Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A reminder of how much we need the media

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, March 1.)

JOURNALISTS cop a lot of flak, some of it justified, but the events of the past week have demonstrated how heavily society relies on the media in times of crisis.

Radio, in particular, comes into its own. Its immediacy, broad reach and accessibility make it invaluable as a means of quickly getting vital information across to an anxious public.

Radio New Zealand and Newstalk ZB did a sterling job in Christchurch. The flow of information was nonstop, much of it provided by reporters who, like those in the emergency services, had their own gnawing worries about family, homes and friends. They just had to put these aside.

Police and journalists have a generally uneasy relationship, but even the most media-averse police officer grudgingly acknowledges that the media are indispensable at such times, just as they are when the police need help from the public to solve crimes.

But it wasn’t only hard news and practical advice that radio conveyed. In the middle of the night when people were feeling frightened and alone, the voice in the darkness offered a sense of connectedness and a reassuring feeling that they were not totally isolated. Messages of support and encouragement from around the world, read out regularly by radio hosts, must also have boosted morale.

And what of the other media? Television stepped up to the mark too, though I felt sorry for the journalists from TVNZ’s Christchurch newsroom who, having performed admirably in the vital hours immediately after the quake, seemed to get shunted aside by “star” reporters dispatched from Auckland.

One of the refreshing aspects of the earthquake coverage was that journalists emerged as real human beings, emotionally affected by the tragedy like everyone else, but getting on with the professional job of describing it. The sheer enormity of what they were reporting meant that for a few days, the professional mask slipped – and they looked all the better for it.

As for the print media, it was the turn of those old warhorses, the news photographers. The most powerful and telling images of the Christchurch tragedy weren’t on television or radio; they were in the papers.

In future decades when people want to understand the drama, the terror, the heroism and the anguish of Christchurch, they will turn to the newspaper pictures.

* * *

“I CAN’T think of a more effective backbencher than [Sue] Bradford. She got a record three private members’ bills passed into law. My favourites were abolishing the discriminatory youth wage and, of course, the anti-smacking bill.”

So wrote trade unionist Matt McCarten in a recent Herald On Sunday column in which he commented on speculation about the formation of a new hard-Left party involving him and Bradford.

Yep, you have to hand it to Bradford. By making inexperienced young workers unaffordable to many employers, the abolition of the youth wage consigned thousands of teenagers to the dole queue. What a triumph.

And the anti-smacking bill that McCarten regards as such a milestone? It was passed against the wishes of 80 percent of the public, which says everything about the Left’s respect for the will of the people (though it should never be forgotten that National was complicit in this abuse of democracy).

The ultimate insult is that Bradford was able to accomplish all this even though she represented no electorate and rode into Parliament on the back of a party that never commanded more than 7 percent of the vote.

But she was effective, all right. I’d be hard-pressed to think of any MP who did more damage in a shorter time.

* * *

I WAS SO impressed by the following sign in a car park near the entrance to Raglan Harbour that I wrote it down.

It was headed “Bar Crossing Safety (Wainamu Beach Access)” and read as follows:

“The Transit Zone as per the navigation safety bylaw is reserved for the purpose of ensuring safety in crossing the bar at the entrance to the harbour.

“All power driven vessels transiting the area must maintain their course.

“No kite surfers or board sailors operating in this area shall obstruct or impede the path of any transiting vessel.”

I presume this means that boats coming in and out of the harbour shouldn’t change course and that kite surfers and board sailors shouldn’t get in their way. But I had to read the sign several times before I could decode it.

It’s that unfamiliar word “transiting” that causes the reader to stumble. It’s a classic, cumbersome bureaucrat’s word.

No doubt some council functionary with a clipboard felt well pleased with himself at having conveyed an essentially simple message in the most complicated way possible, but how many foreign kite surfers and board sailors had narrow misses because they couldn’t understand the sign is anyone’s guess.

No comments: