Vexed issues are coming to a head over two conflicting points of view: the so-called "Freedom to Offend" versus "Political Correctness Gone Mad".

Both terms are cliches. But they reflect polarised viewpoints in an increasingly divided political and media culture.

Some people believe they should be able to say what they think -- within established laws on defamation and abuse.

But others believe that even lawful blunt talk can be racist or homophobic, and damaging to some groups. And some people see frank debates as "hate speech" which should be outlawed.


Ten years ago, such issues might have been part of dinner-party conversation, or debated around the barbecue.

That has changed, in my view. Stories about people being offended by perceived slurs on their race or sexuality have become staples of mainstream digital media.

Coverage of the Real Housewives of Auckland kerfuffle over the N-word was a case in point.

Such stories about people taking offence are often valid. But they attract passionate interest on social media, boosting their value as media content and lifting their ranking on the news agenda.

Safe spaces

Internationally, media have pointed out that universities are increasingly restricting unpopular or offensive opinions.

Publications like Spiked -- a British internet magazine -- have been critical of so-called student "snowflakes", and activists who seek to limit exposure to the world's harsh realities.

This week, AUT history professor Paul Moon and 27 supporters -- including Dame Tariana Turia and Don Brash -- warned about what Moon said was a threat to freedom of speech.

"This patronising sanctimony continues to gain ground along with an absurd notion that universities should provide intellectual 'safe-spaces'," he said. "There is no inalienable right not to be offended.


"It is precisely these intellectually dangerous or subversive spaces that academics and students must enter and explore," said Moon.

Some on the left are doubtful about the whole safe spaces debate. Andrew Dean is a well-known New Zealander at Oxford. He says he has been in universities for many years and there is no such trend -- other than in the right wing media.

Hate speech

New Zealand does not have specific hate speech legislation.

But in Australia, section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act sets out specific rules against people saying things that are offensive.

The cartoonist Bill Leak became a cause celebre among those who oppose such restrictions, when one his cartoons of an aboriginal man prompted a complaint under Section 18C -- subsequently dropped.

His recent death increased passions, in what became a party political division between the right and the left.

Herald cartoonist Rod Emmerson, an Australian, was a good friend of Leak and attended his funeral.

Emmerson's own cartoons have landed some cutting blows against politicians, but his friend went places he did not. "As a cartoonist, I need to tiptoe through issues of defamation, political correctness and offensiveness for some," Emmerson says.

As you'd expect, he does not favour the Australian 18C approach to legislating on offensiveness.

"The danger of the Australian system is to read too much into something that is not there," he says.

"There is a new generation who are utterly sensitive. If they can't be easily offended, they will find someone who is. It is taking political correctness just a little bit too far."

Police questions

In February, police commissioner Mike Bush raised the question of hate speech with a select committee, asking whether there should be a specific crime covering this area.

This followed media coverage of an incident in Huntly, where an emotionally troubled woman verbally attacked a Muslim woman.

Police Minister Paula Bennett has said such legislation is not a priority.

The Human Rights Commission is not calling for hate speech laws, but wants the police to keep data on it.

New Zealand Media Freedom Committee chair Joanna Norris says media companies have not taken any definitive position on hate language. But Norris -- who is South Island editor for Fairfax -- says that at a personal level, she opposes such specific restrictions, because there are provisions elsewhere to deal with these issues.

New blood for old

Amid layoffs for journalists, Television New Zealand is recruiting new, young staff for an experimental scheme called "Re:" -- part of its "New Blood" campaign to attract people who do not usually watch TV.

Harriet Beattie, co-lead of the New Blood programme, says "Re: will be a news voice for younger New Zealanders focused on news topics, rather than breaking news.

"The Re: team will operate separately from our newsroom as the intention is to work in a completely different way.

"It will be an online offering shared through social channels and we'll keep an open mind about additional distribution through our various platforms."

TVNZ is looking for this new blood while preparing for blood on the floor. While it is not giving any numbers on news restructuring, staff I spoke to believe 20 journalists' jobs may go.