While Trademe.co.nz presents itself as a politically neutral internet trading post, recent decisions to remove controversial items highlight potential inconsistencies. In an exploration of the moral standards of Trademe, Chris Gibb asks what role Trademe plays in deciding what is acceptable and what isn’t.
On Trademe.co.nz people can buy and sell goods on the website and, for a small fee, can converse with each other via its electronic message boards. Although it doesn’t advertise, Trademe receives a good deal of publicity when some of its more high profile auctions have appeared in the media. What began as a local E-Bay rehash appears to have invaded the psyche of our country – it’s become so popular that many employers have prohibited access at work. It’s changing the way we do our shopping, and is a great platform for people making money out of useless stuff – such as a $7500 cigarette butt, a Roxy handbag used as a weapon in an All Black bar scuffle, or a streaking ex-stripper’s bikini.
Why anyone would want these things and pay that much money is beyond me, but they do sell. As well as these successful sales, a large number of auctions are removed. These include art fakes, counterfeit DVDs, a diabetic’s amputated leg, Nick Kelly’s hair and even an empty bottle of Johnnie Walker “similar to the one that Dr Don Brash would have emptied on the night of the 21st of November 2006 after he received the news about Nicky Hager’s book ‘The Hollow Men’”.
Are there inconsistencies between the items Trademe pulls off and those auctions that are allowed to run their full course? Considering how Trademe shut down the sale of closed circuit footage of Tana Umaga striking Chris Masoe with a handbag but then let a baton, used to bludgeon apartheid protestors online, to sell for $20,000 raises this issue.
Chainsaws vs. Batons
A prime example includes the case of Maori activist Mike Smith’s auction in January this year. Smith attempted to sell the chainsaw once used to attack the symbolic Monterey Pine on One Tree Hill. In this instance, Mike Smith fronted an auction to raise money for a friend’s conservation project. After receiving complaints Trademe held an online poll to see what the public’s reaction was and found that they voted three to one against the chainsaw (around 80%). So, they took down the auction.
While this might seem reasonable consider a sale of a former MP and ex-policeman Ross Meurant’s aluminium Monodok PR 24 baton in May 2005. Meurant used the baton as a member of the Red Squad, the notorious police team established by the government to deal with anti-springbok tour protesters in 1981. The auction appeared to be a tasteless attempt to garner controversy. The baton was listed “Minto bar” – a reference to staunch anti-tour protester John Minto who was reportedly struck with the baton on numerous occasions – and was placed in the category of “cultural and ethnic antique”. Meurant glorified the baton, stating that it was “as infamous as the men and one woman of Red Squad who wielded the baton in a blaze of blood throughout the tour.” Allowing it to be sold to a private South African collector for $20,000 raises a further issue, especially after Meurant wrote of using it with such relish in his book The Beat to the Beehive.
By allowing that baton to sell, yet denying Smith’s chainsaw, Trademe demonstrated a potential double standard. As the baton was used by Meurant to attack protesters of the 1981 tour one could say that the baton represented our government’s response. At the time the issue divided Kiwis. Surveys showed that a 49% percent majority of the nation was against the tour while 42% were for it. By New Zealand playing South Africa, some felt the country was condoning a regime that allowed the black majority to be oppressed by the white minority.
The 1981 tour is often still referred to as “the tour” – known for its bloody protests and riots. The baton is a significant symbol of this. Smith’s chainsaw, represents the other side of the coin. While Smith’s actions attracted widespread condemnation, less know the history of Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill), or what Smith was protesting against in the first place. The tree Smith attacked was a replacement of the original sacred Totara tree that had been there since the 1600s. Mike Smith was simultaneously challenging the identity of New Zealand and protesting against the government’s policy towards Maori – by attempting to cut down the non-native radiata pine that stood on the hill. The current tree was finally removed in 2000 after being attacked for a second time. The famous former landmark is evidence of the injustices committed against Maori in the past.
At the time, Mike Smith said the auction exposed the racism that lurks beneath the tolerant exterior of mainstream New Zealand. “The backlash that occurs…almost prises off the facade, the mask some New Zealanders like to show to the outside world – [that] they’re being tolerant and all the rest of it – it’s interesting to see what monsters creep out from under the edges of those masks.”
When I asked Trademe about their policies and procedures for taking down auctions, spokesperson Dean Winter said the site is regulated largely by the public, using the site’s community watch tool. “Certainly one of our most active tools is what makes it easier for people to make complaints about auctions. Anybody can press the community watch button and make a complaint. We deliberately make it easy for people… like I say that is one of our best tools because people tend to police the site themselves quite well.”
That process is simple. When an auction is published online by a Trademe member, anyone who has an objection can simply press the community watch button, and Trademe can take appropriate action – usually by shutting the auction down. In some cases, like the amputated leg, Trademe quickly changes its rules afterward – in this case, banning the trafficking of human body parts.
Winter said that, in regard to the inconsistency between the two auctions, Trademe have a policy of “not making moral judgements”. They will only look at taking down an auction if somebody has complained about it. They claimed that in the case of the baton no one found it offensive so they didn’t take it down. However, comments posted say otherwise.
Trademe also mentioned that there was a difference between the two cases – Mike Smith was convicted for his attack on the tree and the chainsaw was used in a court case, while Meurant never broke the law.
However, since Smith’s sale was not itself illegal, this distinction is an empty one. Trademe clearly specifies: “You may not sell weapons where they are purely intended for attack purposes.” Surely, this applies more to a baton used to attack human beings, than to a chainsaw used only to attack vegetation (however historic that vegetation may be).
In line with European countries, Trademe does not allow the sale of Nazi memorabilia either. Nevertheless, they allow the sale of German stamps and coins from the 1930s and ‘40s, many of which feature offensive images of swastikas and pictures of Hitler. When Salient asked Winter how they had made a distinction between the two, he gave two different answers. Initially he denied the distinction: “Well if anybody brings [the stamps and coins] to our attention then they certainly aren’t different, and we wouldn’t treat them differently and we would take them down.” When I advised him that they were indeed on sale, he said: “If there was a real reaction, and there were people that were offended, and we got quite a substantial number of complaints, then we would listen and we would take it down. We are very much reactive towards what people think, we don’t like to make that moral judgment… so we listen to what the people, or the members tell us.”
When asked about a 1939/1940 jigsaw puzzle featuring swastika-shaped pieces, which was also on sale, Trademe said: “I can’t recall that jigsaw puzzle came through, I can’t record any complaints brought to our attention and if it was, then we would look to the reaction of the people, and decide whether it fell under our terms and conditions. And if it did then we would have pulled it.”
Mike Reagan of The Jewish Chronicle agrees with the reasoning of Trademe, stating that there is a distinction between memorabilia and coins featuring swastikas and images of Hitler. “Personally, I think that the Nazi memorabilia is something that white supremacists use as part of their rituals. And as part of their reason for gathering for meeting and for all of the antics they might get up to… as something to focus their energy on. They would also use them for display, they become almost symbols of deities, and I think for me that is probably where people are sensitive to it, not only Jewish people but others as well… I don’t think the coins or the stamps have that same magnetism.”
Perhaps the baton is similar to the Nazi memorabilia? Someone valued it enough to pay $20,000 for it, and that person just happened to be a South African who may have wanted something related to apartheid. The baton was sold to increase Ross Meurant’s wealth whereas the chainsaw was on sale to raise money for a conservation campaign. The chainsaw was used to make a protest, the baton was used to attack protesters. Perhaps people only made a fuss because the mark that Mike Smith made was visual? Aucklanders are reminded of his attack when they look towards One Tree Hill and don’t see a tree. However, it may be a lot easier to forget about the people who fought apartheid – some who were hurt, injured, in jail or killed in South Africa. The response to the attempted auction of the chainsaw was banning, but there was little response to the baton.
While it’s unclear whether these examples represent double standards, Trademe will no doubt continue to attract attention over just what it sells and what it removes well into the future.
Ever fancied owning your very own polycarbonate side handle baton? http://www.copquest.com/25-2000.htm
The auction address of Ross Meurant’s original “Minto-basher”: http://www.trademe.co.nz/Antiques-collectables/Cultural-ethnic/auction-26727239.htm