Sunday, May 17, 2009

Is Key too accessible?

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, May 12.)

THIS might sound odd coming from a journalist, but are our elected leaders too accessible to the media?

John Key pops up everywhere. On a typical day he might be interviewed on TVNZ’s Breakfast, Newstalk ZB’s breakfast programme, Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint at 5pm, the two 6 o’clock TV news bulletins and Campbell Live or Close Up. Helen Clark was no different.

Contrast this with prime ministers of previous generations, who made a point of being aloof and inaccessible other than when it suited them.

Even as recently as the Bolger-Shipley era, reporters were denied the opportunity to question the PM at a weekly post-Cabinet press conference. (Former political editor and Bolger press secretary Richard Griffin tells me it was David Lange who abandoned the Monday ritual in the Beehive Theatrette, and it wasn’t revived until Miss Clark became PM.)

I wouldn’t suggest we regress to the era when our leaders occasionally condescended to throw the media a token morsel of information. Part of the politician’s job is explaining what they are doing and why.

They must be held accountable, and the media perform an essential function by keeping the public informed of what the government is up to.

But have we lurched too far in the other direction? The news media are far more fragmented than they used to be; every TV and radio network wants a slice of the action. A mass press conference isn’t enough for the electronic media; it must be a one-on-one interview. That way the host and the station are made to feel important by having the PM as guest.

This is all very well for the broadcast media, but we didn’t elect Mr Key to spend a big chunk of his day gratifying the egos of radio and TV hosts. We elected him to govern.

* * *

IN 1954, a nationwide moral panic was triggered by the disclosure that schoolgirls were meeting men for sex in the Hutt Valley.

The men, described by a scandalised press as milk bar cowboys, would meet the girls in High St, Lower Hutt, on Sunday afternoons. According to the local police sergeant, sexual depravity ensued in riverside parks, picture theatres and private homes when parents were absent.

Even in 2009 Lower Hutt isn’t exactly jumping on Sunday afternoons, so it’s not hard to understand teenagers looking for a way to relieve what must have been an oppressive ennui in 1954. But the disclosures triggered a public outcry and led to the famous Mazengarb inquiry, which found that moral delinquency, encouraged by unsavoury films and literature, had infected the nation’s youth.

Fast-forward several decades and not much has changed, except that it’s no longer High St or the banks of the Hutt River.

These days, we’re told, male predators are using the Internet to find and groom young women for sex – hence the steady flow of official warnings to parents to watch what their children get up to in chat rooms, and the recent establishment of a special police unit to target Web sex criminals.

All this is breathlessly reported as if it were a new phenomenon. But as the Mazengarb inquiry showed, sexually hungry men have long preyed on curious teenage girls. The means by which they find them may have changed, but let’s not kid ourselves that it’s anything new.

* * *

OVER lunch with a friend recently, I abstained from my usual glass of wine and had a tomato juice instead.

Big mistake. It was so sweet as to be almost undrinkable.

I’m very partial to tomato juice, preferably served with a generous quantity of vodka, a good shake of Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco, a squeeze of lemon and some salt and freshly ground black pepper. But most tomato juice is now so unnaturally sugary that my wife and I avoid all brands but one.

I note that the iconic soft drink L&P also tastes a lot sweeter than it used to, which makes me wonder whether drinks manufacturers en masse have quietly been upping the sugar content of their products.

I asked Green MP and food watchdog Sue Kedgley whether she was aware of higher sugar content in soft drinks and fruit juices but she didn’t know of any research that would prove my suspicions. However the Obesity Action Coalition directed me to analysis which showed that fruit juices and soft drinks typically contain, per serving, six or seven teaspoons of sugar.

The point was made that most people wouldn’t dream of putting that much sugar in their tea or coffee, yet we consume it in other drinks without batting an eyelid.

1 comment:

Steve Withers said...

You may elect peoplpe to govern. I don't. I elect them to represent me at the legislature on my behalf. if government is the by-product of that, so much the better.

It's an uneasy balance between fascism and anarchy and the kiwi temperament does tend toward fascism, seeing discussion as a waste of time, debate as squabbling and negotiation as paralysing weakness. Democracy thus gutted, they tend to yearn for the strong leader who will just sweep all objections aside and get stuff done. Your own writings collectively demonstrate these very tendencies.

.....but if you do like democracy, as i do, then the PM fronting up and being accountable via the media is a very good thing.

More, please. Not less.