Thursday, March 31, 2011

Great group, shame about the name - and vice-versa

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 30.)

People tend to forget it now, but one of the many odd things about the Beatles when they first crashed into the public consciousness in 1963 was their name.

Its weirdness seemed to match that of their clothing and hairstyles, which – like their music – resembled nothing that had gone before. I remember gazing at a picture of them as if they were aliens.

The few pop groups we were familiar with then had names like the Shadows, the Ventures, the Platters and the Pirates. What could have inspired a misspelled name suggestive of insects?

As it happened, the Beatles were admirers of Buddy Holly and the Crickets, who had chosen their name because they wanted something different from the bird-themed band names popular when rock and roll started to blossom in the late 1950s. So the four Liverpudlians opted to call themselves the Beetles as a tribute to their American heroes, but then – with the inventiveness that became their trademark – turned it into a word-play by inserting “a” in place of an “e”.

Not that any of this matters, since no one these days gives a thought to what an odd name the Beatles was. They so quickly took the world by storm that it ceased to matter.

The same applies to the Rolling Stones. They took their name not directly from the famous proverb (“A rolling stone gathers no moss”) but from a Muddy Waters blues song called Rollin’ Stone. It’s probably not the name a 21st century marketing consultant would choose for an up-and-coming rock band, but it doesn’t appear to have held them back.

What caused me to ruminate on this was a quirky reference book called The A to Z Of Almost Everything, in which I came across a section devoted to the derivation of pop group names. As it happened, it didn’t include the Beatles. But as someone with a penchant for trivia, I started jotting down other group names I could think of that either particularly appealed to me or had intriguing back-stories.

I included in my list several groups from New Zealand, starting with the Windy City Strugglers – a name perfectly chosen to reflect not only their geographical roots but also their music. The Strugglers (who have been going since 1968) are a gritty blues/folk/country band who draw their inspiration from the traditional songs of the American South – songs that are often concerned with the pain and despair experienced by poor rural folk in just trying to get by from day to day.

But the name also pays homage to their home town of Wellington, the world’s windiest capital. On top of that it conjures up an image of a group of battlers, heroically persevering in the face of the weather, prevailing musical fashions and the challenges of making a buck in a notoriously capricious business. So “Strugglers” couldn’t be more apt.

I remember also being impressed by the name of the 1980s Dunedin student band Netherworld Dancing Toys, which was pinched from a line in a song by Roxy Music. Don’t ask me why, but it had an evocative ring. Unfortunately it was a case of great name, shame about the band. I couldn’t stand their clunker of a song For Today, which was inexplicably a hit.

Another striking name is Fly My Pretties, which isn’t so much a band as a loose-knit bunch of very accomplished New Zealand musicians who occasionally collaborate. Founder Barnaby Weir, who chose the name, was apparently inspired by the scene in The Wizard Of Oz where the wicked witch sends her winged monkeys off to find Dorothy and Toto (though apparently she doesn’t utter those precise words).

Looking beyond New Zealand, a band name that always appealed to me was Dexy’s Midnight Runners. It alludes to the drug Dexedrine, which was popular among club goers in the English Midlands, where the band originated. “Midnight runner” referred to the fact that the drug gave users the energy to keep going all night.

Those who recall the video of their hit Come On Eileen will recall Dexy’s Midnight Runners as looking like a bunch of raffish, street-wise and slightly menacing urchins. It was a case of the name and the band being a perfect fit.

Creedence Clearwater Revival was an inspired name too, though cobbled together in haphazard circumstances. It worked because it seemed right for their music, which sounded like something out of the bayou swamps. (I was captivated when I first heard Proud Mary, a song about a Mississippi paddle steamer, and remember feeling a vague sense of betrayal when I learned the band came from California rather than the Deep South.)

Inevitably, sex was the inspiration behind many band names. That of British art-rock band 10cc referred to the volume of semen ejaculated in a male orgasm. American pop band the Lovin’ Spoonful took their name from a phrase in a blues song by Mississippi John Hurt which probably meant much the same thing. And of the several different explanations I’ve heard for the meaning of Pearl Jam, the most convincing is that it’s a slang term for semen.

The name of Steely Dan, one of my favourite bands, had sexual connotations too. The original Steely Dan was a steam-powered dildo in William Burroughs’ novel The Naked Lunch. That band founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker chose the name says something about both their subversive sense of humour and their esoteric intellectual leanings.

Blind Faith, the first so-called supergroup, and Dire Straits had names that told a story about the bands’ origins. Blind Faith was a sardonic (and prophetic) comment on the prospects of the four musicians getting along together, while Dire Straits expressed the desperate state of the band’s finances.

It can be seen from this that band names are created from all manner of things. ABBA was taken from the initials of the members’ Christian names, while the Bay City Rollers chose theirs by sticking a pin in a map of America and hitting an obscure port city in Michigan. The Doobie Brothers were named after a slang term for a marijuana joint, while Bob Dylan’s backing group was simply known as “the band” and retained that name (albeit with a capital T and B) when they became an act in their own right.

What’s also clear is that a dumb name like the Beatles is no obstacle to success if the band has talent. Conversely, pop history is littered with the corpses of groups that had brilliant names but no talent to back them.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The po-faced neo-prudes rule

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, March 29.)

BRIAN TRUE-MAY, the co-creator and producer of the popular TV series Midsomer Murders, has effectively been forced to step aside after a magazine interview in which he described the programme as “the last bastion of Englishness” and said it wouldn’t work if it included racial minorities.

He thus becomes yet another casualty of political correctness. The po-faced neo-prudes rule.

The essence of Midsomer Murders, the source of its charm, is that it is set in a mythical, rural England where the villages have names like Badger’s Drift, Luxton Deeping and Monks Barton. The characters are quintessentially English, which means white (and often slightly loopy).

Though nominally set in the present, the series conjures up an England from an indeterminate period in the past. If it were suddenly swamped with characters wearing Muslim head-scarves or speaking with West Indian accents, the illusion would be shattered.

But none of this matters to the enforcers of political correctness, who seem to demand that Midsomer Murders reflect the multicultural reality of modern Britain. That this would destroy its inherent escapist appeal is of no concern to them.

A spokesman for ITV, which broadcasts Midsomer Murders, said he was “shocked and appalled” by True-May’s comments. The company’s over-reaction shows how defensive broadcasters have become in the face of attacks by zealots seeking to impose their oppressive orthodoxy.

There was nothing racist in what True-May said. He didn’t besmirch non-white British citizens or suggest they were inferior or unworthy. He simply stated what should be obvious to any viewer of his programme: namely, that it depicts a fantasy England similar to that portrayed in the books of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers.

That ITV threw True-May to the wolves rather than upheld his right to remain true to his harmless artistic vision – one that has brought pleasure to millions of viewers – is a disgrace.

So now the enemies of free speech have another scalp to hang on their belts. True-May’s shafting came after veteran Sky TV football commentator Andy Gray was suspended for making supposedly sexist remarks off-air about a lineswoman – he questioned whether women knew the offside rule – and former England coach Glenn Hoddle was forced to apologise for repeating a lame but inoffensive old football joke about an imaginary Chinese player named Knee Shin Toe. (Gray was subsequently sacked when other off-air behaviour came to light, but that’s another story.)

You could accuse these people of being oafish, but heck – they’re football commentators, not Supreme Court judges. The hullabaloo over their verbal indiscretions shows that even sports commentary has become a minefield. Where, I wonder, will it end?

* * *

GREATER Wellington Regional Council, which looks increasingly like a retirement home for former Labour MPs unable to wean themselves off the public teat, has been busy congratulating itself over the announcement of a multimillion-dollar urban rail upgrade.

All this must have come as a surprise to long-suffering rail commuters, who thought the upgrade was already nearing completion. Wasn’t that given as the reason for the constant delays on Wellington lines over the past year or so? And weren’t commuters repeatedly assured that the end was in sight?

Now they learn that there’s still much more to be done. More disruption, more delays? You can bet on it. If I were a commuter, I’d suspect that the council hadn’t been straight with me.

But never mind, because Greater Wellington is getting on with the things that really matter. Its propaganda sheet tells us that the council’s partnership with the mana whenua iwi has been reinforced by the adoption of a Maori name: Te Pane Matua Taiao.

The name was developed by a group of Maori language experts – at what cost wasn’t revealed – and council chair Fran Wilde welcomed its gifting to the council as a taonga. This splendid news will no doubt help soothe the frayed tempers of all those commuters who just want to get to work on time.

* * *

I AM NOT A royalist, but there is a certain satisfaction in observing the success of the visit to New Zealand and Australia by Prince William.

He was a huge hit; no doubt about it. And not just here, but in Australia too, where republicanism runs much deeper. Enthusiastic crowds, young and old, turned out to see him everywhere.

The mystique of royalty is lost on me. I would sooner cut my lawns with a pair of scissors than queue for a glimpse of a royal personage. Yet the fact remains that the constitutional monarchy serves New Zealand well, and anything that takes the wind out of the sails of our small but noisy republican lobby is to be welcomed.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Journalism as blood sport

It has been interesting, if not entirely edifying, to observe the way the Darren Hughes story has unfolded. It has followed a now familiar and generally predictable trajectory.

It started with a mere sniff of a story in which an unnamed MP was at the centre of a police investigation, then gathered momentum with striking speed – as is now the pattern – as the facts tumbled out.

Few things move faster or more mercilessly than the parliamentary press gallery when it has the scent of blood in its nostrils. In quick succession we learned the identity of the politician involved (Hughes had little option but to out himself, since the controversy threatened to cast suspicion on his colleagues) and that there was a homosexual element – an irresistible frisson to anyone old enough to recall that homosexual smears derailed the careers of high-profile Labour MPs Colin Moyle and Gerald O’Brien in the 1970s.

In short order the controversy engulfed both Phil Goff and his deputy Annette King, in whose house the alleged unspecified incident with the unnamed 18-year-old complainant took place. Under intense media pressure, and no doubt sensing a spreading taint, Goff shifted from being strongly supportive of Hughes to a more distanced position.

As the crisis escalated, Hughes (who has insisted throughout that he did nothing wrong) went from merely being placed on leave – the standard first step in damage control – to losing his roles as chief whip and education spokesman and then resigning altogether. All this in less than three days, and largely in response to relentless media pressure.

In the meantime, significantly, the focus shifted from the MP at the centre of the affair to his leader. Suddenly it was Goff’s behaviour, rather than that of Hughes, that was under scrutiny. Why had he not taken the initiative when he first learned of the police investigation two weeks previously? (A fair question: he might have been in a better position to control the story, and he wouldn’t have had to answer awkward questions about the inconsistency between keeping quiet about Hughes when he had attacked John Key in 2009 for not being more forthcoming about his errant former cabinet minister Richard Worth.)

The speed with which such stories develop is a feature of the modern media. There was a time when, if the facts emerged at all, they would have been prised out over a period of days or even weeks. Now they can assume tsunami force within hours. The first hint of the Hughes controversy emerged on Wednesday morning and by Friday he was toast. Phew; it fair takes your breath away.

Watching it unfold, I was reminded of Tony Blair’s comments in 2007 about the pressure placed on politicians by the relentless 24/7 pace of media coverage and the need for "impact" in news bulletins. Events developed at outstanding speed, Blair said. "Make a mistake and you frequently transfer from drama to crisis. Things harden within minutes.” If Goff didn’t fully understand that before this week, he certainly will now.

The question now is whether Labour’s panic-stricken attempts to contain the damage will be enough to ensure Goff’s survival – which brings us to another phenomenon of contemporary political coverage.

Media scrutiny of Goff’s behaviour has gone beyond simply informing the public. It rapidly progressed to the point where journalists seemed intent on undermining him. Breathless reports that Goff's leadership was on the line seemed to lack any solid corroboration, which led me to suspect that it was journalists, rather than disaffected Labour MPs, who were greasing the skids under him. Anything to drive the drama on and keep the story at the top of the bulletins.

There is a fine line between reporting events and driving them. I get the uneasy feeling that some of the more aggressive political journalists, such as TV3’s Duncan Garner and Patrick Gower, will stay on the case until they have a scalp to hang on their belts (or better still, two scalps; why stop at Hughes when Goff presented an even more tantalising target?). At times like this, political journalism starts to resemble a blood sport. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, Garner and Gower are the hyenas with their teeth clamped in the wounded gnu's buttocks.

Is this the legitimate role of the media? Traditionally, journalists have been content to report the news then step back and allow events to take their natural course. But increasingly, they see themselves as central players in the political process rather than as mere passive observers. As I wrote in a column a couple of years ago, journalists have become choreographers of the political ballet, using their power and influence to shape and drive events.

I don’t care one way or another whether Goff remains leader of the Labour Party, but I don’t think it’s for journalists to decide. Their job is to brings facts out into the open and leave it to others – in this case the Labour caucus – to determine what, if anything, should be done next. But the media wield such power that when journalists latch onto a vulnerable politician as they have done with Goff, undermining him by questioning whether he’s up to the job, it has a habit of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I don’t believe that’s the function of the media in a democracy. Bringing down a government is sometimes cited as the ultimate journalistic coup, but I think that’s a distortion of the journalist’s role. We should remember that when Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate affair, which is often cited as the high-water mark of journalism in the 20th century, they didn’t set out to bring down Richard Nixon. Their revelations weren’t accompanied by strident denunciations. Their job was simply to report what had happened and let events take their course, which is exactly as it should be.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Why like-minded people end up disembowelling each other

Someone wiser and more worldly than I may be able to explain why people who fundamentally agree on most things often end up falling out with each other. There must be a name for it.

I’m talking about the phenomenon whereby people who are closely aligned overall on matters of politics and ideology end up tearing each other’s throats out because they differ slightly on certain points or strategies. Their disagreements become magnified to the point where they completely overshadow all the things they have in common. Put another way, they end up being so focussed on the two percent of issues where they are at odds that they forget they are compatible on the other 98. Ironically, they often end up hating each other more than they do the supposed common enemy.

The far Left provides the textbook example, and I’m not just talking about the fact that Leon Trotsky ended up with an icepick in his skull because of his differences with Stalin. The Communist Party in New Zealand, in its various manifestations, was famous for its bitter schisms. One of the reasons the far Left never got traction here is that its members were so busy trying to disembowel each other, figuratively speaking, that the filthy capitalists were left to screw the proletariat unopposed.

But the other side hasn’t escaped unbloodied either. Just look at the self-inflicted damage suffered by ACT last year, when the party’s factional split became so ugly it could no longer be disguised.

Even the not-for-profit sector seems stricken by the same problem. Charities are notorious for their dysfunctionalism and infighting, as Dave Armstrong wittily observed in a recent Dominion Post column. Commenting on the apparently endless feuding between Wellington SPCA board members (whom he accused of fighting like cats and dogs), Armstrong wrote: “I’m no vet, but I suspect the SPCA board has picked up a bad case of CBD – Charity Board Dysfunction, usually caused by TME (Tossers with Massive Egos) and transmitted in meetings.”

As Armstrong astutely observed, the SPCA isn’t the only charity where personal clashes and conflicting agendas distract people from the job they are ostensibly there to do. I reckon his CBD should be recognised in psychological textbooks as a clinical disorder.

What caused me to reflect on this is that I recently came to a parting of the ways with someone whose friendship I had enjoyed for many years. This was triggered by a relatively innocuous column that I wrote (reproduced on this blog) about Radio New Zealand. My friend and I agree on most things but I have come to the conclusion, after many spirited exchanges over the years, that the price of her friendship was that I was expected to fall into line with her very firm views – including her opinion of Radio New Zealand, which is somewhat less generous than mine. Eventually I found the lecturing intolerable.

I would like to think our views on the big issues are still compatible, but the friendship has foundered over a relatively minor difference. This strikes me as an example, in microcosm, of the ideological schisms referred to above.

This is a problem that seems to arise only when people have particularly strong convictions, as in the case of both the far Right and the far Left. Those who deviate even slightly from the approved line are considered to have betrayed the cause. Thus it’s possible, paradoxically, to have a less strained relationship with someone whose views are wholly at odds with your own than with someone who’s nominally on the same side, because you accept that those on the other side of the ideological divide are beyond redemption; not worth the effort. With that acceptance comes a tolerance that isn’t necessarily extended to those in your own camp.

At least that’s the way I rationalise it, but others may be able to explain it better. Whatever the explanation, it helps us to understand why the pragmatists in the political centre – those whose beliefs are flexible enough to bend with the wind – almost invariably end up winners, while those with firmer convictions are left to fume impotently on the sideline.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hughes has done the right thing

I was sorry to hear that Darren Hughes is the Labour MP being investigated over an alleged incident involving an 18-year-old. Of the politicians I know, Hughes is one of the more likeable – genial, witty and intelligent. He says he has done nothing wrong, but he has done the right thing in identifying himself and thus removing suspicion from some of his colleagues.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When does legitimate coverage morph into disaster porn?

There’s been quite a debate going on at about media coverage of the Christchurch earthquake and its aftermath. More specifically, the debate is about whether television footage and newspaper photos of injured, shocked and grieving people amounted to an invasion of personal privacy. (My own daughter, looking at pictures of quake victims, wondered how their families would feel about some of the more intimate shots.)

Pundit blogger Tim Watkin, a news producer at TVNZ, argued that graphic coverage was necessary to convey the enormity of the event. In essence, he reasoned that the right of the affected individuals to privacy was trumped by the interest of the wider population in seeing what had happened.

Media law and ethics specialist Steven Price, a barrister who has worked as a journalist, took a slightly different view. In his blog at he used the term “QuakePorn” and said the repeated screening of “highlights” packages showing injured and distraught people crossed the line. “Someone make them stop,” he pleaded.

All this led to a thoughtful discussion on TVNZ7’s The Court Report, again featuring Watkin and Price, this time with a panel of lawyers and a law academic. Price said most of the news coverage was professional and responsible, but some made him squirm – a view that got support from panellists. Price said he had also felt uncomfortable about some of the footage showing the grieving families of Pike River miners. But Watkin, while accepting that individuals had suffered from the intense media scrutiny, argued that explicit footage was necessary to connect the rest of the country with what was happening. He said (and I don’t think anyone could argue) that the news coverage was a key factor in uniting the nation behind the people of Christchurch in their time of anguish. He also suggested that the media owed it to history to record events in the raw.

This touched off a spirited, but again thoughtful, discussion on pundit, all of which demonstrates that the debate over the right to individual privacy versus the public right to know is a vexed one that may never be wholly resolved.

As Price pointed out, it’s an area of the law that is still evolving. Journalists have traditionally assumed that they were free to report, film or photograph whatever happens in public, but that assumption was overturned in a landmark court case brought by broadcaster Michael Hosking and his estranged wife in 2003. The Hoskings wanted to stop New Idea from publishing photos taken of their twin daughters in a busy Auckland shopping mall. The case went to the Court of Appeal, which unanimously ruled against the Hoskings but took the opportunity to refine privacy law, perhaps in recognition of the increased boldness of the media in pushing the boundaries.

The court held in a majority decision (opposed by two dissenting judges who believed there were already adequate protections in place) that there was a common law right to privacy, and that people could sue the media in situations where they had a reasonable expectation of privacy and where the publication of “private facts” would be highly offensive. This was seen as opening the way for litigants to sue even in cases where the media had reported, photographed or filmed something that happened in public.

How that judgment will play out in practice is still uncertain, but at least theoretically it suggests that Christchurch earthquake victims could sue TV networks or newspapers for screening footage or publishing photos showing them in distress (though a more likely course would be to complain to the Broadcasting Standards Authority or Press Council).

Even setting aside legal considerations, the ethical dilemma remains for the media (and is not new, since it arises to a greater or lesser extent almost every time a photographer takes pictures of disaster victims, or even of dazed people at the scene of a car crash or house fire). To what extent is publication justified by the public’s right to know? There is no clear, sharp line. It’s always a matter of judgment in which sensitivity for the victims must be balanced against legitimate public interest in the event. The balancing factors may even include the size of the community, since people subjected to publicity in a small town will feel a lot more exposed than those in a big, relatively anonymous city.

These judgments often have to be made in haste, under intense time pressure. As I wrote in The Right To Know: News Media Freedom in New Zealand: “News depends on immediacy – that is its essence – and journalists do not always enjoy the luxury of time in which to deliberate as academics can in university common rooms, or judges in their chambers.” (Or, I might have added, media critics on TV programmes and blogs.)

Things get even more complicated when, as in Christchurch, television is broadcasting a live feed. There’s no time for ethical debates in the control room; the image of a hideously injured or even dead victim may be out there before anyone realises. Steven Price acknowledged this on his blog when he said “we should cut news crews some slack when they’ve got to edit on the hoof”.

It’s also an unfortunate fact that editors do not have gift of prescience. No one was to know, when photos were published of injured baker Shane Tomlin being pulled from the rubble, that he would die. In fact several days passed before his fate was known. (A similar tragic case occurred in the 1970s when Dominion photographer Barry Durrant took a dramatic picture of a stabbing victim being helped by passers-by on a Wellington footpath. The paper agonised over whether to publish the photo but did so, having been told the young man had survived the attack. Unfortunately, by the time the paper came out, he was dead.)

My own view about the Christchurch coverage, for what it’s worth, is that it was mostly within the bounds of acceptability, given the scale of the catastrophe and the intense public interest. I agree with Tim Watkin that it’s not the job of the media to protect the public from reality. I also agree with him that, as uncomfortable as it may be, those caught up in such disasters must pay the price for society’s interest (and I don’t mean mere curiosity) in seeing the damage wreaked on human beings as well on property. As someone pointed out on the pundit blog, if photographers had put their cameras away on entering liberated World War Two concentration camps, out of sensitivity for the victims, we would have had no pictorial record of Nazi inhumanity. But it’s a fine line, and there is a point at which repeated screening of the same footage starts to morph into the exploitative disaster porn that Steven Price complained about.

Friday, March 18, 2011

I could listen to Laws and Smith, but ...

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 16.)

A conservative friend remonstrated with me recently for listening to Radio New Zealand. He couldn’t understand why I would subject myself to what he clearly regarded as left-wing propaganda, especially when I could listen to conservative talkback hosts such as Leighton Smith and Michael Laws on commercial stations.

There were so many possible answers to this that I hardly knew where to start, but I explained first of all that I wasn’t a fan of either Smith or Laws, even though I might agree with them on some issues.

I also pointed out that since my taxes helped pay for Radio New Zealand, I insisted on asserting my right to listen to it. This seemed to him an act of pointless self-punishment, but all public institutions need people to keep an eye on them – to keep the bastards honest, in the famous words of the Australian politician Don Chipp.

I expect Radio New Zealand to provide me and my fellow taxpayers with a range of programmes that cater for – and reflect – our diverse tastes and opinions, and I reserve the right to criticise the organisation when it fails to measure up to its obligations as a publicly funded broadcaster. If the 4.2 million people who own Radio New Zealand stop caring about it, they must share the blame if it ends up being captured by an elitist coterie of lefties.

But as it happens, I don’t listen to Radio New Zealand purely out of a stoic sense of public duty. Most of the time I listen to it because I enjoy it and learn from it.

Of course it has always had a left-wing bias. It shares this with every public broadcaster I know of, including the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Left-leaning broadcasters and journalists naturally gravitate to public broadcasting because they regard private enterprise as ideologically distasteful and impure; incurably tainted by the profit motive. This becomes self-perpetuating because those in charge tend to hire people like themselves. Over time, a left-wing bias becomes part of the organisation’s DNA,

No one will ever die wondering about the political leanings of Chris Laidlaw or Kim Hill, for example. And when Radio New Zealand broadcasts a “debate” about the Treaty of Waitangi, you can be pretty confident it won’t include any Treaty debunkers.

But having said that, the institutional lean to the left, while still clearly discernible, isn’t as pronounced as it used to be. For the most part, Radio New Zealand offers an admirably balanced, diverse and stimulating range of programmes that not only enhance our quality of life but also perform the crucial function of creating an informed public.

To be fair, even Hill and Laidlaw interview interesting people and explore important issues. And even when their guests are people whose views I find repugnant, it’s still information – which brings me back to my friend’s recommendation that I switch over to Smith or Laws.

One of the consequences of the digital revolution is that people can pick and choose their sources of information and opinion as never before. Previous generations of New Zealanders formed most of their views from what they read in the daily paper, and daily papers in this country, unlike those in countries like Britain, have traditionally been “broad church”: in other words, containing a wide range of information and opinion, reflecting and catering to all shades of political belief.

But now people can go online, and inevitably they gravitate toward the sources they find most compatible with their own views. Thus left-leaning people read Britain’s Guardian online and Auckland blogger Russell Brown’s Public Address blog, while conservatives might opt for the Daily Telegraph or National Party-aligned David Farrar’s popular Kiwiblog.

The danger in such circumstances is that the group mindset is rarely challenged, since people are interested only in having their prejudices confirmed.

One reason American politics has become so polarised and overheated is that the hard Republican right gets all its information and opinion from unashamedly partisan sources such as Fox News. Closed minds have no interest in hearing what the other side thinks.

But there’s a lot to be said for exposing yourself to ideas and opinions you find challenging. It helps you to pick holes in them and may even force you to consider whether they have some merit.

Besides, even if I agreed with whatever Smith and Laws say, what could be more boring than listening to people expressing the same views as your own? This is known as the echo chamber effect, where the same opinions are heard and repeated over and over again.

It’s not only tedious, it’s bad for democracy, because democracy depends on a degree of tolerance and understanding of other people’s positions. That’s why I continue to listen to Radio New Zealand, much to my friend’s puzzlement, even though I sometimes fume and splutter at the views being expressed.

I don’t want to be bombarded with ideas that I’m comfortable with. All I insist is that the state broadcaster presents us with information and opinion that fully reflects the diversity of the population it ostensibly serves.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Free speech means putting up with exhibitionists

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, March 15.)

ONE OF the prices we pay for free speech is that we have to put up with people who use it to draw attention to themselves.

I include in this category the two Wanganui students who painted a sign saying Arbeit Macht Frei, or “Work Makes You Free” – the cruelly cynical slogan displayed above the gateway to Auschwitz – over the front door of their rented central city house.

The Wanganui Chronicle reported that the students professed to have white supremacist beliefs. That’s another penalty we must accept for living in a free society: people are entitled to proclaim beliefs that they know others find repugnant. We put up with this because the alternative is a society in which we’re told what to say and think.

The irony is that the Nazi state, which the Wanganui students appear to have some admiration for, was brutal in its suppression of views it didn’t approve of. If we were to operate by the same rules, the offensive sign would have been torn down quick-smart and the two students carted off in an unmarked vehicle and possibly never heard from again.

A necessary but sometimes irritating aspect of democracy is that it allows people the luxury of adopting positions that would not be permitted in the societies they profess to admire, because they would be seen as a threat to those in power.

I also include in this category the academics who use their sinecured positions in New Zealand universities to propagate Marxism. They are free to do so because a democratic state allows them that right.

What’s more, they can do it in the comfortable assurance that their beliefs will never be put to the test. It’s easy to pose as a champion of the proletariat when you live in a fashionable inner-suburban villa, drive a smart little European car, eat at the best cafes and have a nose for a good pinot noir. Probably not so easy if you lived in a crumbling East Berlin-style apartment block, drove a wheezing Trabant (if you’re one of the lucky few) and had to queue for bread.

Even more to the point, it’s easy to call yourself a Marxist in a free country because you know there will be no state security enforcers hammering your door down in the pre-dawn hours. In that respect, our Marxist academics have much more in common with neo-fascists like the Wanganui students than they might suppose.

* * *

A RADIO New Zealand listener emailed Morning Report last week complaining that all prime minister John Key had talked about since the Christchurch earthquake was the economy. Nothing about social welfare.

In fact the government and the social welfare system moved very swiftly to ensure that support was in place for those affected by the quake. But that’s largely beside the point, because there’s a much bigger issue here.

The Morning Report listener’s complaint reflected a widespread misapprehension that government is all about redistributing wealth – hardly surprising, given that this was Labour’s main preoccupation when it was in power.

But a much more important function of government is to create an economic environment in which wealth can be created in the first place. You can’t have a Rolls-Royce social welfare system without a prosperous economy generating revenue and taxes to pay for it.

This is the key fact that so often escapes the Left. They want to redistribute wealth without giving too much thought to the inconvenient business of creating it first. Even worse, they seek to penalise the wealth creators.

This is precisely the reason the Clark years were a tragic missed opportunity. The government was so focused on punishing “rich pricks” – in Michael Cullen’s famous words – that it sucked money out of the productive sector and frittered it on middle-class welfare, interest-free student loans, no-questions-asked dole schemes for anyone who fancied themselves as “artists” (one pop band boasted that it kept them in dope) and other follies.

The crucial issue in election year is whether New Zealand can be freed from the ideological grip of ageing baby-boomer socialists who think the measure of a country’s success is the number of people dependent on the state. Are Mr Key and the National Party up to the challenge? I can’t say I’m brimming with confidence.

* * *

IN MY LAST column I said no one had ever put a tick beside former Green MP Sue Bradford’s name on a ballot paper.

I was wrong; she stood four times in electorate seats. But though she never attracted more than 10 percent support, a flawed electoral system allowed her to push through law changes that were either not wanted by the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders (to wit, the anti-smacking bill) or were damaging to the very people she professed to be concerned about (as in the abolition of the youth wage). It’s not hard to see why the extreme Left loves MMP.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Were the experts too reassuring?

Further to my earlier post on the apparent failure to warn Christchurch of the possibility of a further quake almost equal in intensity to the one of September 4:

On September 10, GNS issued a statement headlined: Textbook aftershock sequence, seismologist says. It quoted GNS seismologist Warwick Smith as saying the number and size of aftershocks at that point, six days after the 7.1 magnitude quake, was in line with expectations. The frequency was already declining rapidly but they were likely to continue for some time yet.

“What we are seeing in Canterbury is pretty much a textbook aftershock sequence. They won’t get smaller in a hurry, but they are already getting much less frequent.” (Christchurch residents, having endured thousands of aftershocks in the following months, might quibble with that assessment.)

Dr Smith did say there was still a possibility of an aftershock larger than those experienced so far, but the chances of this happening were decreasing by the day.

In his celebrated interview last week with “moon man” Ken Ring, TV3’s John Campbell referred to a statement by GNS back in September that mentioned the possibility of a magnitude 6 aftershock. A reader named Phil, who commented on my post below, mentions a similar statement, made by the same Warwick Smith to TVNZ on September 7, in which Dr Smith said: “There is … kind of a rough rule that the biggest aftershock is something like one magnitude unit less than the main shock. So we could be looking at a magnitude six I’m afraid.”

So where does this leave us? I suggested in my earlier post that the big aftershocks that followed the Napier and Masterton earthquakes of 1931 and 1942 should have alerted experts to the possibility of another upheaval almost equal in intensity to the September 4 event.

To be fair, the 7.3 Napier aftershock happened only 10 days after the primary quake, while the 7.0 Masterton aftershock followed the main event by five weeks. In the case of Christchurch, the time difference was far greater: five and a half months. So it was possibly well outside the period when previous experience suggested we could expect a severe aftershock.

Still, you have to wonder whether the official statement from GNS, which said aftershocks would continue but emphasised that they were likely to decline, was both premature and a little too reassuring in its tone. Even Dr Smith’s statement about the possibility of a magnitude 6 aftershock was buried well down in the TVNZ story – admittedly not Dr Smith’s fault, but I still can’t help thinking the experts could have been more forthright in warning people of the risk. It almost looks as if they were playing it down while still covering themselves by not entirely ruling it out.

I followed the media closely in the weeks following the September 4 quake and can recall no statements that would have braced Christchurch residents for what they experienced on February 22. Perhaps the authorities didn’t want people panicking unduly.

I’d be interested in the views of Christchurch people. Did they feel the official warnings were adequate? Or did they prefer not to know what was theoretically possible, realising the result could have been complete paralysis?

I guess what it all adds up to is that seismology remains an inexact science, that events don’t necessarily comply with the textbook, and that with each major quake scientific understanding advances just a little bit further. At least one hopes so.

It's important to acknowledge that it's easy to be wise after the event. Nonetheless, I still think the inquiry will be justified in asking why no more explicit warnings were given about the possibility of a really severe event – rather than just an unnerving one – following September 4.

Why weren't they warned?

Assuming there’s an inquiry into the damage caused by the February 22 Christchurch earthquake, it will no doubt want to consider why no warning appears to have been given, after September 4, of the likelihood of another big shake.

It’s not as if there were no precedents. The famous Napier earthquake of February 3 1931, which registered 7.8 on the Richter scale, was followed only 10 days later by another of 7.3 magnitude. And the 7.2 magnitude quake that struck Masterton on June 24 1942 was followed on August 2 by another that registered 7.0. In both cases, the second jolt was more severe in some localities than the first.

Despite this, I don’t recall any seismologist suggesting Christchurch should brace itself for a follow-up quake that could almost match the September 4 event for intensity. Certainly there were the usual warnings of aftershocks, but the advice was that these would taper off over time.

The February 22 quake caught Christchurch off-guard – but would the city have been so unprepared if people had been reminded of the Napier and Masterton double-whammies?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

No rulebook - that's why Jane Bowron delivers

There’s a very good letter in today’s Dominion Post complimenting Jane Bowron on her dispatches from the Christchurch quake zone. Peter Wells of Napier (I presume the Peter Wells who is himself a writer) says of Jane’s writing:

"She hits just the right note, with wry observational humour and insight. She doesn’t big-note emotionally but the pain, bewilderment and determination to keep on going are all there. She would have made a first-rate war reporter."

I agree. And I reckon a crucial factor - perhaps the crucial factor - that sets Jane’s pieces apart from most others about the quake and its aftermath is that she had no formal training in journalism. In fact she twice failed to get into journalism school.

She eventually got into journalism via the old reading room at The Dominion – long legendary as a sanctuary for all manner of colourful, Bohemian characters. When the advent of digital technology rendered proofreaders redundant in the late 1980s, Jane was one of those who opted to retrain as a sub-editor (though I suspect the training was pretty rudimentary). It was from there that she drifted into writing, where she has found her true metier.

She was never schooled to write in the orthodox journalistic manner, and I believe that’s the key to her idiosyncratic style. She’s not bound by any rules. She writes with an individualistic eye and an undisciplined spontaneity that would have caused journalism tutors to recoil in horror. But it works.

It’s a common conceit among “proper” journalists that we’re the only ones competent to report tragedies such as Christchurch, but Jane demolishes that myth. As Peter Wells suggests, she would have done a great job at the siege of Madrid or in the London Blitz.

Footnote: Mention of Jane’s futile attempts to get into journalism school reminds me of the time in the early 1980s when I spent several weeks running a feature-writing course at what was then the Wellington Polytechnic journalism school (now part of Massey University). When the course was finished, the full-time journalism tutors eagerly questioned me on which of the 25-odd students I thought stood out. When I told them, their mouths fell open in astonishment. The student who most impressed me was one they’d virtually written off as a no-hoper. His name was Steve Braunias.

I sometimes wonder how many talented people have been lost to journalism since training shifted from the workplace to academic institutions. It doesn't bear thinking about.

Friday, March 4, 2011

It's time to ease off

Is it time the media started scaling back the coverage of the Christchurch earthquake and its aftermath? I think so.

The saturation coverage is inescapable. It’s overwhelming and threatens to become oppressive.

It is also wearing thinner as journalists have to search harder for new angles. As time goes by, reporters will inevitably be tempted to keep the quake drama running by sexing stories up with tacky sentiment that demeans the victims of the tragedy.

I’m not suggesting the major media organisations suddenly pull all their reporters out of Christchurch. It will continue to be a running story for weeks. But the time has come to start giving space to the other important issues have been shunted aside over the past two weeks.

In saying this, I'm not backing away from my previous comments about the crucial role of the media at times like this. As in so many things, it's all a matter of balance.

After 10 days, the wall-to-wall quake coverage is in real danger of inducing reader, viewer and listener fatigue. When the radio news bulletins vary little hour after hour, you know the story is running out of legs.

Radio New Zealand National, for instance, is still running half-hourly bulletins throughout the night. That was justified in the immediate aftermath of the quake, when the story was changing constantly and there was a huge public appetite for information, but it now seems gratuitous.

Besides, it may be time to give Christchurch some respite from a relentless 24/7 media scrutiny that at times hovers on the edge of being voyeuristic.

Christchurch shows us the best and the worst

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 2.)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens’ famous opening line from A Tale of Two Cities referred to the turbulent period of the French Revolution, but he could almost have been describing last week’s terrible events in Christchurch.

Such catastrophes bring out the best and worst in humanity. The worst would include the scum who burgled the home of TV presenter Donna Manning while her children maintained a vigil outside the collapsed CTV building where she was missing, presumed dead. Christchurch has always had more than its share of lowlifes and it was probably inevitable that some would seize this opportunity to go on a thieving spree.

Not quite as bad, but still contemptible, were the Christchurch dairy I heard about that wanted $15 for four litres of milk and the airline (not Air New Zealand) that was charging $800 for a flight to Sydney.

Fortunately the instances of vile behaviour were greatly outnumbered by tales of courage and heroism by both victims and rescuers. As the days passed, stories emerged of people staying with trapped and injured colleagues rather than saving themselves, and of emergency workers and volunteers risking their lives by mounting rescue attempts in unstable buildings that could have come crashing down at any moment.

Newspaper photographs and television footage showed rescuers working like men possessed in their determination to free total strangers. On the TV news I saw a young Maori or Polynesian man lift what looked like a massive slab of concrete off a victim, and I gazed in awe at a newspaper photo that showed firefighters checking the lower storeys of the Pyne Gould building while the upper floors teetered at a crazy angle above them, threatening to collapse on them with the next aftershock.

At such times, most of us ask ourselves how we might respond in such a situation, either as victims or as potential helpers. The truth is that we don’t know until we’re put in that position, and most of us have no desire to find out.

On a less dramatic note we learned of instances where people did simple, neighbourly things. One man with an artesian well in his backyard piped water through to the street where others could help themselves, and I particularly liked the story of the woman who still had a power supply so ran leads out to the front of her house and invited people to recharge their cell phones or boil electric jugs.

Students and farmers put their shoulders to the wheel, clearing away the foul-smelling silt that clogged streets and properties.

Such basic, practical acts of help restore our faith in our fellow human beings and demonstrate an underlying social cohesion where it’s not always visible. It’s a shame that it takes a crisis to bring that community spirit to the fore, but at least it’s there when we most need it.

Businesses weighed in too. Air New Zealand provided $50 fares to and from Christchurch from any airport in New Zealand. Fonterra installed massive vats in strategic locations around the city and filled them with fresh water carted by its fleet of milk tankers. On radio, I heard a Coca-Cola delivery contractor say that the drinks company had dispatched a convoy of trucks from Auckland carrying bottled water for free distribution.

Goodwill flowed copiously from overseas too. All-night hosts on Radio New Zealand and Newstalk ZB read out a steady stream of text and email messages from every corner of the planet, offering sympathy, prayers and encouragement. On the website of the Boston Globe newspaper, a dramatic display of quake photos attracted hundreds of comments – again, from multiple countries – expressing solidarity with the people of Christchurch.

There were other aspects of the quake to take encouragement from. The national news media rose to the occasion, as they usually do when there’s a big story to focus on rather than the familiar diet of crime, political conflict and banality (though by week’s end, television was back to its usual tricks, gratuitously trying to pluck at our heart strings).

Just as he was last September, Christchurch mayor Bob Parker was an inspirational civic leader, working his heart out and always composed, upbeat and articulate. The Peter Principle famously states that people rise to their level of incompetence, but there must be a reverse rule that says some individuals grow in stature and respect as greater responsibility is placed on them. If so, the former TV front man is one of them.

The prime minister was impressive too. Not only did his natural empathy shine through, but like Helen Clark, he’s quick to grasp the detail of a complex situation and assess its implications. At times like this we see why John Key was successful in the fast-moving, high-stakes world of international currency trading.

So in terms of the human response to the tragedy, the good far outweighs the bad. But what, if anything, can we learn? And what of the future?

To answer the first question, one potential benefit is that New Zealanders will be made much more aware of the need to prepare for natural disasters. Expect a run on hardware and outdoor stores as people quake-proof their homes, buy water containers and lay in emergency rations. But human nature being what it is, the effect is unlikely to last long.

As for the future, pessimists are talking as if it’s all over for Christchurch, but that’s the immediate shock speaking. People are resilient. Christchurch will rebound. There is too much invested in the city to let it die.

One possible outcome, though it may be too much to hope for, is that the awful effects of the quake will serve to unify and galvanise us, instilling a needed spirit of cohesion in a country where sectional interests and political gamesmanship too often retard progress. Pulling together in a time of crisis could have a transformational effect, both socially and economically.

The brutal shock that the Christchurch quake will undoubtedly deliver to the economy might even rouse New Zealanders from their long Rip Van Winkle slumber, shake off their complacency and get them focused on generating wealth rather than consuming it. Now that would be something.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Who knows what we might be capable of?

It’s perilously close to a cliché to say that we have seen New Zealand at its absolute best during the past nine days. The way in which people all over the country (and overseas too, for that matter) have rallied in support of quake-stricken Christchurch is inspirational. The city’s own courageous and resilient response, save for the actions of a few contemptible looters, inevitably evokes comparisons with London during the Blitz.

At times like this, a very basic part of our national character reasserts itself. We are still a small, intimate and inter-connected society. Beneath the veneer of cosmopolitan sophistication that we like to think we have acquired Рthe designer-label, latt̩ culture Рthere remains a stubborn residual trace of our resourceful, do-it-yourself colonial past, when isolated communities really did have to pull together to survive. We saw this in the way the farmers came to town with their trucks and tractors to clear away the vast quantities of silt that choked streets and sections.

The comparison might seem trite, but a similar, we’re-all-in-this-together spirit was evident in the telethons of the 1970s and 80s that, for one weekend each year, united the country in an orgy of fundraising for worthy causes. They wouldn’t work now; far too innocent and gauche. Yet that admirable, generous trait survives in the New Zealand psyche.

The politicians seem to grasp this, judging by the absence of point-scoring since February 22. Phil Goff has essentially backed what the government has done in the immediate aftermath of the quake, clearly recognising that there are times when political differences must be put aside in the national interest. Whether that political consensus will survive as the government starts exploring longer-term options to help meet the estimated $15-20 billion cost of the disaster – for example, winding back Working For Families and interest-free student loans – is another matter.

What many New Zealanders must earnestly wish for, naive as it may seem, is that the current national mood – the shoulders-to-the-wheel spirit that has temporarily silenced political bickering and suppressed the customary lobbying of sectional interests – might somehow be sustained. Even before the quake struck, this was a country with serious problems, notably a chronically under-performing economy and massive debt. What has happened over the past nine days has given us a lot to think about. It has taught us a lot about ourselves, or at least reminded us of national qualities we were at risk of forgetting. If the current spirit of unity in crisis could somehow be harnessed and brought to bear on New Zealand’s longer-term challenges, who knows what might be accomplished?

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.

Yellow Fever reminds us what really matters

It’s reassuring to see that while the nation struggles to come to terms with its worst disaster since Mt Erebus, some people are determined not to be distracted from what really matters.

Today’s Dominion Post reports that members of Yellow Fever, the fan club for Wellington football team the Phoenix, are up in arms that the team’s young star Marco Rojas has signed with rival team Melbourne Victory.

The Dom Post reports that angry messages dominate Yellow Fever’s website message board. More than 50 respondents to a poll called Rojas a “Judas” for defecting.

In Christchurch, police are trying to identify mangled bodies and rescue workers are risking their lives probing the wreckage of destroyed buildings. But these pathetic football fans remind us that even at a time of national mourning, some people can’t see beyond their petty obsession with sport.

The petulant Phoenix followers feel betrayed because it was Yellow Fever that got Rojas his first break, a training scholarship, with the Phoenix a couple of years ago. Well, boo-hoo. That’s professional sport: players act out of self-interest, not out of any imagined obligations to a bunch of precious fans.

The cry-baby reaction from the Yellow Fever members fans tends to confirm what I’ve always thought about organised fan groups. People who live vicariously through their sporting heroes, who derive a sense of tribal solidarity by dressing up in silly costumes and chanting at matches, suffer from an emotional form of arrested development. The Barmy Army is a textbook example.

On a wider level, I marvel at our ability as a country to get churned up over inconsequential sporting controversies. The furore that erupted after the All Whites won the supreme Halberg award last month beggared belief. One story on the New Zealand Herald website attracted 333 comments, which must surely be some sort of record. I mean, who the hell cares?

Never mind the economic crisis, never mind political issues such as the foreshore and seabed, never mind the potentially earth-shaking turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East; there’s still a depressingly large portion of New Zealand blokedom that regards sport as the only issue serious enough to justify getting steamed up over. God help us.