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Current as of 26/05/17 07:40PM NZST
Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Shopkeepers cave in to a new generation of book burners

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

If there was one industry you'd expect to champion the right to free speech it's the book trade.

But this week, even iconic Auckland bookseller Unity Books succumbed to the baying of the Facebook mob and slapped a ban on the yet-to-be-published book by the mother of the Kahui twins.

This came after a decision by leading booksellers the Paper Plus group and The Warehouse not to stock the book, ghostwritten by Ian Wishart.

Both chains say the decision came after significant adverse comment from customers. Tens of thousands have also signed on to a boycott-the-book Facebook page.

The shopkeepers sounded alarmingly similar to the nation's jailers who on Monday banned the tabloid Truth Weekender from the maximum-security wing of Auckland Prison at Paremoremo.

The ban was "due to the negative effect that the sensationalised, and often inaccurate, reporting has on the good order of the prison".

A prison spokesman said the paper "does not encourage sentence compliance and normalises and supports criminal beliefs and attitudes".

At least the jailers thought it necessary to read the offending material before banning it.

Unity Books' owner, Jo McColl, told National Radio she would cancel her order, or if it was too late, throw the books in the bin when they arrived.

The evidence from the Coroner's Court this week had made her feel "quite queasy about anyone making money out of this story".

She argued it wasn't censorship because booksellers made choices of what to stock all the time, and that anyone who wanted a copy of this book could buy it online from the author.

But that avoids addressing the dangerous precedent now being set by booksellers.

Since the twins' brutal killing in 2006, the country has been shocked, disgusted and intrigued by this unsolved case.

Now, because an unknown number of people want to silence one of the prime suspects from publishing her story, they're threatening boycotts of offending booksellers, and the shopkeepers are quickly caving in.

This leaves them vulnerable to the next wave of book-burners. What happens when the next "I euthanised my mother" book turns up and right-to-lifers come bashing on the door? Or a new Richard Dawkins book upsets the Christians? For the sake of an easy life, will the booksellers toss those on the bonfire as well?

Worse, what happens when nanny state has one of its censorious twists and turns, and tries to revive the bad old days - which in New Zealand's case weren't so long ago. What value will booksellers' moral outrage in defence of freedom of speech be then?

After World War II comics - particularly American - were blamed for all the sins of New Zealand youth. In 1956, an advisory panel recommended 160 be banned. The same year, 20 Micky Spillane detective thrillers were sinbinned, joined soon after by Lolita.

Over the years, there have been various outbreaks of political censorship as well.

If the booksellers don't appreciate the implications of this week's surrender, there's little doubt that many politicians, to say nothing of a gaggle of one-issue fanatics, will have.

Like United States pornographer and freedom-of-speech campaigner Larry Flynt, Ian Wishart is hardly the white knight you'd chose to lead such a battle.

A professional right-wing controversialist, Wishart pumps out "topical" books on issues like intelligent design (he's for that), man-made climate change (a myth), the Ben and Olivia go missing saga (Scott Watson probably didn't do it), Arthur Allan Thomas (the copper did it). Etcetera.

Now he's promising the Kahui twins' tragedy from the mother's angle. He says she won't profit by a cent from the book - though presumably he will. But making a living is hardly a reason to ban a book. Nor is whether its subject matter will upset or infuriate the reader, or, for that matter, lead to a reopening of the case.

Free speech is about publishing and, on occasion, being damned. But for that, you need a willing seller as well.

But this week, the booksellers seem to have just given up, resigned to their growing irrelevancy in the new world of electronic media.

By banning Wishart's book from their shops, they've hastened the day of their own demise by inviting a new exodus of customers to discover the ease of uncensored, online shopping.

- 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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