Monday, November 19, 2018

Ian Grant's history of NZ newspapers


(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., November 15.)
It’s odd, when the print media are fighting for survival, to read of a time in our history when people couldn’t get enough of newspapers.

I’ve been reading about such a time in Ian F Grant’s new book Lasting Impressions: The story of New Zealand’s newspapers 1840-1920.  Among other things, it reveals that New Zealand once had more newspapers per head of population than any other country in the world.

In colonial New Zealand, newspapers were often among the first businesses to be established as new towns arose from the wilderness. Opportunist publishers known as “rag planters” would move around the country, launching newspapers in embryonic communities then moving on when better prospects beckoned elsewhere.

Early colonists, Grant writes, regarded information and debate in newspapers as a crucial component in working towards a self-governing, independent society. Newspapers were the glue that held communities together and gave them a sense of identity.

The early New Plymouth settler Charles Hursthouse expressed it in plaintive terms. “Nothing has tended to retard the progress of the settlement more than the absence of a newspaper,” he lamented in 1848.

Before I go any further, a disclosure. Ian Grant was one of my employers when I worked at the National Business Review in the mid-1970s and we see quite a bit of each other in Masterton, where he and his wife Diane run a small but frenetically busy book publishing company. 

I had a sneak preview of two chapters in his book and was astonished at the depth and detail of the research. Grant is the first to admit that his job was made a lot easier by Papers Past, the National Library’s digital archive of old newspapers, but it was still a prodigious undertaking.

His interest in the newspaper business isn’t purely academic. A former editor of the Victoria University student paper Salient, he was one of a group of risk-taking young entrepreneurs who took over the floundering National Business Review in its early days and turned it into a success story.

He later founded the New Zealand Cartoon Archive, which grew out of his 1980 book The Unauthorised Version: A Cartoon History of New Zealand. 

Grant’s background was in advertising and it shows in his book, in which he repeatedly emphasises the importance of the advertising dollar in sustaining the newspaper business. That much has never changed.

He has little patience for academic theorists who insist on ascribing political motives to the men who laid the foundations of the New Zealand newspaper industry.

Several 19th century newspapermen did enter politics – including the premiers John Ballance and Julius Vogel – but the motivation for most proprietors and editors was to make money, and the papers that survived tended to have commercial rather than political objectives.

The one you’re reading right now was an exception. The Dominion was founded by wealthy farmers, merchants and professional men who opposed the policies of Richard Seddon’s Liberal Party government. But the paper it merged with in 2002, the Evening Post, was more in the standard mould, having been established and owned for more than a century by a family that had no political agenda. 

Lasting Impressions confirms – not that confirmation is needed – that newspapers thrived partly because human beings are social creatures with a natural interest in the affairs of others.

That hasn’t changed either, except that curiosity about the lives of others has mutated into a grotesque form of voyeurism that finds an outlet in social (or should that be anti-social?) media, where it’s reciprocated by people’s willingness to lay bare the most intimate details of their lives.

A lot else has changed too, and not necessarily for the better. The advent of the Internet has done untold damage to the traditional media.

Many people welcome this because it has democratised access to information. Editors in newsrooms are no longer the gatekeepers.

But it has come at a cost. One sad consequence is that the traditional “broad church” newspaper, which served as unifying force of civil society by providing readers with a smorgasbord of impartial news and information and also, crucially, by exposing them to a diverse range of opinions, is now threatened with extinction.

In its place we have an increasingly toxic and polarised cyberspace where people go to have their ideological prejudices reinforced.  Even the mainstream media often seem less concerned with providing balanced news than with offering a platform to advocacy groups intent on highlighting all the shameful ways in which our society is supposedly failing disadvantaged minorities.

Ian Grant has now turned his attention to the history of New Zealand newspapers since 1920, an assignment made unusually challenging by the very fluid state of the industry. Let’s hope Volume II doesn’t end up as an obituary.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

When TV drama is used to promote messages of diversity and inclusivity


(First published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz, November 14.)
In the opening episode of Bodyguard, a BBC drama series screening on Netflix, an off-duty police terrorism specialist (a man) confronts a female suicide bomber on a crowded train.

It’s convincingly tense, but there’s not a lot to distinguish it from other post-9/11 plotlines – that is, except for one thing.

The commander of a police anti-terrorism squad that boards the train is a cool and efficient black woman. Nothing remarkable about that, in itself. But then we see a police sniper waiting to get a clean shot at the suicide bomber, and the sniper is a woman too.

The next cop on the scene is an officer who has the perilous job of defusing the bomb. Wow, another woman. There seemed to be a pattern here.

Fast-forward now to when the crisis is over and the cop is back at the office telling his boss all about it. And waddya know, she’s a woman too.

She has some news for the cop: he’s been assigned to protect a high-profile politician. It will probably come as no surprise to learn that she, too, is a woman.

By this time it was clear that Bodyguard wasn’t just a well-made drama series; it was also making a statement about gender equality.

The message was that women can be just as tough and fearless as blokes. And actually, I’m okay with that. The days when granite-jawed men got all the good parts and women were in subservient roles are far behind us.

It makes perfect sense, for example, that the new Doctor Who is female. What took them so long, for heaven’s sake? In the 21st century, no man should baulk at seeing women calling the shots.

In fact, when I think about it, I realise that many of the TV dramas I’ve enjoyed most in recent years have had women in central roles. There was the grim but outstanding Happy Valley, starring Sarah Lancashire, and The Fall, starring Gillian Anderson of The X-Files fame.

There were two series, River and Unforgettable, which featured the wonderful Nicola Walker, and a swag of Scandi-noir crime series, whose names I can’t recall because they all seemed pretty much the same, in which the main characters were female. And I shouldn't omit the dark but stylish Killing Eve, starring the great Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer.

I also recently enjoyed repeats of some early episodes of Prime Suspect, which is credited with being one of the first TV dramas to put a woman front and centre, and which derived much of its drama from her struggle against the sexism of her police colleagues.

On reflection, I wondered whether Prime Suspect was really such a big deal, because even in the 1960s and 70s there were shows in which women had the star billing.

There was Diahann Carroll in Julia, which first screened in 1968. Not only was she female, but she was black too, and a solo mother to boot. And even before that, Lucille Ball had her own long-running comedy show.

Later came The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Policewoman and the first female take on the “buddy” cop show, Cagney and Lacey. Perhaps this was one area in which Hollywood was ahead of the Brits.

No one made a big fuss of these programmes, and why should they? What could be more unremarkable than making TV shows in which the sex that represents 50 percent of humankind takes centre-stage? But the preponderance of women in Bodyguard seemed a bit over the top. 

I had read in the British media about the BBC’s slavish commitment to policies of inclusivity and diversity. Was that what it was all about? Did Bodyguard reflect the world the way the scriptwriters think it ought to be?

It wouldn’t be the first time TV programme-makers have bowed to identity politics. In 2011 the co-creator and producer of ITV’s Midsomer Murders was forced to stand down because he objected to being told to include ethnic minorities in the series.

He wasn’t being racist. He just thought it would be inconsistent with the tone of the programme, which was set in a mythical, timeless and quintessentially English village. And I think he was right.

We watch TV dramas for entertainment, not to be morally improved or have our cultural sensitivity enhanced. When a TV show is used as a means of ideological virtue-signalling, as I suspect has happened with Bodyguard, it rankles.

At worst it conveys a faint but unsettling whiff of Stalinist-style totalitarianism, which used art to enforce ideological orthodoxy and ruthlessly suppressed anything that didn’t conform.

How sad it would be if the BBC, which was once greatly admired for boldly pushing the boundaries and defying the establishment, had meekly fallen into line with the “progressive” political agenda. But I suspect that’s what it has come to.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Someone wanted a link, so here it is


The Dominion Post today published a response by abortion activist Terry Bellamak to my column of last Thursday. In the online comments section on Stuff, someone subsequently recalled reading about a recent situation in the United States in which a woman went ahead with an abortion after receiving counselling and being convinced it was the right course. The baby was born alive but subsequently died, leaving the mother devastated. According to the commenter’s account, the mother implored nurses to help the baby, but was ignored. The commenter went on to mention that he or she was aware of a similar case in New Zealand in which a baby was “left on the side to die”.

Someone then responded to ask, “Can this appalling example be backed up? Or is it one of the many horror stories pedaled [sic] by various groups and lovingly spread by those opposed to abortion?” Someone else, apparently equally sceptical, chimed in: “Provide the link,please”.

Well, I hadn't previously heard about the incident in the US, but I do know about the New Zealand situation referred to. I wrote about it here five years ago:


Dr John McArthur, the paediatrician involved, wrote about it in Professional Misconduct, a book published only this year, which he provided to the Law Commission to consider as part of its review of the abortion law. His story is a chilling illustration of the professional indifference to life that results when the unborn child is viewed as less than human.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Expect to hear this Big Lie repeated endlessly


(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, November 1.)

On Radio New Zealand recently, Kim Hill interviewed an Irish poet named Doireann Ni Ghriofa. Don’t ask me to pronounce her name, but she sounded a very pleasant, gentle person.

She had a lovely voice that was even more beguiling when she spoke in her native Irish, which sounded like the sort of fairy language Tolkien might have invented.

Ni Ghriofa was brought up bilingual and writes poems in Irish (aka Gaelic). She recited a couple of them, then gave us the English translations.

One of these poems was about pregnancy. Ni Ghriofa has four small children, so presumably she loves kids. That impression was confirmed by the poem, which she wrote when she was carrying her second child.

In the English version, Ni Ghriofa marvels at the “jumble of limbs”, the “shadow stirring under my skin” and her “swollen middle suddenly punctuated by nudge of knee or ankle”.

She writes of piecing this “jigsaw” together until she could recognise the parts of her baby’s anatomy, right down to its “wee feet”. She finished with the charming line: “Then you grew, little stranger, and I grew to know you.”

It was a poem that thrilled at the human taking shape inside her – all of which seemed strikingly at odds with what she and Hill had been discussing only minutes before.

Hill had asked about the recent referendum which overwhelmingly approved the liberalisation of Ireland’s abortion laws.  Ni Ghriofa welcomed this “progressive” development as heartening for her generation of Irish women and a change that needed to be made.

Now I can see, at a stretch, how a woman might celebrate her own pregnancy while supporting the right of other women to terminate theirs. But it’s still hard to grasp how a baby can be a source of such joy in one set of circumstances, yet be treated as an inconvenience to be discarded in another. Hill could have chosen to explore this paradox with Ni Ghriofa, but didn’t.

It can make sense only if the incipient human life is considered intrinsically valueless unless its mother happens to want it. Is that what we’ve come to? In which case, in what circumstances does a life become worth saving?

A similar question arose last year amid the general rejoicing at the news that Jacinda Ardern was having a baby. Many of the people who expressed delight at the prime minister’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford support the right of women to have an abortion, no questions asked.

But isn’t it odd that we placed such value on Neve’s life when hardly anyone batted an eyelid at the 13,285 unborn babies who were aborted last year? What sort of strange lottery determines that one baby becomes a source of national celebration while others are sucked from the womb and consigned to a hospital incinerator?

A similarly strange dichotomy occurs when skilled doctors perform miracles to save fragile newborns while elsewhere in the same hospitals, other doctors are paid by the state to kill them in the womb.

More than 40 years after abortion was made pseudo-legal, we seem to be no closer to resolving this moral conundrum. It’s an issue that now confronts us again as pressure builds for the few existing controls on abortion to be removed.  

The Big Lie, which you can expect to hear repeated endlessly, is that abortion is a health issue. This is now a feminist article of faith. But no amount of repeating makes it true, because pregnancy and childbirth are not illnesses or disorders, and it’s impossible to imagine anything less healthy for the unborn child than to have its life terminated.

The debate will be ugly – we know that from 1977. And the anti-abortion camp will be fighting with one hand tied behind its back, because the media are overwhelmingly pro-choice.

Broadcaster Alison Mau gave an early example of the fatuous arguments likely to be deployed when, in a predictably one-sided panel discussion on Radio New Zealand, she proposed that men should be required to get permission from certifying consultants before getting prostate checks, as women seeking an abortion have to do.

This reduced the whole issue to a puerile game of gender tit-for-tat. It got her a cheap laugh, but the nature and purpose of the two procedures are fundamentally different. Prostate checks are about identifying and treating a potentially fatal disease. Their purpose is to save life.

But pregnancy is not a disease, a foetus is not a tumour, and the consequence of an abortion is that life is extinguished, not saved. If a high-profile broadcaster like Mau can’t grasp that crucial difference, we’re in bigger trouble than I thought.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Canberra elite's visceral loathing for Pauline Hanson


(First published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz, October 31.)

I first wrote about Pauline Hanson in 1997. She was then a newly elected Australian MP whom the liberal media – indeed most of the Australian political establishment – openly despised.

Hanson had been selected as a Liberal Party candidate in the 1996 elections but was dis-endorsed because the party was embarrassed by her opposition to special government assistance for Aborigines. She won the Queensland seat of Oxley anyway, despite it being an Australian Labor Party stronghold, and went on to form the One Nation Party.

Journalists and commentators made much of the fact that she had previously owned a fish and chip shop. She was seen as bigoted and uneducated and therefore not worthy of a seat in the Australian parliament. It didn’t seem to occur to her detractors that the bigoted and ignorant, in a democracy, are as entitled to representation as anyone.

Hanson wasn’t helped by the fact that she came from a state that many liberal Australians considered racist and socially backward.  All this made her the target for a lot of mockery and thinly disguised intellectual snobbery. When a TV interviewer asked her whether she was xenophobic, it was clear Hanson didn’t know what the word meant. The howls of derision could be heard from Brunswick to Balmain.

Her conservative stance on Asian immigration and Aboriginal rights made her even more of a pariah. At One Nation meetings, she and her supporters were abused and pelted with missiles. Ironically they were branded as Nazis, a label that could more accurately have been applied to the people trying to silence her.

I pointed out in my 1997 column that while the media and the political establishment were busy pouring scorn on Hanson, she was steadily building voter support. In the 1998 Queensland state elections, One Nation won 23 per cent of the vote.

Notwithstanding all the derision heaped on her, Hanson shrewdly exploited her “outsider” status. There remained a significant body of old, conservative Australia – some would say redneck Australia – that liked what she was saying.

More than 20 years on, a lot has changed. A flawed human being who arouses intense feelings from friends and foes alike, Hanson has been through some turbulent times.

A gang-up by the major parties ensured she lost her parliamentary seat in 1998, despite winning the biggest share of the vote. She was later expelled from the party she founded and was imprisoned for electoral fraud, although her conviction was quashed on appeal.

Subsequent attempts to revive her political career were dogged by conflict and controversy, but in 2013 she was reconciled with One Nation and by 2016 she was back in Canberra as a senator for her home state. 

One thing that hasn’t changed in all that time is the Australian media’s visceral loathing for her. While Hanson remained in the political wilderness she could be treated with lofty disdain. But with her return to the corridors of power, elements of the media seem to be back in “Get Hanson” mode.
Evidence of this is a recent book called Hoodwinked: How Pauline Hanson Fooled a Nation, by Canberra press gallery doyenne Kerry-Anne Walsh.

If that name rings a bell with some readers, it’s probably because Walsh is a regular Friday morning commentator on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report. But judging by reviews of her new book, Walsh – who previously wrote an overwrought and highly partisan account of how former Australian Labor prime minister Julia Gillard was supposedly shafted – has done nothing to erase doubts about her ability to comment impartially on Australian politics. 

One review on a left-wing website carrying the imprimatur of the Catholic Jesuit order applauds Walsh for “dismembering” Hanson. The same review, incidentally, continues the relentless disparagement of Hanson’s background as a fish and chip shop proprietor, as if that negates any right she might otherwise have to be taken seriously.

A less admiring review in the Spectator Australia by maverick former ALP leader Mark Latham, who is something of an outsider himself, describes Walsh’s book as 300 pages of non-stop abuse.

Latham says Walsh’s first sentence sets the tone, describing Hanson as looking like “she’d been slapped with something wet and smelly from the old days, when she ran a fish and chippery”.

Ah, there it is again: the fish and chip shop. The Canberra commentariat won’t let anyone forget it. It’s a striking example of how contemptuous some of the media elite have become toward ordinary people.

From what I’ve read of her, I don’t think I like Hanson, but I like media gang-ups even less.

A tough but dispassionate journalistic assessment of Hanson would be entirely legitimate, but Walsh’s book sounds more like a toxic rant. One otherwise sympathetic reviewer described it as “depthless, open loathing”. Not much has changed in 21 years, then.