Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: BSA's bizarre Michael Laws ruling

Michael Laws. Photo / APN
Michael Laws. Photo / APN

If Michael Laws, 18, unemployed and brown, had shouted "kill the pigs" at a passing constable, the chances are his feet wouldn't have hit the ground as he was hauled off for a night in the cells and a meeting with the judge in the morning. But Michael Laws, 54, talkback loudmouth, former MP and mayor, can with impunity incite his followers to pick up a shotgun and clean out the Herald on Sunday newsroom, or if they're a bit squeamish, use cyanide instead.

The Broadcasting Standards Authority made an ass of itself this week, slapping Mr Laws with a wet bus ticket for breaching radio's "good taste and decency" standards with his "kill journalists" comments, but weirdly, ruling that he had not breached their "law and order" standard. The purpose of that standard, explains the authority, "is to prevent broadcasts that may encourage listeners to break the law, or otherwise promote, glamorise or condone criminal activity".

In the BSA's opinion, Mr Laws' statement that "the media have gone mad, rabid.

If I had a shotgun I'd shoot them" and that he had "no idea why somebody just hasn't taken a shotgun there [the Herald on Sunday newsroom] and cleaned out the entire news room", was not in any way encouraging criminal activity.

Their reasoning is that Mr Laws "was not advocating actual shooting or poisoning" therefore his comments "did not incite rational listeners to commit unlawful acts". The authority members reasoned "his comments were so extreme as not to be taken literally by anybody other than somebody who was mentally unbalanced". All of which may be true, but it exposes a gaping hole in the BSA's reasoning. That the irrational and the mentally unbalanced do not listen to Mr Laws.

The idea that talkback radio is some sort of university of the air that attracts only "rational listeners" is itself irrational. Indeed, deranged.

Talkback is the home of the nutters, the flat earthers, the deniers of everything from global warming to vaccinations and fluoride in our water.

It is the late-night haven of those who might, on a dark night under the influence of booze or drugs or mania, be persuaded to obey the extreme rantings of a Radio Live host.

What the BSA forgets is it's not the people they categorise as rational and mentally balanced and literate who do the shooting and the robbing and the bashing and the petty crime. Around 80 per cent of crime in this country is committed under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

In a 2008 report, the Mason Clinic's Professor Sandy Simpson estimated that "15 per cent of all inmates should be receiving mental care for a serious mental illness and that lifetime substance misuse problems were present in over 80 per cent of inmates".

The BSA endeavours, in a pseudo-legal way, to base its bizarre decision on the precedent of earlier decisions. Apparently it breaches standards of good taste and decency to describe followers of the Exclusive Brethren faith as being "mad, ignorant, bad neighbours and probable child abusers". The BSA also frowns on Fire Service spokespeople being described as "cocks, idiots, morons and arseholes".

However, it is perfectly acceptable for a television host to say that obese children "should be taken away from their parents and put in a car compactor".

With these odd precedents to fall back on, three of the four authority members, chaired by Blenheim lawyer and former chairman of the New Zealand Law Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal, Peter Radich, decided Mr Laws had made a cock of himself as far as good taste and decency was concerned, but had not encouraged any breach of the law. A fourth member, New Lynn lawyer Mary Anne Shanahan, disagreed with her colleagues, finding "no harm of community norms in this broadcast" and Mr Laws not guilty on all counts. Obviously community norms "out West" when it comes to threatening journalists are more relaxed than in mainstream New Zealand.

The comments were made last November during the general election campaign in the context of the "Teagate" affair, when a freelance cameraman left a sound recorder on the cafe table used by Prime Minister John Key and Act leader John Banks during their stage-managed tete-a-tete.

Like the BSA, the police at the time were relaxed over Mr Laws' threat to kill.

Instead they descended on the offices of my neighbours at the Herald on Sunday, hunting for evidence of the more life-threatening act of "illegal" recording.

The BSA endeavours to explain away the excesses of talkback by categorising it as a special genre of "shock" radio that appeals to a certain type of audience. When I spotted the judgment, it shared a page with psychologist Elly Taylor explaining why some people left a trail of rude and offensive comments on blogs and social media pages.

They sounded like trainee shock jocks. They crave attention, she said, and have very low self-esteem. They tend to have "a low level of self-awareness" and "usually have a sense of being powerless or inadequate". They "are not happy people".

I'd better stop. Feeling sorry for Mr Laws is the last thing I'd want to encourage.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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