Friday, January 23, 2009

Harry may be a Charlie, but the tabloids are worse

(Published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, January 20.)

THERE ARE few spectacles more nauseating than the holier-than-thou tut-tutting of the British tabloid press at the supposed indiscretions of the rich and famous. The recent storm of condemnation brought down on Prince Harry by the News of the World is a case in point.

Prince Harry may be a twerp like his father. I don’t know. What I do know is that the incident in which he referred to one of his army colleagues as a Paki and said another looked like a raghead happened in 2006, when he would have been only 20 or 21. I certainly wouldn’t like to be held accountable for some of the things I said at that age.

“Paki” is clearly capable of being an offensive term to Pakistanis but on this occasion it may have been used in harmless jest. The same applies to “raghead”, a derogatory term for Arabs.

Surely some slack should be cut for an exuberant (and possibly not very bright) young man clowning around with his army mates while waiting to board a plane. But no; we are all primed to take offence at the slightest provocation. The well-oiled wheels of the condemnation machine whir into motion and even the Conservative Party leader feels compelled to rebuke Harry for his “unacceptable” language.

And what of the News of the World? The news media have a vital role in reporting bad behaviour by public figures, but was it a matter of vital of public interest that this trivial business be exposed?

That question becomes even more pertinent when you consider that the people who run the London tabloids have the ethics of cockroaches, as anyone who has read British journalist Nick Davies’ newspaper exposé Flat Earth News will know. The British gutter press is in no position to moralise on anything.

* * *

IN A PROGRAMME recently replayed on Radio New Zealand as part of the “best of” Kim Hill from 2008, Hill interviewed Mani Bruce Mitchell about the challenges of being an intersex person – one born with genetic and physical variations that mean they are neither wholly male nor female.

One point in particular struck me. Mani Mitchell told how she was born to parents in a small country community and at first was treated as a boy. But she had a uterus and at the age of one she had an operation and became Margaret.

The community held a meeting in the local hall to discuss how it should deal with this unusual situation. Mani Mitchell described this as an example of a rural community functioning as it its absolute best.

Hill seemed momentarily taken aback by this and asked if her guest was being sarcastic, to which Mani Mitchell assured her she wasn’t. The community agreed at that meeting to close the door on her past life as a boy and from that time on she was accepted as Margaret.

What was interesting was Hill’s initial reaction. It seemed that, for a moment at least, she had difficulty accepting that a community in rural New Zealand in the conservative 1950s could have reacted to this predicament in a compassionate, positive way, rather than demanding that this freakish child be cast out.

It’s common among sophisticated urban types to equate rural communities with bigotry and ignorance, but history shows country people are a lot more liberal and tolerant than urban stereotypes give them credit for.

It was a supposedly conservative rural electorate that elected feminist MP Marilyn Waring and kept returning her to Parliament even after Truth newspaper outed her as a lesbian. And it was a supposedly conservative rural electorate that voted for the world’s first transsexual MP, Georgina Beyer.

The liberal farmer politician – of whom Tom Shand, Minister of Labour in the Holyoake government of the 1960s, is often held up as an example – is a recurring figure in New Zealand politics. Holyoake himself was from that mould and so too was Jim Bolger, who threw his weight behind the Treaty settlements of the 1990s.

Sure, you find rednecks and Philistines in the country, just as you do in the cities, but not all country people have hair on the palms of their hands and eyes in the middle of the their foreheads.

* * *

WHY AM I sceptical about the inflated claims made on behalf of local government amalgamations? Perhaps because the noisiest advocates of council mergers tend to be those who see themselves acquiring greater power (hello, John Banks). The other side of the coin is that the people who resist amalgamation most vehemently are invariably those whose municipal empires are threatened (the name of Lower Hutt mayor David Ogden comes to mind).

The only way to deal with these issues, as has been done in Auckland, is to put the deliberations in the hands of detached outsiders and hope they’ll see past all the parochial politics and turf wars. But whatever decisions are made, one immutable truth will hold true: the bureaucrats always win in the end.


Lewis said...

I actually feel sorry for Harry. Sure, what he said was racist, but spend 10 minutes with anyone with a military background and you'd quickly see his statement was taken out of context. But poor old Harry, condemned from birth to have the news-hungry media hanging off his every word, is ruthlessly scrutinised, and perhaps should've known better. It's all very sad. But such is the nature of the monarchy.

Ayrdale said...

What he said is racist ? BS.
Calling me a Brit. is accurate and inoffensive, and exactly the same as calling a person born in Pakistan a Paki.