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Jonathan Ayling: the conduct of the NZME Board at last week’s Annual General Meeting confirmed the worst fears of many shareholders concerning a disregard for free speech.
Jonathan Ayling
Contributing Writer, Free Speech Union
April 19th, 2022

OPINION: Historically, the 4th Estate has been vital in preserving democracy and the free exchange of information and ideas. Yet, suspicion and distrust in the media has continued to undermine this crucial role.

Auckland University of Technology’s Journalism, Media and Democracy Centre recently revealed that fewer Kiwis than ever trust the media; just 45%. The annual Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer shows that 55% of Kiwis believe media is a dividing force in our society, compared to only 23% claiming it is a unifying force.

Who’s surprised, though? Is it any wonder, when time and time again, media outlets seem intent on lording influence over the masses, rather than recognising their duty to serve responsibly and impartially.

A prime example of this was the conduct of the NZME Board at last week’s Annual General Meeting, which confirmed the worst fears of many shareholders concerning a disregard for free speech.

The NZME Board refused to engage with shareholders on the topic, despite it being on the agenda for discussion. Instead, the Chair opted for a pre-scripted response and shut down the meeting without answering questions from online participants.

The Board’s decision to not open the floor at any point for discussion with shareholders and its failure to take questions on issues that were on the agenda, speak to a disregard for the concerns raised by shareholders.

In claiming that there were no questions from shareholders on the issue, the Chair was either misinformed or misleading the meeting. The Free Speech Union are aware of many people who submitted questions online – none of which were addressed.

The Notice of the AGM suggested shareholders would have an opportunity to raise specific questions regarding editorialising advertising material. That would be normal and proper for an AGM of a publicly listed media company. The failure to engage will only have increased genuine fears held by non-institutional shareholders that the company is failing to uphold principles of open debate and free speech. Commercially and for the public's interest, a commitment to free speech is by far the best strategy to protect the long-term interests of NZME and its shareholders.

The irony is, responding to accusations of shutting down crucial discussions by shutting down a crucial discussion is a gross strategic misstep by the NZME Board. The ‘nothing to see here’ tone was undermined by the fact that no one else was allowed to comment, or raise any questions.

The coverage which has emerged in the lead up to this meeting showed that there is broad interest in ensuring that New Zealand’s largest publisher isn’t putting its fingers on the scale of public debates. When paid advertising is being turned down for being "provocative" (what else would political advertising be?) of course engaged and prudent shareholders want to understand the rational.

As with all serious issues, dodging them in the short-term is a poor strategy. In the long run, an impartial commitment to free speech and the belief that constructive debate on complex issues is the best path forward and is the only way media outlets like NZME will be able to retain any confidence from the public.

Without a 4th Estate in New Zealand dedicated to the value of open debate and the contributions all Kiwis can make through their speech, not just a select few expressing a vogue narrative, we will only become more suspicious and intolerant of views we don’t agree with.

Ultimately, lip-service to tolerance and inclusion without dedication free speech is a sham. Free speech is the basic foundation on which tolerance and inclusion are built. Without them, we should expect to see more board meeting silencing the concerns of shareholders.

Jonathan Ayling is the Chief Executive of the Free Speech Union. In between running his Wairarapa vineyard and being Zen with his bees, he enjoys standing up for the freedoms that make New Zealand the stunning country it is.