by Daphna Whitmore
Many city councils in New Zealand have made their bollards and other public sites available for posters to a single company, Phantom Bill Stickers. In February 2019 Phantom accepted a contract with advocacy group Speak Up for Women to display posters on 60 sites from Auckland to Invercargill. A few days later Phantom abruptly, without discussion with Speak Up for Women, broke the contract and took down the posters.
When Phantom were contacted by Speak Up the managing partner, Jamey Holloway, said there had been complaints by 4 or 5 people about the posters, including an accusation that they were “transphobic”. He said he was worried that the campaign was a ‘dog whistle’ for anti-transgender sentiment. Speak Up for Women objected and pointed out that this was a mischaracterisation. They are pro-women’s rights, and their campaign is focused on getting reasonable public consultation on a Bill currently before parliament that will affect these rights.
The Advertising Standards Authority received two complaints about Speak Up’s posters and found that there were no grounds to proceed with either complaint. (See here and here). The validity of Speak Up’s campaign was evident when on March 11 the Minister in charge of the Bill, Tracey Martin, deferred the law change acknowledging “significant changes were made to the Bill by the select committee around gender self-identification and this occurred without adequate public consultation”.
This is not the first time that Phantom have censored a women’s rights campaign. During the celebrations of the 125th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage the company would not accept a contract to display posters by feminist artist Renee Gerlich. Her posters had quotes from suffragists alongside text saying that suffrage was a campaign for females. Meanwhile the company has recently accepted a poster order for “Yes to BDMRR”, the opposing campaign which is advocating that gender-self-identification go ahead.
Jan Rivers, who writes on issues of the Public Good and is a supporter of Speak Up for Women, raised this with the Wellington City Council. She was concerned that Phantom have twice used their right in a way that has discriminated against women, specifically feminist women. “Phantom had bowed to pressure and when this happens on an issue of parliamentary democracy, censoring one side of the campaign is anti-democratic,” she said. She has asked that the council “provide an assurance that it regards its poster sites as being available to cater for events and viewpoints that are subject only to those laws that normally place restrictions on public communications such as those that restrict hateful, defamatory and obscene messages.”
She also asked that Phantom be made aware of their contractual and democratic responsibilities and has asked for the council to establish a protocol to ensure democratic operation of their poster sites service. “They should ensure that the billboards fulfill their proper purpose of providing information to citizens. This means ensuring that the company does not disallow contracts based on their own prejudice.” She suggested that the council “draft a protocol with Phantom Bill Stickers so that it is neither allowed to make discriminatory decisions nor is placed under pressure by complainants to close down poster display contracts”. She spoke at a recent Wellington City Council meeting and as a result the council has registered the issue and will report back on how they plan to address it.
Phantom caved to the pressure of a handful of people and they showed they were willing to silence women. It also points to a problem of fewer public spaces for non-commercial posters. Phantom, as a private company, has taken up much of the space that used to be used by grassroots people doing paste-ups. Even in the age of the internet, public street posters have a role in communicating a message. The tradition of posters as part of the counter culture and of public protest is worth defending. In particular, given the evidence of a company making partisan and discriminatory decisions it is time for councils across the country to review Phantom’s monopoly to ensure they cannot use their monopoly position to shut down important political discussion.