Friday, February 3, 2023

Virulent bigotry at the highest levels of the media

Not once but twice in recent weeks I’ve learned of occasions when I was labelled by senior journalists in the mainstream media as a misogynist and a racist.

In one of those instances the offender was Wellington-based Ben McKay, Australian Associated Press’s New Zealand correspondent, who tried to have my blog posts excluded from political scientist Bryce Edwards’ daily online summary of political news and comment. I wrote about it here.

McKay is a virtual unknown in New Zealand, but more recently I learned I was described in exactly the same terms by a far more senior and influential editorial figure. A commitment of confidentiality prevents me from revealing who it was, but it was unrelated to the McKay episode.

I deduce from this that it’s now received wisdom within some mainstream media circles, even at senior levels, that I hate women and approve of discrimination against people on the basis of their race. This, after all, is what the words misogynist and racist mean.

In revealing this I am not seeking and don’t want sympathy. The terms misogynist and racist are so degraded by overuse that to me, they are meaningless. (They are also wholly unsubstantiated, although that doesn't seem to bother my accusers.)

However those words still carry force. Though they cause me no lost sleep they are terms of serious vilification which, if published, would probably be actionable in court.

What principally concerns me is not the attack on my reputation, but that such adolescent terms – let’s call them undergraduate-level – should be used so freely by people in senior editorial positions.

Journalism hinges on words. Used properly, they are precision tools. But a generation of journalists has emerged which doesn’t hesitate to use ideologically loaded terms of denigration to discredit people they don’t approve of.

Some of this can be put down to sheer ignorance – the inevitable result of an education system that produces journalists with only a rudimentary grasp of the English language and which does little to encourage respect for the accurate use of words.

To read any newspaper, even some of the more reputable ones, is to gasp at the amateurish writing and the frequency of solecisms that would in the past have been intercepted and corrected by sub-editors. It’s one of the great paradoxes of our age that the most thoroughly (I refuse to say “best”) educated journalists in history routinely produce work so shoddy that it should never have made it onto the printed page.

Ignorance, however, only goes so far as an explanation for the misuse of words.  A lot of it is attributable to sheer prejudice and malice, most of it ideologically based. Hence the frequency with which we see the use of conveniently vague but disparaging terms such as far-right, alt-right, racist, fascist and misogynist – labels used to discredit any political position that doesn’t align with those of the political, bureaucratic, academic and media elites. (It’s another striking paradox that while we supposedly have a proliferation of malignant groups on the right, it’s almost unheard of for the media to describe any person, group or political party as “far left” – still less to suggest that anyone qualifying for that description could have less than wholly noble motives.)  

The absurd and dangerous term “hate speech” should be seen in the same light. In the woke glossary adopted by the mainstream media, “hate speech” means any expression of opinion that upsets someone. But the term is used very selectively, since those pushing for the adoption of so-called hate speech laws are not remotely interested in protecting the feelings or opinions of people they dislike. On the contrary, they freely indulge in vile and repugnant invective against them. Hate speech laws are intended by their backers to run one way only: to shield people and ideas they approve of.  It’s hypocrisy on a breathtaking scale.

Perhaps more to the point, the loaded phrase “hate speech” has been promoted with no regard for the real meaning of that word “hate”, which describes an emotion so extreme and intense that historically it has led to genocide and other atrocities. By applying the term to the expression of opinions that do no more than risk offending sensitive minority groups, the language activists have grossly misappropriated its meaning. But it serves the valuable purpose, for them, of providing a pretext for the outlawing of ideas they don’t like.

All this has implications for public trust in journalism. When readers can no longer rely on words being used with accuracy and respect for their established meaning, and when derogatory labels are used as lazy substitutes for accuracy and considered analysis, with not even a fig leaf of substantiation, journalism loses its moral authority. It risks being reduced to the level of propaganda, vilification and simplistic sloganeering.

The Nazis were very good at this and so is Vladimir Putin. It’s grimly ironic that the same techniques are now used in the Western media by people who smugly think of themselves as liberal. The “othering” of dissenters is an inevitable (and make no mistake, intended) consequence.

I wonder, do those impostor journalists who so freely use damning terms such as “misogynist” stop to think what the words actually mean? By labelling me as a misogynist, my accusers are saying I hate my wife, my daughters, my late mother, my sister and my grand-daughters, to say nothing of my women friends. Really? Try telling them that.

That such accusations are self-evidently preposterous doesn’t stop those who make them. And the frightening thing is that this virulent bigotry appears to have permeated the highest levels of the news media, where editorial gatekeepers decide what stories to cover and which opinions New Zealanders should be exposed to.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Scam alert

 A regular follower of this blog tells me he was asked to access his "free account" by entering his credit card number. I can think of no legitimate reason why any reader should be asked for their card details and suggest that if this happens to anyone else, they should treat it as a scam.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The press gallery hack who tried to have me cancelled

Some readers of this blog will be familiar with Political Roundup, a daily summary of political news and comment compiled by Victoria University political scientist Bryce Edwards. Available free by email, it includes links to the source material and provides a very useful guide to what commentators are saying.

Edwards leans to the left himself but Political Roundup covers a broad ideological spectrum – too broad, it seems, for senior press gallery journalist Ben McKay, the New Zealand correspondent for Australian Associated Press.

I recently learned that in December 2021, McKay emailed Edwards and asked whether he had considered excluding my blog posts from his daily wrap. This wheedling suggestion was apparently provoked by a post in which I criticised the press gallery for being more concerned with the thrill of the political chase than with the substance of politics. (Edwards, to his credit, appears to have disregarded McKay's request.)

McKay, who has never met me, described me in the email as deranged, racist and misogynist. These would be defamatory accusations if I took them seriously, but I prefer to adopt Katharine Hepburn’s maxim: “I don’t care what anyone says about me as long as it’s not true.”

He also implied that I was senile, that I no longer had a place in the mainstream media (probably true, although I relinquished my gigs in the MSM entirely of my own choice) and was reduced to writing a “sad blog” in which I was often hyper-critical of “decent journalists” - that is to say, his gallery colleagues. He concluded: “I think your readers would do well not to be served up this trash.”

I hadn’t heard of McKay until I learned of this and certainly won’t lose any sleep fretting about his opinion of me. But it becomes a matter of public interest when a senior political journalist surreptitiously tries to use his influence to have another commentator cancelled because he doesn’t like what he writes. It reinforces my suspicion that some mainstream journalists are more than merely ignorant of the importance of free speech in a liberal democracy. They are actively hostile to it.

Perhaps even more alarming is the ease with which McKay resorts to crude, simplistic, bumper-sticker stereotypes such as “racist” and “misogynist”.

Three questions:

1.     If McKay resorts to such lazy caricatures in an email to an influential academic, can we assume he does the same in his political reportage and analysis? Remember, McKay is the conduit through which many Australian readers get their information about New Zealand politics. Is his coverage coloured by the same ignorant bias and bigotry?

2.     Does McKay’s intolerance of dissenting opinions reflect the views of others in the press gallery? I don’t know. But the gallery hunts as a pack and I suspect many of its members have been captured by conformist groupthink.  There’s safety in numbers, after all; it saves you from having to think for yourself. (The long-serving Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen was an appalling man in many respects, but he got one thing right when he described press conferences as “feeding the chooks”.)

3.     Does it occur to McKay that the principle of free speech, on which all journalists and political commentators depend, applies regardless of the prevailing ideological currents? These currents may be flowing McKay’s way at the moment, but what would happen if he suddenly found himself trying to operate in a hostile (i.e. non-woke) political environment? I imagine he might then feel very grateful for the right to express himself freely - a right that he apparently resents being granted to others.

Monday, January 9, 2023

The priggish intolerance of supposed liberals

Ever heard of Joanna Grochowicz? No, I hadn’t either, until a few days ago, although I probably should have. She’s a New Zealand author who wrote a book about Ernest Shackleton, along with some children’s books about polar exploration heroics.

What brought Grochowicz to my attention was a bitchy hit job on her by another New Zealand writer, Stacy Gregg. Grochowicz had committed the unpardonable sin of writing an opinion piece for a British-based website called Perspective Magazine, published in February last year, in which she criticised her home country’s enforced isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic (you can read it here). Cruel and tyrannical were two of the words Grochowicz used.

That might have been permissible, at a pinch - it was a widely held view, after all; but Grochowicz went on to attack Jacinda Ardern. While praising Ardern’s “decisive and compassionate” action in the early stages of her prime ministership (and admitting she had twice voted for her), she said the “once saintly” leader had morphed into an autocrat, executing stealthy manoeuvres against her own people and exerting mind control.

Grochowicz also put the boot into the compliant New Zealand media and by implication, the docile New Zealand populace at large. Under Arden, she wrote, New Zealand had become a smug cul-de-sac.

I thought it was a good piece, but that’s neither here nor there. Whether you agreed with it or not, it was a legitimate expression of opinion on a matter of public interest.

Not so the response from Gregg, who is a best-selling author of children's novels about girls and horses – and now also, it seems, a member of the self-appointed Praetorian Guard that comes to Ardern's defence when anyone dares attack her. Gregg’s riposte to Grochowicz, which originally appeared on Newsroom last February, was republished a few days ago as part of Newsroom’s “Best of the Year” series, which is how I belatedly caught up with it.

What made one article okay and the other not is that Gregg’s response was gratuitously and vindictively personal. The writer knew Grochowicz – had once even liked her – but clearly decided, on the basis of the Perspective article, that they could no longer be friends.

Accordingly, the piece was peppered with snide observations not only about Grochowicz but her wealthy husband and their lavish lifestyle. According to Gregg, “the people who seem to have railed the most at having their lifestyles curtailed by reality [during the Covid lockdown] are the wealthy, privileged, upper middle-classes who can't understand why this thing won't just end because they really, really want to go on holiday in Denarau and anyway their friend had Covid and it's literally just a head cold! And they are triple-vaxxed and they are fine!”

The intriguing thing is that Gregg seemed not to mind this life of privilege and entitlement while she and Grochowicz were still friends, and indeed bought into it (she reveals she took a bottle of Veuve Clicquot – $90 at New World – to a dinner with Grochowicz and her Polish husband, only to be aced by his magnum of Pol Roger). But all this self-indulgence apparently became abhorrent when she realised, on reading the article criticising Ardern, that she and Grochowicz saw the world differently. Then she turned on her erstwhile friend, attacking her as the cold, unfeeling face of affluence. (You don't have to squint too hard to detect more than a hint of resentment toward Grochowicz for the mere fact of being rich.)

The striking thing about Gregg’s article is the tone of betrayal, as if Grochowicz had deceived her. In fact Gregg berates herself for not deducing sooner that Grochowicz, all along, was really just an apologist for male white supremacists. Get this: “I thought she was a trailblazer working in a male dominated field, outside of literary norms. I believed we were on the same path. When I look back now, I feel like a real dunderhead for not seeing what she was really writing about. Now I think she was paying an homage [sic] to the glory days of the good old empire. Now I think that her deifying of white, male explorers who came, saw and conquered other worlds speaks volumes about her, cultural imperatives and New Zealand as a hicksville outpost whose existence is in service of our masters in the UK. Even when she regaled me with stories of hanging out with white, crusty male historians and leering it up at Lord Spencer's estate, I just thought - oh fun stories!”

So what started as an attack on Grochowicz for daring to criticise the sainted prime minister – heresy! – then took a headlong, hyperbolic leap into the now tediously familiar mire of identity politics. Yet Grochowicz was presumably still the same person Gregg had been attracted to, so what had changed? Only that Grochowicz had exercised her right to express opinions that clearly didn’t align with the prevailing ones in the circles Gregg moved in.

Gregg’s article also invites the accusation that she intruded on Grochowicz's privacy by revealing information about Grochowicz’s personal life and marital relationship – information acquired when the two were friends and therefore arguably imposing a duty of confidentiality, given that Grochowicz would have had no reason to suspect it would become the subject of an article. That there was nothing incriminating about the information doesn't make the disclosure acceptable. But hey – no doubt this apparent betrayal of trust was justified, in Gregg’s mind at least, because of Grochowicz’s supposedly despicable opinions. Such people need to be exposed, after all.

Here, laid bare, is the intolerance and priggishness of people who probably think of themselves as liberal yet can’t tolerate any departure from approved groupthink. Gregg’s hatchet job could be summarised thus: “I thought Jo was one of us and she turned out not to be, so she must be exposed.”

There’s a lesson here: think carefully before you befriend a writer. They can be a spiteful, duplicitous and disputatious lot, and you can never be sure the friendship won’t come back to bite you.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Woodville Wire: a cautionary tale

Ever heard of the Woodville Wire? No, I hadn’t either, until a couple of days ago. It’s a newsletter that publishes community news and comment on local issues in a southern Hawke’s Bay town where nothing much happens (at least, not usually).

I'm guessing the Wire’s readership would be counted in the hundreds, at most, yet this very modest news sheet has unexpectedly been pitched headlong into the culture wars. What follows is a cautionary tale about the febrile state of Maori-Pakeha relations and the precariousness of free speech - freedom of the press too, come to that - in a climate of state-sanctioned authoritarian orthodoxy.

In October last year, a local woman named Annette Nepe sent the Woodville Wire an article about a petition she had launched urging the InterCity bus service to reinstate its local bus stop. Ms Nepe prefaced her article with the greeting “Kia ora nau mai, ngā mihi nui koutou katoa”, which she explained meant “Welcome everyone, big friendly greeting to all”.

Nothing controversial here, surely. The subject of the article was one that might be described as parish-pump – i.e. of purely local concern. The tone of Ms Nepe’s email, as far as we can ascertain, was cheerful and (to use a fashionable word) inclusive. But Ms Nepe wanted the Maori greeting included with her article, “to reflect her culture”, and things turned sour when the editor of the Wire, Jane Hill, refused.

She told Ms Nepe in an email that it would have been respectful to ask, rather than demand, that the article be published. (Was it a “demand”? We don’t know, because the full email exchange hasn’t been disclosed.)

Ms Hill went on to say: “Secondly, this is not a Maori newsletter; it is a community newsletter and everyone in this community speaks English.

“I, as well as many New Zealanders am not in favour of giving one cultural group special privilege regarding their language simply because they (falsely) claim first nation status.

“Thirdly, why should we elevate the Maori language for you, when you clearly show no respect for the English language. It is extremely poor.

“I will write an article about the public transport system and encourage people to sign the petition as have I.”

Phew. Talk about lighting the blue touch paper. Ms Nepe subsequently brought legal proceedings against Ms Hill in the Human Rights Tribunal, alleging racial harassment. The case went to mediation and resulted in what might be described as a complete capitulation by Ms Hill.

According to a press release issued by the Office of Human Rights Proceedings, which is part of the Human Rights Commission, Ms Hill made the following statement:

“I, Ms Hill, acknowledge the hurt that was done to Ms Nepe by the correspondence I sent.

 “I acknowledge that my choice of words was perceived as aggressive and unnecessary. It was not my intention to attack or minimise Ms Nepe’s culture.

“Now that I can see the effects of the experience on Ms Nepe, I am willing and committed to changing the way I engage with Maori in my community.”

According to the press statement, Ms Nepe thanked Ms Hill for her apology. “This is good for both of us; I’m happy that we talked. This is a good outcome and a step towards repairing and growing relationships in the Woodville community. We both agree racism has no place in Aotearoa New Zealand and we’re on the road to eliminating it.”

All settled, then. Ms Hill suitably contrite, Ms Nepe gracious in her response – although of course it’s easy to be big-hearted in victory. I imagine the Office of Human Rights Proceedings was pleased with itself too for its part in exposing and publicly shaming a supposed racist, albeit a now remorseful one.

Predictably, Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, New Zealand’s No. 2 official finger-wagger (Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt is numero uno), weighed in with a gratuitous and patronising statement – a pat on the head, figuratively speaking – welcoming “the willingness to move forward in an informed manner”.

So ... all done and dusted.  Except that the episode is likely to leave many people feeling distinctly uncomfortable about creeping authoritarianism and the imposition of a penalty, in the form of a public shaming, for speaking freely. It should also be viewed as a direct attack on press freedom, given that it undermines the right of an editor to determine what she should publish.

We don’t know what transpired behind closed doors in mediation. It’s quite possible Ms Hill had a genuine road-to-Damascus experience, as the official statement suggests. But it’s also possible that confronted with the weight of the state’s punitive apparatus and the prospect of continuing stress and controversy if she stood her ground, she felt the easiest way out was to back down. I'm guessing the signal was conveyed to her that it was the appropriate thing to do.

If so, she wouldn’t have been the first. In 2020 I wrote about the case of a Taranaki nurse who was deregistered by the powerful Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal for making derogatory comments about some of her Maori colleagues. She too found herself up caught up in an intimidating quasi-judicial process and subsequently issued what might be categorised as a grovelling apology. I wrote then that a newspaper account of the tribunal proceedings left the discomforting impression of a show trial.

In both instances, the instigators did themselves no favours by their initial actions. The nurse’s statements on Facebook were, by her own admission, impulsive and offensive, although the consequences were wildly overstated by a complainant who appeared eager to make the most of the situation.

Similarly, Ms Hill was needlessly provocative and antagonistic in her email to Ms Nepe, apparently seizing the opportunity to vent opinions that she could have chosen to keep to herself. But it’s possible to acknowledge these faults while still feeling uneasy about the way events unfolded.  In both the Taranaki and Woodville cases there appears to have been a disproportionately heavy-handed response from a system that seemed keen to make a public example of the transgressors.

Does anyone, I wonder, consider that the personal consequences might greatly outweigh the perceived offence? In the Taranaki case, the nurse subsequently struggled to find work. She was effectively blacklisted. Now I note that in both the Stuff and New Zealand Herald stories about the Woodville Wire episode, Ms Hill is described as the “former” editor.

What does this mean? Did she quit in disillusionment? Did she feel so bruised by the unpleasantness of the complaint procedure that she decided it wasn’t worth going on? Or was she fired for bringing the Wire into disrepute? I know nothing about the management and ownership structure of the Wire, so can’t say. She may, of course, have been planning to leave anyway.

But what I would say is this: Someone, perhaps Ms Hill herself, took a punt in establishing the Woodville Wire, presumably because they saw it as providing a useful service to the community. They would have committed their own capital to the venture, to say nothing of their labour and skill, with no guarantee of a financial return. Now a person with no stake in the enterprise has been able, with the help of a busybody government agency, to exert power over it and subject the editor to a demeaning quasi-judicial process, possibly even to the extent (this is pure conjecture on my part) of triggering her departure. Hands up all those who think that’s fair.

Furthermore, the Woodville Wire is presumably a private undertaking. Ms Hill broke no law. She is therefore not answerable to government functionaries. Yet she was subjected to a humiliating and very public ticking-off (public because the Office of Human Rights Proceedings made it so) which, by implication, painted her as a racist. Where is the justice in that?

Would Ms Nepe have pursued her complaint had Ms Hill responded more diplomatically? We don’t know. But as things stand, it seems the worst Ms Hill can be accused of is impoliteness and candour. Last time I checked, being rude and forthright didn’t breach any law.

Certainly, Ms Hill’s behaviour falls far short of “racial harassment”, which is how the Office of Human Rights Proceedings described the case. Lest there be any doubt about the gravity of Ms Hill’s supposed offence, the Office’s press statement was headlined “Racial harassment case settles”.

Harassment? Really?? My New Zealand Oxford Dictionary defines the verb “harass” as meaning “to trouble or annoy continually or repeatedly” (the italics are mine). All Ms Hill did, evidently, was send a single email to which Ms Nepe took offence. How does that amount to harassment? A good lawyer would surely have moved for the complaint to be dismissed outright as a nullity.

Here’s the thing. Ms Hill was entitled to decide what to publish, and by logical extension what not to publish. As editor, she was legally responsible for the content of the Woodville Wire. That imposes obligations but it also carries rights, including the right of refusal to publish a statement in te reo. People may legitimately disagree with her decision in this instance, but it’s hers to make.

Incidentally, I can’t help wondering whether the Media Council would have been a more appropriate forum for resolving the issue.  I’m speculating again here, but perhaps the state human rights apparatus was preferred because there was a better chance of a favourable outcome for the complainant. The Media Council has been known, after all, to uphold the autonomy of editors.

And here’s another thing. Will activist lawyers and Maori language advocates regard the Woodville Wire case as a precedent, opening the way to future insistence on the publication of statements in Maori? You can bet they will. And will timid or woke editors now consider themselves obliged to publish submitted content in te reo even though only a tiny minority of their readers can understand it? Very likely.

I have asked myself whether I, as a former (very former) newspaper editor, would have published Ms Nepe’s Maori greeting. I probably would have, because it was charming (am I permitted to say that?), quirky and harmless. But that’s not the point; Ms Hill was entitled to decide as she did without then being pressured, through the intervention of an ideologically driven government agency, to recant.

The whole affair leaves a bad taste. There is a balance to be struck between use of the English and Maori languages, and New Zealanders are steadily working towards that goal. Note the increased frequency with which Maori words and phrases (kapai, whanau, waiata, kuia) have naturally been absorbed into everyday speech. But a sullen resistance sets in when people perceive that te reo is being imposed on them, as is happening now, by an elite political/academic/media caste rather than being allowed to evolve organically.

The Woodville Wire case, however, is about much more than the use of te reo. More disturbingly, it stands as a lesson that anyone bold or rash enough to challenge prevailing orthodoxies risks being publicly pilloried, with the state’s active complicity. This is true regardless of whether Ms Hill had a genuine and sincere change of heart.

Observing the fate of someone who did no more than exercise her editorial prerogative in what she no doubt thought was a private email, people will reasonably conclude that the only safe course in New Zealand is to keep potentially contentious opinions to themselves or express them only to trusted friends. That can only have a chilling effect on public debate, which of course is exactly the intended outcome. If you sometimes sense the pincers of state control gradually tightening around you, it’s probably because they are.


Friday, December 23, 2022

Compliments of the season

🎄To all those who have followed this blog in 2022, even when they didn't necessarily agree with it, and to those who took the trouble to contribute erudite and insightful comments, my sincere thanks and best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.  See you in 2023. 🎄

Friday, December 16, 2022

The striking thing about the Dom Post's new editor

Stuff has announced the appointment of a new editor for the Dominion Post. Caitlin Cherry will replace Anna Fifield, who is returning to the Washington Post as its Asia-Pacific editor.

Cherry, who will start in February, has spent most of her career with RNZ in behind-the-scenes roles on news and current affairs programmes, including Morning Report and Nine to Noon. She currently has the title of Head of Content at Consumer NZ.

What’s most striking about her appointment is that judging by her LinkedIn profile, she has never worked for a daily newspaper – in fact appears to have no print experience of any sort. Yet she’s taking over the leadership of what used to be one of the country’s most influential mastheads.

This could be a move so bold and visionary that its brilliance isn’t immediately obvious. On the other hand it could be just plain dumb.

It could be interpreted as confirmation that Stuff isn’t really interested in print and possibly regards it as a dinosaur medium in the digital era. The company has often given the impression, intentionally or otherwise, that it regards its newspapers as an encumbrance.

Alternatively the appointment could be taken as yet another indication that Stuff doesn’t have a clue what it’s doing. When a puzzled former colleague of mine asked whether anyone knew what the company’s overall strategy was, the only answer I could think of was “slow-motion suicide”. But I hope my bleak assessment is wrong - because for all Stuff's missteps, hundreds of journalists still depend on it for a living.