Saturday, June 27, 2009

Strategic solutions and other flim-flam

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 24.)

I have in front of me a large newspaper advertisement for a firm called Hudson.

I read this ad with interest because it seemed to encapsulate much of what makes me cynical about aspects of the business world.

What I noticed most was a casual disregard for the integrity of the English language. The ad is a grab-bag of hollow phraseology that is intended to convey a sense of dynamism and purpose but is devoid of any real meaning.

I should make it clear I’m not singling out Hudson. It’s probably no better or worse than any number of other companies operating in the same sphere. It just happens to be the firm whose ad I spotted.

Hudson describes itself on its website as “a leading provider of permanent recruitment, contract professionals and talent management services worldwide”. I guess that means it’s a souped-up version of what used to be called a personnel agency, though these days they prefer to call themselves human resources consultants.

Anyway, back to the ad. It sought applications for a job with the title of Director, Public Sector – a newly created position with Hudson itself.

The ad said: “Hudson Wellington has reviewed how we can best partner with our public sector clients and assist them to achieve key outcomes. We have done this by integrating our three proven service lines to provide full employment life cycle solutions …”

“Key outcomes” is a glib, empty phrase that’s routine in ads for public sector policy analysts, but can anyone outside the jargon-laden HR business hazard a guess as to what “full employment life cycle solutions” are? Or are these terms merely intended to create an impression of a company that has taken the banal process of executive recruitment to some esoteric, previously unimagined new level?

The ad continues: “We are a Talent Company [those two words appear in bold type with capital letters] who is able to provide Best Advice [bold type and capitals again] and leading solutions through the full employment life cycle” [that phrase again].

What have we here, then? First, typographical gimmickry, which should always be viewed with deep suspicion. People with something worthwhile to say don’t have to resort to pointless bold type or capital letters.

It’s a form of fakery, designed to create the impression that an ad has more to say than it really does. It’s an old trick: distract people with the sizzle and they might not notice that the steak is chuck, not fillet.

What else do you notice? Ah, yes: that painfully jarring phrase, “We are a Talent Company who is able …”.

If I were a client of this firm, would it fill me with confidence to see that whoever writes its ads doesn’t have even a rudimentary command of English? I don’t think so.

Then there are those words, “leading solutions”. It seems everyone these days is in the business of providing “solutions” of one sort or another: fencing solutions, heating solutions, personal fitness solutions, computing solutions, printing solutions …

It’s as if by tacking that superfluous word “solutions” on to whatever service your company provides, it’s magically elevated onto a higher plane. But “leading” solutions? That implies there must also be “tailing” or “following” solutions. Of course there are not, which demonstrates just how empty and bombastic the phrase is.

Moving right along, the ad tells us that Hudson wants to ensure that it provides “the best customer value proposition in assisting the public sector achieve VFM, increased productivity and efficiencies”.

Best customer value proposition? A meaningless slogan, puffed up with hot air.

VFM? I deduce that it means value for money. But VFM sounds snappier and conveys the signal that Hudson and whoever reads the ad use the same coded jargon – in other words, are on the same sophisticated wavelength. That would probably appeal to the same sort of person who thinks a service is more glamorous if you put that word “solutions” after it.

I read on. Hudson described the position as a “Forward thinking solutions based role”. I suspect there were supposed to be a couple of hyphens and a comma there somewhere. Then again, maybe not. Perhaps in Hudson’s world, a solution can be forward-thinking.

It wasn’t until the last paragraph that I came across the word I’d been waiting for. “You will be able to demonstrate”, Hudson advised prospective applicants, in that direct I’m-talking-to-you approach favoured by HR firms, “a track record of developing and delivering solutions [that word again] across the public sector [“across” always sounds so much grander than “in”], having either influenced strategic decision-making from within …”

Ah! There it was: “strategic”. I knew no self-respecting HR firm could get through an ad without mentioning the word at least once. I see it in executive recruitment ads almost every day and have only the vaguest idea of what it’s supposed to mean. But it sounds impressive.

The human race managed for centuries without having to be strategic, unless you happened to be a military commander at war. But it seems that nowadays, nothing can be accomplished in the public service or in business without everyone being busily strategic. Or perhaps I should say delivering strategic solutions. My guess is that this requires lots of meetings and probably one or two out-of-town conferences as well.

Does any of this matter? No, not in the way famine in Africa matters, or peace in the Middle East, or global recession, or violent crime. But in a small way it matters.

It matters if you value and respect the English language and don’t like to see it misused and degraded. It matters if you value honest, straightforward words over flim-flam. And it matters if you’re concerned that in both the public sector and in business, too much energy is expended creating smoke and mirrors; constructing flashy facades behind which business is conducted a lot more expensively but no more efficiently than it used to be before people thought of words like “strategic” and “solutions”.

Democracy would be fine if it wasn't for the voters

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, June 23.)

UNTIL last week, it wouldn’t have surprised me if the child smacking referendum had turned out to be a bit of a non-event. Nanny State issues lost much of their potency with the change of government. The political mood of the country has changed and people have moved on.

All of that remains true. Yet the politicians, in trying to talk down the referendum, may have cack-handedly succeeded in rarking up the public all over again.

They try to muddy the water by suggesting the referendum question is confusing and ambiguous (it’s not, though it could have been more elegantly worded), and they huff and puff about the referendum being a waste of $9 million. This conveniently overlooks the fact that it wouldn’t have been necessary if Parliament had heeded public opinion about the Bradford Bill in the first place.

Then Sue Bradford wades back into the debate and deftly applies a match to the touchpaper by proposing another Bill that would give an unelected parliamentary official the right to determine what, if any, wording would be acceptable in future referendum questions.

This is rich. Referendums give the public their only opportunity to have a say between elections. Of course it’s only a token opportunity, because Parliament can – and routinely does – ignore the results.

But even this minimal right is too much for Ms Bradford – and, it seems, for most of her parliamentary colleagues, including prime minister John Key. An already impotent public is likely to be further emasculated by being denied the right to choose the wording of referendum questions – all on the spurious basis that the smacking referendum is “confusing” and “ambiguous”, when most New Zealanders have no difficulty grasping what the question means.

What makes it richer is that Ms Bradford is a member of a party that likes to take the moral high ground and makes a great show of conducting its affairs more democratically than the major parties.

And what makes it richer still is that Ms Bradford herself was put into Parliament via the party list, with no direct mandate from the voters whose rights she now seeks to curtail. The irony of this seems completely lost on her.

Parliament’s response to the referendum reinforces the impression that politicians pay lip service to democracy at election time but are not terribly interested in hearing from the public in between. Worse still, it suggests they fear and distrust public opinion.

Basil Fawlty reckoned running a hotel would be a breeze if it weren’t for the guests. It seems democracy would be fine too, if only the people could be kept well out of it.

* * *

WELL, fancy that – a film called Antichrist, featuring graphic scenes of genital mutilation, has been chosen as the closing night highlight of the NZ International Film Festival.

Of course it wouldn’t have been chosen for its shock value. No, it will be a film that makes a profound statement about the human condition. They all do.

The Danish director, Lars von Trier, is reported as saying the film provided him with therapy after a two-year bout of depression. It obviously worked, because at the recent Cannes Film Festival he proclaimed himself the greatest director in the world.

Let me stick my neck out and predict that the film will attract the usual superlatives. It will be hailed as enigmatic and a great work of art.

It is almost axiomatic in the arts world that if a painting, film or book is enigmatic it must be good. It doesn’t seem to occur to people that it might simply be the product of a tortured, disturbed mind.

* * *

I WAS INTRIGUED by the media’s use of the euphemistic term “romantic favours” to describe what disgraced politician Richard Worth wanted from the women who were the subjects of his supposedly unsolicited attention.

To me the word “romantic” implies an equal two-way relationship, willingly entered into by both parties. Assuming that what has been reported is correct, “romantic favour” is almost oxymoronic in the context of the Worth affair, because there is very little that is romantic about a situation in which a man puts pressure on a clearly reluctant (or so we assume) woman.

All of which reminds me of another oddly coy euphemism that has taken root. Why the media insist on saying someone slept with someone, when what’s really meant is that they had sex, is a mystery. It’s a phrase that dates back to a prudish time when proper people couldn’t bring themselves to mention sex explicitly.

A couple of years ago I read that former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, famously the most carnally active member of that debauched rock band, claimed to have slept with 265 women in three months.

Good grief. They must have been short naps. He would have had to set the alarm clock to go off in 10 minutes so he could move on to the next one.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Why newspapers are falling over - and why we still need them

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 10.)

A great deal has been said and written lately about the crisis in journalism.

In the United States, newspapers that have served their cities for nearly 150 years – papers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Arizona’s Tucson Citizen – have either fallen over or are now available only online.

In Boston the Christian Science Monitor, a paper once respected internationally, published its last daily print edition in March rather than face continuing annual losses of $19 million. It too is now available only online or as a weekly.

Other papers, awash in red ink, are either teetering on the brink of bankruptcy or are up for sale. These include famous titles such as the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Miami Herald. Even the formidable Los Angeles Times is floundering. It’s estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 journalists’ jobs are being lost in the US every year – a staggering number.

Things are only marginally better in Britain, where newspapers are ruthlessly cutting back newsroom staff in an attempt to counter continuing circulation losses and declines in advertising revenue.

The crisis can’t be put down to any one cause. Newspaper sales have been eroded because many people who once read newspapers now get the information they want online. Advertising, the source of the so-called “rivers of gold” that made the industry profitable for so long, has migrated to the Internet too. To all that you can add the severe effects of the global recession. It's what you might call,to use a vogue-ish phrase, a perfect storm.

An additional factor is that many famous newspapers formerly owned by old family dynasties, steeped in the newspaper business over several generations, have passed into the hands of corporate owners who display little long-term commitment to the industry and still less to journalistic values. To them, it’s just another business.

Intent on maximising profit, the new breed of proprietors have slashed costs and shed staff. Inevitably, their papers have suffered.

It’s a vicious circle: profits fall, so the owners cut staff numbers and close branch offices or overseas bureaus to save money. The paper’s quality then slips, so fewer people buy it. Advertisers note the declining circulation figures and take their business elsewhere. Thus profit continues to decline, to which the company’s response is to … cut costs by getting rid of more staff. And on it goes in a downward spiral.

In the US, some newspaper companies compounded their problems by greedily acquiring other titles, using borrowed money, and are now struggling under a massive debt burden.

It all adds up to what American journalism professor Robert McChesney, in a recent interview on Radio New Zealand, called a collapse of journalism. He’s not the only one expressing alarm. Veteran television talk show host Larry King recently remarked that the saddest thing about the revolution in communications was the decline of newspapers.

Mercifully, things are not so bad in New Zealand. As is often the case, we seem to be insulated from the worst effects of global events.

That’s not to say things are hunky-dory. Some of the overseas trends have been mirrored here. A new type of corporate proprietor is in charge of our big two newspaper chains. They are anxious to keep shareholders happy and seem less prepared than the old guard to weather cyclical downturns.

Newspaper production has been rationalised wherever possible. Papers that previously used their own on-site presses now print in other cities, which saves costs but forces the papers to bring forward their news deadlines and thus severely compromises their ability to compete with the immediacy of other media.

Some papers have laid off journalists and both major chains have centralised their sub-editing, which means that a local story written by a reporter on a paper in Wanganui is likely to be edited by someone sitting in Auckland.

But for all that, New Zealand newspaper circulations seem to be holding up reasonably well compared with the collapses occurring overseas. Figures show newspaper readership, as distinct from circulation (which means copies sold), is actually increasing. Generally the picture is one of gradual but not catastrophic declines in circulation, though the trend is by no means uniform across the whole industry.

Should ordinary people – by whom I mean those not directly involved in the newspaper business – be concerned about any of this? I think they should. The crisis in journalism is a crisis for democracy as well.

Democracy depends on good journalism to function properly, because without it people can’t make informed decisions. And no matter what champions of the Internet may say, journalism still means newspapers.

The Net may be a great forum for robust debate – or, as another visiting American journalism academic recently characterised it, “verbal food fights” – but it’s no substitute for solid journalism based on fact and research-based reportage. The Net has yet to usurp newspapers’ role in informing people about what’s going on in government and in their communities. Often it merely panders to people's existing prejudices, since Net users tend to gravitate toward websites and blogs that reflect their own world view. That's an often overlooked virtue of the independent newspaper: it presents people with views and opinions that challenge their own.

The importance of newspapers is nowhere more noticeable than at the local level, where the Net has hardly made any inroads, probably because local content is not seen as sufficiently “sexy” or exciting.

My wife and I recently spent several weeks travelling in the United States, and whenever I got the opportunity I read the local paper. It’s a quick way to learn about whatever place you’re visiting, because a good local paper tells you a lot about the community it serves. But I was also reminded how important they are.

The Net has yet to colonise the space occupied by these local papers, which cover everything from local politics to high school sport. Within their pages you can read obituaries of local identities, reviews of amateur drama productions and vigorous debate on local issues in letters and opinion columns.

Not only are these papers a type of social glue, binding communities together by keeping them informed on matters of common interest, but they are also where democracy starts. The playwright Arthur Miller perceptively described a good newspaper as a nation talking to itself, and it’s in local newspapers, even more than in the famous big-city titles, that you see this conversation taking place.

It may sound folksy and old-fashioned, but there’s something unifying about everyone sitting at home reading community news and comment in the local paper. It’s a powerful social dynamic that we should all hope survives the onslaught of the digital revolution.

Friday, June 12, 2009

As Pete Smith would have said: "Uh-oh"

Phil Goff and Joe Karam are both learning that no matter how carefully you try to control events, things have a nasty habit of unravelling.

Initially in the driver’s seat in the Richard Worth affair, Goff is now a helpless passenger who doesn’t know where the ride is going to end up.

John Armstrong in the New Zealand Herald today points out that the Labour leader uncharacteristically declined to go on Morning Report yesterday. “You know it is a cold day in hell when Phil Goff declines an invitation to speak on the radio,” he wrote.

Armstrong argued that the Worth affair had ended up rebounding on Goff because he had misled the public about the sort of person Neelam Choudary was. “He intimated she was some low-level Labour Party member who had become confused and traumatised by Worth’s alleged advances,” wrote Armstrong. “The actual person is highly active in the party with enough self-confidence to seek nomination to become a candidate for Parliament and tell Worth firmly where to go.”

What Labour was initially able to sell as a high-minded attempt to alert prime minister John Key to an alleged sexual predator in the government’s ranks suddenly began to look like a grubby exercise in political point scoring – in other words, the same old same old.

What’s even more embarrassing for Goff is that it turns out Choudary was implicated in an immigration scam for which her husband was convicted last December. Once this came out – as it was bound to – it became much harder for Goff to portray Choudary as a helpless victim.

A politician of Goff’s experience should have foreseen the likelihood of all this becoming public. But in the excitement of the chase, and perhaps over-eager to score a point against a government that so far has had a pretty charmed run, his warning sensors appear to have malfunctioned.

TV3 turned up the heat under Goff when it reported last night that a statement ostensibly written by Mrs Choudary and tabled in Parliament was in fact prepared by a Labour Party staff member. Then political editor Duncan Garner got Goff to admit on camera that the much reported “transparent garment” that Worth allegedly urged Mrs Choudary to buy in India was in fact something called a zardosi, or embroidered sari. Evidently that incriminating word “transparent” wasn’t used at all.

TV3 also interviewed a victim of the immigration scam who said most of his dealings were with Mrs Choudary, not her husband.

Uh-oh, as Pete Smith used to say in the movies when things turned pear-shaped. None of this necessarily redeems Worth, of course, but it does diminish any claim Labour might have had to the moral high ground.

Now, Joe Karam and the David Bain case. Karam (who apparently has developed the disturbing habit of referring to himself in the third person) has adroitly orchestrated events around Bain since the not-guilty verdict last Friday, but even a former All Black fullback can’t always keep a firm grip on a greasy ball.

Just when the case seemed all done and dusted, the explosive “I shot the prick” recording, accompanied by previously secret testimony alleging Bain had once plotted to rape a female jogger, blew the whole issue open again and gave new impetus to the “Bain is guilty” camp. Karam did his best to play down both developments, but they underlined the fact that in the vital court of public opinion, the jury is still out.

On top of that, reports indicated a split within the previously tight Bain defence camp. Karam was reported as saying the Crown had approached defence lawyer Michael Reed QC offering “concessions” in a plea bargaining deal – a claim Reed reportedly dismissed as “absolute nonsense”. Then Radio New Zealand spectacularly turned that story on its head, quoting anonymous sources as saying the defence team had approached the Crown about the possibility of having four murder charges dropped in return for a guilty plea in relation to Robin Bain’s murder.

Reed went on Morning Report to deny both stories. Any suggestion of a plea bargain was rumour and speculation, he said.

So there it rests, but probably not for long. The Bain story, like the Worth affair, has some way to run yet. And the lesson from both is clear: once things are in the public domain, no one can control how they will play out – especially not with a hungry media on the case.

Footnote: According to John Drinnan in today’s Herald, TV One newsreader Wendy Petrie’s celebrated “fist pump” at the end of her live appearance outside the Christchurch High Court on the day of the Bain verdict had nothing to do with the fact that she had successfully pulled off an error-free broadcast (though that might indeed have been reason for self-congratulation in view of the fact that she later referred twice to Bain having been found guilty).

No, it seems the truth is even more dismal: Drinnan says Petrie was celebrating the fact that One’s live item went to air ahead of TV3. If so, then here, laid bare, is irrefutable evidence of the self-absorbed, parallel universe inhabited by television people.

Let’s suppose One did beat TV3. Who would notice? Do TV newsroom bosses imagine that New Zealanders have two TV sets running side-by-side in their living rooms to see which network beats the other by a minute or two? More to the point, do they think anyone cares?

OK, I confess: I'm a gay, National-voting Catholic

Fantastic! According to some of the comments posted on the Stuff website in response to my latest Curmudgeon column, in which I referred to the murder of Kansas abortionist George Tiller (see post below), I’m:
1. “Influenced by religious mumbo-jumbo”. For the record, I’m not a member of any church and don’t attend any. In fact I resigned from the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child about 25 years ago because I felt it had been so captured by devout Christians that there was little room for people who weren’t primarily motivated by religious beliefs. (In saying this, I’m not condemning those religiously motivated people or suggesting their motivation was not valid.)
2. Under the influence of someone named Bill O’Reilly, whose "lurid baby-killing charge" I’ve supposedly parroted. For the record, I have never heard of this Bill O’Reilly. Who is he?
3. Best of all, it seems I’m gay. That’s what I love about the Net – you learn all sorts of stuff that you never imagined.
I’ll file these with some of the other fascinating things I’ve recently read about myself, such as:
I’m an ardent National Party supporter (fact: I’ve voted Labour far more often than I’ve voted for the Nats);
I’m a devout Catholic (see above);
I couldn’t possibly have any children of my own, or I wouldn’t write the way I do about issues involving kids (fact: I have four children, and what’s more they still speak to me);
I look down my nose at brown-skinned people (sigh … what can you say in response to that sort of slur?);
I’m a “rich old white guy”. Well, I’m white and I’m male, but I’m not sure about those other two adjectives. Old, at 58? I suppose so, in the eyes of a 20-year-old, but I don’t feel it. And rich? Well, everything’s relative.
The latest comically erroneous assumptions come from a Massey University lecturer who, ironically, accuses me of making false assumptions about academics. He describes me as a retired ex-editor (half right) out there on the lifestyle block (wrong), pension in the bank (wrong), appointments diary lying empty. For the record, I’m well short of pension age (see above) and work six days a week. There may come a time when I spend my time sitting around fuming impotently over a dry sherry, but it’s fair old way off yet.

Democracy has been turned on its head

(Published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, June 9.)

IT WAS Winston Churchill who said democracy was the worst possible form of government, except for all the others that had been tried from time to time.

We’re certainly seeing some of the flaws in our democratic systems laid bare right now.

In Britain, the hapless Gordon Brown’s government is disintegrating amid uproar over MPs’ abuse of their expense allowances. Far from feeling honoured and humbled to be sitting in the mother of all parliaments, many British MPs seem to regard a seat in the House of Commons as a licence to rip off their constituents.

It’s interesting to note that one of the many Labour parliamentarians caught up in the scandal is the ageing Austin Mitchell, who made a name for himself as a witty political commentator while living in New Zealand in the 1960s.

Mitchell, 74, lamely tried to deflect accusations against himself by turning it all into a bit of a joke. Confronted with evidence that he had claimed expenses for whisky and gin, Mr Mitchell told the Daily Telegraph: “I will check to see if my wife is an alcoholic and take appropriate action.”

Ho ho; what a wheeze. I wonder what Mrs Mitchell thought.

Feigning shock that reimbursement had been claimed on his behalf - apparently by his wife - for the purchase of Branston Pickle and Sainsbury’s Ginger Crinkle biscuits, Mitchell said he would institute immediate enquires in his household to see who could possibly be responsible for introducing such “dangerous substances”.

British taxpayers may not have seen the funny side. Mitchell has been MP for Great Grimsby since 1977. One wonders whether the complacency which results from being repeatedly re-elected in a rock-solid Labour seat has transmuted into contempt for the voters he’s supposed to represent.

Meanwhile, here at home, the politicians observed the fury of the British public and decided on some pre-emptive measures to protect their own backs.

The Greens cleverly took the initiative – and the moral high ground – by releasing details of their modest expense claims, which no doubt included nothing more incriminating than bicycle tubes (in lieu of taxis) and organic fruit smoothies.

That prodded Prime Minister John Key to announce a cross-party review aimed at ensuring “greater transparency” on the issue of MPs’ expenses – a marked turnaround from Parliament’s previous emphatic position, which was that it was none of the public’s business how MPs spent our money.

* * *

YOU DON’T have to look too far to find other examples of how we have allowed democracy to become distorted.

In theory, we elect representatives to carry out our wishes. But in reality, the only time politicians make a pretence of being our servants is when they need our votes.

Once re-elected they revert to giving orders rather than taking them. This was certainly true under Labour, which spent nine years instructing us to pull our socks up, stub out our cigarettes and face the front.

It’s even worse in local government, where elected politicians seem to have largely ceded power to council bureaucrats. These wily professionals run rings around most councillors, who after all are mere amateurs with day jobs to attend to.

I recently learned of a situation in which officials of a council pushed through an expensive and pointless, but politically fashionable, programme despite having been advised against it by councillors who knew, from their “on the ground” experience, that it wouldn’t work.

And just look at the Wellington suburb of Thorndon, where planning commissars want to tell residents what they may or may not do with their own properties, even to the extent of ruling whether they can instal skylights and satellite dishes.

Somewhere along the line, voters have lost control of democracy. The whole process has been neatly turned on its head, so that it’s the elected – or more often their backroom policy makers – who give the orders and the electors who must meekly comply.

* * *

PRESIDENT Barack Obama condemned the murder of Kansas abortionist Dr George Tiller as a heinous act of violence, which it undoubtedly was. But since we’re talking about heinous acts of violence, what about the barbaric third-trimester abortions that Dr Tiller specialised in?

Even if you believe abortion is wrong in almost any circumstances, there is something specially repulsive about the way Dr Tiller made his living.

A third-trimester abortion is one that is carried out when the baby has been growing for 27 weeks or more. At 27 weeks many babies are capable, with the right medical care, of surviving outside the womb. Winston Churchill and the great ballerina Anna Pavlova weren’t much older than that when they were born.

At that stage of its development a typical baby is 36 cm long and weighs nearly 1 kg. It is blinking its eyes, kicking and developing physical co-ordination. It is not just a lump of tissue, which is how abortion advocates like to characterise most aborted babies.

It’s one of the great ironies of modern medicine that while dedicated neonatologists are performing miracles in successfully delivering babies as early as 22 weeks, others like Dr Tiller are killing them.