Monday, January 15, 2018

If RNZ caters to all New Zealanders, why have so many given up on it?

A recent Dominion Post column of mine headlined “Dinosaur versus Dominatrix” (reproduced on this site), about an on-air clash between Kim Hill and Don Brash, brought a couple of old-school broadcasting grandees out of the woodwork.

Ian Johnstone, a familiar face on TV screens from the 1960s till the 1990s, and Geoffrey Whitehead, a former BBC deputy political editor who became CEO of Radio New Zealand and now lives in retirement in Napier, both had a whack at me for criticising Hill’s hostile demolition job on Brash.

Both seemed to think that unleashing RNZ’s most aggressive interviewer against Brash, for the sin of criticising Morning Report’s Guyon Espiner over his use of the Maori language, was a perfectly legitimate thing for the state broadcaster to do.

I haven’t responded to either of my critics until now because more important things – family and holidays – have occupied my attention. But before I get on to Johnstone and Whitehead, there are a couple of points to be made about the furore that arose from Brash’s Facebook post about Espiner.

Was it a storm in a teacup, as the leftist comedian Jeremy Elwood (“leftist” and “comedian” are virtually synonymous these days) disingenuously wrote in a column? Yes, it was. But it was the Left that whipped up the storm, and it did so for a reason. It seized on Brash’s objection to the use of te reo on RNZ and turned it into a rallying point in the ongoing culture war between “progressives” and conservatives.

That’s the wider context in which the debate played out, and it explains the ferocity of the reaction against Brash. The aim was to make an example of him: to inflict such bruising punishment that opponents of the Left’s identity politics agenda would be fearful about the consequences of speaking out in future.

Kim Hill’s overtly hostile “interview” [sic] with Brash was part of this response, which brings me back to Johnstone and Whitehead. These two men clearly regard themselves as lofty guardians of the public broadcasting heritage and see it as their duty to correct those of us who, for reasons of ignorance, malice or political misguidedness, don’t properly appreciate it.

Johnstone wrote a piece in the Dominion Post in which he defended Hill's confrontation with Brash as “lively, challenging and entertaining”. It didn’t surprise me that he approved. Johnstone is a genteel old Leftie – too genteel by far to have attempted a Hill-style demolition job when he was still a broadcaster himself, but I’ve no doubt he would have quietly applauded. Brash’s neoliberalism would be anathema to him.

Johnstone adopted a patronising tone toward me, wagging a finger at me for my “comical hyperbole”. Here was the seasoned broadcasting veteran patiently explaining, for the benefit of the irksome johnny-come-lately (hell, I’ve been in the media for only 50 years – what would I know?), that what Hill did to Brash fell within the finest traditions of public broadcasting.

Strangely, he wrote of me: “I guess what he’d really like to say, but dare not, is that he thinks too many RNZ staff are ‘Left-leaning’.” I can’t imagine why Johnstone would think I dare not say that, seeing I’ve been saying it for years, but let me say it again, unequivocally. I not only think many RNZ staff are left-leaning; I know they are, because I know many of them personally and know their political views.

It’s virtually imprinted in the DNA of public broadcasting organisations that they lean to the left. One of the reasons people seek work with state broadcasting organisations is that they distrust capitalism and the profit motive, and regard state-owned media as pure and untainted. And since like attracts like, there evolves a self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing monoculture. That’s true of RNZ just as it is of the BBC, Australia’s ABC and National Public Radio in the United States (all of which I listen to).

This becomes a problem only if RNZ employees allow their political views to influence their work. Many of them don’t, and I respect them for it, but others make no attempt to disguise their political leanings. (I note that Finlay Macdonald, whose wife Carol Hirschfeld is RNZ’s head of content, recently used the RNZ website a to write a piece gleefully rubbing the National Party’s nose in  the dirt over the election outcome. It doesn’t say much for RNZ’s, Hirschfeld’s or Macdonald’s ethics that this cosy nepotistic arrangement is permitted, but it certainly says something about the political ethos of what is supposed to be a neutral organisation.)

Back to Johnstone. He rebukes me for saying that RNZ no longer regards its job as being to serve all New Zealanders, and he asks rhetorically whether I hear its daily news reports from all over the country, as if these contradict my argument. Well yes, I do, but they don’t prove a thing. RNZ generally – generally – plays with a straight bat when it comes to news reportage, and I’ve praised it in the past for adhering to journalism values that have largely been abandoned by other news organisations. The country would be much the poorer without RNZ’s news bulletins. But news reports are just a small part of what RNZ does, and Johnstone can’t expect to get away with the trick of cherry-picking his evidence to suit his argument.

The political taint that permeates much of what RNZ does is found elsewhere – in current affairs and magazine-style interviews and discussion programmes, in the subjects and interviewees selected, in the slant of the questions asked and the stance (either sympathetic or hostile) of the presenter, and in so-called “debates” that are anything but, because only people with views that are deemed acceptable (and who all conveniently agree with each other) are invited to take part.

Even then the picture is far from uniform across all of RNZ, because some of its programmes (Nine to Noon, for instance, and Morning Report, at least most of the time) are generally even-handed. I have huge regard for Nine to Noon host Kathryn Ryan.

I would never subject RNZ to blanket condemnation, because it continues to do a lot of things very well and conscientiously. In a moment of cultural sensitivity, I once labelled it a national taonga. But to those like Johnstone who insist that RNZ caters for all New Zealanders, I can only ask why so many people I know – intelligent, informed people with a keen interest in politics, society and culture – have long since given up listening to it because they object to the relentless political and ideological spin. They ask me why I still bother, and I reply that I listen to RNZ because it it’s my right to listen to RNZ and to expect it to adhere to its charter. I’m a part-owner of it, after all, and my taxes help pay the salaries of its employees. Call me bloody-minded, call me na├»ve, but if more New Zealanders, rather than giving up and switching to NewstalkZB or Radio Live, listened to RNZ and insisted that it cater to a true cross-section of tastes and political views, as is their right, perhaps it would feel obliged to lift its game.

As it is, RNZ will of course continue to be defended by people like Johnstone and Whitehead. They have spent their lives in public broadcasting and regard RNZ’s pervasive soft-Left bias and uncritical embrace of "progressive" causes as the natural order of things.

One last point. In his letter, Whitehead pompously suggested I didn’t understand the role of the public broadcaster. In fact I not only understand it perfectly well, but I believe in public broadcasting and have said so many times. Where I differ with Johnstone and Whitehead is in my interpretation of its role. It is not the function of the public broadcaster to act as an agent of social and political change or to promote ideological views that some of its presenters and producers think would benefit us all. In fact I would say that ultimately, the greatest threat to public broadcasting may come from those within who abuse its power and therefore undermine its standing and credibility.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Resolutely po-faced

Publicly funded wowsers never rest in their attempts to whip up moral panic over our supposed enslavement by alcohol. Even when statistics point to declining liquor consumption, which you’d think would be welcomed, these doomsters remain resolutely po-faced.  

RNZ led its 7 o’clock news bulletin this morning with a report that Australian teenagers are turning away from alcohol. Deakin University researchers found that only 45 percent of teenagers in 2015 had drunk a full glass of alcohol compared with 70 percent 15 years earlier.

Nicki Jackson, executive director of New Zealand's Alcohol Healthwatch, said that was in line with what was happening here. Reason to be positive, surely? Er, no. According to Jackson, we mustn’t be complacent.

“Yes, there’s been declines [sic] in young people choosing to take up drinking but we’ve seen no declines whatsoever in the style in which young people drink. They’re still drinking very heavily, so that culture hasn’t changed.” Even good news is bad news, then.

Then comes Jackson’s alarmist crunchline: “hazardous binge-drinking” has been getting worse (she cited no figures, and the official definition of “binge-drinking” is dodgy anyway) and the government needs to raise the price of alcohol.

Nothing new here: it’s the same tired old refrain. In fact the only surprising thing about this non-news item was that someone at RNZ considered it important enough to lead the bulletin.

Alcohol Healthwatch would realise, of course, that Sunday morning is a quiet time in newsrooms and would have timed its statement to take advantage of that fact. Obviously, it could also count on the RNZ duty editor giving the non-story prominence, because RNZ journalists – in fact journalists generally – tend to be sympathetic toward sanctimonious pressure groups pushing moral panic buttons.

There was evidence of that in another alcohol-related story on Stuff three days ago. This one, sourced from the taxpayer-funded Health Promotion Agency, cited research that purportedly showed older New Zealanders were drinking to greater excess and more frequently than adults in eight other countries.

According to the research, New Zealand had the second-highest proportion of 50-plus drinkers after England. And what were the other countries? The United States, South Africa, China, Mexico, Ghana, India and Russia.

Of the nine countries with which we were compared, only two – England and the US – could be described as culturally and socially similar to New Zealand, and even the US is very different from us when it comes to social habits.

It follows that no self-respecting researcher could draw any useful conclusion from this “research”. It’s a nonsense. Far more meaningful (and ideologically unbiased) are the per capita alcohol consumption figures compiled by the OECD, which consistently show New Zealand to be roughly in the middle of the table and behind comparable countries such as Britain and Australia.

This doesn’t deter academics such as Andy Towers from Massey University, who was quoted in the Stuff story, from extracting pessimistic conclusions from the available “research”. Towers was quoted as saying New Zealanders aged 50-plus had “concerning” drinking habits.

There was a time when journalists were trained to be sceptical and to “doubt everything with gusto”, in the words of my late colleague Frank Haden. Not so these days, when claims by moralistic academics are accepted unquestioningly and meaningless surveys are cited in an attempt to convince us, contrary to all our everyday observations and experience, that New Zealand is awash in alcohol.

The real winner in 2017: Winston Peters, the Great Tuatara of New Zealand politics

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 12.)

Almost without exception, political commentators declared Jacinda Ardern their politician of 2017, and you could see why.

Thrust into the leadership of a floundering and demoralised Labour Party six weeks out from a general election, she re-energised the party and ran an assured, upbeat campaign that saw Labour bounce back from woeful poll ratings to win 37 per cent of the vote and 14 new seats.

History will record that she failed on election day. The gap between Labour and National remained too wide. Yet contrary to expectations, probably including her own, Ardern ended up as prime minister.

For the first time since New Zealand adopted the MMP system in 1993, the party that won the biggest share of the vote didn’t form the government. How we arrived at this outcome was down to one man: Winston Raymond Peters.

The Peters party, a.k.a. New Zealand First, won 7 per cent of the vote. It lost three of its electorate seats in Parliament, including Peters’ own. Despite this less than resounding endorsement by the people of New Zealand, Peters ended up determining the makeup of the new government.

Many insist, bizarrely, that this is an example of MMP working exactly as intended, but I would argue that it points to a gaping void in our constitutional arrangements – one that allows a politician whose party commanded an almost negligible share of the vote to decide who will govern us.

For his willingness to exploit this wonky system to his advantage, and for the sheer audacity of the way he went about it, Peters is a hands-down winner of my award for Politician of the Year in 2017.

The Great Tuatara of New Zealand politics brazenly played the system to ensure he became not only deputy prime minister but Minister of Foreign Affairs as well.

Foreign Affairs seemed an odd portfolio choice, given that his political preoccupations have always been domestic. But it’s tailor-made for him, involving maximum prestige in return for minimal effort. The ink was barely dry on the coalition agreement before he was jetting to Vietnam to hob-nob with world leaders at an Apec summit.

Peters played everyone for suckers in the post-election coalition game. He was allowed to orchestrate the entire coalition-forming process.

Just to make sure no one was in any doubt about who was in charge, he announced the formation of the new government live on television without even bothering to first inform the party leaders he had been negotiating with.

In a proper rules-based democracy, this whole process would surely have been controlled by the head of state – or in our case, her representative, the Governor-General. But Dame Patsy Reddy was just another impotent observer on the sidelines.

The coalition negotiations took place in an environment of almost paranoid secrecy. We now know there’s a document covering what was discussed and agreed but we’re not allowed to see it.

The political establishment insists this is the way it must be done. Voters are not to be trusted with information about how decisions are made on who will govern us.

But there are some things we do know. One is that National and Labour believed they were negotiating with Peters in good faith. Both thought they were in with a more or less equal chance of becoming the government.

We now know, of course, that on the day before the election, Peters had quietly commenced legal proceedings against four National cabinet ministers, including then prime minister Bill English. This made it extremely improbable that he would seal a deal with National, but it wasn’t divulged at the time.

Peters must have known all along who he would go with, but it suited him to allow both parties to think they were competing on a level playing field. 

It was especially to his advantage to play Labour along. Left-wing commentator Chris Trotter reckons the party fell into line with Peters’ agenda because it never expected to be in government.

It’s also now clear what some of Peters’ demands were. Apart from four cabinet seats – which is more than twice what New Zealand First would have been entitled to if appointments were proportionate with its poll result – he also insisted on a waka-jumping bill to ensure no MPs went rogue on him.

You could call this his utu bill. Peters has a long memory and is clearly still smarting over the eight MPs who deserted him in 1997.

The bill smacks of vindictiveness and runs counter to democratic principles because it shifts control over MPs from voters (where it rightly belongs) to party bosses, but Labour and even the supposedly principled Greens were happy to humour him.

How long can a government formed in such shonky circumstances last? Good question. But there can be no doubt who the real winner was in 2017.

Footnote: Sharp-eyed readers will have detected an error in this column where I referred to New Zealand First losing three  electorate seats. Of course only Peters held an electorate seat; the others were list seats. Ironically, my original version of the column was correct. But in the process of hastily correcting a relatively minor error in that particular sentence, I inadvertently created a greater one. There was a time when such a mistake would very likely have been picked up by a beady-eyed subeditor, but those days are gone.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Life as a skinny man in a society that values beefiness

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

There’s no point in mincing words about this. I have skinny legs.

There, I’ve said it.

At boarding school my nickname was Twiggy, after the waif-like English model whose emaciated face and body were the symbol of fashionable Swinging London. 

My older brother cruelly joked that I risked being arrested under the vagrancy laws because I had no visible means of support. “Boom boom!”, as Basil Brush would have said.

I was the 90 lb weakling who got sand kicked in his face at the beach, as in the old Charles Atlas body-building ads. The girl I fancied at an earlier secondary school shunned me for a brawny member of the First XV. Who wouldn’t develop an inferiority complex in such tragic circumstances?

I could sympathise with the character in Spike Milligan’s comic novel Puckoon, who objected to the legs the author had given him.

“Did you write these legs?” the feckless Dan Milligan demanded to know. When the author admitted he had, Milligan grumbled: “Well, I don’t like dem. I don’t like ’em at all at all. I could ha’ writted better legs meself.”

All my life I have been self-conscious about my legs. Growing up tall and skinny in a culture where the ideal male body type has a low centre of gravity, a barrel-like torso and legs the thickness of jetty piles – in other words, the build of a rugby prop – I felt out of place.

I was often reluctant to wear shorts, although I observed that overweight people felt no constraints about exposing their surplus flesh. Some even seemed proud of it.

Somehow that was OK. Being beefy was culturally acceptable in a way that skinniness was not.

My mother, a practical woman, did her best to console me by pointing out that my legs reached all the way to the ground, which was all that mattered.

Later, after I got married, my wife often told me I had legs that would be considered highly desirable on a woman. Strangely enough, this was no comfort. What self-respecting heterosexual Kiwi bloke wants to be fancied by other men because he has shapely legs?

My physique posed practical problems for me too, and still does. The jeans and trousers stocked in New Zealand menswear stores are made for men built like … well, like rugby props. The waists are too low and the legs too short.

I wait until I’m travelling overseas. Then I go crazy, bingeing on jeans and trousers that actually fit me. I’ve found Germany good for this – there are lots of tall men there – and America even better.

Today, my wardrobe has several surplus pairs of jeans from the US. Set loose in American clothing stores with an infinite range of sizes, I’m like one of those grizzly bears you see on TV wildlife documentaries when the salmon are running upstream. I barely know which one to grab first. I gorge myself. 

But here’s the thing. At my advanced stage of life (I’m 67), I’ve decided I no longer care what people think if I walk down the street in shorts. Who the hell do I need to impress?

Besides, after growing up feeling a bit inadequate because I didn’t have the right physique for most sports, I discovered a physical activity at which I was at least competent. I started riding a bike, and discovered my legs weren’t totally useless after all.

These skinny shanks have propelled me around Lake Taupo several times in the 160 km Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge. They have tackled some formidable mountain bike rides: the Karapoti Classic, the Rainbow Rage, the Haurangi Crossing, the Heaphy Track and the St James Cycle Trail, to name a few.

They once even stepped up on a podium when I finished second in my age group in a mountain bike race. I began to feel a defiant pride about my spindly limbs.

But while my legs are no longer the source of self-consciousness that they once were, I’d like to make a statement on behalf of skinny-legged men everywhere.

I’ve noticed many times that people don’t hesitate to comment on my legs – not necessarily in an insulting way, but bluntly making the point that they’re, er, rather deficient in the flesh department. Only a few days ago, my brother-in-law remarked on how skinny they were.

He’s a good-hearted, generous man, my bro’-in-law, but he’s Polish, and he tends to say what he thinks. It doesn’t occur to many Poles that just because you think something, you don’t necessarily have to say it.

I invited him to consider why, in our culture, it’s considered okay to comment about a person being thin when it would be deemed offensive to draw attention to the fact that someone is overweight. I think he got my point.

Incidentally, he turned up the following day wearing shorts himself. I was tempted to comment on the ghostly whiteness of his limbs, but held my tongue.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Post-Weinstein, we're navigating new territory

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 29.)

In 2014 the then leader of the Labour Party, David Cunliffe, controversially apologised for being a man.

Some commentators ridiculed him for wallowing in liberal male middle-class guilt. To others, it just looked like an attempt to ingratiate himself with women voters.

But you could see what Cunliffe was getting at. He was speaking at a Women’s Refuge symposium and the subject was male violence. He made the point that most sexual abuse and domestic violence was perpetrated by men, and who could dispute that?

Cunliffe’s mistake was to assume personal responsibility for what some other men did. But following the worldwide outpouring of women’s fury at sexual harassment, I imagine many more men are now wondering whether they should feel ashamed to be male.

A couple of things are clear. One is that sexual harassment by rich and powerful men has been going on for a very long time. The other is that the perpetrators have been protected and encouraged up till now by the silence of their victims – a silence that almost amounted to complicity.

I’m not sure what’s changed, but women who previously kept quiet have now come out into the open. Perhaps there’s an element of opportunism in some of the accusations being made, but what’s not in doubt is that far too many men behave abominably toward women.

And while we’ve heard a lot about celebrities who have gone to the media with their accounts of harassment and molestation, there remains an infinitely greater number of powerless, anonymous women suffering silently in factories, restaurants, offices and other workplaces.

Sexual harassment mystifies me. What pleasure could a man get from sex with a woman who doesn’t want it? Groping, Donald Trump-style, is equally hard to explain. It can only be about humiliating and demeaning the victim.

In those circumstances sex isn’t about mutual pleasure. It becomes a means of asserting power. The feminists are right about this.

I have known men who used their positions to obtain sexual favours. They didn’t boast about it, so perhaps there was some part of their conscience that told them it wasn’t something to be proud of.

It was usually the victims who revealed it, and I was shocked by their apparent acceptance of it, as if having sex with the boss was something they had to do to get ahead.

Some of these women were young and attractive while the men they slept with were decades older and slobs – Harvey Weinstein types. Even if one accepts that power is an aphrodisiac, and that some women are attracted to men in positions of influence, there are surely limits.

Anyway, back to David Cunliffe. In the light of what has now been revealed about rampant sexual harassment at the highest levels of politics and the entertainment business, should all men feel guilty?

There is an extreme school of feminism, after all, which holds that all men are rapists. It’s not unusual to hear the entire male sex disparaged as if all men can’t help behaving like dogs around a bitch on heat.

But I would guess that only a relatively small proportion of men are sexual predators, and those who are not in that category don’t need to do a Cunliffe in atonement for the sins of others.

What we will have to do, however, is learn some new rules, because one consequence of the “me too” harassment saga is that it will redefine relations between the sexes, and not necessarily for the better. 

Men will find it harder to discern where the boundary lies between mere flirtation, which many women welcome and enjoy, and harassment.

Physical contact, in particular, has become a minefield. It brought down Garrison Keillor, the revered former host of the American radio show A Prairie Home Companion.

What Keillor characterises as a misdirected pat on a female colleague’s bare back years ago, which he says he apologised for at the time and thought had been forgotten because the woman seemed to remain friendly with him, came back to bite him last month when he got a phone call from her lawyer. 

Now he’s in disgrace and his former employer has taken such fright that it’s changed the name of his old show.

At what point, I wonder, does a touch or a kiss become harassment?

Blatant groping or an uninvited hand up a skirt can’t be mistaken for anything other than molestation, but there’s now an undefined grey area between what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Like the kindergarten teacher who no longer feels it's safe to cuddle an upset child, we're all having to navigate new territory.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

If you want to see what real hate speech is like, check out the attacks on Don Brash

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, December 27).

Don Brash could be excused for feeling a little bruised as 2017 draws to a close.

The former leader of the National and ACT parties used his Facebook page to criticise Guyon Espiner, one of the presenters of Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report, for repeatedly showing off his fluency in Maori.

Brash objected because, as he pointed out, hardly any listeners to the programme would know what Espiner was saying. According to Brash, the presenter’s use of te reo is an example of “virtue signalling” – in other words, flaunting his moral superiority.

It was a legitimate comment about a high-profile figure employed by a publicly owned institution, but Brash’s Facebook post was the signal for one of the most brutal media gang-ups I can recall.

As the former leader of two right-of-centre political parties and the founder of a supposedly racist pressure group called Hobson’s Pledge, he’s considered fair game by the so-called “liberal” Left. And predictably, they piled in.

I put that word “liberal” in inverted commas because many of these people are angrily intolerant of opinions they don’t approve of. In other words, they are illiberal.

Many of the attacks on Brash were striking for their sheer malice and venom, and I’m not just talking about those that appeared in the Wild West of online social media. Some of the most vicious were published in mainstream media, where editors normally keep a check on spiteful and gratuitous personal attacks.

One columnist who makes his primary living as a comedian – a word which now seems interchangeable with “smug moralist” – harrumphed about Brash creating a “storm in a teacup” over te reo. But if there was a storm in a teacup, it was entirely due to the furious, over-the-top reaction from Brash’s attackers. All he did was write something on his Facebook page.

Brash was also subjected to an openly hostile interview (for want of a better word) with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand – a rare example of a state-owned broadcasting organisation publicly exacting utu against a critic – and was subsequently ridiculed for not pronouncing “whanau” correctly. If your name is Don Brash you can’t win, even when you try to play the game.

Brash, of course, has been a marked man ever since he delivered what is routinely described in the media as his “infamous” Orewa speech in 2004, when he was National Party leader. In that speech he espoused one rule for all New Zealanders and an end to special treatment in law for people of Maori descent.

“Infamous” it may have been in the eyes of some journalists, but it struck a chord with many New Zealanders. Brash took the National Party from its worst-ever defeat in 2002 to near-victory in 2005, which the Left explains by insisting that the 890,000 New Zealanders who voted for National were all racists. Yeah, right, as they say.

Since then, Brash has made himself even more unpopular with politically correct thinkers by forming Hobson’s Pledge, which has the mantra “one law for all”. The organisation takes its name from a statement attributed to Captain William Hobson at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi: “He iwi tahi tatou” – “We are all one people”.

In the eyes of his critics, Brash’s stance makes him a racist. But how do you define “racist”? A racist, to me, is someone who believes some races are inherently superior or inferior to others and discriminatory treatment is therefore justified.

By that definition, Brash could more accurately by characterised as anti-racist, since he opposes special treatment for a racial minority.

He mounts perfectly cogent arguments against racial privilege on the basis that it runs counter to the principle that everyone in a democracy should have equal rights. The most obvious example of Maori being treated differently is the anachronism of Maori seats in Parliament, which become very hard to justify when there are 23 MPs of Maori or part-Maori descent representing general electorates.

That’s not to say that Hobson’s Pledge doesn’t have members who are truly racist. It’s possible some are, although I would guess that many of the organisation’s members (I’m not one, incidentally) are simply older New Zealanders who are struggling to come to terms with the prevailing spirit of biculturalism. That may seem quaintly out-of-touch, but it doesn’t make them racist.

That raises another striking aspect of the attacks on Brash. A recurring theme was that he should shut up because he’s old, male and white, which apparently disqualifies him from having any right to express an opinion. We hear a lot of talk about the need to embrace diversity, but apparently it doesn’t extend to Pakeha men of a certain age.

We also hear a lot from the Left about the need for tougher laws against “hate speech” to protect vulnerable groups such as ethnic minorities and the gay community. But ironically, the closest I’ve seen to hate speech in 2017, by far, was the outpouring of loathing for Brash.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Dominatrix vs dinosaur

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 15.)

Don Brash made two big mistakes recently.

The first was to think he could criticise a high-profile Radio New Zealand presenter on Facebook and get away with it. The second and much bigger mistake was to accept an invitation to explain himself on Kim Hill’s Saturday morning radio show.

Inevitably, Brash was savaged. It was as close as RNZ will ever get to blood sport as entertainment.

I gave up listening after 15 minutes. By that time Brash had been hanged and drawn and I didn’t care to stick around for the quartering. 

The metaphor is apt because being hanged, drawn and quartered was once the punishment for treason, and Brash had committed an act which was treasonous in the extreme: He had criticised Morning Report host Guyon Espiner for what Brash regarded as his excessive use of the Maori language.

Brash described Espiner’s flaunting of his fluency in te reo as “virtue signalling” – in other words, displaying one’s superior moral and cultural values.

For this offence against the spirit of biculturalism, the former National and ACT leader was summoned for a discipline session with Radio NZ’s resident dominatrix.

The result was entirely predictable. Hill was acerbic and sneering from the outset.

She didn’t bother to conceal her contempt for Brash and neither did she bother to maintain any pretence that this was a routine interview, conducted for the purpose of eliciting information or expanding public understanding of the issue.

It was a demolition job, pure and simple – utu, if you prefer – and I doubt that it was ever intended to be anything else. Its purpose was to expose Brash as a political and cultural dinosaur and to punish him for criticising Hill’s colleague.

Had it been a boxing bout, it would have been declared a mismatch and called off after the first round. Hill was in her natural milieu – home-ground advantage, you might say, in her familiar personal domain with an unseen crowd of adoring fans urging her on. 

Hill doesn’t hesitate to use her command of the medium to chew up and spit out anyone whose political views she doesn’t approve of. Brash didn’t stand a chance.

But being Brash, he was civil. He addressed Hill throughout by her first name, as if hoping they could be mates. He would have had more luck trying to pat the head of a komodo dragon.

What on earth made him go on Hill’s show in the first place? Vanity, perhaps, or the misguided hope that he could appeal to Hill’s better nature. Faint chance.

Of course there will be those who say Brash is a political and cultural dinosaur who deserved everything he got. But the last time I checked, you were allowed to criticise Radio New Zealand in a Facebook post without having to undergo a public disembowelment.

Here’s where we get down to the real issue. RNZ is a public institution.  It belongs to us.

The public who fund the organisation and pay its presenters' salaries are entitled to criticise it. But can we now expect that anyone who has the temerity to do so will be subjected to a mauling by RNZ’s in-house attack dog? Or is this treatment reserved for despised white conservative males such as Brash, to make an example of them and deter others from similar foolishness?

Either way, Hill’s dismemberment of Brash was a brazen abuse of the state broadcaster’s power and showed contemptuous disregard for RNZ’s charter obligation to be impartial and balanced.

This is nothing new, of course. The quaint notion that RNZ exists for all New Zealanders was quietly jettisoned years ago. Without any mandate, the state broadcaster has refashioned itself as a platform for the promotion of favoured causes.

You’re more likely to see an aardvark driving a tractor down The Terrace than to hear a conservative voice, or even a middle-of-the-road one, on smug groupthink fests such as RNZ’s current series of Smart Talk.

Brash has a perfectly valid point. Whatever the benefits of learning te reo, it is not the function of the state broadcaster to engage in social engineering projects for our collective betterment – for example, by encouraging us to refer to Auckland as Tamaki Makaurau and Christchurch as Otautahi, as now seems to be the practice of some RNZ reporters.

RNZ does many things very well and my quality of life would be greatly diminished without it, but no one will ever die wondering about the political leanings of many of its presenters and producers.

And clearly, no one should expect any restraint to be imposed on them by their bosses – in fact probably less so than ever under an indulgent Labour-led government.