Monday, August 31, 2009

In praise of session musicians

Larry Knechtel is dead. The name won’t mean anything to most people, but everyone has heard him play.

Knechtel was a leading Los Angeles session musician – one of the hired guns who are called in to play, usually anonymously, on other people’s records. He died on August 20 aged 69, apparently of a heart attack.

Even among his exalted peers, Knechtel stood apart by virtue of his versatility. That’s him playing piano on Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Trouble Water. That’s him playing bass guitar on the Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man. And that’s him playing the distinctive wah-wah lead guitar break on Bread’s 1972 hit The Guitar Man. He also played on albums by Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, Ray Charles, the Doors (for whom he played bass, since they had no bass player of their own) and more recently the Dixie Chicks.

Knechtel played the harmonica too. He was a member of an elite, “first call” group of LA studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, which included Glen Campbell (a sought-after session guitarist long before he attained fame as a singer), guitarists James Burton and Tommy Tedesco, sax player Jim Horn, drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Carol Kaye (yes, that’s Carol as in woman) and keyboard players Leon Russell and Mac Rebennack (aka Dr John).

In various permutations, the Wrecking Crew provided some or all of the backing on hit songs by the Beach Boys, the Monkees, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas and the Carpenters, among many others. Producers didn’t have enough confidence in the musicianship of bands like the Beach Boys, the Monkees or the Byrds to let them play on their early records. The only member of the Byrds to play on Mr Tambourine Man was Jim McGuinn, who contributed the trademark 12-string guitar sound; otherwise they were all session musicians – notably Knechtel, Blaine and Russell.

Those classic Beach Boys hits California Girls and Good Vibrations? All session musicians. Ditto the Monkees’ early hits, though some of the band members – notably Mike Nesmith – acquired enough skill to play on their later records.

It’s only in recent years that session players have begun to emerge from the shadows and enjoy some of the credit for the huge contribution they made to pop and rock music.

The work of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, aka the Swampers, is now well recognised, as is that of Booker T and the MGs.

The Swampers backed Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and others on a slew of 1960s soul hits recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and later turned up on records by the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Tony Joe White and Bob Seger. Booker T and the MGs were the house band at Memphis-based Stax Records, where they backed Otis Redding.

Another illustrious collection of session musicians, known as the Funk Brothers, was celebrated in the excellent 2002 documentary Standing In the Shadows of Motown. These engaging virtuosos laid down the backing tracks on Tamla Motown’s hits during the Detroit label’s golden era. (Tragically the most brilliant of them all, troubled bass player James Jamerson, died in 1983 after an ill-fated move to LA.)

Country music had its own roster of A-list studio musicians, among them guitarist Grady Martin (that’s him on Marty Robbins’ El Paso and Roy Orbison’s Oh, Pretty Woman) and pianist Floyd Cramer. A later generation of great Nashville session musicians emerged from Emmylou Harris’s original backing group, the Hot Band.

For anyone wanting to develop an appreciation of American session musicians, the albums of Steely Dan are a good place to start. Steely Dan consisted of just two idiosyncratic perfectionists, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who surrounded themselves with a constantly changing roster of support players recruited from the most inventive studio musicians available. Fagen and Becker encouraged them to cut loose and the result was a series of dazzling records that showcased the session men’s extraordinary virtuosity and still sound fresh 30 years later.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

They don't get a second crack at it

What a fantastic breakthrough it would be for humanity if grown-ups learned to sort out their differences without making children suffer.

Today’s Dominion Post contains a heart-wrenching picture by veteran photographer Phil Reid of two small children at the centre of a domestic crisis that triggered a police callout in the Wellington suburb of Newlands.

The kids are being gently shepherded toward a police car. The accompanying story says a man, presumably their father, was to be charged with several offences including assaulting a female and threatening to kill. Radio New Zealand had earlier reported that he threatened to set the house on fire while he and the children were inside.

There is something terribly poignant about the photo. The kids are nicely dressed and look well cared for. One is wearing yellow gumboots. They look tiny and acutely vulnerable.

It’s apparent that someone has tried to give these two children a secure and loving home. But something awful has happened to disrupt their lives. They would have been bewildered and frightened, the more so because this crisis presumably involved the two people closest to them.

No child deserves the trauma and terror visited on them by fighting parents. Even in the worst circumstances, adults retain some control over their lives; some power to influence events. Children have none. They are at the mercy of grown-ups on whom they rely for love, affection and security.

The scene pictured in the Dom Post today is played out, to varying degrees, every day. The emotional toll on the children who are the victims of these parental disputes is incalculable. Who knows what long-term scars are created?

We owe it to children to let them enjoy their childhood without having to bear the heavy burden of their parents’ marital problems. They don’t get a second crack at it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A good joke, but they muffed it

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Key the risk-taker

As a high-stakes international currency trader, John Key must have had nerves of steel. This quality may be hard to reconcile with his amiable, bloke-next-door image, but it’s undoubtedly there.

We are seeing this side of Key – the big risk-taker who backs his own judgment – in the way he has responded to the smacking referendum.

Key is resolute that Parliament won’t revisit the issue, even in the face of a vote that shows overwhelming support for a law change.

He clearly trusts his own instincts, as he must have learned to do in his days with Merrill Lynch. More timid politicians, unnerved by the display of public wrath, would have capitulated. But Key, clearly, has made the call that it’s a temporary irritation rather than a crisis. He will have assessed the risks, much as he did with currency movements during his trading days, and will be counting on his personal popularity to carry him through unscathed.

He has shown a similar proclivity for politically risky behaviour before – for example, when he ruled out a coalition deal with Winston Peters, and when he courted unpopularity by breaking the 2007 impasse over the Bradford Bill in the first place, a move that many found inexplicable.

You can see why he used to be known on the trading floor as the Smiling Assassin. The term implies callousness and ruthless ambition, but in Key’s case it may simply signify that he’s able to maintain that sunny demeanour even when he’s taking a punt that would turn lesser men’s bowels to liquid.

Janitor's job axed in TV3 layoffs

The recession seems to be biting at TV3. They appear to have laid off the Ukrainian janitor whose duties, in between scrubbing the dunnies, included writing the captions for the six o’clock news.

The captions used to be habitually misspelled, a clear pointer to the fact that whoever was writing them had English as a second language; but at least captions appeared. Now 3 News seems to have dispensed with them altogether.

Night after night, talking heads flash on screen without being identified. Last night it was the turn of David Shand, a member of the royal commission that recommended Maori seats in the Auckland super-city.

Only those who remember Shand from the 1970s as a once high-profile Victoria University academic, Wellington city councillor and unsuccessful Labour Party candidate would have known who he was. The rest of the TV3 audience would have been left guessing, as they so often are.

Mind you, the soundbites on the TV news – and on commercial radio too, come to that – are now so brief and perfunctory that there’s barely time to register what’s being said, let alone who’s saying it. The fragmentary soundbite, like the fixation for pointless “live to camera” pieces, has nothing to do with informing the viewer. It’s merely a fashionable contrivance; a production device to keep the bulletin moving at a brisk pace so that feeble-minded viewers, who are known to have the concentration span of budgerigars, don’t lose interest.

Monday, August 24, 2009

More thoughts on that referendum ...

1. John Key and other supporters of the Bradford amendment to the Crimes Act keep referring to the fact that very few parents have been prosecuted since the law change. Police have looked into 279 reported “events” but there have been only 13 prosecutions. This figure is cited as proof that the law is working exactly as intended; in other words, that “good” parents aren’t being criminalised. But that argument can be turned around. It can be used just as effectively to demonstrate that the law didn’t need to be changed in the first place; that there is no epidemic of parental violence against children that required heavy-handed state intervention. The repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act was a solution in search of a problem. What’s more, it’s likely that the 13 cases that resulted in prosecutions were clearcut cases of assault that would have resulted in charges whether or not the law had been changed. Family lawyer Catriona McLennan, a supporter of the law change, seemed to acknowledge as much this morning when she said on Morning Report that Christchurch father James Mason’s punishment of his four-year-old son would have been treated as assault even under the previous law (a point also made by the police themselves at the time Mason was prosecuted). So what has the law change actually achieved, apart from mightily provoking an overwhelming majority of conscientious and loving parents?

2. Does the government now risk tying itself in knots finding convoluted formulas and guidelines to make a bad law palatable, simply because John Key is determined not to back down? Wouldn’t it be simpler to acknowledge that National badly cocked this one up and start again?

3. One News on Friday night devoted more than eight and half minutes to a studio interview with referendum opponents Sue Bradford and someone called Anton Blank. An interview with referendum organiser Larry Baldock, conducted in a noisy, crowded room, ran for less than three minutes. Did someone say media bias? Nah. Get away with you.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Losing 40-nil and blaming the ref

A few thoughts about the provisional result of the anti-smacking referendum ...

Sue Bradford says it’s inconclusive.

No it’s not. A “no” vote from 87.6 per cent of respondents, in a poll that 54 percent of enrolled voters participated in, is about as a conclusive as you can get. That level of participation is considerably higher than the number of voters who took part in last year’s local government elections. It’s probably a bigger “no” vote than the backers of the referendum dared hope for.

Bradford is reported as saying: “When you add the yes vote and the spoilt vote to the number of voters who didn’t vote at all the figures are about even.’’ But she can indulge in mathematical contortions until the cows come home. It won’t alter the fact that the result represents an overwhelming rejection of her amendment to Section 59 the Crimes Act.

The sanctimonious coalition of Wellington-based organisations that mounted a concerted propaganda campaign against the referendum is having trouble accepting the result too. They’re still whingeing about the wording and trying to discredit the referendum by suggesting people didn’t understand the question.

This is like a rugby team being thrashed 40-nil and blaming the ref. It won’t wash.

The words “sore losers” keep reverberating. The backers of the “yes” vote – Bradford, Barnardos, the Parents Centre and others – would be well advised to pull their heads in, show some humility and gracefully accept that they lost. They might also show a bit of respect for the democratic process and perhaps ask themselves how they managed to get so far out of step with the communities they ostensibly serve.

Bradford claims people who wanted to vote “yes” voted “no” because they were confused, but she doesn’t produce any evidence. Like many left-wing politicians who know what’s best for everyone else, she inadvertently displays a very low regard for the intelligence of her fellow citizens - to say nothing of her apparent lack of respect for public opinion.

Claiming the referendum question wasn’t understood, after all the debate that has raged for the past few months, is an insult to voters. Few issues have been thrashed out more thoroughly. The news media, while displaying a marked bias in favour of the “yes” vote, did exactly what the media in liberal democracies are supposed to do – namely, provide a forum in which the protagonists could argue their cases. It was a textbook case of the “marketplace of ideas” – a concept that is anathema to the neo-Marxist academics who furtively read this blog – in action.

One last point. I heard a talkback host, clearly disgruntled with the referendum result, suggesting that religiously motivated “no” vote proponents had hyped up the smacking issue to the point where it seemed the very future of Christian civilisation was at stake.

Well, it’s possible that some Bible-inspired advocates of the right to smack defined the issue in those terms, but I don’t think ordinary New Zealanders were remotely influenced by extremist positions. New Zealand, after all, is one of the most secular societies in the world, with a marked aversion to theocratic tendencies.

No, the issue was much simpler than that. Many of those who voted “no” wouldn’t have been seeking the legal entitlement to physically chastise their own children (many, like me, wouldn’t have children of smackable age), and they certainly wouldn’t have seen it in terms of a God-given right. It’s my guess that many of the “no” voters would have felt distinctly uncomfortable about being in the company of religious fundamentalists, and would have winced – as I did – at some of the ill-chosen cases highlighted as examples of supposedly “good” parents being punished under the new law (like the moron who repeatedly pushed his small son to the ground because he refused to play rugby). But they voted “no” nonetheless, because they saw the referendum as a litmus test of the extent to which an increasingly intrusive state should be allowed to trespass in areas historically regarded as the domain of the family and the individual.

Chris Trotter, in a perceptive and eloquent column in the Dominion Post yesterday, saw this perfectly clearly. Sue Bradford should read it.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Winding back the liquor laws

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 19.)

I clearly recall the subject of the first newspaper editorial I ever wrote.

It was in the mid-1980s. The Pizza Hut chain wanted to open a restaurant in sleepy, change-averse Nelson and its application for a liquor licence created an outcry. Upright citizens, most of whom seemed unfamiliar with the Pizza Hut brand, were convinced the sale of beer and wine in this inoffensive family-oriented restaurant would create mayhem in the streets.

At the time I was news editor of the Nelson Evening Mail, as it was then called (the Evening has since been dropped). My job description didn't say anything about writing editorials, but the hysterical opposition to Pizza Hut so irritated me that I asked the then editor, Rick Neville, if I could use the paper's editorial column to introduce some balance into the debate.

It seems quaint, looking back. These days the opening of a licensed family restaurant wouldn’t provoke so much as a raised eyebrow. We have come a long way.

Our liquor laws have been cautiously liberalised over several decades, starting with the granting of the first restaurant liquor licences in 1960 (prior to which only hotels were allowed to serve alcohol with meals).

Pub opening hours were extended to 10pm in 1967, ending the notorious six o’clock swill. In 1976 the government created the BYO licence, which greatly reduced the expense of drinking wine with restaurant meals and helped kick-start a dining-out revolution.

In 1989, a rewrite of the Sale of Liquor Act allowed wine to be sold in supermarkets (though not on Sundays – that didn’t come until 1999, along with provision for beer to be sold in supermarkets as well). And of course the legal purchasing age was lowered, first from 21 to 20 in 1969 and then to 18 in 1999.

There was much about these reforms that was unsatisfactory. Liquor legislation was subject to a conscience vote in Parliament, just as moral issues were, which meant that MPs were subjected to furious lobbying by pro- and anti-liquor factions. Awkward compromises were struck as a result, and anomalies and inconsistencies abounded.

The bizarre law that allowed wine to be sold in supermarkets from Monday to Saturday but required it to be hidden from sight on Sundays, much to the bemusement of overseas tourists, was a classic example. Even specialist lawyers scratched their heads trying to unscramble the intricacies of legislation passed by MPs who were impelled more by last-minute lobbying than by logic.

Still, we were generally moving in the right direction, and many people (including me) welcomed these reforms as steps toward a more civilised society.

In the 1990s, alcohol consumption declined – vindicating the optimism of those who believed that if the state trusted people to drink responsibly, they would respond accordingly.

People weren’t just drinking less, they were drinking differently. They were consuming less beer and more wine, they were drinking more often with meals, and men were deserting the all-male preserve of the traditional public bar (which, in larger cities at least, is now virtually extinct) in favour of mixed company in more congenial surroundings. In other words, everything was proceeding pretty much as the proponents of reform predicted.

But then something happened. From about 1998 on, consumption began to rise again.

In our inimitable New Zealand way, we had lurched from one extreme to another – from being ludicrously over-regulated to having one of the most wide-open licensing regimes in the world. Bars were open around the clock and liquor outlets proliferated to the point where every second corner dairy had a licence.

We began hearing about an ugly phenomenon called teenage binge drinking. Getting “trolleyed” or “shit-faced” on Friday and Saturday nights became a point of pride rather than one of shame and embarrassment.

Alarm began to mount over public drunkenness, which some of us hoped had been consigned to history along with the six o’clock swill. Hospitals struggled with burgeoning alcohol-related admissions and reports of alcohol-fuelled crime became a staple news item in the Monday papers.

Now the inevitable has happened: public anxiety over alcohol has translated into political action. At the former Labour government’s request, the Law Commission under Sir Geoffrey Palmer has produced for public discussion a set of options which include reduced licensing hours, tougher drink-drive laws, higher taxes on cheap alcohol and a “split” minimum purchasing age: 18 for drinking on licensed premises and 20 for buying liquor from an off-licence.

Geoff Palmer says the commission is not advocating a return to the anti-alcohol phobia known as wowserism and we have no reason to doubt him. But the fact remains that the suggested law changes represent a partial winding-back of the liquor laws after decades of liberalisation.

It’s also true that while Geoff Palmer is no wowser, there are wowserish elements in universities, non-governmental organisations and the health bureaucracy that have lobbied vigorously for a curtailment of people’s right to make their own choices about where, when and how they drink. They are not religiously motivated like the wowsers of old, but they are no less moralistic and censorious.

The irony is that if the latter-day wowsers prevail, elements of the liquor industry will have only themselves to blame. Because rather than adjusting to the more mature and sophisticated alcohol market that began to develop in the 1990s, they greedily sought to ramp up demand for their products.

Sweet-flavoured alcopops flooded the market, taking advantage of a new cohort of naive young female drinkers. Irresponsible publicans promoted a culture of excessive consumption, targeting immature drinkers such as students. And Dominion Breweries, in a consummate marketing exercise, turned its once-obscure Tui label into a national cult brand to which young men, in particular, seem in thrall.

But while the trends of the past few years may have caused advocates of liberalisation to shake their heads in dismay, some good may come of the Law Commission’s review.

As Justice Minister Simon Power has pointed out, it presents an opportunity for a comprehensive and coherent rewrite of the liquor laws – something always thwarted in the past by the idiosyncrasies of the conscience vote, which Geoff Palmer has suggested should be abolished.

The big challenge will be devising a set of laws that doesn’t punish the majority, who are perfectly capable of drinking responsibly, for the misdeeds of the relatively small minority who don’t or can’t. Can it be done? Watch this space, as they say.

A reassuring peek inside the ABs' team culture

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, August 18.)

THE CURMUDGEON was privileged recently to be granted exclusive access to an All Blacks team meeting.

Coming after two humiliating losses to the Springboks, it was a crucial session aimed at getting the world’s greatest rugby team back on track.

NZRU officials took the unprecedented step of inviting me to observe proceedings because they were eager to counter the growing public perception that the All Blacks have gone soft and are no longer as feared by opponents as they used to be.

The only condition was that I had to guarantee anonymity to any players mentioned – a small price, I thought, for the rare opportunity to glimpse first-hand the pressures faced by our top professional sportsmen.

Team management warned me beforehand that it would be a brutal session, and so it turned out. I was shaken by its intensity.

The meeting opened with a team official launching a withering attack on player A, who had been seen in a Durban bar wearing a non-approved hair gel. The player’s excuse – that he had a new executive assistant who had packed the wrong makeup kit – was contemptuously brushed aside.

Next, player B was fined for having turned up late at a promotional appearance to launch the ABs’ new personal fragrance range, evocatively named Scrum. He tried to explain that he’d been delayed by a crisis meeting with his personal investment adviser. “I was dangerously over-exposed to commercial property and needed to strengthen my bonds and equities portfolios,” he said before impatient managers, clearly in no mood for excuses, cut him short.

The team management then turned their attention to a corrosive squabble between players C and D, caused by player C complaining that the sponsor’s car supplied to player D had leather upholstery and a GPS system while his didn’t. “We lost a lineout at Absa Stadium because you two were bickering about this and didn’t hear the call,” Graham Henry snarled.

Player E had his pay docked because he failed to turn up at a corporate golf event where one of the All Blacks’ sponsors had booked him to add a bit of star quality to their hospitality tent. Asked why he’d let the side down, Player E said he had foolishly accepted an invitation to play for his old club team that day because he felt he needed the game time after sitting on the reserves’ bench for much of the last two tests.

Player F was reminded that he’d failed to fulfil a key condition of his contract, which stipulated the number of times his name was to be mentioned in the gossip columns (with a bonus payment every time he was pictured with a hottie). On a recent Saturday night when he should have been doing the rounds of the Viaduct Basin bars, he was seen working out at a gym.

There was much more torrid stuff in the same vein, but you get the picture. I came away greatly reassured that the All Blacks’ fearsome mystique was safe.

* * *

I HAD TO smile at the 60-something gentleman photographed on the front page of this paper last week wearing a hoodie to demonstrate his solidarity with misunderstood young people.

He appears not to realise that young people who wear hoodies do so for the very purpose of differentiating themselves from everyone else. The last thing they want is to be patronised by oldies trying to appear cool by wearing the same clobber.

It’s the same with well-meaning burghers who think the answer to the boy racer problem is to provide out-of-the-way venues where they can legally do burnouts and donuts. Such people fail to understand that burnouts and donuts depend for their appeal on there being people nearby whose peace and quiet can be shattered. The moment something is sanctioned by society it loses all appeal.

Still, some good may have come from the photo of the old bloke in the hoodie. It may have convinced all self-respecting hoodie wearers under 30 to rummage through their drawers and incinerate the now fatally tainted garments.

* * *

IT’S PROBABLY too much to hope that the citizens of Tonga will decide they’ve finally had enough of their worse-than-useless monarch, who paused just long enough to mutter a few token words of condolence following the worst disaster in the country’s memory before boarding a plane bound for Scotland.

So what if more than 90 of his people had drowned? Far more important things demanded the king’s attention – like taking the salute at the Edinburgh Tattoo, where he could dress up in strange clothes and indulge in the anachronistic British pageantry of which he’s so fond.

If Tonga were any other country, enraged citizens would be digging up the airport runway to ensure this monocled popinjay can never return. Kings have been beheaded for less.

But alas, Tonga is a deeply respectful and hierarchical culture that seems willing to endure all manner of abuse from its hereditary leaders. King George’s plane had hardly left the ground before his subjects were making excuses for his indifference to their grief.

If Fidel Castro had tried to ignite revolution in Tonga, he would have slit his wrists in despair inside a week.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Les Paul, inventor of the electric guitar?

It’s amazing how casually history can be re-written in obituaries, often cobbled together in haste from library files by reporters with scant knowledge of the subject.

Most reports of the death of American electric guitar pioneer Les Paul, aged 94, give the impression he was single-handedly responsible for the creation of the solid-body electric guitar that made rock and roll possible. It’s as if Adolph Rickenbacker, Paul Bigsby, Merle Travis and (most crucially) Leo Fender never existed.

Most guitar historians agree that no one person can take credit for the “invention” of the electric guitar. Rather, it evolved over several decades. But if anyone can lay claim to the title of grandfather of the electric guitar it was surely the Swiss-born Rickenbacker (or Richenbacher, before he anglicised his name), who experimented with electrification as early as the 1930s. Rickenbacker’s company created the famous 1931 “frying pan” steel electric guitar, so named because of its shape. It was the first guitar to use electro-magnetic pickups.

Driven by the need for the guitar to be heard over other band instruments in noisy dance halls, Rickenbacker and the rival Gibson company also began putting pickups on acoustic guitars. By 1937 you could buy an electrified Gibson ES150, the model played by pioneering jazz guitarist Charlie Christian.

Country singer and guitarist Merle Travis, best known for writing Sixteen Tons (a hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford), collaborated with Paul A Bigsby in the late 1940s to produce the Bigsby-Travis guitar, a solid-bodied instrument that has been described as “closer to the modern idea of a solid electric guitar than anything that had been made before”. It was the first guitar with all its tuning pegs fitted on one side of the headstock – a feature later imitated by Fender.

So where was Les Paul (or Lester Polfus, to use his original name, which the Times obituary misspelled) while all this was going on? Well, he had tried unsuccessfully to interest Gibson in a primitive prototype solid electric guitar that he called “the Log”, made during 1939-41. But it wasn’t until 1952 that the famous Gibson Les Paul model made its debut.

By that time, Leo Fender and his partner George Fullerton had stolen a march on Les Paul by launching the Fender Broadcaster (subsequently renamed the Telecaster). Like the Gibson Les Paul, the Fender Telecaster has remained in production – and virtually unaltered in its basic appearance – ever since. The even more famous Fender Stratocaster, a design as evocative of 1950s America as the Chev Corvette, followed in 1954.

The names Rickenbacker and Bigsby also live on. Rickenbacker guitars were favoured by the early Beatles and it was a Rickenbacker 12-string that gave the Byrds’ hits their distinctive jangle. And while only a few Bigsby-Travis guitars were produced, the Bigsby vibrato unit or tremolo arm, which enabled players to bend notes, is still a standard feature on electric guitars.

But back to those obits. Perhaps overcome by sentiment on the occasion of Les Paul’s death, some obituarists have given the impression that the guitar that bears his name reigns unchallenged as the ultimate rock guitar. Pardon me?

Arguments about which is the greater guitar – the Fender Stratocaster or the Gibson Les Paul – are a bit like debates between Holden and Ford fans, and ultimately just as pointless. But judged by which guitar was more favoured by great players, the Strat would surely have the edge.

This is not to devalue Les Paul’s contribution to the electric guitar. The one thing he had over Leo Fender was that he was an accomplished musician as well as a designer, though some of his playing seemed more calculated to show off his dexterity – and his fondness for novel recording techniques – rather than his musicality.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Feeding the hungry dog


The role of the media in shaping public policy

I will preface my comments today by saying that I assume it’s taken as a given that democracy cannot function without a free and vigorous news media. Having got that out of the way, I want to focus specifically on how the behaviour of the media has fundamentally changed in the past decade or two, how the relationship between journalists and politicians has also changed, and the implications for public policy.

I’d like to talk about the model of journalistic objectivity and how it’s under threat, and how that is fundamentally altering the role of the media in public life.

I’ll start by quoting from a speech Tony Blair gave in June 2007, just before he stepped down as British prime minister. Some commentators saw this speech as Blair getting his own back on a hostile British media, but many of the points he made are almost as pertinent here as in the UK.

Blair referred to the revolutionary changes in communications technology and how they were changing the relationship between politics, public life and the media. He thought this change had a seriously adverse impact on the way public is conducted.

He had the decency to acknowledge that New Labour, by paying inordinate attention to courting and persuading the media, had been complicit in this.

Blair noted that the relationship between politicians and the media had always been fraught but went on to say that he believed it was now qualitatively and quantitatively different from anything that had gone before.

He talked about the proliferation and fragmentation of the media. The main BBC and ITV nightly news bulletins used to have audiences of eight to ten million. Now the average was half that. Viewers now had the option of watching 24-hour news programmes that covered events as they unfolded.

In 1982, Britain had three TV networks. Now there were hundreds. Newspapers were fighting for a share of a shrinking market. Many were read online, not the next day.

There were roughly 70 million blogs in existence, with 120,000 more being created every day. (Remember, Blair was talking in 2007. If anything, the pace has quickened since then.) Younger people in particular were getting less and less of their news from traditional outlets.

The forms of communication were merging and interchanging: the BBC website was crucial to the modern BBC and newspapers provided podcasts and material on the web. “News,” Blair said, “is becoming increasingly a free good, provided online without charge.”

The news schedule now ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “It moves in real time”, Blair said. “Papers don’t give you up-to-date news – that’s already out there. They have to break stories, try to lead the schedules. Or they give a commentary – and it all happens with outstanding speed.”

He recalled that when New Labour fought the 1997 election, it tackled an issue a day. By 2005 the party strategists had to have one for the morning and another for the afternoon, and by the evening the agenda had already moved on.

“Make a mistake,” Blair said, “and you frequently transfer from drama to crisis. Things harden within minutes.”

Now here’s what I consider a significant quote, and it echoed my own thoughts about what was going on in New Zealand. Blair said: “I am going to say something that few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: a vast aspect of our jobs today – as big as anything else, outside of the really major decisions – is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms.”

Not having a proper press operation to cope with media demands, he observed, was like asking a batsman to face bodyline bowling without pads or headgear. (It should be noted here that New Labour itself helped ramp up the ferocity by creating a spin factory under Alastair Campbell that was unprecedented in the history of British politics.)

Blair also talked about how Parliament was reported, or rather not reported.

“Tell me how many maiden speeches are listened to; how many excellent second reading speeches or committee speeches are covered. Except when they generate major controversy, they aren't. If you are a backbench MP today, you learn to give a press release first and a good Parliamentary speech second.”

He observed that as a result of the intense competitive pressure, the media was now driven to a dangerous degree by “impact”.

“Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamour, can get noticed.

“Impact gives competitive edge. Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact. It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unravelling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else.

“The audience needs to be arrested, held and their emotions engaged. Something that is interesting is less powerful than something that makes you angry or shocked. The consequences of this are acute. First, scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down. News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light.

“The fear of missing out means today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no-one dares miss out.”

Blair complained that commentary on the news had become as important as, if not more important than, the news itself. There was often as much interpretation of what politicians were saying as there was coverage of them saying it.

He went on to talk about the confusion of news and commentary. Comment is a perfectly respectable part of journalism, Blair noted, but it is supposed to be separate. “Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible. The truth is a large part of the media today not merely elides the two but does so now as a matter of course.”

He talked about the British media’s tendency to see everything in terms of black and white. Life's usual grey, Blair said, was almost entirely absent.

The notion that some things were good, some bad, that some things went right and some went wrong, was alien to today's reporting. “It’s a triumph or a disaster. A problem is ‘a crisis’. A setback is a policy ‘in tatters’. A criticism becomes ‘a savage attack’.”

Was it becoming worse? Blair asked. His answer was yes.

There was a time when he thought new forms of communication (I presume he meant blogs) might provide a means of bypassing the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media, but he said these new outlets could be even more pernicious, less balanced, and more intent on the latest conspiracy theory.

Blair thought that politicians and journalists alike were being dragged down by the way media and public life interacted. He made the point that trust in journalists was not much above that in politicians. But he felt there was still a market in providing serious, balanced news and a desire for impartiality. There was still a thirst for the news being real news. He felt the media needed to re-assert its own selling point, namely the distinction between news and comment.

I thought he ruined things a bit at the end of his speech by hinting that perhaps the solution to all this lay in tighter regulation. Giving more power to politicians and bureaucrats is rarely a good solution for anything. But that aside, much of what he said was valid.

I’d like to turn now to the New Zealand situation and see how much of what Blair said about Britain also applies here. In my view, quite a lot.

In the past couple of decades we have seen the function of the news media change from that of an essentially passive reporter and observer of politics to that of an active player, using its considerable power to shape and drive political events.

In effect, as I wrote in a recent column, 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.

How did this come about? Well, it probably started innocently enough, with political correspondents writing weekly columns in which they sought to interpret the week’s events for the benefit of the reader.

These columns were typically restrained and cautious, even timid by today’s standards, and rarely crossed the line between interpretation and comment. Statements of opinion remained the preserve of the newspaper editorial.

Political journalists were deferential toward politicians and took care not to say anything too provocative. Apart from anything else, they worried that this might cut off their sources of information.

As time went by, however, political correspondents shed their modesty. Some commentators have attributed this to the emergence, from the late 1960s onwards, of the byline.

Political writers who had previously hidden beyond the anonymity of titles such as Political Writer or Parliamentary Correspondent now began writing under their own names, sometimes with their photos alongside. They came to be viewed as people of influence whose opinions were noted and respected by those in power.

Columnists with the right political contacts were fed inside information. Their columns served as platforms from which ideas or initiatives could be floated without disclosing where they came from. It’s been suggested that this was the point at which some political journalists started seeing themselves as players on the political stage rather than mere observers.

It was at this point too that the nature of the relationship between politicians and journalists began to change. As the media became bolder and more aggressive, the balance of power in the relationship shifted.

Politicians realised they could no longer control the flow of information as they used to, or keep the media at bay with the occasional formal press statement or stage-managed press conference. David Lange acknowledged this in 1994 when he noted that the global reach of information now meant the voters often knew as much as the politicians.

Meanwhile the press gallery, which had traditionally been dominated by a handful of savvy senior journalists who operated very much as lone wolves, learned the benefits of hunting as a pack. Nowhere is that better illustrated than by the media scrum that waits to ambush politicians on their way to and from the debating chamber in Parliament.

John Tamihere a few years ago described politicians and journalists as having the ultimate in co-dependent abusive relationships. I actually think it’s moved beyond that. It’s no longer a relationship between equals but one in which the balance of power probably now lies with the journalists.

We now have a political climate in which both the tempo and the temperature of media coverage have increased enormously.

I’ve always compared the news business with having to feed a hungry dog. The difference is that 20 years ago you needed to feed the dog only twice a day. Now the pressure of the news cycle is such that the dog demands to be fed around the clock. And it’s a big ugly dog now, not just a goofy, good-natured labrador.

Newspapers used to come out in the morning and the evening. They still do, but now there’s pressure on reporters to constantly update their websites. TV and radio have discovered this thing called “Breaking News” to create an aura of drama and excitement.

The ridiculous insistence on TV journalists reporting live from the scene, even if they’re incapable of coherently stringing three words together, is part of the same phenomenon.

The story must never be allowed to go cold or solidify. It must be driven on with new angles. The pressure to be ahead of the competition is intense, which is why we saw the extraordinary spectacle of TVNZ newsreader Wendy Petrie triumphantly punching the air when she reported live from outside the Christchurch High Court while waiting for the David Bain verdict.

She didn’t even have anything to report, for God’s sake; she was just saying, “Here we are waiting for the verdict”. But the fact that she got this piece of non-information to air ahead of TV3 was apparently cause for jubilation. This is how bad it’s got.

During the course of my 40 years in journalism the media have moved from being essentially reactive – by which I mean the media respectfully waited for the politicians to announce things – to the point where they now call the shots.

The political agenda is largely driven by the beat-up du jour – the political story of the moment, as determined by political reporters and editors. Political news has become just another spectator sport.

Last week it was Paula Bennett and Roger Douglas’s holiday in Britain. The week before that it was Clayton Weatherston and the government’s decision to strike the defence of provocation from the statute books. This week, who knows?

Politicians feel they have to respond to whatever crisis or firestorm the media create. As a result I suspect a lot of policy decisions are made on the trot, largely to extinguish the latest media bushfire.

I mentioned Simon Power’s recent announcement that provocation would no longer be available as a defence in murder cases. He said that move had been under consideration by National since 2007, but who couldn’t be struck by the coincidence that it was announced in the very week that the nation was outraged by saturation media coverage of the Weatherston trial? Was it a carefully considered decision, or was it an opportunistic one driven by the media focus on a sensational murder case?

This might sound odd coming from a journalist, but I believe politicians spend far too much time reacting to media pressure

No politicians in New Zealand history have spent more time talking to journalists than Helen Clark and John Key. Key seems to be on tap virtually 24/7, as Clark was. Politicians used to be distant and aloof; political reporters would go for weeks without an opportunity to question the prime minister. Now journalists consider it their right to accost politicians at all times and in all places and thrust a microphone in their faces.

Part of me applauds this, because democracy can’t function properly if politicians aren’t held accountable by the media. But as with so many issues, it’s a matter of getting the balance right. And I believe we’ve gone from one extreme to the other; from the timid, deferential media of 40 years ago to the aggressive, impatient and even arrogant media of today.

I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy over the past 20 years to defending freedom of the press. No one believes more firmly than I do in a bold and robust news media. But as well as being a journalist I’m also a citizen, a taxpayer and a voter, and I don’t elect politicians to spend so much of their precious time dancing to a tune called by the media. We live in a country that is desperately in need of courageous, far-sighted government, and I don’t believe we can get it while our leaders are preoccupied with responding to the demands of the daily news cycle.

I’d like to turn now to the sorts of stories that drive the political agenda.

Political journalists and their editors have always determined what is news – there’s nothing new there. But as competition for viewers and readers has intensified, the underlying values and priorities considered in making those judgments have changed.

If you go back three or four decades, political journalism was largely about nuts-and-bolts stuff: select committee hearings, parliamentary debates, speeches and other set pieces. It was dull but worthy. Now the nightly TV news bulletin has morphed into another form of entertainment, complete with its own celebrities in the form of newsreaders and reporters.

Across all the news media, but on TV in particular, news is selected not so much on the basis of what matters most but rather what is most likely to provoke outrage, fear, anger, sympathy, disgust or anxiety. Tony Blair mentioned this too.

Stories that are likely to evoke strong emotional responses or tug on the viewers’ heartstrings – items about tragedy or crime, for example, or stories with clearly identifiable heroes and villains – are played up to the max, complete with cues as to how we should react to them. Judy Bailey was perfectly suited to this approach, reading the news in the manner of a teacher addressing a classroom of slow learners, and using facial expressions or tone of voice to indicate how we should respond emotionally. Brian Edwards called it the coochie-coo news.

In terms of political journalism, stories involving conflict and personalities will always make the cut ahead of others that may have deeper and more significant implications. Politicians are often reduced to stamping out bushfires fanned by the media when there may be more crucial issues requiring their attention.

And of course nothing excites the press gallery more than the scent of blood from a wounded politician. Gaffes and minor indiscretions that in a previous era would have passed unnoticed or been smoothed over are now mercilessly exploited by journalists eager to claim a scalp. Just ask National MP Melissa Lee, who must still be licking her wounds after the punishment she took during the Mt Albert by election. Or Don Brash, who was made an object of ridicule by endless TV replays of him teetering on a narrow gangplank, as if this rendered him unfit for office.

Another feature of television, in particular, is the low regard it has for the public intellect. One of the reasons why easily digestible news stories crowd out more complex, nuanced ones is that TV editors are convinced viewers have the attention span of goldfish. They worry about losing their audience if any item runs longer than two minutes – unless of course it happens to be about Michael Jackson or the new GI Joe movie.

Tony Blair also mentioned the confusion of news and commentary. That too applies in New Zealand.

One of the fundamental tenets of journalistic objectivity is that a clear separation should be maintained between news and comment, but we have seen a gradual blurring of what was once a sharp line that divided the two.

It’s now routine for political news and opinion to be so intermingled that it’s impossible to disentangle one from the other. TV3’s political editor Duncan Garner typically spends as much time commenting on what has happened as he does reporting it.

To me there is an element of disrespect for democracy here. The role of the journalist as I see it is to tell people what’s happening, to the best of your ability, but not to tell them what to make of it. They are smart enough to make up their own minds about that. As someone once put it, the role of the journalist is to be the eyes and ears of the people – not their brains.

I don’t want to single out Duncan Garner. It used to be the norm for print journalists to write straight political news stories during the week and then write a column on Saturday or Monday in which they felt free to interpret what was happening and even offer cautious comment.

The virtue of that practice was that the readers knew which was news and which was comment. But political reporters in the print media as well as in broadcasting now routinely combine news with comment in the same article, to the extent that it’s sometimes difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. And the trend has been exacerbated by blogs in which political editors are encouraged to tell us what they think.

So what’s happening is that the model of the journalist as passive observer is under threat. Many journalists, particularly in the political sphere, now see themselves as active players in the political process.

Some see it as part of their function to make things happen. That’s not my idea of how democracy is to supposed to work. Journalists are unelected and unaccountable to anyone but their editors; it’s a perversion of the democratic model for them to be actively driving the political process.

We have also seen an increasing tendency for current affairs hosts and interviewers to take a partisan line. It seems Paul Holmes is incapable of interviewing anyone on Q + A – whether it’s on folic acid in bread or the smacking of children – without letting us know what he thinks. When you’re a celebrity, as Holmes is, it’s no longer enough to conduct an interview with the aim of extracting information or illuminating an issue; you’re entitled to consider yourself an opinion leader.

We’re also seeing more advocacy journalism – journalists pushing issues, taking sides and getting directly involved in the controversies they’re covering. Again, it’s most noticeable on television, probably because that’s where the competition is fiercest.

One recent example was John Campbell and his crew attending the after-trial party for David Bain. It just looked too chummy for comfort. Knowing how carefully Joe Karam controlled the publicity surrounding Bain you can’t help but wonder what sort of conditions were imposed.

So, to wrap up. Are journalists exerting too much influence on the political agenda? Yes, I think they are. Politicians spend too much of their time responding to the demands of an increasingly intense and competitive news machine, and we have to ask whether that’s a proper use of their energy and talents.

We need to remind ourselves that political journalists are driven more than ever by the need to win ratings and readership. They are not, as a rule, concerned with pursuing sound, long-term policy objectives. Politicians, however, need to be. That’s what we elect them for.

I’m not suggesting we regress to an earlier era when politicians treated the media with contempt and talked to them only when it suited them to do so. As with so many things, it’s all a question of balance.

What’s the solution? Well, I think Tony Blair was getting close to it before he got sidetracked by the temptation of regulatory intervention.

The model that has underpinned journalistic practice in liberal western democracies for the past hundred years is journalistic objectivity.

This means journalists are supposed to report the news accurately, fairly and impartially. It requires that we strive for balance in the way we report issues – in other words, that we fairly represent the views of all parties with a significant interest in whatever issue we are covering. It means journalists are supposed to keep their own views out of their work, unless what they are writing is clearly identified as opinion or comment. And it stresses the importance of keeping news and comment separate, so that there’s no chance of the news being contaminated by the journalist’s own views.

Objectivity also calls for a certain detachment. It sees the journalist not as an active participant in affairs but as an observer and reporter. I should emphasise that this doesn’t preclude bold and vigorous reporting. The Washington Post’s exposure of the Watergate scandal was completely in line with the principles of objectivity; so was the Dominion Post’s reporting on Donna Awatere Huata, Clint Rickards and his mates, Winston Peters and his secret donors, the Urewera terrorism raids and Tony Veitch.

All these stories were based on verifiable facts and in every case there was a compelling public interest in knowing about them. So it’s wrong to suggest, as some people do, that an objective media is somehow tame and timid.

I would suggest that another great virtue of objectivity is that it respects the right and the ability of readers – or listeners or viewers, as the case may be – to consider the facts and make up their own minds. It is not the function of journalism to usurp people’s ability to figure things out for themselves. In fact I would suggest that political reporters based in the hothouse of the Parliamentary Press Gallery are almost uniquely ill-qualified to know what people in places like Timaru or Hastings or Whangarei make of politics.

I believe that whatever credibility and public confidence the news media enjoy is largely dependent on the extent to which we play by those rules of journalistic objectivity. It follows that we bend the rules at our peril. Thank you.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Key's cycleway plan has wheels

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 5.)

Apparently John Key hasn’t ridden a bike since his school days. Metaphorically speaking, that may explain why his cycleway plan looked decidedly wobbly at first.

At the February jobs summit, the national cycleway was touted as just that – a virtually unbroken cycling route stretching from the Far North to Bluff.

It was oversold politically and Key’s shiny new bike, sans trainer wheels, appeared to be weaving unsteadily toward a muddy ditch. Labour waited in gleeful anticipation of a humiliating face-plant.

Perhaps over-eager to show the jobs summit wasn’t just a pointless talkfest, the government greatly overstated the cycleway’s potential to create jobs while conveniently under-estimating the cost.

It quickly became apparent that $50 million, the figure initially bandied about, wouldn’t even begin to cover the planning, land acquisition and construction costs.

Critics ridiculed it as airy-fairy, pie-in-the-sky stuff. For a while it looked as if the national cycleway would become the National-led government’s first seriously embarrassing failure.

But Key regained control of his wayward two-wheeler and last week a greatly scaled-down cycleway plan emerged. It consists of seven cycle tracks, some of them partly in existence already, at an estimated cost of $9 million. About 300 jobs will be created, less than 10 percent of the optimistic figure first mentioned in February.

The plan for a national cycleway running the length of the country hasn’t been shelved; it has simply been broken into manageable, bite-sized chunks that will be tackled as resources permit. The toned-down PR that accompanied last week’s announcement portrayed the project not as a miracle cure for unemployment but more realistically emphasised its potential as a tourism booster and economic stimulant in some our more isolated regions.

What’s interesting is that much of the scorn that greeted the idea following the jobs summit in February seems to have evaporated. This suggests that while people were justifiably sceptical about the over-hyped Mk. 1 version, they see the revised model as achievable.

The reaction from councils in the districts where the first tracks are to be built was positively euphoric. Significantly, the cycleway also got enthusiastic endorsement from the Greens – demonstrating, again, Key’s ability to reach across traditional political divides.

One can almost sense Labour’s despair that the cycleway, which only months ago looked perilously close to being stillborn, could yet become a political winner for Key and National.

It’s not going too far to say it has the potential to become a defining achievement of this government – admittedly not one on a scale to match the first Labour Government’s state housing programme, or the radical deregulation carried out by Roger Douglas in the 1980s. But there is a visionary element to it all the same, and the timing – always crucial in politics – seems right.

Only agriculture rivals tourism for economic importance to New Zealand. People already come from all over the world to enjoy our spectacular, relatively unspoiled scenery. But the cycleway plan has the potential to exploit a powerful new dynamic in tourism: the desire for the feel-good factor that comes with being healthy and environmentally friendly.

If this type of tourism can work anywhere, it should work in New Zealand. Access to some of our most beautiful and remote country is limited because the fractured topography makes it difficult and expensive to build highways. But many back-country areas were opened up in the 19th century for logging and mining, and many of the tracks created then still exist.

In other hard-to-reach parts of the country, access roads were built from the 1930s onwards to allow the construction of electricity transmission lines. Many of these routes are rideable – or could be, with relatively little work.

I know because I’ve ridden some of them myself. My mountain bike has taken me to breathtakingly beautiful, out-of-the-way places that most New Zealanders never see. You could reach them on foot, but walking is too slow (and, dare I say it, too boring) for all but the seriously committed tramper. On a bike, you can cover surprising distances while still rejoicing in the magnificent landscapes and relishing the silence and solitude.

Examples? The 42 Traverse through wild bush country in the Central North Island, so named because it passes through what was once State Forest 42; the spectacular 112 km Rainbow road, which cuts through soaring mountain ranges and lonely tussock high country between North Canterbury and Nelson; the Dunstan Trail, along which gold miners travelled through the Rock and Pillar Range to get to the Central Otago goldfields (in places, you can still see the ruts left by their wagon wheels); and the Maungatapu Track, once the main route from Marlborough to Nelson, now a pylon maintenance road that takes you past Murderers’ Rock, scene of one of New Zealand’s most infamous crimes.

Then there are the routes that cyclists are currently barred from due to opposition from trampers, such as the Heaphy Track, which with relatively little effort could be adapted for dual use.

I could go on. In the central North Island and in the ranges north of Wellington – and doubtless in many other parts of the country too – there are mazes of old forestry tracks, mostly still in good nick. Abandoned railway lines offer potential too, as in the Rimutaka range north of Upper Hutt, where specially designed steam engines once hauled trains up the Rimutaka Incline.

In the South Wairarapa, there’s potential – with co-operation from landowners – to create a spectacular ride along one of New Zealand’s wildest coastlines. The tracks are there.

These are just some of the routes I’m familiar with personally; doubtless there are many more. Even as I’m writing this, I bet local cycling organisations and council planners all over the country are poring over maps and drawing up proposals.

It’s not wildly fanciful to visualise New Zealand as a recreational cyclists’ mecca, with all the economic benefits that conjures up. The hugely successful Central Otago rail trail gives just a hint of the possibilities.

Friday, August 7, 2009

To heck with constitutional niceties, I say

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, August 4.)

IT WAS unfortunate that media coverage of Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias’s recent speech about crime and punishment focused on the constitutional propriety of the country’s top judge straying into territory usually reserved for politicians.

To heck with constitutional niceties, I say. The issues raised in Dame Sian’s thoughtful speech to women lawyers were far more important than the fact that she trod on Justice Minister Simon Power’s toes. But that was the angle most of the media went with.

Regardless of whether you share Dame Sian’s contentious view that imprisonment doesn’t work, and more controversially that criminals are the victims of circumstance, there is an important debate to be had about crime and punishment. The views of the Chief Justice are surely worth hearing.

Having said that, it was a politically provocative speech and it’s hard to believe Dame Sian didn’t know she was stepping into a minefield.

It wasn’t just the fact that she was trespassing on his turf that rattled the usually affable Mr Power. Dame Sian wasn’t only out of step with public and political sentiment about the need to put offenders behind bars, but directly challenged the belief that criminals have power over their own lives.

Commenting on a 2001 government report about the need for targeted intervention to prevent socially and economically disadvantaged people turning into criminals, she noted that the report had languished – “partly, one suspects, because in a punitive climate which stresses individual responsibility and is intolerant of excuses, the idea that many offenders do not have much of chance is not a welcome thought.”

It was hard to see this as anything but a condemnation of government policy, which has responded to public anxiety about crime by putting more people behind bars.

What made Dame Sian’s speech even more pointed, politically, was that it was delivered in honour of the late Shirley Smith, a feisty left-wing barrister – the wife of Dr Bill Sutch – who championed the underprivileged, and for whom Dame Sian expressed unalloyed admiration.

Whoever said 1970s-style Wadestown (or in this case Remuera) liberalism was dead?

* * *

IN THEIR efforts to counter the unremitting barrage of anti-smacking propaganda from state-backed organisations such as Barnardos, the backers of the smacking referendum are mincing their words almost to the point of dishonesty.

Answering questions from a hostile Paul Holmes on TVNZ’s Q + A (we keenly await the Holmes Guide to Parenting), Sheryl Savill from Focus on the Family, who initiated the referendum, talked about giving children a “light smack” and was at pains to insist this was not something good parents do when they are angry.

Why pussyfoot around on this issue? Let’s be honest – a “light smack” is hardly more than a pat. It won’t deter a child who’s running amok.

And where’s the harm in admitting that parents smack kids when they’re angry? A child is less likely to be traumatised by a smack administered in exasperation than one given in a cold, ritualised punishment session of the type favoured by religious oddballs.

A sharp smack from a parent whose patience has run out is nature’s way of showing a child that there’s a price to pay for bad behaviour. As a perceptive correspondent recently wrote in this paper, evolution has come up with a very effective means by which animal species provide their offspring with a potent warning about consequences. “It’s called pain.”

This doesn’t mean parents are free to fly into a homicidal rage and start bashing their children around the head with a piece of four by two. The irony, of course, is that the type of parent who does this isn’t going to be deterred for a moment by what the law says. The 13 children who have been killed since the Bradford Bill passed are proof of that.

* * *

IT’S A MEASURE of how public emotion overcame reason in the Clayton Weatherston case that many people seemed to transfer their revulsion from the defendant to his lawyers.

Lead defence counsel Judith Ablett-Kerr QC has been reviled for the way she conducted the case. People seemed to assume that because she defended Weatherston, Mrs Ablett-Kerr condoned his behaviour. But isn’t a barrister professionally obliged to do his or her utmost, within ethical limits, to get an acquittal (or in this case, a manslaughter verdict)?

It’s a fundamental principle of our justice system that even the most contemptible criminal is entitled to a defence. Dirty work, but someone has to do it.

The same applies to the defence’s use of Sophie Elliott’s intimate diary entries, which provoked public outrage. People should get real: courtrooms can be brutal places. Defence lawyers wouldn’t get very far if they fretted about offending people’s sensibilities.

I’m not sure that Mrs Ablett-Kerr is the sort of person I would want to go on holiday with. But if I were accused of murder, I’d probably feel reassured to have her as my barrister.

No Kiwis dead? Ah well, no story

I have been appalled by our media’s casual approach to the tragedy in Tonga, where latest reports indicate as many as 62 people may have drowned following the sinking of the ferry Princess Ashika.

In radio news bulletins yesterday the sinking was generally ranked about fourth or fifth in terms of news significance, although even then it was clear the death toll was likely to be catastrophic. Freeloading politicians were the story of the day and nothing was going to displace it.

Tonga is one of our nearest neighbours and there are more than 50,000 Tongans living in New Zealand. The links could hardly be closer.

To gauge the scale of this disaster, consider this: Tonga has a population of 120,000. I’m no mathematician, but by my calculation 64 deaths in a country that size is the equivalent of more than 2000 deaths in New Zealand. In other words, this is a tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions. Tonga will be stunned.

In a speech in Auckland earlier this week I joked about the sliding scale by which news editors (and I used to be one) judge the news impact of disasters. A crowded train crashing into a ravine in Bangladesh killing 200 people is probably rated as having the same news value in New Zealand as a bus crash on a Sydney freeway that kills three, which in turn merits about the same amount of newspaper space as a house fire in Blenheim that kills the family dog. I exaggerate, of course, but you get the idea.

Even by this cynical journalistic yardstick, I think the Tongan tragedy has been grossly underplayed.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the coverage – and it’s all too typical of the way we react to overseas disasters – was TV3’s report last night in which the main interest was whether there was a New Zealander on board the doomed ship. If not – ah well, no story.

I note that today's New Zealand Herald devoted an entire story to Daniel McMillan, the New Zealand-based Scotsman who apparently died in the sinking. Mr McMillan also took up a big chunk of the Dominion Post's report of the tragedy, which ran on page 3.

What does this say about us? It's almost as if death matters only when it happens to New Zealanders - or in this case, to a white man who happened to be living here temporarily.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Jack Darmody would have approved

Australian police are reportedly furious at Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper The Australian for supposedly jeopardising this week’s anti-terrorism raids. Someone tipped the paper off about the raids in advance, forcing the police to bring the operation forward. According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, police claimed that copies of the paper carrying details of the raids were circulating before the last arrests were made. Now the hunt is on for the leaker.

If it’s true – and The Australian denies that the story was out before the raids took place – then it’s simply carrying on a great Australian newspaper tradition.

In 1969 a legendary old-school Melbourne police reporter named Jack Darmody learned that police were closing in on Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, who was living quietly with his wife Charmian and three children in an outer Melbourne suburb. Biggs had fled to Australia after escaping from prison in Britain in 1965 and was later joined by his family.

Darmody, whose contacts were impeccable, got the tipoff from sources at Russell St police headquarters. His story was splashed over the front page of Melbourne Truth hours before the raid was to take place – just enough time for friends to tip Biggs off and enable him to make his getaway. Several weeks later he turned up in Brazil.

According to Wikipedia, it was a Reuters correspondent who broke the story of the impending raid, which was then picked up by Channel Nine and headlined its six o’clock news. But that’s not my recollection, and it also conflicts with the obituaries written when Darmody died in 2006.

Darmody was a tough hack of the old school – a virtually extinct breed that I referred to in passing in my speech to Agcarm last month, reproduced below.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

To use a cliche, it's a work in progress

(A speech given to the annual conference of Agcarm, Wellington, July 23.)

I want to talk to you today in very broad terms about how journalism and the news media are changing. Because they are changing at an unprecedented rate and we don’t yet know where that change is going to lead.

Some of the changes are positive, some less so. I’ll work through those changes as I go.

What’s important to grasp is that these changes don’t concern only the people employed in the media. They affect everyone in this room, because democracy depends to a very large extent on how well journalists and the media do their job.

Democracy can’t function without an informed public, which is why the work of journalists – whether we like it or not – is vital to us all.

Let me start by taking you back to 1968, the year I entered journalism as a cadet reporter for the Evening Post.

Back then, all four major cities still had an evening newspaper. The impact of television was just starting to bite. People were still in the habit of coming home at night and reading the paper.

Newspapers were conservative, complacent and prosperous. Classified advertising generated rivers of gold – remember those Saturday papers full of To Let ads and Cars for Sale?

Newspapers were passive gatherers of news. Reporters attended press conferences, covered courts and council meetings, turned news releases into stories and made daily calls on the police, the fire brigade and the ambulance service.

As a cadet reporter on the Evening Post, I was one of a team that covered every case that came before the Wellington Magistrate’s Court. On busy mornings we would occupy the entire press bench – as many as seven or eight of us, under the supervision of an older reporter named Fran Kitching, better known to some of you as Fran Wilde. (Fran of course later became a cabinet minister and mayor of Wellington, and now chairs the Greater Wellington Regional Council.)

If some of those court stories took days or even weeks to get into the paper, it didn’t matter. There was no great sense of urgency.

You couldn’t operate like that now. There are so many people coming before the courts that newspapers have to pick and choose which cases they cover.

On a typical day I’d guess the Dominion Post has two, maybe three, reporters to keep an eye on all the courts in Wellington, from the District Court right up to the Supreme Court, which means a lot of court news goes unreported.

In Britain, the journalist Nick Davies wrote last year that you’re just as likely to see a zebra in court as you are to see a reporter. It’s not quite that bad here. But it does raise quite serious questions if you believe, as I do, that press coverage of the courts is vital in an open society and can serve as a check on the abuse of judicial power. Police have told me it can also be an effective anti-crime tool, as there’s still an element of public shame in being named in a court story, especially in a smaller community where everyone knows you.

Looking back, things were pretty cruisy for journalists in the sixties, though we mightn’t have thought so at the time. Reporters didn’t do a lot of digging and they didn’t see it as their job to make life uncomfortable for politicians.

What we now call investigative journalism was still several years away. The phrase wouldn’t enter the popular vocabulary until after Watergate in 1972.

The newspaper business then was highly risk-averse. It was rare for a newspaper, other than the weekly scandal-monger Truth, to consult lawyers over potentially unsafe stories (and Truth had the advantage that it was owned by the country’s leading defamation lawyer, one Jimmy Dunn).

As a general rule, stories that were likely to cause trouble just didn’t get written. The mainstream press enjoyed healthy sales figures and saw no need to win readers by taking risks.

The only time the stops were pulled out was when a major news story broke unexpectedly, such as the Tangiwai disaster in 1953 or the sinking of the Wahine in 1968.

By way of a digression, I still remember the optimistic front-page headline on the first edition of the Evening Post that came out on the day the Wahine sank. It said: Wahine founders in harbour; one dead?

The Evening Post in those days was unique in that it devoted only half of the front page to news; the bottom half was classified advertising. The owners, Blundell Brothers, dithered for years over whether to join the popular trend and put news on the front page instead of classifieds, and eventually they decided on an extraordinary compromise: news on the top half, ads on the bottom.

I seem to recall that even when the Wahine sank, the ads stayed on page one for at least the first couple of editions before it was decided the news that day was so important it deserved to occupy the whole page.

Tragedies aside, the most testing event for a newspaper back then was likely to be a royal tour, which required all available resources to be mobilised.

I remember that when the Queen toured New Zealand in 1970, virtually every reporter and photographer on the Dominion – where I had moved by then – was assigned to cover her every move. That gives you some idea of how news values, to say nothing of cultural attitudes, have changed in the ensuing four decades.

That was the era when every city had its own journalists’ pub. The Journalists Union newspaper even listed the pubs you could go to in every city if you wanted to meet other journos.

In Wellington it was the Britannia in Willis St, which was conveniently close to both the Dominion and the Evening Post. Drinking was an essential part of the journalism culture, partly because there was so much spare time in which to do it.

By two o’clock on a typical afternoon the public bar of the Brit was filling up with Evening Post journalists who were finished for the day. Many of them were still there at six, by which time journalists from the Dom were drifting in – though I have to say there wasn’t a great deal of fraternal goodwill between the two papers and they tended to drink in separate groups.

Newspapers back then didn’t have to be aggressive in pursuit of news because there was little competitive pressure to beat anyone else. There was no city where two newspapers went head to head, by which I mean two morning or two evening papers directly competing with each other. It was all very cosy.

As a general rule, newspapers didn’t like to rock the boat. They were respectful and even subservient toward politicians, and they were conservative in their editorial stances.

There were just one or two editors back then who were prepared to break ranks and take risks. The late Frank Haden, then editor of the Sunday Times, upset his proprietors by opposing the Vietnam War and publishing pictures of a topless Carmen.

At the Sunday News, Alan Hitchens caused a sensation before the 1972 general election by urging his readers to vote Labour. It was rare for a New Zealand paper to suggest that its readers vote a particular way at all, let alone that they vote Labour. And to make things worse Alan put it on the front-page under the banner headline, Big Norman, You’re Our Man!.

Television news was still finding its feet then. In fact broadcasting generally – radio as well as TV – was still struggling to liberate itself from political control.

Right through until the end of the Muldoon era, state-employed broadcasting journalists were subject to a high degree of political interference and intimidation. Even print journalists were subjected to harassment in the Muldoon era, as Tom Scott would be happy to tell you.

I mention all this just to demonstrate how radically the whole media scene has changed in the ensuing decades.

The first casualty of the changing environment was the metropolitan evening newspaper. New Zealanders who once came home from work and read the paper now came home and watched TV.

Dunedin lost its evening paper in the 1970s. Christchurch went the same way in the following decade and it was Auckland’s turn in the early 90s. Even the ground-breaking investigative journalism of Pat Booth and his team, who uncovered the Mr Asia saga, wasn’t enough to save the Auckland Star.

The last survivor was the Evening Post, which valiantly held on until its merger with the Dominion in 2002.

But enough about dead newspapers. I’d like to talk now about the ones that have survived, and how they’ve changed.

Survival of the fittest applies in journalism just as it does anywhere else. Newspapers today are far more aggressive, far more competitive, far more prepared to push the envelope and take risks.

The Dominion – or the Dominion Post as it is now – provides a good case study. In the early 1980s the Dom was a sick puppy, under-resourced and demoralised. The owners, INL, realised the paper needed urgent remedial attention.

To do this they hired a new editor from Britain, Geoff Baylis. Now Geoff came from a newspaper environment where journalists weren’t accustomed to being intimidated by politicians, and he made it clear quite early in the piece that he was prepared to stand up to Robert Muldoon. In fact Muldoon once told an interviewer that one of his greatest regrets was allowing Geoff into the country. The irony was that the government had given INL a special dispensation to do it, on the basis that there was no New Zealand journalist available with Geoff’s credentials.

Alan Burnet, who was managing director of INL at the time, told me a couple of years ago that Muldoon once rang him and demanded that he fire Baylis. Burnet politely but firmly told him where to go. Muldoon, who was nothing if not vindictive, later vetoed Alan Burnet’s name when it was put forward for a knighthood. Join the dots.

Now I invite you to fast-forward and look at some of the stories the Dominion Post has published in more recent years under the editorship of Tim Pankhurst.

Donna Awatere Huata, Clint Rickards and Tony Veitch wouldn’t need any reminding about the impact the Dominion Post has had on their lives. These were sensational stories that carried a high level of risk, but all were based on verifiable facts and in every case there was a compelling public interest in knowing about them. The fact that not one of those people sued the paper speaks for itself. Truth is a complete defence under defamation law.

A newspaper like The Dominion Post has lawyers on call around the clock. On big investigative stories, a lawyer will virtually take up residence in the office and work through all the material with the reporter. The paper must have run up eye-watering legal bills on the stories I’ve just mentioned, and there were others too.

The Dom Post was ahead of the pack in exposing secret donations to New Zealand First and it took a massive risk publishing confidential police transcripts about the so-called Terror Raids in the Urewera. Tim Pankhurst ended up before the High Court on a contempt charge, which he successfully defended.

My point is that stories like these were virtually unheard of 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Newspapers just didn’t have the balls to tackle them.

There were some honourable and courageous exceptions. I think you have to give credit to Pat Booth and his coverage of the Arthur Allan Thomas case for the Auckland Star in the 1970s for demonstrating that newspapers had a role in exposing wrongdoing and injustice when official checks and balances failed.

Another measure of how things have changed is that 40 years ago, most reporters would have had only a vague idea of what their paper’s daily sales were.

These days if you walk into the newsroom at the Dominion Post you see yesterday’s billboard prominently displayed along with a figure showing how many copies of that day’s paper were sold. Journalists who once thought it was beneath their dignity to worry about sales now realise their livelihoods depend on people continuing to buy the paper.

Ironically free-to-air TV, which killed off so many evening papers, is now fighting to retain its own news audience, because the past decade has seen the biggest information revolution since the invention of the printing press.

Information has never been more abundant, immediate or accessible. Thanks to the Net and satellite TV we can pick and choose our information sources as never before. There’s so much out there, and so freely available, that it’s been compared with trying to drink from a firehose.

The implications of this are huge and I’d like to discuss just a few.

In broad terms, the information revolution represents a profound shift of power from the so-called gatekeepers to the consumer. I think that’s a plus, though with caveats that I’ll come to shortly.

Who are – or were – these gatekeepers? First and foremost they were politicians, who have now been forced to accept that they can’t control information the way they used to.

Prime ministers were once able to keep the media under control, effectively telling them only what they wanted them to know. But as the late David Lange perceptively remarked as long ago as 1994, the global reach of information now is such that voters often know as much as the politicians. That makes it far less likely that the politicians are going to pull the wool over our eyes. In western democracies we have had never had a better-informed, more savvy public. That’s a plus.

The other main set of gatekeepers was the so-called mainstream media, or “old” media. By that I mean traditional news outlets such as newspapers, TV channels and radio stations. They controlled the news supply and could pick and choose what to publish. But the worldwide web has enabled the news consumer to cut out the middleman and select his or her own sources of information.

Is this also a plus? In most respects, I think the answer is yes. You can hardly have too much information. The digital information revolution has empowered people to seek out their own information and opinions, which is a good thing. And of course the blogosphere has introduced millions – in fact tens of millions – of new voices to the democratic ferment.

The old-style shapers of public opinion, and I include newspaper columnists like me, no longer have the field to themselves. That’s a good thing too, even if much of the debate on the blogosphere is of pretty poor quality.

If I have one misgiving about this revolution, it’s that there is a risk people will gravitate toward websites and blogs that reinforce their own world views.

One great advantage of the mainstream newspaper is that it presents its readers with a wide range of information and opinion. If you’re a hard-core conservative, it does you no harm to pick up your morning paper and read a left-wing opinion piece. And of course the same applies in reverse.

It might make you choke on your toast but it might also make you recognise that there’s more than one way of looking at things. So in that respect I think an objective mainstream press such as we have in New Zealand is good for democracy.

The danger is that people going to the worldwide web will go to sites and blogs that mirror their own views, and therefore won’t be exposed to a wide range of information and opinion that might challenge their preconceptions. A lot of the blogs I access, both of the left and right, are wildly one-eyed and extremely intolerant of opposing views. Is that good for democracy? I’m not so sure.

I should mention here that the mainstream media has many critics, mostly from the left, who can’t wait to dance on its grave. They are gripped by a paranoid fantasy in which the media is controlled by ruthless press barons who have engaged in a global conspiracy to keep people in the dark. In fact I think the “old” media, by and large, have been very conscientious about exercising their responsibilities fairly, accurately and impartially. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the mainstream media are now facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Most of you will be aware that in America, long-established papers are closing. Others have lost circulation and shed staff. There are similar trends in Britain, though not as severe, and newspapers are experiencing lean times here too.

To some extent this can be attributed to the usual cyclical swings of capitalism, exacerbated in some cases by corporate folly and greed. But there’s no doubt the effects have been magnified by the drift to the Internet, both of readers and of advertising.

Where this is going to lead is anyone’s guess, but in the meantime newspapers are scrambling to find a solution to the crisis. In some cases I suspect they may be digging themselves into a bigger hole.

Some editors have decided the solution is to reach out to a broader audience – by which I mean a younger, predominantly female demographic – by carrying more news about celebrities, entertainment and lifestyles. Soft journalism, latte journalism; lightweight personality stories and endless articles about fashion and food.

My fear is that in doing so, they run the risk of alienating their most loyal core of readers – who tend to be older people – without necessarily picking up enough new ones to make the exercise worthwhile. Of course I could be wrong.

Most papers have also been panicked into putting all their content onto the Net where it can be accessed free. The corollary of this, which is so obvious it hardly needs to be pointed out, is that if people can access content free on the Net, then why should they buy the paper? How long newspaper proprietors will tolerate this suicidal tactic remains to be seen. I note that Rupert Murdoch, who’s usually one or two steps ahead of the pack, is now saying it’s time the news aggregators on the Web stopped getting a free ride.

Some newspapers are holding up reasonably well. Provincial papers seem to be doing a better job of hanging on to their readers than papers in the bigger centres.

I think the reason for that is clear: no one is seriously competing with these papers in terms of local news, which is their lifeblood. The same is true of free community newspapers, which have been a growth sector in the industry. What people in smaller cities and towns most want to know is what’s happening in their own communities. These are the sectors of the media that are least threatened by the Net, because local news, parish-pump news, isn’t seen as sexy.

Now let me talk about some of the other ways in which the media industry is different from when I started.

Journalists have changed. They are younger, better educated and more earnest. They don’t drink as much and I suspect they don’t have as much fun, though they might dispute that.

Today’s typical journalist has a university degree, which was extremely rare when I started out.

Most have also acquired a specialist journalism qualification, which is more or less mandatory now, though whether that makes them better journalists is a moot point. Some of us older hands lament the fact that journalism no longer seems to have room for the mongrel – the roughie who often sneaked into journalism through the back door, but had a natural talent for writing and could sniff out a good story 10 kilometres away.

Warren Berryman, founder of the Independent, was one of those – he was a former crayfish poacher. Another was Kevin Sinclair OBE, who as a teenager was steered into a messenger’s job at the Evening Post by a kindly probation officer in the Wellington Magistrate’s Court, where Kevin was appearing on a vandalism charge. Kevin went on to become a legend in one of the more colourful outposts of English-language journalism, Hong Kong.

When I look around a newsroom these days, it seems there’s no one over 40. All the old journalists have crawled off to die somewhere.

This is not entirely a bad thing because in the old days, many newsrooms operated on a hierarchical basis largely dictated by age rather than ability. The Evening Post seemed full of grey heads when I started there.

But there’s a downside too, and that’s the loss of institutional memory. There’s a place for the crusty old sub-editor who knows what year the first Labour government was elected, and how many tests the All Blacks lost in South Africa in 1949, and who can save smart-arse younger journalists from embarrassing mistakes.

Journalists today are required to have a much broader range of skills. In my day all you needed was a notebook, a pen and a basic grasp of shorthand – a very basic grasp in my case. Those are still necessary tools but now reporters must be multiskilled.

They are trained to shoot video so they can upload it on to their newspaper’s website, and to tape interviews so that anyone reading their story in the paper and wanting to know more can access the audio. My worry is that with all this emphasis on technical skills, the ability to tell a story well – which is still at the very heart of journalism – might be downgraded.

It might be just an old curmudgeon talking, but I seem to see fewer cleverly written stories than I used to.

I’m running out of time now so I just want to skim over several remaining points.

One of the worrying trends in journalism is the increasing tendency for fact and comment to become blurred.

In political journalism in particular, fact and comment is becoming so tangled that it’s often hard to tell where one stops and the other starts. TV3 political editor Duncan Garner, in particular, insists on giving us his own spin on everything.

I contrast this with Brent Edwards, Radio New Zealand’s political editor, who has strong political views of his own but manages to keep them out of his work.

What’s happening is that the model of the journalist as passive observer is under threat. Many journalists, particularly in the political sphere, now see themselves as active players in the political process.

They see it as part of their function to make things happen. That’s not my idea of how democracy is to supposed to work. Journalists are unelected and unaccountable to anyone but their bosses; it’s a perversion of the democratic model for them to be actively influencing the political process.

We’re also seeing a gradual drift toward advocacy journalism, in which journalists push issues, take sides and get directly involved in the controversies they’re covering.

I believe it was a big mistake for John Campbell and his crew to attend the after-trial party for David Bain. It just looked too chummy for comfort.

But you can see why things like this happen: Campbell Live is in a ratings war with Close Up and they’ll doing almost anything to get a competitive advantage, even to the point of appearing to compromise their editorial integrity.

And just in case you think I’m picking on TV3, I notice when I watch Q+A on Sunday mornings that Paul Holmes isn’t content merely to ask questions. He seems to think we’re interested in knowing what he thinks about whatever issue is under examination.

Speaking of political interviews brings me back to the relationship between journalists and politicians, which has changed radically in the course of my working life.

We’re no longer deferential to people in elected office. We’re not content to accept the occasional bone thrown in our direction in the form of a press statement or formal press conference. Journalists consider it their right to accost politicians at all times and in all places and thrust a microphone in their faces.

Remarkably, politicians seem to accept this as the price of democracy. There is now an almost masochistic quality to the relationship between politicians and the media. They virtually queue up for the pleasure of being disembowelled on national television, because media coverage is the oxygen of politics.

Is this a good thing? Well, yes and no. Politicians have to be made accountable to the public, and I would never suggest that journalists should kowtow to politicians the way they used to. But we seem to have swung from one extreme to another.

Now, this thing called citizen journalism. This is what some people fancifully think will replace the current journalism model in the brave new world.

The idea of citizen journalism is that anyone with a camera, a tape recorder and access to the Net can be a journalist; you actually don’t need trained professionals at all.

It’s true that in some situations, citizen journalism can be invaluable. Much of the TV footage from the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 was taken by amateurs, and the same was true of the recent riots in Tehran. But it’s a huge leap to suggest that citizen journalism can take the place of mainstream journalism.

Citizen journalism is anything-goes journalism, because its practitioners operate outside the ethical framework that professional journalists work within. There’s no obligation on citizen journalists to be even-handed or to get things right; there’s not even a company you can sue if a citizen journalist defames you.

We’ve recently seen problems created by amateurs making wild statements in the blogosphere about the Clayton Weatherston trial. Unlike properly trained journalists they don’t know the laws of contempt and probably didn’t care that they might prejudice the outcome of the trial. At best, citizen journalism is only ever going to be an adjunct – though potentially a significant adjunct – to mainstream journalism.

Now, television news: TV news once had some concern for editorial integrity but I’m afraid that in the race to win the ratings, that’s largely gone by the board. TV news is dictated by visuals; if you can’t create pictures out of it, it doesn’t make the cut. The problem is that this often hampers rather than enhances good journalism. Because everything hangs on the visuals, the cogent facts of the story often get obscured. The story is tailored to fit the images rather than vice versa.

It’s not helped by the fact that TV editors believe viewers have the concentration span of a goldfish and you risk losing them if any item runs longer than two minutes, unless it happens to be about Michael Jackson or the new GI Joe movie.

And it’s helped even less by the fact that most TV reporters these days are attractive young women who seem to have been chosen more for their looks than their ability. I thought it said everything about the prevailing values at TVNZ that when it laid off several journalists earlier this year, one of the casualties was Owen Poland – to my mind one of their most capable reporters. Sorry, Owen – too old, wrong sex.

The other thing about TV news and current affairs is that it’s often less about reporting the news than about evoking an emotional response from the viewer. Stories that ooze sentiment always get a good run and reporters are clearly briefed to tug on the viewers’ heartstrings at every opportunity. Getting people to break down in tears on screen is a surefire winner – I used to be convinced that the producer of the Holmes show got a generous bonus every time someone started weeping.

So if I could sum up what I’ve just said.

There are some very good things happening: journalism is more aggressive and fearless. We’ve got access to more information than at any previous time in human history. We can pick and choose to an extent that was unimaginable only 10 years ago. And I should also stress that here in New Zealand, we have one of the freest news media environments in the world – freer even than the United States, Britain or Australia, according to most surveys.

And the not so good things? More froth and less substance. Too much journalism focuses on conflict and personalities or goes for the cheap emotional angle. We’re doing a worse job than we used to in covering boring but important nuts-and-bolts stuff like parliamentary debates, select committee hearings and council meetings.

Journalistic objectivity is under attack by left wing academics. Newspapers are struggling and I’m not confident that the blogosphere will provide an adequate replacement. At the moment it’s a hubbub of partisan, conflicting voices.

So it’s a mixed picture: some good things, some bad. The news media are going through a period of unprecedented upheaval. It’s a work in progress, to use a cliché, and it’s too early to know how it will play out. Thank you for your attention.