Monday, May 25, 2020

Two more reasons why the public have lost faith in the news media


We live in the age of the media sideshow. In Britain, the press is in a state of uproar because Boris Johnson’s closest adviser, Dominic Cummings, broke the lockdown rules to drive 400 kilometres to his parents’ home, apparently so that extended family could care for his four-year-old son.

It doesn’t look good, especially when his wife was showing coronavirus symptoms and Cummings, according to Johnson, was worried that he would contract the virus himself. There were surely other ways of making sure their son was looked after.

But it’s worth noting that the story was broken by The Daily Mirror and The Guardian, two papers aligned with the left. The British left loathe Johnson, deeply resent his popularity, and will use any means they can to damage him.

Cummings makes it easier for them because he’s personally unpopular and appears to revel in his image as a master of the dark political arts. He’s also resented within the Conservative Party because of his perceived influence over the prime minister, which probably explains why some Tory MPs are demanding his head on a platter.

Yes, this is an issue for Johnson, and he’s characteristically tackling it head-on. It’s refreshing to see a political leader standing his ground rather than meekly capitulating to sanctimonious left-wing media bullies, as so many gutless centre-right politicians do.

Does Cummings deserve to be defended? I couldn’t say. But what’s clear is that a frenzied media beat-up has blown the issue out of all proportion. That was apparent from Corin Dann’s interview on Morning Report this morning with an over-excited Vincent McAviney, one of Radio NZ’s British correspondents.

McAviney signalled his bias when he made a snide remark suggesting that because Johnson has had multiple children with various partners, he’s in no position to talk about fatherly instincts. Really? Johnson has spread his seed around, so he’s a hypocrite for sympathising with Cummings’ desire to protect his son? Is that a gigantic non-sequitur, or what?

Warming to his theme, McAviney proceeded to paint Cummings as some sort of sinister Rasputin-type figure exercising “huge” control in Downing Street – more than anyone before him, he reckoned. Perhaps McAviney is too young to remember the egregious Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s all-powerful communications supremo, whose toxic behaviour supposedly inspired the character of Malcolm Tucker in the BBC political satire The Thick of It.

But the British journo well and truly blew any chance of being taken seriously - you could say he jumped the shark - when he cited condemnatory tweets by J K Rowling and - get this - a former winner of The Great British Bake Off as conclusive proof of the wickedness lurking in the dark heart of No. 10. The case rests, m'Lud. 

I wonder, do people like McAviney realise how absurd they sound? And does RNZ expect us to regard him in future as a sober and reliable observer of British politics?

Meanwhile, an equally ludicrous sideshow was playing out right here in New Zealand over the supposedly scandalous MAGA cap that someone spotted on a shelf in the office of new National leader Todd Muller.

In a comically hysterical piece in the New Zealand Herald, Damien Venuto argued that this was no innocent political souvenir brought home (along with a Hillary Clinton badge) by someone with a harmless interest in American politics.  No, it was apparently prima facie evidence of sympathy for white male supremacists.

Even the redoubtable, hard-core leftie Martyn Bradbury drew the line at this, pointing out that Venuto’s column was exactly the type of over-reaction that free-speech advocates seize on as proof of the left’s intolerance of differing views.

He’s right, but for me the greater tragedy is that woke journalists like Venuto – McAviney too, for that matter – are the reason the New Zealand public have almost completely lost faith in the media.

Friday, May 22, 2020

That media feeding frenzy: what's the point, exactly?


Coverage of the National Party leadership contest has taken up acres of newsprint and hours of airtime. Political scientist Bryce Edwards’ daily online compendium of political news and comment this morning listed 48 items about the challenge to Simon Bridges; yesterday there were 39, and that excludes much of the content on TV and radio. Yet most of it is utterly pointless, because by this afternoon we’ll know the outcome and all the feverish analysis, speculation and comment will be redundant.

Of course the public has an interest in knowing the majority party in Parliament has been destabilised by a leadership crisis. It’s also entitled to know more about the leadership challenger, who was a political Mr Nobody – at least in the eyes of the public – until a few days ago. But beyond that, much of the coverage has served only to fill space and excite political tragics.

All those opinion pieces in print and online, all those radio interviews with political commentators (some with their own undeclared interests), all those ambushes of National MPs by over-stimulated TV reporters demanding to be told who they’re going to back (while knowing there’s virtually zero chance of getting an honest reply) … it’s all as evanescent as a puff of smoke.

It’s hard to see what pressing public interest is served here. There’s little evidence that the public shares the media’s excitement, since the public – if they’re interested at all – realise all questions will be answered later today. There’s even less evidence to suggest the media feeding frenzy will influence the outcome of the caucus vote. So what’s the point?

The answer, of course, is that it feeds the commentariat’s need for drama and excitement. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has generated headlines almost non-stop since February, is tapering off and something needed to be found to fill the void. The Reid and Colmar opinion polls that showed Simon Bridges and National tanking came along at just the right moment.

Oh, and here’s another thing. Morning Report today had seven items on the National leadership crisis, including interviews with commentators Matthew Hooton and Ben Thomas. Later, someone emailed the programme objecting to Hooton being presented as an impartial political commentator, which he’s not. But who the hell is? Virtually all the “commentators” regularly trotted out by the media, from Hooton on the right to Chris Trotter on the left, are contaminated by their political leanings and connections. Some are actively involved in politics up to their armpits. They may all contribute their own particular insights, but few can claim to be pure and detached. Who knows what private agendas they might be running, or whose interests they might be covertly promoting?

Arguably the least dangerous are those whose political affiliations are well known, such as the two already mentioned. More worrying by far are those whose loyalties and agendas are not disclosed, yet who are presented as objective observers. I suspect this group may include some political journalists, whose relationships with the politicians they report on – and on whom they depend for information – are by their very nature opaque. I’m reminded of my late colleague Frank Haden’s useful dictum: doubt everyone with gusto.

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic came at a good time for Winston Peters


(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, May 14.)

The coronavirus crisis has been very good for Winston Peters.

He came back from his Northland lockdown firing on all cylinders. If you wanted confirmation that this is an election year, there it was.

Perhaps he needed that spell of seclusion to recuperate from the bruising effects of a court case that blew up in his face and a donations scandal that refuses to go away.

Whatever the explanation, the Great Tuatara was quick to re-assert himself on the political stage. The Covid-19 pandemic enabled him to present himself as statesmanlike in his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs and made him look good as the saviour of New Zealanders trapped overseas and desperate to come home.

It also allowed him to promote himself as a Man of the People by disclosing that health officials had been rebuffed when they advised the government to close our borders, which would have left those travellers stranded.

It was inconceivable, Peters declared, “that we [would] ever turn our backs on our own”. He was thus able to parade as a patriot who stood firm against flint-hearted bureaucrats.

Normally such advice to Cabinet is kept confidential, but Peters went public. Did he do so in the hope that his own image, as the minister whose officials had successfully argued against the health advice, would be enhanced? Perish the thought. And shame on anyone cynical enough to suspect that Peters spoke out because he was feeling aggrieved that Jacinda Ardern was sucking up all the political oxygen and leaving none for him.

The virus scare also gave Peters an opportunity to unleash his inner Muldoonist by railing against globalisation and promoting  protectionism – all of which might have sounded appealing to anyone not old enough to remember what New Zealand was like when everything from shoes to cars was shoddily made and overpriced.

He was on equally safe ground advocating a trans-Tasman bubble, calling for greater state control over Air New Zealand and championing Taiwan’s bid, over China’s objections, for observer status at the World Health Organisation. All three moves played to populist sentiment.

Not only would Peters have been confident that the public would back his support for plucky little Taiwan, since China is seen as the nasty bully standing in the Naughty Corner, but it also had the advantage of differentiating his position from that of Ardern, who appeared less keen to buy into the controversy.

No one should be surprised if Peters exploits more such opportunities between now and the September election. Remember, this is a politician with a history of going rogue whenever he perceives the need to distance himself from his coalition partners.

All this couldn’t have happened at a better time for the New Zealand First leader. He’ll be counting on the Covid-19 pandemic to help the public forget a stream of highly damaging disclosures about his party’s dodgy conduct.

Those disclosures related to big donations made to the shadowy foundation that bankrolled the party. The donations, some of them made by ultra-wealthy individuals in fishing, horse racing, property and forestry, are now being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office – a fact that should be included in every news story about New Zealand First, lest voters succumb to amnesia.

Being subject to an SFO investigation doesn’t make the donations illegal, but it’s worth recalling that party president Lester Gray felt so uneasy about the opacity of NZ First's financial affairs that he resigned.

In any case, it’s one thing to pass a legal test and quite another to pass the sniff test, which is how voters decide whether something smells “off”. Going by what's been reported so far, the public is entitled to conclude that the NZ First Foundation was a mechanism for disguising the source of donations to the party, and thus making it hard to determine whether favours were bought.

Then there’s the small matter of the court case in which Peters sued former National Party ministers and top public servants over the leaking of his superannuation overpayment. Remember that? The case he kept quiet about, thus making nonsense of claims that post-election coalition talks in 2017 took place in good faith?

Peters may be hoping the lockdown drama will erase memory of those court proceedings, during which he backed down on his claims that Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley, whom he sued for $450,000, had leaked to embarrass him.

In the end, all the theatrical huffing and puffing came to nothing. The High Court dismissed all of Peters’ claims. But the taxpayers lost too, because the bill is expected to total more than $1 million. That’s a big price to pay for one man’s quest for utu.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Manipulative men and gullible women


(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on Stuff.co.nz, May 13.)

In February this year, a Wellington man named Lewis Scott was convicted of rape and unlawful sexual connection.

It was the second time he had been found guilty of the same offences. After the first trial, in 2017, his convictions were overturned and a new trial was ordered. He was sentenced last month to six years in jail.

The victim alleged the rape happened after she went to Scott’s home in 2007 for what she thought was going to be a business meeting. The court heard that the offence involved considerable force.

Note the year: 2007. She didn’t lay a complaint at the time because she felt ashamed and embarrassed. It wasn’t until 2014, when she read that Scott had been convicted of raping another woman, that she summoned the courage to go to the police.

That’s right: Scott had previous form. His other victim had been raped in a room at the back of his shop. 

I remember that shop and I remember Scott, although I never met him. Lots of people knew about him because from the time he arrived in Wellington in the mid-1970s, he was something of a media darling.

An African-American and a Vietnam War veteran, he cut a flamboyant, exotic figure in grey, Muldoon-era Wellington. He wrote poetry and wore colourful kaftans. His shop, Kwanzaa, sold goods from African countries and became a gathering place for Wellington’s African community. In 2009 Scott organised a big party to celebrate President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

The media loved him. As recently as 2013, Scott was the subject of an admiring - you might almost say fawning - interview on Radio New Zealand.

It was perhaps small wonder that he was welcomed in Wellington’s arty, left-leaning circles. He would have been seen as a refugee from heartless capitalism.

Not only had he personally experienced the racism of the Deep South, where he grew up, but his social cachet would have been reinforced by the fact that young black men like him had been used as cannon fodder in an unpopular war. In the eyes of those who became his friends, he would have been almost as much a victim as the Vietnamese themselves.

But Scott was not the person he seemed. We now know he was a secret rapist. He would hardly have been the first charismatic male to take advantage of women – possibly impressionable women – who came within his orbit. 

Were there other victims too ashamed and embarrassed to accuse him publicly? It can’t be ruled out.

I wonder, too, what Scott’s old friends make of him now. Do they reproach themselves for not seeing through him? Or do they excuse his behaviour by blaming it on a dehumanising upbringing in a harsh, racist society?

It wouldn’t surprise me if that were the case, because history is littered with manipulative men who take advantage of gullible hangers-on. In fact I was reminded of Scott while reading last week about the recent death of Ira Einhorn.

Einhorn was a hippie activist and  leading light in the American counter-culture movement of the 1960s and 70s. He campaigned against the Vietnam War and later jetted around the world commanding enormous fees as a speaker on environmental issues.

He was friendly with other key counter-culture figures, including the poet Allen Ginsberg and the radical activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. But Einhorn was also a murderer who killed his girlfriend and stuffed her body into a trunk in his apartment after she tried to leave him because she was fed up with his infidelities and controlling ways. Other former girlfriends later testified that he turned violent when they ended their relationships with him.

Einhorn, in other words, was a deeply unpleasant human being and a gold-plated hypocrite. Like many frauds and phoneys who preach a gospel of liberation, he was a supreme egotist and an exploiter. He managed to elude justice for more than two decades, living in Ireland and France and surrounding himself with admiring acolytes who helped him to stay out of reach of the law.

Sadly, there has never been a shortage of people prepared to be conned by such charlatans, and willing to make excuses for them. As an obituary in The Times noted, the help Einhorn received from influential friends highlighted the moral confusions of the hippie era.

Obviously there’s a vast difference between Ira Einhorn and Lewis Scott. For a start, the latter is not a killer.

But the two cases appear to have certain factors in common. Both show how easily people with guile, audacity and a conscience deficit can deceive those whose shiny-eyed idealism gets in the way of their ability to see beyond the charismatic fa├žade to the person beneath.

One thing can be said with certainty. There will be more Ira Einhorns and Lewis Scotts, and there will be many more victims.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Memo to Tova O'Brien: spare us the moralising


The words journalist and moralist happen to share the same last five letters, but beyond that they have nothing in common. So what makes some television journalists think their job entitles them to share their sanctimonious (and often simplistic) moral judgments on the events of the day?

Their function is to report the news and leave viewers to form their own conclusions. They have no more moral authority than a bus driver or supermarket checkout operator.

Newshub’s political editor Tova O’Brien is an habitual offender. She was at it again last night, self-righteously declaiming – prompted by leading questions from newsreader Mike McRoberts – on the government’s failure to anticipate and head off every personal misfortune suffered as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

O’Brien reported that a woman had her publicly funded breast surgery cancelled and had to pay for an operation with her own money. Another cancer patient had to be told by phone rather than face-to-face that the illness was terminal. A woman miscarried but her husband wasn’t allowed into the hospital to comfort her. A new mother said she felt “disempowered” because she was unable to have the water-birth that she had planned and complained about being treated like an animal, which I suspect might have been just a tad melodramatic.

Oozing empathy and indignation, O’Brien lamented that Kiwis (we’re always referred to using the folksy term “Kiwis”, never as New Zealanders) had to face these “heartbreaking” experiences alone. Tragedies that were impossible to bear were made even harder, she said. Later she resorted to the emotive phrase “horror stories”. Of course.

But hang on. New Zealand is in the middle of an unprecedented medical and economic emergency that no one saw coming. The ground is shifting day by day, almost hour by hour, under the government’s feet as it scrambles to deal with issues no New Zealand government has faced before. Inevitably, a lot of people will suffer sad and painful consequences; politicians and bureaucrats can’t anticipate every personal tragedy and salve every psychological wound.

Oh, but O’Brien thinks they can and should. Fortunately for her, journalists are able to take refuge on the moral high ground. They are in the privileged position of observing and critiquing without actually having to take responsibility for finding solutions to the myriad unforeseen problems they report. They are even free to grandstand at the prime minister’s daily press conference and insist that something be done, then note with smug satisfaction that the prime minister has promised to act.

O’Brien has previous form. It was she who led the media charge against Health Minister David Clark when he broke the lockdown rules. Clearly, she wanted a scalp to hang on her belt. Okay, so Clark acted stupidly and embarrassed the government. Even cabinet ministers do dumb things. But O’Brien pursued him so fiercely that I half-expected her to call for the reinstatement of the Nuremberg war tribunals. 

Again, fortunately for O’Brien - in fact all journalists - their own lives aren’t subject to the same remorseless scrutiny that public figures must endure. If they were, they too would be revealed as flawed – in some cases deeply flawed – human beings. (And lest this be misconstrued, I'm not alluding here to O'Brien, whose private life I know nothing about.)

What, then, makes them think they’re entitled to impose their bumper-sticker moral judgments on their audience, night after night? They certainly can’t claim to represent public opinion. Few people are in a worse position to gauge what the public is thinking than press gallery journalists, trapped as they are in their own little self-absorbed Wellington bubble.

Why can’t they just stand back, tell us what’s going on, free of emotive or moralistic embellishment, and leave the viewers to decide for themselves what to make of it all? They might find that by doing so, they’ll win back some of the respect journalists have lost.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

One morepork, two moreporks


You sometimes have to smile at the confusion that can result from misguided attempts to display cultural sensitivity.

Many New Zealanders (me included) long ago dropped the “s” from the plural form of Maori names and words, since there’s no “s” in the Maori language. Hence Maoris became Maori, tuis became tui, pauas became paua and so forth – this despite a valid argument that as long as the words were being used in English, the English practice of adding the “s” should be followed.

Where it starts to get a bit silly is when people become so locked into the habit of dropping the “s” that they reflexively start doing it with non-Maori words too. There’s an example in a story about native birds in today’s Dominion Post, which quotes a Te Papa bird expert as saying that “morepork were common around Wellington”.

Hello? Morepork is an English word (onomatopoeic, since you ask – the same bird is found in Tasmania, where it’s called the mopoke). Ergo, the same practice should be followed as with the plurals of other English bird names – for example, thrushes, seagulls, hawks. So, moreporks and fantails, though not tuis and wekas – or rurus or piwakawakas, come to that. 

Because the morepork in this instance was mentioned in the context of birds that are commonly known by their Maori names, either the bird man or the reporter (I don't know which, because the bird man was quoted using reported speech) apparently couldn't see the distinction.



Friday, May 1, 2020

They might be polite bullies, but they're still bullies


(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, April 30.)

Pssst. Don’t mention the checkpoints.

That seems to have been the rule followed by politicians and much of the media in the five weeks since Hone Harawira and his supporters took the law into their own hands and began stopping travellers in the Far North.

The official response has been to either ignore the checkpoints or pretend they are a non-issue. On the few occasions when interviewers have asked hard questions about them, government politicians and police have danced around the question of whether they’re legal.

If they were confident of their legality, they would surely say so. That leads us to conclude they are not. They are, in fact, an audacious and calculated challenge to the rule of law.

Until this week, even Opposition MPs seemed strangely hesitant about raising the subject. Either National was frightened of being labelled as racist, or it didn’t want to risk being seen as less than 100 per cent committed to the fight against Covid-19.

In the mainstream media, the issue has been treated as a minor diversion; an inconsequential sub-plot to the main narrative. NewstalkZB’s Mike Hosking tried unsuccessfully to pin down the prime minister on the issue this week, but otherwise there has been little critical examination of the checkpoints’ legality and still less of what they might lead to, which is potentially an even more problematic issue.

Meanwhile the checkpoints have spread like … well, like a virus.

From the Far North and the East Coast, they have spread to Maketu in the Bay of Plenty, to Murupara on the fringe of the Urewera and now to Taranaki. In recent days, iwi elsewhere have asserted control over lakes and rivers by means or rahui, or bans – again, of dubious legal status.

Along the way, there has been a significant shift in the justification for the highway checkpoints. At the start, their purported purpose was to protect vulnerable Maori communities in remote places – an objective many people could sympathise with, even though the checkpoints were set up with no mandate or legal authority other than a nod and a wink from the police (and in Northland, from the mayor).

But the original pretext began to look less convincing once checkpoints started materialising in places where there were no isolated communities to protect, and it looks even less so now that the government has announced that the coronavirus is technically eliminated, which means the worst risk has passed. It's worth noting that Tairawhiti, which includes the East Coast, is one of four regions with no current cases of the virus.

This being the case, you might expect the vigilantes to pack up and go home. But not only are the checkpoints still there, there are more of them. This suggests that the purpose is something other than the protection of Maori communities.

Join the dots. Iwi activists watched what was happening in the Far North and the East Coast, noted that no one tried to stop it, and decided to organise their own checkpoints elsewhere. All of which was utterly predictable.

Under the smokescreen of the coronavirus crisis, the activists are boldly advancing a separatist agenda. Their objective is clear from their statements that they are policing their “borders”, which implies tribal sovereignty. And the longer they are allowed to get away with it, the messier it’s likely to be when the legally constituted authorities who are supposed to govern this country intervene.

For the moment, public unease has apparently persuaded the police to take a more active role in the checkpoints. But it’s clear they are involved only in a supporting role, if they’re present at all.

Pressed to clarify the situation, Jacinda Ardern and police commissioner Andrew Coster have kicked for touch with statements of masterful ambiguity. Coster sounds much surer of himself when he’s wagging his finger at dangerous lawbreakers driving the family Honda to the beach to take the dog for a walk. This is called picking the low-hanging fruit. 

Note that I use the word checkpoint rather than roadblock. That’s because the roads, to my knowledge, aren’t physically blocked.

Defenders of the checkpoints say no one is forced to stop. But a powerful psychological factor comes into play when motorists see people – often quite large people – standing on the road wearing masks and hi-vis jackets, surrounded by traffic cones and holding signs saying “stop”.

Most people’s natural instinct is to comply, whether they’re obliged to or not. That instinct is likely to be reinforced if people on the checkpoint are wearing gang insignia, as at Murupara. Small wonder that those defending the checkpoints insist that people are happy to stop.

And having stopped, many people are either too timid or too uncertain to refuse to give personal details or answer questions about where they are going, even though their interrogators have no right to ask such questions.

Intimidating people into stopping when they're not legally required to is bullying, pure and simple. Sure, the vigilantes might be polite. But that merely makes them polite bullies.

Footnote: This column has been amended since publication yesterday morning to take into account National's questioning of Andrew Coster at the meeting of the Epidemic Response Committee later on the same day. But the question remains: what took them so long?