Friday, September 26, 2008

Kim Hill: a postscript

I have received a good-natured letter from Tony Simpson, taking me to task for some of the comments I made about his appearance on Saturday Morning With Kim Hill.

He takes exception to my lumping him in with Wellington’s chardonnay socialists, explaining that he can’t stand chardonnay and in fact isn’t much of a wine drinker at all, preferring beer. (He doesn’t contest the “socialist” part of the tag, and of course neither should he.)

Tony also denies moving in the same social circles as Hill. He says he can recall speaking to her only twice over the past decade and does most of his socialising within the gay community.

Finally, he finds the “intellectual” label pretentious. While I can fully understand that, it’s a fair description to apply to someone whose public reputation arises from his writing, reading and thinking.

Does any of this fatally negate my basic premise, which was that Hill shows a marked tendency to favour a certain type of guest? I don’t believe so.

To be fair, though, I should have acknowledged in my original post that notwithstanding Hill’s irritatingly chummy chats with arty, left-leaning people whom she likes and agrees with, including her own producer, she does have some interesting guests. An example was the British author Simon Winchester, whom she interviewed a couple of weeks ago about his book on the China scholar Joseph Needham. I also enjoyed her conversation with Alastair Thompson, co-founder of Scoop – but that doesn’t detract from my general criticism about her propensity for playing favourites. In fact in some ways it reinforces it, because part of the reason I enjoyed it is that I know Alastair and once worked with him (as I did with Tony Simpson in a past life). It’s that incestuous Wellington thing again.

Possibly the best interview I’ve heard on Hill’s show was with Sir Patrick Hogan of Cambridge Stud last year. His account of his relationship with his prize stallion Sir Tristram, and of the great horse’s death, was profoundly moving. It was outside Hill’s normal zone, both geographically and in terms of subject matter, and it made me wonder why she doesn’t go there more often.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Muliaga affair cleverly skewed

There seems to be a bit of an imbalance in the media coverage of Auckland coroner Gordon Matenga’s report on the death of Folole Muliaga.

Virtually every report I’ve seen or heard has focused on one angle of the story: that the disconnection of power to the Muliaga home was a contributing factor in the death of Mrs Muliaga, who used an oxygen machine. Follow-up stories today have latched on to the likelihood of the family pursuing compensation.

Note that the disconnection didn’t cause Mrs Muliaga’s death; Mr Matenga found only that it was a factor, and even then he was at odds with two expert witnesses at the inquest. The primary cause of Mrs Muliaga’s death, Mr Matenga found, was her morbid obesity, though this was mentioned in the eleventh paragraph of the New Zealand Herald’s story as if it were merely incidental.

Nowhere has there been any mention of the role of personal responsibility in this affair. What triggered the sequence of events that led to Mrs Muliaga’s death is that the family didn’t pay its electricity bills. Moreover, this doesn’t appear to have been a mere isolated lapse that Mercury Energy could have ignored. According to a Newstalk ZB story, which I presume accurately reported Mr Matenga’s report, the family had had 24 warning notices, 14 automatic phone calls, eight “urgent” warning letters and four final warning letters. So you could hardly argue that Mercury Energy acted precipitately, or that the Muliagas were taken by surprise.

I didn’t find reference to this litany of warnings in any other media account. The family’s own contributory negligence in repeatedly failing to pay its bills appears to have been buried in the emotion whipped up over Mrs Muliaga’s death and the subsequent scramble to place the blame on other parties – namely Mercury Energy, the contractor who turned the power off and the Counties Manukau District Health Board.

Then there’s the weight factor. The Dominion Post says Mrs Muliaga weighed 173kg at the time of her death – down from 212 kg in 2002 – and had a body mass index of 65. Anything over 30 is considered obese, and Mrs Muliaga had been hospitalised for complications arising from her weight. But her obesity has been treated by the media as if it were of secondary significance to the fact that her oxygen was cut off, when it seems the reverse is true. (Intriguingly, the family, through its spokesman Brenden Sheehan, continues to insist that it didn’t know how ill she was and blames the health board. You’d think the oxygen mask and hospitalisations might have been a clue.)

Given that Mrs Muliaga’s weight and the unpaid bills are central elements in the tragedy, why has so much media attention concentrated on another angle that shifts responsibility elsewhere?

What seems to have happened is that the Muliaga affair has cleverly been skewed into an argument over process and corporate accountability. Public debate has been framed in terms of whether Mercury Energy and the district health board followed proper procedures in dealing with the family. Along the way, vital issues of personal responsibility, consideration of which might make the Muliaga family look less deserving of public pity, have been swept aside. A key player in this has been Mr Sheehan, an articulate and media-savvy member of the extended family, whose agenda sometimes seems as political as it is personal.

The smokescreen thus created not only obscures the contributory role of the Muliaga family in its own tragedy, but plays on the public’s readiness to blame a greedy energy company and a heartless health bureaucracy. Mercury Energy, apparently intimidated by the public outrage whipped up over Mrs Muliaga’s death, bizarrely allowed itself to be bullied into co-operating in this process by indulging in a ritual act of self-flagellation.

Yes, it’s tragic that Mrs Muliaga died. The death of a 44-year-old wife and mother is not something to be taken lightly under any circumstances. It certainly can never be justified on the basis of an unpaid $168 bill. But neither should the family's own behaviour escape scrutiny, uncomfortable as it might be. If Mrs Muliaga's death really was a consequence of the power being cut off, it could have been avoided by the simple expedient of paying the bill. And if she hadn’t carried so much weight, the likelihood is even greater that she would still be alive. Such statements inevitably sound harshly judgmental, but endemic obesity among Pacific Island people isn’t going to be tackled by pretending that power companies and health boards are responsible for the deaths of overweight people.

Unfortunately, judging by today’s Dom Post, Mrs Muliaga’s grieving husband still believes she died because the power was cut. The coroner’s finding that she died because she was obese doesn’t seem to have registered.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Fatigue and irritation

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 17)

A couple of weeks ago I attended a pre-election forum organised by Business New Zealand, an organisation that advocates on behalf of the private sector. It was an opportunity for the various political parties to put forward their policies on business and the economy.

The atmosphere was civil and everyone – even the Greens, whose policies are anathema to many people in business – was given a polite hearing. No fistfights erupted among the rival politicians sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on stage. There was, however, an occasional taunt – nothing serious, but enough to indicate that tension was mounting in anticipation of the election campaign.

Since then, of course, the political landscape has changed with the announcement of the election date, and the telltale aggro that occasionally rippled briefly to the surface at the Business New Zealand forum will erupt like a geyser. Labour is fighting against the odds for an historic fourth term in government and the campaign is likely to be brutal.

Prime Minister Helen Clark goes into the election with an albatross around her neck in the form of New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. She has been less than honest in revealing what she knew about behind-the-scenes shenanigans over undisclosed donations, but she can’t afford to cut Mr Peters adrift because she may depend on him to help Labour stitch a coalition together post-election.

If the polls are any guide, National will get a substantially bigger share of the vote than Labour. That means Miss Clark’s best hope of forming another government – perhaps her only hope – lies in her ability to negotiate deals with the minor parties, where she enjoys a distinct advantage over National.

For his part, National leader John Key has taken a huge political gamble in emphatically ruling out a coalition with the Peters party, a punt which – in theory at least – could mean the difference between National winning power and ending up in opposition again. This is by far the most significant development in the campaign so far because it provides a very clear point of difference (a cynic might say the only one) between the two major parties.

Mr Key’s rejection of Mr Peters is interesting because in every other respect, the National leader seems almost obsessively risk-averse – strangely so for a man who, before entering politics, made his reputation in the high-risk business of international currency dealing, where prodigious sums can be made or lost in a trice by making the wrong call.

So what are the election issues? Miss Clark would like us to think it’s about trust, which seems a risky strategy in view of her questionable behaviour over the Peters affair. Of course she will frame the issue of trust in quite different terms, pitting her experience and record against the untested skills of Mr Key, who by comparison is a political novice and lightweight.

She will also try to convince the voters that National has a secret agenda, but I’m not sure the voters will buy it. They know, and National knows, that a National government that springs any unpleasant surprises on the country will be punished harshly in another three years. I’m sure Mr Key wants to stay in power longer than that.

For many voters, the election will be about fatigue and irritation – the fatigue of a government that has been in power for three accident-prone terms, and the irritation of an electorate that has turned prickly at the increasing level of state intervention in people’s lives.

People sense that government has grown bigger and more intrusive during Labour’s three terms, and they’re right.

Disaffected voters are most likely to cite the anti-smacking legislation or perhaps the repressive Electoral Finance Act as reasons for switching off Labour, but those are simply two of the more visible provocations. Less obvious, but no less real, is the steady growth of a suffocating bureaucracy that busies itself making unnecessary rules and acts as a dead weight on an under-performing economy.

Labour has come to represent a well-entrenched and inter-connected network of vested interests that includes public servants, teachers, trade unions, iwi, academics, activist lobby groups and non-government organisations dependent on government contracts (a group that encompasses what used to be the voluntary charity sector, now a significant part of the Wellington bureaucracy and closely aligned to Labour).

It’s richly ironic that Labour tries to portray National as a party of narrow sectional interests when its own agenda is largely dictated by interest groups that could hardly be described as representative of mainstream, middle New Zealand.

Ultimately, though, the crucial issue underlying this election is the economy. For years New Zealanders have been gulled into thinking the economy is strong. Property hysteria and frenzied consumer spending binges, largely funded by borrowed money, have created the illusion we’re doing famously, when in fact the economic fundamentals are deeply worrying. What economic growth there has been – and it’s been modest – has been driven more by consumption than by production and exports generating real wealth.

Labour likes to point to the healthy state of the Crown finances as if this were proof of a strong economy, when all it shows is that people have been paying too much tax. Other key economic indicators – productivity, per capita GDP, average incomes, the overseas deficit – are dismal and getting worse, relative to other comparable countries. New Zealand is slipping down the OECD prosperity rankings and being overtaken by upwardly mobile countries that we once patronisingly looked down on as “Third World”.

We used to hear a lot from Labour about New Zealand working its way back into the top half of the OECD, but the government has gone strangely quiet on this subject over the past few years and I don’t expect to hear Miss Clark raise it on the campaign trail.

Demagoguery alert

(Published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, September 16)

EXPECT Winston Peters to dip deep into his bag of demagogue’s tricks as the election nears and he sees his political future slipping away.

He’s at it already. His opening shot when the election date was announced last week was a warning that “media barons in foreign boardrooms” must not be allowed to decide the outcome.

Yeah, right. Even as I write this, the directors of Fairfax Media and APN – the companies that publish The Dominion Post and the New Zealand Herald – are busy plotting the destruction of democracy in New Zealand. They spend their days barking instructions down the phone to toady editors in Wellington and Auckland. Only the heroic New Zealand First leader stands between us and these rapacious robber barons – or so he would like his followers to believe.

The truth is more banal. New Zealand is mercifully free of the highly politicised media seen in countries such as Britain, where proprietors have traditionally viewed newspaper ownership as a licence to pull strings politically. Editors here have a free hand in determining their editorial policies – short of urging armed insurrection, at least – and their overseas-based directors would be wryly amused by the suggestion that they have nothing better to do than meddle in New Zealand politics.

The notion that New Zealand is at the mercy of manipulative foreign media moguls is an old fantasy of the Left, and a paranoid fantasy at that. Frankly I’d be surprised if Mr Peters – who’s no leftie – genuinely believes it. But the line will play well to his fretful followers. The Demagogue’s Handbook (a well-thumbed copy of which Mr Peters inherited, metaphorically speaking, from his role model, Sir Robert Muldoon) has a lot to say about the effectiveness of stirring up suspicion against shadowy, malevolent influences, both inside and outside the country.

The reason Mr Peters has such trouble with the media, however, has nothing to do with boardroom conspiracies. The truth is that journalists have simply had enough of his puerile, petulant, bullying antics.

Ask yourself this: why does Mr Peters, alone among our politicians, have a relentlessly adversarial relationship with the media? I would suggest it’s because he, unlike his parliamentary colleagues, has difficulty accepting that a liberal, western democracy demands openness and accountability.

For a long time he was allowed to get away with his bluster and prevarication because journalists, away from formal situations such as press conferences, were disarmed by his personal charm and humour. But the protective shield seems finally to have worn off.

Having said that, you can’t blame Mr Peters for fighting so desperately to save himself. After more than a quarter-century with his snout in the parliamentary trough, the thought of having to find a job out in the real world must be terrifying.

Incidentally, there’s a new political maxim to sit alongside Austin Mitchell’s famous line that National voters live on the hills and Labour voters live on the flat. My research (totally unscientific, but then so was Mitchell’s) suggests that radio talkback callers worship Mr Peters and people who write to newspapers can’t stand him. Make of that what you will.

* * *

LABOUR does slogans and buzzwords very well. This thought occurred to me at the recent Business New Zealand forum at which representatives of various parties put forward their election policies for business and the economy.

Helen Clark talked about investing in “human capital”, by which I presume she meant people. She talked about the New Zealand brand and the knowledge economy. She rattled off some of those snappy-sounding initiatives that Labour has “rolled out”, like Schools Plus and Fast Forward.

Later in the day, Michael Cullen stepped up to the microphone. We heard that phrase “human capital” again. He spoke of the need to “bed in” investment. There was mention of economic drivers, flexible pathways and accelerating rollouts.

The Clark government has been very good for the slogan industry. I’m sure that somewhere in the bowels of the Beehive there’s a unit working around the clock, possibly co-opted from Saatchi & Saatchi, producing catchy phrases that resonate with optimism and give the impression of a country rolling assuredly into a future rich with promise.

If slick phrases win elections, Labour’s a shoo-in on November 8. The pity is that it takes a lot more than glib Beehive-speak to re-energise an economy that’s steadily sinking to Third World status.

* * *

GREAT is the discontent and bitter are the recriminations over the shortcomings of the much-touted Snapper card that was supposed to revolutionise bus travel in Wellington. Passengers are reportedly pining for the trusty old 10-trip ticket which, in a typically over-enthusiastic gesture of faith in new technology, has been prematurely withdrawn from sale.

The only surprising thing about this is that anyone is surprised. Technology is a siren that lures the unwary onto the shoals of frustration and despair. If only they’d asked for a bit of curmudgeonly advice beforehand.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Celebration, or degradation?

Every year at this time we get a peek into a strange alternative universe called Air New Zealand Fashion Week. It’s a fantasy realm that has some of the trappings of a religion, or perhaps more accurately a cult, whose devotees worship at the altars of strange deities called designers.

I am never able to work out what relevance this event has to anything in the real world, but that doesn’t stop the media lavishing what seems an inordinate amount of attention on it.

The defining qualities of most garments seen at Fashion Week seem to be (1) that they are invariably re-arrangements or re-inventions of things that have been done before, confirming that in fashion, as in most other things, what goes around comes around; and (2) that their grotesque impracticality ensures they will never be worn by real people. But never mind: every year, fashion writers gasp and gush on cue, dipping into the same old grab-bag of superlatives which they recycle in much the same way as the designers recycle old ideas.

The gullibility of fashion writers is matched only by that of art critics who, when confronted with works that are plainly worthless and nonsensical, are transported with awe. In fact art and fashion have much in common, both depending heavily on shock and the illusion of novelty to provoke a reaction. And exponents in both fields can usually depend on the wholly uncritical acclaim of their fawning admirers.

As with art, too, a special language has evolved which can mean anything and nothing. Just as art critics have mastered a form of writing whose inscrutability perfectly emulates the unintelligibility of their subject matter, so fashion writers exhibit a remarkable ability to portray the bizarre, the banal and the tacky as fresh, profound and inspired.

With fashion, though, there’s an accompanying circus of camp followers that even the art world can’t match. Media reports breathlessly tell us which celebrities have been given front-row seats – celebrities these days being, by definition, people you’ve never heard of – and what was contained in the “goodies bags” handed out by way of inducement (as if it were needed) to the squealing fashionistas.

Of course, none of this need bother anyone out here in the world of Hallensteins, Ezibuy and Glassons, where most people get their clobber. Fashion is a world that exists of and by itself, and just because its flaky followers take it seriously doesn’t mean the rest of us have to. Or do we?

Today’s Dom Post has a telling picture by John Selkirk on page 3. The main point of the photo is that it shows a model taking a tumble on the catwalk because of her preposterously high heels. The accompanying story revealed that one other model also fell and several others wobbled and staggered.

But possibly more significant is that the photo also shows a model walking toward the camera whose body looks so painfully emaciated that you wince just looking at it. So all the furore in recent years over the fashion industry’s use of anorexic models – the so-called heroin-chic look – appears to have counted for nothing.

Young women who take notice of Fashion Week – and the fashion industry spends large sums of money to ensure that they do – are thus exposed to images of unnaturally skinny women, some so incapable of a normal walk that they look almost deformed, teetering precariously on shoes that are scarcely less cruel and inhumane than the vile old Chinese practice of foot-binding.

I have some sympathy for feminists who argue that the fashion industry is inherently misogynistic and that far from celebrating women, it degrades them. Fashion Week certainly seems to support that hypothesis.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Saturday Morning with Kim Hill

I recently wrote that Radio New Zealand, for all its virtues, had a systemic and pervasive lean to the left, and that some of its presenters and producers seemed to assume all listeners shared their soft-left view of the world.

I didn’t mention her by name, but the presenter uppermost in my mind when I wrote that was Kim Hill, which will probably surprise no one. More than any other RNZ host, Hill seems to favour guests with whom she has a political and cultural affinity.

She will probably dispute this vigorously. At a dinner party many years ago at which Hill was present, I undiplomatically suggested it was ironic that she had come unstuck in an interview with the irascible John Pilger, a man whose politics I imagined she shared. She rounded on me indignantly, defying anyone to know what her politics were.

My response then, as it is now, was that people were bound to form their own conclusions about her politics just by listening to her. Nothing has changed. With very rare exceptions (the errant economist Greg Clydesdale being one), Hill interviews people she regards as acceptable, and whose opinions she considers can safely be shared with her listeners. Generally speaking, they come from that disproportionately influential demographic sometimes disparagingly referred to as the chardonnay socialists, of whom there is no shortage in Wellington.

Hill’s guest on the Playing Favourites segment of her programme last Saturday was the writer and historian Tony Simpson, almost the archetypal Hill guest. He’s from Wellington, he’s an intellectual and he’s a leftist with a trade union background (he was once president of the Public Service Association).

Hill and Simpson circulate in the same arty/literary/media/academic/political milieu. They probably bump into each other at film festivals, book launches and exhibition openings. Wellington is, after all, an intimate little village, and the same people tend to pop up repeatedly on the book launch/film festival/exhibition circuit.

I would guess that Hill and Simpson are pretty comfortable with each other’s views. So the atmosphere in the studio on Saturday sounded cosy, as it invariably is when Hill interviews people she approves of.

Preliminary questions about Simpson’s childhood prompted the disclosure that he came from a working-class background, which made me wonder whether Hill’s guests now consider this mandatory as a means of asserting their political credentials. Another of her recent guests, a writer whose name I forget, managed to squeeze in three or four references to his supposed working-class origins. (I was tempted to email Hill’s programme asking whether he was raised in t’ shoebox in t’ middle o’ road but thought better of it, knowing how waspishly Hill responds on air to emails that are even mildly critical.)

To be fair, Hill didn’t entirely give Simpson the kid-gloves treatment. She questioned him about the morality of having homosexual affairs while married, which Simpson admitted, but she didn’t exactly press the point and ended up offering him an easy out before obligingly changing the subject. The overall tone of the interview was chummy – again, as it invariably is when Hill interviews people she approves of, as she does most of the time.

Now I have absolutely no objection to hearing Tony Simpson interviewed on National Radio on Saturday morning. He’s an interesting man: articulate, well-read and an entertaining raconteur. My objection is that we hear people like Simpson week after week on Hill’s programme, to the extent that I’m now wondering whether the title Playing Favourites refers not so much to the guests’ choice of music as to the host’s preference for a certain type of interviewee. I’d like to hear a greater range of voices, one that truly reflects the diversity of the society that pays to keep RNZ on air.

I wish Hill would surprise us occasionally by interviewing someone less predictable – someone whose views she probably regards with distaste, like Garth McVicar from the Sensible Sentencing Trust, or Bob McCoskrie of Family First, or that rarest of creatures, a right-wing academic (assuming she can find one). And not just to do a demolition job on them, either, which would probably be her natural instinct. She should force herself to be relaxed and chatty, just as she is with guests she likes. It would do her good.

Hill is a capable interviewer. She’s formidably intelligent and she’s quick. Her irritating vocal mannerisms seem to grow more exaggerated by the year, but I could live with them if only she and her producer (who was himself given a Playing Favourites slot a year or so ago, for reasons which would have eluded Hill's listeners) broadened the programme’s orbit.

There has been a noticeable shift elsewhere in Radio New Zealand over the past year or two as producers and presenters have made a genuine effort to reflect a wider range of people and political opinions. Hill, almost alone, seems to be determinedly holding out, as if her programme were some sort of personal fiefdom exempted from the obligations that arise from being a taxpayer-funded public broadcaster.

Footnote: I see Hill's guests this coming Saturday include Alastair Thompson of the online news service Scoop. More of the same. An interesting and talented guy - but like Simpson, a member of the left-leaning Wellington cognoscenti. Is Saturday Morning with Kim Hill a cosy private club, or can we all belong?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Peters has done Labour a huge favour

The Winston Peters saga is a continuing embarrassment for Helen Clark’s government, but Labour has one good reason to be extremely grateful for it. It has provided a perfect smokescreen for a much more worrying piece of political mischief: the emissions trading scheme.

While the media have been distracted by the scent of Peters’ blood, Labour and its allies have pushed through the most far-reaching, and potentially the most damaging, legislation of its nine years in office.

Forget the Bradford anti-smacking bill. It was a mere bagatelle compared with the Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Act, which will pile enormous additional burdens on an already chronically under-performing economy. The ETS, if it’s allowed to remain in place, will be eroding New Zealanders’ living standards and sapping business profitability long after the furoré over smacking has been forgotten.

Similarly, the row over non-disclosure of donations to New Zealand First will take its place in history, if at all, as a fleeting sideshow. In a few years it will be forgotten by all but the most obsessive political junkies. Yet which issues generated more media coverage and public debate?

I’m not saying the media were wrong to play up the Bradford bill and the hypocritical shenanigans of the Peters party. Anything but. But the relatively superficial coverage given to the ETS shows that given a choice between a complex story and a straightforward one involving the classic elements of conflict and personalities, with a billionaire and even an attractive, long-haired blonde thrown in, there are no prizes for guessing which one most journalists will go after. (In the Peters case some of those journalists have made the dangerous mistake of becoming combatants instead of mere observers, but that’s another story.) The ETS has been placed in the too-hard basket – left to the editorial writers, whose often very sound analysis tends to be read only by a pointy-headed minority.

It’s almost as if, while we’re all sitting ringside, baying for blood and wondering whether Rocky Peters is finally going to be decked, no one has noticed that a wrecking crew has dismantled the stadium and carted it off.

A few voices of sanity, such as Phil O’Reilly of Business New Zealand, have called in vain for time out on the ETS until its huge implications are properly assessed. In a statement issued today, O’Reilly pointed out quite properly that rushing through deficient legislation by a narrow majority just before an election was no way to conduct a democracy.

“There was a lot of consultation but hardly any listening,” O’Reilly said. “Substantive issues raised by the consultative process were ignored. Even submitters who favoured an emissions trading scheme and wanted to contribute sensible improvements were ignored.”

He concluded by asking, quite reasonably, “What was the rush?”

In the absence of any cogent explanation, we can only conclude that the rush is due to the Clark government’s determination to position New Zealand as a world leader in combating climate change, regardless of the economic cost. Never mind that:

(1) There is a serious scientific debate raging as to whether earth’s atmosphere is warming at all;
(2) Even assuming it is, it’s by no means settled that the cause is man-made;
(3) New Zealand’s contribution to global warming, if there is such a phenomenon, is so miniscule (at an estimated 0.2 percent of global carbon emissions) that any attempt at mitigation on our part, while giant industrial economies such as China and the US go unchecked, is little more than tokenism. But it’s a token gesture that will come at an enormous cost.

Labour’s determination to lead the planet has a certain historical resonance, given that New Zealand under the first Labour Government in the 1930s was acclaimed as the social laboratory of the world. Perhaps the ETS is Helen Clark’s stab at cementing a place in history similar to that of Mickey Savage. But the scheme has other attractions for Labour as well. For one thing, it appeals to the party’s redistributionist mindset, allowing future governments – as O’Reilly has pointed out – to recycle emissions revenue in the form of handouts to “worthy” groups. Expect Labour candidates to make capital of this on the campaign trail.

Combine these dangerous impulses with the neo-Marxist zeal, hairshirt masochism and deep resentment of capitalism that the Greens represent, and you have a recipe for damage of truly frightening dimensions.

Dumb New Zealand: a continuing series, courtesy of Radio Live

More gems from the Radio Live quiz ....

Ewing Stevens (Radio Live host): “What did Dr John Pemberton concoct in his back yard in 1886?”

Caller: “Cancer?”

Stevens: “What Spanish word has the English translation ‘little war’”?

Caller: “Would that be the Home Guard?”

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

There, I've said it: RNZ is a treasure

(First published Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 3.)

Radio New Zealand has copped some flak lately, first from Bill Ralston in his Listener column and more recently from Paul Holmes in the Herald on Sunday.

If it occurs to you that these two critics have something in common, you’re right: they both work for private radio stations, which makes Radio New Zealand the opposition. So when they start picking the state broadcaster apart, it’s tempting to paraphrase the famous line by Mandy Rice Davies in the Profumo affair: Well, they would, wouldn’t they?

I’ve been critical of Radio New Zealand more than once myself, but I now find myself in the unfamiliar position of feeling compelled to defend it – not that it urgently needs my support, given that there are hundreds of thousands of Radio New Zealand listeners who are supremely indifferent to the views of Ralston and Holmes.

Even an enthusiastic proponent of capitalism, as I am, can concede that there is such a thing as market failure, where for one reason or another the private market doesn’t provide a desired or necessary service. There is a powerful “public good” argument for a national radio network that has other objectives besides strictly commercial ones – one that can devote resources to matters of public interest and importance that private radio can’t be bothered with.

That’s the philosophical justification (if that’s not too grand a word) for the existence of Radio New Zealand, and if further justification is required it’s provided by the fact that the network attracts a very substantial audience that has obviously decided commercial radio has little to offer it.

According to the latest research that I could find on the RNZ website, National Radio (I use this term in preference to the clumsy Radio New Zealand National) had 487,000 listeners in an average week last year. I’m one of those listeners, and while it goes without saying that there are aspects of National Radio that could be improved, my quality of life – and that of many other people I know – would be greatly diminished without it.

My day starts with the good cop-bad cop pairing of Geoff Robinson and Sean Plunket on Morning Report and segues into Kathryn Ryan’s Nine-to-Noon, at which point I usually have to switch the radio off in order to get some work done. In the afternoons I catch bits of Jim Mora’s programme, though never as much as I would like, and in the evening I often hear a repeat of something interesting on Brian Crump’s show.

Being a poor sleeper I also listen to parts of the All Night Programme, hosted in alternate weeks by Lloyd Scott and Vicki McKay. The hours between midnight and 6am were once a dreary wasteland of insipid orchestral music and cloying announcers but those days, mercifully, are long gone. Both presenters are excellent but Scott, in particular, is the consummate all-night host, bringing to the programme a gentle, whimsical intimacy that is perfectly suited to the timeslot.

Over the years National Radio has shaken off the stuffy and sometimes pompous formality that it was once known for and attuned itself to the baby-boomer demographic, which I suspect is now its core audience. The programmers no longer assume the average listener is a cardigan-wearing, pipe-smoking superannuitant (though older listeners can still enjoy a burst of nostalgic, old-style National Radio on Saturday and Sunday nights). Hosts are given licence to be irreverent and even slightly subversive – as in Matinee Idle, the idiosyncratic summer music show hosted by Phil O’Brien and Simon Morris.

But the key to National Radio’s appeal is the amount of information it packs into a day. A person who did nothing but listen to Nat Rad all day would be well informed on a range of subjects from politics to the arts, farming to international affairs. You’d still need your daily paper to know what was going on locally, but that aside, National Radio has the bases pretty well covered. No private station comes close to matching it, regardless of what Ralston and Holmes may say.

There’s always a “but”, however, and RNZ’s greatest weakness is that like most state-owned broadcasting organisations, including the BBC and Australia’s ABC, it has a systemic and pervasive lean to the left – not so much in its hard news and current affairs content, which is generally fair and balanced these days, but in its “softer” interview programmes and documentaries. There seems to be an erroneous assumption by some of its producers and presenters that the listeners all share their own cosy, soft-left view of the world.

Political correctness even extends to the children’s stories RNZ broadcasts. It seems that any story with a Maori theme is guaranteed a broadcast, regardless of its quality. Some of these stories are wretchedly bad and if broadcasting them at 6am on weekends didn’t put children off, the content would – though I can imagine a certain type of earnestly liberal Wellington parent standing over their unfortunate offspring and demanding they listen.

Having said that, National Radio appears to have made a genuine effort in recent years to be more even-handed. On programmes such as Chris Laidlaw’s Sunday show and Jim Mora’s afternoon programme, the range of political views is much wider and more balanced than it used to be. This is no more nor less than listeners are entitled to, since Radio New Zealand as a state-owned broadcaster has an obligation to be neutral.

Other grizzles? Well, I’ve expressed myself elsewhere on the consistent refusal of National Radio’s Mediawatch to subject its host broadcaster to the critical scrutiny it applies to other branches of the media. That aside, what puzzles rather than irritates me most about RNZ is the substantial sum of money it wastes on execrable radio plays, atrociously written and badly acted. I can’t believe that anyone, save perhaps for the actors themselves, actually listens to them.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Clarity and the English language

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post and Press, September 2.)

MY FATHER was an engineer. He loved the precision, order and logic of mathematics. But as he grew older an interesting thing happened: words displaced numbers as the objects of his admiration. Always a keen reader, he became captivated by the English language.

It’s not so strange, when you think about it. The English language is a precision instrument, so you’d expect it to appeal to an engineer. It has been refined over centuries to the point where there’s an exact word or phrase to describe almost everything; and if there isn’t, we pinch one from another language. But the marvel of English is that it’s also constantly expanding, not only borrowing words from other cultures but inventing new ones.

For all these reasons the English language deserves to be treated with the greatest respect, which is why it irritates me when I see journalists habitually misusing words. The job of journalists is to convey meaning precisely and accurately, so they have a particular duty to use words correctly. In a sense they are guardians of the language – or should be.

But it irritates me even more when academics, who are teaching the next generation, encourage their pupils to abuse the language. I have already sounded off in this column about the Victoria University lecturer who suggested we drop apostrophes because they were (a) too hard and (b) a tool of class oppression, so I won’t go there again. Now I see that a British academic has revived the old argument that we shouldn’t bother with correct spelling.

Writing in the Times Higher Education Supplement (and how ironic is that?), criminologist Ken Smith argued that teachers should give up correcting students’ bad spelling and accept “variant spellings” as long as the meaning is clear.

Apart from giving me one more reason to wonder about men named Ken, this strikes me as an excuse for laziness and lack of rigour. The language is the starting point of all scholarship because it’s how we convey ideas and information, and academics of all people should demand precision and accuracy.

Clarity is the essence of good communication. Fuzzy use of the language all too easily disguises fuzzy thinking – which I suspect is why some academics see it as in their interests to promote the dumbing-down of English.

* * *

THOSE IN the Wellington commentariat who are eager to write off Winston Peters should listen to talkback radio. They would get a sharp reality check.

On the night Mr Peters was stood down last week, a steady procession of Radio Live callers declared their undying faith in the New Zealand First leader. Mr Peters could grow horns, fangs and a tail and he would still fill halls with nodding grey heads. He could appear on stage waving a dismembered baby on a spear and it would still be a media frame-up. ACT leader Rodney Hide, on the other hand, will never convince these people that he’s anything other than an organ-grinder’s monkey for sinister, shadowy Big Business figures who want to get their hands on pensioners’ Kiwibank savings accounts.

Okay, so this was Radio Live – the former Radio Pacific. We’re talking about a station whose listeners keep the snake oil industry in business, who swear that magnetic mattresses cure their arthritis and who entertain each other with piano accordion solos played down the phone line at three in the morning. They probably drape garlic plants around their front doors to ward off vampires.

But here’s the scary thing about democracy: these people have votes, and Mr Peters needs only one vote in 20 to get back into Parliament. Have a nice day.

* * *

THE WELLINGTON commentariat fails to understand the Peters phenomenon for the same reason that it often gets other things wrong about politics. The explanation is simple.

Professional political observers in the capital are well informed about the Wellington end of politics: the policy, the legislation, the personalities, the off-the-record briefings and the myriad undercurrents and rumours that constantly swirl around Parliament. They live and breathe it seven days a week. But Wellington is only 50 percent of what politics is about. The other 50 percent is what ordinary people – the people who elect governments – make of it out in the real world. And here the commentariat is fatally flawed, because it’s hopelessly ill-equipped to tap in to what ordinary voters outside the goldfish bowl of Wellington are thinking.

This explains why opinion poll results often take commentators by surprise, as when recent findings indicated National had not been greatly damaged by the leaked tapes controversy. The commentators, caught up in the political drama surrounding the leaks, expected the poll results to reflect their own excitement – but the electorate at large obviously regarded the leaked tapes saga as a non-event.

The obvious lesson is that if you want to understand what’s really happening in politics, ask someone from Waipukurau.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Spot the sad man

Former All Black captain and coach Sir Brian Lochore has been around long enough to have known he was likely to cop some flak for a speech he gave in Auckland last week at a breakfast hosted by Parents Inc. But even he must have been taken aback by the sheer viciousness of an attack launched on him by Sunday Star-Times sports columnist Richard Boock.

The views Lochore expressed on parenting were, I would suggest, pretty typical for a man of his background and age. They were views that many people, and not just those of Lochore’s generation, would heartily applaud. They represent a substantial strand of Middle New Zealand opinion that rarely gets heard in a world where media-savvy liberal activists tend to dominate public debate. And I would suggest they are views that are likely to be heard even less frequently if those who dare express them get savaged as venomously as Lochore was by Boock.

Lochore said (and I’m quoting from Simon Collins’ report in the New Zealand Herald) that fathers needed to let their children take risks, but also had to lay down rules and impose consequences if rules were broken. Nothing extreme here; these are principles I would like to think my wife and I – and most of our friends, come to that – followed in bringing up our children.

He went on to say: “We are living in a PC world which is destroying us, where you actually can’t put the hard word on people when they have digressed [sic] and committed bad blunders.

“One of the advantages of being a farmer is that I was able to work with my children. You can take them on the back of your motorbike, which you’re not supposed to do any more. You can take them on your horse, which you’re not supposed to do any more.”

He said his daughters went to a rugby game at three weeks old and later played in the mud while their dad downed a jug in the bar after a game. “In the evenings we went to the rugby parties with the kids, who slept in the back of the car. We can’t do that any more because we haven’t got rid of the perpetrators that actually destroy our society.”

He said he trusted his friends to discipline his children and they trusted him to discipline theirs. “My friends were my children’s role models and I was my friends’ children’s role model.

“The one thing I believe is important in life is respect. They respected authority, they respected teachers, I respected the teachers. We lack a great deal of respect for authority nowadays, there’s always someone protesting.

“Respect and role models are very important in life. You as a father, with the aid of your partner – I can’t say ‘wife’ these days, PC. You are the one who sets the ground rules. And don’t ever tell me that the kids don’t want to know where the line is. They do.”

As a coach, he told the All Blacks they could do anything they liked off the field as long as they didn’t annoy anyone or break anything. “All I had to say was, ‘Hey boy, I think you’re annoying me’, ” he said.

“People have to make decisions, and people do make mistakes. But make sure that you take action – that there are consequences, and that you actually follow them through.
Yes, I smacked my children, but I’ve never hit them. Yes, I smacked other people’s children, but I never hit them. But we are not allowed to do that any more in this PC world.”

Lochore’s comments seemed to be at least partly endorsed by Parents Inc founder Ian Grant, who observed – I believe correctly – that society was turning fathers into “male mothers” obsessed with safety instead of adventure.

Now I might quibble with some of the finer points of what Lochore said (the distinction between smacking and hitting eluded me, though I think I know what he meant), but they were not unreasonable views. They were an expression of frustration at the stifling influence of busybody lawmakers and activist lobby groups that seek to subvert the right of parents to determine how they will raise their own children. Lochore and his wife are probably proud of having brought up their family well. He no doubt resents the implication that by leaving his children asleep in the car outside while he partied, he was a bad or negligent father. Such behaviour might seem startling to today’s nervous, obsessively risk-averse young parents, who hesitate to let their children out the back door, but it was unexceptional in previous generations and should be judged by the prevailing attitudes of those times. Were Lochore’s children harmed by being left asleep in the car or by playing in the mud while he enjoyed a post-match beer? Were they emotionally scarred for life by the experience? I think I know what their answers would be.

To read Boock’s column, however, you’d think Lochore was a menace to public safety. The tone was set by a headline that came perilously close to being defamatory: “Sad, old Brian the bully”. What followed was a gratuitously insulting rant that misrepresented and distorted what Lochore had said.

The misrepresentation was condensed in the following statement: “Essentially, the implication [from Lochore’s speech] was that if we tried bring back the biff at home, all would be solved. Sad man.” That was such a warped meaning to take from the speech that you had to wonder what state of mind the writer was in.

Boock ridiculed Lochore for being old: “Hark the cry of the ageing old duffer”. He suggested he had taken too many blows in the ruck – always a handy cheap shot when writing about former rugby players, and one that conveniently overlooked Lochore’s distinguished record in public life since his playing days. Boock accused Lochore, in effect, of promoting a culture of male violence, writing that he “came across as just another rugby bully”. I couldn’t for the life of me see how that meaning could be taken from Lochore’s reported speech, especially bearing in mind that Lochore, though he played in an era when All Black forwards were celebrated for their uncompromising physicality, was never noted for violent or unfair play.

But it got worse. Obviously building up a head of steam, the excitable Boock proceeded to suggest that Lochore hankered for the days when domestic abuse and spousal rape were allowed and women couldn’t get jobs (when was that, then?) or bank loans. I read and re-read Lochore’s reported comments, searching for any hints that he might have condoned any of the above, but found none.

I’m sorry, but it’s Boock who’s the sad man here. His column ended up – as such pieces often do – revealing far more about him than the man he was attacking.

Friday, September 5, 2008

God save us from those who would protect us

When a government ministry sponsors a public forum on the media at which one of the key speakers is the Race Relations Commissioner, a high-ranking public servant holding an office that I regard as a threat to media freedom, I get uneasy. My unease is compounded when I note that there’s not one media representative on the advertised panel of speakers; not one person to speak up for the importance of a free and independent press. How balanced is that going to be? It’s compounded further when I learn that the subjects for discussion include the Danish cartoons affair, North & South magazine’s controversial Asian Angst story and the Dominion Post’s coverage of the Clydesdale report on Pacific Island immigration, all of which gravely breached the tenets of political correctness. So when, last Tuesday, the Ministry of Social Development held such a forum, the subject of which was “Ethical reporting in a challenging news environment”, I made a point of being there. (My thanks, incidentally, to a contributor to Journz, an online journalism discussion group, who tipped off fellow members that the forum was happening.)

As it turned out, there was a media representative on the panel of speakers: me. I was a late ring-in, having been approached at short notice by the forum chairman, Whitireia Polytechnic journalism school head Jim Tucker. Jim told me he had invited people from the big media companies to take part but no one had accepted. Whether his last-minute approach to me had anything to with the fact that National Business Review media columnist David Cohen had written an item about the forum highlighting the conspicuous absence of media people, I couldn’t say. But certainly the panel would have been a journalist-free zone otherwise, unless you counted Jim himself. He is, after all, a veteran journalist and former editor of the Auckland Star, though some of us regard him with a degree of suspicion since he crossed over to academia, and suspect he has been at least partly captured by the political correctness that permeates the tertiary education sector.

I should add that there were one or two journalists in the audience as well, including David Cohen for a time and also Deborah Coddington, who wrote the much-pilloried Asian Angst article for North & South. I’m happy to admit I tipped Deborah off about the forum, thinking she was entitled to know about it and might have an interest in hearing what was said. Otherwise the auditorium seemed mainly occupied by people on the public payroll, many of them from the ministry.

So what happened? Well, the forum proceeded pretty much as you might have expected. The other speakers on the panel got up in turn and robustly denounced the way the media had covered the issues under examination. Two of them – Charles Mabbett of the Asia:NZ Foundation and Keith Ng, a blogger and columnist – directed their criticism mainly at North & South, which was predictable since both speakers were among the many who complained to the Press Council about the Asian Angst story, in which Coddington reported on the incidence of Asian crime in New Zealand. David Vaeafe of the Pacific Co-operation Foundation was naturally more concerned with the reporting of the Clydesdale paper, which cast Pacific Island immigration in a negative light. De Bres talked about his personal involvement in two of the issues, more of which shortly. As the nominal voice of the media, and having expressed some of my own views about the same issues, I was called on to defend, explain and justify the media’s handling of them.

A vociferous contributor to the discussion was Arlene Morgan, formerly a journalist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, now with the Columbia University Journalism School in New York. Morgan’s speciality is promoting ethnic diversity in newsrooms – a concept that has clearly found favour with New Zealand journalism educators, since this is the second time in a year that she has been invited here to promote her message (this time with assistance from the Asia:NZ Foundation). My first instinct was to be suspicious of Morgan, thinking that here was yet another finger-wagging outsider who knows what’s best for the New Zealand media, but I warmed to her as the morning went on. She seemed staunch on journalistic values such as free speech, though I have misgivings about where excessive enthusiasm for newsroom “diversity” might lead and how it might compromise important journalistic principles – but I won’t go into those here.

No one held back, but it was polite and everyone got a fair hearing, as one might expect of an event held under the auspices of Her Majesty’s Government. The media got a round ticking off for its supposed shortcomings in covering matters of racial or cultural sensitivity. (When Jim lamented that the major newspaper groups couldn’t be enticed to take part in such events, I suggested a possible reason was that editors and journalists were tired of being lectured and harangued by sanctimonious critics – and in any case, had more pressing business at hand, like getting a paper out.)

Some valid points were made, particularly in regard to the flawed Asian Angst story (the complaints about which were upheld by the Press Council). I squirmed at the brutal mauling Coddington got from people who were plainly unaware that she was present. She later stood up, identified herself and defended her story with commendable grace and dignity, and was given a fair hearing.

As best as I can recall (because I wasn’t speaking from notes), I made the point that while Coddington’s critics pounced on a fatal failing in her story relating to statistics, that didn’t mean the subject itself should have been considered off-limits. No one seemed to dispute that. My concern, as expressed in this blog, was that the outcry over the Asian Angst article might have frightened editors and journalists off such subjects altogether, when the real lesson is that anyone tackling a sensitive issue such as this has to take even greater care than normal to ensure the story is accurate and balanced.

On the Danish cartoons issue, which so exercised Joris de Bres, I said that as an editor I possibly wouldn’t have published them – but that the papers that did publish them (the Dom Post, the Press and the Nelson Mail, as I recall) were completely entitled to do so in a free and open democracy, and I deplored the pressure their editors were put under by critics from the prime minister down. I was pleased, and I admit slightly surprised, to see a few nodding heads in the room, and to get emphatic support on this point from Arlene Morgan. I also expressed my firm belief that in a liberal democracy, the right to freedom of expression is far more precious than the right of a minority – in this case the Muslim community – not to be offended.

On the Clydesdale report, I wondered where the problem was. Yes, it turned out that some of Dr Greg Clydesdale’s stats were dodgy, but there was nothing obvious to indicate to the Dom Post prior to the publication of his paper that he was anything other than a reputable academic, and indeed Massey University stood by him at the time (though it seems to have distanced itself from him now, which has slightly worrying implications for academic freedom). The main thing about the controversy over the Clydesdale paper, however, was that it demonstrated that a free and open society, if left to function properly, tends to be self-correcting. In the slew of publicity that followed the Dom Post’s first story, the true facts emerged and the whole issue of Pacific Island immigration – the good aspects along with the bad – got a far more thorough airing than otherwise would have happened.

Oddly enough that’s the way things usually work out in an open democracy. The same thing happened with the Exclusive Brethren’s covert funding of election advertising in 2005 – they were exposed, and in plenty of time for the voters to decide whether those who had benefited from their support should be punished at the ballot box. You wouldn’t guess this, of course, from the government’s extraordinarily heavy-handed response, which has left us with an obnoxiously undemocratic statute in the law books.

The greatest threat to the healthy process of disclosure and debate that followed the Clydesdale story is the belief that the state must protect us from harmful ideas because we’re not mature and intelligent enough to deal with them. Underlying this is a fundamental distrust of democracy. Which brings me back to Joris de Bres.

One of the points de Bres made following publication of the Clydesdale paper was that it encouraged the bigots who phone talkback shows. Well, hello. That’s called democracy, and these bigots were exercising their rights of free speech. I suggested at the forum that bigots are better out in the open, where we can all see them, than forced underground. But control-freak government can’t resist trying to assert control over unsavoury ideas, and I suspect that some apparatchiks in the more ideologically charged branches of the bureaucracy would like to put a halter around the unruly beast known as the media too. Nothing disturbs their sense of order more than ornery journalists and commentators freely disseminating information and opinion without regard for prevailing political morés.

De Bres’s behaviour as Race Relations Commissioner should be seen in this context. His urge to meddle in issues such as the Danish cartoons and Clydesdale issues, on the pretext that he is trying to create understanding and tolerance, is dangerous. It represents state intervention in an area where the state has no business. He has inserted himself needlessly, and patronisingly, into an area where people of intelligence, goodwill and sound judgment are quite capable of working things out for themselves, as they have done in the past. Now we have moved on to the point where government ministries are holding forums at which the press – an institution far more crucial to democracy than Commissioners of Race Relations – is subjected to a form of ex-parte trial with officials like de Bres in the role of prosecutor. And bugger me if journalism schools don’t seem to be playing along with it.

It shouldn’t be taken from this that I don’t believe editors and journalists should be held accountable for their actions. Of course they should. But there are ample accountability mechanisms in place already, ranging from the angry phone call from a reader to the Press Council and ultimately to the High Court. Governments have stayed clear of these accountability mechanisms, as they must do if we are to have a truly free and independent media; but that crucial principle is now under attack by stealth.

As I said earlier, the forum was a civilised and good-natured affair, as you’d expect in a civilised and good-natured country like New Zealand. There was no ranting and no abuse. Hands were shaken at the end. There was constructive and frank dialogue, as they like to say in diplomatic communiqués.

Jim Tucker and the pleasant woman from the ministry who organised the event seemed genuinely grateful for my participation. I don’t believe this had anything to do with the profundity of anything I said; it’s just that if I hadn’t been there, there would have been a roomful of people sitting around agreeing with each other. And as I remarked to a friend later, that would have been pretty damned boring. “And dangerous”, he added perceptively.

It took a while, but the rest of the world has finally caught up with me

One of the pleasures of getting older is having other people realise you were right all along.

In recent years I’ve smugly enjoyed the vindication of seeing singers and musicians I’ve admired for decades undergoing rehabilitation by capricious critics who were once happy to ignore and even mock them.

Take Brian Wilson. As a teenager I was convinced he was the closest pop music had come to producing a true genius, and I’ve never seen any reason to revise that belief. (If I had to nominate the most perfect pop song ever written, it would probably be God Only Knows.) But for decades after Wilson disengaged from the Beach Boys he became the butt of jokes –just another crazed casualty of the 60s, a drug-addled eccentric who composed his music in a sandpit. Which made his triumphant comeback with Smile – the album he started in the 60s but took four decades to finish – all the more satisfying.

Having said this, I have to guiltily confess that I went with some trepidation to Wilson’s concert in Wellington in 2005. We all have our dark moments of doubt, and there are few things worse than seeing a faded, washed-up pop idol shambling through the motions in a vain attempt to recapture his former glory. I needn’t have worried; it was such a rapturously joyous and musically impeccable performance that I thought seriously about booking a flight to Christchurch the next day so I could experience it all over again. The concert included a performance of the aforementioned Smile – the work that restored Wilson’s reputation and soon had the self-appointed arbiters of musical taste, the same people who once wrote Wilson off as some sort of grotesque relic, falling over themselves in their eagerness to acclaim his brilliance.

Then there’s the late Dusty Springfield. I was always a sucker for those wonderful girl singers of the 60s: Springfield, Sandie Shaw, Dionne Warwick, Petula Clark, Nancy Sinatra, Cilla Black – heck, even the long forgotten Helen Shapiro. But Springfield stood out even in that illustrious pack.

She’s been belatedly rediscovered by the critics too, partly as a result of having been adopted as an icon of gay culture (she was lesbian). But people forget that Springfield lived a wretched life of poverty and loneliness for much of the 1970s and 80s, largely cast aside by the industry that had once feted her. She hadn’t magically lost her talent; her style of music had simply become unfashionable. It was the Pet Shop Boys – also gay favourites – who rediscovered her in the late 1980s and gave her a second shot at stardom. Now, of course, Dusty Springfield is considered the height of retro-chic; I see yet another compilation of her hits has just been released. A pity the record industry didn’t reward her talent when she most needed it.

In passing, I will also mention Abba. At the height of their success in the 1970s, cerebral (and I suspect tone-deaf) rock music writers treated them with scorn. Abba’s fatal flaw was that they had commercial appeal, and it didn’t help that they seemed clean and wholesome too. Never mind that they produced textbook pop music of a quality that matched the best output from New York’s famous Brill Building songwriters in earlier decades, highly sophisticated musically yet irresistibly catchy.

Well, the passage of time has conferred a sort of chic respectability on Abba too, and it’s no longer shameful to admit in sophisticated company that you own their Greatest Hits album. In time, I expect the Carpenters may undergo a similar re-appraisal.

(I’ll throw in a little statistic here and try to resist the urge to launch into a lecture. In the top 500 artists ranked by Billboard, based on singles sales, the Carpenters are at 60 and Abba at 132. Bob Dylan, whom influential rock critics have always lionised, is at 193. Yes, I know Dylan is primarily an albums artist, but it still says something.)

All of which brings me to Glen Campbell. Yes, I’ve always been a fan of Campbell too, and enjoyed meeting him on his last tour here. He’s a phenomenon in terms of his musical longevity, his greatly under-rated musicianship and the breadth of his accomplishments, which include stints with the Champs (of Tequila fame), the Beach Boys (Campbell played lead guitar on many of their records) and even the hippy-ish LA studio group Sagittarius, to say nothing of his vast body of work as an anonymous session musician.

His voice is remarkable for a 70-year-old and he’s still capable of peeling off guitar solos at blistering speed. But Arkansas-born Campbell has always laboured under the stigma of being a country boy, which is considered seriously uncool. The critics tend to overlook his sublime renderings of songs like By The Time I Get to Phoenix and Wichita Lineman, preferring to remind us of cheesier stuff like Rhinestone Cowboy and Country Boy. But I’m delighted to report that Campbell too has found redemption with his latest album, which is getting the sort of serious critical attention he has too often been denied in the past. Tom Cardy, in today’s Dom Post, gives it a glowing review. The cynic in me wonders whether Campbell has found critical acceptance only by breaking out of the mould and recording cover versions of songs by vogue-ish people like the Foo Fighters, U2 and Green Day, but what the heck … recognition is recognition.

The album is titled Meet Glen Campbell, an ironic touch given that he cut his first record in 1961. Maybe this is his way of gently rebuking the critics for not taking him seriously in the past and inviting them to assess him anew.

Footnote: While welcoming the Road-to-Damascus experiences of those who have finally cottoned on to people like Brian Wilson, Dusty Springfield and Glen Campbell, I have to admit I’ve had one or two musical epiphanies of my own – and none more dramatic than my sudden conversion to Dylanism several years ago, when I made a spur of the moment decision to see him perform in Wellington. I realised that night that what had irritated me for decades about Dylan was not the man himself, but all the fawning, pretentious and often impenetrable bullshit written about him.