Diana Wichtel: Let the talkback rabble rave

I might not agree with what you say, but I'll defend with my life my right to tell you to shut the *@%! up. This is probably not exactly what America's founding fathers had in mind when they dreamed up the First Amendment, but it's how it tends to work in practice.

Freedom of speech never quite made it to the realms of the absolute, as the guy who joked about having a bomb as he climbed aboard a post-September 11 commercial flight found out.

The internet was supposed to be freedom's final frontier but legislators are always working on ways to stop us from shouting "Fire!" in the crowded theatre of cyberspace. But just how far short of "Fire!" should we stop?

We are fortunate to live in a society in which, give or take some XOS defamation laws, we can still pretty much say what we like. In Parliament, they have even more freedom than the rest of us.

Helen Clark must have been pondering this mixed blessing as the Opposition gleefully tore into her this week over Picturegate. For once in her life - well, maybe a few times - she delegated a task and now look what's happened.

She's only made her well-deserved embarrassment worse by getting all defensive about it and looking grumpy when Bill English showed he could draw better than she can. Sort of.

Bill's bees do look a little like a couple of terrorist planes headed for the Beehive. Helen's office, perhaps.

The Government is never at her best, as we saw during her interminable Waitangi sulk, when she's personally attacked. But then none of us is. When people say nasty things, whether they're true or not, it's natural to wish we could make them shut the *@%! up.

But this is an impulse that should be treated with caution, rather than knee-jerk calls for tighter control.

After monitoring talkback radio, former race relations conciliator Rajen Prasad came to the conclusion it is one of the "most sinister" avenues for inciting racial disharmony, a forum where racist views, however subtle, get aired.

He's only just noticed? You don't need to monitor talkback for long at all before you hear someone say something moronic. In fact Prasad's comments set off a classic Leighton Smith soliloquy about whether it's racist to complain about things being racist (yes, apparently). Sigh.

Prasad wants the situation addressed. Fair enough, but how? The minute you start screening callers for the acceptability of their views, it's all over for open public debate - such as it is in this country.

There is already some self-policing on talkback, but it tends only to spoil what fun there is to be had from the genre. I hate it when they pull the plug on some banned nutter making a kamikaze attempt to sneak back on the airwaves.

Considering the drivel spouted on talkback daily, and that's just the hosts, what could these people possibly have said to get themselves banned? I'd like to know.

The murky, twisted thinking of fundamentalists of all kinds can only benefit from a good airing. And attempts at censorship often have the opposite to the desired effect. No doubt we wouldn't be watching The Naked Vagina on television today if it hadn't been for the landmark trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover back in 1959.

When Baise-Moi, the film the Incredible Film Festival has been prevented from showing, does screen, I'll now be forced to seek it out so I can make up my own mind. The movie couldn't buy the sort of publicity it's getting from the Society for the Protection of Community Standards.

When a session with Leighton or Mark Bennett gets too depressing, it pays to remember that even the more lunatic fringes of talkback probably serve a purpose as a safety valve for stupidity that can become dangerous when compressed.

Talkback allows the sad and the chronically angry to have a say. Who knows? These people may well be a little less sad and/or angry for having someone, if only Leighton or Kerre, pay attention to them for a minute.

I was listening to former Radio Pacific talkback bad boy Lindsay Perigo one day when I was walking the dog (well, that's my excuse). A caller came on and was soon displaying all the unmistakable symptoms of being a banned nutter.

When Perigo confronted him, he quickly broke into the full Heil Hitler, silly moustache, goose-stepping, racist, Nuremburg rant. Any other talkback host would have pulled the plug in a second.

Perigo let him go on and on and on. It stopped the dog and me in our tracks.

"Feel better now?" inquired Perigo blandly, when the extraordinary tirade finally spluttered to a halt. "Keep taking the medication."

It was the most hilarious two minutes of radio I've ever heard and the former race relations conciliator will be relieved to hear that bigotry has never appeared more absurd. In fact, it should be played on loud hailers wherever two or more skinheads meet.

Perigo can do a good feminazi, Helengrad, Neanderton, Sheeples Republic of Aotearoa rant himself. Scary as it is to find myself in agreement with him, on this occasion he was right.

Let the idiots identify themselves so we know what we're dealing with. Given sufficient freedom of speech, they always will.

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