WW100 – New Zealand's First World War Centenary Programme ran from 2014 to 2019

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Little can be taken for granted when it comes to the truth

By James Hollings – Journalism lecturer at Massey University

In war, truth is the first casualty, the saying goes. Often claimed to have been coined by U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson in 1919, it is also claimed to have been said by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus. The fact that there is an argument even over that shows how little can be taken for granted when it comes to truth.

There has always been a tension between the desire to control information, and therefore power, and the desire for free speech. This tension is at its most extreme in war-time, when the very existence of a country is under threat. But censorship is also alive in peace-time, even, perhaps especially today.

In the First World War, the advent of modern bureaucracy gave governments greatly increased powers to organise economies and peoples for a new kind of near-total war. Information, or propaganda, was a new recruit in this war. Many of its methods were borrowed from the newly emerging mass press.  The British newspaper mogul, Alfred Harmsworth, was a fierce critic of the British Government, then helped it devise a brilliantly successful propaganda war against Germany.

As Jared Davidson points out, in New Zealand and elsewhere this “carrot” was supplemented by an efficient “stick”, or new bureaucratic controls to punish anyone who stepped out of line. But we shouldn’t think it all went the Government’s way. And so, in 1918, The Truth newspaper defied the censor to publish a number of reports about public concern about the brutal army practice known as Field Punishment No. 1, where conscientious objectors were strapped in a crucifixion position and exposed to enemy shellfire. New Zealand Truth reported on a group of concerned women in Dunedin questioning the Minister of Defence, Sir James Allen about the practice.

Nowadays, we like to think we live in a country of free speech. Yet by some standards, our freedom of speech is very constrained. You could argue we live under a censorship regime that is still absurdly strict, although much more subtle. Let me give you a few examples.

Firstly, although we have an Official Information Act, which is supposed to give us the right to demand officials give us information, unless there is a good reason for withholding it, in fact many important institutions are exempt from it, such as Parliament, the courts, and the Police Complaints Authority. Politicians and officials have also been accused of routinely undermining the Act by delaying and ignoring requests for information, because there are no fines or sanctions for doing so.

Another example of living censorship is around the courts. Unlike in the U.S., court records are not available as of right – you have to apply to a judge for permission to see them, in most cases. Unlike the U.S., it is illegal in New Zealand to publish anything more than the most basic information about an upcoming trial; there are also restrictions about what can be said during a trial, and often afterwards. This places significant restrictions on the public’s right to review and challenge mistakes in the justice system.

Another effective censor is our draconian defamation laws. Again, ours are very different to the U.S., and effectively give a lot more power to people with the money to pay lawyers. There have been many examples of wealthy, powerful people getting lawyers to send threatening letters to people making claims they dislike. Unless the threatened person can afford to go to court to defend their claims, and risk losing not only the court case but potentially millions of dollars in legal fees and damages, they often just roll over. A much more equitable system would be some kind of small claims tribunal, where people whose reputation has been damaged by false claims could be heard quickly and modest restitution ordered if appropriate. This has worked well in property disputes – why shouldn’t it work for defamation too?

Perhaps one of the most widespread, and insidious forms of censorship today is the use of non-disclosure agreements to gag people from talking about wrongs they have suffered. These are commonly used by employers to hush up damaging revelations; employees who have suffered some wrong are offered a payout, provided they agree not to talk to anyone about what happened. They have been widely used to silence women who suffered sexual harassment at work, and there are growing misgivings about whether they should be allowed at all. The #MeToo movement, with its revelations about hidden sexual abuse, has helped to highlight concerns about non-disclosure agreements.

All this shows us that truth has always been under attack, and censorship in various forms has always been with us. The recent concern about fake news is not new – fake news has been with us for hundreds of years.  But nowadays people with power are much more subtle at hiding and manipulating information, and some politicians are much more brazen about lying. On the plus side, journalists are also finding new tools and methods to uncover it, and challenge power. Who is winning? I would say the public is losing, at the moment. This doesn’t mean we should give up – it just shows that we need to take our right to reliable, free information much more seriously – as did those women reported in Truth in 1918. Truth doesn’t just turn up – it has to be fought for, constantly, both in peace and war.

Read more perspectives on censorship at WW100.govt.nz/censorship