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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

MediaDecember 12, 2022

How an open letter in The Listener set off a still-boiling battle over free speech

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

In July 2021, a letter to The Listener helped launch a domestic battle over free speech which echoed around the world. Stewart Sowman-Lund reports on a North & South cover story (and related butt-dial) which kicked it all off again.

From the outside, the open letter seemed harmless enough. Magazines like The Listener often publish pieces on potentially controversial topics. But it’s unlikely any of the group of academics responsible, now identified collectively as The Listener Seven, anticipated the furore that followed. 

Titled “In Defence of Science”, the letter was signed by University of Auckland professors Kendall Clements, Garth Cooper, Michael Corballis, Douglas Elliffe, Elizabeth Rata, Robert Nola and John Werry. The group objected to the inclusion of mātauranga Māori and criticism of the role that science had played in colonialism in the school science curriculum. More specifically, the academics were concerned with one aspect of a proposed NCEA course that “promotes discussion and analysis of the ways in which science has been used to support the dominance of Eurocentric views… and the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Māori and other indigenous peoples.”

While Māori knowledge could, the group stated, play some role in the preservation of local practices and in management and policy, it “falls far short of what can be defined as science itself” and “it may help… but it is not science”.

The Listener Seven’s letter prompted furious critiques on social media, blowing up beyond the pages of the magazine itself and prompting a wave of condemnation. There was also some support, notably from National MP Paul Goldsmith, who told Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking that Māori understanding of the world should be taught – “but not at the expense of our expertise in what the rest of the world call science”. 

It even echoed beyond domestic politics. Prominent British scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins defended the seven, writing a letter to the Royal Society of New Zealand titled “Myths Do Not Belong in Science Classes”. British conservative commentator Toby Young agreed, penning an article in The Spectator that commented: “In a rational world, this letter would have been regarded as uncontroversial”. With a somewhat indignant tone, Young stated that Māori children – “among the least privileged in the country” – could be “patronised” by teachers in the classroom. “Knowing about Rangi and Papa won’t get you into medical school,” he added.

Beyond the initial reaction to the group’s views, The Listener Seven article proved to be a catalyst for a still-raging battle over what should be considered acceptable speech. One of the most notable responses to The Listener Seven was an open letter in response, publicised first by microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles and Covid modeller Shaun Hendy, but ultimately cosigned by thousands of academics from across the country. The letter “categorically” disagreed with the views outlined by the Listener Seven. “Indigenous knowledges – in this case, mātauranga – are not lesser to other knowledge systems. Indeed, indigenous ways of knowing, including mātauranga, have always included methodologies that overlap with ‘Western’ understandings of the scientific method,” the response said. “However, mātauranga is far more than just equivalent to or equal to ‘Western’ science. It offers ways of viewing the world that are unique and complementary to other knowledge systems.”

The Listener Seven letter was far from the first free speech conflict in Aotearoa, but it was arguably the most significant in recent years – enough to warrant its own (lengthy) Wikipedia entry. It took what would typically be an academic disagreement and placed it well inside the mainstream discourse, showing that when the free speech debate rears its head, it often pulls in other contentious subjects. Suddenly, people weren’t just arguing about free speech. They were debating the realities of colonialism, racism and the place of indigenous cultures in broader society.

Against the backdrop of this dispute, a veteran journalist was planning her next piece. Published in this year’s October edition of North & South magazine under the headline Voice Control, Yvonne van Dongen’s feature summarised the free speech debate, tracing its evolution from another pivotal moment in the local landscape: the decision to shut out Canadian far right speakers Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern from Auckland venues in 2018 (first, the council-owned Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna and then the private Powerstation). Much like the debate over The Listener Seven, the decision to bar Molyneux and Southern from their speaking engagement was a turning point in the free speech debate and one that attracted a wide range of responses. 

For those who believe free speech should be absolute, this decision was seen as a sign that acceptable speech in New Zealand was being unfairly curtailed. It ultimately triggered the birth of what is now The New Zealand Free Speech Union, a group which argues New Zealanders should have been free to hear what Southern and Molyneux had to say, even if many thought it distasteful. Aligned against that perspective are those who believe free speech does not mean freedom from consequences, which might include people being barred from certain public venues. The battle ultimately came to a close this week, four years after it began, when the New Zealand Supreme Court dismissed an ongoing appeal over the venue dispute. The appeal effectively hinged on whether the council was lawfully able to cancel the speakers’ event over safety concerns. The Supreme Court ruled that it was – something legal expert Andrew Geddis labelled “a bit commonsense-y and underwhelming” in an explainer for The Spinoff. “The Supreme Court’s overall approach means that these things will get judged on a case-by-case basis,” he wrote.

The North & South story wasn’t easy to get published, according to van Dongen herself. In an interview with The Platform’s Sean Plunket, who positions himself as a prominent free speech defender, van Dongen explained the difficulties she encountered during the editorial process. The younger “woke” staff at the magazine “had their hands all over it,” she said. “It’s getting harder and harder to write some stories, which is why I am so interested… in this topic,” she said. At one point, she claimed, North & South considered bringing in another journalist to rewrite the piece. Kirsty Cameron, North & South’s editor, confirmed to The Spinoff that the publication considered enlisting a “suitably experienced co-author to write on the legal aspects of free speech/hate speech”. With the redrafting of the government’s proposed hate speech legislation, this was ultimately deemed unnecessary, said Cameron.

Voice Control was North & South’s cover story, spread across nine pages of the magazine. “You can’t say that! Or can you?” the front page declared. Inside, the article began: “The battle lines over free speech – what it is, who has it, and whether it’s at risk – are being drawn.” It started with the Molyneux and Southern controversy and ended with a fairly pessimistic section subtitled “what comes next”. Along with Plunket, the article includes comment from the Free Speech Union’s Jonathan Ayling and Jordan Williams, historian Paul Moon (van Dongen says that he is “often called controversial” though has “never had his free speech curtailed”), and law expert Mai Chen. The Free Speech Union, perhaps unsurprisingly, features a lot, as does discussion over whether the group should be described as left, right, or somewhere in between. Both Ayling and Williams tell van Dongen the group is “non-partisan” and “with an ethnically and religiously diverse membership”.

The article also includes a half page “lexicon of the current debate” defining terms now widely connected to the free speech conversation. That includes “gender critical”, often a coded term for those with transphobic views, known colloquially as “Terfs”, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists. Here, gender critical is described as “the term preferred by activists and thinkers sceptical about or opposed to the idea that gender is something you can assign yourself”.

During her interview with Plunket, van Dongen implied that the impetus to write an article on free speech came from having views she sympathised with censored in the mainstream – namely, her “gender critical” views. “That was a real wake up call for me. I can’t be complacent.” She added that she thought most New Zealanders were gender critical because they “believe in women’s rights and [they] believe in science”. Other terms defined in Voice Control include trigger warning and woke.

After publication, the article seemed to receive a warm reception on social media. “I highly recommend checking out Yvonne van Dongen’s excellent article,” wrote social justice campaigner Richie Hardcore on Twitter. Juliet Moses, a spokesperson for the New Zealand Jewish Council, also directed her followers to the story. 

Print features on contentious issues can occasionally become the subjects of intense online discourse. Earlier this year, The Listener published an article headlined “The War on Men” which became a topic of widespread Twitter chatter. The Spinoff’s editor Madeleine Chapman decided instead to respond satirically from “the frontlines of the war on men”. 

Voice Control largely escaped this treatment. The closest it came to gaining online notoriety was after North & South issued an apology to Plunket himself. The Platform broadcaster asked for a correction to the piece after it included a very minor misquote of an incendiary 2017 tweet of his about disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. “In our current issue a tweet attributed to Sean Plunket in the story ‘Voice Control’ is incorrect,” a statement from North & South said. “In 2017, Mr Plunket tweeted ‘Anyone else feeling for Harvey Weinstein?’, and not, as we reported, ‘Anyone else feeling sorry for Harvey Weinstein?’. Mr Plunket says he was being deliberately ambiguous with his tweet and that we misinterpreted it. We apologise unreservedly for the error and for any implication that Mr Plunket supports sexual abusers.” 

(Van Dongen claimed that she had not chosen to include that tweet herself but that it was added by North & South. The Spinoff has confirmed this was added in the editing process.)

In March 2022, several months before Voice Control’s publication, Siouxsie Wiles received a text from van Dongen. Wiles was one of the cosignatories of the response to The Listener Seven article, and was asked whether she would like to be interviewed for the story. No formal interview would actually take place but, in texts seen by The Spinoff, Wiles was questioned on claims that the open letter she had cosigned had actually been an example of bullying. “Wouldn’t you like the opportunity to respond to [lawyer Deborah] Chambers’ claim that you and [Shaun] Hendy were the bullies in the Listener 7 open letter?” asked van Dongen. “Also whether the letter was an attempt to shut down the 7 writers thus preventing a dialogue about the issue.” 

In the article, van Dongen quotes Chambers: “It’s no good saying we believe in free speech and then when we read something contrary to our views we will be immediately sending an email to all academic colleagues.”

As a science expert, Wiles may not seem the typical focus of a story on free speech. However, her involvement in The Listener Seven saga, along with her outspoken views on issues like Covid-19, have made her a common target for free speech advocates online. A quick search through the Media Council archives brings up about a dozen results for cases against or about Wiles’ writing since the pandemic began. She told The Spinoff that signing the open letter response kicked into motion a “year-long campaign of harassment, out of proportion to what we had said or done”.

Wiles responded to van Dongen’s text: “It’s telling that the ‘Listener 7’ have been free to write their letters and reiterate their talking points over and over to media both here and overseas, but an open letter signed by people in support of their colleagues impacted by racism in the academy is called bullying.” However, when Voice Control was published, Wiles said she became concerned that the comments in the article “did not match the text records” she had. There was even a note stating that Wiles had declined to talk about a Media Council ruling, though texts between the pair reveal this issue was never raised.

In a statement published in a subsequent North & South issue, Cameron said she and van Dongen stood by the article, though as the editor acknowledged “there was an error made” and that some of Wiles’ views were misrepresented. Asked by The Spinoff about the difficulties in getting Voice Control published, Cameron said that “[free speech is] a massive, nuanced, complicated issue”. She added: “Even with the pages North & South can devote to such a topic, you’re never going to get every angle reported to everyone’s satisfaction”. Wiles and her colleague Shaun Hendy were ultimately provided the opportunity to write an 800 word response addressing their concerns with Voice Control and how it portrayed their involvement in The Listener Seven saga.

With Voice Control in print, and Wiles given the opportunity to correct the record, the scientist expected that was the end of things. But then Van Dongen called her by accident. The journalist would later tell Wiles that she had butt-dialled her and unintentionally left a three minute voicemail that included a conversation with another individual. Wiles is mentioned in the voicemail. Though much of the conversation is inaudible, one line in particular can be heard: “She doesn’t believe in biology [and] she’s a fucking biologist.” 

It’s believed van Dongen is planning to write at least one forthcoming article on issues related to the transgender community. She said as much during her interview on The Platform and several recent posts on social media suggests that she is critical, even dismissive, of the transgender community. “If you want to have some fun today, check out Twitter now Musk is in charge – so many people tweeting ‘men can’t get pregnant’,” she said in one post. In another, van Dongen said she can’t wait until New Zealand media outlets like RNZ and Stuff examined their “stance” on transgender issues. “Many of the children who identify as trans, if left alone, happily identify as gay. It’s why I believe the movement is both misogynistic and homophobic in practice. It’s an unscientific religious movement, i.e. a cult.” Wiles and Hendy, in comments to The Spinoff, said they believed it was “unethical” for van Dongen to be writing on issues like free speech given her views about the transgender community.

It’s understood that van Dongen is hoping to have her article published in The Listener – the same magazine that helped launch the recent free speech debate for many New Zealanders. The magazine’s editor Karyn Scherer told The Spinoff that “no decision has been made on upcoming issues” of the magazine. Asked about the backlash to The Listener Seven saga, Scherer would not comment and said it was before her time as editor. 

Van Dongen elected not to comment to The Spinoff. “I’ve… decided that I’ve said all I want to say on the topic at this point,” she said.

While the Supreme Court may have ruled this week on one aspect of the free speech battle, it’s far from over. Social media remains filled with debate over the subject – take the recent return to Twitter of divisive figures like Jordan Peterson, for example. Closer to home, The Platform’s weekly Friday panel is called “Free Speech Friday”, giving an opportunity for personalities whose views often see them excluded from mainstream media to air them on Plunket’s online radio station. 

The Listener Seven are still very much in the minds of the academic community, too. Late last month, the University of Auckland held its first mātauranga Māori symposium. The event took place on the campus marae and, according to Te Ao Māori news, “showcased multiple aspects of mātauranga Māori”. 

The symposium can be viewed as a direct response to perspectives expressed by the Listener Seven – and the immediate reaction the group faced. But if their letter was a Pandora’s Box for free speech, we’re still a long way from closing it.

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