Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The quiz is back

I’m pleased to announce that as from today, the daily quiz that I supplied for more than 16 years to the Dominion Post and other Stuff papers has a new home.

It will appear every morning on businessdesk.co.nz, the popular news and comment website co-founded in 2008 by business journalist Pattrick Smellie.  It will no longer be The 5-Minute Quiz (that name belongs to Stuff) but in all other respects it will be unchanged.

The quiz has a big following in the public service and corporate sector, which makes it a good fit with BusinessDesk’s established readership. Pattrick Smellie has written an introductory piece here and the first instalment of the new-look quiz can be viewed here.

Importantly, the quiz is not behind a paywall, but I can’t guarantee it will stay that way forever.

 

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Hitting the road

Readers please note: this blog will be inactive for the next couple of weeks. The road beckons. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

On Thomas Nash and the hundreds of other troughers embedded in the public sector

I’ve never met Thomas Nash – in fact hadn’t consciously heard of him until this morning. Yet I feel I know him.

The Wairarapa Times-Age devoted its prime centre-page spread to an opinion piece, originally published on The Conversation but supplied by New Zealand Herald owner NZME, in which Nash outlined his vision for New Zealand in 2040. It’s a standard left-wing Utopian wish list, big on public sector control of the economy, central planning, pure-green transport modes (pure-green everything, in fact) and heavy iwi involvement in decision-making.

It ends on a note of bright-eyed optimism, envisaging a society in which “Government agencies [are] now seen as useful and relevant, having been equipped with the money to provide housing, social services, environmental restoration and support for economic change”. But Nash notes that it took “strict rules” to make it all happen – a telling pointer to the incipient authoritarianism that underlies the neo-Marxist agenda.

The footnote to the article described Nash as “Social Entrepreneur in Residence” at Massey University. As I say, I don’t know him but felt I recognised him, simply because I read examples of verbal flatus from people like Nash every day. New Zealand is full of Thomas Nashes, all with their noses deep in the public trough and determined to transform the country whether the rest of us want it or not.

My recent resolve to cut back on letters to the Times-Age turned out to be short-lived. I sent them the following this morning:

Thomas Nash, who took up a large chunk of yesterday’s paper with his idealistic vision of New Zealand in 2040, was described as a “Social Entrepreneur in residence, Massey University”.

Let me translate that for your readers. Nash is paid by the taxpayer to promote the idea of a dreamy socialist Utopia. The words “Social Entrepreneur” are capitalised as if they mean something, when in fact the term is meaningless and often serves as a synonym for political activist. 

There are dozens more like Nash – no, make that hundreds – embedded in the public sector who know what’s best for us and are paid by us – not that we have any say in the matter – to guide us into the sunny uplands of enlightenment.

Some of the goals outlined in Nash’s article seem harmless – indeed, hard to argue with. What worries me is the degree of state authoritarianism likely to be required to force citizens to comply.  As C S Lewis said: Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”

Incidentally, Nash also exerts influence as a Green Party member of the Greater Wellington Regional Council. And like others of his ilk, he’s hyper-active on social media.

Ordinary working New Zealanders, busy raising families and paying off mortgages, have little chance of countering the influence of the highly motivated, publicly funded ideologues who increasingly shape public policy. 

I could have added that people like Nash have sympathetic connections in the media, which would explain why his opinion piece appeared not just in NZME papers (although independently owned, the Times-Age publishes content from NZME) but on Stuff as well. What used to be a broad-church press is now a monoculture  bent on indoctrination and increasingly (one might say suicidally) out of touch with readers, as illustrated by plunging circulation figures.

Friday, December 31, 2021

What that Hipkins press conference tells us about the state of journalism

The government’s media managers play the press like a violin. Just look at how giddily excited reporters got at the novelty of Chris Hipkins conducting a press conference in a nature reserve.

How cute! The Covid-19 Response Minister was on holiday with his family on the Kapiti Coast, so briefed the gaggle of journos in plein air. Even better, he sent his Mum out to apologise for the delay while he rushed home to get a suit.

(Er, a question: why bother to put on a suit when he’s on holiday? Wouldn’t boxer shorts and jandals have been more in keeping with the beachy vibe? And if he really felt it necessary to get dressed up, why didn’t he have a suit on hand, given it was always on the cards that he’d be speaking to the media while on holiday?)

No, this had the unmistakeable appearance of a PR stunt. It was all of a kind with the media’s depiction of this government as laid-back, sweet-as Kiwi. (Think Jacinda Ardern’s folksy night-time address to the nation on Facebook being interrupted by 3-year-old Neve, which played to the carefully crafted Ardern stereotypes and caused The Guardian to wet itself with excitement.)

Oh, and something else I almost forgot to mention about the Hipkins presser: his two young kids emerged right on cue for a heart-warming photo of them cuddling their dad.

Call me a sceptic (a label apparently unfamiliar to the current generation of press gallery reporters, though it’s one that all journalists should wear proudly), but I have a nagging suspicion these things don’t happen by accident. The management of the media is carefully orchestrated – and the thing is, it works every time. The journos cooed with delight at the sight of Hipkins emerging from the trees in white shirt, suit pants and tie.

The characteristically mature – one might almost say cerebral – reaction of the assembled reporters was captured by Katrina Bennett, Wellington Head of News for NZME, who gushed on Twitter: “Nice thing about working at this time of year, is that rather than a horde of political minders at today's Covid presser, @chrishipkins' mum came & apologised to us for her son running late [here Bennett inserted a tears of joy emoji]. She didn't need to, but mums will be mums. Such a treat.” 

The Herald went on to quote Bennett as saying of Hipkins’ mother: “She was so lovely, it was a really nice gesture to come and apologise. Big Mum energy coming down to apologise, mums are the best.”

Good grief. It reads as if written by an over-stimulated teenager. Jason Walls from NewstalkZB took a similarly grown-up line, tweeting over a video of Hipkins emerging from the trees: “I’m so here for these ‘spotting him in the wild’ Bigfoot-esque photos of Chris Hipkins making his way to the press conference today.”

Double good grief. Clearly, the government’s communications advisers don’t need to get up super-early to come up with ways of impressing the media pack. The assembled reporters were so mesmerised by the gimmickry of the occasion that their stories neglected to tell us what Hipkins actually said (which may have been the intention – who knows?).

Stuff’s coverage struck a similarly effusive note, informing readers that after a delay of 10 minutes, “the minister finally appeared at the top of a nearby hill [almost like a biblical vision, one supposes]. Camera crews zeroed in and filmed him gracefully strolling his way down a path as the grass, flowers and trees blew in the breeze.

“It was the intro New Zealanders didn’t realise they needed, and caused great delight online. Memes, gifs and light-hearted quips quickly popped up on Kiwi news feeds, with one journalist saying it appeared Hipkins was speaking from ‘The Shire’.”

Does anyone notice something else about the reportage of the Hipkins press conference, apart from its breathless credulity and awe-struck tone? That’s right, it’s appallingly written. “Gracefully strolling his way down a path as the grass, flowers and trees blew in the breeze” – really?? Surely the unnamed reporter could have said something about the birds too? Oh, that’s right, he/she/they did:  “In the background, birds were chirping, adults were laughing and children could be heard playing on the playground nearby.”

I used to broadly divide journalists into two categories: those who were great at digging up useful information and those who had a facility for stringing words together. Some could do both. We now see acutely depressing daily evidence of reporters who can do neither.

All the puerile silliness outlined above is explained when you see a photograph of the current crop of political reporters. Almost invariably they are young, bright-eyed with idealism, woke, self-absorbed (you can see that from their social media posts) and besotted with the government and the excitement of their proximity to it. They learned their journalism in lecture theatres and never experienced the bracing humility of having their work hurled back at them by an irascible, hard-nosed boss (not all of whom were male, incidentally) and being told it was crap.

Happy New Year, everyone. I wish 2022 held the promise of an improvement in the quality of New Zealand journalism, but I can’t see it happening.

 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Some notable gains and a disappointing own-goal for the Free Speech Union

There are not a lot of warm fuzzy feelings to cherish from 2021. Most people will be happy to put the year behind them, for a whole lot of reasons not necessarily related to Covid-19. But there was one luminously bright spot. I refer to the establishment of the Free Speech Union last May.

The FSU evolved from the Free Speech Coalition, which in turn arose from outrage at the denial of a public speaking platform to the Canadian provocateurs Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux in 2018. Readers of this blog will recall that Phil Goff – whom I described at the time as the Gauleiter of Auckland – personally meddled in a process which resulted in council-owned Regional Facilities Auckland Ltd reneging on an earlier decision to make one of its venues available to the Canadians.

I should stress here that the coalition wasn’t formed because its founders endorsed the views of Southern and Molyneux, whom the media demonised as “far right” or “alt right” (whatever those terms might mean). The coalition was simply concerned with protecting the principle of free speech and the right of New Zealanders to be exposed to ideas not everyone agrees with.

Speaking for myself, I still have no idea what supposedly poisonous beliefs the Canadians were peddling, because we weren’t allowed to hear them. That was the whole point. They were “cancelled” on the pretext of threats to health and safety – the so-called thugs’ or hecklers’ veto, whereby officials can use the possibility of disruption as an excuse to de-platform controversial speakers (a fate also suffered later by Don Brash at Massey University).

The FSU initiated legal action challenging the Auckland cancellation but ran into an unsympathetic High Court decision, elements of which it then got overturned in the Court of Appeal, and is now going all the way to the Supreme Court. That the country’s highest court agreed to consider the issue is significant, indicating it should be seen as a test case on whether threats of violence should be allowed to over-ride free speech rights.

In the meantime the FSU, which is modelled on a similar organisation formed in Britain by Toby Young, associate editor of The Spectator, has busied itself with other worthy causes which it listed in an end-of-year summary put out by union spokesman Dane Giraud. These included:

■ Successful court action that forced Palmerston North City Council to reverse an earlier decision denying the feminist group Speak Up For Women, which opposed legislation allowing people to change the sex recorded on their birth certificates, the right to hold a public meeting in the city library. Other councils (Auckland, Dunedin and Wellington) got the message and also backtracked on similar speaking bans.

■ A petition signed by 40,000 people opposing the government’s plan to introduce “hate speech” laws that are so ill-defined and poorly thought out that neither the prime minister nor the Minister of Justice could explain how they would work.

■ Action to uphold the academic freedom of a Waikato University lecturer who faced a disciplinary hearing because his views about religion upset a student. The lecturer’s own union hung him out to dry but university officials did a handbrake turn after the FSU’s lawyers reminded them of their obligation to respect academic freedom under the Education Act.

■ In the most celebrated free speech case of the year, the FSU took up the cause of the seven eminent academics who were blackballed and pilloried by 2000 censorious (for which read bigoted) colleagues – again, with no support from union representatives or university authorities – after they wrote a letter to The Listener challenging the idea that traditional Maori knowledge (matauranga Maori) should be equated with science. The controversy attracted international attention and brought down a richly deserved hail of ridicule on the Royal Society of New Zealand when it announced its attention to subject two of the Listener Seven to the 21st century equivalent of a heresy trial.

■ Action was also taken in support of local government councillors, including former MP Michael Laws, who contravened stifling “codes of conduct” that restrict what the elected representatives of the people can say about council policies or council performance - in other words, censorship of the elected by the unelected. Dane Giraud comments: “There is a worrying trend of Codes of Conduct within organisations being weaponised to undermine free speech. This is true across numerous sectors, not just local government, where vague provisions can be twisted to suit just about any purpose."

All this serves to confirm the importance of the FSU in protecting freedom of expression at a time when it’s under attack on a scale unprecedented in the memory of most New Zealanders. It shouldn’t be necessary, of course, since free speech is guaranteed under the Bill of Rights Act. But most of the institutions that we once counted on to uphold free speech – including the news media, academia and the government itself – have deserted the cause and even worse, become complicit in its erosion.

Against this backdrop, however, it’s disheartening to note that the FSU passed up an opportunity to speak out in support of blogger Cameron Slater when he reported that he was under surveillance by a police “scanning and targeting team” for holding “anti-government” views and “denigrating” Labour Party policies.

I continue to support the FSU, but in my opinion they got things badly wrong here. It was a serious and seemingly inexplicable lapse in an otherwise laudable first few months.

In a statement belatedly issued on Christmas Eve, presumably in response to the concerns of members sympathetic to Slater (who wrote a trenchant post attacking the FSU), the union justified its silence by explaining that it had considered the issue and decided it involved “civil liberties” rather than free speech. But free speech is a civil liberty – arguably the most important civil liberty of all, since it goes to the very heart of participatory democracy. Look up almost any definition of civil liberties and you’ll find it includes freedom of speech along with other rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and freedom of assembly. To treat it as something separate and discrete is to draw an artificial distinction.

The FSU went on to explain that Slater had not had his freedom of expression infringed in any practical way, which struck me as a narrow and rather legalistic assessment. It’s true, as the FSU says, that the police report on Slater didn’t stop him from writing columns or standing on a soapbox (metaphorically speaking). But active interference and outright coercion are not the only means of discouraging people from exercising their rights. The very knowledge that writing or publishing “anti-government” rhetoric might invite police attention would in itself serve as a deterrent to people less bold than Slater. The disclosure that police covertly monitor dissenters could have a potent chilling effect on public debate and is therefore something I believe the FSU should concern itself with.

Even more worrying was the suggestion from a senior sergeant that police should pay Slater a visit. This is how police states begin.

The FSU said the police had a legitimate role in monitoring sites where extremists congregated but conceded that they showed poor judgment in thinking the BFD, the site Slater is associated with, was one of those places. Here we get to the core of the argument. Slater might have invited police attention had he been inciting violence or insurrection, but he wasn’t. His putative offence was criticising the government – a legitimate, indeed necessary, function in any open democracy.  That’s why we should all be alarmed that he was under police scrutiny. Slater expresses himself very forcefully and certainly rubs people up the wrong way, but he’s not a political extremist.

On the other hand, we should be reassured that Slater's Official Information Act request flushed out the police zealots and that senior officers stepped in before things went too far. But none of this was a reason for the FSU to sit on its hands. The union could have acknowledged those redeeming factors while still pointing out that the OIA disclosures pointed to an unhealthy and potentially dangerous mentality within sections of the police. In fact to look at the issue from a different angle, what harm would have been done by issuing a statement cautioning against abuse of police powers? None that I can see. But it would have signalled that the union was vigilant in upholding free speech across the board, and perhaps more importantly it would have avoided the inevitable suspicion that the union decided to stay silent because of the identity of the individual concerned.

Slater, after all, has a complicated history and has made lots of enemies. His many critics would say he doesn’t make it easy to like him. We can only hope that wasn’t the reason the FSU held back from defending him. As Noam Chomsky (a lefty) observed, if we don’t believe in freedom of speech for people we dislike [although Chomsky used a much stronger word], we don’t believe in it at all. Or as someone close to me put it, you can’t pick and choose who you’re going to support when it comes to a scrap over free speech.

As it was, the FSU did itself no credit by eventually making a statement – to its members, not the public at large – on a day when people had other things on their minds. That’s what governments do when they want to hide something.

I respect the leaders of the union and I admire them for all they have achieved in a short time, but they didn’t so much drop the ball on this occasion as refuse to pick it up. Sadly, I suspect their credibility will have been damaged as a result.

FOOTNOTE: At the risk of repeating myself, I don’t know Cameron Slater, although the BFD has published pieces by me. I should also acknowledge that the Free Speech Union republished my original blog post on the police surveillance issue, noting that “reasonable minds can differ on these issues”.

 

 

Friday, December 24, 2021

Joy to the world and all that

To all those who have followed this blog in 2021, Happy Christmas and thanks for your support.

New Zealand at the end of the year is a radically different country than it was at the start. I think many of us are slightly stunned by the sheer speed of the transformation.

It has been a year of division and polarisation. I’m not referring to the social tensions brought to the surface by Covid-19, although that hasn’t helped. I’m talking about the relentless promotion of identity politics, by both politicians and the mainstream media, and the deliberate fostering of a sense that New Zealand is no longer a society of diverse people with common interests but one in which aggrieved minorities seek to overturn a supposedly privileged and callously indifferent ruling class.

The year has been an object lesson in how a determined and ideologically driven government, supported by allies in academia, the bureaucracy and the media, can deconstruct one of the world’s most tolerant, liberal democracies. Many of us – perhaps most of us – don’t recognise the new country that’s being created and were never asked whether we wanted it.

Indoctrination of the young and impressionable in schools and universities is a crucial part of the transformation process. Unencumbered by knowledge of their own history, they are ripe for the picking. Karl Marx never saw his revolution of the proletariat realised, but I’m sure he would heartily approve of the disruption generated by 21st century activists who share his view of Western democratic society as rotten and irrevocably divided between oppressed and oppressors.

We are witnessing nothing less than a cultural revolution. It’s not one in which supposed enemies of the people and capitalist running dogs are being dragged from their homes and sent to re-education camps, as in Mao’s China, but there is a similar underlying tone of authoritarianism and denunciation of dissenters. We saw it in the savage reaction to the Listener Seven, who were howled down for their heretical attempt to uphold scientific values.

Jacinda Ardern has cleverly contrived to remain aloof from all the ugly stuff, but as prime minister she has given her implied consent. While smilingly uttering pious bromides about social cohesion, she presides over a government that is busily undermining that same sense of solidarity. The country will have a chance to assess her record in 2023, but by that time, even if a new government engages reverse gear, the damage will be deep and possibly irremediable.

In the circumstances it seems a bit incongruous to be wishing everyone the compliments of the season – but hey, Christmas is one institution they haven’t hijacked. Not yet, anyway.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Sorry, but this blog is no longer ad-free

Readers of this blog will notice that they may now have to navigate around pop-up ads. Having run this site for more than 10 years with no revenue I've decided, reluctantly, to see whether I can generate a very modest income from it. Maintaining the blog is time-consuming and no longer subsidised by other income sources. If the ads become a nuisance to readers, I'm sure you'll let me know. Thanks.