Saturday, March 21, 2009

A new style of headmaster

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 18.)

On the morning of the big jobs summit in Auckland recently, Radio New Zealand presenter Kathryn Ryan interviewed three of the summit participants.

Two of the interviewees, Rod Carr and Michael Barnett, were from the business sector. The third was Laila Harre, feisty trade unionist and Minister of Women’s Affairs in the Labour-Alliance coalition government of 1999-2002.

I expected Ms Harre and the two business representatives to disagree over how New Zealand should protect itself from the global economic crunch. We have become so conditioned to polarised debates that I waited for the participants to dig in to their trenches and start lobbing grenades back and forth.

That’s the norm, after all. But the interesting thing about this discussion was that there was no sniping, no point-scoring and no resort to rigid ideological positions. The focus was practical, the tone calm and reasoned. All three wanted to protect jobs.

At one point Mr Carr, a former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank and chief executive of Jade Corporation, emphatically agreed with something Ms Harre had said. Then Ms Harre agreed with something Mr Barnett, the CEO of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, had said. She even expressed some sympathy for the predicament of business.

This was radical. I wouldn’t want to convey the impression that they’d all stripped naked and were frolicking in a metaphorical hot tub of harmony, but something significant was going on here.

It reinforced my sense that there has been a sudden and profound change in the national mood. This can be partly attributed to the urgent need to deal with a sharply contracting economy, but there is more to it than that.

I think it has a lot to do with John Key. In saying this, I’m back-pedalling somewhat because until relatively recently, I was deeply sceptical about Mr Key. I complained to anyone who was prepared to listen that no one knew quite what he stood for. It seemed to me dangerous to elect a prime minister who appeared to have no fixed ideological reference points.

I have now come around to the view that the apparent absence of any non-negotiable positions on Mr Key’s part – the very deficiency that I complained about – may make him the ideal leader for our time.

I referred in a previous column to his relentlessly upbeat disposition. That in itself, I believe, has done a lot to change the mood of a country that previously experienced nine years of essentially downbeat leadership from Helen Clark.

The effect of the change at the top is similar to that on a school from which a stern, finger-wagging headmaster has retired, handing over control to a much more relaxed successor who thinks school should be fun. It’s quite a liberating sensation, though how long it will last remains to be seen.

The other marked difference between New Zealand under Key and New Zealand under Clark is that the old ideological battle lines have suddenly been erased. The new prime minister is happy to engage with anyone and doesn’t rule out any policy if he senses it might work. There are no ideological no-go zones.

He has demonstrated this, as I have written before, by reaching out to ACT on his right while simultaneously forging a close and apparently successful relationship with the Maori Party on his left.

Recently we have observed Mr Key’s open-minded approach in the way his government supported Miss Clark’s bid for a top job in the United Nations. I think it’s fair to assume this was done not with a cynical motive – in other words, to get her out of the way – but because Mr Key genuinely believed she had the skills for the post and the appointment would bring credit on New Zealand.

Since then it’s been announced that the National government has appointed former Labour Cabinet Minister Paul Swain as its lead negotiator in talks with the Ngati Porou iwi over Treaty of Waitangi claims.

Regardless of what one might think about the Treaty gravy train, this was another example of Mr Key’s party setting aside old tribal rivalries and acknowledging that a former political foe had the appropriate credentials for the job.

This is the antithesis of the rampant cronyism pursued by Labour, under which party loyalists such as former party president Mike Williams and ex-CTU head Ross Wilson were appointed to powerful public positions for which they were not necessarily well-qualified, and in which they could be relied on to carry out the government's wishes.

To be fair, National governments of the past have indulged in some pretty distasteful cronyism too. Those were considered the rules of the game.

To Mr Key’s credit, he seems happy to throw that old rulebook onto the scrap heap – and good on him, because there’s precious little evidence that it served New Zealand well.

The change in the tone of politics could not have come at a better time. New Zealand faces possibly the greatest economic crisis in its history. As people like Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard keep reminding us, we don’t know how bad it might get.

But that word “possibly” is important, because we’re not yet sinking in quicksand and might still be able to avoid it.

If any country can pull together to avert the sort of economic catastrophe now engulfing the US and Britain, it should be New Zealand. We are a small, intimate country; everyone knows everyone else and we all speak a common language. Ultimately, the values and concerns that unite us are far greater than those that divide us.

One of the interesting features of Parliament is that, away from the public battleground of the debating chamber, where politicians are inevitably tempted to grandstand, MPs build warm and positive relationships that often cross party lines. You see this when they socialise together.

That sort of rapport could be invaluable right now, when the country urgently needs a sense of common purpose. With his ability to take much of the heat out of politics, Mr Key may be the man to make it happen.

Friday, March 20, 2009

When the ACC first morphed into a welfare agency

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

MUCH has been said about the blowout in ACC spending that resulted when the Labour government extended coverage to include medical misadventure, work-related stress and free physiotherapy. But anyone seeking to identify the point when the ACC strayed from being an insurer to a welfare agency should go back to the 1980s, when it began subsidising the sexual abuse counselling industry.

In 1988, the ACC accepted 221 claims for sexual abuse – or, more precisely, mental illness arising from alleged abuse – at a cost of $1.9 million. By 2004, claims were running at an average of 5000 a year and annual costs had risen to more than $27 million.

One claimant got more than $150,000 in backdated compensation and several were being paid more than $60,000 a year in weekly compensation payments based on their earnings before their “injury” was diagnosed.

No doubt many claims were legitimate – but 5000 a year? And was compensation for alleged sexual abuse ever envisaged by the architects of the scheme?

No corroboration of the alleged abuse was required other than a supporting statement from an ACC-registered counsellor. There was no requirement that the supposed victim lay a complaint with the police, still less obtain a conviction. The alleged abuser didn’t even have to be identified.

In many cases the alleged abuse was far in the past, raising suspicions about “recovered memory” syndrome.

This was a tidy little racket that benefited both the claimants and the burgeoning counselling industry, which pocketed generous fees from the ACC for two-hour assessment sessions which invariably resulted in the counsellor confirming that sexual abuse had taken place. Acceptance of a claim usually led to further counselling sessions, thus ensuring a steady income stream for the therapists.

“Counselling” was a rubber-stamp process similar to the charade women go through when seeking a state-funded abortion.

The Bolger government curbed the worst excesses of the scheme in 1992 by stopping lump-sum payouts, but otherwise the rort continued. I remember questioning the then ACC Minister Bill Birch about the potential for bogus claims and being fobbed off with bland non-replies. He didn’t want to rock the boat.

One of the few politicians with the guts to speak out was ACT MP Heather Roy, who in 2004 compared sexual abuse payouts with Lotto prizes. By then Labour had reinstated lump-sum compensation, which predictably led to a quadrupling of costs.

At the same time the ACC funded a $600,000 study of the mental effects of sexual abuse – a nice gravy train for Labour-voting academics – and spent $200,000 bailing out an Auckland counselling service that was about to fall over. Whoever said New Zealand governments had given up subsidising industries?

Interestingly enough, an Auckland survey of women being counselled for sexual abuse found that 30 per cent had undergone 100 or more ACC-funded sessions of therapy. Despite that, many expressed disappointment that they were not getting enough.

This confirms that in a grievance-obsessed culture, there can never be enough nannying.

* * *

WELL, well, well. Some greedy dairy farmers, having invested millions converting sheep and beef properties into industrial-scale dairy farms, have been caught out now that Fonterra has reduced milk payouts from last year’s giddy $7.90 per kilogram to a sobering $5.10.

They should have seen this coming. Agricultural commodity prices have always been cyclical and it was inevitable that what went up would come down again. But some of the new dairy millionaires were blinded by the dollar signs flashing in their eyes.

There has been collateral damage too. Farmers who grow maize and other fodder crops for the booming dairy industry are now in trouble because financially hard-pressed cow cockies either can’t afford, or don’t need, supplementary feed.

Unfortunately we will all pay the ultimate price for the mad rush into dairying. The aesthetic and environmental damage done by indiscriminate farm conversions, often in areas unsuited to big dairy herds, will not easily be undone.

* * *

MEMO to Patricia Reade, deputy chief executive of Work and Income:

Beneficiaries are not “clients”, as you referred to them in a recent letter to the editor. A client is someone who pays for professional services. Perhaps you haven’t noticed that the state – that means the taxpayer – pays beneficiaries, not vice-versa.

Some dictionaries, bowing to political correctness, now permit the word “client” to apply to someone using the services of a social worker, but I don’t buy it. The fact that dictionaries have recorded a change in usage doesn’t automatically make the new usage valid.

No one concerned for the precision of the English language should be misled into thinking “clients’ have magically metamorphosed into people who get paid, rather than those who do the paying.

That a word should be so completely turned on its head is a demonstration of what happens when we allow the language to be politicised. George Orwell, bless him, was wise to this 60 years ago.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sigh ... another, day, another impenetrable academic paper

I am indebted to Dr Sean Phelan, of Massey University’s Department of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, who has written a dense 17-page paper in response to an item that appeared in my Curmudgeon column in The Dominion Post three years ago.

I am indebted partly because journalists love to have their work noticed, but more because Phelan’s paper confirms much of what I have been saying and writing about academics for years.

Much of it is utterly impenetrable. If I had set out to write a parody of esoteric academic jargon, I couldn’t have hoped to do a better job than Phelan has obligingly furnished.

Intriguingly, he has anticipated that his work would be turned against him. In a footnote in which Phelan carelessly lapses into plain English, he acknowledges there’s a good chance his article could trigger a comical response if it came to journalistic notice. He adds: “No doubt, extracts could be uprooted to coherently fit with the ‘mumbo-jumbo’ and ‘pointy-head’ stereotypes [of academics].”

Quite so – but it hasn’t deterred him.

Phelan takes as his starting point I column I wrote in March 2006 in which I took a shot at Dr Craig Prichard, another Massey academic. Prichard, a management lecturer, had issued a press statement criticising the sale of Trade Me to Fairfax and arguing that the $700 million proceeds, rather than being transferred to Trade Me founder Sam Morgan and his fellow investors, should have been “creatively distributed” among the site’s “community of users”. All New Zealanders had helped create Trade Me, Prichard asserted, and “new structures” needed to be developed that gave everyone involved a “fair go”.

In my column, headlined An assassin in academia, I wrote that Prichard seemed to think we were all entitled to a share of the profits from the company Sam Morgan worked 18-hour days to get established. I contrasted the entrepreneurial Morgan with Prichard, “safe and smug in his taxpayer-funded academic post, who as far as I can tell hasn’t contributed a damned thing to the country’s wellbeing and, indeed, seems bent on undermining those who do”.

I also wrote that when I googled the previously unheard-of Prichard, I “stumbled into a morass of impenetrable academic mumbo-jumbo liberally sprinkled with reverent references to Michel Foucault – the leftwing French philosopher succinctly described by [my fellow columnist] Bob Brockie recently as a fruit cake – and Karl Marx, whose theories probably killed more people in the 20th century than any other single factor”.

Phelan, who has a PhD in communications from Dublin City University and has been at Massey since 2003, uses these comments as the platform for a prolix exploration of journalistic attitudes toward academia and the tension between theory and practice in the training of journalists – another subject on which I have written, and in which Phelan, as a lecturer who specialises in the news media, has a direct personal interest.

Some clues to his own ideological leanings are evident in Phelan’s online Massey University staff profile, which states: “His research interests are interdisciplinary and he has a particular interest in exploring how post-Marxist discourse theory and the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu can be applied to the study of media and communication. Sean also has an ongoing research interest in examining the relationship between neoliberalism and media practices.”

To be honest I had not previously heard of Pierre Bourdieu, but a googling reveals him to be one of the Usual Suspects: a leftist sociologist and philosopher, heavily influenced by Marx and known for his theories on class structure.

Phelan’s paper is titled Democracy, the Academic Field and the (New Zealand) Journalistic Habitus. It can be accessed here
but be warned: unless you share my perverse enjoyment of academic conceit, you will find it heavy going.

To give you some idea of the paper’s tone, without putting you to the trouble of actually reading it, here are a couple of excerpts:

I want to treat Du Fresne’s column as a platform for a more expansive dialectical analysis that argues it can be read as a ‘fantasmatic’ articulation of an antagonism to academic identities that is a more general attribute of the New Zealand journalistic ‘habitus’. By ‘fantasmatic’, I mean, most simply, a logic of ideological fantasy, which Glynos and Howarth (2007) conceptualize, following Žižek (1989), as the affective force that ‘grips’ a subject’s identification with a particular discourse.

If you’re scratching your head over that word “habitus”, don’t worry; it’s all perfectly simple. Here’s Phelan again:

My understanding of ‘habitus’ follows Bourdieu, who, in Wacquant’s reformulation,
conceptualizes it as a description of how:

Cumulative exposure to certain social conditions instils in individuals an ensemble of durable and transposable dispositions that internalize the necessities of the extant social environment, inscribing inside the organism the patterned inertia and constraints of external reality (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 13)

And in case you still haven’t quite got it, Phelan helpfully explains further:

Although the formal discussion of Bourdieu’s work here is skeletal, it is important to stress that the category of habitus cannot be separated from the other conceptual dimensions of Bourdieu’s work, in particular the category of ‘the field’. If habitus can be described as way of indexing a ‘socialized subjectivity’ or posture (ibid, 126), then field is a heuristic attempt to capture how group subjectivities are dialectally structured by, and simultaneously structuring, what Bourdieu calls a ‘network, or a configuration, of objective relations between positions’ (Benson & Neveu, 2005, p. 3).

All quite straightforward, really.

You could choose almost any section of Phelan’s paper at random to demonstrate just how indigestible it is. Here’s another example:

I understand discourse in the sense advanced by Laclau and Mouffe (2001, p. 105), who define it as a ‘structured totality’ that is constituted by the partial fixing of relations between different signifiers. Their account emphasizes the ‘antagonistic’ character of discourse(s) and how those identities that are Othered are central to the articulation of a positively-claimed identity. In other words, the representation of the Other functions, to use Derrida’s paradoxical formulation, as a ‘constitutive outside’ in the construction of one’s own identity (Glynos and Howarth, 2007).

As easy as it is to make fun of this sort of stuff, we should remember that it’s a case of an academic writing for other academics and that it’s not intended to be understood by outsiders. In fact it’s hard to see what function such abstruse analysis serves, other than to gratify and sustain the tight little elite that produces it, and perhaps attract an invitation to deliver a paper to like-minded academics at a taxpayer-funded conference somewhere in the northern hemisphere.

However I resolutely ploughed on and was able, by pouncing on a few renegade plain-English words and decoding the rest, to get a broad sense of what Phelan was getting at.

Phelan thinks that far from there being too much theory in the teaching of journalism, there isn’t nearly enough. What sort of “theory” he envisages can be gauged from telltale phrases such “the deleterious impact of corporate structures on New Zealand journalism” and “the neoliberal corporatisation of the local print media industry”.

His ideas of what constitutes acceptable theory eventually become more explicit. “To clearly distinguish what I understand by theory, this paper sides with people like Prichard, who equate ‘theory’ with reading – or at least distilling – the insights of critically engaged thinkers like Marx, Foucault, Bourdieu, Laclau, Fairclough, etc …” he writes.

He says these "theoretical resources” need to be “rearticulated, in contextually sensitive ways, as part of the formal education of journalists, particularly in universities”. He continues: “I am suggesting that the relationship between academic field and journalistic field imperatives is imbalanced under a hegemonic ‘training’ regime that is structurally precluded from assessing journalistic practices from a theoretically-informed distance.” (Translation: dammit, why can’t I fill students’ heads with the tortuous theories of people like Bourdieu?)

What Phelan is really advocating here is the politicisation of journalism training. More specifically, my guess is that he would like journalism students to be inculcated with the view that the news media is a tool of the ruling class, manipulated by the rich and powerful for their own benefit. He gives a clue to this when he pooh-poohs the conventional view of the media’s role in a democracy. “Mainstream journalistic identification is clearly aligned with a particular conception of democracy that has been hegemonized in capitalist liberal democracies,” he writes. (Translation: the proletariat has been suckered by vile robber press barons.)

Phelan favours university-based journalism teaching over the vocationally oriented courses offered in polytechnic-type institutions, suggesting that an academic approach is the best way to approach what he calls the “problems of New Zealand journalism”. (What problems, exactly? Phelan doesn’t explain, but my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that New Zealand journalism operates within a capitalist, free-market framework that he finds ideologically obnoxious.)

Unsurprisingly, Phelan emerges as an opponent of the notion of journalistic objectivity and endorses comments made by Auckland University of Technology journalism associate professor Martin Hirst, an avowed socialist who, in the course of an exchange with me last year on this issue, dismissed the idea that journalists can and should strive to be neutral.

Phelan also addresses himself to a column in which my fellow Dom Post contributor Chris Trotter argued that formal journalism training, as opposed to the on-the-job training of the old days, stifles what might be called the gut journalistic instinct. “Students who follow unorthodox ideas and practices get ‘C’s. Rule-followers are rewarded with ‘A’s,” Trotter wrote. In this I believe he was spot on, as he is often is when he gets away from his nostalgic yearning for the heroic working-class struggle. (Remind me to tell you sometime what Wellington Polytechnic journalism tutors thought of the talented Steve Braunias when I taught a feature-writing course there in the early 1980s.)

While acknowledging that Trotter and I are political opposites, Phelan writes: “Both journalists [sic – Trotter is a political commentator, not a journalist] assert an antagonism to the academic field, but in different ways that are structured by two different discourses about what constitutes theory. Du Fresne perceives an academy contaminated by ideology and politics (theory as indulgent philosophizing), while Trotter indicts the University environment for its arid professionalism and depoliticization of journalistic identities (theory as political detachment). Despite these differences, I see this shared antagonism as indicative of a distinct journalistic habitus.” Oh dear, that word again.

As for me, I’m accused of trying to “symbolically annihilate” the perspective of others.

So public debate, when it involves criticism of ideas that Phelan endorses, is “symbolic annihilation”? No, Dr Phelan. It works like this. The media functions as a marketplace of ideas, among many other things. People like Dr Prichard put up ideas and if people like me think they’re stupid, we ping them. If in turn I say something stupid, I expect people to ping me – as they do from time to time. The readers of The Dominion Post, or this blog or whatever forum is involved, assess the competing arguments and make up their own minds.

That’s how a liberal democracy works, and it actually works pretty well. It couldn’t be simpler, really. Trouble is, academics such as Dr Phelan – to say nothing of people like Bourdieu and Foucault – depend for a living on making the world seem infinitely more complex than it really is. That’s part of the mystique that academia has succeeded in wrapping around itself.

As I wrote in a column last year, how the news media works is really not that complicated. Important and interesting things happen in the world. Editors publish or broadcast information about these events because they think their readers/viewers/listeners might want to know about them.

You could argue endlessly about the correctness of some of their decisions, but the process is no mystery. Media studies academics, however, prefer to bury this straightforward, everyday process of news selection under layers of highly imaginative, if ponderous, analysis and heavily politicised interpretation.
They read into the media all manner of coded signals that are visible to no one else, least of all people actually working in the media. And then they invent a whole new language to make it seem even more complex – a language that only they understand.

But back to Phelan. He concludes by laying bare his frustration and resentment. “My view is that New Zealand journalistic education is embedded in a fundamentally conservative network of surface pluralism that is insufficiently questioning, or worse indulging of, the kind of habitus exemplified, in different ways, by Du Fresne and Trotter. I have suggested that the academic field will continue to function as an instrument of the existing hegemonic order, so long as the teaching of journalism continues to be largely divorced from those critical pedagogical resources that can help illuminate some of the censoring and anti-democratic blind spots within the hegemonic journalistic habitus.”

Implicit in this approach, it seems to me, is an assumption that the primary role of the media is to challenge and upset the established order, for which read liberal capitalist democracy. The view expounded in some politicised journalism schools (or madrassas, as a former journalist acquaintance of mine once called them, after the fundamentalist Muslim indoctrination schools) is that journalists should not be mere passive, neutral reporters of events, but activists pursuing an agenda of change.

The question is, should we be bothered by people like Phelan? On the one hand, we can treat his paper as the irrelevant maunderings of a discontented and frustrated academic, likely to carry influence only within a small circle consisting largely of other discontented and frustrated academics. I’m reminded of the lines from Auden’s poem In Memory of W B Yeats:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper …

You could say much the same about many of the turgid texts written – at our expense, I should add – in the universities. They are like the noise of the tree falling in a distant forest that no one can hear.

On the other hand, it’s important that people understand how academia has been infiltrated – a loaded word, I know, but justified in this context – by people who have ideological barrows to push, and who have no qualms about using their sinecured positions in taxpayer-funded institutions to disseminate ideas that most people would find either peculiar or obnoxious, if only they could understand them.

I don’t dispute for a moment that universities have a vital function to fulfil as the “critic and conscience” of society, and I certainly don’t wish to silence people like Dr Phelan. Heck, here I am helping him disseminate his ideas even though I find them distasteful. It just strikes me as odd that the ideological current in our academic institutions flows so overwhelmingly in one direction.

Footnote: Sean Phelan may have a PhD and lecture journalism students, but an old-fashioned chief reporter, or even a half-decent journalism lecturer at one of the polytechnics for which he expresses disdain, would have his guts for garters. He twice misspells the name of one of his fellow academics (David Robie of AUT), wrongly describes National Business Review as a “fortnightly magazine”, incorrectly states that my Curmudgeon column is syndicated to other Fairfax papers including the Nelson Mail, and misleadingly implies that I was editor of The Dominion at the time it merged with The Evening Post. It appears theory takes precedence over practice even to the extent of not bothering too much about getting facts right.

Footnote #2: This response, in contrast to Phelan’s paper, was written at no cost to you, the taxpayer.

Footnote #3: I have sought advice from my solicitors as to whether Phelan’s description of me as an intellectual is defamatory.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

As I said to my long-suffering spouse ...

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 4.)

On the radio a few weeks ago, I heard the chief economist for one of the major trading banks chiding New Zealanders for having lived beyond their means for the past 20 years.

He pointed out that New Zealand was running a large current account deficit – which means we spend a lot more than we earn – and that we must achieve economic growth by earning rather than spending.

I thought this was pretty rich, coming from a senior spokesman for a sector that in recent years has done all it could to encourage people to borrow and spend.

At the same time I felt vindicated, because I have been saying for years to anyone prepared to listen, which usually means my long-suffering spouse, that the supposedly buoyant economy of the past few years was largely an illusion, fuelled by debt.

Economic activity in New Zealand has been driven by consumption rather than production. Much of that consumption has been financed with credit provided by banks and dodgy finance companies, many of which no longer exist. The result has been a huge burden of national debt.

Oh, I should also mention the other result of all that credit: a crazily overpriced property sector – again, driven by banks and other lenders – which is only now slowly regaining equilibrium.

All that money we ploughed into property was money that could have been invested in the primary industry sector – still this country’s ace card, though people seem unwilling to grasp it – or in the small, sophisticated, export-focused niche enterprises that New Zealanders do so well.

I am old enough to remember the days when you had to grovel to get mortgage finance and bank managers would laugh you off the premises if you had less than 25 percent deposit to put on a house. When banks start thrusting money at people who have no savings record but want to buy expensive homes, it’s surely a warning sign as ominous as the proverbial Wall Street shoeshine boy giving share tips.

I sometimes wonder whether it might still be true, as Robert Muldoon famously said, that most New Zealanders wouldn’t know a deficit if they fell over it. As a nation we are probably more economically literate than at any time in our past, yet we are still easily gulled.

Because the government’s accounts were in pretty good shape, at least until last year, we convinced ourselves the economy was healthy. Naturally the government, eager to be re-elected, was happy for us to remain in a state of delusion. In the meantime, private debt was running out of control.

While the booming property market made a lot of people giddily rich on paper, the export sector – the real source of prosperity – has been under-performing for years. Our productivity is lousy by international standards, our per capita GDP having steadily fallen behind that of other OECD countries.

Hardly anyone paused to dwell on these disconcerting facts, for two reasons. The first is that we were too busy taking overseas holidays, speculating in property and indulging in a spending binge – all on borrowed money.

The other is that we had a Labour government that had little understanding of business or appreciation of its importance. It was too busy pursuing its Utopian social agenda.

It probably didn’t help that the “experts” to whom the media habitually turn for economic analysis are mostly bank economists who are not necessarily well-placed to provide a balanced, “big picture” view of the economy, and whose views are inevitably conditioned by the interests of their employers.

Having said all that, it’s clear that New Zealand seems to be in a much stronger position to cope with the global financial downturn than many larger economies.

Though they stand accused of behaving irresponsibly by placing their profits ahead of New Zealand’s economic interests, our banks have been well managed to the extent that they are not falling over, unlike those of Britain and the US.

And despite woeful prognostications, I note that most of our listed companies are still announcing profits – and in some cases, quite healthy ones.

A sense of perspective is helpful. There’s no reason to panic because some companies’ profits have dropped. At least they’re still making money, which is more than can be said for the likes of General Motors.

Much has been made of the plight of Fisher and Paykel, which is said to be an “iconic” New Zealand company. But I fail to see why the taxpayer should bail F&P out, as has been suggested.

F&P has enjoyed many good years. For decades it prospered behind the walls of Fortress New Zealand, which kept prospective overseas competitors at bay using tariffs and other protectionist measures.

The great Kiwi whiteware company showed its appreciation of this generous treatment by ruthlessly pursuing a policy of retail price maintenance, which prohibited appliance dealers from discounting F&P products, and by refusing to allow retailers to stock competitors’ products. The consumer was well and truly suckered.

Recessions may be painful, but they do serve the useful function of weeding out companies that have become inefficient or lost their way. As for GM in the US, so for Fisher and Paykel here. The company took a gamble relocating much of its manufacturing overseas (so much for loyalty) and lost. Why should taxpayers have to pay for its miscalculation?

As it is, the world economic crisis is penalising the very people who have done all the right things – those who have saved and invested prudently. These people will be doubly punished in the coming years for the folly of those who were not so careful.

Not only have returns on their investments slumped, thanks to deflationary pressures pushing down interest rates as credit shrinks, but conscientious savers will share the tax burden arising from state bailouts of failed institutions and massive public spending on infrastructure as governments try to protect jobs and revive floundering economies.

In their desperation to forestall complete collapse, governments the world over – New Zealand included – are sending out signals that run counter to logic. By guaranteeing deposits in dodgy institutions they are undermining natural market forces such as risk, which serves as a vital check on foolish behaviour.

I’m no economist, but this seems crazy to me. If we must have a recession, let’s at least use it to purge the economy of tired, incompetent, greedy, complacent and untrustworthy enterprises.

That will lay the foundations for a healthy economy to carry us through to the next crisis. This is the “boom and bust” cycle by which capitalism – which is still unarguably the economic system most capable of delivering prosperity and freedom – periodically recharges itself.

Reality TV becomes fatality TV

(Published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, March 3.)

THE DEATH of man who leapt seven metres from an Auckland brothel window when immigration officers burst in to the building, accompanied by a “reality” TV crew, raises interesting issues.

First there is the question of whether officials get pumped up on adrenalin in such situations and indulge in unnecessarily dramatic behaviour in their eagerness to make themselves look heroic and provide exciting visuals for the TV show.

That in turn raises, again, the matter of that misleading term “reality TV”. What we see on these shows is never reality, because the behaviour of the people involved is inevitably affected by the presence of the camera.

The other question arising from the Auckland brothel death relates to privacy. If a man wants to patronise prostitutes, and it’s legal to do so, he shouldn’t have to indulge in panic-stricken coitus interruptus for fear of being caught on camera and having his face, not to mention other body parts, broadcast on network television. To use a phrase favoured by lawyers, he has a natural expectation of privacy.

It may well be that his face would have been pixillated in the finished programme so as to be unrecognisable. But a man embarrassed at being caught in a bordello – and bear in mind he may have had a wife and children – doesn’t have the luxury of time to think these things through. His fatal instinct was to run for it.

Where privacy concerns clash with a legitimate public interest in knowing something, I back the public right to know every time. But it’s hard to argue that there’s an overwhelming public interest in knowing that a private citizen is enjoying clandestine nooky with a hooker.

“Reality” TV has become fatality TV. The phenomenon is out of control and needs to be reined in.

* * *

HAD ENOUGH Academy Awards hysteria to last for the rest of the 21st Century?

Who really cares, outside Hollywood, which film gets the nod for Best Picture, or which over-hyped glamour-puss gets up for the acting honours? And who can take seriously the carefully orchestrated and highly ritualised presentation ceremony and acceptance speeches?

Movies and actors are like wine. You like some and you don’t care for others. We shouldn’t need supposed experts to tell us who or what is best.

Personally I would give a big swerve to anything starring supposed stars such as Sean Penn or Nicole Kidman, but would crawl the length of Lambton Quay naked – well, Chews Lane, anyway – to see anything starring Frances McDormand, Meryl Streep or Tommy Lee Jones.

Award ceremonies, whether they involve movies, wine or fashion, are essentially industry self-congratulation fests. Who cares what the members of the grandiosely titled Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decide, especially when the judging process is so contaminated by industry politics and behind-the-scenes lobbying?

For the record, by far the best American film of 2008 that I’ve seen was Burn After Reading, made by the incomparable Coen Brothers. It didn’t get a single Oscar nomination.

* * *

THE SUPER 14 season got off to the best possible start as far as I’m concerned.

New Zealand teams are doing badly, which means we have been spared the usual displays of chest-thumping about how great we are. I hope it stays that way.

My heart sinks every February, knowing we are about to face months of saturation rugby coverage in which cheerleading too often masquerades as sports journalism.

If the New Zealand teams went right through the Super 14 season without recording a single win, I couldn’t be happier. It wouldn’t do any harm to some of the show-pony players’ egos, either.

* * *

I SUPPOSE we should be grateful to television cook Allyson Gofton for lifting the lid – if you’ll pardon the pun – on what went on behind the scenes on Food In a Minute, which she says she quit because of the commercial pressures being put on her.

According to Gofton, she was asked to plug certain foods as healthy when she knew they were not and was leaned on to create recipes that didn’t make sense to her, simply to promote the sponsors’ products.

All of this confirms what a lot of us suspected about TVNZ – namely, that its relentlessly commercial ethos leaves it ethically compromised. Food In a Minute may be just a glorified ad, but its strategic placement in front of the 6pm news gives it a huge audience and virtual official endorsement.

But should we regard Gofton as a heroine for bravely going public about this? I would have been much more impressed if she had blown the whistle when it was actually happening, rather than post-facto.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A few thoughts on press freedom

Herewith another endurance test, or perhaps a surefire remedy for insomnia.
The following is a speech I gave at a Waikato University seminar last July on free speech. I understand it will be published in due course as part of a report of the seminar proceedings, but I decided to post it here because I believe press freedom is an issue that doesn't get enough attention. I would like to thank the Law Faculty at the University of Waikato for the opportunity to speak.

I would like to start by asking you to answer a couple of simple questions by raising your hands. I would like to know how many of you normally read the Waikato Times or the New Zealand Herald each day. And how many of you would have listened to either Morning Report or Paul Holmes this morning. And how many would have watched the TV News had you been at home tonight.

[Blog readers: predictably, nearly all hands were raised.]

Pretty much as I thought. We take it for granted that as one of our rights in a free and open democracy, we are entitled to receive uncensored information about what happens in government, in the courts, in our city councils, in business and so on.

We take it as a given that our politicians will be grilled, often quite aggressively, on radio and TV. After all, that’s part of the process of accountability that we regard as crucial in an informed democracy. And we consider it unremarkable that commentators, columnists and bloggers are free to analyse and criticise the policies and actions of our leaders, often very scathingly. That’s part of the process of public debate by which we form our conclusions about who is most fit to govern us.

But we rarely pause to think that in enjoying these democratic rights, we are in a minority internationally. That is borne out very starkly by the latest annual survey of world press freedom by the Washington-based group Freedom House, which shows that New Zealanders are among the 18 percent of the world’s population who live in a country with a free press. That’s eighteen percent, not eight-zero percent. Forty percent of the world’s population live in countries that are rated as having a partly free press and 42 per cent live in countries where there is no press freedom.

Put another way, that means 82 percent of the world’s population don’t share the freedom that we enjoy as New Zealanders to be informed about matters of public interest and importance and to engage in the exchange of ideas and opinion that is crucial to an informed democracy. These people live in what the American journalist Walter Lippman called the invisible society, denied the truth about what is going on around them; denied the knowledge they need to empower themselves politically and economically.

I mention this because I think we need to be reminded constantly of how precious this freedom is. And it’s becoming more precious rather than less, because the Freedom House survey for 2008 shows that global press freedom was in decline last year rather than in the ascendancy.

The decline in press freedom occurred in supposedly democratic countries as well as authoritarian states and has gone on for six years, the greatest setbacks occurring in Russia and some of the former Soviet republics.

Now there are two ways we can respond to this survey. We can sit back smugly and compliment ourselves on being in the international elite – New Zealand, after all, is in the top 10 countries for press freedom, as it has been for many years. Or we can take it as a reminder of how precarious press freedom really is.

I would like to quote the American satirical newspaper columnist Art Buchwald. Buchwald wrote many years ago: “The people who attempt to do the same thing I am doing in 95 percent of the world are either in gulags, under house arrest or are jobless. The problem is that because we have a free press [Buchwald was talking about America here] people have no idea what it’s like to live in a country that doesn’t.”

I take the view that rights and freedoms that are taken for granted are rights and freedoms that can very easily slip away, or be taken away. And the fact is that although we do enjoy a very high degree of press freedom in New Zealand, it’s more fragile than most people realise.

We do not, for example, have a written constitution that enshrines press freedom in supreme law. In this we differ from many countries – most notably the United States, where press freedom is protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution.

I don’t think it necessarily matters a great deal that we don’t have a formal constitutional guarantee of press freedom. Even without it, we enjoy greater press freedom than America – at least according to Freedom House, which ranks the United States well below us on its international table. And it’s worth noting that some of the most repressive countries in the Freedom House rankings have written constitutions whose high and mighty statements about freedom of the press are flagrantly disregarded.

But what the lack of a written constitution does mean in New Zealand is that without the protection of supreme law, we have to be constantly vigilant against attacks on press freedom. These attacks occur more or less constantly and can come from any number of directions.

“Attacks” is possibly not the right word, because that implies the primary purpose is to hobble the press, when quite often that may only be a side-effect or unintended consequence. “Threats” may be a more appropriate word. But whatever terminology is used the effect is the same: to undermine the ability of the media to tell people what’s going on.

I will deal more specifically with some of these threats shortly. But first I would like to set out a brief history of press freedom in New Zealand, and also the legal and constitutional standing of the media as I understand it. In doing this I am conscious of the fact that I’m sharing the stage with some distinguished authorities on the law and our constitutional arrangements, and as a layman I expect to be challenged if I get anything wrong. [Blog readers: I wasn't. Perhaps my fellow speakers, who included Sir Geoffrey Palmer, were just being polite.]

The history of the press in New Zealand and its relationship with those in power has followed an erratic course. In the New Zealand of the 19th century, newspaper publishing was a feverish activity and in many towns a newspaper was one of the first businesses to be established, along with the pub and the general store. There was a huge appetite for information and a realisation that newspapers were essential for creating a sense of identity and cohesion in new communities.

Many of those early newspapers were intensely partisan and outspoken politically. The first decades of European settlement were marked by constant skirmishing between newspaper proprietors and the colonial authorities. Bear in mind that many of these early proprietors and editors had migrated from Britain, where democracy was stirring and with it a demand for information and free speech.

As both the newspaper industry and the organs of government matured, things settled down. Many of the more partisan papers went out of business, while those that were non-aligned politically – such as the New Zealand Herald and Wellington’s Evening Post – not only survived but prospered. (An exception to this pattern, incidentally, was The Dominion, which was set up in 1907 to oppose the Liberal Party government, and of course is still going strong today. But that’s a story in itself.)

As the 20th century progressed, the press generally became tamer and more respectful toward authority. One of the most shameful episodes in New Zealand newspaper history, I believe, was the imposition of fiercely undemocratic restrictions on what the press could publish during the 1951 waterfront dispute – restrictions which proprietors and editors seem to have accepted without protest.

Back then the press genuflected to those in power. David Lange commented in 1994 that prime ministers’ press conferences were once formal occasions where journalists would ask questions in a deferential manner. They considered themselves privileged to get whatever information the prime minister chose to give them. Helen Clark would probably agree that’s not the case now.

I think we have broadcasters like Brian Edwards, and later the enfant terrible Simon Walker, to thank for the fact that from the late 1960s onwards, the media showed a bit more steel. It was TV programmes like Gallery and Compass that established the principle that politicians were accountable and could be confronted with awkward questions. It was television that pushed back the barriers, and the newspapers, led by papers such as the Sunday Times under the editorship of the late Frank Haden, were emboldened enough to follow. But even as late as the 1980s, politicians like Sir Robert Muldoon were still doing their best to exert control over the media. Winston Peters is still trying, but obviously no one’s told him the game is up.

Today we have, I believe, a healthier and more balanced relationship between politicians and the media. Indeed some might say the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and that some media figures have too much power.

I’ve compressed 160 years of journalism into a few paragraphs here, but I could sum it up by saying the relationship between the media and government is constantly shifting and redefining itself. Part of the reason is that in New Zealand, there is only a very loose constitutional and legal framework within which the media operate.

As I said before, there is no written constitutional guarantee of press freedom. What we do have in New Zealand is a complex but rather ill-defined system of customs, conventions, traditions and common law principles which allow the press to operate freely, in recognition of the fact that an informed public is crucial to the functioning of an effective democracy. Much of this we have inherited from Britain, but we have tacked on some of our own additions, some of which I will come to shortly.

The most obvious and fundamental of these press freedoms is the right to observe and report Parliament, for which we can thank the battles waged by English editors and journalists in the 18th and 19th centuries. Interestingly enough, as I understand it, nowhere is the right of the media to report Parliament unequivocally set out in law. On the contrary, journalists sit in the Press Gallery at the pleasure of the Speaker, and any MP can put a motion demanding that they leave. That this doesn’t ever happen is just one of those conventions that has evolved in a haphazard and one might say uniquely eccentric English way.

The same is largely true of the courts. There’s nothing to say that judges have to put up with reporters in their courtrooms, and indeed judges have extraordinarily wide powers to suppress whatever they like. But fortunately they recognise that to command public confidence, the workings of the courts must be visible – or to put it another way, that justice must be seen to be done.

There’s a quotation that’s applicable here. I haven’t been able to find out who said it, but it hardly matters because its truth is self-evident. Whoever it was said that freedom of the press in the British tradition was “simply an idea – a remarkably powerful and enduring idea, but never a fact of law”.

The interesting thing about our constitutional arrangements is that despite the media being arguably as crucial to the functioning of democratic government as any of the “official” branches, its role remains ill-defined. Parliament, the government and the courts all have their roles and relationships spelled out and their powers and limitations understood. But to all intents and purposes the media seem virtually invisible in the constitutional sense.

In my slim book The Right To Know, published by the Newspaper Publishers Association in 2005, I put it this way:

“Though New Zealand has no written constitution, elaborate rules, precedents and protocols set out standards for the satisfactory conduct of public business. The press, though arguably as crucial to the functioning of democratic government as any of these institutions [meaning Parliament, the executive and the courts], stands outside these mechanisms. Its place at the constitutional dinner table is that of a guest who is not on the formal invitation list, but without whom the occasion would be incomplete.”

The reason the dinner would be incomplete without a bunch of grubby reporters sitting at a table in the corner is that democracy cannot make sense without some means of communicating to the public what these other branches of government are doing. Representative democracy demands that the public know what their representatives are up to, and it also depends on those representatives knowing what the public thinks. The news media provide the vital link in the democratic chain without which the public simply cannot engage in the political process.

It was presumably this that Edmund Burke had in mind when he made his famous statement that there were three estates in Parliament – meaning the church, the aristocracy and the commons – “but in the reporters’ gallery yonder, there sat a fourth estate more important than they all.”

I’m not trying to portray journalists as noble or saintly. No one who knows any journalists would fall for that. But I would say that in a sense, they’re doing God’s work.

Neither am I trying to make an argument for a more robust constitutional protection of press freedom in New Zealand, because the extraordinary thing is that it works pretty well the way it is. What I am pointing out is that it’s fragile, and can easily be put at risk. But when threats to press freedom arise, it’s often only the press itself that opposes them, and invariably when it does so it’s accused of acting out of self-interest. That suggests to me that there is not a wide enough understanding or appreciation of how a free press and an open, transparent democracy benefits us all. It’s not ultimately about the right of media barons to have more power or make more money; it’s about the public right to know.

I mentioned earlier that New Zealand has tacked a couple of its own additions on to the constitutional arrangements we acquired from Britain. I would like to touch on these now, because they suggest that notwithstanding what I have just said, Parliament at times has demonstrated a very strong commitment to openness and press freedom.

The Official Information Act of 1982 was a milestone, overturning a long history of official secrecy. Unfortunately, although the Act’s purpose was noble, its full potential hasn’t been realised because secrecy remains the default setting of many bureaucrats and politicians, at local as well as central government level, and there are too many ways of negating or undermining the intent of the legislation. Still, we’re far better off with it than without it.

Another groundbreaking statute, although its full significance possibly wasn’t grasped at the time it was enacted, was the Bill of Rights Act of 1990, for which Sir Geoffrey Palmer can take much of the credit. Whereas the Official Information Act could be said to have failed to live up to its promise, the reverse is true of the Bill of Rights Act. Its impact has arguably been greater and wider than was anticipated.

The crucial part of the Bill of Rights Act, in so far as press freedom is concerned, is Section 14, which holds that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinion of any kind and in any form”. It also says that “the rights and freedoms contained in the Act may be subject only to such reasonable limits … as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”.

Astonishingly, it was the first time these fundamental democratic precepts had been enshrined in New Zealand law. And though the Act does not have the status of supreme law, meaning it could theoretically be overturned by a simple parliamentary majority, it has had a far-reaching impact on media freedom and freedom of expression. Canterbury University media law authority Ursula Cheer put it nicely when she said the Act has allowed judges to breathe life into our rights – even those rights that existed beforehand.

Being a curmudgeonly type, I would like to finish on a negative note. I want to return to some of those threats against press freedom and transparency that I referred to much earlier in my speech.

These take multiple forms and arise constantly. They are like the hydra of Greek mythology: slice off one head, and two others will grow in its place. Some of these threats arise from initiatives that are well-intentioned but wrong-headed; others are more malevolent in their purpose. Some target the media specifically; others pose broader threats to the right to obtain and exchange information and ideas. I will touch briefly on several.

Suppression of names and proceedings in courts is an issue that never seems to go away. It is antithetical to openness and the right to know. Suppression is not so much an issue at High Court level, where there have been some emphatic rulings about the importance of transparency, but it’s rampant in the District Courts, where some judges now seem to regard name suppression – at least on an accused person’s first appearance – as the norm rather than the exception.

Even in the High Court, where judges should know better, there have been cases of blanket suppression – and I mean blanket, even to the point where no one was allowed to disclose that proceedings were taking place, still less the detail of them. I know I would feel extremely uncomfortable if I had to defend myself in proceedings that no one outside the courtroom was even allowed to know about, but that was the Kafka-esque position the Foxton author and journalist Anne Hunt found herself in several years ago.

There is another form of suppression that is perhaps less obvious but no less insidious, and that is the continuing tendency for public business to be conducted behind closed doors. In many municipalities it has become routine for the press to be shut out of important council deliberations, so vital decisions are made about matters of public interest without the press being able to inform the public how or why those decisions were arrived at.

At the legislative level, threats to press freedom can come out of nowhere. An example was the sneaky attempt in 2001 to introduce a criminal defamation clause into an electoral reform bill. I won’t go into the detail but the effect, as the government’s own legal advisers pointed out, would have been to stifle public political debate in forums such as newspaper correspondence columns and radio talkback shows.

In a similar vein we have recently seen the fiasco of the Electoral Finance Act, which leaves the news media relatively untouched but has woven a tangle of legal red tape around the most basic of democratic rights, the right to express a political opinion.

Regulatory creep is another issue. There has recently been a storm of controversy over a public health bill that would give the Director-General of Health – a bureaucrat, not an elected politician – power to impose regulations controlling the advertising and marketing of certain foods. Once you allow that level of control, it’s only a relatively short step to suggesting that wine columns and restaurant reviews should be banned on the basis that they are injurious to the public health.

There is a relatively new but very real tension between press freedom and personal privacy. Professor John Burrows QC, a member of the Law Commission and a leading authority on media law, describes privacy as the “new kid on the legal block”. There are circumstances in which privacy issues can clash head-on with freedom of information, usually where public figures are concerned, and as John Burrows has said, these competing interests can sometimes be hard to reconcile. This is an area of the law that is still evolving and it’s hard to predict how it’s going to pan out.

Compared with newspapers and television overseas, I think the New Zealand news media have been generally respectful of personal privacy and for the most part have no desire to pry gratuitously into people’s private lives. There is, for example, a long-standing convention that politicians’ personal lives are off-limits unless they do something that reflects on their ability to do their job or exposes them as hypocrites. But these long-standing arrangements are coming under pressure as a result of a celebrity culture that feeds on the private lives of public people. One of the problems is that many public figures welcome and even encourage media attention as long as it’s favourable, but quickly call in the lawyers when the media expose the murkier side of their lives. There have been examples of this overseas, such as the celebrated case involving the supermodel Naomi Campbell, and it’s only a matter of time before similar things happen here.

We have also seen privacy concerns intrude into other areas of the law, with serious implications not just for freedom of the press, but for freedom of information in the broadest sense. An example was the government’s attempt last year to close off public access to the births, deaths and marriages register. The ostensible purpose was to prevent identity theft, but the real reason, judging by an explanatory note attached to the Bill when it came before Parliament, was that public registers were “inappropriate in light of current attitudes toward privacy and protection of personal information”. Whose attitudes? you might ask. Certainly not the public’s, because the public was never consulted. The Bill was hatched behind closed doors by public servants who decided the public had to be protected from information about itself. Here you get a coming together of the old bureaucratic obsession with secrecy and the more recent preoccupation with personal privacy. It’s a potent combination with dangerous implications for the public’s right to know.

Freedom of expression, which is indivisible from freedom of the press, is under constant attack. The Danish cartoons episode, in which newspaper editors were subjected to a gang-up by powerful figures in government and the bureaucracy, was a vivid demonstration of how fragile free speech is in New Zealand. The courts of Britain and New Zealand, to their great credit, have a long history of upholding the right to publish material that offends some people. Far from expressing censorious disapproval, Helen Clark should have been defending the right of those editors to publish the cartoons even if she disagreed with their decision.

For much the same reason I strongly disapproved of the government’s ban on the Holocaust revisionist David Irving. I believe that our liberal democracy is robust enough to cope with the views of cranks and nutters, and that by driving their views underground all you do is risk giving them a sort of fugitive mystique. I love the resounding call of the poet Milton: “Let truth and falsehood grapple; whoever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

More recently I have seen letters in the papers exhorting editors not to publish the views of climate change sceptics. It seems that for some people, free speech is fine only as long as it happens to express views they agree with.

I could go on at some length about other forms of interference in press freedom – of the way Official Information Act requests are routinely obstructed, for example, or Parliament’s stubborn refusal to allow cameras to show what really goes on there. But time doesn’t permit it.

I don’t want to over-dramatise the threats to press freedom in New Zealand. Editors and journalists here don’t risk murder, torture or imprisonment as they do in some countries. You don’t have to get a government licence to publish a paper and the government doesn’t seize your printing press if you say something it doesn’t like. Journalists don’t get harassed and intimidated as they do in Fiji and they aren’t threatened with imprisonment if they refuse to disclose confidential sources, which has happened only recently in Australia. New Zealanders are free to seek and obtain information from more sources than people in North Korea, Cuba or the Sudan could ever dream about. But we will enjoy these rights only as long as we value them for the precious freedoms they are. The day we become complacent about press freedom is the day it becomes vulnerable to attack.

I would like to finish with two thoughts. The first is that freedom of the press is about much more than freedom of the press. Cynics like to dismiss press freedom as being solely about the freedom of media owners to make money. In fact it is about people’s right to know, their right to live in an open society, their right to engage in the decision-making process and to participate freely in debate about matters of public interest.

My other final point is that I’m not here to defend everything the news media do. We could argue all night about whether the press performs its functions properly and responsibly. As a journalist I cringe with embarrassment at some of the stuff I see in the papers and on the TV news. But I leave you with a quotation by the French author and philosopher Albert Camus, who said: “A free press can of course be good or bad, but most certainly without freedom it will never be anything but bad.”

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Nice One, Andy

People with long memories will recall Andy Shaw as the host of the afternoon show Hey, Hey, It’s Andy! on what was then known as South Pacific Television (now TV2) during the 1970s.

He was an unappealing, if cocky, youth who could barely string three words together. He lacked any obvious talent and it mystified me (I was then the TV critic for Wellington’s Evening Post) that he’d been chosen to go up against the goofy but engaging Stu Dennison, host of Nice One Stu on the rival channel.

But it mystifies me even more that Shaw has subsequently led something of a charmed life in television, rising to the powerful position of TVNZ’s general manager for commissioning, production and acquisitions. Whatever other abilities he may lack, he’s obviously a survivor.

In view of his place in the hierarchy of the TVNZ Death Star, I’ve sometimes wondered whether I may have been wrong in my initial assessment of young Shaw. But then again, perhaps not. He was a yobbo then and it seems he's a yobbo still.

Today’s New Zealand Herald reports that at the launch of a new TV series last week, Shaw publicly dumped on Dominion Post TV critic Jane Bowron for having the temerity to shred TVNZ’s comedy programme Go Girls in a review.

Shaw was outed by Herald on Sunday gossip columnist Rachel Glucina, who reported that he called the Dom Post “just a waste of good shit paper”.

Glucina said he added self-satisfactorily: “I don't give a shit about shares or making money or columnists. I just care about comedy... If you don't laugh at this [show] you are fucking dead. I will find you and kill you ... [This speech] might cost me my job, but hell, I have options.”

Today’s Herald reports that Shaw has since apologised in an email to Bowron and told her that his comments did not reflect his real view of her or the Dom Post. Presumably he was just being clever then, perhaps carried away by the excitement of the occasion and a fawning audience of Auckland media luvvies.

The Herald quoted TVNZ spokeswoman Megan Richards as saying Shaw’s passion for television had outstripped both his humour and his wisdom.

I would say that in fact he has done us a favour by giving us an insight into the sophistication, refinement and wit of the people who run the state TV network. It helps explain the meretricious trash they bombard us with, night after night.

The episode seems to confirm that Shaw’s mental age hasn’t advanced much since the days of Hey, Hey, It’s Andy! and that the louts-and-loudmouths culture at TVNZ still hasn’t been entirely eradicated.