Blogs no panacea for free speech

Free speech doesn't mean much if you don't get heard

There are few blogs that have achieved the stature of newspapers, and this limits their power as a vehicle for freedom of speech, says journalist and commentator Denis Welch.

After all, adds investigative journalist and author Nicky Hager, the internet is very young relative to the century or more of some mainstream media channels.

“One important element of freedom of speech is that you’re heard,” he says. The value of a blog is limited if 95 percent of internet users seeking information about a company visit only the corporate website, he says.

Welch and Hager were commenting at a Wellington meeting of the New Zealand Society of Authors this month to discuss the question: “Does New Zealand enjoy full freedom of speech?”

The typical blog expresses one person’s view, Welch says, and it follows that it will attract a very small audience. For influence comparable to mainstream newspapers, he says, we must look to the rise of the “super-blog”, a genre typified by the US-based Huffington Post, where many bloggers contribute to a continuous high-volume flow of various news and comment.

In the New Zealand context, Scoop is one of the few sites that potentially fits the super-blog mould, Welch says.

For author Maureen Birchfield, the problem with blogging is that there is “too much of it; too much choice”. But chief censor Bill Hastings pointed out that this was something of a contradiction, to complain of a lack of freedom of speech and then of a confusing excess of it.

Education is the key to allowing the population to recognise and foster the better-quality commentators, he says.

The consensus from the discussion was that New Zealand enjoys freedom of expression in the sense of a lack of overt repression, but there is a general unwillingness on the part of media and an apparent lack of interest by readers, listeners and viewers to tackle the big questions. This subtly constricts the channels by which people gain the knowledge that enables them to speak, says panel moderator Nelson Wattie.

Mainstream media gives us “a kind of Classic Hits version” of history and current affairs, says Welch. “We know the songs they aren’t playing.”

A speaker from the floor raised the question of the voluntary internet filter being provided for New Zealand ISPs by the Department of Internal Affairs. Hastings said the Chief Censor’s office had only been peripherally involved and he could not comment on the quality of the filter, but he has accepted assurances that it is restricted to blocking child sexual abuse material.

Some at the event supported a measure of independent oversight for the filter’s content.

Another speaker, who had campaigned against misleading media coverage of a planned music centre in Wellington, said websites like Scoop provide a good outlet for points of view not covered by the mainstream media, but counselled protesters to choose their keywords carefully to be sure they could be found by search engines.

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