Saturday, May 31, 2014

At least Bradford has principles, even if no one else does

(First published in The Dominion Post, May 30.)

WHATEVER else you might think of Sue Bradford, she sticks to her principles. You have to respect her for walking away in disgust from the Internet-Mana pantomime.

Who, other than the most gullible, is going to believe these two parties have genuine shared concerns? They are united only by rank opportunism.

Hone Harawira needs access to Kim Dotcom’s bank account, while Herr Dotcom seems driven by a personal grudge against John Key and a need for political friends who might help him avoid extradition. These are hardly a sound basis for a credible political party.

In his desperation to make the merger look honourable, Harawira argues that Internet access is a pressing issue for young Maori. This is a convenient but very recent conversion. When I last looked, digital access wasn’t even mentioned on the Mana website.

The $200,000 that Dotcom reportedly put into the Internet Party [note: since this column was written, we've learned the sum is $3 million] is a far more likely explanation for Harawira’s enthusiasm. But at least he had the decency to grin cheekily when he admitted coveting his new ally’s resources. Like Winston Peters, he often gives the game away by grinning when he knows no one is fooled. 

Unfortunately a mischievous grin can’t disguise the truth that this alliance is a cynical exploitation of a deeply flawed electoral system. Theoretically at least, there is a possibility that Internet-Mana will end up in a classic tail-wags-dog position of power that bears no relationship to its voter support.

What’s more, the two parties have undertaken to review their relationship six weeks after the election. So if they get into Parliament, all bets will be off. Take that, suckers. 

The best we can hope for is some entertainment as the inherent tensions boil to the surface and Internet-Mana blows up like Krakatoa. How long, for example, before Mana office-holder John Minto – a conviction politician in the Bradford mould – spits the dummy? He can only fool himself for so long that the merger is in the best interests of the proletariat.

Even on their own, far- Left parties such as Mana have a glorious history of disembowelling themselves. Who knows what bloody mayhem could result when the hard-core Left hitches itself to a wholly incompatible ally like the Dotcom party?
* * *

MY FELLOW columnist Joe Bennett has written in these pages about his irritation at the tone of phony familiarity adopted by marketers in their sales pitches. I think I know what he means.

A few weeks ago I received a card from Telecom announcing its proposed name change. It began with the words “Hey there”, which is the type of fatuous greeting you might expect from a cashier at Starbucks.

Genesis periodically sends me emails with the subject line “Let’s chat”, apparently unaware that a chat is a two-way dialogue that requires consent from both parties.  Other companies begin their promotional messages with the words “Hi guys”, at which point I stop reading.

A common marketing misjudgment, one guaranteed to raise older people’s hackles, is the presumption that customers are happy to be addressed by their first names.

Members of the generation that was brought up to address each other as “Mr” or “Mrs”, at least until invited to do otherwise, are affronted when employees in the bank or insurance company, who are usually young enough to be their grandchildren, assume the right to call them “Joe” or “Mary”.

Most are too polite to say anything, but quietly grit their teeth in resentment.

The problem, of course, is that corporate marketing departments are run by Generation X-ers who assume that older customers will be flattered to be addressed as if they are teenage airheads.

I’m waiting for a bright young marketing graduate to send me an email with the introductory words, “Hey, dude”. It can only be a matter of time.

* * *

BIG GOVERNMENT is now so all-pervasive that many people find it hard to imagine life without it.

That was evident from a recent minor party leaders’ debate on TV3’s The Nation, in which ACT leader Jamie Whyte was treated as some sort of freak - or possibly even a traitor - for daring to suggest that New Zealanders don’t need constant intervention from the state in every aspect of their lives. This is clearly a dangerous heresy.

Only days later, Dr Whyte got a similar going-over from Guyon Espiner on Morning Report. It seems we’ve all become so accustomed to the smothering influence of Big Government – even to the extent of deciding whether we should have children – that we can’t comprehend any alternative.

Dr Whyte, of course, believes the state should get out of our lives, save for a few essential functions. It’s an idea worth exploring, but you get the impression that for a lot of people, it’s just too scary.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

TV3: too clever for its own good

You sometimes have to  wonder about TV3's news judgment.

There's  a place for aggressive reporting that pushes the boundaries, and Patrick Gower has become the pacesetter in the parliamentary press gallery - at least in the electronic media. But some of the channel's decisions lately have been downright silly.

It greatly overplayed its exclusive on Kim Dotcom's ownership of a signed copy of Mein Kampf. (Memo to TV3: "exclusive" doesn't necessarily mean it should lead the bulletin.) More recently, it excitedly led with a non-story about Justice Minister Judith Collins firing a pistol in circumstances which, under what could only be called a nitpicking interpretation of the gun laws, might have been technically illegal (but even if it was, didn't amount to a hill of beans). TV3 should note that for all the hype, neither of these stories led anywhere. They were largely ignored by other media, and rightly so.

Now the channel has suffered the unusual humiliation of being rebuked from the bench of the High Court and banned from further camera coverage of the John Banks trial - this, for showing footage last week of Banks absent-mindedly doing something nauseating with ear-wax while listening to the evidence against him.

What was the purpose of this shot? It was utterly gratuitous. It shed no light on the case, it was unnecessarily humiliating to Banks and it was repulsive to look at. Small wonder that Justice Edwin Wylie gave TV3 a whack around the ears.

There's not necessarily any disgrace in a media organisation upsetting the judiciary. In some circumstances it can be a badge of honour. But in this instance, the judge's indignation was entirely justified.

It was a case of TV3 once again getting a bit too clever for its own good. To the channel's credit, TV3 lawyer Clare Bradley, who was evidently party to the decision to screen the shot, now admits it was a bad judgment call.

Amen to that. Perhaps the channel will now dial back its propensity for shock and overkill.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

When juvenile hero worship turns downright bizarre

I accept that some grown men (and, much more rarely, women) indulge in a form of hero worship. The object of their adoration may be a sports star, a musician, an actor or even a politician. This mystifies me, because I would have thought that hero worship is something you grow out of as you mature; but I accept that it exists, and that it’s essentially harmless.
What I struggle to accept is fawning admiration of flawed people, as if self-inflicted flaws are worthy of our approval. This is a particularly common phenomenon in writing about rock music, where musicians are frequently revered not so much for the quality of their music as for the quantity of alcohol and drugs they have ingested or for their dysfunctional personalities. Lou Reed, who was virtually deified by the rock press when he died last year, was a case in point.

There is another example in yesterday’s edition of Fairfax Media’s Your Weekend section, in which Philip Matthews reviews the book Gutter Black, by the late Dave McArtney, of the 1970s Auckland rock band Hello Sailor.
Matthews is clearly enthralled by McArtney’s drug habit. He devotes a big chunk of his review to it, writing with awe about the role drugs played in the band. The title of Hello Sailor’s song Blue Lady, Matthews tells us, was a coded junkie tribute to a favourite syringe. The band lived in a house they called Mandrax Mansion, after a sedative that was fashionable at the time.

When they went to Los Angeles hoping to crack the American market (a fanciful hope, I would have thought – the band was world-famous in Ponsonby but was hardly noticed outside New Zealand), McArtney survived an overdose. His bandmate Graham Brazier (who was convicted last year on charges of assault against his former and current partners, though we hear very little about that) took heroin at Disneyland. The band spent much of its time in LA partying at their rented house in the Hollywood Hills, which may help explain why their mission was a failure (although, on the other hand, the reason may simply have been that they weren’t as good as they thought they were).
Matthews excitedly relates all this in the apparent belief that readers will be as impressed as he was by the band’s dissolute lifestyle. The great irony is that he reports McArtney’s fondness for the needle ultimately led to his death at 62 from liver cancer. You almost get the impression this is something Matthews thinks we should all aspire to.  

Of course the fact that McArtney died as a result of his drug habit only serves to enhance his mystique in the eyes of people like Matthews. The prospect of canonisation into the sainthood of rock music is enormously enhanced by premature death.
This blog post will almost certainly result in me being accused of making a callous attack on a dead man. It is nothing of the sort. McArtney was a stalwart of the Auckland music scene and was obviously much loved. I was saddened to read of his death. But the fact that his illness was attributed to his past drug use makes it all the more bizarre that Matthews should romanticise his lifestyle. He should grow up.


Saturday, May 24, 2014

Mr Peters comes to Masterton

Winston Peters cops it with both barrels in today’s Dominion Post. In his weekly column, former TV3 political editor Duncan Garner launches a withering attack on the New Zealand First leader and concludes that the public is tired of his games. On the same page, Dom Post political editor Tracy Watkins says New Zealand First is a clock that has been slowly winding down since the 1996 election. (Remember? That was the pantomime when Peters kept the country in political limbo for six weeks while he went fishing.)
Both commentators are especially critical of Peters’ vicious and cowardly counter-attack against his former protégé Brendan Horan, whom he likened – under parliamentary privilege – to the serial child abuser Jimmy Savile.

It all tends to reinforce a perception that Peters is losing his mojo. Certainly there has been a marked change in the tone of media coverage of him in recent weeks, starting with his failure to deliver on the promise of a killer blow to Judith Collins.  The press gallery was almost unanimous in its scorn for him over that, which leads me to wonder whether they’ve finally had enough of his bluster and bullshit.
But before those of us who abhor Peters’ political style get too excited, hang on a minute. Yesterday he held a public meeting in Masterton, and out of curiosity I went along. The room was packed long before the guest of honour arrived. I counted more than 100 heads, nearly all of them grey. The meeting was chaired by octogenarian New Zealand First stalwart George Groombridge, who deferentially referred to Peters as "the Boss".

For Peters, the 2014 election campaign is already underway. He spoke, mostly without notes, for nearly an hour. It was vintage Peters, delivered in that characteristic hoarse staccato bark, and it pushed all the usual buttons.
We have a government that grovels to wealthy foreign interests. Immigrants are placing huge demands on housing and infrastructure, which the rest of us (meaning real New Zealanders) have to pay for. Australian banks are robbing us blind. The Budget was a big con; the only good thing in it was the extension of free doctors’ visits for children, and we all know where Bill English got that idea. Honest, hard-working Kiwis in places like the Wairarapa are being forced to subsidise the Auckland super-city, which even Aucklanders didn’t want. We wouldn’t sleep at night if we knew how few police cars were on the job (and this after New Zealand First heroically pushed Helen Clark’s government into increasing police numbers by 1000). Wealthy Chinese donors to the National Party who can’t even speak English are demanding that we change our immigration policy (“Just try that in Beijing!”). Twenty-one of Barfoot and Thompson’s 25 top real estate agents are Asian. We’re an economic colony of China and Australia. John Key was the only person in New Zealand who didn’t know in advance of the raid on the Dotcom mansion, and he’s the minister in charge of the SIS and GSCB. The free market is a total nonsense. Cameron Slater is a dysfunctional twit who knows nothing about politics. (Journalists were repeatedly scorned, but only Slater was paid the compliment of being mentioned by name.) The most profitable investment in New Zealand is a donation to the National Party. Chardonnay-drinking clowns have nothing but contempt for the concerns of ordinary people – “but we’ve got news for them, and it’s all bad”. And so on, and so on. You get the picture.

Peters repeatedly invoked memories of a kinder, fairer and more prosperous New Zealand, where everyone pulled their weight and was duly rewarded for their hard work. There were nostalgic references to Keith Holyoake, Robert Muldoon (his own political mentor, whose imprint remains all too visible) and even to the Seddon government of the 1890s.
Underneath all the bluster was a plaintive, and politically potent, question: how could we allow that legacy to be snatched away from us? It was a message that resonated sharply with his audience. And while it would be easy to dismiss the speech as classic populism, it was hard not to feel a grudging admiration for Peters’ ability to zero in on the National-led government’s weak points. He certainly has no shortage to choose from.

What was conspicuously missing (not that anyone brought it up at question time) was any coherent prescription for tackling the issues Peters sees bedevilling New Zealand. But then, Peters was always, by instinct, an opposition politician, triumphantly finding fault with everyone else while shirking the hard work required to come up with workable policy solutions.
Not that this mattered to his adoring audience yesterday. They hung on his every word, nodding and murmuring in agreement and laughing on cue even when he said things that weren’t funny.

Now here’s the thing. Most of the people who turned out to hear Peters in Masterton probably wouldn’t have bothered to read the comments of Duncan Garner and Tracy Watkins in the paper this morning; and if they had, they would have dismissed it as the posturing of a Wellington elite that’s out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. Winston has told them so, many times.
And while it’s easy to deride New Zealand First supporters as frightened and bewildered (I’ve done so myself), they all have a vote. And nothing I saw or heard yesterday gave me any reason to believe they won’t all be giving it to Peters – which is why it would be premature to say he’s lost it, no matter how much we might cherish the thought.

Footnote: Immigration was a dominant theme of Peters’ speech, but I couldn’t help noting that the first four people to get to their feet at question time had British accents. Obviously immigration from the UK is fine; it’s that other lot we don’t want.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Why I almost feel sorry for Sterling and Clarkson

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 21.)
You will have heard of Donald Sterling. He’s the owner – though probably not for much longer – of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team.
Sterling sounds a thoroughly unpleasant man. Last month, sports website TMZ released a leaked recording of a private conversation in which the multimillionaire team owner rebuked a close female friend (I’m being delicate in my terminology here) for associating with black sports stars.

The “friend”, V Stiviano, had posted a picture of herself with basketball legend Magic Johnson on the social media site Instagram. Sterling told her it bothered him that she wanted to broadcast the fact that she was associating with black people.
“You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want,” Sterling said. “The little I ask you is ... not to bring them to my games.”

The subsequent uproar reached as far as the White House. Within three days, Adam Silver, the commissar who runs the National Basketball Association (his official title is commissioner, but I think commissar is more appropriate in this context), announced he had banned Sterling from the sport for life, fined him $2.5 million and ordered him to sell the team.
Silver seems to be a man with unlimited powers. I’m surprised Sterling escaped the death penalty, given that it still applies in California.

Okay, you might say; the man is a grotesque old racist. No argument about that. Then why do I feel he’s been wronged?
The reason is that we have crossed an alarming new threshold.

Freedom of speech is already under sustained attack throughout the Western world. In many countries, governments and judges are on a mission to outlaw something called hate speech, which can broadly be defined as the expression of opinions that somebody – usually a member of a supposedly oppressed minority – finds objectionable and wants prohibited.
But to the best of my knowledge, the proponents of hate speech laws have limited their attention – so far, anyway – to statements made or opinions expressed in public. What’s different about the Sterling case is that it concerns something said in private, and to someone he presumably trusted not to repeat it.

This takes things to a new level. There is probably not a person on earth who would want to be held publicly accountable for statements that have been made in private, in the reasonable expectation that their privacy will be respected. But this is what happened to Sterling.
Where will this lead? Does it mean, I wonder, that any high-profile figure is now fair game? Is there no escape from the speech and thought police? Will all prominent people now fret that their private reflections will be surreptitiously recorded on a smartphone and released to the media? Whatever happened to notions of privacy?

As it happens, Sterling’s private beliefs are of little consequence. If he were a politician or public servant with influence over public policy, they might be a matter of legitimate concern. But they are simply the private mutterings of a bigoted old man. To put it bluntly, they are none of the public’s business. 
Seen in this light, the furore was grotesquely disproportionate.

The Sterling affair raises other important questions. What about Stiviano’s role, for example? Assuming it was she who leaked the recording, she committed a flagrant breach of trust and privacy.
On the face of it, her moral compass is every bit as defective as Sterling’s. Yet Stiviano has largely escaped public scrutiny. Presumably an octogenarian real estate tycoon presented a much more satisfying target.

Consider this, too. Even the most loathsome criminals – mass murderers, serial rapists, terrorists – are entitled to a defence. But not Sterling. Commissar Silver effectively tried and sentenced him ex parte, to use a legal term – in other words, without Sterling being given a chance to speak for himself.
That Silver was able unilaterally to fine Sterling $2.5 million, ban him from the sport for life and force him to sell his team, all without any hearing or opportunity for Sterling to speak for himself, is a shocking denial of natural justice.

I’m astonished there wasn’t an outcry. If I were an American, this abuse of power would bother me far more than Sterling’s private thoughts about whether it was right for Stiviano to be photographed with black men.
There are parallels here with the confected outrage that erupted over Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson’s alleged use of the forbidden N-word in the old “eeny, meeny, miney, moe” children’s rhyme.

Like Sterling, Clarkson is not an easy man to feel sorry for. He’s a blowhard who uses humour - admittedly with some skill - to mock and denigrate.  But the uproar over his supposed verbal indiscretion was grossly inflated by tabloid media that love nothing more than to bring down a celebrity.
The alleged offending word was so mumbled as to be indistinct. Clarkson himself denied using it. In any case the footage was never broadcast, which should have been the end of the story. Nonetheless, the tape was leaked – by whom, and for what reason, isn’t clear – and in the ensuing firestorm, Clarkson was condemned as a racist.

Even if he did use the word, does that make him racist? Insensitive, perhaps, and possibly mischievous, given Clarkson’s fondness for juvenile naughty-boy antics – but racist? We all used that rhyme innocently as children. It didn’t make racists out of us.
Clarkson may be a loudmouth, but racism is a far darker thing. As with the Sterling affair, all sense of proportion was lost. We are all too busy taking offence.  

And then there’s Teuila Blakely – another victim of instant moral outrage, although one more deserving of our sympathy than either of the aforementioned men.
A video showing the Shortland Street actress engaging in a sex act with rugby league player Konrad Hurrell was leaked, apparently without Blakeley’s knowledge, on social media.

What Blakely and Hurrell did was a private act by consenting adults. No offence was committed and no one was harmed. But that didn’t prevent a wave of vicious abuse directed at Blakeley, including death threats and exhortations to kill herself. You can always rely on social media to bring out the lynch mob.
Even more bizarrely, a $5000 fine was imposed on Hurrell by his rugby league club for supposedly bringing the game into disrepute.

You’ve got to laugh at that last bit. Driving an opposing player into the ground head first and breaking his neck – now that’s what I call bringing rugby league into disrepute. But the player who did that recently got off with a seven-week ban. It’s good to know the rugby league authorities have got their priorities right.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The public couldn't see the smoke, let alone the gun

(First published in The Dominion Post, May 16.)

FOR WEEKS, political news was dominated by allegations swirling around Justice Minister Judith Collins. Night after night, it was the lead item on television news bulletins.
Press Gallery journalists closed in, sensing a kill. As the breathless disclosures accumulated, it was easy to get the impression the government was on the ropes.

Then came the reality check. Two opinion polls indicate the government hasn’t taken the big hit that might have been expected. In fact the results suggest the public was pretty relaxed about the whole affair.
A Colmar Brunton poll for TVNZ asked respondents whether Collins should remain a minister or resign. They were split 42 per cent each way – hardly a resounding condemnation.

A question about whether her behaviour would damage the government drew a slightly stronger response, but hardly a fatal one. Fifty per cent said it was damaging and 42 per cent thought it would make no difference.
On the crucial question of whether the Collins affair would be a factor in deciding who to vote for, the overwhelming response – from 75 per cent – was a ho-hum “not much”.

Those findings were reinforced by a poll which showed that National’s support has remained steady while Labour, which might have been expected to benefit handsomely from the furore, has slipped.
Should we be surprised? Probably not. The poll results simply confirm that issues which excite journalists and political junkies often barely register with the wider populace.

Press Gallery journalists live and breathe politics. They immerse themselves in detail – who said what, to whom and when, or who was at dinner and why – and go to great lengths to join the dots. But the public hasn’t the time or patience for all the minutiae and often fails to see what the fuss is about.
Maurice Williamson was different. The public got that. A ministerial phone call to a senior police officer about a wealthy Chinese donor to the National Party could look nothing but dodgy.

But the issues in the Collins affair were harder to explain. The public struggled to see the smoke, let alone the gun.
Call it the bubble effect. Britain has the Westminster bubble, America the Washington bubble and New Zealand the Wellington bubble. The things that fascinate people inside the bubble – and that means journalists as well as politicians – often fail to resonate with those on the outside.

* * *

TWITTER is the perfect protest platform for the social media era. It requires zero effort, no sacrifice and no risk, yet still imparts a warm glow of self-righteousness.
Millions worldwide have tweeted their outrage at the terrorist group Boko Haram’s abduction of 300 Nigerian schoolgirls. The fact that weeks had passed before they thought to do this, and the abductors had long melted into the bush, didn’t seem to matter. Until it’s happened on Twitter, it hasn’t happened.

Neither did it matter that the sad-looking African girl whose photo was tweeted in support of the protest campaign wasn’t from Nigeria and had nothing to do with the abduction.
Who cares whether the photo was relevant or authentic, when the only purpose is to stir shallow sentiment? One African girl is as good as the next.

And what will the vacuous outpourings on Twitter actually achieve? As an article in this paper pointed out, a video aimed at bringing the murderous Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony to justice went viral on YouTube two years ago.
Countless millions saw it. For a few days, Kony was world public enemy No 1. Then social media found something else to get excited about, and moved on. As it does.

Needless to say, nothing happened. Kony is still at liberty. People using Twitter and Facebook have the concentration span of a goldfish. They need to be constantly fed with new distractions.
There was a time when the act of protesting required people to put themselves on the line. It meant marching in the streets or manning picket lines, and risking arrest or abuse. But in the Twitter age, when it can be done instantly and in comfort, it’s all about narcissistic self-gratification.

* * *

A MAN BASHES his partner’s 2-year-old son so savagely that half his brain dies, turning into what an expert medical witness calls a watery mush. The basher is sentenced to 3½ years in jail.
On the same day, a former teacher is sentenced on charges of sexual grooming, unlawful sexual connection with girls under 16, offering to supply methamphetamine and trying to flee the country on a false passport. He gets 9½ years.

The two men were sentenced last week. Who was the more monstrous offender? The New Zealand public would have no trouble deciding, even if judges can’t.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

This could get interesting

It seems people around Parliament are asking questions about former TVNZ political editor Linda Clark’s supposed conflict of interest in appearing on TV3’s The Nation as a political commentator while also (reportedly) giving media training to Labour leader David Cunliffe.
I welcome this, but only if it widens into a broader inquiry into the murky ethics of political journalists, interviewers and commentators selling their services to politicians on the side. I fail to see why Clark should be singled out for scrutiny.

If what I hear is correct, quite a few high-profile media figures have nice little undisclosed earners providing advice to politicians. In fact it’s an odd quirk of New Zealand politics that many of the commentators provided with media platforms for their supposedly objective views are hopelessly compromised.
If it’s fair to unmask Clark for grazing on both sides of the fence, then let’s complete the job by exposing all the others who are on the take. This could get very interesting.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Rules won't eliminate the most troubling bias

I have some sympathy for the public service union’s objection to TVNZ’s ban on political journalists belonging to parties. The ban strikes me as an over-reaction to an embarrassing failure that was partly of TVNZ’s own making. (I say “partly” because Shane Taurima’s underhand behaviour was obviously the primary contributing factor, despite his ludicrous claim to have been vindicated by the report of an independent panel.)
Gavin Ellis, former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, argued on today’s Morning Report that journalists have to make a choice between reporting on politics and belonging to a political party. Some political journalists (I think Colin James is one) go even further to ensure purity. They don’t vote.

But with all due respect to such principled views, I struggle to accept that being a political journalist necessarily requires you to neuter yourself as a citizen.
The crucial issue, surely, is how you do the job. Journalists should be judged on the fairness and impartiality of their reporting and commentary. It’s possible to be a party member and still be even-handed as a journalist.

I can think of relatively high-profile journalists who hold strong left-wing views in private but still manage to do their work with integrity, as the journalists’ code of ethics requires. There are also journalists and commentators (Paul Henry and John Campbell, for example) who quite openly lean one way or the other – but since their politics are no secret, viewers can decide for themselves how much weight to place on whatever they might say.
These are not the people who worry me. The ones we should really be concerned about are the journalists who hold pronounced political views that are not declared, but which permeate their reportage. There are a lot of them about, probably more than ever before, and they will never be controlled by arbitrary rules – such as TVNZ is now imposing – about declarations of political interest.

If such people have no qualms about exercising bias in their work, they are not going to feel compelled to fess up to the boss. They are answerable only to their own conscience, which isn’t much help if they don’t possess one.


Monday, May 12, 2014

A cosy chat with Aunty Marilyn

I believe our television current affairs interviewers do a pretty good job. Both The Nation and Q+A have been generally well served by interviewers who have been fair and even-handed, asked intelligent questions and been tough without indulging in gratuitous blood-letting. But I thought Q+A’s Susan Wood let herself down at the weekend.
Even before interviewing Professor Marilyn Waring, Wood gave us a taste of what to expect by describing Waring as “one of our most influential thinkers”. Really?

To be fair, Waring deserves everlasting credit for having the guts to stand up to Robert Muldoon, unlike the pusillanimous male lickspittles with whom he surrounded himself (and Q+A obligingly reminded us who some of them were by showing the famous footage of a clearly under-the-weather Muldoon, surrounded by his inner circle, announcing the 1984 snap election that Waring precipitated by announcing she would cross the floor).
But one of our most influential thinkers? Influential to whom, exactly?

Wood then proceeded to conduct possibly the softest interview I’ve seen on Q+A, nodding sympathetically throughout as Waring recited a drearily familiar left-wing litany of grievances. Essentially her message is that the much-touted rock star economy is an illusion and that New Zealanders are being hoodwinked by spinmeisters. (Subtext: we’re all too dumb to understand economics and need people like Waring, who objects to people putting an “ideological” spin on the subject – I particularly liked that bit and thought she did well to keep a straight face, given her own leanings– to explain what’s really going on.)
These are perfectly legitimate views, and I could even agree with Waring on one point: namely, that damage to our waterways means the public is at least partly bearing the cost of the dairying boom. But what I object to is that she sailed through the interview without once being challenged. Wood smiled benignly throughout, as if she were in the presence of a much-loved and slightly eccentric maiden aunt. That’s not a privilege extended to other guests on Q+A.

I could only conclude that Waring is one of Wood’s heroes. And that would be fair enough too, provided she didn’t make it so painfully obvious.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Let's see what the opinion polls say

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 7.)
It is possible to be intelligent and a buffoon. Maurice Williamson is such a man.
He can’t be a complete thicko, because despite what people think about politicians, it’s hard to remain an MP for 27 years – and hold down several ministerial posts – without a modicum of intellect.

Besides, Williamson has a degree in computer science and applied mathematics. 
But there is intelligence and there is intelligence. There is the type of intelligence that enables people to get degrees in subjects that, to lesser beings like me, sound impossibly pointy-headed.

Then there is the type of intelligence that enables people to make sound judgments. It’s the type of intelligence that stops you from making a dick of yourself. It’s the little voice in your head that says, “Whoa! Don’t go there”.
There doesn’t seem to be any such voice in Williamson’s head. That makes him accident-prone – the type of politician who makes party leaders and whips feel nervous.

From time to time throughout his career, his propensity for saying things that were probably better left unsaid has got him into bother.
In 2003 he broke ranks by criticising the performance of the then National Party leader, Bill English. He may have been saying what other National MPs were thinking, but others held their tongues while Williamson sounded off. Predictably, he found himself isolated and was suspended from the party caucus.

In 2010 he made a lame, if harmless, after-dinner joke that offended Muslims. A more prudent politician, knowing how touchy religious minorities can be, would have resisted the temptation to play for a cheap laugh – especially when he represents a multicultural electorate such as Pakuranga, whose population is nearly 30 per cent Asian.
But that’s the sort of man Williamson is. He’s the class clown. He gives the impression that he just can’t help himself.

And sometimes, it must be said, this works to his advantage – never more so than when he gave his famous speech in Parliament ridiculing opponents of same-sex marriage.
That made him an unlikely international hero overnight, but to me it just confirmed that he can’t suppress the urge to show off. 

There was a less endearing side to that speech. Many of Williamson’s own constituents and party supporters would have opposed the same-sex marriage bill, for sincere and deeply felt reasons. But to Williamson, they were fair game for derision and mockery.
To me, that speech exposed him not only as someone who loves to be the centre of attention, but as a bigot in reverse – a man contemptuous of anyone who didn’t share his progressive views, and happy to have fun at their expense.

Given this background, it was no great surprise that Williamson had to resign his ministerial portfolios last week after he caused deep embarrassment to his party.
This was more than just another case of him shooting his mouth off. This time there was a serious moral dimension to his lack of judgment.

It’s hard to believe he could see nothing wrong in phoning a senior police officer about domestic violence charges faced by the wealthy businessman Donghua Liu, on whose behalf he had previously lobbied for citizenship.  
A drover’s dog could see that it screamed impropriety. Either Williamson’s political blind spot is even bigger than we imagined – so big, in fact, as to block out his vision entirely – or there was something more disturbing going on.

In an interview with TV3’s John Campbell, Williamson tried to distance himself from Liu but failed wretchedly. It turned out that Liu, on Williamson’s suggestion, had bought the house next door to his own holiday home at Pauanui, on the Coromandel Peninsula – and that Williamson had done work on the house for him and even used it himself.
Added to the revelation that Liu’s citizenship ceremony took place in Williamson’s electorate office, this made nonsense of his protestations that they weren’t really friends.

And the most damning aspect of all, of course, is that a company associated with Liu made a $22,000 donation to the National Party. 
Now, think about this. In the latest annual global corruption survey conducted by Transparency International, New Zealand and Denmark were rated the world’s most corruption-free countries.

That’s a status we should be proud of, and determined to protect. It sharply distinguishes us from Australia, where corruption is rampant. But I wonder how much longer we will be able to make that claim.
No one has alleged Williamson is corrupt, but appearances matter. It smells – there’s no other word for it – when a cabinet minister lobbies on behalf of a wealthy immigrant businessman and a generous donation subsequently turns up in party coffers.

The odour intensifies when the minister phones the police about their investigations into criminal charges against the businessman, pointing out to them that he’s an important investor in New Zealand.
This comes on top of the John Banks/Kim Dotcom scandal and the suspicions swirling around Justice Minister Judith Collins and her association with the Chinese company Oravida. Those controversies, too, involve wealthy business interests and generous donations.

I don’t accept that Collins has crossed the line in the way Williamson did, although there’s persuasive evidence of a conflict of interest. But the truly worrying thing is that there’s a pattern here.
In other countries, it has long been accepted that money is paid for political favours. In China, especially, corruption is part of the business and political landscape.

Now it’s starting to look as if that’s the way we do business here, too; that the government’s door is open to whoever produces a fat chequebook. But that’s not the New Zealand way, and nor do we want it to be.
This year’s election is National’s to lose. It’s said that elections are lost by governments rather than won by oppositions, and this government is looking increasingly tainted by its murky associations with wealthy business interests.

Prime minister John Key promptly cut Williamson loose, but I wonder if public distaste has passed the point where it can be neatly managed with the usual damage control strategies. The next opinion polls may tell us.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The truly scary thing about Barraco Barner

(First published in The Dominion Post, May 2.)
HEARD OF Barraco Barner? Possibly not. But according to a 20-year-old English beautician, he’s the president of Britain and he really shouldn’t be getting involved in Ukraine’s problems.

Here, starkly laid bare, is the one of the downsides of social media and the digital information revolution. Instant opinion, zero knowledge.

Gemma Worrall from Blackpool wrote on Twitter that it was “scary” that “our president Barraco Barner” was tangling with Russia. But the truly scary thing is that someone who thought that Britain had a president, and that his name was Barraco Barner, could so innocently display their rank ignorance for the world to see.

Ms Worrall’s tweet shines a light on the existence of people whose view of the world is formed not from the printed word, but from whatever they happen to overhear.

If she had seen Barack Obama’s name in print, it’s unlikely she would have been so gravely misled as to how it’s spelled. But clearly, she’d only ever heard it – perhaps from customers chatting in the beauty parlour where she works, or from a TV set playing in the background.

Add to that Ms Worrall’s obvious belief that the world needed to hear her considered views on Barraco Barner and Russia, and you have a lethal confection of foolishness and conceit.

On the other hand, these things are self-correcting. As her gaffe was re-tweeted worldwide, thousands gleefully pounced, sneering at her error.

You might say this is a good thing. A mistake was promptly exposed and corrected. But in the process, another unlovely aspect of social media was laid bare: namely, the propensity for abuse and bullying by anonymous cowards.

Never in human history has it been easier for someone like Ms Worrall to express their thoughts so instantly or freely, without the moderating intervention of someone who might save them from embarrassment. And never has it been easier for others to join in mob nastiness.

You could argue that this is all very democratic. But is it progress?

* * *
I HAVE DOUBTS, too, about the explosion in online opinion, even when it’s written by people who know very well who Barack Obama is and how his name is spelled.

University of Otago political scientist Bryce Edwards collates online political comment every day and emails a summary to people who are interested in politics and curious to know what others are thinking.

What’s notable is that the volume increases with every week, to the point where it has become almost indigestible.

On Monday I counted 67 commentaries on the subject of Shane Jones’ departure from the Labour Party. These ranged from generally dispassionate comment in mainstream media to partisan rants by bloggers from both sides of the political fence. The previous Thursday, Edwards disseminated 51 commentaries on the same subject.

As political comment proliferates and the tone becomes more trenchant, so the temptation to tune out – or at least to exercise greater discretion about how much of it one bothers to read – increases. The law of diminishing returns kicks in.

In the early days of the Internet, someone cleverly said that trying to keep up with the flow of information it unleashed was like drinking from a fire hose. I don’t know what you’d compare it with now.

Having one’s say has never been easier, but the clamour and static sometimes threatens to overwhelm reasoned debate.

* * *

IN THIS paper a couple of weeks ago, Ross Bell of the Drug Foundation claimed New Zealanders are “comparatively high” users of both marijuana and alcohol.

In fact OECD figures for 2011 show per capita consumption of liquor in New Zealand was 9.5 litres. That’s exactly the OECD average – hardly something to get in a panic about, especially when you consider that some countries on the table, such as Turkey and Israel, have low levels of consumption because of religious factors.

New Zealand was placed 10th of the 19 OECD countries for which statistics were available. More complete figures for 2009 show we drank less, per head, than comparable countries such as Britain and Australia.

What’s more, Ministry of Health figures show that drinking across all New Zealand age groups is in steady decline, and “binge drinking” by young people – contrary to what panic merchants like Mr Bell will tell you – has fallen off sharply over the past 10 years.

These facts appear not to matter to the neo-wowser lobby, which continues to promote the myth that we need to be protected from the machinations of wicked “booze barons”.

And there’s another thing. Just who are these booze barons? The term might have meant something in the 1930s, when men like Sir Ernest Davis controlled the brewing and hotel industries, but these days it’s just a crudely emotive propaganda tool.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

What else did Kirk's biographer get wrong?

Browsing through a copy of the recently published biography The Mighty Totara: The Life and Times of Norman Kirk, by David Grant, I came across a reference to the late W P Reeves.

Wellington newspaper readers of a certain age will remember that name. Bill Reeves was editor of The Dominion from 1964 to 1968 and for more than two decades thereafter, wrote an eloquent weekly column called Stand-Off: A Radical View.

To my astonishment, Grant - a Wellington historian - describes Reeves in the book as "an unashamed right-winger". He couldn't be more wrong.

As I wrote in this blog at the time of Bill's death in 2009, he was a gentlemanly, left-leaning liberal of the old school. If Grant had taken the trouble to read his columns, he would have realised this.

I wonder whether he made the mistake of assuming that because The Dominion was founded by conservative business and professional men, and taken over in 1964 by a young Rupert Murdoch, anyone who wrote for it must have been, ipso facto, a reactionary. But Reeves certainly wasn't, and it's an insult to his memory to suggest he was.

In fact the Dom, paradoxically, was staffed in those days by journalists who generally tilted to the left. Even Murdoch himself was something of a liberal then.

It's worrying that an error like this will become part of the historical record. I can't help wondering what else Grant might have got wrong.