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 Stuff.co.nz, 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 Stuff.co.nz, 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 Stuff.co.nz., 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 Stuff.co.nz, 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.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Someone wanted a link, so here it is


The Dominion Post today published a response by abortion activist Terry Bellamak to my column of last Thursday. In the online comments section on Stuff, someone subsequently recalled reading about a recent situation in the United States in which a woman went ahead with an abortion after receiving counselling and being convinced it was the right course. The baby was born alive but subsequently died, leaving the mother devastated. According to the commenter’s account, the mother implored nurses to help the baby, but was ignored. The commenter went on to mention that he or she was aware of a similar case in New Zealand in which a baby was “left on the side to die”.

Someone then responded to ask, “Can this appalling example be backed up? Or is it one of the many horror stories pedaled [sic] by various groups and lovingly spread by those opposed to abortion?” Someone else, apparently equally sceptical, chimed in: “Provide the link,please”.

Well, I hadn't previously heard about the incident in the US, but I do know about the New Zealand situation referred to. I wrote about it here five years ago:


Dr John McArthur, the paediatrician involved, wrote about it in Professional Misconduct, a book published only this year, which he provided to the Law Commission to consider as part of its review of the abortion law. His story is a chilling illustration of the professional indifference to life that results when the unborn child is viewed as less than human.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Expect to hear this Big Lie repeated endlessly


(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, November 1.)

On Radio New Zealand recently, Kim Hill interviewed an Irish poet named Doireann Ni Ghriofa. Don’t ask me to pronounce her name, but she sounded a very pleasant, gentle person.

She had a lovely voice that was even more beguiling when she spoke in her native Irish, which sounded like the sort of fairy language Tolkien might have invented.

Ni Ghriofa was brought up bilingual and writes poems in Irish (aka Gaelic). She recited a couple of them, then gave us the English translations.

One of these poems was about pregnancy. Ni Ghriofa has four small children, so presumably she loves kids. That impression was confirmed by the poem, which she wrote when she was carrying her second child.

In the English version, Ni Ghriofa marvels at the “jumble of limbs”, the “shadow stirring under my skin” and her “swollen middle suddenly punctuated by nudge of knee or ankle”.

She writes of piecing this “jigsaw” together until she could recognise the parts of her baby’s anatomy, right down to its “wee feet”. She finished with the charming line: “Then you grew, little stranger, and I grew to know you.”

It was a poem that thrilled at the human taking shape inside her – all of which seemed strikingly at odds with what she and Hill had been discussing only minutes before.

Hill had asked about the recent referendum which overwhelmingly approved the liberalisation of Ireland’s abortion laws.  Ni Ghriofa welcomed this “progressive” development as heartening for her generation of Irish women and a change that needed to be made.

Now I can see, at a stretch, how a woman might celebrate her own pregnancy while supporting the right of other women to terminate theirs. But it’s still hard to grasp how a baby can be a source of such joy in one set of circumstances, yet be treated as an inconvenience to be discarded in another. Hill could have chosen to explore this paradox with Ni Ghriofa, but didn’t.

It can make sense only if the incipient human life is considered intrinsically valueless unless its mother happens to want it. Is that what we’ve come to? In which case, in what circumstances does a life become worth saving?

A similar question arose last year amid the general rejoicing at the news that Jacinda Ardern was having a baby. Many of the people who expressed delight at the prime minister’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford support the right of women to have an abortion, no questions asked.

But isn’t it odd that we placed such value on Neve’s life when hardly anyone batted an eyelid at the 13,285 unborn babies who were aborted last year? What sort of strange lottery determines that one baby becomes a source of national celebration while others are sucked from the womb and consigned to a hospital incinerator?

A similarly strange dichotomy occurs when skilled doctors perform miracles to save fragile newborns while elsewhere in the same hospitals, other doctors are paid by the state to kill them in the womb.

More than 40 years after abortion was made pseudo-legal, we seem to be no closer to resolving this moral conundrum. It’s an issue that now confronts us again as pressure builds for the few existing controls on abortion to be removed.  

The Big Lie, which you can expect to hear repeated endlessly, is that abortion is a health issue. This is now a feminist article of faith. But no amount of repeating makes it true, because pregnancy and childbirth are not illnesses or disorders, and it’s impossible to imagine anything less healthy for the unborn child than to have its life terminated.

The debate will be ugly – we know that from 1977. And the anti-abortion camp will be fighting with one hand tied behind its back, because the media are overwhelmingly pro-choice.

Broadcaster Alison Mau gave an early example of the fatuous arguments likely to be deployed when, in a predictably one-sided panel discussion on Radio New Zealand, she proposed that men should be required to get permission from certifying consultants before getting prostate checks, as women seeking an abortion have to do.

This reduced the whole issue to a puerile game of gender tit-for-tat. It got her a cheap laugh, but the nature and purpose of the two procedures are fundamentally different. Prostate checks are about identifying and treating a potentially fatal disease. Their purpose is to save life.

But pregnancy is not a disease, a foetus is not a tumour, and the consequence of an abortion is that life is extinguished, not saved. If a high-profile broadcaster like Mau can’t grasp that crucial difference, we’re in bigger trouble than I thought.