(First published in The Dominion Post, August 22.)
Nigel Latta is one of those phenomena that happen when you’re not looking. One day, no one had heard of him; the next, it seemed you couldn’t turn on your TV set without seeing him.His quirky method of presentation – walking backwards, making exaggerated gestures and pulling funny faces for the camera – obviously appealed to viewers. His shows on parenting not only rated well but spun off into live performances and national tours.
The clinical psychologist became a certified celebrity. Now he’s been further transmogrified into what is loosely termed a guru – no longer just an authority on parenting, but an oracle on the great issues of our time.His latest series (curiously timed to coincide with the election campaign, as was Bryan Bruce’s overwrought 2011 documentary Inside Child Poverty) examines hot-button concerns such as inequality, education and alcohol.
I made a point of watching the programme about alcohol because it’s an issue on which New Zealanders have historically been subjected to misinformation and dishonest propaganda from both sides.Was Latta going to present a clear-eyed, non-partisan perspective? The publicity blurb for the series led us to expect he would, promising that he would “sort fact from spin”.
In the event, he did nothing of the sort. The show turned out to be a wearily predictable litany of neo-wowser laments from the usual academic finger-waggers.Professor Doug Sellman? Check. Professor Sally Casswell? Check. Professor Jennie Connor? Check. Dr Paul Quigley? Check. (Dr Quigley works in the emergency department at Wellington Hospital, which gives him an aura of coalface cred – but it also means that he sees the very worst side of alcohol abuse, so may not be the most objective judge.)
As the po-faced professors droned, the picture became ever gloomier. There’s no such thing as a safe level of consumption, we were told (that was Connor). Supermarkets are the country’s biggest drug dealers (Sellman). Alcohol is a neurotoxin that prevents us thinking logically. (I think that was Connor again; perhaps they edited out the important proviso that this happens only if you drink too much.)And of course Latta parroted the hoary old canard that we’re at the mercy of shadowy liquor czars – foreign ones at that – who have our venal politicians in their pockets.
It was disappointing to see Sir Geoffrey Palmer buying into this doom-laden nonsense, but Palmer is a man whose earnest desire to do the right thing has taken him to some strange places. Perhaps he’s feeling guilty about having presided over the liberalisation of the liquor laws (which he no doubt thought was the right thing to do then) in 1989.Between interview sequences, we were shown familiar stock footage of drunk teenagers in places like Courtenay Place, the implication being that they represent the typical New Zealand drinker. Latta seemed appalled that some kids had to pass liquor outlets on their way to school, as if such places emanated some sort of lethal miasma.
We met a woman who has terminal cancer at 32. She had been a drinker and now wished someone had told her that alcohol could cause cancer. Who wouldn’t feel sorry for her? But to imply that her cancer must have been caused by drinking was disgraceful, even cruel.If everyone who drank got cancer, most of us would have been dead years ago. It would have been more valid to talk to women in their 80s who have been moderate drinkers all their lives and remain healthy and mentally alert.
Latta claimed to have invited liquor industry interests to take part, but they declined. They should have accepted, because refusal made it look as if they had something to be ashamed of.But perhaps they sensed the cards would be stacked against them. The one industry person who agreed to talk to Latta, a hapless spokeswoman for the industry-funded Tomorrow Project, was subjected to an aggressively sceptical line of questioning that was completely at variance with his sycophantic acceptance of the Sellman-Casswell-Connor propaganda.
Throughout the programme, I had a nagging feeling that something was missing. Then it came to me.We had heard nothing from the hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who enjoy alcohol in moderation, without any adverse effect on their health or their family life.
These ordinary, responsible New Zealanders had no voice. Latta framed the issue as a struggle between noble anti-liquor crusaders and wicked booze barons, with no one in between.He overlooked the fact that New Zealand alcohol consumption has declined over the past 30 years and that it’s moderate by world standards (less, for example, than Germany, Australia, Britain and the Netherlands).
Neither did he mention that drink-drive convictions are in steady decline. These are inconvenient statistics. Nothing must be allowed to detract from the message that we’re a nation of helpless drunks.The lack of balance was so egregiously blatant that I had to pour myself a stiff drink to calm down. But at least it meant I was mentally prepared when I watched Latta’s subsequent programme on inequality, which turned out to be equally selective and melodramatic in its approach.
I’ve now decided a little Latta goes a very long way. I hope he and Te Radar get along, because I’ve filed them both under Overexposed Hosts Who Get On My Nerves.