Of late, and for some unknown reason, there's been a noticeable surge in openly expressed opinions held by racists, sexists and homophobes.

Is it the stress of Christmas looming that's pushed them into blatant displays of bigotry, or is media always looking for the next big social media outrage to boost the numbers? All I know is, publishing some of this stuff is becoming a highly questionable act.

Read more: Rachel Stewart: Fonterra and dairy industry spin makes me sick
Rachel Stewart: Climate of change for the Defence Force


Last week a column appeared in the Otago Daily Times by one Dave Witherow. In it, he expressed his contempt for te reo Māori being spoken in everyday discourse, and on Radio New Zealand. He called supporters of te reo Māori "boring bigots" and argued that "inflicting te reo on the entire population is contemptuous". That's the brief version of an extremely ugly rant.

Regarding the column, Don Brash wrote on Facebook that "I found myself in strong agreement. I'm utterly sick of people talking in Maori on RNZ in what are primarily English-language broadcasts."

Advertisement

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy entered the fray, as is her job. "Anyone who complains about te reo Māori being used and celebrated in this country need to get one thing straight: this is New Zealand. Aotearoa New Zealand – so get used to it," Devoy said.

The Otago Daily Times has apologised "if some readers were offended" – which is exactly what you say when you're not sorry.

"The Otago Daily Times' Opinion pages are an independent forum for a wide variety of views," editor Barry Stewart said. "This newspaper often disagrees with the views expressed, sometimes vehemently. But we value freedom of speech and the strength of a society to debate these issues."

So, a classic non-apology which puts the whole sorry saga down to "freedom of speech". Too simple? I think it is.

Am I overstating it to call it hate speech? Hate speech is language that attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender. I think it fits the bill.

Surely there's got to be a limit to the principle of free speech when what's being expressed is harmful to certain groups. Or does the principle of free speech – hate-filled or not – trump all?

Well, as an opinion writer myself, I'm firmly of the view that free speech is a cornerstone of democracy. Absolutely. But I struggle with what basically amounts to gratuitous hate speech passed off as worthy discourse. It isn't.

It feels like a cheap shot at inviting social media outrage, which in turn means more clicks on the offending piece by people who are curious to see what's causing such wrath. The media knows this. Why change a good thing?

Maybe, if your media platform is consistently seen to be enabling hate speech, it's nothing short of complicity? Sure, the platform is not actually saying the offending words, but they're handing over the microphone, that they plugged in, to the very people who do say the words. Loudly.

It's the same defence Twitter and Facebook sometimes use to defend non-action on ridding Nazis, white supremacists, women haters and other vile members of the human race from their platforms. Plus, there's the First Amendment. Freedom of speech runs deep in the US psyche – particularly among media and journalists - as it should.

But so does the Second Amendment. Which is the go-to default for explaining away endless mass shootings carried out with automatic weapons. Anyone with a brain knows it's no longer fit for purpose in a modern world. It was written when they basically used muskets and flintlock pistols, for God's sake. It's become a sick joke.

Hate speech in New Zealand remains largely unenforced. It is prohibited under the Human Rights Act 1993, and Dame Susan Devoy this year called for politicians and others to address the problem, saying: "We need people at the very top to take some leadership on this."

And I agree. I also know it's fraught and complicated, and some academics at universities worry about robust debate being curtailed; believing freedom of expression to be sacrosanct.

But surely New Zealanders have the intellectual heft to solve it? Columns like Witherow's will continue to appear with monotonous regularity, and hurt whole sectors of society in the process. It is deeply divisive rhetoric, and the media knows it. But divisive sells.

And I'm not suggesting that Witherow (and his ilk) be locked up for his hate speech. But I am suggesting that – and maybe I'm being naive, given the financial constraints on journalism these days – any editor worth their ethical salt would have rejected it.

I'd like to think that part of an editor's job is to guide their contributors gently towards the light, not run full-tilt together holding hands, into the dark.