Thursday, February 11, 2016

The arrogance of the self-righteous

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 10.)

A letter in Wellington’s Dominion Post last week said that if you wanted a good reason to oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, you only needed to look at the people supporting it.
Funny, here was me thinking exactly the opposite. You could turn that statement around 180 degrees and be right on the nail.

The protest rallies that coincided with the signing of the TPPA in Auckland brought out a ragtag, bad-tempered mob eager to seize any excuse to legitimise their anger at the world at large.
And they didn’t stop at merely protesting. With all the customary arrogance of the self-righteous, they decided their cause entitled them to disrupt other people’s lives by blocking streets and paralysing traffic.

A few marchers signalled their criminal intent by concealing themselves behind masks. It’s easy to be bold when you’re anonymous.
Some hothead went so far as to firebomb a cabinet minister’s electorate office. When idealism morphs into acts of violence, protesters relinquish any right to be heard.

It’s sometimes argued that it takes extreme action to be noticed, but I don’t buy it. This is where I parted company with many of my fellow demonstrators during the 1981 Springbok tour. The right to protest stops when it interferes with the rights of other citizens.
The TPPA also gave fresh oxygen to Waitangi Day activists, who justified their latest ritual display of rage on the novel premise that as Maori (however that word might be defined), they were entitled to special consultation.  

At Waitangi, Steven Joyce was hit in the face with a rubber sex toy. That the thrower, Josie Butler, escaped prosecution (as did those who mischievously blocked Auckland intersections the previous day) left the police looking lame and ineffectual.  
“No charges laid woohoo!” Butler tweeted triumphantly. No doubt she will have become an overnight hero of the Left, who are too absorbed in their own sanctimonious bubble to realise that offensive protest gestures ultimately boost support for the National government and play into the hands of the law-and-order lobby.   

If it wasn’t the TPPA, the protesters would doubtless have found some other issue to feel inflamed about. But the multi-country trade agreement has become a lightning rod for a great deal of unfocused rage about a whole lot of things – a one-size-fits-all cause for the chronically disaffected.
It has served as a convenient rallying point for everyone nursing a grudge about the government, John Key, globalisation, the Treaty, capitalism, inequality; in short, every real or imagined assault on the downtrodden and disadvantaged.

Much of the rage has been informed by emotion rather than facts. A lot of the participants in the protests were young and apparently unencumbered by knowledge.
That’s the prerogative of youth, I suppose. It’s a time of life when idealism hasn’t yet been tempered by real-life experience.

I still haven’t entirely made up my mind about the TTPA. The secrecy surrounding the negotiations was bound to arouse suspicion, but that’s the nature of trade deals.
It certainly didn’t help that the government chose Sky City – a symbol of global capitalism in its most vulgar form – as the venue for the signing. How clumsily provocative was that?

But we’ll be in a better position to judge the agreement once it’s tabled and debated in Parliament. In the meantime, we need to remember that no country is forced to ratify it, and even those that do may choose later to withdraw if they feel disadvantaged by its terms. The rabid opponents don’t mention this.
Until we know more, I’m prepared to put my faith in respected, neutral commentators such as the Wellington business writer Patrick Smellie.

In an article last week, Smellie applied a reality check to much of the overheated rhetoric surrounding the TPPA.
He pointed out, for example, that while New Zealand opponents claim the agreement serves American corporate interests, American politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties are arguing that it shouldn’t be ratified because it’s tilted against the US. They can’t all be right.

Smellie also made the point that American drug companies, supposedly the sinister manipulators behind the scenes of the TPPA talks, had been defeated when they sought 12-year patent protection for their products. These facts are strikingly at odds with the claims of the hysterical anti-globalists.
As with any such deal, there were tradeoffs – a win here, a concession there. But until any disadvantage to New Zealand is proved, we should reserve judgment.

After all, if the TPPA turns out not to be in our best interests, we can toss out the people responsible. That’s the most potent check on any politician who might be tempted to betray us.
In any case, what are the alternatives? We live in a global world whose steadily rising prosperity depends on the exchange of goods and services.

Presumably the protesters would prefer us to raise the drawbridge and retreat into some dreamy socialist Utopian fortress where we could pretend the rest of the planet doesn’t exist.
North Korea has tried that. It doesn’t seem to work.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Masterton deaths bring out the excuse-makers

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 5.)
Driving down the main street of Masterton last Sunday morning, I noticed a cluster of traffic cones on the footpath. A few metres further on, a photographer was taking a picture of the street.
I didn’t give it another thought at the time. It was only later that I learned two 15-year-old boys in a stolen car had hit a pole and been killed while fleeing from police. A 14-year-old survivor has since been charged in connection with the crash.

The deaths touched off the usual debate about whether police should engage in such pursuits (which they say they abandoned in this case). This is an argument that will probably never be neatly resolved.
At one extreme, there are those who say police should never give chase. No young tearaway deserves to risk death merely because a broken tail light or loud exhaust has attracted police attention, or so the argument goes.

The short answer to that, of course, is that the risk is easily avoided. All the offender has to do is comply with the police instruction to stop.
That way, the worst that can happen is a court appearance and perhaps a fine or licence cancellation; possibly a jail term if there’s a list of previous offences. That’s surely better than dying.

At the other extreme, there are those who say that society is better off if lawbreakers kill themselves trying to flee.
This is the brutal view that got blogger Cameron Slater into trouble a couple of years ago when he wrote that a “feral” who was killed in car fleeing police on the West Coast did society a favour by dying. That statement was subsequently cited as moral justification for the hacking of his emails, which led in turn to the Nicky Hager “Dirty Politics” saga.

Slater overstated his case, as he often does. But while it may seem un-Christian to say that death in such circumstances is self-inflicted, it’s a view held by many reasonable and otherwise compassionate people.
To crash into a power pole while trying to evade the consequences of what is often a trivial offence isn’t quite “suicide by police”, but it’s getting close. The pursued party presumably doesn’t want to die, but evidently places such a low value on his or her life that it’s a risk worth taking.

But the debate over police pursuits goes further than that. If police were to adopt a policy of non-pursuit, the inevitable consequence is that lawbreakers would be given carte blanche to defy them.
What a great leap forward that would be for society. It would be the exact reverse of the highly effective “broken windows” style of policing, in which zero tolerance is shown for even minor offences.

AS IS often the case in situations like this, the Masterton deaths have brought forth excuse-makers who seek to shift responsibility for the tragedy.
Alan Maxwell, co-ordinator of Wairarapa Anglican Youth, was quoted as saying he was angry at community apathy and the teenagers’ “limited choices”. 

“The bottom line is they’re just bored and if we don’t give them things to so, they find stupid things to do and make stupid choices.
“At some point, as a community, we have to take responsibility, otherwise these kids are not going to be the only ones [to die] this year.”

No doubt Maxwell is a decent man who’s grieving for two boys he knew personally, and in whom he saw good qualities. But since when did being bored justify stealing someone’s car? And why do so many people minimise criminal behaviour by referring to it as making “stupid choices”?
Maxwell’s comments reminded me of the Catholic priest in the 1990s who, presumably temporarily unhinged by emotion, blamed the government for the deaths of several young Maori men in a Christchurch marae fire.

Yes, the deaths of the Featherston boys was a tragedy. There will be people who loved them and cared for them. They will be mourning.
I don’t know what circumstances led to two 15-year-olds being out in a stolen car at 2.15am. I do know, however, that one of the boys was named Pacer, which was the name of an Australian muscle-car of the 1970s, and that he had siblings named Chevy, Dodge and Corvette. Hmmm.

I also know that “the community” doesn’t make teenage boys steal a car or make a run for it when the police try to intercept them. For that, the responsibility must lie elsewhere.

Friday, January 29, 2016

'How Bizarre' turns out to have been aptly named after all

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, January 27).
I replayed the video of How Bizarre a few days ago, just to remind myself what all the fuss was about.
Remember the song? “Brother Pele’s in the back, sweet Sina’s in the front”.

Perhaps it would jog your memory if I mentioned the promotional video showing a red Chev Impala convertible with the singer Pauly Fuemana, wearing a tropical shirt, behind the wheel.
No one alive and sentient in New Zealand during the late 1990s could not have been aware of How Bizarre, both the song and its accompanying video (no one, that is, except the two otherwise knowledgeable gentlemen with whom I have lunch most Fridays, both of whom looked at me blankly a couple of weeks ago when I mentioned it).

How Bizarre was a phenomenon; there’s no other word for it. Recorded in Auckland in 1995 and attributed to OMC (for Otara Millionaires Club), it was arguably the most successful New Zealand pop record ever, topping charts in the United States, Australia and Canada and reaching the Top 10 in Britain, Germany and Sweden. The video was shown on US television an estimated 15,000 times.
The word “phenomenon” seems particularly apt because there was no obvious explanation for the song’s success.

It didn’t seem to matter that the lyrics didn’t make much sense. The history of pop music, after all, is littered with songs that became massive hits despite lyrics that were unintelligible. If you want verbal profundity, listen to Bob Dylan (although his lyrics don’t always make much sense either.)
How Bizarre chimed with record buyers and radio listeners for reasons that defy intellectual analysis. The most you can say is that the song was catchy, and that it seemed to capture the so-called zeitgeist – in other words, the spirit of its times.  

It had a sunny, laidback vibe that fused Pacifica-influenced South Auckland soul - Fuemana's vocal inflections were pure Otara - with South Central LA hip-hop. An incongruous dose of Mexican mariachi-style trumpet was thrown in for good measure. It’s fair to say no one had heard anything quite like it before.
At the time, credit for the song’s success was naturally given to Fuemana. To all intents and purposes, he was OMC. He was generally presented in the media as something of a backyard genius.

It took nearly 20 years for the real story to emerge. I read it over the holidays in an absorbing and well-written book by Simon Grigg, the owner of the Auckland record label that released Fuemana’s records.
Grigg’s book is called, naturally, How Bizarre, and those two words turn out to be far more apposite in the context of the book than they were in the song (which was about nothing bizarre at all; apparently Fuemana just liked the phrase).

The first thing that becomes evident in the book is that How Bizarre, the record, wouldn’t – couldn’t – have happened without Fuemana’s producer, Alan Jansson. A master of digital recording techniques, Jansson co-wrote the song (such as it is) and created the sound.
In fact it soon emerges that Fuemana had limited musical ability. According to Grigg, he had trouble even holding a tune. The reader gets the very clear impression that he wouldn’t have amounted to anything without Jansson’s inventiveness and technical wizardry.

In a sense, there’s nothing new here. Recording stars have always benefited from the ability of producers, engineers and musical arrangers to make them sound better than they really were. But recording technology is now so sophisticated, and so adept at embellishing and polishing sounds with digital massaging, that it almost doesn’t matter if the supposed “star” can’t hold a note.
The real stars are often the anonymous people manipulating the sound in the background. This seems to have been the case with Fuemana, whose contribution to the songs attributed to him often seems to have been minimal. He was a mere bit player in Land of Plenty, the follow-up hit to How Bizarre.

Grigg reveals this without malice. He was Fuemana’s friend, adviser and travelling companion throughout the roller-coaster How Bizarre years, but it was a friendship that was repeatedly tested to the limit.
Fuemana, who died in 2010, had charisma, charm and style, but he was also unstable, petulant, paranoid, naïve, feckless, egotistical and a fantasist. He often teetered on the edge of violence.

The reader is left wondering whether Grigg stuck with him because of his money-making potential or because he genuinely cared for him and wanted to protect him, often against himself. I decided it was probably the latter.
His book is an eye-opener. It’s no secret that the music business, internationally, is greedy, exploitative, manipulative, heartless and often extraordinarily stupid, being totally geared to the moving of “product”.

What was a revelation for me, reading How Bizarre, is that all the above is almost as true of the industry in New Zealand and Australia as it is in the US and Britain. A high proportion of the characters in the book come across as egotistical, nakedly ambitious, quick to take credit for other people's achievements and often just plain incompetent.
By the end, I found myself wondering how many good songs must have sunk without trace because some vain, stupid record company boss or radio programmer decided they didn’t fit whatever rigid, narrow, unimaginative template was being enforced at the time.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Farewell to a lovely man and a born entertainer

Sad to hear today that the immensely likeable Alec Wishart, the co-founder of Hogsnort Rupert, has died.
Alec was the charismatic front man who uttered the famous line “Come on, my lover, give us a kiss” from the band’s nonsensical 1970 hit Pretty Girl, which spent three weeks at No 1 on the New Zealand pop chart.

He remained with the band through multiple incarnations and was reportedly looking forward to a gig later this year when he died yesterday, aged 76.
I first encountered Hogsnort Rupert, then known as Hogsnort Rupert’s Original Flagon Band, in 1968, when the band I was with played at a dance organised by the Wellington Diamond United Football Club.

Hogsnort Rupert, who hadn’t long been formed, played a guest spot that night. They were all working-class English lads, drawn together initially by a love of football.
Their skiffle-inspired music was rough and ready but infectiously energetic and exuberant, much like the guys themselves. Guitarist, singer and songwriter Dave Luther was the serious musician of the band, and its driving force, but it was Alec’s engaging personality that people noticed.

An appearance on TV’s Studio One talent quest led to them being signed by HMV Records. Knowing I was a fan, their producer, the late Peter Dawkins – later to become one of the most influential figures in the Australian music industry – got me to write the sleeve notes for their first album: All Our Own Work! (still available, I noticed recently, on Trade Me).
The original lineup didn’t last long. A couple of the members got religion, after which the band was rebranded as Hogsnort Rupert, with Alec and Dave still forming the core, as they would do for the next 40-plus years. (When I passed up an invitation to join them as bass player, my flatmate and journalism colleague John Newton dusted off his old Hofner bass and became a member of Hogsnort Rupert just in time to play on Pretty Girl, one of the biggest and most enduring New Zealand hits of the era.)

The Hogsnorts had two more Top 10 hits, Aubrey and Aunty Alice, before their recording career subsided. Being essentially a novelty band, their chart history was probably bound to be brief. But they remained popular as a live act, and few New Zealand bands have been regarded with more affection.
That was largely due to Alec, who was one of those performers whose personality took on an extra dimension when he was on stage. But he was an engaging man in private too – witty, amiable and ego-free. All those who knew him will be grieving.

Why on earth would anyone want to replicate the conditions they've just fled from?

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 22.)

Let me see if I can get this straight. Millions of oppressed, dispossessed Muslims have risked their lives fleeing the Middle East and North Africa.

They are mostly victims of Islamic regimes from a part of the world where democracy is virtually unknown (Israel aside). They are escaping sectarianism, persecution, civil war, anarchy, corruption and starvation.
None of them want to go to other Islamic countries. Why would they, when Islam represents all that they’re trying to get away from?

Besides, hardly any Islamic regimes offer them refuge. With the honourable exceptions of Lebanon and Jordan, most Islamic countries – including some that are fabulously wealthy – appear impervious to the suffering of their co-religionists.  
No, the place these Islamic refugees want to be is Europe – Western Europe, to be precise. And what attracts them there? Presumably freedom, for a start.

Western Europe is democratic. People actually elect their governments. The rule of law is enforced not by religious zealots but by courts that apply principles of fairness and impartiality.
In Europe, people’s prospects don’t depend on having been born into the right sex, religious sect or clan. They enjoy civil rights – the right to dress the way they want, to vote, to speak their minds, to have educational opportunities, to drive cars and enter into romantic relationships without fear of being murdered in “honour” killings.

And presumably these refugees are also attracted to capitalism, because more than any other “ism” it gives them the greatest chance to fulfil their human potential.
So, having been drawn to this benevolent part of the world where people enjoy freedom, opportunity and prosperity, what do they do?

A large number of them, it seems, immediately want to replicate the conditions that they’ve just fled from. This is the bit that I just don’t get.
As events in Germany on New Year’s Eve showed, the first impulse of many young Islamic men is to abuse the hospitality extended to them.

Some, of course, go much further than orchestrated sex attacks on young women. They want to murder the infidels who have given them shelter and succour. 
Things just don’t add up here. Why would anyone flee a cruel and repressive society, then seek to undermine the democratic institutions of their host country so that it might become another Muslim theocracy? How perverse is that?

They say Islam isn’t to blame for the barbaric acts carried out in its name, but that’s only partly true.
Yes, many Muslims respect Western institutions and want only to live in peace in the countries that have accepted them. They understand that freedom to practise their religion is one thing; the right to impose it on their host society is quite another. These Muslims are welcome.

But Islam cannot be exonerated of responsibility for the mayhem and slaughter in the Middle East, nor for the creeping contamination of Europe. The tenets of Islam provide a theological framework that enables groups like the Taleban, Al Qaeda and Isis to flourish.
Apologists say that what these groups do is a perversion of Islam, but they are all part of the Islamic tradition. They didn’t spring out of a vacuum.

There are lessons here for New Zealand. Our natural impulse as a humane, liberal society is to take pity on Islamic asylum-seekers and give them refuge. But we can’t ignore what’s happened in Germany, where young Islamic men have repaid their host country’s generosity by abusing its young women.
There is ample evidence that male Islamists can’t handle the sexual freedom of liberal western societies. Their view of females as inferior, an attitude sanctioned by Islamic law, becomes fused with desire for the women they see walking in the streets wearing makeup and revealing clothing.

It’s a poisonous mix: one part old-fashioned lust, one part repressive religious zealotry that teaches them to regard such women as whores who deserve to be punished.
Closer to home, we’ve seen the trouble caused in Australia by young Middle Eastern men with a strong sense of entitlement and an obvious resentment of their adopted country. Large groups of young Muslim men on the loose in Western society almost always spell trouble.

It must surely be only a matter of time before even tolerant, liberal Europeans get provoked to the point where they rise up in retaliation and defence of their own values. So far the resistance is coming mainly from the ugly Far Right, but it may not stay that way.
We in New Zealand, as is so often the case, have the good fortune to be able observe all this from a safe distance and absorb the lessons. But will we?

Monday, January 18, 2016

I know who I believe ....

Further to my post last Friday about Dr Anne Fox's report, here's a (relatively) recent story from the Timaru Herald  which backs up Fox's view that alcohol is used as an excuse for violence and other bad behaviour.

The views expressed in the Herald's article are identical to ones I've heard from people working with family violence offenders in the Wairarapa. I regard these real-world opinions as carrying a lot more weight than those of hysterical, agenda-driven academics.

Friday, January 15, 2016

How the media treat alcohol heretics

It’s funny, isn’t it, that a report questioning the demonisation of alcohol should get wide publicity only when it’s attacked by puritanical academics – this, nearly a year after its release.
That was the fate of British anthropologist Anne Fox’s March 2015 paper in which she argued that it’s simplistic and wrong to blame alcohol for violence and other bad behaviour.

Fox’s research, commissioned by liquor conglomerate Lion, was largely ignored by the media on its release. An odd exception was an interview with Fox on Wallace Chapman’s Sunday Mornings programme on Radio New Zealand – a rare case of someone from outside the politically approved (i.e. left-leaning) list getting airtime from the state broadcaster.
Apart from that and an article I wrote for The Listener, Fox’s paper was clearly deemed by media gatekeepers to be of no public interest, despite intense debate going back years over alcohol-related issues.

I can only surmise that this was because her key finding – that alcohol is too easily made a scapegoat for antisocial behaviour – was considered heretical, since it conflicted with the barrage of almost hysterical anti-liquor rhetoric New Zealanders are bombarded with.
It was only when two academics (one only a PhD student) issued a shallow and poorly written – in fact almost incomprehensible – critique this week that Fox’s paper got legs in the mainstream media, and then only because it provided a platform from which to attack her.

One News, Radio New Zealand and the New Zealand Herald all eagerly seized the opportunity to cast doubts on Fox’s credibility.
It’s not hard to follow the groupthink of the media decision-makers. Fox’s research was seen as ineradicably tainted because it was funded by Lion. Academics, on the other hand, are regarded as having only the purest of motives.

Of all the coverage yesterday, Radio New Zealand’s was the most appallingly one-sided. Interviewing a Hawke’s Bay emergency department doctor, whom we were obviously supposed to regard as the ultimate authority on the pernicious effects of alcohol, Summer Report presenter Teresa Cowie made her bias clear by referring to Fox’s research as “dodgy” – a plainly defamatory statement when made in respect of an anthropologist who has specialised in studying drinking cultures and substance abuse.
The interview demonstrated that many journalists are incapable of reporting fairly and impartially on alcohol-related issues. Sympathetic interviews with emergency department doctors – hardly the most objective commentators, given that they are confronted every day by the most extreme effects of alcohol – win out over measured, detached reporting.

To recap on Fox’s report, she argued that New Zealanders and Australians use drunkenness as an excuse for actions that wouldn’t be acceptable if the perpetrators were sober. But she pointed out that liquor consumption need not be synonymous with violence or bad behaviour – indeed, isn’t synonymous with antisocial behaviour for the vast majority of New Zealand drinkers, or indeed in many countries that have higher rates of alcohol consumption than ours.
Blaming alcohol as the sole cause of violence, she believes, diverts attention from “maladaptive cultural norms” that allow New Zealand and Australian men to be violent and aggressive.

As I wrote in The Listener: “Fox’s conclusion is that while alcohol gets the blame, the real problems are rooted in our cultural attitudes. We treat liquor as if it exerts some mystical power over us, thus allowing us to exempt ourselves from personal responsibility when we behave badly.”
This argument must have gone down like a cup of cold sick among the army of tut-tutting public health academics and bureaucrats who have spent years pushing for regulatory restraints on alcohol availability and consumption.

In their eyes, New Zealanders are powerless to control their behaviour once in the grip of alcohol and its manipulative purveyors. Talk of individual responsibility is anathema to the wowser lobby because it places the blame for antisocial behaviour squarely where it belongs – on the perpetrator rather than the demon drink.
The critique of Fox’s paper, written for the journal Addiction by University of Auckland PhD student Nicki Jackson and University of Newcastle (Australia) professor Kypros Kypri, argues that her research is unsound and has the potential to undermine “evidence-based” countermeasures to alcohol-related harm.

Inevitably, they highlight the fact that Fox’s research was funded by a brewery company. They also fault her paper on the basis that it was not peer-reviewed and had no “ethical” approval. Their own critique, of course, is packed with references to the mountains of academic literature on the dangers of alcohol.
But Fox’s critics spectacularly miss the point of her report. Nowhere in her paper did she deny a link between alcohol and violence. What she disputes is that alcohol is the cause.

Fox herself has methodically taken the critique apart in a response in which, among other things, she accuses Jackson and Kypri of misrepresenting statistics. One notable example relates to the percentage of Australian bar patrons questioned in a survey who had supposedly experienced violence over a three-month period.
Jackson and Kypri said the figure was one in 10, but Fox reveals the survey question didn’t actually mention the word “violence”. It asked patrons how many times they had experienced or witnessed [Fox’s italics] “any form of verbal, physical or sexual aggression in or around licensed venues in the three months prior to interview”.

As Fox says, this provides a very subjective measure. Some people might regard raised voices as evidence of aggression. You have to ask: whose credibility is in doubt here?
Fox also questions Kypri’s objectivity, alleging he’s a director of an obscure but long-established organisation called the Independent Order of Rechabites, which promotes abstinence from alcohol. In the New Zealand Herald, Kypri denied this, saying he’s involved in the Australian Rechabite Foundation, which he portrayed as a research and advocacy organisation. But he’s being cute: the Australian Rechabite Foundation’s website makes it clear that the foundation is an offshoot of, and affiliated with, the order.

“In my view,” Fox writes, “religious temperance beliefs about alcohol can cloud one’s objective scientific judgement, and such affiliations should be declared in conflict of interest statements as they belie an underlying non-scientific agenda.”
There’s an interesting contrast here. Fox was open about Lion’s sponsorship of her research, as she had to be (although she insists her contract gave her complete independence). Shouldn’t Kypri have similarly declared his affiliation with the Rechabites, which arguably had the same potential to sway his judgment?

I have my own doubts about the reliability of the Jackson-Kypri critique, given the authors’ claims that Fox’s findings were being used “extensively” by the liquor industry (they cite just one article in an Australian industry magazine), in the “mainstream media” (they mention only one instance – my Listener story) and in submissions by government agencies on public policy (again, they give only one instance – a relatively brief reference in a submission by the Director of the NSW Office of Public Prosecutions on alcohol- and drug-fuelled violence).
I know hyperbole when I see it; I’m a journalist, after all. When your story’s weak, the temptation is to pump it up by exaggerating.

As for the criticism that Fox didn’t seek ethical approval from an institution, she points out that her paper was written for a lay audience, not an academic journal.  That shows in her language, which is direct and clear, in marked contrast to the tortuous jargon used by her critics.
The irony here is that Fox’s report didn’t let the alcohol industry off the hook. She criticised some alcohol advertising for promoting macho behaviour and made no attempt to play down the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption, especially among the young.

In her response to the critique, she writes: “My mission is not to absolve alcohol from all blame for societal problems – alcohol dependence is clearly a problem and a burden on health resources. However, it is obvious that blaming alcohol alone for violence in the NTE [night-time economy, the academic phrase for places where people drink] is an obfuscation of the real causes and does a disservice to the victims of violence.”
I don’t deny that there may have been flaws in Fox’s report. What research paper isn’t open to criticism? I accept too that she was an easy target because of the source of her financial backing. But as someone who has been writing about alcohol issues for nearly 40 years, I found her main conclusions compelling.

They are borne out by everyday observation, which confirms that most New Zealanders are perfectly capable of drinking without getting violent or otherwise behaving badly. Ask yourself: when did you last witness a brawl, or even an angry confrontation, in a café where people were drinking?
In other words, it’s wrong and simplistic to blame liquor. End of story.

But here’s the main point. Fox’s paper provided an opportunity for a debate that might have shed some new light on the ugly side of New Zealand’s drinking culture. It offered an alternative explanation to that pushed relentlessly by agenda-driven academics and bureaucrats. But her critics would rather shut the debate down, and sadly the media have allowed themselves to be co-opted toward that end.