved as a weapon of propaganda (forged between the fledgling press and Star Chamber censorship) for powerful vested interest groups, political parties, governments – and revolutionists.

The Guttenberg revolution of the Renaissance provided the spark and the Reformation of the sixteenth century the explosive fuel for the pamphleteering phenomenon.

As the pamphlet form took root, then so English prose emerged from its antique form with an extraordinary rash of stylistic innovations to embrace such unlikely postures as subversive fulmination, cod polemic, ferocious satire, and manifesto. In times of religious ferment, civil war, colonial unrest and revolution, such texts – risky or even dangerous to publish – were often the product of secret presses and anonymous authors.

James A. Oliver, the author of The Pamphleteers, notes that the early journalists were driven not so much by scandal and sensationalism at home and abroad but by major historical events on the world stage: the Reformation, the English Revolution, the War of the Spanish Succession, and the revolutions in America and in France.

Along a mighty timeline, these were the great political tides that led to the birth of journalism, the periodical press, and the emergence of the fourth estate.

Among the great pamphleteers were John Milton, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and Tom Paine.

Paine is the subject of an article (here) headed “Thomas Paine, Passionate Pamphleteer for Liberty”.

As nobody before, Thomas Paine stirred ordinary people to defend their liberty.

And:

His devastating attacks on tyranny compare with the epic thrusts of Voltaire and Jonathan Swift, but unlike these authors, there wasn’t a drop of cynicism in Paine. He was always earnest in the pursuit of liberty. He was confident that free people would fulfill their destiny.

He provoked explosive controversy. The English monarchy hounded him into exile and decreed the death penalty if he ever returned. Egalitarian leaders of the French Revolution ordered him into a Paris prison—he narrowly escaped death by guillotine. Because of his critical writings on religion, he was shunned and ridiculed during his last years in America.

The outbreak of the French Revolution, in July 1789, horrified British radical Edmond Burke who began writing his counterrevolutionary manifesto, Reflections on the Revolution in France.  In this, he defended monarchy and aristocratic privilege.

Paine produced the Rights of Man in rebuttal.

He denounced taxes and

… specifically denied the moral legitimacy of the English monarchy and aristocracy. He declared that individuals have rights regardless what laws might say.  

The right to freedom of  thought, of speech, and of the press, for example.

But when a pamphlet headed “One Treaty, One Nation” was circulated in the area of Auckland where Vere-Jones resides, she responded by complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) which – bizarrely – treated the contentious publication as an advertisement.

Vere-Jones said the advertisement was racist and included false statements about Māori.

Details of her complaints and the ignoble outcome of an investigation into them is recorded in a document on the ASA website labelled COMPLAINT NUMBER 19/095

The “advertiser” is named as 1Law4All and the “advertisement” is described as “1Law4All pamphlet” which was published by 1Law4All and distributed by volunteers to households in a suburb in Auckland.

The outcome:  the complaint was upheld in part.

The ASA requires the advertisement “to be removed”.

This quixotically suggests the publisher must despatch  the volunteers to retrieve the pamphlets from the mailboxes into which they were placed several months ago.

Good luck with that.

Among the pamphlet’s contents were statements that

* “The benefits of colonisation for Maoris, lifting them out of a violent Stone Age existence, far outweighed any negative consequences. The treaty put an end to cannibalism, slavery, infanticide, and the constant inter-tribal wars which had killed about a third of the population in the previous 20 years. With Western medicine Maori life expectancy has risen from 20 to 25 years (1840) to 75 years today”,

* “An end to the stranglehold that one minority group has over the culture and life of a nation”

* “The Maori people ceded sovereignty to Queen Victoria in 1840…”

According to the ASA, four issues were raised

  • Advocacy advertising
  • Social responsibility
  • Offensiveness
  • Truthful presentation

Part of the report deals with the “Consumer Takeout”.

The Complaints Board agreed the consumer takeout was the pamphlet is a call to action to support the “Rolling Thunder” political campaign, which is advocating for all New Zealanders to be on the same voting roll. The pamphlet also conveys the Advertiser’s concern there is racial privilege and separatism for Maori in the New Zealand political system.

But for starters, “the Advertiser” claimed the Advertising Standards Authority had no jurisdiction in this case and the Advertising Standards Code did not apply to this pamphlet because the

 … Advertising Standards Code applies to all advertisements placed in any media and the Advertiser, 1Law4All, is not “media”.

The Advertiser said the pamphlet calls for democracy and equality and it does not believe the pamphlet is racist.

The Complaints Board “confirmed” the pamphlet was an advertisement

This is because the pamphlet met the definition of an advertisement as the content was controlled by the advertiser and had the intent of influencing those to whom it is addressed. And the Complaints Board has previously accepted and ruled on complaints regarding pamphlets as an advertising medium.

The current ASA definition of advertisement states: “Advertising and advertisement(s)” are any message, the content of which is controlled directly or indirectly by the advertiser, expressed in any language and communicated in any medium with the intent to influence the choice, opinion or behaviour of those to whom it is addressed.

Bloggers should be bothered by this definition. It means we, too, could be hauled before the ASA because we control the content of what we publish and hope to influence the opinions of our readers.

The Complaints Board referred to precedent decisions, such as a pamphlet for the Fluoride Action Network and a flyer for the National Party during the Northland by-election.

Next question:  is the pamphlet advocacy advertising?

Yep. It was calling for changes to the New Zealand political system.

The Complaints Board referred to the ASA Guidance Note on Advocacy Advertising and its definition of Advocacy Advertising:

“Advocacy advertising is often characterised by parties having differing views that are expressed in robust terms. This is especially so when there is proposed legislation or a referendum on an issue. Examples include abortion, fluoridation, immunisation and legalisation of marijuana. Government advertising on a range of health and safety initiatives are also likely to be advocacy advertising.”

The Bill of Rights Act 1990, in granting the right of freedom of expression, allows advertisers to impart information and opinions – but

 … in exercising that right what was factual information and what was opinion, should be clearly distinguishable.

The right of freedom of expression – we are reminded – is not absolute because there could be an infringement of other people’s rights.

The Complaints Board considered each of the three statements complained of in turn.

  • “An end to the stranglehold that one minority group has over the culture and life of a nation” was an expression of political opinion about the political system in New Zealand, not a statement of fact. It was not misleading.
  • “The Maori people ceded sovereignty to Queen Victoria in 1840…” likewise was ruled to be an expression of political opinion about the interpretation of The Treaty of Waitangi and, in the context of an advocacy advertisement, was not misleading.   The Complaints Board noted the bewildering reality there are two versions of The Treaty of Waitangi – one in te reo Māori and one in English, the subject of ongoing debate.

The statement about the benefits of colonisation passed muster too – up to a point.

  • “The benefits of colonisation for Maoris, lifting them out of a violent Stone Age existence, far outweighed any negative consequences. The treaty put an end to cannibalism, slavery, infanticide, and the constant inter-tribal wars which had killed about a third of the population in the previous 20 years. With Western medicine Maori life expectancy has risen from 20 to 25 years (1840) to 75 years today”.

The board agreed this is an expression of political opinion about the effects of colonisation, not a statement of fact and was not misleading.

But was it offensive?

A majority of the board agreed it

“ … was likely to cause serious offence, taking into account generally prevailing community standards. The majority said the statement has a condescending tone and is derogatory to Maori.”

Delivery by volunteers to residential mailboxes was a factor in the Complaints Board’s judgement – the recipients had no choice about whether they would receive this pamphlet.

For the majority this context added to the level of offensiveness for some consumers.

A minority disagreed, arguing that the statement is an expression of political opinion and, in the context of an advocacy advertisement, with a more liberal interpretation of the Advertising Standards Code, and in particular Rule 2(e), it did not reach the threshold to be considered offensive.

Oh, and the statement about the benefits of colonisation was deemed to be not socially responsible and in breach of the Advertising Standards Code.

The other two statements were ruled to be expressions of political opinion which, in the context of an advocacy advertisement, did not reach the threshold to be considered offensive.

Ominously, Justice Minister Andrew Little has  told the New Zealand Herald he felt the pamphlet was racist and its author was “an ignorant fool”.

Let’s not forget that he is overseeing a review of the so-called “hate speech” law.

Thomas Paine would find much to challenge, in his pursuit of liberty, were he to write his pamphlets for distribution in modern-day New Zealand.  Chances are he would offend somebody and before he knew it the Advertising Standards Authority would be on his case.

Moreover, if he upset the delicate sensibilities of Andrew Little, chances are he would be denounced as an ignorant fool.

2 thoughts on “The muting of political fulmination: how pamphleteers were brought to book by NZ’s advertising police

  1. The ASA is an industry association with no statutory basis. Its rulings can apply only to its members. The case is a nonsense but it is a likely harbinger of things to come from Little’s review. The Long March through the Institutions continues.

    Like

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