Friday, December 14, 2018

The kiwi is a bird. I am a New Zealander.

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, December 13.)

Call me the paper’s resident Grinch. While other people make lists of cards to send and presents to buy, I’ve been compiling an inventory of things that get on my nerves. Here are a few:

• I am not a kiwi. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a freakish-looking bird with nostrils at the end of its beak. I do not scurry around in leaf litter at night probing the soil for grubs and worms.  I am of the species homo sapiens, not apteryx australis.

Accordingly, I cringe at the fashion across all the media for referring to New Zealanders as “Kiwis”. It’s patronising, cloyingly sentimental and just plain wrong. It promotes a comforting nationalistic myth that we are all the same, with common characteristics, opinions and aspirations, rather than representative of what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the crooked timber of humanity, in all its glorious complexity.

In any case, we managed perfectly well with “New Zealanders” until someone decided to infantilise us. It may be four syllables rather than two, but I think we can still get our tongues around it.

• That Air New Zealand engineers’ strike threatened for the week before Christmas. Déjà vu, anyone?

People over 50 will recall the Cook Strait ferry strikes that just happened to coincide with school holidays, or the walkouts by freezing workers that left yards full of sheep at the height of the killing season – anything to maximise the pressure on the employers to cave in.

A generation has grown up with no memory of the enormous economic harm done by industrial disruption during the 1970s. Some would say the subsequent labour law reforms which stripped unions of much of their power went too far. But by cynically and heartlessly calling a strike at the busiest time of the year for domestic air travel, the Aviation and Marine Engineers’ Association has obligingly reminded of us how things used to be.

The sense of nostalgia was sharpened by hearing the engineers’ spokesman interviewed on Morning Report. He spoke with an English accent, recalling an era when New Zealand unions were infected by British class warfare.

• What has Jacinda Ardern got against the letter T? On the TV news the other night she referred to hospidalidy and modorists. I’ve previously heard her speak of credibilidy, creadividy and inequalidy. And because the prime minister is an influencer and role model, other people are already imitating her pronunciation.

Nothing is more susceptible to the whims of fashion than pronunciation and language. The letter L seems well on its way to extinction in some usages – note how often you hear “vunnerable” and “howth” in place of “vulnerable” and “health” – while other words have inexplicably gained an extra syllable, so that we now have “befor-wah” and “unknowen”.

Now the inoffensive letter T, which never harmed a soul, is being usurped by a rampant, invasive D. Someone should mount a campaign to prodect the integridy of spoken English.

• Someone from Otago University watched 24 James Bond movies and read all the Bond books, carefully noting every occasion on which he drank alcohol and the high-risk activities that he engaged in afterwards. I’m not sure what the purpose of this exercise was, but I’m assuming the taxpayer paid for it.

Perhaps we’re supposed to assume it was a bit of a jape, but that wasn’t obvious from the interviews given by the professor (an academic title that once commanded respect) who led the project. He po-facedly pronounced that Bond drank a potentially fatal quantity of alcohol on one occasion and was a consistently heavy drinker over six decades.

But for heaven’s sake, Bond is a fantasy character. So what did this exercise achieve? Are the Otago researchers trying to persuade us that we shouldn’t try to emulate Bond’s drinking?

That would be consistent with their obsessive taxpayer-funded wowserism. But New Zealanders are no more likely to mimic Bond’s drinking patterns than they are to tussle with komodo dragons or indulge in any of the other absurd escapades that occur in his movies. What the research project really reveals is that the Otago academics don’t trust us to distinguish real life from Hollywood escapism – just as they don’t think we can be trusted to drink responsibly. 

• On a cheerful note more appropriate to the festive season, it was a joy to hear the prickly Chris Finlayson, former Minister of Treaty Negotiations, frankly unburden himself on radio of his feelings about the iwi leaders who for years have frustrated attempts to achieve a Treaty settlement in the Far North.

Finlayson, of course, is stepping down at the next election, so could afford to be blunt. But what a shame that politicians should have to wait for their impending retirement to tell us what they really think.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

How Trump weaponised distrust of the US media - and how the media obliged him by playing along

(Published in the Manawatu StandardNelson Mail and other Stuff regional papers, December 12.)

Whenever I read something about Donald Trump, my eyes go straight to the credit line at the bottom of the story to see where it came from.

If it’s sourced from the Washington Post or the New York Times, I read it with a degree of scepticism. These once-great newspapers have dangerously compromised their credibility by allowing their almost obsessive dislike of the American president to contaminate their reportage.

This is made worse by their tendency to allow fact and opinion to become so entangled that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other starts. It’s open season on Trump, and many American journalists make it clear that they despise him.

And actually, I understand why they feel that way. I despise Trump too, and worry about the damage his presidency might do to America and to the world. He’s a man who appears to have no moral compass and no respect for the truth.

He has also, consciously and deliberately, made an enemy of the media. The terrible mistake made by news organisations such as the Washington Post and the New York Times is that they have been suckered into playing his game.

There is always tension in the relationship between politicians and journalists, but it’s usually kept under control by both sides. Not so with Trump.

He has weaponised public distrust of the media in much the same way as Robert Muldoon did in New Zealand 40 years ago. Trump knows, as Muldoon did, that it can be politically advantageous to portray the media as biased and elitist.

Trump plays this political card more blatantly and unscrupulously than even Muldoon did, repeatedly branding the American media as the enemy of the people.

Sadly, by buying into the adversarial relationship and adopting an openly hostile stance toward the White House, the media have perversely enhanced Trump’s political capital.

He can point to their antagonistic coverage as proof that the liberal media can’t be trusted to report things fairly and accurately. This played well to his supporters on the campaign trail in 2016 and it continues to play well for Trump now, because there will always be an element of the public that is prepared to believe the worst of supposedly elitist, out-of-touch reporters.

And it has to be said that many journalists are elitist and out-of-touch – especially in the US, where the big media organisations are headquartered far from the neglected heartland where Trump’s support base is located. That helps explain why the media so dismally failed to foresee Trump’s victory in the presidential election.

The best counter to Trump’s game, surely, is to do what reputable newspapers used to do as a matter of course: play it straight.

News columns are not the place for editorial opinion. They should be concerned only with detached, factual accounts of what Trump has said or done.

This doesn’t preclude journalists from documenting inconsistencies and obvious untruths, or from reporting the turmoil created by Trump’s erratic behaviour. Neither does it stop columnists and editorial writers from expressing themselves freely in opinion sections.

But tone is everything, and what passes for news coverage in papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times is often freighted with emotive rhetoric and laced with the reporter’s obvious contempt. In those circumstances, even readers who dislike Trump are entitled to wonder whether they are getting a reliable, unbiased account, or whether the media are reporting only what happens to align with their perception.  

Many liberal Americans share this concern. A recent programme on National Public Radio, which is anything but pro-Trump, attracted calls from listeners who called out media bias. As one said, “I think they [the media] have decided what’s right for everyone and think it’s their job to convince people.”

All of this leads me, in a roundabout way, to last month’s declaration by Patrick Crewdson, editor-in-chief of Stuff, that his organisation will no longer give space to the views of people he classifies as climate change sceptics and “denialists”.

Okay, the parallel with Trump isn’t obvious, but Stuff’s stance does raise a serious question relating to trust in the media.

When a news organisation decides to shut down dissenting comment on an issue as important as climate change on the basis that the debate is “settled”, it assumes a position of omniscience that will rankle with many readers. But far more importantly, it raises doubts in readers’ minds about its commitment to free and open debate.

I would have thought the media faced enough challenges in the current environment without incurring accusations of elitist bias. That threatens to take us into Trump territory, and who wants to go there?

Stuff appended the following editor's note to my column:

Stuff has not shut down discussion on climate change, but we will not provide a forum for its factual existence to be countered with fictions and call it "balance".

It added: Stuff accepts the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and caused by human activity. We welcome robust debate about the appropriate response to climate change, but do not intend to provide a venue for denialism or hoax advocacy. That applies equally to the stories we will publish in Quick! Save the Planet [a Stuff project highlighting climate change] and to our moderation standards for reader comments.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The purpose of journalism

Today’s Dominion Post reproduces part of an editorial from the Sydney Morning Herald commenting on an Australian philanthropist’s pledge of $100 million “to strengthen Australian journalism and help restore faith in its central role in a healthy democracy”. The editorial comments: “The challenge is not just to produce information but to package it and focus it so it has an impact on society and brings about concrete change.”

Right there, in one sentence, the left-leaning SMH demonstrates two of the besetting faults of modern journalism and the reason why public confidence in the media continues to decline. The first is the assumption that the mission of journalists is to change things – a mindset encouraged by journalism courses taught by leftist ideologues. The second is the conceit that journalists know what’s best for us.

One of the best definitions of journalism that I’ve read comes from The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. It defines the purpose of journalism as “to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies and their governments”.

You’ll note there’s nothing there about promoting change. That’s a concept that has taken hold in recent decades, along with the pernicious view that objectivity is a myth and that journalists therefore have no obligation to cover issues even-handedly. The proper purpose of journalism remains as Kovach and Rosenstiel defined it – not to lead society toward the outcome that journalists think is correct, but to give ordinary people  the means to make their own decisions about what’s in their best interests.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Identity politics and the Pride Parade

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, November 29.)

There was something strangely familiar about the spectacle of the LGBTQ+ movement chewing itself up over the Auckland Pride Parade.

It was vaguely reminiscent of the destructive paroxysms that convulsed New Zealand’s communist Left throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s as rival factions competed to show who was most faithful to Marxist-Leninist ideology.

The feuding began when Moscow and Beijing fell out and New Zealand communists split into Soviet and Maoist camps. The plotting and infighting was so vicious and all-consuming that no one had any energy left to fight the supposed common enemy, capitalism.

As the doctrinal differences became ever more esoteric and breakaway groups peeled off in new directions, the squabbling only seemed to intensify. As a wise Frenchman wrote a long time ago, revolutions have a way of devouring their own.

Meanwhile, life went on. Mainstream New Zealand was only dimly aware, if at all, of the feuding among its suburban armchair revolutionaries.

There are faint echoes of that era in the turmoil over the Pride Parade. In one sense, as political scientist Bryce Edwards has pointed out, the dispute over whether uniformed police should be allowed to join the parade was simply a classic clash between pragmatists and purists.

The pragmatic moderates want to work alongside the establishment. They accept that police harassment of gays is in the past.  

The radicals, however, obviously place a high value on their status as an oppressed minority and are determined to remain on the margins.

Ideologically, it suits them to view the police as fascist enforcers of white male supremacy. In their own eyes, no doubt, they remain ideologically pure while the original gay custodians of the parade have sold out.

Both stances raise interesting questions. In respect of the mainstream gay movement, the question is whether there even needs to be a Pride Parade.

Gay rights is no longer the edgy cause it once was. Homosexuality has been legal for more than 30 years and gays are allowed to marry.

If homosexuality is now seen as accepted and unremarkable, which is surely what the gay lobby has campaigned for over the past few decades, then the battle has been won and gays have no more need of a “pride” parade than indoor bowlers or model train hobbyists.

But the more interesting question relates to the zealots who banned uniformed police from participating, despite all their efforts to ingratiate themselves with the gay community. 

Here in full view, once again, is the neo-Marxist phenomenon known as identity politics, whereby minority groups define themselves by their point of difference – whether it be gender, class, race, sexual identity, disability or age – and by their perception of themselves as oppressed. 

The activists love to talk about inclusivity but in truth, they rejoice in their apartness and have little interest in aligning themselves with the mainstream. After all, why diminish what defines you?

Besides, it’s no longer a simple case of a single, homogenous “queer” community asserting itself, because the queer community has split into multiple factions, all pushing different agendas and sometimes fighting among themselves – just as in the communist cadres of the 50s and 60s.

New groups seem to appear by the week. It’s getting hard to navigate in this increasingly complex ideological landscape.

Not only do we now have to get our heads around a “trans” community that virtually no one had heard of a year ago, and whose agenda provoked a backlash from feminists, but we’ve also been introduced to a neo-Marxist theory called intersectionality.

Wikipedia defines this as “an analytic framework that attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact [on] those who are the most marginalised in society”.

Intersectionality grew out of resentment at the domination of the feminist movement by white middle-class women. It holds that if you’re a lesbian, working-class woman of colour, you’re far more oppressed than a Pakeha woman who lives in a restored Thorndon villa and teaches women’s studies at university.

In this new hierarchy of the oppressed, it goes without saying that middle-class gay men just don’t cut it anymore. Small wonder that they’ve lost control of the Pride Parade.

Meanwhile, as with the communist schisms of the mid-20th century, ordinary New Zealand gets on with life. After all, identity politics and the associated culture wars are the concerns of a tiny portion of the population.

But the row over the Pride Parade is the tip of a rather ominous iceberg. The difference between the mid-20th century and today is that whereas the old-school communists never achieved influence beyond the trade unions, today’s neo-Marxists have got traction in politics, education, the media, the arts and even the churches.

And their aims are similar: to undermine, destabilise and ultimately deconstruct mainstream society. We ignore them at our peril.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Pike River: a lot of ifs, buts and maybes

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on, November 28.)

This might seem an insensitive question, but it needs to be asked. Exactly what will be achieved by going back into the Pike River mine?

The justification for the $36 million re-entry operation is often vaguely expressed and seems to vary depending on who’s doing the talking.

Anna Osborne, who lost her husband in the Pike River disaster, wants the 29 miners’ remains recovered. Bernie Monk, whose son was killed, talks about wanting “justice and accountability”.

The Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-Entry, Andrew Little, says the purpose of the proposed re-entry is to better understand the cause of the tragedy and “perhaps to recover remains”. 

But the crucial question has already been answered. There was a series of explosions caused by a build-up of lethal methane gas. The mine was high-risk and the hazards were poorly managed.

This was established by a royal commission of inquiry. Will sending in a recovery team provide additional information of such critical importance that it will justify the risk and expense involved?

That’s the crucial question that not only hasn’t satisfactorily been answered but can’t be answered, because no one knows what the recovery team will find – that is, assuming the re-entry succeeds.

So what else might be achieved? Well, human remains might be recovered – but again, they might not be.

The police might find evidence that might lead to a prosecution – but who knows? That’s a lot of mights.

And overhanging all of this is the possibility that after all the anguish, the anticipation and the planning, the re-entry operation will have to be abandoned because it is either too difficult or too dangerous. 

The project is fraught with ifs, buts and maybes. So how did we get to this position?

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it has come about through a feverish interaction of populist politics, media attention and the unresolved grief of the bereaved families, all feeding off each other and pushing inexorably toward an uncertain outcome that may turn out to be of dubious merit.

At the outset, I felt enormous sympathy for the Pike River families. I still feel for them. But as the years have passed that sympathy has been tinged with a degree of cynicism as I’ve watched the key players become seasoned media campaigners and political lobbyists.

They have developed a symbiotic relationship with the Labour-led government and been rewarded with a seat at the decision-making table.

Along the way, a note of hubris and entitlement has entered the picture. This was apparent when a miner’s mother, Sonya Rockhouse, demanded an official apology but in the same breath, reserved the right to reject it.

The carefully orchestrated PR event at which the re-entry plan was announced would have played well to the public, with its hugs and tears and allusions to victory for the “little people”. It also pushed the right buttons for Labour, which has close sentimental and historical associations with coal mines and the West Coast.

But is it good public policy to commit so much money and potentially risk more lives for such an uncertain and ill-defined outcome? I’m not so sure.

It must also be said that not all the families support re-entry. Marion Curtin, whose son was killed at Pike River, courageously spoke out against what she described as an appalling waste of money – especially, she says, given the lack of certainty about what might be achieved.

Curtin wants her son’s remains left undisturbed and says people shouldn’t assume that the Pike River activists speak for all the bereaved.

She has pointed out that coal mines, by their nature, are dangerous places that involve an element of risk. To which it might be added that some of the dead men were experienced miners who must have known about the mine’s safety shortcomings but chose to work there nonetheless.

Curtin told Radio New Zealand she loathed the fact that the issue had become so political and that she saw it as “sacrilege, really, to go in fossicking around for remains … to go in just to see what they find”.

The key underlying issue here, I suspect, is that Pike River remains a matter of unfinished business for one very obvious reason: no one has been held accountable for the disaster. That must gnaw away at the families who have pushed so determinedly for the re-entry.

In the void left by the failure to hold anyone criminally liable, the mine re-entry has become the focus of the families' anger, grief and frustration. They are looking for what is fashionably called closure, but there's no guarantee they will get it. And even if they do, what will be the cost?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Ian Grant's history of NZ newspapers

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, November 15.)
It’s odd, when the print media are fighting for survival, to read of a time in our history when people couldn’t get enough of newspapers.

I’ve been reading about such a time in Ian F Grant’s new book Lasting Impressions: The story of New Zealand’s newspapers 1840-1920.  Among other things, it reveals that New Zealand once had more newspapers per head of population than any other country in the world.

In colonial New Zealand, newspapers were often among the first businesses to be established as new towns arose from the wilderness. Opportunist publishers known as “rag planters” would move around the country, launching newspapers in embryonic communities then moving on when better prospects beckoned elsewhere.

Early colonists, Grant writes, regarded information and debate in newspapers as a crucial component in working towards a self-governing, independent society. Newspapers were the glue that held communities together and gave them a sense of identity.

The early New Plymouth settler Charles Hursthouse expressed it in plaintive terms. “Nothing has tended to retard the progress of the settlement more than the absence of a newspaper,” he lamented in 1848.

Before I go any further, a disclosure. Ian Grant was one of my employers when I worked at the National Business Review in the mid-1970s and we see quite a bit of each other in Masterton, where he and his wife Diane run a small but frenetically busy book publishing company. 

I had a sneak preview of two chapters in his book and was astonished at the depth and detail of the research. Grant is the first to admit that his job was made a lot easier by Papers Past, the National Library’s digital archive of old newspapers, but it was still a prodigious undertaking.

His interest in the newspaper business isn’t purely academic. A former editor of the Victoria University student paper Salient, he was one of a group of risk-taking young entrepreneurs who took over the floundering National Business Review in its early days and turned it into a success story.

He later founded the New Zealand Cartoon Archive, which grew out of his 1980 book The Unauthorised Version: A Cartoon History of New Zealand. 

Grant’s background was in advertising and it shows in his book, in which he repeatedly emphasises the importance of the advertising dollar in sustaining the newspaper business. That much has never changed.

He has little patience for academic theorists who insist on ascribing political motives to the men who laid the foundations of the New Zealand newspaper industry.

Several 19th century newspapermen did enter politics – including the premiers John Ballance and Julius Vogel – but the motivation for most proprietors and editors was to make money, and the papers that survived tended to have commercial rather than political objectives.

The one you’re reading right now was an exception. The Dominion was founded by wealthy farmers, merchants and professional men who opposed the policies of Richard Seddon’s Liberal Party government. But the paper it merged with in 2002, the Evening Post, was more in the standard mould, having been established and owned for more than a century by a family that had no political agenda. 

Lasting Impressions confirms – not that confirmation is needed – that newspapers thrived partly because human beings are social creatures with a natural interest in the affairs of others.

That hasn’t changed either, except that curiosity about the lives of others has mutated into a grotesque form of voyeurism that finds an outlet in social (or should that be anti-social?) media, where it’s reciprocated by people’s willingness to lay bare the most intimate details of their lives.

A lot else has changed too, and not necessarily for the better. The advent of the Internet has done untold damage to the traditional media.

Many people welcome this because it has democratised access to information. Editors in newsrooms are no longer the gatekeepers.

But it has come at a cost. One sad consequence is that the traditional “broad church” newspaper, which served as unifying force of civil society by providing readers with a smorgasbord of impartial news and information and also, crucially, by exposing them to a diverse range of opinions, is now threatened with extinction.

In its place we have an increasingly toxic and polarised cyberspace where people go to have their ideological prejudices reinforced.  Even the mainstream media often seem less concerned with providing balanced news than with offering a platform to advocacy groups intent on highlighting all the shameful ways in which our society is supposedly failing disadvantaged minorities.

Ian Grant has now turned his attention to the history of New Zealand newspapers since 1920, an assignment made unusually challenging by the very fluid state of the industry. Let’s hope Volume II doesn’t end up as an obituary.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

When TV drama is used to promote messages of diversity and inclusivity

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on, November 14.)
In the opening episode of Bodyguard, a BBC drama series screening on Netflix, an off-duty police terrorism specialist (a man) confronts a female suicide bomber on a crowded train.

It’s convincingly tense, but there’s not a lot to distinguish it from other post-9/11 plotlines – that is, except for one thing.

The commander of a police anti-terrorism squad that boards the train is a cool and efficient black woman. Nothing remarkable about that, in itself. But then we see a police sniper waiting to get a clean shot at the suicide bomber, and the sniper is a woman too.

The next cop on the scene is an officer who has the perilous job of defusing the bomb. Wow, another woman. There seemed to be a pattern here.

Fast-forward now to when the crisis is over and the cop is back at the office telling his boss all about it. And waddya know, she’s a woman too.

She has some news for the cop: he’s been assigned to protect a high-profile politician. It will probably come as no surprise to learn that she, too, is a woman.

By this time it was clear that Bodyguard wasn’t just a well-made drama series; it was also making a statement about gender equality.

The message was that women can be just as tough and fearless as blokes. And actually, I’m okay with that. The days when granite-jawed men got all the good parts and women were in subservient roles are far behind us.

It makes perfect sense, for example, that the new Doctor Who is female. What took them so long, for heaven’s sake? In the 21st century, no man should baulk at seeing women calling the shots.

In fact, when I think about it, I realise that many of the TV dramas I’ve enjoyed most in recent years have had women in central roles. There was the grim but outstanding Happy Valley, starring Sarah Lancashire, and The Fall, starring Gillian Anderson of The X-Files fame.

There were two series, River and Unforgettable, which featured the wonderful Nicola Walker, and a swag of Scandi-noir crime series, whose names I can’t recall because they all seemed pretty much the same, in which the main characters were female. And I shouldn't omit the dark but stylish Killing Eve, starring the great Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer.

I also recently enjoyed repeats of some early episodes of Prime Suspect, which is credited with being one of the first TV dramas to put a woman front and centre, and which derived much of its drama from her struggle against the sexism of her police colleagues.

On reflection, I wondered whether Prime Suspect was really such a big deal, because even in the 1960s and 70s there were shows in which women had the star billing.

There was Diahann Carroll in Julia, which first screened in 1968. Not only was she female, but she was black too, and a solo mother to boot. And even before that, Lucille Ball had her own long-running comedy show.

Later came The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Policewoman and the first female take on the “buddy” cop show, Cagney and Lacey. Perhaps this was one area in which Hollywood was ahead of the Brits.

No one made a big fuss of these programmes, and why should they? What could be more unremarkable than making TV shows in which the sex that represents 50 percent of humankind takes centre-stage? But the preponderance of women in Bodyguard seemed a bit over the top. 

I had read in the British media about the BBC’s slavish commitment to policies of inclusivity and diversity. Was that what it was all about? Did Bodyguard reflect the world the way the scriptwriters think it ought to be?

It wouldn’t be the first time TV programme-makers have bowed to identity politics. In 2011 the co-creator and producer of ITV’s Midsomer Murders was forced to stand down because he objected to being told to include ethnic minorities in the series.

He wasn’t being racist. He just thought it would be inconsistent with the tone of the programme, which was set in a mythical, timeless and quintessentially English village. And I think he was right.

We watch TV dramas for entertainment, not to be morally improved or have our cultural sensitivity enhanced. When a TV show is used as a means of ideological virtue-signalling, as I suspect has happened with Bodyguard, it rankles.

At worst it conveys a faint but unsettling whiff of Stalinist-style totalitarianism, which used art to enforce ideological orthodoxy and ruthlessly suppressed anything that didn’t conform.

How sad it would be if the BBC, which was once greatly admired for boldly pushing the boundaries and defying the establishment, had meekly fallen into line with the “progressive” political agenda. But I suspect that’s what it has come to.