Friday, May 29, 2009

My take on the Rankin saga

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, May 26.)

HERE, for what it’s worth, is my take on the Christine Rankin saga.

One of the features of Labour’s nine years in government was the influence exerted by policy advisory groups, state agencies and non-governmental organisations lobbying on a range of issues that included health, education, welfare and human rights. Broadly speaking, their agendas conveniently ran parallel to those of the government.

Even when they weren’t Labour appointees, members of these groups could generally be relied on to fall into line with the prevailing political orthodoxy. A cosy consensus built up around Labour’s Utopian social agenda and there was little room for dissenters.

Though unelected, unrepresentative and largely unaccountable, these Wellington insiders wielded considerable power. Entire forests were felled to satisfy the political establishment’s appetite for reports and policy proposals to make us better, healthier, more socially concerned citizens, even if it meant whittling away the right of individuals to make their own choices.

With National’s election the political environment charged overnight and those busybody groups now sense that their power is slipping away. There is a whiff of panic in the air. The appointment of Ms Rankin to the Families Commission was hardly going to turn the world upside down – she’s only one of seven part-timers, for heaven’s sake – but it was correctly seen as a symbolic turning point.

Hence the venomous intensity of the attacks on Ms Rankin from a wide range of groups and individuals, many of whom have had the government’s ear for the past nine years and don’t like the thought of ceding influence to anyone whose views don’t conform with their own.

Of course Ms Rankin didn’t help by leading with her chin. Her best PR strategy would have been to pull her head in and lie low, but her ego prevailed. She’s no more capable of buttoning her lip than I am of being selected for the All Blacks.

* * *

AN INTERESTING aspect of the Rankin imbroglio has been the role of the news media, whose function has changed during the past few decades from that of an essentially passive reporter and observer of politics – some would say too passive – to that of an active player, using its considerable power to shape and drive political events.

Political journalists not only determine what is news (as they have always done, to a greater or less extent) but go further, whipping up stories involving conflict and personalities while ignoring others with deeper implications. Often these other stories are dismissed as too dull or complex, especially for TV viewers who are deemed to have the attention span of goldfish.

In effect journalists have become choreographers of the political ballet. Politicians dance to the media’s tune because they can’t risk losing control of the news agenda.

Moreover, political journalists who were once content to simply report events now freely pass judgment on them as well. They tell us not only what is happening, but what to make of it. This is especially true of TV.

In the process they can make or break political careers, as we have seen in TV3’s relentless coverage of the hapless National MP Melissa Lee’s blunders on the Mt Albert campaign trail.

But back to Ms Rankin. The media generally dislike Ms Rankin but they love the Rankin story, and they love the Rankin story for much the same reason they dislike Ms Rankin – she’s egotistical, mouthy and flamboyant and needs to be brought down a peg or two. She’s a political conservative too, which makes her fair game in the eyes of many journalists.

She isn’t the first to feel the sting of media disapproval. As already observed, Ms Lee has copped it in recent weeks and so did the hapless Don Brash. We shouldn’t forget Winston Peters either, though Lord knows I want to.

* * *

SO AWARD-WINNING Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif was indignant at being detained for three hours by “racist” immigration officers at Auckland Airport.

Diddums, as former prime minister Helen Clark might have said.

Everyone who travels is inconvenienced to a greater or less extent by the stringent security checks made necessary by terrorism. What Hanif experienced was merely an extra degree of the delay and indignity experienced by anyone who flies, including flustered mothers with tired, distressed small children whose teddy bears are highly unlikely to conceal plastic explosives.

Hanif needs reminding that all this security rigmarole would be unnecessary if it weren’t for murderous Muslim fanatics. Many of them come from his home country, which makes it inevitable that immigration officers are going to pay particular attention to someone travelling on a Pakistan passport.

Rather than venting his spleen on immigration officers – who apparently compounded the offence to Hanif’s precious ego by not knowing he was here for Auckland’s Readers and Writers Festival (I wonder if he uttered the immortal line, “Don’t you know who I am?”) – Hanif should direct his resentment where it belongs: at those of his fellow Muslims who insist on making targets of innocent people.

1 comment:

Owen said...

I think the initial stink about Rankin was made by Margo McAuley's friends, who I think are unlikely to be of a pinkish hue.