Friday, October 19, 2018

Brexit exposes the imperious mindset of Fortress Europe

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, October 18.)

Let’s start with a brief history lesson.

What is now the European Union originated in 1957 as the European Economic Community. It had just six members: France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy.

It began as a customs union and common market, the aim being to promote free trade and economic co-operation. Neutralising the historic enmity between France and Germany was a crucial objective.

The EEC’s founders, eager to avoid a repetition of the horrors of World War Two, theorised that countries that were inter-dependent in terms of trade were less likely to start shooting at each other. And so it turned out.

But the ultimate goal always involved more than trade. From the start, the concept of supranationalism – the creation of a multinational political union with broad powers delegated to it by member states – was central to the EU’s evolution.

Accordingly, the EEC morphed into the European Union in 1993, reflecting the reality that its interests were now political rather than simply economic. That was followed in 2002 by the introduction of a common currency, the euro.

Along the way, membership expanded far beyond those original six countries. The EU now consists of 28 member states (soon to reduce to 27 with Britain's exit) with a far more diverse mix of ethnicities and cultures than was originally envisaged.

And as the EU has expanded, so tensions have emerged – perhaps inevitably, given that many of its member states have little in common, culturally and historically.

The first fault lines were exposed during the global financial crisis, which highlighted disparities between the rich industrial countries of Northern Europe and less resilient member states such as Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Resentment of their subservience to dominant economies such as Germany was a key factor in the emergence of populist nationalist parties in Greece and Italy.

Since then, strains within the EU have been greatly magnified by conflicting attitudes toward the massive tide of refugees and asylum-seekers flooding into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa.

Liberal, affluent Europe, led by a Germany that is still anxious to atone for Nazism, considers it has a humanitarian obligation to provide for the newcomers. But dissenting EU countries such as Hungary and Poland insist on the sovereign right to decide who should cross their borders.

As a result of these tensions, nationalism is again on the rise in Europe. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s understandable. When push comes to shove, these dissenting countries resent being subjected to rules imposed from outside.

All this suggests that the old-fashioned nation-state, forged by its own common history, culture, language and sense of identity, is not easily erased. This is not what the visionaries who founded the EU were hoping for, but it’s hardly the first time grand, idealistic projects have had unintended outcomes.

And then, of course, there’s the British experience, which tells us a lot about the true nature of the EU and the imperious mindset of the Grand Viziers who control it.

The British people voted by a margin of 52 to 48 to leave the EU. Concern about uncontrolled immigration was one factor, but there was also understandable resentment at being subjected to an ever-increasing set of arcane rules and regulations imposed by a remote bureaucracy that was seen as un-representative and unaccountable.

Ah, but the men who run the EU don’t like having their power challenged. They have gone to great lengths to frustrate British attempts to negotiate a fair and honourable exit. It’s obvious that they mean to make an example of Britain by punishing the country for its impertinence.

Their behaviour toward the British prime minister, the beleaguered Theresa May, has been bullying and vindictive. The fact that May personally favoured staying in the EU hasn’t saved her from the taunts of arrogant Eurocrats such as Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, who humiliate her at every opportunity – even to the point of putting mocking pictures on Instagram.

The message to other EU member countries is that they can expect similar treatment should they dare consider leaving. But the more striking message these men send to the watching world is that the protection of Fortress Europe takes priority over the democratic right of the British people to decide their own future.  

That surely tells you something about the monster the EU has become, and how its ideals have been corrupted. As the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt wryly observed recently: “The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving.”

You have to wonder how many countries would have joined the EU had they realised what it would turn into – a surreal Hotel California where you could check out any time you like but never leave.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Male power and control - the factor common to virtually all organised religions

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on, October 17.)

Power and control. In the final analysis, that’s what most organised religion comes down to.

To those three words you can add two more: power and control by men. This is the defining characteristic of virtually all hierarchical religions. 

It's strikingly at odds with a society in which women have rightly demanded, and often obtained, equality in other spheres. But it has ever been thus. You don’t need a PhD in religious studies to understand that organised religion depends heavily on the ability of a small, male elite – a priesthood, in other words – to exercise control over its followers.

I have been more than usually aware of this in recent weeks, partly because of a couple of challenging films.

In the 2017 drama Disobedience, two women from an Orthodox Jewish community in London risk ostracism by rekindling an illicit relationship. It’s a film whose claustrophobic settings powerfully convey the stifling atmosphere of an insular society in which the rules are dictated by men for the benefit of men.

Even more unsettling, because it’s factual, is the Netflix documentary One of Us, which follows three people who face isolation and harassment after leaving an oppressive Hasidic Jewish community in New York.

By coincidence, I recently interviewed a man named Imtiaz Shams, co-founder of Faith to Faithless, a British-based organisation that supports people trying to break free from repressive religions.

Shams himself was raised as a Muslim, but Faith to Faithless welcomes defectors from all faiths. In Britain, former Jehovah’s Witnesses and Orthodox Jews as well as ex-Muslims have turned to it for help.

Many keep their apostasy secret out of fear, because “coming out” as non-believers often has serious consequences, not the least of which is estrangement from their families. The male leaders of these religions understand only too well the power of family ties, and how they can be exploited to deter prospective dissenters.

In One of Us, a Jewish mother is tormented by the prospect of being cut off from her children because she has exercised her right to leave the faith. In New Zealand, the Exclusive Brethren sect and the Gloriavale religious community follow a similar practice of shunning anyone who leaves.

This is a particularly cruel and effective tool of control. When someone has been immersed since birth in a tightly knit community that deliberately isolates itself from wider society, it takes an act of massive courage – or desperation – to walk away and start afresh in an unfamiliar and intimidating world.

Shams described this experience as like entering a black void. Islam so totally defined his existence that it took him a long time to realise he could leave. And when he finally quit, he thought he must have been first person ever to do it.

Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, the conservative strands of Islam and nominally Christian sects such as Gloriavale and the Exclusive Brethren all operate at the extreme end of the religious control spectrum.

The men who run these religions – and they are always men – impose their will by prescribing elaborate and often arcane rules that govern the way their followers must live their daily lives: the clothes they wear, who they should marry, the way they style their hair, the food they eat (right down to the ingredients and how it’s prepared) and, in the case of sects like Gloriavale, the names they go by.

There is little rationale for these oppressive rules other than that they provide a means of control and domination.

At the other end of the spectrum there are religions which seem to avoid male-dominated hierarchical structures and allow a reasonable amount of room for followers to act according to their conscience. The Baha’i Faith strikes me as one example; Quakers another.

In between these extremes there are Churches that we generally think of as liberal, such as the Church of England. But even here, there has been a marked reluctance by men to relinquish power. In British Anglicanism, the male establishment fought a determined rearguard action against the ordination of women.

Yet the Bible indicates that Jesus Christ respected and valued women. Would he have approved of religions in which women were expected to be subordinate to self-important men with a fondness for dressing in peculiar costumes? I don’t believe so.

As for Catholicism, you can only sigh. On the rare occasions when determined women such as New Zealand’s own Suzanne Aubert have achieved positions of influence in the Catholic Church, it has often been in the face of resistance and disapproval from the male hierarchy.

For now at least, men remain firmly in control of Catholicism. But they have made such a grotesque and scandalous mess of things that you have to wonder how long it will be before the long-suffering Catholic laity, male and female, demand that the whole rotten structure be torn down and rebuilt.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

When top-down solutions go bottom-up

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, October 4.)

It’s sad to see Chris Laidlaw’s career come to this.

A photo in The Dominion Post last week said it all. It was taken at a parliamentary select committee hearing where regional council representatives were called on to explain the multiple failings of the new Wellington bus system.

In Kevin Stent’s photo, Laidlaw, who as council chairman has had to soak up much of the abuse, looks brooding and resentful. His expression says he doesn’t need any more of this.

He might well be thinking, “I had a glittering career. Is this how it ends?”

He could be forgiven for harbouring bleak thoughts. Laidlaw has had a storied life: outstanding All Black halfback (he was rated one of the game’s greatest passers of the ball), courageous author (his book Mud in Your Eye led to him being ostracised by many in the rugby establishment), Rhodes Scholar, diplomat (he played a significant role behind the scenes in persuading South Africa to renounce apartheid), race relations conciliator, Labour MP (let’s not mention the taxi chits), broadcaster (he was Radio New Zealand’s Sunday-morning host for 13 years), and of course, regional councillor.

He’s one of several former Labour and Green MPs – another is his sister-in-law, Sue Kedgley – who have found a home in local government. 

I was tempted to insert the word “cosy” before “home” in that sentence because local government provides a normally comfortable late-life career. The pay’s not bad and regional councillors are mostly spared the close and fiercely critical scrutiny that city and district councils are subjected to.

All of which must have made the past couple of months particularly trying for Laidlaw. In my few encounters with him I’ve always found him personable, but I don’t think he’s a man to whom humility and contrition would come easily.

The bus furore was probably not what he was expecting, still less hoping for, when he became GWRC chairman. It’s not hard to detect a slightly petulant tone in his statements and a reluctance to acknowledge that the council cocked up spectacularly.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that Laidlaw is one of that school of social-democrat politicians who politically came of age in the idealistic 1960s and doggedly cling to a misplaced faith in central planning.

This is a model of government that imposes top-down solutions in the belief that bureaucrats and policy-makers know better than the punters who actually use the systems they devise.

Trouble is, the bureaucrats and theorists are often isolated in their own bubbles, unburdened by experience of how the real world works and what ordinary people want. We’re seeing this played out in Auckland too, where planners have created their own grotesque public transport fiasco.

I wonder if that’s the bigger issue here. As local government bureaucracies grow bigger and more centralised, there’s an increasing risk that they will get things wrong.

On paper, it often makes sense to have over-arching administrative structures rather than bitsy local councils all doing their own thing and protecting their own patches.

But the bigger a council gets, the more distant it become from the people it’s supposedly accountable to, as the Auckland experience shows. It tends to take on a life of its own. That’s why I’m still not convinced that a single council should replace the three existing ones in the Wairarapa, where I live.

The kindest thing that can be said for central planners and their political masters is that they usually start with the best of motives. But good intentions too easily morph into control-freak government by People Who Know Best.

The crux of the problem is that they expect the world to conform to their theoretical models rather than vice-versa. And when it all turns to custard they disappear down a rabbit-hole of butt-covering reviews and inquiries rather than simply admitting they cocked up and starting again from scratch.

I saw a classic man from Central Planning on TV3’s The Project last week. He was a transport planner – possibly the worst type – and he had the slightly crazed eyes of a true believer.

He was trying to convince a sceptical panel that Auckland needs a 30 kmh speed limit. Why? Because he thinks people should walk or cycle rather than drive cars, and if it takes a 30 kmh speed limit to force them out of their vehicles – well, so be it.

In other words, he was talking about compulsion by stealth. Never mind what people want.

Translate that attitude to Wellington and it becomes clear that if the bus system is a disaster, it's probably because the users don't know what's good for them. Clearly they must try harder to make it work.

Cultural stereotyping: a licence to sneer

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and on October 3.)

A fellow columnist – one whose work I usually enjoy – recently wrote: “Americans are not like us. They don’t get irony, for one thing.”

Whoa, I thought – let’s hold it right there. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard it said that Americans don’t understand irony, I could have retired by now.

The statement is usually made in relation to humour. Somehow, it has become accepted wisdom that American humour is irony-free whereas English humour is rich with it.

But hang on. Think of a comedy series such as M*A*S*H, which ran for 11 seasons and became one of the highest-rating TV shows in history.

M*A*S*H was drenched in irony. Hawkeye Pierce probably delivered more ironic lines than any other character in television history.

That’s not surprising, given that the series was created by Larry Gelbart. Gelbart was Jewish. Jewish humour oozes irony; that’s its signature. And Jewish writers and performers are the beating heart of American humour – think Mel Brooks, Roseanne Barr, Lenny Bruce, Judd Apatow, Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Midler, Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, George Burns and Joan Rivers, to mention a few.

Seinfeld (nine seasons) and The Simpsons (29 seasons)? All about irony. Most of the talent behind both shows was Jewish.

Join the dots. Jewish humour depends heavily on irony and much American humour is Jewish. Ergo, the argument that Americans don’t “get” irony just doesn’t wash. 

But it persists because it plays to a sense of cultural superiority. Americans are supposedly loud, brash, boorish and unsubtle.

Donald Trump fits this stereotype perfectly. One of the tragedies of his presidency is that he reinforces the prejudices of people who think all Americans are stupid. These prigs look at Trump and say: “See – there’s a typical American for you.”

It’s a theme that fuels countless dinner-party conversations in New Zealand. “Look at what Trump’s done now,” someone will say. “Oh God, those ghastly Yanks.” And off they go, sniggering at what a godforsaken country America is and pausing only for gulps of Central Otago pinot noir.

In my experience, such people usually have minimal experience, if any at all, of America. It’s a country they fly over to get to supposedly more sophisticated places like Britain, France and Italy – although sharing horror stories about the supposed ordeal of a stopover in LA is always good parlour-game material too.

The reason they don’t want to spend time in the United States – unless it’s in New York or San Francisco or a tiny handful of other American cities that the cultural priesthood deems cool – is that they have convinced themselves America has no redeeming virtues.

Anyway, why spoil their fun? As long as they remain ignorant of America, they give themselves licence to go on sniggering at Americans and congratulating themselves on their infinitely greater sophistication.

Another manifestation of anti-American priggishness, besides the “Americans don’t get irony” myth, is the prejudice often shown toward country music – again, usually by people who condemn it from a standpoint of ignorance.

Because some country music is crass (which can’t be denied), they dismiss it all as tawdry and mawkishly sentimental. Essentially it’s the same mistake made by people who assume Trump is representative of all Americans.

Where does this sense of cultural superiority come from? I suspect it’s basically a British thing.

The Brits never entirely forgave the Americans for breaking away and going it alone. But they console themselves that while America might now be infinitely wealthier and more powerful, the Mother Country is distinguished by its rich history, the refinement of its educated classes, its monarchy, its glorious imperial past and its … well, its sheer Britishness.

New Zealand, having drawn most of its cultural inspiration from Britain, seems to have inherited that sense of inherent British supremacy. You might say it’s in our genes.

I’m not blind to American failings. I cringe at American excess and brashness and I’m repelled by the religious and political extremes of American society.

But while these traits confront us daily in the media, they don’t represent the totality of American society. Spend time in the United States and you quickly realise that most Americans are not brash, loud, ignorant or extreme.

Try listening to America’s National Public Radio. NPR leans to the left politically, as public broadcasters invariably do, but it’s the flip side to the America of Donald Trump: rational, civilised, low-key, informed and articulate.

And I shouldn’t have to point out that America is the source of much of the popular culture and technology that New Zealanders enjoy: the music we listen to, the films and TV we watch, the clothing we wear, the books we read and the digital devices we depend on.

So let’s ease off on the conceited and hypocritical anti-Americanism that flourishes in some New Zealand circles. And while we’re about it, let’s bury the myth that Americans don’t “get” irony.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

An enemy of free speech and a dissembler too

(This article by me was published in The Spectator Australia on September 29.)

It’s taken a while, but the speech wars have reached New Zealand – and an Australian is in the thick of the strife. Problem is, she’s on the wrong side.

Jan Thomas, the vice-chancellor of Massey University, recently banned Don Brash, a former leader of the centre-right National party, from speaking at a campus event organised by a student politics society. It was the first occurrence at a New Zealand university of the ugly phenomenon known as no-platforming. Now Thomas, who came to New Zealand from the University of Southern Queensland, has been exposed not just as an enemy of free speech, but as a dissembler who was less than honest about her motives.

Brash had been invited to speak, along with other former politicians, about his time in politics. It promised to be an innocuous, low-key event. But incongruously, the gentlemanly septuagenarian is the man the New Zealand left most loves to hate. This can be traced back to the day in 2004 when, as leader of the Opposition, he delivered a speech to the Orewa Rotary Club in which he warned of a drift toward racial separatism and attacked the notion of special treatment for the Maori population.

Brash’s advocacy of “one rule for all” resonated with many New Zealanders. Subsequent polls showed a huge surge in support for National. In the 2005 election, the party came close to defeating Helen Clark’s Labour government – an extraordinary turnaround after National’s worst-ever defeat only three years earlier. But the “infamous” Orewa speech (to use the loaded adjective routinely applied to it by the left-leaning media) made Brash a marked man, and worse was to come when he formed a lobby group with the aim of ending race-based privilege. The establishment of Hobson’s Pledge (the group took its name from colonial administrator William Hobson’s declaration at the signing of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi that “now we are all one people”) made Brash the most vilified man in New Zealand.

Fast forward now to 2018 and Jan Thomas. A professor of veterinary science, Thomas was appointed vice-chancellor (in other words, CEO) of Massey in January 2017. But although a newcomer to New Zealand, she was quick to assess the political landscape and fall into line with the left-wing monoculture that permeates New Zealand universities.

The justification given for Thomas’s decision to ban Brash was that his appearance might trigger a violent protest, thereby putting students and staff at risk. That provoked an uproar, since the supposed threat turned out to come from a lone disaffected student who objected to what he called (quite erroneously) Brash’s “separatist and supremacist rhetoric”, and who later said he never intended to do more than wave a sign.

Thomas’s attempt to characterise the mild-mannered Brash as a dangerous demagogue provoked a fierce backlash, and not just from his supporters. Some of the most stinging condemnation of Thomas came from old-school leftists whose belief in Brash’s right to speak and be heard outweighed their visceral distaste for his neo-liberal leanings.

But if Thomas’s edict caused severe reputational harm to Massey, a second-string university based in the provincial city of Palmerston North, it was nothing compared with the damage when the real reason for the ban emerged.

Emails obtained under the Official Information Act showed that long before the supposed security threat arose, Thomas was inquiring about possible “mechanisms” for dealing with Brash in other words, excuses to ban him and telling her staff she didn’t want a “Te Tiriti-led university” to be seen as endorsing “racist behaviours”. She persisted even after a subordinate pointed out that the university was likely to be attacked for stifling free speech.

Readers should note Thomas’s impeccable command of politically correct New Zealand terminology. “Te Tiriti” is the Maori term for the Treaty of Waitangi, under which Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty to Britain and in turn were given the rights of British subjects.

The treaty is a short and spare document, but decades of judicial activism and ideologically driven re-interpretation have stretched and twisted its meaning to the point where its supposed “principles”, although never legally defined, intrude into areas of New Zealand life that the treaty signatories could never have envisaged – including, apparently, the vetoing of politically unfashionable speakers by university administrators.  

In another email, Thomas opined that Brash was “very racist” regarding the six designated Maori seats in Parliament, which he has rightly described as an anachronism under a proportional voting system that resulted in 29 MPs of Maori descent being elected in the most recent election. Thomas characterised Brash’s  views as “close to hate speech”, but there is no “hate speech” in New Zealand law – and even if there was, it’s hard to imagine the New Zealand courts, which are very cautious about curbing freedom of expression, being persuaded that Brash was out to harm anyone. By any criteria other than those applied by the neo-Marxist left and the media commentariat, his opinions on race politics are broadly in line with those of middle New Zealand.

At the time of writing, Thomas had gone to ground and left her PR staff to clean up the mess, but she was under huge pressure. Two censure motions will be tabled at the next meeting of the university’s academic board, National party leader Simon Bridges called on Thomas to resign, labelling her as dishonest, and the leader of the Massey students’ association, a Maori, said students had no confidence in her. Brash himself said, with typical restraint, that Thomas’s position was “almost untenable”.

If there’s a heartening aspect of the furore, it’s that condemnation of Thomas came from nearly all sides. As with the controversy over the recent visit to New Zealand by Canadian "alt-right" speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, the Massey veto on Brash galvanised a free-speech movement that was broader-based than anyone expected. Meanwhile Thomas, by presuming to decide what views New Zealanders should be allowed to hear, has succeeded in making herself the least popular Australian on this side of the Ditch since Greg Chappell ordered his brother to bowl underarm in 1981.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Good news: they're printing the local paper locally again

When we’re bombarded almost weekly with depressing news about the slow death of the media, and especially the print media, it’s a tonic  to report a positive development.

My local paper, the Wairarapa Times-Age, announced this week that it’s now being printed locally again instead of at Hastings, nearly three hours’ drive away.

The Times-Age has done a deal with Webstar, a big Masterton printer that was once part of the old Government Print.  It’s the first time in nearly 15 years that the paper has been printed in the region it serves.

It’s good news for a number of reasons. It generates more work for a big local employer and it should mean the paper will be able to bring forward its editorial deadlines, thus enabling it to cover later-breaking stories (although I haven’t been able to confirm this).

I imagine it saves money, too. Trucking papers 210 km every morning can’t be cheap.

But most of all, it’s a vote of confidence in the paper’s future. It continues a turnaround that began in 2016 when the Times-Age reverted to local ownership after 12 years as part of the old APN (New Zealand Herald) stable.

The Times-Age was a distant outpost of the APN empire and its future didn’t look promising under owners who were misguidedly ploughing all their resources into online content and running down their print products.

The decommissioning of the Times-Age presses was a particularly black day. Printing was originally moved to APN’s Whanganui site and later to Hastings in a cost-cutting exercise that was duplicated at many other regional papers as the two big corporate media groups, Fairfax (now Stuff) and APN (now NZME), pursued each other down a blind alley.

Centralising printing operations in distant cities saved money, but reduced papers’ ability to serve their local readers and inevitably accelerated the decline of the provincial press. I wrote at the time that shutting down presses sent a damaging message to readers and advertisers. After all, if the owners didn’t have enough belief in a paper to keep printing it locally, why should readers and the firms that supported it commercially?

I also wrote that if any papers could survive in the new media environment, it would be those that specialised in local news. Not only is local news important to people because it directly affects them in their daily lives, but it’s also the segment of the market that has been least disrupted by the internet. If you want local news, you must get it from a local provider; you can’t read Masterton news in the online editions of the New York Times or the Guardian, or even on the Radio New Zealand website.

It doesn’t surprise me, then, that the Times-Age appears to be thriving under the ownership of Wairarapa-born Andrew Denholm, formerly the paper’s general manager, who took a punt on it two years ago. Denholm had more confidence in the paper than his bosses and could obviously see potential for growth where they couldn’t.

As with most papers, circulation is in decline, but not to the same extent as provincials owned by the two major media groups. The latest Times-Age circulation figure of 5185 is down 4.2% on the previous year, but the bleeding is far less ominous than at titles such as the Southland Times (down 12.8%) and the Timaru Herald (12.3%).

But circulation figures are only one indicator of a paper’s health. As a subscriber, I can report that the Times-Age is a lively, smart, busy and relevant paper with an energetic editor and an excellent team of reporters who give the impression of enjoying their work. It’s a paper that connects with its readers and appears well supported by local advertisers.

And it does what’s most important in a local paper – namely, reflect the character and the concerns of the region it serves. If you want to know what's going on in the Wairarapa, you can't do without it.

As corporate-owned regional papers grow ever more bland and generic, with increased emphasis on shared content and less on local news, the Times-Age stands out as truly local – a distinction that can only be enhanced by being printed locally.

Friday, September 21, 2018

My shameful confession

(First published in The Dominion Post and on September 20.)

I have a shameful confession to make.

On a gorgeous spring afternoon in 2017, I drove to Fernridge School, just west of Masterton, and cast my vote in the general election.

Virtually until the moment I entered the polling booth, I remained an undecided voter.

My electorate vote was straightforward enough. It went to Labour’s Wairarapa candidate Kieran McAnulty – mainly because I thought Alastair Scott, the sitting National MP, had done bugger-all in his first term other than turn up for photo opportunities, and therefore didn’t deserve to be re-elected.

In the event, Scott was returned, albeit with a reduced margin, and has been noticeably more active than when his party was in government. Perhaps the fright did him good.

But that’s not the shameful bit. For the crucial party vote, I ended up holding my nose and placing a tick beside New Zealand First.

I apologise now for this act of political vandalism. It was a moment of madness in an otherwise unblemished life and I will suck up whatever opprobrium comes my way.  

Voting for Winston Peters went against all my instincts, but I was able to rationalise an otherwise irrational act on the basis that I was voting for purely tactical reasons.

The polls indicated the result could be close. I reasoned that whichever major party formed a government, it might be useful to encumber it with a coalition partner that could serve as a check on its power. Tragically, the only party likely to fulfil that purpose was New Zealand First.

If Labour got in, and especially if it had Green support, Peters and his MPs  might be in a position to curb any wild ideological excesses of the type centre-left parties are prone to after long periods in opposition.

If a National-led government was returned, I foresaw a different problem. I didn’t fancy the thought of a smugly triumphalist National Party. The born-to-rule syndrome is not a pretty sight. Being in coalition with New Zealand First, I reasoned, might take some of the wind out of National’s sails.

Well, we all know the outcome. As the old saying goes, we should be careful what we wish for.

Some readers may recall a great deal of huffing and puffing in this column over the way Peters subsequently gamed the system to secure maximum advantage for himself and New Zealand First, leveraging his party’s piffling 7 per cent share of the vote into a commanding position from which he was able to dictate the shape of the government.

I was too ashamed at the time to admit my partial responsibility for this state of affairs. Only a trusted few knew my guilty secret.

No doubt I’ll be accused of hypocrisy for giving my vote to Peters and then professing to be appalled by what transpired.

Well, fair enough. But I would argue that it was possible to vote for Peters and still be outraged by the way he took control of the coalition negotiations. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the ease with which he was able to manipulate the other players - helped, of course, by Labour’s desperation to regain power after three terms in opposition.

And in mitigation I would point out that in voting for New Zealand First I was doing exactly what the MMP system was intended to do, which is to ensure as far as possible that no one party ends up wielding total power. The architects of MMP would be proud of me.

From a strictly pragmatic standpoint, I have to admit that things panned out pretty much as I envisaged. My tactical vote had the desired effect, which was to moderate the behaviour of whichever party formed the government.

New Zealand First has now jammed several sticks into the spokes of Labour and the Greens, to the teeth-grinding frustration of the Left. The government is looking shambolic and there must be doubts about its ability to run a full term.

No one should be surprised at this turn of events. Peters is a team player only if he’s in charge of the team. He might behave himself for a while, but in time his natural belligerence and contrarianism will assert itself.

The irony is that the Left now has to endure the agony of seeing their agenda frustrated because of an electoral system that the Left championed. But this was always on the cards, given the fundamental incompatibility between two socially “progressive” parties and one that draws inspiration from Muldoon-era conservatism.

It’s kind of perversely satisfying in an “I told you so” way, so why am I not celebrating? Probably because I don’t think this is how democracy is supposed to work.  

Thursday, September 20, 2018

If I've got cancer, I'd rather know than not know

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and September 19.)

On talkback radio a couple of weeks ago, a succession of male callers talked about their experience of prostate cancer.

Prompted by the Blue September prostate cancer awareness campaign, the host had invited listeners to tell their stories. Several men duly phoned in and gave accounts of their diagnosis and treatment.

One caller said he had to go to three doctors before he found one who was willing to order a PSA test, which is the most common diagnostic tool for prostate cancer.

Another caller backed that up. He said he knew a number of men whose doctors not only discouraged them from having a PSA test, but refused to conduct a digital rectal examination – another routine diagnostic procedure.

Yet another caller said he had asked his doctor whether he should have a test and was advised: “Don’t go looking for trouble”. He got his test only after seeing another doctor. A subsequent biopsy confirmed the presence of cancer.

What’s going on here? If a PSA test is a simple first step toward determining whether a man has a potentially fatal illness, why do some doctors discourage patients from having one?

Just in case you’re wondering, the prostate is a walnut-sized organ between the bladder and the penis. It produces seminal fluid, so only males have it. An elevated PSA count, which is identified by a blood test and can signify the presence of cancer cells, is often the first indication that something is amiss.

The Prostate Cancer Foundation recently disclosed that it gets five calls or emails every week from men who wanted the PSA test but were turned down by their doctors. Yet one in eight New Zealand men will develop prostate cancer at some time in their life, and more than 600 die from it every year. It’s the third most common cancer in New Zealand.

So why are so many doctors apparently reluctant to act? A possible reason – and this is purely me speculating – is that prostate cancer can be a tricky disease to deal with. Some GPs throw up their hands, figuratively speaking, at the very mention of it.

First, it can be difficult to diagnose. The PSA test is a useful first step but it's not fool-proof and can give misleading results.

If it suggests there might be something wrong, it’s usually followed by the digital examination - the finger-up-the-bum test in which the doctor reaches inside and feels the prostate for any sign of abnormality.

Doctors don't enjoy doing this, for obvious reasons. The consensus among callers to the talkback show was that that GPs who were younger or female were more comfortable with it than older male doctors.

Patients don't much like it either. Some men seem to regard the digital rectal examination as threatening to their masculinity. There’s no getting around the fact it can be uncomfortable as well as undignified. But hey – if it can save your life, who cares about a little indignity?

Here, though, we encounter another problem. As one doctor explained it to me, the digital examination can be unreliable too.  The doctor can’t feel the whole prostate, so a cancerous growth may still escape detection.

If something’s found, the next step is a biopsy, in which tissue samples are taken from your prostate. This is an invasive procedure and it can be unpleasant. It also carries the risk of side-effects. For those reasons, some doctors hesitate to recommend it.

And again, a biopsy is a bit of a shot in the dark. As I understand it, there’s no guarantee that the samples taken will be taken from the part of the prostate that’s diseased. So again, the cancer may be missed.

That’s the thing with prostate cancer: there seems to be uncertainty at every turn. Treatment isn’t cut and dried either. Options include removal of the prostate, radiation therapy, hormonal treatment or brachytherapy, in which radioactive “seeds” are implanted in the prostate.

There seems to be no single “correct” or one-size-fits-all approach and there are potential downsides with every option, which may explain why some GPs seem tempted to put the illness in the too-hard basket.

I have prostate cancer myself. It was detected in 2016 after I went “looking for trouble”. A routine blood test showed my PSA level had risen slightly beyond the safe zone and a biopsy confirmed the presence of what's technically described as low-grade, low-volume cancer.

So far, my PSA remains relatively low and stable. I’m under “active surveillance”, which makes me sound like a suspected agent for a hostile foreign power, but simply means I have regular tests to make sure my PSA count hasn’t spiked .

I don't lie awake at night fretting about it. In fact I barely give it a thought from one week to the next. What would that achieve?

In any case, cancer is no longer the death sentence it was once regarded as. I know several men who were treated for prostate cancer years ago and remain healthy and active. If I stay lucky, I may be one of the many who die with the disease rather than from it.

But I’ll tell you one thing: if I’ve got cancer, I’d rather know than not know.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The words "goose" and "gander" spring to mind

The British government clearly thinks New Zealand should have been more forthright in supporting condemnation of Russia for its involvement in the Novichok poisoning scandal. Britain’s minister of state for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, reportedly said in an interview that he hoped the Labour-NZ First coalition would issue an “unequivocal” statement backing Britain’s position. By implication, Winston Peters’ action in merely “accepting” the conclusions reached by the British investigation into the poisoning wasn’t enough.

Now National’s foreign affairs spokesman, Todd McClay, has taken up the call. According to McClay, New Zealand risks falling out of step with “our closest friends and allies” unless it makes a statement unequivocally condemning Russia. It was clearly not good enough, in McClay’s view, for Britain to be “left guessing” over our support.

But hang on a minute. Cast your mind back to the Rainbow Warrior bombing by French government agents in 1985. That crime had direct parallels with the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. It was a hostile act carried out by a foreign power in the territory of another country with whom it had supposedly friendly relations.

McClay huffs and puffs that the Novichok incident was “an appalling, violent breach of the sovereignty of one of New Zealand’s closest friends”. Those exact same words could have been applied to the Rainbow Warrior bombing.

If anything, the Rainbow Warrior outrage was even more egregious, since it had fatal consequences and was carried out by a supposedly friendly power. But was it condemned by Britain, the country thousands of New Zealanders died for in two world wars?  

Nope. On the contrary, Britain's silence implied condonation. Official papers released in 2005 showed that Margaret Thatcher refused to sanction official criticism of France even after the French government had admitted responsibility for the bombing. She sided with the then foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, against colleagues in the British cabinet who wanted the government to take a firmer line against the French.

It was no secret at the time that Thatcher heartily disapproved of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stand and viewed this country as impertinent for having the effrontery to undermine the Western defence alliance. For all we know, she might have privately applauded France’s action.  

The British government had no sympathy for us then, and it's a bit rich to expect unquestioning allegiance from us now that it finds itself in the same predicament. The words "goose" and "gander" spring to mind. If I were Peters, I’d be asking my officials for a polite diplomatic translation of the phrase “Blow it out your ear”.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Remembering the Battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu

It's 150 years today since the Battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu. This is a column I wrote last November.

We New Zealanders are not very good at celebrating our unique and turbulent history.

This was brought home to me last week when, during a trip through Taranaki, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit an historic site with a connection to my family.

Te Ngutu o te Manu (“the beak of the bird”) was the scene of an attempt by colonial forces to seize a fortified South Taranaki pa occupied by the formidable Ngati Ruanui chief Titokowaru in 1868.

It didn’t go well for the colonials. A first attack was abandoned and four soldiers were killed in the second skirmish. But Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas MacDonnell, perhaps unwisely, persisted.

On the third attempt, MacDonnell and his 350 men were lured into a trap. Although outnumbered six to one, Titokowaru’s defenders, many of them concealed around the edge of a clearing in front of the pa, mowed the attackers down.

When the smoke cleared, 20 of the attacking force lay dead or dying. They included the colourful Prussian adventurer Major Gustavus Von Tempsky, the leader of an irregular force known as the Forest Rangers.

Among the wounded was my great-grandfather, John Flynn. Irish-born, he was not a regular soldier but a member of the Taranaki Volunteers. Shot through the left thigh, he was carried to safety by his comrades during an arduous seven-hour retreat through the dense bush, harried every step of the way by Titokowaru’s Hauhau warriors.

Flynn eventually made a full recovery and went on to spend many years driving the mail coach that ran between Hawera and New Plymouth. Paradoxically he got on well with local Maori and spoke the language.

Some might think it unwise to admit having a forebear who was, not to put too fine a point on it, part of a military force whose job was to enforce the seizure of Maori land, but I feel neither proud nor ashamed of my great-grandfather and refuse to judge him. He was acting according to the prevailing values and beliefs of his time, just as we are free to see the actions of that era through a different lens.

The battle site is marked by a memorial listing the names of the dead soldiers. There is no mention of the Maori casualties, confirming Winston Churchill’s famous statement that history is written by the victors.

Although in this case the Ngati Ruanui won the battle, their story is invisible. The bigger war was ultimately won by the Crown, and part of the reward was to lay exclusive claim to the account of what happened.

But what struck me most was that you can drive past the site of the Te Ngutu o te Manu memorial and not know it exists. The stone cross stands in a large grassy clearing surrounded by native bush, concealed from the road.

There’s no sign at the entrance, nor at the nearby turnoff, and there’s nothing back on the main highway to indicate that you’re just five minutes’ drive away from a significant battleground. I found it only because I was given precise directions by a helpful woman at the Hawera information office. (For the record, the battle site is just a stone's throw from the Kapuni natural gas plant.)

The same is true of another historic Taranaki site. For most motorists speeding on the Surf Highway between New Plymouth and Opunake, the AA road sign marking the turnoff to Mid Parihaka Rd would flash past in a blur. But it’s up this quiet country road that 1600 troops invaded the pacifist Maori settlement of Parihaka in 1881 and arrested community leaders Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi.

I have a family connection of sorts with Parihaka, too. My uncle, the left-wing historian Dick Scott, published The Parihaka Story in 1954 and followed it up with the more comprehensive Ask That Mountain in 1975.

It’s fair to say that Dick brought the Parihaka affair to the attention of a Pakeha public that had previously known nothing about the Parihaka community’s campaign of non-violent resistance to European encroachment on Maori land.

The story is pretty well known now, but there are no signs directing travellers to the place where it unfolded. That may be the choice of today’s Parihaka residents, since it’s still a functioning community and they probably wouldn’t appreciate their rustic tranquility being disrupted by streams of cars.

Still, it strikes me as sad that we do so little to cultivate awareness of our own fascinating history. It wouldn’t happen in Australia, where Ned Kelly and the rebellious gold miners of the Eureka Stockade, to give two examples, are feted in the public memory, and where the former convict settlement of Port Arthur, Tasmania, is a major tourist attraction.

It’s not just in Taranaki that historic sites are overlooked. I wonder how many people drive past the obelisk commemorating the Battle of Orakau, near Te Awamutu, without realising it’s where Rewi Maniapoto made his famously defiant last stand in the Waikato Wars.

Is this, I wonder, another manifestation of the so-called cultural cringe – the self-deprecating New Zealand conviction that nothing of interest has ever happened here?

The Churches' desperate search for relevance

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, September 6.)

The Venerable Dr Peter Carrell was recently announced as the new Bishop-elect of the Anglican diocese of Christchurch. A statement said the Venerable Dr Carrell (churchmen do love their titles) was humbled by the confidence the Anglican community had shown in him and excited by the road ahead.

“With respect to Christchurch city,” he was quoted as saying, “I look forward to working co-operatively with Mayor Lianne Dalziel and the city council on matters of mutual interest and concern, especially challenges facing our city around homelessness, poverty and climate change.”

Of God and salvation, which some Christians still quaintly regard as being at the core of their faith, there was no mention. There was, however, a brief reference to the need for long-term healing of spiritual and mental health crises in the community.

In the same week, Morning Report ran a story about the director of the Anglican Advocacy Unit calling for stricter rules to control deceitful and manipulative property managers. Nothing about saving souls there, either.

Meanwhile, in the Vatican, Pope Francis was addressing business leaders on the need to stop the world’s oceans filling up with plastic waste.

“We cannot allow our seas and oceans to be littered by endless fields of floating plastic,” the Pope said. “We need to pray as if everything depended on God’s providence, and work as if everything depended on us.”

I had to read that last bit two or three times before I figured out what he was saying (or at least, what I think he was saying). But hey, at least God got a look in.

Now I’m no Bible-bashing, repent-or-burn-in-Hell evangelist – far from it. The only time I go near a church is to attend funerals, which I do far too often.

But the examples above strike me as evidence of the mainstream Churches desperately searching for relevance in an increasingly secular world, and of deluding themselves that they will find it by pushing fashionable political barrows.

Another example was the statement distributed to New Zealand Catholics by their bishops prior to the 2017 election. Predictably, it adopted voguish soft-Left positions on taxation, affordable housing and “caring for our planet”.

If I were Catholic, the presumption that I needed the bishops’ guidance on who to vote for would have irritated me even more than the pious platitudes.

But it’s not just the Catholics and Anglicans who have fallen into the trap of taking activist political positions. Even the Salvation Army, for decades a citadel of robust, practical Christianity and evangelisation, seems to have been politicised.

Its social justice advocates are regular fixtures on Radio New Zealand. I reckon the RNZ newsroom has Major Campbell Roberts, the Sallies’ director of social policy, on speed-dial.

Some will say it’s the duty of the Churches to speak out on issues such as climate change, inequality, racism, homelessness, immigration, LGBTQ rights, multiculturalism – and yes, plastic waste too.

Fair enough, but that seems to be all they speak out on. In doing so, they often give the impression they’re currying favour with the activist Left.

The striking emphasis on secular issues in ecclesiastical pronouncements also suggests that Church leaders have decided that since God isn’t getting punters into the pews anymore, they need to try something different.

Maybe they called in the marketing gurus, who suggested they change their branding to something more in tune with a public that has turned away from religion – something that conspicuously signals virtue and compassion, even if it doesn’t come up with solutions. 

Certainly the statistics look bad for the mainstream Churches. Between 2001 and 2013, the proportion of New Zealanders claiming no religious belief rose from 30 to 42 per cent.

It’s fair to say this has coincided with a collapse of the Churches’ moral authority – in Catholicism’s case, largely due to its scandalous record on sexual abuse. Just look at the way the formerly compliant Catholic Irish have taken the phone off the hook.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. But the Churches need to understand that they’re competing in a very crowded sector. In pursuing political causes, they risk being just another lot of voices amid the clamour from a vast and ever-proliferating body of strident advocacy groups demanding that the politicians do something.

To put it in marketing terms, they risk losing their vital point of difference – namely, saving souls.

I’m sure most of the people who still faithfully go to church on Sundays, along with the priests and vicars who minister to them, are concerned with more transcendent matters than plastic waste and evil property managers, important though such things are.

So why do Church leaders so often resort to hand-wringing political advocacy? Is it an admission that God just doesn’t cut it anymore? Have the Churches given Him up as a lost cause? It sometimes looks that way.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The neo-wowsers never let up

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and, September 5.)

So – the latest word from health researchers is that no level of alcohol consumption can be considered safe.

Let’s set aside the fact that we’re constantly bombarded with health and diet studies which frequently contradict each other – to the extent that many people are inclined to disregard them all – and take this latest one at face value.

Superficially, the results of the survey, conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, look persuasive.

The researchers found that while alcohol might be beneficial in some circumstances, the benefits are outweighed by risks which increase regardless of how little is consumed.

Not surprisingly, they found that the risks start out small with one drink a day, then increase as people consume more – hardly a stop-the-presses revelation.

Their conclusion: going teetotal is the only sure way to avoid the risk of harm.

Okay then. Now let’s apply the same test to a range of other human activities.

Travelling by car, indeed any form of transport, carries the risk of injury or death on the road. Does that mean we never go anywhere? No.

Getting married carries the risk that the relationship will end in an ugly and painful divorce. Does that mean people stay single? No.

Playing sport carries the risk of injury and disability. Does that mean we would be healthier if we were a nation of couch potatoes? No.

Investing money carries the risk that the investment will go belly-up and we’ll lose financially. Does that mean we hide our savings under the mattress? No.

Travelling to exotic places carries the risk of life-threatening illnesses from eating dodgy food or cutting our feet on poisonous coral. Does that mean we stay at home? No.

The point is that life would be unbearably dull – even pointless – without the pleasure, satisfaction and achievement that come from doing things that entail an element of risk.

Most people manage that risk by taking sensible precautions. They weigh the risks against the rewards and act accordingly.

We don’t drive fast in cars with bald tyres and munted brakes. We try to choose the right life partners and do our best to resolve any conflict that arises in the relationship.

If we play rugby, we wear mouth guards and avoid head-high tackles. If we ski, we stay on the designated slopes. If we push beyond those (relatively) safe limits, we accept the risk and take responsibility for the possible consequences.

I could go on, but you get my drift.

Now, back to alcohol. Most New Zealanders drink responsibly. They understand that excessive consumption carries risk.

Even the so-called experts, who never miss an opportunity to lecture us on the perils of alcohol, grudgingly accept that the great majority of people drink in moderation.

Alarmists in the health sector like to focus on the 20 percent of alcohol consumers whom they classify as “heavy” drinkers, but their definitions are questionable.

The “safe” drinking limits that guided British alcohol policy for years weren’t based on any hard data, but were plucked out of the air by a Royal College of Physicians working party which didn’t really have a clue how much alcohol was safe.

In the United States, a female heavy drinker is now classified as one who has eight or more drinks a week. Is it a good idea to regularly have eight or more drinks a week? Probably not. But to claim that anyone who does is a heavy drinker seems over the top.

I know lots of healthy, sober women who would exceed that limit at least occasionally. They would be shocked at the thought that they were officially considered heavy drinkers.

But of course that’s the aim: to scare people into cutting back or giving up altogether.

The publicly-funded neo-wowsers are on a moral crusade, and they never let up. They don’t trust ordinary people to make sensible decisions about what’s safe.

Another problem with alarmist studies such as the one mentioned above is that, as a recent editorial in The Listener pointed out, the scare-mongers never take into account the beneficial aspects of alcohol, both social and economic.

In Western civilisation, alcohol has been regarded for centuries as a means of socialising, relaxing and celebrating. You’d think that might count for something, but no.

Oh, and one other thing. According to one analysis of that recent American survey, it means that in a population of 100,000 people aged 15-95, 918 people are at risk of developing one of 23 alcohol-related conditions in a year if they have a drink every day, against 914 people who are at risk of developing the same problems if they never drink at all.

I don’t know about you, but they’re odds that I’m prepared to risk.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

There's more than one thing about this story that's Groundhog Day-ish

Auckland Council has got itself in a helluva mess over botched building consents after it misinterpreted its own confusing rules. The consents relate to building alterations in “character” suburbs such as Ponsonby and Devonport and will probably have to be applied for again, at huge inconvenience to the home owners and expense to the ratepayers, since the council will meet the costs and may have to pay compensation as well.

Radio New Zealand interviewed a planning lawyer who said the cockup showed how complicated the council’s planning rules were. It all seemed wearisomely familiar, but that wasn’t the only reason the Radio NZ news item sounded a bit Groundhog Day-ish. They also interviewed the council’s resource consents general manager, who turned out to be an Englishman.

Am I the only one who’s struck by the number of bureaucrats in local and central government who speak with a Pommy accent? If I was less lazy and more methodical, I would keep a record of the number of times they pop up in the TV and radio news.

I don’t want to be dragged before the Human Rights Commission and accused of racism (I actually like most Poms), but it seems to me that a quite disproportionate number of the officials who enforce nitpicking rules and regulations in New Zealand are English. Is it because they’re gifted managers, or is it that they’re naturally officious and attracted to jobs that involve telling other people what to do? Cases like the Auckland Council consents row suggest it’s unlikely to be the former.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

What on earth was Woodhouse thinking?

I could scarcely believe my ears yesterday when I heard that National Party immigration spokesman Michael Woodhouse was urging the government to ban the American whistleblower Chelsea Manning from entering New Zealand to give two speeches. For heaven’s sake, did this Womble pull a Rip Van Winkle and sleep through the recent debate about free speech?

I was pleased that the Free Speech Coalition, of which I’m a member, promptly spoke out in favour of Manning’s right to come here and be heard. Our credibility would have taken an irreparable hit if we had remained silent.

Over the past 24 hours Woodhouse has taken a richly deserved hammering from commentators on both the left and right. There’s nothing left to be said, other than to make the point – as political scientist Bryce Edwards does today in an excellent opinion piece for newsroom ( – that the attempt to shut down Manning should be a lesson to the illiberal lefties who wanted to keep Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux out of the country. Having argued that the Canadians should be barred, they are in no position to object when the same intolerance is exercised against someone they want to hear.

The point is that the right of free speech must apply across the board, ideologically, or it’s meaningless. Or as I put it in a blog post two weeks ago, an attack on one person’s right to free speech is an attack on everyone’s. 

Unfortunately the National Party has demonstrated that its support for free speech runs out the moment there’s a risk of upsetting an important ally. And this is the party that champions individual freedom? Pfft.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Warwick Roger, journalist

(This obituary was published in The Dominion Post and on, August 25.)

Warwick Roger, journalist. Born 21 August 1945, died 16 August 2018

Warwick Roger was the most influential New Zealand journalist of his generation.

He is remembered primarily as the audacious founder of Metro, the glossy Auckland monthly that reshaped New Zealand magazine publishing and steered indigenous journalism in a new direction. Partly modelled on the American magazines Esquire and New Yorker, Roger’s magazine dared to publish articles of a length never before seen here in a mainstream publication: 10,000 words and more.

It was technically known as long-form journalism and Roger had faith that the market was mature and sophisticated enough in 1981 to welcome it. He also had unshakeable confidence in his own judgment, even when many of his peers were predicting – in fact openly hoping – he would fail.

Where others would have lost their nerve, the stubborn, combative Roger refused to be swayed by detractors. Neither was he deterred by the reluctance of advertisers to come on board. And ultimately he proved the doubters wrong, even if it meant, according to one former colleague, wildly overstating Metro’s circulation figures in the early days as he struggled to attract advertising support.

By the mid-1980s, Metro’s golden era, the magazine had a circulation of 45,000, sometimes ran to 350 pages and was eagerly read far beyond its intended catchment of metropolitan Auckland. Piggybacking on its success, sister title North & South was launched in 1986 and applied the same journalistic formula to the national market, taking on the long-established Listener.  

Between them, Metro and North & South changed the face of New Zealand magazine journalism. But they had a lot more going for them than simply the length of their articles.

Roger was an astute spotter and nurturer of journalistic talent. He generally avoided hiring newspaper reporters and graduates of journalism schools, dismissing them as hacks and hackettes trained to write formulaic news stories. Roger preferred to recruit unproven writers with a flair for a freer, less stylised and more creative form of journalism, one that borrowed some of the techniques of fiction writing. He was a master of the style himself, though often parodied by his critics.

Roger’s protégés, who could have wallpapered  their houses with the journalism awards they won,  included Carroll du Chateau, Nicola Legat, the late Jan Corbett, Deborah Coddington and Robyn Langwell, who was to become his second wife (and founding editor of North & South). Roger also hired art director William Chen, who gave Metro its bold, stylish appearance.

Roger pushed the boundaries. He wrote savage restaurant reviews.  He created the scurrilous gossip column Felicity Ferret (partly inspired by the satirical English magazine Private Eye), which delighted in mocking the silvertails and high-flyers of Remuera and Parnell while simultaneously promoting an image of an Auckland that was glamorous, sophisticated, racy and cosmopolitan.

But most important of all, Roger courageously published big, complex and high-risk stories – none more so than The Unfortunate Experiment in 1987, which chronicled the deliberate non-treatment, with fatal consequences, of cervical cancer patients at National Women’s Hospital. The article, by health activists Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle, led to the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry, led by Judge Silvia Cartwright, and a subsequent overhaul of patients’ rights.

It was a high-water mark for investigative journalism in New Zealand. Yet it was typical of Roger’s ornery streak that in 1990, Metro published an equally explosive exposé by Jan Corbett entitled Second Thoughts on the Unfortunate Experiment, in which the Cartwright inquiry was branded a radical feminist witch hunt. The second article came about after Roger was presented with evidence that led him to suspect his magazine had been used to advance an ideological agenda.

Roger would tell his journalists that their job was to investigate the bad smell at the back of the cave that everyone else pretended to ignore. Anyone in power was considered fair game, which may explain why Roger was passed over several times for inclusion in the honours list. He was finally made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2008.

ROGER grew up in the Auckland suburb of Greenlane, the youngest son of a butcher. His father, whom he described as the meanest man he’d ever known, died when Roger was only 11. His mother was left virtually penniless and had to take in boarders.

He went to Auckland Grammar School, studied to become a primary school teacher and spent two years teaching before deciding that what he really wanted was to be a journalist like the Auckland Star columnist Noel Holmes, whom he greatly admired. He joined the Waikato Times in 1968, only a few weeks after the late Michael King, who was to become a long-standing friend. That was also the year when he married his first wife Anne Batt, with whom he had two children.

By the early 1970s Roger was working in Wellington at the Sunday Times under the editorship of the late Frank Haden, who implanted in him the radical idea that a reporter should do more than simply regurgitate quotes and recite sterile facts.

It was at the Sunday Times, and later its sister paper The Dominion, that Roger began to refine a style inspired by the so-called New Journalism of the time as practised by the American writers Truman Capote, Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe – writing that combined reportage with literary techniques borrowed from fiction.

The late Jack Kelleher, then editor of The Dominion, was a sympathetic boss who gave him the time and space he needed to research and write long, in-depth stories that sometimes ran over two or three days. Perhaps the most memorable was Roger’s detailed reconstruction of a shocking 1975 crime in which an irascible but harmless 70-year-old drunk was beaten to death by two street kids in Wellington’s Hopper St.

It was ground-breaking journalism, but it aroused a mix of envy and hostility from many of his colleagues who regarded Roger as pampered, elitist and self-indulgent. Not that hostility ever bothered him; in fact he seemed to thrive on it. He and kindred spirit Spiro Zavos, who was to become a lifelong friend, formed a tight, defiant team of two in the Dominion’s newsroom.

Roger was to encounter the same antipathy from colleagues at the Auckland Star when he moved back to his home town. Even the Star’s editor, Keith Aitken, a newspaperman of the old school, objected to the space that was lavished on Roger’s Saturday feature stories. For his part, Roger seethed with resentment at the changes made to his copy by sub-editors.

Rather than go on chafing with frustration at the constraints imposed on him by people unsympathetic to his ideals, Roger put his money where his mouth was. He launched Metro in partnership with investor Bruce Palmer and from day one, imposed his own uncompromising personality on the publication.

Never a man to make things easy for himself, Roger made an art form of getting offside with people. Even those closest to him admitted he had a cranky, vindictive streak. He pursued vendettas with a vengeance and was acutely sensitive to criticism. Intimidating letters from lawyers were treated with contempt.

The low point of his editorship came when Metro was sued by Sunday Star-Times gossip columnist Toni McRae in 1994 over a snide reference to her in the Felicity Ferret column. Broadcaster Brian Edwards, one of several to give evidence against Metro, later reportedly said of the trial that never had so many scores been settled in such a short time.

The court awarded McRae damages of $373,000, almost an unprecedented sum. The amount was later reduced to $100,000 plus costs, but Roger took the defeat badly. He stood down as editor later that year, having evidently lost much of his enthusiasm for the job.

Roger reverted to simply writing for Metro under the title of editor-at-large. Two years later he assumed the same role at North & South, where Langwell was editor. The two had married in 1986, two years after Roger hired Langwell to write for Metro. They had two children.

His move to North & South came in the same year that Roger was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the neurological disorder that progressively robbed him of his power of movement. He resisted the illness with the same stubbornness he had exhibited as a journalist, continuing to write, run, swim and play cricket even as he gradually lost control of his limbs. He eventually gave up full-time writing in 2004.

His determination to continue swimming almost led to his death in 2012, when his daughter found him face-down in the water at Cheltenham Beach, close to his Devonport home. He was resuscitated at the scene and eventually recovered, but lost all memory of the time leading up to the incident. He died aged 72.

FOOTNOTE: I wrote this obituary at the Dominion Post's request in 2012, when it seemed possible Warwick would not survive his near-drowning. It probably says something about him that it took six years to be published.