Monday, April 24, 2017

The mayhem predicted by breathless forecasters never happened

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 21.)

An expat friend emailed me from Brisbane last week. He had read about Cyclone Cook hitting New Zealand and wondered whether, after all the scary warnings, it had turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax.

I had to confirm that his impression was correct. Sure, trees were brought down, some houses were evacuated, farms were flooded and there were road closures, power outages and a few landslides.

The impact on those affected shouldn’t be understated. But there was nothing like the mayhem that breathless weather forecasters (and I mean almost literally breathless, in some instances) had warned us to brace ourselves for.

MetService should be conducting a rigorous self-appraisal this week, because it greatly overplayed its hand. In doing so, it put its credibility at risk. Some of the official predictions came perilously close to scaremongering.

We were told there was a real risk the intensity of the storm would match that of April 1968, when the Wahine foundered at the entrance to Wellington Harbour with the loss of 51 lives. But the conditions then were dissimilar in one vital respect.

It’s true that in 1968 a tropical cyclone, Giselle, passed down the country, just as happened with Cyclone Cook. The crucial difference was that it collided head-on over Cook Strait with a powerful front heading in the other direction.

It wasn’t Giselle on its own that caused catastrophe, but the violent clash of two opposing weather systems.  Meteorologists must know this, so why create the misleading impression that Cyclone Cook on its own was capable of replicating Wahine conditions? It was wrong and it was irresponsible.

This isn’t to say MetService was wrong to issue warnings. Clearly it would have been negligent not to advise the public to be prepared for an extreme weather event. There would have been hell to pay if Cyclone Cook had arrived without prior notice.

What’s at issue is the sensationalist tone of the warnings. One over-excited forecaster pronounced that it would be a “national event” – no ifs, buts or maybes – and said not many people would be spared.

This wasn’t a media beat-up. These were the exact words of professional meteorologists.

In fact the impact turned out to be largely localised, and not necessarily in the places predicted. Some of the predicted consequences, such as damaging storm surges and coastal inundation, appear not to have eventuated – or if they did, had little impact.

The Auckland Harbour Bridge stayed open and the Cook Strait ferries continued running, contradicting expert predictions.

What’s also troubling is that the meteorologists showed no inclination to moderate their forecasts even when it became apparent that they might have over-egged the pudding. They seemed to be enjoying their moment in the spotlight.

When Cyclone Cook deviated from its expected path, one forecaster pronounced that Auckland had “very luckily” been spared, but that the worst was still to come. Well, we’re still waiting.

The Central Plateau and the Wairarapa were supposed to cop it, but neither region did. I live in the Wairarapa and all that happened was that we got a night of moderately heavy rain from an unusual direction.

Once the cyclone had passed over the country and drifted off to wherever it is that ex-cyclones go, MetService went into damage control mode. By that time it was getting some stick on social media; one joker posted a photo on Facebook showing a plastic chair overturned by the wind on someone’s back lawn as an example of the devastation wreaked.

A MetService spokesman, defending the forecasters, explained that tropical cyclones were “fickle beasts which are hard to pin down”.Fair enough; we can all accept that forecasting is an inexact science. But if cyclones are unpredictable, why so much certainty before the event?

In fact I wonder if the whole business of meteorology and forecasting is becoming a bit overheated, if you’ll excuse the pun. Fears of global warming (real or otherwise), 24-hour weather channels, celebrity weather presenters and constant warnings of extreme climatic events (hardly a week passes without one) all feed into this phenomenon. But violent weather events have always been with us.

What should concern MetService is that its credibility took a hit last week, not so much because of the accuracy of its forecasts but due to the hyped-up, anxiety-inducing tone of its warnings.

It added to a deepening public scepticism toward “experts”. People take note when weather forecasters give them a bum steer, just as they take note when supposedly state-of-the-art, earthquake-proof buildings – designed by experts – have to be abandoned after a moderate shake while decades-old structures are undamaged.


People notice, too, that there’s a striking absence of accountability for the harm done when experts get things wrong. But that’s a subject for another day. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

I thought the name rang a bell ...


Well, well. In 2010 I wrote this:

When the schoolyard bully is a principal

Today I saw this:

Kawakawa School principal shared hard-core pornographic images with his staff

As an old friend is in the habit of saying: interesting, eh? And I see Witana's good mate Pat Newman is sticking by him.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Free speech on campus: has the wheel turned full circle?

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, April 5.)

Remember the 60s? That was the decade when middle-class baby-boomers rose up in defiance of their elders.

Nothing was sacred. Traditional morality was scorned and conventional political values overturned as the protest generation stormed the barricades of conformity.

Censorship became a hot-button issue as the conservative establishment fought in vain to hold the line against a tsunami of liberalism in films, literature, television and music. 

At the heart of this cultural revolution were students, vigorously pushing back the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in terms of both behaviour and speech.

University campuses served as incubators for much of the social and political liberalism that was to transform New Zealand society. The same was true overseas, where student radicalism flourished from California’s Berkeley to France’s Sorbonne.

How ironic, then, that many universities overseas have become repressive environments where political debate is shut down and anyone daring to challenge ideological orthodoxy is intimidated into silence.

At Cardiff University in 2015, students tried to ban Germaine Greer – a stroppy feminist heroine of an earlier generation – from giving a lecture.

Her crime? She had offended transgender people by suggesting a man couldn’t become a woman simply by having surgery. For expressing this “offensive” opinion, she was branded as transphobic.

Being Germaine Greer, she went ahead with her speech regardless – and infuriated her critics even more by saying “I don’t believe a woman is a man without a cock”. Police officers and security guards were on hand to ensure her safety.

More recently, Berkeley University – the same Berkeley that was a hotbed of student rebellion in the 1960s – cancelled a planned speech by the provocative gay libertarian Milo Yiannopoulos after thousands of students gathered to protest and black-clad “anti-fascist” activists threatened violence.

Closer to home, three students from the Queensland University of Technology were sued for “racial hatred” after posting online comments objecting to their exclusion from an “indigenous only” computer lab.

One of the students had posted: “QUT stopping segregation with segregation?” Another had asked: “I wonder where the white supremacist computer lab is.” That was as racist as it got.

For this they were sued for $250,000. Fortunately a federal judge put a stop to the nonsense when he ruled there was no case to answer.

The university’s indigenous administrative officer, who brought the court action, linked the students to America’s Ku Klux Klan (now there’s a truly defamatory statement) and said she couldn’t understand why they hadn’t been suspended or disciplined.

In Britain, meanwhile, universities have created “safe spaces” where students are protected from hearing opinions that might offend them, and the National Union of Students has a “No Platform” policy which prevents “racist or fascist” organisations from speaking at any student function.

Who defines racist and fascist? The NUS, presumably.

Another recent development in the United States is the advent of “trigger warnings”, where lecturers are required to advise students in advance of any material they might find upsetting. How fragile we’ve become.

As far as I know, we have had no direct parallels with the above cases in New Zealand. But we have come perilously close.

Last month a group calling itself the Auckland University European Students Association was forced to disband after an outbreak of moral panic over its recruitment stand at Orientation Week. Someone alleged the group’s slogan, “Our honour is our pride and our loyalty”, was similar to that of the Nazi SS.

I have no idea whether the group’s members were white supremacists or whether, as a spokesman said, they merely wanted to promote European culture. If it’s the latter, then they were no different from any number of organisations wishing to celebrate their ethnic or cultural heritage. 

But we never really had a chance to find out, because the association claimed it had to disband following abuse and threats of violence.

If that’s true, you have to wonder who poses the greater threat – a small group of young men with a fondness for Celtic imagery which some people found a bit creepy, or the self-appointed enforcers of cultural correctness who intimidated them into folding their tent and melting away into the night?

What’s going on here? Is this really what the student radicals of the 1960s wanted? Did the bold liberalism of that era take a wrong turning somewhere, eventually spawning a generation frightened of, and hostile to, ideological diversity? 

Or was the 60s revolution a bit of a fraud all along, the real “liberal” agenda being to replace one form of bigotry and conformity with another?

Part of the problem is that an overwhelmingly left-leaning academic establishment (one leading American academic calls it an “intellectual monoculture”) has promoted a type of groupthink that is intolerant of dissent.

The irony, of course, is that today’s speech police are the direct ideological descendants of those 1960s radicals. Only now they are in control, and seeking to impose a type of censorship that’s just as prudish and po-faced as anything from that supposedly oppressive era. 

FOOTNOTE: This was written before, and without prior knowledge of, Professor Paul Moon's open letter, signed by the likes of Bob Jones and Geoffrey Palmer,  expressing concern at intolerance of free speech on university campuses. 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Let truth and falsehood grapple

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 31.)

I know what you’re all thinking. Lord, spare us any more comment on the SAS-Afghanistan controversy. But please bear with me here.

Yes, I think there should be an inquiry. But I have to hold my nose as I write that, because I don’t trust Nicky Hager. There are a number of reasons for this.

He insists on calling himself a journalist, but all the journalists I’ve worked with made it their business, before bursting into print with damaging allegations against anyone, to seek a response from the person or persons accused.

This is called balance, and although it has become unfashionable in certain quarters it remains a fundamental principle of fair journalism.

Hager doesn’t bother with balance. He and co-author Jon Stephenson didn’t approach the Defence Force for its side of the story before publishing Hit & Run.

This is consistent with Hager’s previous modus operandi. I don’t think he gave Cameron Slater a chance to respond to the claims made in Dirty Politics either, or Don Brash when he published The Hollow Men.

He likes to get in first with a king hit. It’s much harder for someone to fight back when they’re sprawled on the canvas with the wind temporarily knocked out of them.

Hager would probably argue that the reason he doesn’t approach the subjects of his books is that it would give them an opportunity to obstruct publication, possibly with legal action.

But newspapers take that risk every time they run a potentially damaging story about someone. It doesn’t stop them seeking comment from the people or organisation they’re about to take a whack at.

Certainly there’s a danger that the aggrieved party will seek an injunction against publication, but I believe there are other reasons Hager why doesn’t give his subjects a right of reply.

The first is that his story would be undermined if there turns out to be a compelling counter-narrative. Better not to take the chance.

Another is that by publishing before his subjects have a chance to respond, and getting saturation media coverage (as he routinely does), he establishes a huge psychological advantage. His victims are immediately in the position of having to come from behind.

Is Hager’s tactic of launching his books just in time to make the TV news, thus allowing no time for journalists to seek contradictory comment (and this after tantalising the media with high expectations of a scandal), part of this strategy?

Very likely, although it should be pointed out that early evening is the standard time for book launches. In any case, you could say it’s just clever marketing. Perhaps there’s a bit of shrewd capitalist lurking in the crusading left-wing author.

My other reason for not trusting Hager is that he has an agenda. I’m suspicious of people with agendas, because they tend to frame their narratives to align with those agendas.

To put it another way, there’s a danger that the agenda, rather than the facts, will dictate the narrative, and that any facts that don’t conform to the agenda will be ignored.

In Hager’s case, the agenda can’t be neatly summarised, but it’s there. It can be broadly categorised as an antipathy toward, and distrust of, “the establishment”, capitalism and authority in general.

He seems convinced that those in power are constantly plotting to deceive and mislead the people. That theme runs through all his work. I’m not sure that such a pessimistic mindset leads to reliable conclusions.

So given that I don’t trust Hager, why do I think there should be an inquiry? Well, partly because I don’t much trust the Defence Force either.

I suspect they resent outside scrutiny. This may explain why they seem so bad at dealing with it. The military is an insular institution, not accustomed to having to explain itself to others. And like virtually all bureaucracies, its natural instinct when under attack is self-protection.

Besides, the NZDF has previous form. Several years ago, disgracefully, it tried hard to discredit Hager’s co-author Stephenson – a journalist for whom I have some respect – and ended up paying him a settlement in order to avoid a $500,000 defamation action.

In this latest case the NZDF came suspiciously late to the party with a story that was intended to shoot Hager down in flames, but which succeeded only in muddying the waters and creating more doubt and confusion in the public mind.

The only way to clear this mess up now is with an open and independent inquiry that would clarify matters once and for all. To quote the poet John Milton: “Let truth and falsehood grapple; whoever knew truth put to the worse, in a fair and open encounter?” 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The NZDF's flawed damage-control model

My impression of the Defence establishment, admittedly from the perspective of an outsider who claims no special insight, is that it has a lot in common with the Catholic Church. Both are insular, hierarchical institutions that observe rituals and traditions that can seem mystifying to the uninitiated. This is not a criticism; it’s just a fact.

Both also strike me as being unaccustomed to, and therefore resentful of, outside scrutiny. Their natural instinct, when under criticism, is to close ranks and go into self-protection mode.

That seems to be what’s happened over allegations of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. The Defence Force has put its helmet on, hunkered down in its foxhole and is now waiting in the hope that the shelling will stop. Like the Catholic Church in its response to sexual abuse scandals, it seems ill-equipped to deal with public relations crises.

The government, too, seems to be hoping this will all blow over. Bill English appears to assume that the bland “Nothing to see here, folks” line that so often worked for John Key will be effective here too.  He and other ministers are counting on public respect for the SAS and suspicion of Nicky Hager’s motives to pull the government through unharmed. Besides, it all happened so long ago and far away.

I think they’re wrong. Yes, lots of people don’t want to think badly of our much-admired SAS and would rather not be confronted by the unpleasant possibility that they might have killed innocent people. But as human rights lawyer Marianne Elliott said in a thoughtful and balanced response to questions on Q+A this morning, even good people can make mistakes.

There are two issues here: whether the SAS did what’s alleged, and whether it was then covered up to avoid embarrassment. Both questions are troubling, but the latter arguably more so. Soldiers shooting the wrong people in a war zone, in the (presumably genuine) belief that their lives were threatened, is one thing; drawing a veil over it in the hope that no one would find out is quite another.


I wish we could be confident that the Defence Force would have been scrupulous in wanting to get to the truth of the matter, admit any error and atone for mistakes made, but the evidence suggests otherwise. I think the NZDF has made the mistake of taking the Catholic Church as its damage-control model. It’s surely only a matter of time before English and his ministers will have to accept that the allegations are too serious to be brushed aside. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Why celebrity activists piss me off

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 22.) 

I tuned into the BBC World Service in the middle of the night recently, as one does, and found myself listening to an interview with an American woman whose identity, since I came in part-way through, was not evident to me.

She was lamenting the appalling state of the world and the heartlessness of the people who allow it to be that way.

Donald Trump wasn’t mentioned, but he might as well have been, along with all the other people in positions of power who apparently don’t care about the downtrodden and marginalised.

It was a familiar display of verbal hand-wringing. She had that slightly whiny tone sometimes adopted by people who know exactly what’s wrong with the world, if only others could share their insight and compassion.

It should have come as no surprise to learn, when the interview ended, that I’d been listening to Angelina Jolie. And I found myself analysing what it is about Jolie and others of her ilk – such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Bono, Emma Thompson, Sean Penn and even my favourite actress, Meryl Streep – that makes my hackles rise when I hear them pontificating about all the injustice in the world.

To be fair, Jolie at least puts her money where her mouth is. You could argue she has earned the right to pontificate through her humanitarian work with refugees and displaced persons.

The others, I’m not sure about. Bono, for instance, seems to do most of his supposed philanthropy with his mouth.

It seems to me that the main reason these people pontificate is that an admiring media provides them with a ready-made platform.

They don’t have to demonstrate any serious commitment to the causes they espouse. (Again, Jolie is an exception here.) It’s enough that they have half-baked opinions on emotive issues such as poverty and refugees.

I regard this as a misuse, if not abuse, of their privileged position. They seem to assume that their celebrity status confers some sort of moral authority on them.

Well, it doesn’t. They have no more moral authority than the bank teller, the bus driver and the supermarket checkout operator.

The only difference is that wealth and, crucially, media adulation gives Hollywood stars – and some rock singers too – the luxury of being able to present themselves as the conscience of the Western world. They are encouraged in this belief by fawning interviewers who never ask hard questions.

But what are they, really? They are performers. Jolie is an actor, and many would say not a particularly good one. And what do actors do? They make immense sums of money by pretending to be other people.

They recite words written by others and are made to look good by skilled directors, cinematographers, film editors and (not least) makeup artists.

They haven’t climbed mountains, performed acts of heroism, made ground-breaking scientific discoveries or written great books. Yet for some reason people genuflect before them in awe. 

Good for Jolie if she spends some of her wealth helping less fortunate people, but that doesn’t endow her with infinite wisdom. It doesn’t mean she knows the answers to the intractable problems dogging the world.

And here’s another thing. Activist celebrities enjoy the luxury of being able to pontificate without ever having to deliver results.

Unlike the politicians they often condemn, they don’t have to make complex policy decisions or choose between agonisingly conflicting priorities. And unlike politicians in a democracy, who must face the voters every few years, they are not accountable to anyone.

They don’t, for example, have to confront redundant workers from Detroit car plants or Pennsylvania steel mills who voted for the despised Trump because they felt robbed of hope and dignity. And they don’t have to face people from previously safe, stable Western European societies that have been ravaged by the multiculturalism that stars like Jolie espouse.

But they have money. They fly around the world in first-class or in private jets, apparently choosing to ignore their rather substantial carbon footprint (although still tut-tutting about climate change).

They stay in five-star luxury lodges and address $1000-a-head charity dinners. How much more agreeable than having to find fair and practicable solutions to real problems or to be held accountable for real results.

Oh, and they can afford to adopt children from Third World countries to demonstrate their kindness and their passion for diversity.

Adoptees from the Third World sometimes look like the latest Hollywood fashion accessory. Why not adopt children from their own country? They’re often just as needy. But it wouldn’t look as exotic, and it wouldn’t score quite so many political points.

Just once, I would like an interviewer to confront celebrity activists such as Jolie with the unarguable fact that capitalism and globalisation, which Jolie apparently blames for many of the world’s ills, have raised more people out of poverty, and eliminated more disease, than any of the fuzzy, ill-defined but fashionably soft-left ideologies promoted by her and others like her.


I’m waiting, but I’m not holding my breath. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

What abortion rights activists really mean when they talk about a "review"

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 17.)

Is there any issue more polarising than abortion?

It’s a sensitive subject because we know that tens of thousands of New Zealand women, in fact probably hundreds of thousands, have had abortions.

They will have had them for a variety of reasons – some compelling, others perhaps less so.

We know from Abortion Supervisory Committee reports that some women have had multiple abortions. Of those who had abortions in 2015, 43 had had seven or more, 74 had had six and 193 had had five, which suggests they regarded the procedure as no big deal and presumably no great cause for regret.

But a much greater number of women will have agonised over the decision, and a significant number will have suffered psychological consequences.

Decades of feminist insistence that abortion is simply a matter of women’s rights and women’s health won’t necessarily have made them feel any better about getting rid of the human life taking shape inside them.

Some will have seen the 2015 film Room, starring Brie Larson in an Oscar-winning performance as a woman who has been held captive as a sex slave for seven years.

In that time she has given birth to a boy, fathered by her captor. Mother and son live in total isolation from the outside world, imprisoned in a soundproofed garden shed.

The film’s appeal stems largely from the warmth and empathy between the woman and her smart, inquisitive son, whom she loves with a fierce passion.

It’s a daring film because it challenges the notion that the only option for a woman made pregnant through rape is to have the baby aborted.

Of course the rape victim in Room had no choice. But the film’s clear message is that even a child fathered by a monster and conceived against the mother’s will - in other words, an unwanted child - can be loved and cherished.

In this respect, the film is almost subversive, because it offers a counter-narrative to the one that dominates the abortion debate.

This is an issue so polarised that even the labels applied to the opposing camps are contentious. Abortion rights lobbyists prefer to be called pro-choice rather than pro-abortion, which is understandable.

“Pro-abortion” implies that they think sucking a foetus out of the womb and dumping it in a plastic-lined bin is a good thing, which surely can’t be the case. “Pro-choice” frames the issue much more inoffensively as an issue of women’s rights rather than babies’ deaths.

Conversely, “anti-abortion” suggests a hard, unsympathetic line and may even conjure up images of the fanatics who firebomb abortion clinics. “Pro-life” puts a friendlier, more positive spin on the anti-abortion stance.

We can expect to hear more from these groups after the Abortion Supervisory Committee, in its latest report, recommended a review of the 40-year-old legislation that sets out the circumstances in which abortions may legally be carried out. Like it or not, we’re back in the old minefield.

Abortion rights activists took the report as the cue to mount a fresh campaign for liberalisation of the law, as the committee surely must have known they would.

The activists were quick to pick up the committee’s statement that some of the language in the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion (CSA) Act is sexist and outdated, as if that somehow renders the entire legislation invalid.

Outdated language can be easily fixed, but highlighting the issue is a clever propaganda tactic because it portrays the Act as a quaint hangover from an era when men supposedly told women what to do.

In truth, the renewed debate is about much more than semantics. Complaints about sexist language are a smokescreen, because merely making the Act gender-neutral wouldn’t achieve the activists’ objective.

When they talk about “reviewing” the legislation, what they really mean is rewriting it to make abortion available on request – their goal since the 1970s.

The committee has obligingly opened the door a crack and the abortion rights lobby has jammed its foot into the gap, as the committee possibly intended.

The abortion rights lobby wants abortion decriminalised – that is to say, no longer treated as an offence under the Crimes Act, which they regard as an anachronism.

To all intents and purposes the provision relating to abortion in the Crimes Act is negated anyway by the CSA Act, which enables the Crimes Act to be legally sidestepped.  

Nonetheless, the fact that abortion remains in the Crimes Act serves a symbolic purpose. It's a reminder that abortion involves extinguishing a life, no matter how hard the pro-choice lobby tries to disguise the fact.