Saturday, June 28, 2008

Flat Earth News: a review

Any book about the news media that gets rave reviews from journalists as ideologically opposed as John Pilger and Peter Oborne deserves our attention. Pilger is an impassioned leftist crusader, the scourge of supposedly imperialistic western powers and a trenchant critic of “mainstream” journalism; Oborne is a contributor to the right-wing Spectator and an uncompromising conservative.

It’s unlikely there are many issues on which these two agree, but if the blurb on the dust jacket for Nick Davies’ book Flat Earth News is to be believed, Pilger described it as a “brilliant” book, “ruthless in its honesty” while Oborne said of it: “This is an exceptionally important book which should be read, re-read and inwardly digested by all reporters, editors and proprietors”.

Clearly, Davies is on to something.

Flat Earth News is a 400-page exposé of shonky practices by the British media – and not just the scurrilous London tabloids, which would surprise no one, but by some of the so-called “quality” broadsheets as well, including Davies’ own paper, The Guardian (though it must be said The Guardian emerges looking a little purer than some of its competitors).

Davies takes as his starting point the blizzard of misinformation disseminated by the media over Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, and the failure of journalists to dig beneath the propaganda. He says he started out trying to explain “how we had managed to do so badly in covering what is probably the single biggest story of our era”. He goes on: “The more I looked, the more I found falsehood, distortion and propaganda running through the outlets of an industry which is supposed to be dedicated to the very opposite, i.e. to telling the truth.”

He develops several themes, among them:

The increasing influence of PR firms, spin doctors and pressure groups in manipulating the news agenda, and the media’s complicity in the process;

The advent of what he calls “churnalism”, in which credulous and/or overworked journalists unquestioningly process wrong, misleading or second-hand information;

The steady reduction in the number of journalists reporting unglamorous but important local news such as court proceedings and council meetings (I loved Davies’ line that judges in London courts are as likely to see a zebra as a reporter);

The emergence of a new type of newspaper owner whose papers are run according to the “logic of pure commerce” rather than by any commitment to journalistic values, for which Davies largely blames (I believe unfairly) Rupert Murdoch;

The increasing pressure, in the digital era, to turn news around fast, without adequate checking and verification;

The willingness of the British press, including supposedly respectable titles such as The Sunday Times, to use a wide repertoire of sleazy, underhand and sometimes illegal means to get stories – including bribing police officers, paying private investigators for illegally obtained information and setting up elaborate traps in the hope of catching corrupt politicians, even where there is no evidence of misbehaviour.

It’s an assiduously researched book, jam-packed with detail and well-written, as you might expect of an award-winning Guardian journalist. Davies forcefully reminds us of one of the most important journalistic values: question everything and accept nothing at face value.

But he’s not entirely consistent. Davies tries hard to be fair – he’s tough on Greenpeace and its alarmist publicity stunts, and he acknowledges a bad error of his own that was based on an ideological assumption – but his own personal preoccupations and political leanings intrude from time to time. At times one senses the familiar anguished cry of the idealistic leftie who’s frustrated because the media are ignoring the stories he thinks are important.

He’s not fond of Christians, Margaret Thatcher or Israel, and it might or might not be significant that all the unreported scandals he uncovers, for which he excoriates the media, are ones that reflect unfavourably on what might loosely be called “the establishment”.

At one point he describes, without criticism, a disgraceful act of deception in 1988 by Roy Greenslade, then managing editor for news at the Sunday Times. Perhaps Greenslade escaped Davies’ censure because of the former’s sainted status as a media commentator for the Guardian.

Davies also suffers from an occupational disorder, common among British journalists, that I call Rupertaphobia. Like many Brits, he seems never to have adjusted to the idea that a colonial upstart could take over so much of the British media. Never mind that it was largely through Rupert Murdoch that the British newspaper industry, which had long had been held hostage by greedy unions, was eventually liberated from primitive 19th century technology and disgraceful union rorts.

Ironically, Davies is fashionably dismissive of the notion of journalistic objectivity. I say “ironically” because it seems to me that his entire book, with its scathing indictments of secret agendas, distortion and manipulation, is a powerful argument for fair, neutral reporting uncontaminated by covert interests and biases.

None of the book’s failings should detract from the fact that Flat Earth News is an important, cautionary tale, and one that will shake people’s faith in British journalism. But British journalism has always been about extremes of good and bad: the scurrilous tactics of the Sun and Daily Mail (for which Davies reserves special contempt) on one hand and bold, resourceful journalism uncovering corruption and abuse of power (such as the Sunday Times’ exposure of the cash-for-peerages scandal) on the other.

And how much of this, if any, is applicable to New Zealand? Certainly, New Zealand journalists will nod in recognition at some of the trends Davies describes: the baleful influence of PR and spin, the pressure on newspapers to do more with fewer staff, the gradual attenuation of the grassroots-level journalism (such as courts and council meetings) that was once the meat and drink of the daily press. Older New Zealand journalists probably also lament, as Davies does, the passing of an older generation of newspaper proprietors who, for all their stuffy conservatism, had a strong newspaper ethos, although we shouldn’t get too dewy-eyed over some mythical golden era.

On the really crucial stuff relating to ethics, however, the New Zealand media have kept their noses admirably clean. Ethical corners are most likely to be cut where multiple media outlets are competing toe-to-toe, as in the case of Fleet St (metaphorical home, at least, to 14 daily titles and 10 Sundays). In New Zealand, that sort of intense competition really exists only between the two major TV networks, the trashy women’s magazines and the Sunday papers. It’s in those branches of the media that journalists are most likely to be ethically compromised in the chase for the exclusive story, but even there it’s relatively rare. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Footnote: Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies, is published by Chatto & Windus. I obtained my copy online from Amazon UK and paid $46.74.

Bottom line: the money was not his

My initial inclination was to like the New Zealand writer Martin Edmond, Kim Hill’s guest on the “Playing Favourites” segment of her radio programme this morning – admittedly for no better reason than that the first song he chose to play was Walk Away Renee, by the Four Tops, one of my favourite Tamla Motown acts. But then Edmond told an anecdote about one of his experiences as a Sydney cab driver, and my view of him changed.

He had picked up two men at a pub in Bondi Junction and taken them a short distance to another pub. He then picked up another fare and took her to, I think, Elizabeth Bay. After she had left the cab he turned the interior light on and found $1000 in rolled-up notes on the front passenger seat, which he assumed one of the men from Bondi Junction had left behind. (Presumably his woman passenger sat in the back.)

So what did he do with this find? He took it home. He said he still has it. He told Kim Hill he thought the men were going to buy cocaine – a rationalisation for his decision to keep the money, perhaps – but offered no evidence for that theory.

My first reaction was, why did he not go back to the Bondi Junction pub to see whether he could find the men? He could have ascertained whether the money was theirs – “Is it possible you left something in my taxi?” – and if it was, he surely could have negotiated some sort of emolument for the time and trouble he took to return it. This possibility doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.

A woman listener subsequently emailed Kim Hill’s programme asking why Edmond didn’t take the money to the police. If no one claimed it, she said, it would eventually have been returned to him. At least an attempt would have been made to return it to its rightful owners.

Hill’s response to this suggestion was sneering and condescending, as if the emailer was a pathetically naïve goody-two-shoes. Edmond seemed to agree, noting that the New South Wales police were notoriously corrupt. Another self-serving rationalisation?

I found it interesting that Edmond blithely related this story without any hint that his conscience troubled him. Very telling. Equally telling was Hill’s response. She never hesitates to pounce on the peccadilloes of people she doesn’t approve of, but it doesn’t appear to have occurred to her to question Edmond’s honesty.

Bottom line: the money was not his. He has no right to it. Neither does he have any right to assume that the cash was somehow ill-gotten, and that therefore he had no obligation to return it. I’d be interested in what other people think.

Trust us - we play sport

(First published Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 25)

Readers Digest has just published the results of its annual “Most Trusted” survey, in which New Zealanders are questioned about the people they feel they can most rely on. The results were tragic but unsurprising.

The most trusted New Zealander, in the eyes of the 500 people polled, is Corporal Willie Apiata VC, who assumes the ranking previously held by the late Sir Ed Hillary.

I mean no disrespect when I say it’s tragic that Corporal Apiata should emerge as the New Zealander we most trust. He is an heroic soldier who has earned our respect and admiration. But his ranking underlines the point that this survey is really more of a popularity contest than a meaningful study of the role that trust plays in our society.

Thirteen of the 20 “most trusted” people are sporting figures, headed by Peter Snell, Colin Meads, the Evers-Swindell twins and Irene Van Dyk. There’s also an author (Margaret Mahy), a cook (Alison Holst), a mountaineer (Peter Hillary), a film director (Peter Jackson), a retired newsreader (Judy Bailey) and an opera singer (Dame Malvina Major).

What do you notice about these people? Most strikingly, only one of them (Cpl Apiata, as it happens) occupies a position of public trust, in the strictest sense. The rest are public figures only in the sense that they are well known. They are essentially private individuals, owing no particular duty or responsibility to the public.

Even Cpl Apiata is accountable to the public only in a rather indirect and theoretical sense, as a member of the armed forces. He is unlikely, as an individual, ever to make decisions that will impact heavily on the public good.

Along with the rest of the top 20, he seems to be on the list because he embodies the virtues that New Zealanders most admire: the qualities we like to think of, rather idealistically, as exemplifying us all. The factor common to virtually all the top names is that through talent or determination, or a combination thereof, they have achieved significant goals yet remain modest and down-to-earth.

With all due respect, they are not on the list because they have proved they can be trusted (although in most cases they probably can be). We don’t even need to trust them, since they’re not publicly accountable.

You have to get to the Queen, at No. 20, before you find anyone occupying a position in which public trust is a matter of the utmost importance. After her, there’s another leap – over names such as Richie McCaw, Alyson Gofton and Hayley Westenra – to the Governor-General, Anand Satyanand, at 28.

The next “public” figure, in the sense of being publicly accountable, is Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt at No. 41, and I suspect he’s there more because people like him rather than because they rely on him to carry out his duties conscientiously, honestly and fairly, which is what “trust” is all about. (They may indeed trust him too, but I bet it’s primarily his goofy charisma that won him his ranking.)

Further down the list, amid yet more sports people and entertainers, come Solicitor-General David Collins (50), Police Commissioner Howard Broad (59), Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard (60), and eventually – at 66 – Prime Minister Helen Clark, followed by National Party leader John Key at 68 and Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimmons at 69. Convicted murderer David Bain, incidentally, comes in at 67.

What are we to make of this? If we want to sleep easily at nights, we will dismiss it as a meaningless popularity poll. But if we are to take it as a serious indicator of who we trust, then the results are scary.

In a functioning democracy, the people we most need to trust are the people entrusted (note that word) with our wellbeing. By that yardstick the Prime Minister, the Commissioner of Police, the Governor-General and the Solicitor General should be in the top 10. So should the Chief Justice, the Auditor-General, the Chief Ombudsman (none of whom feature in the Readers Digest list) and other guardians of our prosperity, our constitutional rights and our justice system.

You could go further and argue that the heads of the armed forces, the major churches, the universities and some of our biggest companies should be there too, as representatives of institutions in which we have traditionally placed our trust. That they are not there, many would argue, is indicative of a general breakdown of public confidence in institutions which we once relied on to give society a sense of stability, solidity, cohesion and permanence.

Trust is a defining and greatly under-recognised feature of a civilised society. It underpins many of our dealings and relationships – personal, commercial and political.

Spouses trust each other not to be unfaithful or fritter away the mortgage money at the TAB. We trust politicians to do what they have said they will do. We trust the courts and the police to ensure that the law is enforced fairly and rigorously. We trust a mechanic to tell the truth when he says the brake disc pads have to be replaced for the car to get a warrant. When we buy a bottle of wine, we trust that it contains what the label says. When I as a journalist interview someone, he or she trusts me to report them fairly and accurately.

So trust is all-pervasive and all-important. Once it breaks down, society starts to unravel. For all these reasons, trust deserves better than to be debased and trivialised by opinion polls of the sort carried out by Readers Digest.

Perhaps the great irony of the Readers Digest poll is that politicians are second from the bottom (ahead only of telemarketers) among the occupational groups we feel we can trust. Given that politicians are the people we elect to represent us, the only conclusion to be drawn is that we no longer trust even ourselves.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Rules to live by (first published Dominion Post and Press, June 24)

Twenty-five rules for a righteous and contented life:

Never be awed by people with impressive-sounding academic qualifications. The world is full of highly educated twerps.

Refuse to buy anything from a shop or café that insists on bombarding you with obnoxious noise.

Never allow yourself to be seen running for a bus. It’s undignified.

Don’t hesitate to walk out of a bad movie; life’s too short. You usually know within the first 10 minutes whether it’s going to be worth persevering.

Be courteous but firm with telemarketers. Tell them you’re sorry, but your mother-in-law is on fire and you don’t have time to talk.

Don’t trust journalists who boast of being cynics, as if this were a virtue. Sceptics demand to be convinced – an honourable attribute. But cynics believe the worst of human nature and assume ulterior motives for everything – a very bleak worldview.

Life is too short to keep up with new music. It’s more fun to rediscover the old.

Treat fashion as the absurdity it is, created primarily to exploit insecure people who lack confidence in their own taste and right to dress as they think fit.

Be tolerant toward habitual stirrers and activists, no matter how irritating they might be. They are the price we pay for living in a free society.

Don’t condemn religion out of hand. Better to be a kid growing up in a Destiny Church household where there’s a cooked dinner on the table every night and a father in work than one living in a P house where you might be lucky to get KFC on benefit day.

Never trust a man with a ponytail.

Don’t waste your precious time reading venomous opinions, such as some of those on Internet blogs, whose authors are too gutless to put their names to them.

Be suspicious of anyone with personalised number plates, unless it happens to be your brother-in-law.

Don’t be ashamed to be seen eating at McDonald’s. The sausage-and-egg McMuffin with a hash brown is a tastier and cheaper breakfast than you’ll get at most trendy cafes.

Remonstrate with people who drop litter in public or allow their dogs to foul parks and footpaths, even if you risk a bit of biffo. (This rule is probably safer for old ladies, but not necessarily.)

Accept that there are almost as many bigoted atheist zealots as there are religious ones.

Make a point of visiting Parliament at least once to observe the sheer concentration of vanity and infantilism on display there. No one ever said democracy’s perfect.

Keep at arm’s length men who dress up in strange clothes and indulge in odd, all-male rituals, such as freemasons, Ku Klux Klansmen, scoutmasters and clerics.

Relish the prospect of boasting on your deathbed that you never wasted a moment watching a reality TV programme.

Give thanks for the fact that they didn’t have closed-circuit TV that day you set fire to the Waipukurau Post Office fence.

Distrust ideology in any shape or form. No matter how perfect the idea, humans will always stuff it up.

Always read the birth and death notices. They remind us what an intimately connected society we are.

Never trust an academic who uses words like “paradigm”, “construct” (in its noun form), “narrative”, “discourse” or “post-structural”. These are terms that should activate even the most low-powered BS detector.

Disregard the lifelong propaganda that teaches us all discrimination is bad. Discrimination is just as often good – it’s what enables us to distinguish between good and bad. We need more of it.

Observe traditional male courtesies such as opening the door for a woman. Even some feminists appreciate such gestures, though they rarely admit it.

Never trust a newspaper columnist who pronounces 25 rules for a righteous and contented life, especially if he can’t count.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Help yourself, but at your own risk

A caller who identified himself simply as “Joey” phoned NewstalkZB talkback host Bruce Russell in the early hours of this morning and related the following story.

He was driving somewhere near Auckland when he flashed his lights at an approaching car, either because its lights were on high beam or weren’t on at all. (I’m sorry I didn’t get the exact detail, but I wasn’t playing close attention at this point – it was only subsequently that the story got interesting.)

The other car turned and began chasing him with its lights on full. This went on for a couple of kilometres until Joey decided to force the issue. He did a U-turn and confronted his pursuers, at which point two men got out of the other car and walked towards him. One carried a baseball bat and the other a piece of wood. It seems unlikely that they were merely wanting to compliment Joey on his car’s paintwork.

Joey got out of his car armed with a golf club and whacked one of the men on the leg. Both men then backed off, got into their car and drove away.

According to Joey’s account, he subsequently received a visit from a police officer. It seems a complaint had been laid. The policeman told him he had no right to take the law into his own hands and could be prosecuted. Joey told Russell he was now waiting to hear whether action would be taken against him.

Now there’s a possibility that the entire story was a fabrication, but I don’t think so and apparently neither did Russell. Joey – who spoke with an accent and sounded as if he could be a Pacific Islander – was no self-aggrandising blowhard. He was calm and articulate and seemed resigned to the possibility that he might end up in court for defending himself, though he seemed puzzled that his would-be assailants had apparently gone to the police when they, after all, had caused the confrontation.

The disturbing thing is that his story is consistent with others about the police cracking down on people who have the audacity to defend themselves against thugs. There was the celebrated case of Greg Carvell, the Auckland gunshop owner who was prosecuted last year (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) for illegal possession of a pistol after shooting and wounding a would-be robber who threatened to kill him with a machete.

(It’s worth noting here that police themselves have fatally shot people in far less threatening circumstances without any prosecution following, which suggests a very worrying double standard. The name of Christchurch man Stephen Bellingham, who was shot dead last September merely for smashing cars with a hammer and a golf club, comes to mind. But we won’t go into that here.)

In 2006 there was the case of Paul Espiner, the Inglewood man who grabbed a machete and confronted intruders who were threatening to kill a terrified female neighbour with a baseball bat. For his trouble, Espiner was convicted for possessing an offensive weapon. The principal offender who had threatened his neighbour, meanwhile, avoided a conviction and had his name suppressed. All he had to do was write a letter of apology.

More recently it was the so-called “Sheriff of Ngawi”, an isolated fishing village on the south Wairarapa coast, who was in the news. Garth Gadsby was fined $3000 and had his shotgun confiscated after trying to stop fleeing hoodlums in a stolen car who had been on a crime rampage in the tiny town. A jury found him guilty of recklessly discharging a firearm.

Admittedly there was something Wild West-ish about Gadsby’s actions, but no one was hurt and Gadsby, a gold medal-winning shooter (and hence unlikely to hit anyone unless he intended to) was a respected member of the community with no previous convictions. The judge said people mustn’t take the law into their own hands, but the problem in places like Ngawi is that the police are a long way away and people understandably get frustrated at the law’s failure to protect them.

I’m sure the Sensible Sentencing Trust has files on other cases like these. These are simply the ones I can recall off the top of my head.

There is a pattern here: police will take action against people who dare to take the law into their own hands. This is understandable up to a point. But surely discretion should be exercised in cases where (a) someone appears to be in imminent danger, as in the Carvell and Espiner cases (and perhaps Joey’s case as well); and (b) where the police are either unable or unwilling to tackle offenders themselves, as in the Ngawi incident. Where that discretion is exercised, it too often seems to be at the expense of the person who common sense tells us is in the right. Oddly enough, the discretion is invariably applied in favour of the person who pulled the trigger if that person happens to have been wearing a police uniform, but I promised not to go into that.

A related issue, referred to recently in this blog, is the rigid police adherence to procedures that discourage people from acting in their own defence, and that hold police back from situations where people’s lives may be at risk. An example of the former was the shocking Bentley case of 2005, when a woman phoned 111 from a Bay of Plenty farmhouse to report a brutal attack on her husband while it was still in progress. Not only did the police lie to her, telling her that help was on the way when it wasn’t, but they blocked her from phoning neighbours for help. And a recent example of the latter was the police insistence on remaining at a “safe assembly point” while Navtej Singh lay bleeding to death on the floor of his Manurewa liquor store.

I have known several police officers whom I regarded as dedicated and conscientious. I can’t believe they are happy with this state of affairs. And I sometimes feel sorry for Police Association president Greg O’Connor, an honourable and decent man who is fiercely loyal to his colleagues, who is constantly forced to defend the police when they are deservedly under attack.

Public confidence in a dependable, competent, non-corrupt and adequately resourced police force is a cornerstone of a civilised society. It is something New Zealanders have traditionally taken justifiable pride in, but it is insidiously slipping away from us.

As a footnote, it was intriguing to see the number of comments on left-leaning blogs over the past couple of weeks defending the police against criticism over their conduct following the Navtej Singh shooting. The general tenor of the comments was that it was only sensible of the police to follow prescribed procedures rather than rush in to save someone and possibly put themselves at risk in the process.

To see the New Zealand left rushing to support the police is a novel experience. After all, these people are the inheritors of a political tradition in which the police were invariably seen as brutal agents of an oppressive state acting in the interests of the ruling class. The thuggish rightwing cop, bashing protesters with his identity badge concealed, is part of leftist folklore.

I have wondered at length about possible explanations for this sudden change of heart. I’ve concluded that the left rather likes the thought of a police force that has been emasculated and enfeebled by protocols and procedures, rather than the more robust one New Zealanders have known in the past, and will do whatever it can to accelerate the process.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

It's our time they're wasting

“More work, less coffee”, ran the headline on a letter in last Saturday’s Dom Post. The writer, Pete McMillen, made a point that I’ve raised a couple of times in columns. He pointed out that in Wellington, “taxpayers are forever footing the bill for coffees and muffins at myriad establishments, almost always bursting with smartly dressed business folk”.

Setting aside the curious fact that Wellington is now populated by people who seem incapable of doing a stroke of work without constant transfusions of caffeine, what’s irritating here is that, as the letter writer says, we’re the mugs who are picking up the tab, indirectly at least.

If private businesses are stupid enough to pay for their employees to idle away their working hours in cafés, that’s their concern. But many of the busiest cafés in Wellington are in parts of town where the dominant employer is the state. These are our employees, and they’re drinking and gossiping in our time.

Reading Pete McMillen's letter, my wife – who can usually be relied upon for clear-eyed common sense on issues like this – wondered whatever happened to tea ladies. In the only government job I ever had – working for The Listener in the Bowen State Building – we were served tea or coffee twice daily by a lugubrious woman named Mrs Nugent, whom I grew to know quite well. I guess the Mrs Nugents of the world have gone the same way as Humber 80s, 45 rpm records and Lamson tubes in department stores. But if the State Services Commission wanted to impress its political masters by boosting productivity and cutting costs, it would get the tea ladies – or refreshment facilitators as they’d have to be called now – back.

Paranoia, or what?

BEING something of a technophobe, I was for many years sceptical toward the internet. Not any more, as this blog (ugly word, that, as my wife says) attests. There’s no denying that the worldwide web has empowered millions of people by allowing them to receive and share information and opinion that they might not otherwise have had access to. In the process, it has introduced a liberating new dynamic to political debate.

But as with many advances, the net is a double-edged sword. It provides a platform for anonymous ranters and semi-literate ideologues of all political colours whose infantile and toxic rhetoric makes the much-derided callers of talkbackland seem positively profound.

It’s also a wonderful toy for mischief-makers. As evidence of this, I cite something that directly affected me.

Until recently, anyone clicking on the Google search button to find information about Karl du Fresne (yes, I admit doing this from time to time) would have pulled up a reference to a 1999 decision by the Press Council relating to a complaint about a column I wrote on Serbian ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.

What came up on screen were the following words: “By most normal criteria – objectivity, fairness, balance, accuracy – Karl du Fresne’s piece falls abysmally below acceptable standards ...”

Anyone seeing this, and noting that the source was a Press Council decision, would reasonably assume that these were the council’s own words - and very damning words at that. In fact they were the words of the complainant. The council did not uphold the complaint against me. But to discover this, you had to read the full decision, which I imagine few people would have taken the trouble to do.

Someone else – not the Press Council – was responsible for highlighting this misleading excerpt. Significantly, it appeared on the net at about the same time that I attracted the malevolent attention of a stridently pro-Serbian website which had stumbled across my 1999 column and the subsequent complaint against me. I suspect the two developments are not unrelated.

The attacks on me by the pro-Serbian website didn't concern me, since the perpetrator was clearly deranged. You can hardly take seriously someone who defends the vile extremes of Serbian nationalism. But the misuse of the Press Council decision, which was clearly aimed at damaging my reputation, suggested to me that someone was manipulating the net for their own purpose.

The reference always came up within the first 10 search results. Now I was under the impression that the order in which search results come up on screen is determined by the number of hits on each one (someone more net-savvy might be able to confirm or contradict this). But I can scarcely believe that there was such interest in a 1999 Press Council decision about an obscure newspaper column on Serbian atrocities that it showed up, month after month, as one of the most frequently read items about me on the net.

I finally tired of seeing the decision misrepresented in this way and when I drew it to the council’s attention, it took prompt action – for which I am grateful – to have the reference removed. Council secretary Mary Major told me their webmaster was unable to explain why the entry showed up the way it did. While it was acknowledged as odd, the webmaster thought it unlikely that someone had deliberately engineered it that way.

Hmmm. Call me paranoid if you like, but I still nurse the suspicion that this was a piece of malicious internet mischief.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The hazards of cycling

The tragically ironic death of police superintendent Steve Fitzgerald in a cycling accident is a reminder that, for all the rhetoric about the benefits of cycling, roads can still be a very hazardous place for people on bikes.

Steve Fitzgerald was killed when he was struck by a truck at Petone while cycling home from work on Thursday. What made his death ironic was that as the officer in charge of road policing from the 2000 to 2005, he was credited with helping to bring the road toll down from about 600 to the low 400s.

On the TV3 News on Thursday night, Wellington city councillor Andy Foster was up-front about Wellington not being the safest city on earth for cyclists. It’s hard to imagine anyone who has ridden in Wellington failing to agree.

Significantly, the New Zealand cities where cycling is most popular – such as Palmerston North and Christchurch – are flat, with relatively wide, straight streets. Wellington is the reverse: hilly, with narrow, serpentine streets that are often choked by parked cars. I have great admiration for the fortitude of Wellington cyclists who ride to and from work each day (and also, incidentally, for the skill of the bus drivers who navigate the same streets without incident).

The zone surrounding the Petone roundabout where Steve Fitzgerald died is a particularly notorious danger spot that cycling activists have been trying for years to get rectified. It’s a while since I’ve ridden in Wellington, but getting across the point at which several busy roads intersect at Petone was always nerve-wracking.

Cyclists in Wellington, probably more than in most places, intuitively adopt the tactics of defensive driving. They learn always to expect the unexpected, such as a driver’s door opening without warning in front of them (the cause of another cycling fatality at Upper Hutt on the same day Steve Fitzgerald died) or a vehicle suddenly cutting across their path. They learn never to assume that a driver has seen them unless they make eye contact.

I don’t buy the line that motorists and cyclists are natural enemies; after all, most cyclists drive cars too. It may sound Pollyanna-ish, but I believe that if cyclists show consideration for motorists, such as by trying to make room for them to pass, they will generally respond in kind. There’s undoubtedly a sub-species of cyclist who views cycling as some sort of macho competition for territory, and arrogantly asserts his (or far less often her) right to take up more space than they need. But I'm certain Steve Fitzergald would not have been one of these.

Most of the close calls I’ve experienced have been simply a result of motorists under-estimating how fast a bike travels. A car will pass you then turn left across your path assuming that you’re 100 metres behind, when in fact you’re hard on its tail; or a car will make a right-hand turn across your path as you approach, thinking they have more time in which to executive the manoeuvre than they actually have.

The good news, notwithstanding the sad events of the past week, is that according to the Cycling Advocates Network, about one in 1000 New Zealand cyclists are involved in on-road injury accidents every year, compared with three in 1000 motorists. And there is research which suggests that the more cyclists there are on the roads, the lower the accident rate becomes – the so-called “safety in numbers” effect (the rationale being that motorists are more likely to be considerate toward cyclists when there are more of them).

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Maori TV scores again

It has been said before but it bears repeating: the only television channel that consistently conveys a sense of New Zealandness, of what it means to be a New Zealander, is Maori TV.

Last night it screened an absorbing one-hour documentary about a return by former New Zealand servicemen to Malaysia, where they had served during the Malayan Emergency and the Confrontation with Indonesia in the 1950s and 1960s.

These are two rarely visited backwaters of New Zealand history. For 12 years New Zealand soldiers, sailors and airmen helped the British colonial administration in Malaya combat a determined communist insurgency. Of the 1500 New Zealanders who served in Malaya, 15 never returned (though only three of those were killed by hostile action).

From 1964 till 1966, in what became known as the Confrontation, New Zealand servicemen helped the newly independent state of Malaysia to resist Indonesian attempts at grabbing a portion of Borneo. The campaign included covert raids across the Indonesian border by New Zealand SAS troops.

Last night’s doco, unimaginatively titled Malaysian Memories Tour 2007, was amateurish and low-budget. It lacked even a basic explanation of New Zealand’s military involvement in the region. But for all that, it was far more rewarding than the customary meretricious tat on the mainstream channels.

What was most impressive was the great dignity of the former servicemen, most of whom (in the documentary, anyway) were Maori. These were ordinary men who told their stories with unpolished, unpretentious eloquence. It would have been a stony-hearted viewer who didn’t feel proud of them.

It pays to keep a close eye on the Maori TV listings for modest little gems like this. When the channel was launched, I dismissed it as an expensive, politically correct sop. I am happy to admit I was wrong. As long as state-owned TVNZ treats the much-vaunted public broadcasting charter with contempt, Maori TV will be the default channel for viewers who want to know which country they’re in.

Harassment of Baha'is

An old friend and journalist colleague, former Masterton boy Mike Day, is national media officer for the Australian Baha’i Community. He advises of the following renewal of harassment of Baha’is in Iran:

In the early hours of May 14 six of the seven members of the national coordinating committee of the Baha'i Community in Iran were rounded up. (The seventh was already in jail). We are seriously worried about their safety.

The elected administration (including a nine-member national body) has been banned from functioning for years but the Iranian regime had turned a blind eye to the committee, which has been attending to the basic needs of the 300,000 Baha’is who live throughout Iran (the country's biggest religious minority).

We are not sure where these seven are now and don't know what is being done to them. In the early 80s their predecessors went missing and their bodies have never been found. Eight of their nine replacements were executed. Many Baha’is were executed and a lot more tortured. Refugees came to Australia and other countries initially and later to NZ.

Later, media publicity throughout the world and outrage by governments seemed to stay the hand of the persecutors.

It is straight religious persecution (our Founder came after Muhammad). The Baha’is are told that if they convert to Islam they will be freed and left alone, but Baha’is will not recant. We must tell the truth about our religious belief if asked.

In addition we are obliged to obey the laws of the land and to abstain from political activity. It is hardly likely, then, that Iranian Baha’is would break the laws of their faith and be “spies for Israel”, as is often alleged. (Our HQ has been in the Holy Land – Haifa/Acre – since the mid-19th century).

Government documents exposed by a UN official in the 1990s prove there is a systematic plan to choke and eliminate the functioning of the Baha’i community. Most of the information is on our site

Footnote: The father of one of Mike and Chris Day’s closest friends in NZ was executed in Shiraz, Iran, in the early 1980s for being a Baha’i. The Days’ second son, George Azadi Day, was named after him. (Azadi, meaning freedom, was his surname.)

If anyone feels moved to do so, I suggest they send an email to the Iranian embassy in Wellington – – expressing their concern for the missing Iranian Baha'is.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Police captured by tick-the-boxes mentality

You could sense interviewer Geoff Robertson’s raised eyebrows on today’s Morning Report when Wellington police commander Pieri Munro said police had spent the past two years working on a policy – still not completed – to ensure dangerous parolees like the killer Graeme Burton didn’t slip through the net in future. Robertson rightly asked why it was taking so long, to which Munro responded that these things take time. He couldn’t give a date for when the new policy might be finalised.

I wonder if there’s a small clue here to what ails the New Zealand police. There was a time when the police pretty much made things up as they went along. Operational decisions were made according to the circumstances of the moment, applying the lessons of experience and common sense. There were times when this ad hoc approach backfired terribly, as in the lethally amateurish police response to firearms incidents in the 1960s which led directly to the formation of the armed offenders squads. But it seemed to work most of the time; police turned up where and when they were needed, had a crime resolution rate that was as good as any in the world, and commanded the respect and confidence of the public.

Granted, policing is enormously more complex now than it was then, and the demands on police infinitely greater. But you can’t help wonder whether the police have been captured, and in the process enfeebled, by a bureaucratic obsession with formal processes and protocols, of which the delay in finalising the procedure for dealing with potentially troublesome parolees is just one example. Is it really so complex?

As with so many other police issues it’s possible to detect here the dead hand of the HR department, with its tick-the-boxes mentality. The same mindset is apparent in day-to-day operational decisions. No longer does an experienced senior sergeant make a snap judgment about what’s required in a given situation. There are prescribed steps to be followed and implications to be considered. Health and safety considerations – a concept unheard of as recently as Aramoana, where police were still allowed to display individual initiative and heroism – now seem to impact heavily on operational decisions.

This would explain the appalling (and on the face of it, callous) delay before an ambulance was allowed to attend the Manurewa liquor store where Navtej Singh lay dying, a period during which people continued to come and go from the store with impunity while Singh’s business partner tried to convince police by cellphone that the armed robbers had fled. It seems there were steps to be followed: firearms needed to be issued (aren’t they routinely carried in many patrol cars?) and “safe assembly point protocols” – there’s a classic HR phrase for you – had to be observed. In the meantime, an innocent man lay bleeding to death. Who knows whether he might have lived if the police commander had overruled the wretched “protocols” in the interests of humanity?

The police have deservedly taken a pasting over this. Former Act MP turned National candidate Stephen Franks in his blog ( called it “officially ordered cowardice”. He also recalled that New Zealand had two similar incidents when he was in Parliament: “A woman died slowly of gunshot wounds over hours in a Fielding house, begging for help on the phone, long after the killer had left. Police refused to let anyone near the house. Not long after that a constable died on the front lawn of another Manawatu house, while police stood clear in case the killer was still there waiting to shoot more police. I made myself unpopular by asking the Minister of Police questions. The responsible officer treated them as insults to police courage.”

The New Zealand Herald pointed out that the police had a proud record of “common sense over-riding bureaucratic impediments when a life is at risk” – a policy not followed on this occasion. The Southland Times (whose editorial writer Michael Fallow deservedly was named the best in the country in the recent Qantas media awards) put it much more bluntly, accusing the police of following “a series of arse-covering procedural requirements” that had more to do with everyone getting their reports right than with helping the victims. Even local MP George Hawkins, a former Minister of Police (albeit a spectacularly ineffectual one), was frothing with frustration at the police action (or, if you prefer, inaction).

Perhaps it was incidents such as the death of Sergeant Stu Guthrie at Aramoana and the furore over the unnecessary shooting of Steven Wallace at Waitara that led to an over-cautious police force taking refuge in red tape. But as seems to be the New Zealand way, we have lurched from one extreme – the almost casual, make-it-up-on-the-spot approach that saw several officers shot dead in Auckland and Lower Hutt in the 1960s – to the other. Maybe it’s time practical cops at the front line wrested control back from desk-bound bureaucrats at headquarters.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Enough of this ghastly couple

Was No 10 Downing St ever occupied by a more egregious couple than Tony and Cherie Blair?

Just how awful these people are has only become fully apparent with the publication of Mrs Blair’s memoirs, Speaking For Myself. They reveal, among other things, that after she miscarried in 2002, her husband was on the phone straight away to Labour’s ubiquitous PR supremo Alistair Campbell – even as Mrs Blair lay still bleeding and in pain – to discuss how the event should be spun to the media. This appears to have been too much even for Mrs Blair, whom one concludes was otherwise probably a very willing party to her husband’s obsession with public image and media manipulation. Politics and spin, it seems, took precedence over everything, including a personal family tragedy.

Mrs Blair also tells us much more than we want or need to know about her intimate moments with her husband, including the circumstances of their youngest son Leo’s conception at Balmoral Castle. It was cold, she hadn’t packed her “contraceptive equipment”, and “what with one thing and another …” Oh, please. It says a lot about Mrs Blair’s conceit that she (a) feels the need to tell us this, and (b) seems to assume we’re going to get some vicarious, voyeuristic frisson of excitement from knowing what she and her smarmy husband got up to under the tartan duvets at Balmoral.

The historian Paul Johnson dealt with Mrs Blair’s disclosures eloquently in his column in The Spectator. “A tale which might be tolerable, even amusing – or touching – when told, mouth to ear, in gossip, becomes offensively leaden when spelt out on the page and read by countless firesides. All professional writers learn by bitter experience, or helpful censorship by their elders, that there is a rubicon which divides private speech from public print: cross it at your peril.”

The British media portrayed Cherie Blair as vain and grasping. Interviewed by Kim Hill last Saturday, she seemed at pains to show a warmer, human side. But I suspect the British media read her correctly. The best that can be hoped for is that this ghastly couple will now vanish from public view, but it seems unlikely.

Art imitating life, or what?

Art imitating life, or life imitating art? One of the recurring storylines in Garry Trudeau’s wickedly mischievous comic strip Doonesbury concerns the vile Washington-based father-and-son lobbyists Duke and Earl, whose clients include President Bmzklfrpz, the totalitarian ruler of a central Asian republic called Berzerkistan.

Can it be entirely coincidental that Aleksander Lukashenko, the Soviet-style despot who rules the wretched republic of Belarus with an iron hand, has retained the services of British spin doctor Lord Tim Bell, the ex-Saatchis ad man who once advised Margaret Thatcher, to tart up his unfortunate image and attract foreign investment?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Should political bullies be outed?

In her weekly political column today, Dominion Post political editor Tracy Watkins refers to the propensity of some politicians for bawling out journalists. She mentions two: Michael Cullen and Winston Peters. But I suspect that most experienced reporters and editors, including those who have never worked in the press gallery, would be able to produce their own lists of public figures who are capable of rude, aggressive and intimidating behaviour toward journalists. Some make a deliberate practice of it.

I once had a friend who edited a provincial paper. He was a tough and seasoned operator, but a visit from the local mayor – a nasty bully of a man, accustomed to getting his own way – would leave him white-faced and trembling. The mayor didn’t like the way the paper reported council affairs, and reasoned that the same intimidating behaviour that cowed his council opponents into silence would also frighten the paper into seeing things his way. (Mayors, in my experience, can be some of the worst offenders, perhaps because they usually only have one or two local journalists to bring to heel – much easier than a stroppy and sometimes tribal press gallery – and because the protocols of acceptable behaviour are less clearly defined at local government level than in Parliament.)

There is a convention that these unpleasant encounters remain in-house – a sort of journalistic equivalent of the old rugby rule that what happens on the field stays on the field. Reporters and editors rarely write about the abuse they sometimes get from people holding public office. But I wonder whether this code of honour (if that’s what it is) is misguided.

The late Frank Haden used to refer to politicians as “my employees”. He was right in the sense that they are paid by, and accountable to, the public. While I wouldn’t go so far as the American journalist who famously said there was only way to look at politicians, and that was down, people in public office need to understand that they are the ones under public scrutiny; they are the ones who must account, in a democracy, for their statements and actions. They have got things completely arse about face, if you’ll pardon the expression, when they behave as if journalists – who are the public’s proxies, after all – are accountable to them rather than vice versa.

None of this absolves journalists of the duty to report fairly and accurately. But it does mean they are entitled to go about their work without being subjected to browbeating outbursts from politicians who are angry and frustrated because the media don’t always report things the way they would like.

Maybe it would discourage the bullies (not all of whom are male, incidentally) if journalists more often reported what goes on behind the scenes, so that voters could see their elected representatives as they really are. Just a thought.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Visionaries and managers


I am not an historian and I am not a political scientist. But it seems to me that if you look at previous New Zealand prime ministers, at least in my lifetime, they fall into two broad categories: managers and visionaries.

Take Keith Holyoake, for example. He was the epitome of the good political manager, keeping his cabinet and caucus in line and astutely feeling the pulse of the electorate.

He didn’t take big political risks and he rarely did more than he had to. His handling of New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War was a classic example of his cautious, pragmatic style.

He felt he had to make some commitment in order to keep on side with New Zealand’s allies, but was clearly uncomfortable sending troops to a messy war and certainly wasn’t inclined to follow the gung-ho approach of Australian prime minister Harold Holt, who famously coined the phrase “All the way with LBJ” (US president Lyndon Baines Johnson). So he did as little as he thought he could get away with.

Holyoake’s was not a flamboyant or inspirational style of leadership and he didn’t command particular affection from the public. In fact he was often satirised, rather unfairly, as aloof and pompous. But it was a winning style that kept him in power for 12 generally stable, prosperous years.

Jim Bolger was another manager. His seven years in power will be remembered as much as anything for the horse trading with New Zealand First that led to the first coalition government of the MMP era. The point of being in politics, Bolger pointed out, was to stay in power – even if it meant making Winston Peters, his erstwhile bitter adversary, deputy PM and Minister of Finance. Historian Ian F Grant wrote of him: “Flexibility and opportunism, rather than a fixed philosophic viewpoint, were to be his watchwords”.

Robert Muldoon was a manager too – a controlling and compulsive one whose interventionist, bullying style of micro-managing destabilised and divided New Zealand socially as well economically. The extent of Muldoon’s vision, such as it was, was demonstrated by his famous statement that he wished to leave New Zealand no worse than he found it.

So who were our visionary prime ministers, and how does one define them? I would describe a visionary leader as one who inspires us with a new sense of what New Zealand could and should be, and who has the charisma to persuade us to embrace that vision. Visionary leaders give their country a sense of energy, pride and ambition.

In my lifetime the two obvious visionary prime ministers have both been Labour leaders: Norman Kirk and David Lange. This is probably no coincidence, since an idealistic, reforming party like Labour is more likely to produce visionaries than one rooted in stolid, conservative pragmatism, such as the Nats.

The trouble is that, in politics as in business, visionaries tend to be lousy managers. A natural orator, “Big Norm” Kirk inspired New Zealanders with a radical vision of New Zealand as an independently minded, bold little South Pacific state that would decide its own place in the world rather than meekly tag along with its bigger allies Britain, America and Australia. But he had a very limited grasp of economics and he didn’t like delegating – some say because he didn’t trust his colleagues. As a result he took too much of the burden of government on himself and burned himself out in the process, dying in office.

Lange, like Kirk, was a charismatic speaker – though much more witty – and had a wonderfully sharp, insightful mind. He energised people with his stirring oratory and his defiantly independent line in world affairs. But like Kirk he was at heart a loner, with little appetite for the mechanics of government and even less for policy detail. He failed to control his quarrelsome cabinet (some say he simply lost interest) and as a result his government unravelled.

So what are we to make of Helen Clark? Is she at heart a visionary, or a manager?

Let’s deal with the second part of that question first. It’s my view, as an observer placed well outside the Wellington political scene (and therefore in the best possible position to judge), that Clark is a political manager nonpareil. Through three terms in government she has not only exerted tight control over her Labour colleagues – a big challenge in itself – but has also adroitly kept onside with the hotch-potch of alliances on which the survival of her government depends. Even when the wheels have threatened to fall off, she has generally managed to appear serenely calm and composed in public.

Could she, then, also be a visionary? It’s possible to be both. Some historians would say that wartime Labour prime minister Peter Fraser managed it. But while we sometimes see glimpses of a visionary Clark, mainly in her desire to position New Zealand in the vanguard of world action on issues such as climate change, a vital requisite of the visionary prime minister is the ability to articulate that vision to the nation. In that respect, Clark has been less successful than some of her Labour predecessors. In the eyes of the voters she is essentially seen as a capable and pragmatic manager – a “safe pair of hands”, to use one of rugby’s highest compliments.

And how about John Key, who is asking us to make him our leader for at least the next three years? Visionary or manager? Frankly we don’t know whether he’s either, neither or both. If he has a vision, he hasn’t communicated it. And his managerial skill is yet to be tested under fire, since he’s had a very easy run thus far. The demands of government, if National wins the election, will very quickly expose any weaknesses – by which time, unfortunately, it will be rather too late for us to do anything about it.

In praise of boring people


I WOULD LIKE to say a word or two in praise of boring people.

We might not want to sit next to them at a dinner party and we’re certainly not interested in reading about them in the paper. The lives of dysfunctional celebrities and egotistical big-noters are far more riveting.

But the world would be an unimaginably worse place without the vast number of anonymous, boring people who don’t do drugs; who don’t cheat on their partners or walk out on their spouses and children when the going gets tough; who are not into tattoos, body piercing and tagging; who pay their bills on time and obey the road rules; who join school committees, turn up at Saturday morning sport to support their kids and run sausage sizzles outside the Warehouse to fund a class trip to Australia; who help foster a sense of community pride and order by keeping their sections tidy and their houses painted; who catch the train or the bus to work at the same time every day and sit down to eat at the same time every night; and who tut-tut at the appalling things going on around them, but would never dream of thrusting their head above the parapet by taking part in a protest march or writing an angry letter to the paper.

If I were able to choose my neighbours, these are the sort I would opt for.

Perhaps we should institute a new category in the honours list: the Order of the Bore, for people who keep their heads down and just get on with it. Recipients could be randomly plucked every year from the duller middle-class suburbs to receive the award on behalf of the tens of thousands like them.

* * *

I RECENTLY drove through the territory of the Horizons Regional Council and pondered, not for the first time, the fatuousness of public organisations trying to sound dynamic and glamorous through “branding”

Horizons Regional Council covers the Manawatu-Wanganui region. I need to explain this because the name “Horizons” doesn’t give you a clue where it is, which is one of the reasons why it’s fatuous. You would expect the name of a regional council to convey a sense of place, since that is surely its essence; but every place has horizons, so Horizons Regional Council could just as easily be in Nova Scotia or the Mato Grosso.

Another reason it’s fatuous is that unlike a commercial enterprise, which has to attract customers and promote its product, a regional council has a captive market and doesn’t need “branding” to tout for business. However much they might like to, its ratepayers can’t switch to the Feelgood Regional Council (“Where Rates Increases are Painless, Year After Year”) or the Betta Value Regional Council (“Three Resource Consents for the Price of Two”).

Still, no doubt councillors and bureaucrats feel better working for the snappy-sounding Horizons than for something as dull as Manawatu-Wanganui Regional Council. And some lucky advertising agency or PR firm will have got several months’ lucrative work out of exploring alternative brand names and coming up with inspirational logos.

And if it all cost a lot more than anyone expected, as it always does – well, it’s just a matter of making a small adjustment to the rates demands.

* * *

AT THE annual Summer Sounds Symposium in Marlborough last year, Australian academic and writer Joe Poprzeczny introduced a new word of his own invention: ballotocracy.

It’s the term he uses to describe the system of government in which we get one chance every three years to decide which politicians will govern us, then relinquish any control over them for the remainder of the triennium. Poprzeczny is a great fan of Swiss-style democracy, in which voters exert continuous influence over their elected representatives through referenda.

He argues persuasively that “ballotocracy” describes our system more honestly than democracy, which implies direct rule by the people.

If his argument holds true in Australia, it’s probably even more applicable here. Later this year we will go through the motions of an MMP election in which voters will have no control over the ultimate outcome, since no one knows what deals will be hatched behind closed doors in the coalition negotiations that will almost surely follow.

If it follows the pattern of previous MMP contests, the election will deliver a result in which minority interests with a narrow agenda will wield disproportionate power. This is the antithesis of democracy, in which the majority is supposed to hold sway – a point we’ve lost sight of in our eagerness to appease clamorous minority groups.

The first-past-the-post system may have been seriously flawed, but for all its faults it had the virtue of being more transparent – and arguably more honest – than the fraudulent crock we’re stuck with now.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Has this guy ever been here?

Someone should tell Dor Shapira of the Israeli Embassy in Canberra to pull his head in.

Shapira is quoted in today’s Dominion Post as criticising New Zealand race relations. This follows publication of a billboard advertisement that attracted complaints from the New Zealand Jewish community.

The billboard, promoting a forthcoming programme on Prime TV, contained the line: “Advertising Agency Seeks: Clients. All business considered, even from Jews.”

It was silly and gratuitously offensive – the result of clever young men in an advertising agency trying too hard to attract attention, which is what clever young men in ad agencies frequently do.

The advertising campaign was launched, there were complaints, and within hours Prime apologised and the billboards were taken down. A satisfactory outcome, you might think. But Shapira, who is described as a spokesman for the Canberra embassy (which represents Israel in New Zealand), wants more.

He has called for Prime’s apology to be backed by a strong response from politicians, academics, religious groups and the public. In doing so, he risks inflating this episode way beyond its significance.

Worse, he has insulted New Zealanders by claiming that a culture of anti-Semitism exists here. The advertisement, he pronounced, reflected “acceptance of anti-Semitic behaviour in New Zealand”. He went on to urge a campaign to “remove this repugnant and negative mindset from the cultural and political environment in New Zealand”.

If anyone should be taking offence here, it’s New Zealanders. Someone should tell Shapira that this country is blessedly free of the anti-Semitism that has stained so much of the Old World, and keen to remain so. The very rare manifestations of anti-Semitism, such as the desecration of Jewish graves at Wellington cemeteries in 2004, seem to have been the work of a deranged and disaffected micro-minority. The community was rightly outraged and appalled.

Jewish people have made a disproportionately large contribution to New Zealand commercial, cultural, intellectual and political life since the very earliest days of European settlement. While retaining a strong Jewish identity, they have assimilated with relative ease; certainly more so than many other migrant groups.

Perhaps they haven’t been adequately celebrated for their role, but to suggest that they have been surrounded all this time by an anti-Semitic “mindset” is as novel as it is offensive. Has Shapira even been here, I wonder?

If anything is going to encourage anti-Semitic – or at least anti-Israel – sentiment in New Zealand, it’s needlessly inflammatory statements such as Shapira’s. The risk is that he will incite resentment where none previously existed.

It’s reassuring that prominent Jewish figures on this side of the Tasman have taken a less excitable approach. New Zealand Jewish Council chairman Geoff Levy, who complained about the Prime billboard, is reported as saying the matter was resolved. Victoria University religious studies professor Paul Morris suggests we could benefit from a reasoned and sober debate, “distant from these events”, about acceptable limits in advertising. That’s a sensible and measured response.

If we could suggest a traditional New Zealand remedy for Shapira’s rush of blood to the head, it would be that he have a cup of tea and a lie down.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Much foot-stamping among the literati

There’s an entertaining catfight going on at the moment in New Zealand literary circles (and no one does catfights better). As far as I can ascertain, it’s all because the judges in the fiction section of the Montana Book Awards selected only four finalists for the shortlist rather than the five that they were entitled to choose. To an outsider this seems pretty minor, but apparently it’s caused much angry stamping of feet among the literati.

Graham Beattie, literary blogger and former managing director of Penguin, was on Kathryn Ryan’s Nine to Noon programme today wailing that a slew of famous and accomplished writers had been left off the list. Perhaps I’m missing something here, but surely if the judges had selective five for the shortlist, there’d be only one less author left feeling aggrieved. You’d still be left with a whole lot of wounded egos.

Anyway, isn’t this the nature of awards? The first point about competitions is that some poor sod has to choose the winners and there will always be arguments about their judgment. The second is that there will inevitably be more losers than winners, and some of those losers are likely to feel sore – especially if they’re big names.

Beattie seemed to be suggesting that because some of the excluded authors had illustrious reputations whose entries been well reviewed, the judges had grievously erred. But finalists can’t be selected on the basis of reputations; if they were, there would be no room for brilliant unknowns. In any case, it would have to be a very long short list to accommodate all the distinguished names Beattie rattled off.

Most competitions are not much more than a lottery. Lots of entrants may submit excellent work, but the winner will be the book that strikes a particular set of judges as just that much better than the rest. It’s a subjective process and a different set of judges might come to an entirely different conclusion. But if entrants who miss out are going to bitch endlessly about the results, then perhaps they shouldn’t have entered in the first place. They’d save themselves a lot of blood pressure pills.

You really have to wonder whether awards are worth all the grief they cause. The Qantas journalism awards have just had a thorough going-over – not for the first time – for perceived shortcomings. Wine competitions have been dogged by controversy. Many awards have huge significance for insiders but make bugger-all impact beyond the circle of the industry or profession concerned.

Some of the most respected wine producers don’t bother entering wine awards because they take the realistic view that it’s their customers they need to impress, not their industry peers or a set of judges. They’ve already proved themselves in the marketplace, where it really counts, and their reputation doesn’t depend on winning a trophy that will soon be forgotten by everyone but themselves. In the words of the old Mini ad, they don’t have to prove a thing.

I note that on his blog, Beattie says “authors are offended” by the Montana judges’ decision. Well, maybe it’s time authors learned to take offence less readily. Then New Zealand’s literary scene might start to shed its reputation for preciousness and bitchiness.

If writers and publishers want book awards, then they should accept that the results are not going to please everyone. If they can’t live with that, then they shouldn’t enter. Simple, really.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The abortion law travesty

Justice Forrest Miller’s decision in the abortion case brought by Christchurch-based group Right to Life seems to confirm what has been blindingly obvious for decades – namely, that the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act, or more specifically the application of it, is a travesty.

When Parliament passed the Act in 1977 after a long and agonised debate, the intention was that the rights of the mother would be balanced against those of the unborn child. MPs opposed to abortion didn’t want abortion on request and were satisfied they had achieved that goal.

But the legislation was quickly subverted. The counselling and certifying process that women were required to undergo before having an abortion became, in effect, a rubber stamp. Meanwhile the Abortion Supervisory Committee, created to ensure the Act worked as intended, looked the other way. The committee even admitted, in a breathtaking admission of its own failure, that thousands of women obtained abortions on “pseudo-legal” grounds – a reference to the ease with which women qualify on the grounds of risk to their mental health.

Under the sham certifying and counselling procedure, the abortion rate steadily increased year after year. From 2094 abortions in 1978, the first year after the Act was passed, the number rose inexorably and now stands at about 18,000.

Now Justice Miller, in the High Court, has said the statistics “give rise to powerful misgivings about the lawfulness of many abortions”. He notes that 98 percent of abortions are carried out on mental health grounds (actually 98.9 percent, according to the Abortion Supervisory Committee’s 2007 report) and that some certifying consultants approve every request – hardly what Parliament envisaged 30 years ago.

The painful irony here is that the Professor David Ferguson’s Christchurch Health and Development Study, which has tracked 1265 children born in Christchurch from 1977, found that at age 25, 42 percent of the post-abortive women in the study had experienced major depression in the past four years. The study, carried out by a respected academic who says he’s “pro-choice”, concluded that abortion might actually lead to a higher risk of mental illness among younger women.

Justice Miller’s judgment is a very significant victory for the anti-abortion movement, though at this stage it’s hard to know where it will lead. The judge seems to be proceeding cautiously – not surprisingly, given that it’s political dynamite – and has called for further submissions before he makes any declaration.

Anti- and pro-abortion groups agree on at least one thing. Both say the law, as it has been applied, is a farce, though their reasoning is very different. Pro-abortion groups say it’s absurd that women should have to jump through a series of legal hoops to get what they believe is their right. Anti-abortion activists say it’s farcical that Parliament should pass a law aimed at protecting the unborn child and then allow it to be flagrantly disregarded. I’m in the latter camp.

Both groups would like Parliament to revisit the abortion law, but with diametrically opposed aims in mind. And both probably agree on one other point: that few if any politicians will want this ugly, no-win issue to rear up again, least of all in election year. Like the Abortion Supervisory Committee, MPs have been looking the other way – even though it’s Parliament that is being mocked.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Gang-up on Media 7

I have just belatedly caught up, thanks to TVNZ ondemand, with last week’s edition of Media 7, the media programme hosted by Russell Brown. It consisted of a gang-up against Dominion Post editor Tim Pankhurst over the Dom Post’s coverage of a paper by Massey University economist Dr Greg Clydesdale.

Clydesdale’s paper, prepared for an employment conference in Brazil, controversially posited that Pacific Island immigrants are a drain on the economy and an underclass. The Dom Post not only broke the story but later published an editorial climbing into Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres, who took it upon himself to initiate an investigation into Clydesdale’s paper on the basis that it had caused significant hurt to Pacific communities and “fuelled the venting of prejudice on the Internet and talkback radio”.

The Dom Post’s editorial noted that de Bres seemed irritated by the newspaper’s reporting of the issue and suggested, in essence, that he pull his head in. It pointed out that the Bill of Rights Act guaranteed freedom of expression and information, and that newspapers had a right to report academic critiques.

Pankhurst’s fellow panellists on Media 7 – Brown, TVNZ Pacific affairs correspondent Barbara Dreaver and Samoan-born writer and actor Oscar Kightley (nicely introduced as a “recovering journalist”) – didn’t seem impressed by these arguments. Dreaver criticised the Dom Post for not checking Clydesdale’s academic credibility. (Her own employer is, of course, noted for its tireless journalistic rigour). Kightley asked Pankhurst whether he had acted responsibly in publishing an inflammatory and damning attack on Pacific Island culture. Brown demanded to know why the paper had given Clydesdale front-page treatment.

Pankhurst’s perfectly reasonable answer to this last question was that when an academic sticks his head up and risks getting it kicked, it’s news. “We’re not going to decide it’s too contentious and we shouldn’t run it. If we did that, the news pages would be empty.” Quite so.

What worried me about this debate was that it was so obviously loaded. It was, as I said at the start of this piece, a gang-up. Pankhurst is perfectly capable of looking after himself, but three onto one – and on publicly funded TV – isn’t a good look.

The tone was set at the start with a replay of the National Party’s infamous 1975 election ads exploiting fears about Pacific immigration, though the relevance of something that happened 33 years ago wasn’t immediately clear. And though newspaper coverage of the Clydesdale paper was certainly a valid subject for a media programme, I don’t think Dreaver and Kightley were invited onto the show for their professional detachment and impartiality on the issue.

What it all seemed to come down to was that Brown, Dreaver and Kightley didn’t like what Clydesdale said in his paper, so didn’t think the Dom Post should have publicised it. Pankhurst, on the other hand, took the line that facilitating debate on touchy issues was part of the media’s role.

I know which position I support in a robust, open democracy. And it worries me that a professional journalist like Dreaver should argue, in effect, that a story should be suppressed. Her thrust was that Clydesdale’s paper didn’t deserve to be publicised because his credentials didn’t stack up, and that the Dom Post should have made inquiries before running the story. Well, perhaps in an ideal world an eager-beaver researcher would be assigned to assess the credibility of every academic paper submitted for publication, but that’s not how things work in the real world – including, I suspect, TVNZ.

The news media frequently publish what many might consider arrant nonsense by highly qualified academics; it’s a routine part of the news mix, and no one objects – that is, unless the subject matter happens to offend prevailing political sensitivities. I doubt that anyone would have tut-tutted at the failure to check Clydesdale’s history were it not for the crucial fact that he expressed a politically unfashionable view. In any case, a call to Massey University would have confirmed his legitimacy. (The university has publicly stood by him.)

Dreaver, incidentally, was responsible last year for one of the most embarrassingly bad pieces of news reporting I’ve seen on New Zealand television. I’m not sure I regard her as an arbiter of good journalism.

At one point on Media 7 Dreaver, whose mother is from Kiribati, made the comment that “He [Clydesdale] is telling us to stay home”. This to me illustrates the dangers that can arise when identity politics collides with journalistic imperatives. When a journalist identifies so personally with the issues she’s paid to report on, can she be relied on to report news relating to those issues with professional detachment and objectivity?

The current push among journalism academics for greater representation of minorities in newsrooms makes me slightly wary for exactly this reason. It could result in activist journalists whose primary role, as they see it, is to act as advocates for their minority group rather than to “report and interpret the news with scrupulous honesty by striving to disclose all essential facts and by not suppressing relevant, available facts or distorting by wrong or improper emphasis”, as the journalists’ code of ethics rather clumsily puts it.

But back to the Clydesdale paper. As last week rolled on, and government departments found obliging academics who were happy to furnish peer reviews faulting his research, it became clear that his paper was dodgy. By Saturday he was being clinically taken apart on National Radio by Kim Hill, whose questions he answered – or failed to answer – with an almost endearing lack of guile.

I would argue that this is exactly the way the media should work in a robust democracy. A controversial report is published, people challenge its findings, there is a vigorous public debate and eventually a consensus of sorts is reached. In this case the consensus was that Clydesdale’s report lacked academic weight and was suspect in its use of statistics.

Does this mean the Dom Post shouldn’t have publicised the paper in the first place? No. Better to have marginal views exposed in the public domain, where they can be challenged and disproved if wonky, than to stifle them for fear of upsetting someone. If that were to happen, marginal ideas that are good might be stifled along with those that are bad.

Freedom of speech means the right to upset people and the right to get things wrong. It also means the right to attack faulty scholarship, which is exactly what happened here. Ultimately it all comes out in the wash. I like John Milton’s ringing declaration back in 1644: “Let truth and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

Problem is, there’s always someone who wants to suppress unpalatable ideas under the guise of protecting the public – a fundamentally undemocratic notion, since it means they don’t think the public can be trusted to sensibly make up its own mind. A few centuries ago it was religious enforcers who silenced heretics; these days it’s the New Puritans of political correctness.

One last point about Media 7. I’ve only seen a couple of programmes so far but the potential is there. The content is topical, the format is sharp and Brown is capable of being a good presenter. It would be a shame if the programme blew all credibility by following a tedious ideological line – but then TVNZ must have thought of that when they chose Brown, an unabashed leftie and Labour cheerleader, to front it.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The politics of language

You probably thought, like me, that the correct use of apostrophes was an aid to writing clearly and unambiguously. But no. According to my fellow Dom Post columnist Janet Holmes, who teaches something called socio-linguistics at Victoria University, it’s a means of enforcing an oppressive class structure.

In her language column this week, Holmes made a case for the abolition of the apostrophe. Fair enough. But what was interesting was the novel justification she gave: “In my opinion apostrophes are largely redundant punctuational paraphernalia, supported by those who have learned how to use them in order to keep those who haven’t in their subordinate place.”

So there. You may have thought you were simply following the rules of good grammar in using apostrophes, but it turns out they are just another instrument used by an exploitative ruling class to keep the proletariat in its place.

Further on she writes: “The truth is that people who have learned how to use apostrophes have a vested interest in maintaining them … This is basically a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Its [sic] a means some employers use to decide who they will employ and who they wont [sic].”

This a strikingly clear illustration of the neo-Marxist nonsense that infests New Zealand universities and sees everything in terms of an imaginary class struggle.

The same academic recently took a shot at me for defending the use of words like “actress” and “waitress”, which I argued were perfectly legitimate, non-discriminatory grammatical devices for distinguishing women from men. The rigid feminist view is that any word with the suffix “ess” can only be a means of oppressing women. So language is now politicised to the extent that ideologically driven reformers even insist on denying biological reality.

Language provides fertile ground for the ideologues. They seem to regard the rules of grammar not as sensible ways of ensuring precision and clarity – which is how most of us see them – but as the tools of an oppressive, anachronistic hierarchical system.

The rules of pronunciation are viewed similarly. Clear pronunciation – and I don’t mean exaggeratedly “proper” BBC newsreader English – is an aid to understanding, just as good grammar is. But it now seems to be viewed as elitist, which helps explain why we have a generation of radio and TV reporters whose speech is as euphonious as the noise made by fighting cats.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

For heaven's sake, haven't they got lawns to mow and cars to wash?

Today’s Dom Post reports that the mayor of Kapiti, Jenny Rowan, received 60 emails from residents saying they were highly offended at a community board member who wore a fake Ku Klux Klan outfit to a council meeting.

This merely confirms what we already suspected: that taking offence is one of our favourite national pastimes. In fact a recent UMR Research survey of the recreational interests of Kapiti Coasters shows that feeling highly offended ranks ahead of mowing lawns and washing cars, with bowls a close fourth. (Alright, I made that up; but I’ve saved UMR Research the trouble and expense of confirming what was already obvious.)

A few points worth noting here. Dale Evans, the deputy chairman of the Paraparaumu-Raumati Community Board, is a clown and attention-seeker from way back. In the 1970s, when he owned a retail business in Wellington, he was constantly in the public eye with a variety of outlandish stunts, often with the aim of promoting Wellington rugby.

His exploits haven’t always been staged simply to draw attention to himself, although he certainly seems to enjoy that aspect of it. Often he has had a serious or at least a semi-serious motive, even if it wasn’t always readily apparent.

In the case of the KKK outfit, he was evidently trying to make a satirical point about the absurd, state-subsidised Hoodie Day. Though Jenny Rowan tut-tutted (quite unnecessarily) over Evans’ behaviour on National Radio this morning and (even more unnecessarily) wants a formal apology from him, no doubt to humour all those Mother Grundy complainers, she said she didn’t want him to step down because he was committed to the community and made a valuable contribution. Which is probably more than can be said for many of those who complained about him.

Here’s another thing to keep in mind. It was a stunt, a prank, a joke. That’s J-O-K-E, for the benefit of Kapiti Coast residents whose sense of humour, if they ever had one, has atrophied. Must be something to do with the salt spray.

If Evans had tried to set up a local chapter of the KKK, there would have been grounds to protest. But he didn’t, and he wouldn’t. There were no flaming crosses and to the best of my knowledge Mr Evans didn’t lynch anyone. It may not have been the most effective stunt – but for heaven’s sake, it was harmless.

Those who took offence made a conscious decision to feel offended. But it’s not much fun taking offence without grizzling to someone, so they took it a step further by wasting the time of a mayor who would be better employed grappling with the Kapiti Coast’s multiple infrastructural problems.

New Zealand is gripped by an epidemic of preciousness. A grievance culture has evolved in which people go out of their way to find reasons to feel outraged. That in turn has spawned a plethora of interfering public agencies and tribunals which spend inordinate amounts of money and time humouring them. (Another dispiriting example of the grievance culture from today’s paper: Wellington city councillor Iona Pannett, a Green Party champion of political correctness, bleating that a new police strategy against taggers – making them wear pink jackets labelled “Tagger” while they scrub the walls they have defaced – would reinforce prejudice against gay and lesbian people. Good grief.)

Most of us accept that being offended is one of the prices we pay for living in a free society in which other people are going to say and do things that we don’t like or approve. I’m positively bombarded with offensiveness every day. I deal with it mostly by impotently harrumphing to my put-upon wife, who reacts in the only sensible way – by ignoring me. Jenny Rowan should do the same with her cranky constituents.

Monday, June 2, 2008


One tends to be cynical about honours lists. They are a handy means of rewarding political favourites, of honouring paid-up members of the establishment – many of whom have done no more than their job, for which they are generously remunerated anyway – and of currying favour with constituent groups whose support the incumbent government is eager to secure. The list often reflects the fashionable political values of the moment. But even honours committees can’t help but get it right from time to time.

Today’s list recognised Sue Carty, a former editor of Wellington’s Evening Post. Her appointment as a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit was richly deserved by a journalist whose career, if not exactly cut short, was severely constrained by multiple sclerosis.

As an editor, Sue was ferociously energetic, capable and dedicated to her paper. Though physically small and by no means extroverted by nature, she could be formidably tough and resolute. I think she trained herself to be, because that was what the job demanded.

She was determined that the Evening Post would defy for as long as possible the curse that had seen metropolitan evening newspapers wither and die the world over. It was largely due to her commitment that when the paper eventually ceased to exist in 2002, a year after she stood down, it was still in a position of such strength that it was able to merge with The Dominion as an equal partner.

Sue fought MS for several years before bowing to the inevitable and resigning her editorship. For much of that time no one knew of her illness, nor suspected anything. It’s typical of her spirit that, more than 10 years after the diagnosis was made, she continues to work at the paper several days a week, editing letters and writing editorials. She was also a long-serving member of the Press Council.

By a remarkable coincidence, today’s honours list also recognised another distinguished journalist whose career was foreshortened, like Sue’s, by a progressive neurological disorder.

As founding editor of Metro in 1981, Warwick Roger effectively re-invented magazine journalism in New Zealand, demonstrating that there was a market for the long feature story (some of Metro’s articles ran to 10 pages at a time when even the Listener, which was then overwhelmingly dominant in the market, rarely gave any subject more than two). And as well as being a highly accomplished writer himself, he was an astute spotter and nurturer of new talent (including his future wife Robyn Langwell).

Warwick had the self-assurance to stamp a provocative, assertive personality on Metro from Day One and refused to be thrown off course despite the carping criticism of former colleagues, some of whom resented his success. (A prickly personality, highly sensitive to criticism, Warwick cared little for the opinions of some fellow journalists and sometimes gave the impression he relished public feuds with his detractors.)

Warwick was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1996 – about the same time Sue Carty got the news about her illness – and again, like Sue, is still tapping away at his keyboard, though not as prolifically as he once did.

The old Metro feature-writing formula, which was subsequently picked up by the magazine’s stablemate North & South, now seems rather jaded and formulaic. But that doesn’t detract from Warwick’s achievement in taking New Zealand journalism in a bold new direction. He has been made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

THIS HAS nothing to do with journalism, but I spent yesterday in the company of another Parkinson’s sufferer: the redoubtable Brian Lambert of Masterton.

I wrote an article about Brian for the Dom Post recently and called it The Unstoppable Brian Lambert. He is a phenomenon; a prodigy.

Brian, who runs a bike shop in Masterton, holds the record for riding a bike from Auckland to Wellington. It took him 19 hours, 59 minutes and 27 seconds.

That was in 1984. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1999 but at 56, still has extraordinary stamina. He not only rides long distances but organises group rides like the one I took part in yesterday, a 55km mountain bike trek on a rugged and remote part of the Wairarapa coast.

Several times in the course of the ride, Brian left me in his wake. I finished ahead of him only because he dropped back to look after some slower riders.

It was a great ride on a raw, spectacular part of the coast that is succumbing, in the few accessible places such as Tora, to small-scale development. Fortunately it’s unlikely ever to be another Coromandel: the coast is rocky and the weather gets pretty wild, as is evident from the big steel fishing trawler that still sits eerily upright on the coast near White Rock. I understand it was dumped there 40 years ago after it got caught in a violent storm only hours out of Wellington on a delivery voyage to Samoa. The force of the storm can scarcely be imagined, since the shelf of land the trawler sits on is at least four metres above the high tide line.

It was a tiring ride and I arrived home feeling like a wrung-out rag, but Brian was still at it. Having ensured everyone finished the ride safely and got transport back home, Brian sent an email at 9.30 pm with photos of the trip. Tomorrow he’ll probably be planning the next excursion. Unstoppable indeed.


Published Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 28

The Dominion Post recently published a story of the sort that used to be described as heart-warming. It told of a couple in their 80s who had been teenage sweethearts in Masterton but had been forced to part because of religious differences.

Joan Dean’s father wouldn’t allow her to marry Phil O’Neill because Phil was Catholic. In disgust and anger, he threw away the ring he had bought her and went off to the Second World War. Now, nearly 70 years later, they have rediscovered each other and plan to marry.

To anyone born in the past 40 years, the existence of such religious prejudice in a supposedly liberal, tolerant country like New Zealand, and in relatively recent times, must seem inconceivable.

New Zealand in the 21st century is one of the world’s most secular societies, where only those of very pronounced religious beliefs – say, Muslim, observant Jew or fundamentalist Christian – would allow religious differences to stand in the way of two people who loved each other.

But we forget very quickly what this country used to be like. I grew up Catholic in a small provincial town during the 1950s and 60s, when to be Catholic defined one’s sense of identity and relationships with others.

The local Catholic community was our world. My siblings and I went to a convent primary school and would exchange taunts, usually from the other side of the street, with Protestant kids from the public school.

Our friends, and those of our parents, were almost exclusively Catholic. Such social life as we enjoyed tended to revolve around the Church. Sunday Mass was the central event of the week, socially as well as spiritually, and the parish priest was a figure of unquestioned authority (except in my redoubtable mother’s eyes, but that’s another story).

Add into the mix our strange rituals – First Holy Communions, incense and Latin, confessions, Stations of the Cross and processions around the church grounds – and we must have seemed, to non-Catholics, as mysterious and forbidding as the Exclusive Brethren look to many people today.

What is mysterious is often also threatening, so it was no surprise that we were viewed with suspicion and antipathy by some of the Protestant majority in the town. While Catholics generally enjoyed congenial business and workplace relations with non-Catholics, there was a distance between the two sections of the community – and looking back, I think it was there by mutual consent.

Of course there were other reasons, besides our peculiar Catholic rituals, why Protestants looked askance at us. Politics had been dogged by bitter and bloodthirsty sectarianism since the Reformation, and the Catholic track record was hardly one to be proud of. Guy Fawkes Night, after all, commemorates an attempt by Catholic plotters to blow up the English Parliament – and that was one of the more benign attempts to impose papal authority.

Even in far more recent times, and closer to home, Catholics have been associated with sabotage, subversion and general mischief. In the late 19th century the heavily Catholic West Coast was a hotbed of Irish republicanism. The editor of the Irish Catholic Party’s newspaper, the Hokitika-based New Zealand Celt, was imprisoned for seditious libel.

The Catholic bishop of Auckland, Thomas Liston, in a fiery St Patrick’s Night speech in 1922, outraged the conservative government of William Massey (an Ulster-born Freemason) by praising the fallen republican heroes of the 1916 Dublin Uprising. Liston too was tried for sedition and was acquitted – ironically, by an all-Protestant jury.

Liston got into trouble again later that same year when he gave thanks for the emerging Labour Party’s success in the general election, stirring up suspicion that the Catholic Church was meddling in politics. This was a cause of lingering distrust among Protestants, and one not entirely without foundation.

In Australia, Archbishop Daniel Patrick Mannix of Melbourne – a campaigner against conscription in World War One – wielded huge political influence and played a key hand in the famous Labour Party split of 1955 that saw Catholic MPs peel off into the staunchly anti-communist Democratic Labour Party.

The combative Irish bishop Patrick Moran of Dunedin, founder of the once-influential Catholic paper The Tablet, was another Catholic cleric who rarely hesitated to express himself forcefully on political issues. The Tablet’s editor from 1967 to 1989 was the equally combative John Kennedy, who told me when I interviewed him in the late 1970s that there was still a feeling in New Zealand that the Catholics “had to be watched”.

Kennedy contributed to this in no small way himself, often taking a controversial stand – such as urging readers to vote Labour in 1972 – that was widely, if mistakenly, interpreted as the Church giving instructions to Catholic voters.

It is remarkable how quickly all this has receded into the past. The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s helped break down antagonism toward the Catholic Church by opening up the windows and letting the fresh air of change blow through, and also by making a determined effort to foster reconciliation with other religions. But more significantly, the baby-boomer generation of the 60s and 70s, many of whom rejected organised religion, surfed a tsunami of social and political change that swept away much of the lingering religious bigotry.

It would be wrong to pretend that suspicion of Catholics (of whom I no longer count myself one) has been eliminated entirely. The massive success of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code suggested there are millions of people still ready to believe that Catholicism hides dark, sinister secrets.

But at least Joan Dean and Phil O’Neill are able to tie the knot at last. Congratulations to them.


Curmudgeon column - first published Dom Post and ChCh Press, May 27

FAIR GO is one of TVNZ’s longest-running and highest-rating programmes. Its host, Kevin Milne, was included in last year’s Queen’s Birthday honours list. It’s the sort of show TVNZ’s publicity department would doubtless call iconic.

To suggest Fair Go is anything less than sainted is about as unpatriotic as calling for an open season on the little spotted kiwi. Yet whenever I watch it, I feel uneasy.

Over the years it has acquired a tone of smug self-righteousness. It panders to the public appetite for clearcut heroes and villains to the extent that you can sense the viewers at home booing and hissing on cue – as in an old-fashioned music hall pantomime – whenever the bad guy is mentioned.

Not content with exposing greedy business people and heartless bureaucrats, the show demands that they undergo a purifying confession in front of the nation.

The format seems to demand an admission of guilt, a grovelling apology and an offer of reparations. “Be a good boy, make an offer of compensation, and we’ll let you off with a friendly warning,” is the usual message. It’s a form of bullying that takes advantage of television’s enormous power.

Well okay, you might say; of course a consumer rights programme is going to expose bad business practices. That’s its purpose. But I get the feeling, watching Fair Go, that virtually every story matches a pre-ordained template.

There seems a built-in bias in favour of the complainant; an underlying supposition that the underdog is always right. The presumed wrongdoer is on a hiding to nothing.

The weekly moral fable is completed by the ritual capitulation of the “guilty” party, at which point Milne and his team pat themselves on the backs for having righted another wrong.

Of course whomever Fair Go has lined up in its sights can refuse to go on the programme, but these are the people for whom a special punishment is reserved. Their names and pictures go on “the wall”, where they may be named and shamed repeatedly in successive weeks.

Refusing to play Fair Go’s game is considered the greatest sin of all. Not only is it taken as a tacit admission of guilt, but it deprives Fair Go of its moment of triumph – the denouement when the black-hearted villain recants and promises to be nicer in future.

What concerns me is the possibility that some recant not because they believe they have done anything wrong, but because they daren’t risk vilification on a top-rating TV show in which the dice are overwhelmingly loaded against them.

THE brouhaha over the attempted reshuffling of the Green Party list is a perfect example of how, under MMP, politicians treat the public – even their own supporters – with contempt.

The plan was for sitting MP Nandor Tanczos to resign from Parliament, which would have cleared the way for co-leader Russel Norman to become an MP and thus become eligible for a parliamentary salary and associated perks such as free travel. All very cosy and convenient for the party leadership, and uncontaminated by anything so untidy as giving the voters a say.

Trouble was, Mr Norman was ranked only tenth on the Greens’ list at the last election, before he became co-leader. Two Green stalwarts, Mike Ward and Catherine Delahunty, were above him. And while Ms Delahunty (at number nine) reportedly agreed to stand aside so that Mr Norman could be fast-tracked into Parliament, Mr Ward – ranked eighth on the list in 2005 – deliciously dug his toes in and refused to relinquish his place.

I am no cheerleader for Mr Ward. He’s not exactly one of the Greens’ hard grafters and by some accounts led a splendidly cruisy life when he was an MP from 2002 to 2005, being noted for the frequency with which he was seen grazing in the fashionable cafés of Lambton Quay.

In refusing to make way for Mr Norman he might be motivated by hubris or sheer cussedness, but the inescapable fact is that he has principle on his side. Green supporters voted for a list that placed him ahead of Mr Norman, and if the Greens had any respect for the voters’ wishes they wouldn’t have tried to tinker with the rankings.

The irony here is that a party that likes to claim the moral high ground has been caught out attempting to subvert the election result for its own convenience.

I HAVE realised lately that what offends me most about telemarketers is not that they interrupt my dinner or mispronounce my name.

No, what sends the needle right off the irritation meter is the way they try to soften you up by feigning interest in your wellbeing. “How’s your day going?” they ask with contrived bonhomie, or “How are you today, Karl?” As if they cared a toss.

They would get a more civil response if they came straight out and said: “I’m sorry to interrupt whatever you’re doing, but I’m desperate to sell you something that you’re not remotely interested in.” That would command my attention because at least it’s honest.