Pollsters, trollsters, satirists and flatterists – where to draw the line?
Recently, a Rotorua mayoral candidate laid a complaint to the Police (not Sting, its lead singer) about a parody of his site online.
Parody and satire have been the kernel of political life for centuries. Tracts could be posted on brick/wooded walls, on oak trees and probably notice boards in bars like The George in London. The claim is Shakespeare and Dickens probably drank there.
Forms of satire in New Zealand may pale compared with the waspish cartoons and rapier-like captions overseas, but Kiwi satirists have had their moments.
Eric Heath, of The Dominion, always caricatured Rob Muldoon with a curl obtruding from his skull to denote his nickname, Piggy.
Then, as probably now, cartoon originals were purchased by those allegedly satirised. McPhail and Gadsby mercilessly lampooned politicians, especially Muldoon and Bill Rowling - the leader of the Labour Party - for much of the 1970s and early 1980s.
No one minded. Everyone was entertained.
Nor could anyone be seriously offended at the dancing Cossacks TV advertisements designed to add to the scare of reds under the beds debate should Labour become the government.
The intrusion of the IT world has added a new spin and it concerned Rotorua candidate Reynold Macpherson to complain to the police. A fake site – only one? – has parodied Rotorua District Residents and Ratepayers, the ginger group he founded several years ago.
He claims the site has been taking the mickey – sledged to use his term – for two years. He says it has used information known only to senior unelected officials.
How does he know this? Insider information? And is the elephant calling the rhino thin-skinned. For this year, RDRR has published information on its site known only by councillors discussing sensitive matters in committee. One item was posted within an hour of the end of a meeting.
The council conducted an internal search, the results of which are not known. Nor is a result likely.
How does one distinguish satire from the real thing? That is satire’s priceless gift.
Many years ago, the famous comedian Groucho Marx (or was it Elvis?) arrived at a Groucho look-alike convention. No one picked him as the real thing.
Everything goes in election year, so electoral official Warwick Lampp tells potential candidates in every electorate every three years. Nothing is off the table. Not even satire.
The problem with political life is that everything is on the table. Most candidates nuzzling to the media which impart news to communities expect this, but few are prepared for the vitriol of the public backlash.
Stripped, the trolls online are a tough read; to absorb, to adjust convince your inner self you are not being attacked but your views are being disputed. Newspaper journalists are wary about ‘fake’ news snippets. Spoofing is an occupational hazard.
The unfortunate element in the debate is that not all trollsters are highly educated. But their vote counts. Recently, a newspaper article suggested some potential candidates have refused to advance their names because the trollster world operates untrammelled. The question is who but the mark takes notice?
Candidates in the democratic process adapt to scenes they would not contemplate in real life. Once the elections are over, the grease guns are put back in their holsters. Normalcy resumes and, like a politician who has retired, the doors close. The hubbub, the clamour for space, the recognition are all jettisoned.
Yet, a sound argument exists for some form of controls over establishing satirical sites, even if the site is clearly tagged ‘parody’. Private Eye for example contains much satire yet is marketed as “The UK’s best-selling news and current affairs print magazine”.
How would local politicians handle stories in pages headlined Rotten Boroughs?
Reynold Macpherson says some sites are playing dirty politics. While some of his views on the RDRR site are trenchant, a line that Rotorua councillor Tania Tapsell could be aligned to the Pied Piper of Hamelin (luring children from their parents) was a simile too far, and hardly satire.
“Current law … enables unelected officials to play politics, which is against the law. For example, Residents and Ratepayers’ FB has been sledged by an anonymous FB site for over two years. It has used information known only to senior unelected officials,” he says.
“Current law allows anonymous trolls to abuse political opponents under the guise of parody and satire. The police regard anonymous FB sites as fake sites and will ask the administrators and Facebook to take them down.
“However, as a complainant, I cannot claim to be suffering from ‘extreme emotional distress’ as required for prosecution under the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015. Momentary disgust at adolescent tactics perhaps, but not distress.”
Reynold says current law allows the right to free expression online to violate other human rights.
“Freedom of expression is guaranteed by Article 19 of the 1948 International Declaration of Human Rights, but not to override Article 5 which is intended to prevent cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of others.”
But he enjoys FB’s reach. As would any politician. Provided the ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ role in, the service and the reach extensive, this line of communication is cheap.
Despite this, however, old fashioned door knocking cannot be discounted.
In Rotorua, it worked for local National MP Todd McClay, now in his third term, and a local councillor Mark Gould, who every three years loses kilograms as he pads the streets meeting and greeting and delivering pamphlets.
Trolls online and on foot.
The last word then to Reynold Macpherson: “If we can get anonymous trolls to join adult debate about issues, we will all benefit.”