Editorial: Speech must be free

By Dylan Thorne

3 comments


Former Fonterra chairman Sir Henry van der Heyden yesterday apologised for his warning to be wary of Chinese business dealings.

Van der Heyden broke at lunchtime from his final board meeting as a Fonterra director to issue the public apology over comments made at a Tauranga business women's conference.

"It was an ill-judged comment taken out of context," he said.

The comment he was referring to "Don't ever trust them ... never." was reported in yesterday's Bay of Plenty Times. It came in response to a question from an exporter on how to avoid being ripped off when trading in China.

This paper did not take his comment out of context. The reporter went back to Mr Van der Heyden after the meeting and asked him to elaborate on the comment. He added further context, that the intent of the comment was be "wary, be very careful". He did not challenge the accuracy of the comment.

The paper also reported other observations he made about trading with China.

His apology raises a question about free speech. Should he have felt the need to apologise for expressing an honest opinion?

As a country, do we want top business leaders to feel pressured to apologise for giving honest advice to others?

It is clear, to me at least, that he was commenting on businesses practices not race.

The question is: did Mr van der Heyden, who is to head up the board of Auckland International Airport, come under some pressure to make amends for the statement.

China is New Zealand's fastest growing tourism market and the airport is working hard with other tourism operators to attract more Chinese visitors.

He was expressing a view based on experience. Fonterra had learned the hard way following the Sanlu melamine scandal in 2008 and board members had discussed at length whether to continue producing milk in China.

His comments were also supported by NZ First leader Winston Peters who said China's own premier admitted their country's biggest problem was corruption.

After issuing his apology yesterday, Mr van der Heyden said "China is where New Zealand's future is".

Given the free-trade deal that exists between both countries and China's phenomenal growth, the statement is accurate.

However, we still need to hold true to our democratic principles, free speech being one of them.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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