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Herald on Sunday editorial: Bottled up and ready to burst

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Piri Weepu fed baby Taylor a bottle in an anti-smoking advert. Photo / Supplied
Piri Weepu fed baby Taylor a bottle in an anti-smoking advert. Photo / Supplied

Information, it is said, wants to be free.

The man who coined that phrase was technology writer Stewart Brand. He wasn't just talking about whether we should pay for information - he was suggesting that any attempt to suppress information is doomed to fail in a world without borders.

MPs learned that the hard way when they were forced, begrudgingly, to disclose their travel and expenses lest they continue to trickle out on an ad hoc basis. Crown prosecutors learned it when their attempts to try the Urewera 18 without a jury were undermined by leaked police bugging affidavits.

Prime Minister John Key learned it when he vetoed publication of the "Cuppagate" tape during the election campaign, only for speculation about its contents to over-run the campaign and the recording to emerge on YouTube.

Now, the breast-feeding activists of La Leche League have learned the same lesson. Their attempts to prevent the publication of footage from an anti-smoking advertisement, showing All Black hero Piri Weepu bottle-feeding his six-month-old daughter, have come back and spattered them in their faces. And in the most perverse manner.

Within hours of the Herald on Sunday reporting their attempts to suppress the two-second piece of video, someone had set up a Facebook support group for Weepu. Across New Zealand, parents like Olympic triathlete Bevan Docherty began posting images of themselves feeding their children with plastic bottles.

And - quelle surprise - the offending screen grab was leaked online.

La Leche League, and other such groups, had feared and resisted the publication of a single image of Piri Weepu and his daughter. Yet in response to their crude attempt at censorship, hundreds of photos of bottle-feeding parents were circulating by the end of the week.

This glorification of the bottle was particularly perverse because, in fact, New Zealanders seem almost unanimous in their belief that breast is best. The vast majority of mothers choose to nurture their baby on breast milk if they are so able and, despite the league's fears , they will continue to do so. They do it by choice, though, rather than because they are told to do so.

The irony is the damage to the league was done by its own hand. When the Health Sponsorship Council asked their opinion on the Weepu advertisement, La Leche supporters responded intemperately by launching a mass email campaign. The language in the emails was, by the admission of one supporter, "passionate". It was those emails that brought their campaign of politically correct intimidation to the attention of the wider public - and convinced the Health Sponsorship Council it would be easier to quietly cut the bottle scene than risk undermining the advert's smokefree message.

Unfortunately, the league's somewhat extreme belief that all bottle-feeding should be hidden from public view has been embraced by the Ministry of Health. New Zealand's maternity facilities are all required to obtain Baby Friendly accreditation - which demands that infant formula, bottle and pacifiers be kept out of sight and inaccessible to mothers. And a Ministry of Health compliance panel deals with complaints about formula marketing and discounting.

The league believes that as a non-governmental group, they should have free rein to push their fundamentalist views without being held to public account. But they're wrong.

More than a quarter of the league's funding came from an annual Ministry of Health grant of $18,000, enabling them to maintain an office. Another $20,000 comes from Lotteries each year. They seem to be using this taxpayer funding to push an agenda that would ban infant formula from public view in much the same way in which tobacco advertising is banned.

Now, most parents accept breast milk is preferable to baby formula - but to hide the formula behind the shop counter with the cigarettes and adult magazines is simply ludicrous.

As always with such censorship, the information wants to be free - and the more it is bottled up, the bigger the splash when it finally emerges.

- Herald on Sunday

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