Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Can Chris Laidlaw still play a team game?

As longer-suffering readers of this blog will know, I have been involved for the last year in a minor controversy involving Radio New Zealand, the Broadcasting Standards Authority, and one of this country's longest-serving fascists, Kerry Bolton.

In May of last year I chatted for twenty minutes or so to Chris Laidlaw, the host of Radio New Zealand's Sunday morning Ideas programme, about anti-semitism, Holocaust denial, and far right politics in New Zealand. In the course of my interview with Laidlaw I discussed Kerry Bolton's history of involvement with anti-semitic outfits like the National Front and Frederick Toben's Adelaide Institute, his role in the development of the crackpot theory that white people established a civilisation on these islands thousands of years ago, before being conquered by barbaric Polynesians, and his attempts to associate himself with progressive protest movements, like Kiwi campaigns against US imperialism and Israeli aggression in the Middle East.

After my chat with Chris Laidlaw was broadcast I was contacted by a series of people - Jews who had suffered from anti-semitism in this country, veterans of the war against Nazism who were appalled by the Hitlerite rhetoric of Bolton and his friends, and scholars who had accumulated large quantities of information about the antipodean far right. They were all pleased to hear a public excoriation of Kerry Bolton's politics.

There was, however, one person who didn't appreciate what I had to say on Radio New Zealand. Displaying almost sublime chutzpah, Kerry Bolton wrote to the Broadcasting Standards Authority to complain that I had misrepresented him. Bolton claimed, in all seriousness, that he had never been an anti-semite, and that he had only joined and held senior positions in outfits like the National Front because he wanted to turn rank and file members of these organisations away from their Hitlerite beliefs and violent practices. At the same time as Bolton wrote his letter to the BSA, many of the webpages on which he had published pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish articles mysteriously disappeared from the internet.

It would be fair to say that the Broadcasting Standards Authority's decision to uphold Bolton's complaints was met with incredulity by media commentators and by observers of the far right fringe of Kiwi politics. Political commentator Chris Trotter called the BSA's decision 'an outrage'; Professor Dov Bing of Waikato University, who is perhaps New Zealand's leading expert on anti-semitism, said it was 'ridiculous'; and bloggers with a range of political views joined in the chorus of disapproval.

It is not hard to see why the BSA's decision was received so badly. Kerry Bolton has been amongst this country's highest-profile fascists, anti-semites, and Holocaust deniers for more than three decades. Besides playing a leading role in groups with names like the New Zealand Fascist Union, the Church of Odin, and the National Front, he has written and published texts with titles like The Holocaust Myth: the sceptical inquiry and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in context. How, observers wondered, could the BSA possibly fail to recognise Bolton's ideology and history?

The BSA added to the bewilderment by stating that it had refused to decide whether Bolton was or was not an anti-semite and Holocaust denier. The organisation had not bothered to do any research into Bolton's views and activities, but had instead relied on some information Radio New Zealand and I had relayed to it in a couple of e mails. When the webpages these e mails had referred to turned out to have disappeared from the internet, the BSA appears to have decided to give Bolton the benefit of the doubt.

The BSA made its decision near the end of December, and within a couple of months Radio New Zealand was making representations to the organisation, asking it to reconsider its verdict. When these requests were refused by the BSA, Radio New Zealand made the unprecedented decision to take the organisation to the High Court. Drawing on the research of several scholars, Radio New Zealand presented the court with a vast amount of evidence for Bolton's fascism, anti-semitism, and Holocaust denial. The High Court recently ruled in Radio New Zealand's favour, and ordered the BSA to reconsider its verdict.

The High Court's verdict is of course a victory for advocates of free speech and opponents of anti-semitism. The World War Two veterans and Jewish community leaders who had been distressed by the BSA's decision to whitewash a long-time fascist will be delighted by the decision.

Unfortunately, Radio New Zealand's Sunday morning host has taken a little of the gloss off the High Court victory. At the end of its report on the court's verdict, the Dominion Post quoted Chris Laidlaw as saying that the case was an "example" of the "hazardous" nature of broadcasting. Laidlaw told the paper that "what happens when people are live on radio is over to them – you can only control it so much."

Chris Laidlaw's comments imply that he interviewed me live on air last year. More seriously, they imply that my remarks about Kerry Bolton were in some way reckless or untrue, or both, and therefore ought to have been subjected to some form of "control".

The fact is that Laidlaw did not interview me live last year. I talked to him on a Friday morning, and the recording of my chat was woven into a programme which was not broadcast until Sunday week. At no point, either during my interview or in the days before it was broadcast, did Laidlaw raise concerns about any of the comments I had made about Kerry Bolton.

Laidlaw's insinuation that my remarks were in some way "hazardous" flies in the face not only of the verdicts of knowledgeable observers like Trotter and Bing, but of the strategy of Radio New Zealand, which has gone to the time and trouble of taking the BSA to the High Court in an effort to get that organisation to reverse its support for Bolton. Laidlaw's insinuation seems particularly strange, in the aftermath of the High Court's decision to back Radio New Zealand against the BSA.

I don't know Chris Laidlaw personally, and can only guess at the reasons for his comments to the Dominion Post. If he really has decided, at this very late stage, to agree with Kerry Bolton's charges against me, then I hope he will explain the reasons for this about-face. If he doesn't doubt the reasonableness of what I said, and therefore the justice of the case that Radio New Zealand took to the High Court, then I hope he will retract the comments he made to the Dominion Post. Laidlaw was a much-capped halfback for the All Blacks in the 1960s. I hope he hasn't forgotten how to play a team game.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Laidlaw is a pompous old goat.

6:24 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Bolton's mates?

7:52 pm  
Blogger btraven said...

In his university playing days I remember Chris Laidlaw always abhorring apartheid, which is why he jumped at the chance to go to South Africa with the All Blacks in 1970 -- so that he could express this abhorrence. Ken Gray and Bob Burgess, players of lesser strategic acumen, simply refused to go.

9:11 am  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

This is an extraordinarily distressing, but sadly not surprising piece of news, Scott.

While Laidlaw's comments certainly fly in the face of the image the man likes to project of himself, they also provide further evidence of the slow but unmistakeable rightward drift of RNZ's stable of programme hosts.

Like a collection of human chameleons, Laidlaw and his colleagues have gradually taken on the hue of their ideological surroundings.

Under Labour, they affected a centrist, vaguely social-liberal, political stance. Under National their social-liberalism has morphed into social-conservatism, and voices of the Left - occasionally heard under Labour - have been stilled.

Perhaps it's proof of decision-making by focus-group on the part of RNZ's managers? Or, maybe, it's simply the case that in the minds of people like Laidlaw, "public service broadcasting" means doing the public the (dis)service of never challenging or upsetting them.

Or, Laidlaw could, indeed, just be a "pompous old goat" who lives in mortal fear of controversy of any kind.

10:33 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris will not be happy about this. You ever want to work in Wellytown?

1:41 am  
Anonymous laidlaw said...

I am happy to confirm, for Chris Trotter and others who can see a conspiracy under every bush, that I personally think Kerry Boltons views are nonsensical. I also thought the BSA decision was equally nonsensical. My comment about what's said on air being hazardous was simply a statement of fact.

12:47 pm  

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