Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mayhem at Masterton book launching; police hold back crowds

Hedley's Bookshop in Masterton, a Wairarapa treasure that deserves to be more widely known, was the venue for the launch at a merry gathering last Wednesday evening of my book The New Zealand Wine-Lover's Companion, published by Craig Potton Publishing. David Hedley kindly said a few words, I said a few more words, then we drank a toast (with wine kindly supplied by Palliser Estate of Martinborough) and cast the book adrift on the fickle sea of fate.

It has already had its first review, thanks to my friend Raymond Chan of Regional Wines & Spirits, Wellington. Raymond had a hand in the book's preparation, for which I am most grateful, and very kindly wrote the following (unsolicited) review to put on the Regional Wines website in advance of a promotion there next Saturday, November 7.

Further information about The New Zealand Wine-Lover's Companion is available on the Craig Potton Publishing website,



I must declare a personal interest in this book. While I was undergoing tough times during cancer treatment earlier this year, Karl approached me asking to peruse a section of his manuscript for a proposed book. His words were so much fun that I wanted to see more of his work. It brightened my days over a bitterly cold winter and probably helped in the process of recovery. So I read Karl’s manuscript in entirety, offering some suggestions and a few minor corrections.

It’s an A-Z guide that is perfect for dipping in an out of, gleaning interesting facts about many different facets of wine that are applicable to anyone in New Zealand interested in wine. It has entries on grape varieties, different wine styles, New Zealand and important international wine producers, people and history, all who or which have made an impact on the New Zealand wine scene. There are explanations of technical jargon and even a layman’s guide to the pronunciation of some of the more difficult words and names.

Whilst not comprehensive or fully detailed in wine science, it offers a wonderfully broad overview in assistance to a beginner in wine as well as bringing a sense of nostalgia to the experienced wine professional, in its entries, showing how long Karl has been interested in wine. His style of writing is very approachable and his wry humour and wit evident in much of the book. You really couldn’t expect anything else from a journalist who has been a wine writer for NZ House & Garden, The Evening Post, the Sunday Star-Times, Cuisine and National Business Review. Karl served as the Editor of The Dominion for some time, but now freelances from the Wairarapa, close to many of his friends in the wine industry.

I recommend this delightful book for your own enjoyment; it should also make an excellent gift. Karl will be instore at Regional Wines on Saturday 7 November, from 11.00 am to 4.00 pm, at the same time as the tasting of a range of Craggy Range wines, promoting his book. We will have the book for sale at $29.95, no extra for signed copies on the day!

2009 Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson

- Raymond Chan

Memo Joris de Bres: It's no longer 2008

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 27.)

SOMEONE should point out to Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres that there has been a change of government.

Last week, Mr de Bres presented six girls from Otaki School’s kura kaupapa Maori language unit with certificates honouring them for their well-publicised conflict with Wanganui mayor Michael Laws over the proposal to insert an “h” in the city’s name.

Regardless of how one feels about Mr Laws or the spelling of Wanganui, this was a gratuitously mischievous and provocative act on the part of Mr de Bres. It served only to poke a pitbull that would have been better left sleeping.

Ostensibly, the certificates recognised the “dignity” with which the girls behaved during their confrontation with Mr Laws. This seemed a contrived justification for a blatant political stunt.

Not content with wading in to the row uninvited (or so we must assume) and in a highly partisan fashion, Mr de Bres seemed to go out of his way to antagonise Mr Laws, commending the girls for putting up with “rubbish” from the mayor.

The commissioner’s behaviour doesn’t exactly square with the stated objectives of the Human Rights Commission of which he is a member, which include the encouragement of “harmonious relations between individuals and among the diverse groups in New Zealand”. Here he is winding things up when his job is to keep things calm.

Mr de Bres, a Labour appointee and former Public Service Association official with impeccably PC credentials, seems trapped in some sort of time warp. He needs to be reminded that the previous government, which might have smiled indulgently on his antics, was tossed out by a public tired of suffocating political correctness and official busybodies.

National may be less tolerant. It would be justified in taking the view that a statutorily independent figure such as Mr de Bres should be above trying to score points in petty political rows.

The Race Relations Commissioner also needs to be reminded that Mr Laws will always be able to claim the moral high ground over him for one very good reason: unlike Mr de Bres, he’s elected and publicly accountable.

* * *

THIS NEWSPAPER presented a very thorough assessment at the weekend of John Key’s first year as prime minister, but I thought it missed one significant point about his leadership.

Arguably Mr Key’s most notable achievement has been to bring a sense of unity and cohesion to a country that was previously highly polarised. He has done this not only through his disarming “gee golly” personality, as Mike Moore described it, but by being ideologically non-threatening. Virtually no one can think of a good reason to take violent exception to him.

The country is enjoying a blessed respite after all the bitter, fractious politics of the Clark-Brash-Peters era, and its gratitude is reflected in the opinion polls. However I wouldn’t be surprised if, when he’s tucked up in bed at night, Mr Key utters a prayer of thanks for the fact that the divisive figure of Winston Peters has left the political stage. If anyone was capable of sabotaging his dream run, it was the New Zealand First leader.

* * *

SPARE A thought, meanwhile, for poor Phil Goff, who is lurking, metaphorically speaking, in a dank basement while Mr Key enjoys the adulation of the crowds from a sunny Beehive balcony.

From a public relations point of view, Mr Goff’s problem is that he doesn’t have the personality to withstand the close exposure he faces as Opposition leader.

He is a pleasant and reasonable man. This works well enough when you are merely a Cabinet minister or shadow spokesman, but it becomes a liability when you are subjected to the harsh glare of the spotlight as party leader. In a high-profile job that requires Mr Goff to provide constant sound-bites to the media, pleasant and reasonable soon translates to boring. The public switches off.

Even at her lowest ebb in opposition, there was something about the steely Helen Clark that commanded the public’s attention. But Mr Goff hasn’t got it, and it’s a moot point whether even the Brian Edwards-Judy Callingham media training that helped humanise Ms Clark could save him.

* * *

OBSERVED last week on the Hutt motorway: three Fulton Hogan trucks travelling in convoy in the outside right-hand lane with big flashing arrows indicating that the lane was either closed or about to be closed and forcing vehicles to converge in the remaining lanes. As traffic was building up toward the afternoon peak this caused a bit of a squeeze and there was much sudden braking.

Having passed the Fulton Hogan trucks I naturally looked for the reason why the lane was closed. There was nothing; the highway in front of them was clear.

I have often wondered whether the constant processions of slow-moving Fulton Hogan trucks up and down the Hutt motorway were someone’s idea of an elaborate practical joke. Now I’m convinced.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Power-crazed councils must be checked

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 14.)

Not long before the last election, I had an animated discussion with a political scientist about the role Rodney Hide was likely to play in a National-led coalition government.

The academic was convinced that Hide would wield little, if any, real power. Because the ACT leader represented a small party to the right of National he would not be in a strong bargaining position, whereas the Maori Party – which was pivotal to National’s ability to govern – would be able to extract lots of political concessions.

Well he was right about the Maori Party, of course; no surprises there. But he was wrong about Hide, which proves again that supposed experts can be woefully off-beam in their assessments.

No one who knows Hide could have thought for a moment that this stroppy politician would be content to accept a tame, lap-dog role in government. And so it has turned out.

Assigned the local government portfolio, normally one of those low-profile Cabinet jobs like Customs and Internal Affairs, Hide has taken to his new role with typical gusto. Aucklanders must be shell-shocked at the speed with which he has driven through his controversial “super city” plan.

I understand the misgivings of those who worry that such a far-reaching change is taking place at such pace, but I can see why Hide has done it this way. If you give the opponents of change time to marshal their defences, proposals get sandbagged and nothing happens.

This is probably truer in local government than in other sectors of the economy, given that it’s the domain of wily local politicians and bureaucrats intent on protecting their own empires.

Of course it’s not just Auckland that’s feeling the heat under Hide. Councils elsewhere must also be squirming with discomfort at the shake-up he has demanded.

While commending some councils for their innovative, ratepayer-friendly initiatives, he has signalled a crackdown on red tape, compliance costs – many of them imposed under the former Labour government – and excessive rate increases. Most of all, he wants councils to concentrate on their traditional core roles.

We should welcome this approach because local government exercises wide-ranging powers over the way we live, and the potential for misuse of those powers is considerable.

One abuse that needs to be checked is the propensity of councils to routinely increase rates without regard for the state of the economy or the ability of property owners to pay. It’s all too easy for councillors – or more precisely bureaucrats, which is where real power usually resides in local government – to regard ratepayers as a bottomless cash barrel.

Earlier this year Wairarapa MP John Hayes subjected councils in his electorate to withering criticism, accusing them of spending like Paris Hilton. He gave the example of a farmer who, struggling to pay an $11,000 rates bill after enduring three back-to-back droughts, found himself lumbered with a nine percent increase. Hayes also asked why pensioners in South Wairarapa were expected to pay a 20.17 percent increase when inflation was running at less than 3 percent.

These are examples of councils lamentably out of touch with their constituents.

Another disturbing trend in recent years has been for councils, in their eagerness to promote economic development, to play at being entrepreneurs. Council-sponsored art festivals, car races, stage productions and garden shows have hoovered up public money with little regard for commercial risk.

These are often vanity projects for councillors and officials. Occasionally they succeed, but only with generous ratepayer subsidisation. Sometimes they fail spectacularly. Auckland Regional Council lost $1.8 million last November staging an exhibition football match starring David Beckham and Auckland City Council took a scandalous $2 million bath with a production of My Fair Lady that attracted less than half the audience needed to break even.

Show business and professional sport are high-risk undertakings at the best of times. Even the most astute promoters can come a cropper. Why on earth should public money be placed at risk to stage them, other than because the hapless ratepayer is a captive source of money?

Equally disturbing is the tendency of some power-crazed council officials to treat citizens as if they are the enemy. A classic example was Hamilton City Council’s mad attempt to fine residents $1500 each for daring to watch the V8 street races from the roofs of their own homes.

The council thought to seek legal advice only after imposing the fines, and had to back down. What an indictment of the bossy, punitive mindset that seems to afflict some Town Hall bureaucrats.

Other examples include Hastings City Council’s demand that a resident take down a sea wall erected, at considerable cost, to replace a previous one protecting his house on a notoriously erosion-prone stretch of coast, and Central Otago District Council’s ban on the use of local Oamaru stone in the construction of rural houses because some community busybodies thought it was – get this – too visible.

It was in that part of the country too that pop singer Shania Twain had to jump through endless hoops before coming up with a design for her house that satisfied all the nitpicking demands of the local planning commissars.

In Wellington, meanwhile, pettifogging planning dictates have triggered a row in the historic suburb of Thorndon, whose residents can hardly install a light bulb without getting a council dispensation.

Something has gone seriously wrong when councils are constantly at odds with the people they supposedly serve, and when bullying bureaucrats seem to regard it as their purpose in life to place obstacles in the way of the people who pay their generous salaries, rather than try to make things easier for them. If the Minister for Local Government can change this, he will have earned our gratitude.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!

In my Curmudgeon column last Tuesday (see below), I wrote about the phrase “moral panic”. I described this as a term used by the Left to ridicule legitimate middle-class concerns about anti-social behaviour such as violent crime, but pointed out that the Left was not above fomenting moral panic itself on issues such as climate change, parental smacking and the alcohol laws.

As if to prove my point, Doug Sellman, director of Otago University’s National Addiction Centre, obligingly chimed in only two days later in the Dom Post with a textbook outburst of moral panic over alcohol.

In a highly overwrought piece, Sellman called for heavy-handed intervention to curtail the “damage” done by liquor consumption and rein in the “drug pushing” liquor industry. He wants the government to crack down severely on liquor advertising and marketing, increase the price of alcohol, raise the legal purchasing age and greatly reduce both the hours of sale and the number of liquor outlets. He describes these as “proven” strategies, though he doesn’t back up that claim. On the other hand he dismisses, without elaboration, Justice Minister Simon Power’s perfectly reasonable statement that how we drink is “a product of our culture and will only change gradually over time”. Sellman is convinced that our drinking culture is the direct result of clever marketing by fiendish liquor barons – he calls them drug merchants – who mesmerise helpless children into developing “a lifelong habit of alcohol drug use”. This, he argues, can only be changed by state coercion.

His piece was heavy on emotion and light on fact, unless you counted highly dubious statistics such as the claim – supposedly based on World Health Organisation “best practice” criteria – that 700,000 New Zealanders are “heavy drinkers”. I’m always sceptical about that phrase “best practice”, and more so than usual in this case because I suspect that “best practice” is arbitrarily defined by people like Doug Sellman to suit their own agendas.

It's worth recalling that the "safe" drinking limit that guided British alcohol policy for 20 years - 21 units of alcohol a week for men, 14 for women - turned out to have been a figure that wasn't based on any objective data, but was "plucked out of the air" by a Royal College of Physicians working party which didn't really have a clue how much alcohol was safe. I suspect the WHO definition of "heavy drinkers" falls into the same category.

What little substantive argument Sellman put forward was greatly overshadowed by his frequent resort to highly emotive scaremongering, such as the shrill assertion - again supposedly based on that WHO definition - that New Zealand's number of heavy drinkers equals the combined populations of Wellington and Christchurch. He says if we don’t act soon, the “widespread damage associated with excess alcohol will continue for decades to come”. If that’s not inciting moral panic, I don’t know what is. It reminded me of the famous injunction over the door of the public bar in the old Temperance Union propaganda poster: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!”.

The tone of his piece also served to reinforce my suspicion that much of the hue and cry over liquor is underpinned by hostility to free markets and capitalism.

I’m no cheerleader for the liquor industry, as anyone who has read what I have written recently about New Zealand’s alcohol problem will attest. But the last people we want writing our alcohol policy are moralistic academics.

What Sellman conveniently overlooks is that overall, New Zealanders have become much more civilised drinkers – as anyone my age, remembering the barbaric drinking culture of the 1960s, can attest. We are drinking more wine and less beer, we are drinking more in mixed company, we are drinking more often as an accompaniment to food and we are drinking in infinitely more congenial surroundings. This tends to bear out Simon Power's statement that our drinking habits can change over time. But in his eagerness to turn the clock back, Sellman chooses to disregard all these positive developments, preferring to focus on a troublesome minority of binge drinkers to the exclusion of everything else.

He also chooses to disregard the role of personal responsibility. Sellman wants the state to make our liquor consumption decisions for us, because clearly we are not capable of making them wisely for ourselves. In fact Sellman displays a conspicuously low regard for the intelligence of his fellow citizens, apparently regarding them as powerless to resist the mind-controlling techniques of the booze barons and their pernicious advertising agencies.

The great danger in the current climate of moral panic over alcohol, so assiduously whipped up by people like Sellman, is that policy changes will be driven by alarm over the behaviour of a small but conspicuous minority of problem drinkers. In the process, the majority who drink responsibly will be penalised.

The dirty face of dairying

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, October 13.)

I CAN think of much more despicable people than the Crafar family of dairying infamy. The names of Clayton Weatherston, Graeme Burton and William Bell come to mind.

But if you were to compile a Hall of Shame listing people who had behaved appallingly without actually committing criminal offences, the names of Allan, Frank and Beth Crafar would surely be close to the top.

The Crafars are the dirty face of dairying. They are a blight on the dairying industry in the same way that paedophile priests are a blight on the Catholic Church and cops who rape are a blight on the police.

There are lots of dirty dairy farmers who don’t seem to care too much where their effluent goes, but the Crafars took it to a new level, and compounded the offence by allowing their livestock to suffer. Even dirty farmers would have balked at that.

Dairy farmers who are meticulous both about controlling pollution and caring for their animals – and there are plenty of them – would have been horrified.

The rampant growth of the dairy industry has triggered an economic boom, but in other respects it has been a catastrophe. Much of it has been driven by greed and disregard for environmental consequences, especially in regions unsuited to dairying.

The Crafars seem to have surfed the boom with very little thought about where it might lead. They just wanted more land and more cows – more! more! more! – and were prepared to mortgage themselves to the eyeballs, presumably in the expectation that milk prices would stay high forever.

They are by no means the only greedy, industrial-scale dairy farmers, but they certainly made themselves the most visible. In the end they created a monster that they couldn’t control.

I have heard apologists for the Crafars saying they have been unfairly scapegoated and demonised. The word bullshit – a highly appropriate epithet in this case – comes to mind.

The Crafars were greedy, and to make matters worse they don’t appear to be very bright. That’s a lethal combination.

* * *

THE TERM “moral panic” was coined by British sociologists in the early 1970s to describe the public reaction when something, or someone, threatens prevailing social or cultural values.

In New Zealand the term has become a catchcry of the Left, which uses it – usually with a tone of intellectual superiority – in an attempt to invalidate any concerns that are seen as reflecting the conservative values of the middle classes.

Public concern about violent crime? Moral panic, the lefties sniff derisively.

Public concern about family breakdown? Moral panic.

Public concern about P and other forms of drug abuse? Moral panic.

Public concern about boy racers and tagging? Ditto. And so on.

It’s a crafty way to dismiss legitimate concerns about anti-social behaviour. “Moral panic” conjures up an image of nervous, fretful fuddy-duddies getting their knickers in a twist unnecessarily.

Invariably, it involves issues that the vile capitalist news media are accused of blowing out of proportion in order to protect their class interests.

The irony is that the Left is very adept at whipping up moral panics of its own, when it suits. But of course it would never use the term.

The Left would never admit, for example, that the climate change scare, with its dire warnings of global apocalypse unless we all revert to a subsistence lifestyle, is moral panic on a grand scale; or that the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act was the result of a moral panic, assiduously whipped up by the Left, which associated an occasional parental smack with gross violence against children.

Then there’s the furore over alcohol abuse, as a result of which the vast majority of New Zealanders who drink responsibly are likely to be penalised because of the behaviour of a minority who can’t; and the determined campaign to regulate the advertising and sale of supposedly unhealthy food and drink. Classic moral panics, both.

The Left would have us believe it’s a moral panic if it involves protecting the interests of the majority, but not if it involves a sanctimonious elite trying to bully and frighten others into living according to their dictates. Don’t be fooled.

* * *

WHO IS this mysterious person named Te Puni Corkery, whom prime minister John Key mentioned while discussing taxpayer funding for Maori TV’s bid to screen the Rugby World Cup?

I can only conclude it must be the little-known, part-Maori half-brother of Pam, the former Alliance MP. Clearly, this is a family whose political influence runs deep.

Are there any other Corkerys lurking in the corridors of power? To use Felicity Ferret’s famous line, I think we should be told.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Public outrage: the defining sentiment of our time

(This is an after-dinner speech I gave at the Police Association's annual conference in Wellington this week.)

Good evening, and thank you for the privilege of speaking to you tonight.

I’d like to start by expressing my condolences for the loss of three of your fellow officers during the past 15 months. Their deaths are a reminder that every time a police officer leaves for work, there is a risk – only a statistically slight risk, but a risk nonetheless – that he or she won’t be coming home again.

Derek Wootton, Don Wilkinson and Len Snee serve to remind us of the demands that society places on the people charged with upholding the rule of law, and that’s something we need to remember at times when the police are under attack, as they frequently are – a matter I’ll return to shortly.

After Greg O’Connor approached me about giving this address, there was an exchange of emails between us. I asked Greg how long I should talk for. He suggested that 20 minutes might be about right. He then said I could read the audience, as it were, and cut my speech short if I sensed you were getting restive.

I emailed him back suggesting that what he seemed to be saying, in the nicest possible way, was that I should shut up before you started throwing food. To which he replied: “Food nothing – these are cops. First it will be OC spray, then the Taser. On the use of force continuum, lethal force will be considered only when the jokes get really, really bad.”

I then thanked him for kindly providing my opening joke – and probably my only one for the night.

I know it’s a convention that after-dinner speeches should be light-hearted affairs, and Greg did ask me not to be too solemn. But I’m no stand up comic, and there’s nothing worse than jokes told badly. So I’m going to talk tonight about serious issues.

You picked an interesting time for your conference. Last week I listened to a Federated Farmers spokesman from southern Hawke’s Bay complaining bitterly on radio about police conduct during the hunt for an armed gunman near Norsewood.

He was angry and frustrated because he couldn’t get a decision on whether dairy farmers could be allowed to go onto their farms accompanied by police escorts and attend to their distressed cows; and when he did finally get a decision there seemed to be a communication breakdown and the constables on the cordon still wouldn’t let him through.

I could sympathise with him, as most people probably would. But then I thought about the difficulty for the police in having to make operational decisions in a complex situation like that. There was a potentially dangerous armed man on the loose in a rural area with lots of cover and police didn’t know where he was. I drove through the area while the cordon was in place, and with all the low cloud and mist hanging over the hills, it struck me as having eerie similarities to the hunt for Stanley Graham on the West Coast in 1941. And we all know what happened on that occasion.

Farmers attending to their cows could have been exposed to fire, as would have any police officer accompanying them. Imagine the public outcry if a cockie or a cop had been shot. The talkback lines would have run hot for days, to say nothing of the official inquiries that would have been set in motion.

Nonetheless that farmer at least had a direct interest in what was happening and some knowledge of the situation, so I believe he had an absolute right to speak. That’s more than can be said for many of the people who rush to judgment on police conduct and invariably know better than the police how the operation should have been carried out.

Now let’s jump forward to this week, and the hunt for Aisling Symes in Henderson. It was entirely predictable that the New Zealand Herald yesterday morning ran a story quoting neighbours as saying they couldn’t understand how the police could not have found her body when it was right under their noses.

I had to listen to a more thorough account of what happened on Morning Report to realise that the drain where she was found had in fact been checked not once but several times and that there was a very good explanation for why Aisling wasn’t found earlier.

TV3’s coverage of the story last night was appalling. Once again the focus was on the supposed police failure. The tone was nitpicking and nauseatingly self-righteous. At times like this I cringe with shame at the behaviour of my fellow journalists, and I recall the famous condemnation of the British press by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin: “Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”.

This morning I pick up my Dominion Post and I read not one but four stories that I’d like to comment on.

The front page story focused again on the finding of Aisling’s body but this time the critical scrutiny was not on the police but on the Waitakere City Council. The story revealed that there had been complaints to the council about the manhole cover on the drain where Aisling drowned, but nothing had been done to fix the problem. There was a suggestion that the council might be prosecuted for negligence.

This highlights one of the more interesting sociological phenomena of our time.

When something goes wrong, when anything tragic happens, we demand retribution. We assume someone must be to blame. Public outrage is the defining sentiment of our time. We seem incapable of accepting, as our forebears accepted, that terrible things happen through accident or unfortunate circumstances and in many cases there’s not much that could have been done to avoid them.

In the case of Aisling Symes it appears to have been a hideous combination of circumstances: a parent’s momentary inattention, an adventurous and inquisitive child, a manhole cover that had evidently popped out – as often happens – because of pressure in the drain created by heavy rain.

Toddlers drown too often, as police officers know. But it seems we are no longer able, as a society, to accept that terrible things sometimes just happen. We demand someone’s scalp. It’s the blame game, and it’s become a national sport.

In this case the police may escape being the chief scapegoat, because it appears that primary blame, as I mentioned, is falling on the Waitakere City Council. So we can expect the usual spectacle of official inquiries, followed by ritual breast-beating and mea culpas. We insist on it.

Let me predict that the council will review its processes and issue a solemn assurance that procedures have been tightened to ensure no toddler falls down a manhole again. Committees will be formed and checklists will be drawn up. But the checklist hasn’t been invented that can neutralise every risk and anticipate every human failing, and it’s idle – in fact dishonest – to pretend that it’s possible. There are tens of thousands of manhole covers in New Zealand and my guess is that any one of them could pop out in heavy rain. Are we going to replace all of them because of one tragic death?

We’re caught up in a quixotic quest for the perfect society in which all hazards are eliminated. This coincides with a widespread conviction, encouraged by decades of mollycoddling nanny state government, that no one should be held responsible for their own actions.

Burgeoning bureaucracies such as OSH are devoted to making us all safe. But you can’t legislate for all human imperfection and there’s only so far you can go to protect people against themselves. We end up chasing our tails.

I’m reminded of the famous prayer that goes: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Now, back to today’s paper. On page 2 there’s a leaked preliminary police report about an investigation into a teenager’s claim that a constable broke his neck with a baton while closing down a rowdy party. This is a story that has already had quite a bit of play in the media. Now it turns out that the young man has previous convictions for disorder, violence and driving offences. I would make no comment on that, other than to say that probably the two most important lessons I’ve learned in 40 years as a journalist, and that I still keep learning over and over again, are these: that there are two sides to every story, and that things are often not what they seem at first glance.

A bit of professional scepticism doesn’t go amiss when confronted with stories from people claiming they’ve been hard done by. As my late colleague Frank Haden used to say, journalists should doubt everything with gusto.

On page 3 today there’s a story about the Independent Police Conduct Authority report on car chases. We learn that the police have accepted the authority’s recommendations about how car chases should be conducted in future, so as to minimise the risk of more deaths.

Two things intrigue me about this. The first is that it now seems to be the official position that if someone is killed while trying to escape from the police, it’s the police’s fault. This strikes me as being arse about face, if you’ll pardon the expression. Again, it’s all to do with people not being held responsible for their own actions. If young men risk being killed while trying to escape the police, the solution seems pretty obvious: they should stop when requested. It’s that simple.

The second point is that if police abandon chases for fear of causing accidents, there’s an obvious risk that lawbreakers will simply put their foot down with impunity every time a police car tries to pull them over.

I realise there’s a very difficult balancing act here, but we run the risk that police officers will be emasculated by an overly risk-averse approach. It seems to me that the dice are loaded in favour of the lawbreakers if the pursuing police officer has to pull over and run through a 20-point checklist before deciding whether to continue the chase.

Part of the problem, of course, is that snap decisions made by police in situations of danger and stress are subsequently subjected to critical scrutiny by people who have the luxury of time, safety and comfort in which to determine whether the police behaved correctly. Judgments made in haste can be reviewed by others at leisure.

Among those sitting in judgment are newspaper editorial writers and columnists like me. Now I wouldn’t like any of you to repeat this outside the privacy of this room, but there’s a very apt quote that describes what editorial writers do. It says their job is to hide in the hills until the fighting is over, then come down and bayonet the wounded. It was written by an editorial writer, so you can assume he knew what he was talking about. If you do want to quote it to others, you didn’t get it from me.

I turn to page 5 of the Dom Post now and I read a story about an Auckland family that has criticised the police for not doing more to locate a missing family member. Their concerns may or may not be justified; I don’t know. But once again it highlights our propensity as a society to feel aggrieved.

We live in a highly fractious society in which people seem programmed to take offence and find fault with everyone and everything. The police, because they’re at the sharp end of so many of society’s problems, are a natural lightning rod for criticism. So are the media, although paradoxically the media simultaneously feed the cult of grievance and victimisation.

In this querulous culture, everyone’s a victim – even the bad guys. If the police obtain a conviction, it’s now almost a reflex action for someone to insist that they got the wrong guy. And even if it’s generally accepted that they did get the right guy, and he’s duly dealt with by the courts, it’s then the judiciary’s turn to get it in the neck from a strident lobby group that complains the sentence wasn’t severe enough. That, in turn, invariably sets off yet another lobby group – the one that says criminals aren’t to blame for their own bad behaviour and we’re being beastly and inhuman by putting them in jail.

It’s become almost an automatic ritual, after every sentencing for a violent offence, for the victims or their surviving relatives to front up to the TV cameras with their arms around each other outside court and tearfully protest that justice hasn’t been done. It’s all part of what the English writer Theodore Dalrymple describes as emotional incontinence – the bizarre compulsion to indulge in maudlin public displays of sentiment. The cards and teddy bears and bunches of flowers that magically appear wherever someone has been killed are a manifestation of the same phenomenon.

The last item I want to refer to was one on Morning Report this morning about the new Crimestoppers programme. I admit I didn’t hear the entire item but it seemed to question the likely effectiveness of Crimestoppers because it’s based in Britain and the operators might struggle to understand the Kiwi vernacular. I bet the reaction of most listeners would have been, as mine was: for God’s sake, give the thing a chance. I wouldn’t have a clue whether Crimestoppers is going to work but I thought this item demonstrated why so many people cynically view the media as being interested only in negativity.

In saying all this I might give the impression that I’m a cheerleader for the police. I’m not. I am pro-police, but I’ve been critical of police conduct on many occasions – call it bayoneting the wounded if you like – and there are one or two areas where I have marked differences of opinion with the Police Association.

Neither would I argue for a moment that the police should be exempted from public scrutiny and criticism. You’re a human institution and like all human institutions, you’re imperfect. You’re also accountable, as you must be in a free society. I believe it’s healthy for police performance to be subjected to rigorous public scrutiny and criticism.

The important thing is that criticism should be fair and reasonable. But even when it’s ill-informed, I would argue that we’re probably better off with it than without it. It’s part of the price we pay for living in a free and open democracy. And ultimately, I believe the truth has a way of prevailing. One of my favourite quotes is from the poet John Milton, a champion of free speech, who wrote in 1643: “Let truth and falsehood grapple. Whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

Incidentally, I believe you can see this process playing out in the case of David Bain. Bain was acquitted at his retrial, but does that mean New Zealanders accept his innocence? At least one opinion poll indicates that many people are now more convinced of his guilt than they were before his acquittal.

Some of you may have heard of a book called The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki. Basically it argues that groups of diverse, independently minded people, left to sift things out from a range of information sources and come to their own conclusions, get things right more often than the supposed experts do.

The Bain case may be an illustration of that principle. The jury, after being subjected to a very intense and some might say highly selective examination of the facts in the pressure cooker atmosphere of the courtroom, came to one conclusion; whereas the public, watching from a distance and possibly able to form a more detached and objective opinion, may well have come to another. I’ll say no more than that.

Before I finish I’d like to return briefly to the role of the media in all this.

The media are crucial to a free and open democratic society just as the police are.

A free society can’t function without the rule of law and respect for property rights. We depend on the police to uphold that law and we expect them to do it fairly and efficiently.

By the same token, a democracy can’t function without information. That’s where the media comes in. As the American journalist Walter Lippman once said, if we didn’t have a news media we would live in an invisible society. We would not know anything.

It’s part of the media’s role to scrutinise the behaviour of politicians and public institutions and to hold them accountable. But having said that, I do think we need to turn the volume down a bit. In a highly competitive media environment, particularly in the electronic media such as television, public debate on issues such as police conduct risks getting ratcheted up to the point where it generates far more heat than light.

Like the police, journalists can do their job effectively only when they command public respect and confidence, and opinion polls suggest police are doing better in that regard than journalists. In the most recent Readers’ Digest survey of New Zealand’s most trusted professions, police officers were ranked at No 12, between dentists and farmers. Journalists were skulking at No 34, between taxi drivers and psychics. The only consolation is that we came in ahead of politicians, who clocked in at No 39.

On a similar note, UMR Research recently publishing an opinion poll which revealed that only 35 percent of New Zealanders believe the media report the news accurately, and 30 percent believe the media are one-sided. This is bad news for my profession, but possibly quite satisfying for you. And on that consoling note, I’d like to finish and thank you for your attention. Now you can start throwing food.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I heard the news today, oh boy ...

Thoughts on today’s headlines:

1. Is the Rugby World Cup controversy National’s own version of the Foreshore and Seabed fiasco, albeit on a much smaller scale – a panicky and clumsily managed attempt to head off a conservative pakeha backlash that might not have eventuated?
2. Is the government colluding with teachers to deny parents and the public information on how schools are performing? That’s how the Dom Post’s front page story on the “league tables” deal reads to me. Primary teachers’ union head Frances Nelson denies a deal was made but it’s clear some sort of agreement has been reached. So we’re left to conclude that once again, the teachers have worn down an elected government with a mandate for change - just as they done repeatedly over the past 20-odd years.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Return of the killer magpies

(I wrote the following article for the Fairfax magazine Your Weekend. It was published on October 3.)

Ah, the harbingers of spring. The first delicate white blossoms on the fruit trees. The first faint flush of green on the willows. The first frisky lambs. And the first magpie attacks.

The Australian magpie, gymnorhina tibicen, is an aggressively territorial bird. For nine months of the year it will nonchalantly allow humans to pass by unchallenged. It may even charm them with its musical warbling, immortalised in the poet Denis Glover’s famous line: Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle.

But in the nesting season, which can run from July to November, the male magpie’s protective hormones kick in and it terrorises everyone who strays into its territory – no one more than cyclists, whose helmets and lycra seem to whip the birds into a frenzy (as they do some motorists, but that’s another story).

Some parts of the country – possibly those where the concentrations of magpies are greatest, leading to more possessive territorial behaviour – have a higher incidence of attacks than others. But nearly all cyclists have magpie stories.

Banks Peninsula, a popular training ground for Christchurch cyclists, is noted for the ferocity of its magpies. In September 2007, a fed-up cyclist calling himself Old Crank posted on the Internet a video showing a homicidal Banks Peninsula bird repeatedly attacking on the Summit Road. Shot from a rear-facing camera mounted on Old Crank’s cycling helmet, the video showed the magpie swooping and striking his head nine times over a distance of several hundred metres.

That same month, Gareth Holebrook crashed when a magpie hit him on the back of the head while he was cycling between Motukarara and Gebbies Pass. Holebrook broke his collarbone and injured his groin. Only a week earlier, a female cyclist touched off a series of pro-magpie letters to The Press when it was revealed she had paid a pest control specialist $600 to kill troublesome magpies in the same area.

One of the scariest magpie encounters on record occurred in Northland the previous spring, when Otago University Students’ Association president Paul Chong, cycling the length of the country to raise awareness of student debt, crashed and was knocked out.

“I was travelling at about 60km/h, which is about the top speed I can get, when out of nowhere, I felt a sharp pecking,” Chong told the Otago Daily Times. “I thought, ‘What’s that?’ The next thing the bird was scratching at my face. I tried to shake it off but I came off my bike in the process and cracked my helmet on the asphalt. I woke up in the middle of the state highway.”

The pecking started on his back. Then the bird jumped up on his helmet and attacked his face. After regaining consciousness, but still dazed, Chong rolled into the ditch at the side of the highway where he lay until a van carrying locals stopped to help.

In the Wairarapa, where I live, dive-bombing magpies are an annual hazard that local cyclists have learned to live with. On some routes, attacks occur every few hundred metres at the peak of the nesting season.

Some birds earn virtual celebrity status, attacking cyclists in the same spot year after year. There are the Millers Road bird, the Twin Bridges bird and the Riversdale Turnoff bird, to name just a few.

Last year the Riversdale Turnoff magpie took a chunk out of veteran Masterton cyclist Brian Lambert’s helmet. Even more audaciously, the notorious Twin Bridges bird once landed on the back of Masterton doctor Tony Becker, out for a leisurely ride with his son, and began pecking at his helmet. “I got the fright of my life,” Becker says.

The real danger is not the direct threat of injury from the attacking bird. Rather, it’s the risk that the rider will be distracted by the attack and crash, as in Chong’s case, or hit a vehicle.

It may be only a matter of time before a cyclist is killed as the result of a magpie attack. The risk is magnified because the nesting season coincides with the period when more than 10,000 riders, some of them relatively inexperienced, are out on the roads preparing for the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge held late in November.

Not all magpies are as pathologically determined as those mentioned above. Some are content to swoop repeatedly without actually making contact. They will often persist even when cyclists have ridden hundreds of metres beyond the birds’ nesting territory.

Some birds whack the cyclist’s helmet with a breast or wing. Some fly close and make a strange snapping sound which I mistook, the first time I heard it, for the distant crackle of a rifle.

The one thing virtually all magpie attacks have in common is that they come from behind. I have read of magpies landing in front of people then rising to attack them head-on, though I know no one who has experienced it.

Often you sense the birds rather than see them. A wingbeat immediately behind your head or an almost imperceptible rush of air will announce the bird’s presence. Some magpies emit an intimidatory squawk as they attack but others are like silent assassins, diving without a sound.

If the sun is in the right place, the bird’s approaching reflection sometimes provides warning and allows you to duck at the critical moment when the magpie’s shadow is about to merge with that of your head.

Cyclists learn to recognise the danger signs, such as the ominous alarm calls from high in roadside pines and macrocarpas as sentinel magpies warn of approaching intruders. Magpies have acute vision and see people coming from a long way off. After a while you instinctively brace for the attack on hearing the birds’ warning calls.

Cyclists also learn when not to worry about an impending assault. In my experience, magpies on the ground or perched on a fence do not pose a threat. It’s the ones in elevated positions, such as treetops and power poles, that have to be watched.

In each family group, one bird seems to have the job of sentinel and defender. It keeps a lookout from a suitable vantage point while the others get on with the humdrum business of foraging for food.

On a recent ride I disturbed a big group of magpies in a roadside paddock. As if following a pre-rehearsed drill, about 10 flew off as I approached, but one detached itself from the group and flew to the top of a power pole beside the road, from where it scrutinised me carefully as I passed. It didn’t attack, but its behaviour left no doubt that it was the guardian of the group.

Once they decide to have a go, there’s not much you can do to deter magpies. Some cyclists vouch for the efficacy of shouting and waving your arms, but I suspect it only winds them up.

One cyclist I know says magpies are cowards and will back off if you turn and face them, but this tactic carries obvious risks, such as losing control and crashing – or even worse, riding into oncoming traffic. I’d prefer to be whacked by a magpie than disappear under the front wheels of a Fonterra milk tanker.

My own response to attack, and that of most cyclists I know, is simply to pull my head in – literally, so that the vulnerable back of the neck isn’t exposed – and pedal faster. This can be difficult if you’re grinding up a steep hill in low gear. The parallel that comes to mind in these situations is that of a heavy, lumbering bomber being attacked by an agile fighter plane.

As a last resort – and I’ve done this once – you can dismount and walk until you’re beyond the danger zone. At least this enables you to turn and face your tormenter.

Protective measures? Well, there’s the helmet, of course, although an authoritative entry in the Wikipedia online encyclopaedia includes the dispiriting information that “bicycle helmets are of little value as birds attack the sides of the head and neck”.

The same entry advises: “Using a basic disguise to fool the magpie as to where a person is looking (such as painting eyes on a hat, or wearing sunglasses on the back of the head) can also prove effective.”

My wife suggested this a couple of years ago, and attached an old pair of cycling sunglasses – with fake eyes painted on the lenses for good measure – to the back of my helmet. Though the swooping and diving continued, the birds seemed less bold with the fake eyes watching them, and I haven’t been hit once since. There is some evidence that a paper face-mask attached to the back of the helmet also works.

A friend has taken to attaching a flag to the back of his bike, flying slightly above head height, and says that too seems to serve as a deterrent, though he admits he feels a bit sheepish using it.

What the heck, I say. Anything for a more peaceful ride.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Capitalism needs to lift its game

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 30.)

I read in the paper a few days ago that the American documentary maker Michael Moore had hosted a preview of his latest film, entitled Capitalism: A Love Story.

Anyone who is familiar with Moore’s work will realise that the title drips with deliberate irony. Moore is an implacable foe of the American conservative establishment and his latest film is reportedly based on the premise that greed and corruption have subverted democracy.

Moore himself was quoted as urging guests at the preview in his impoverished home state of Michigan to help overthrow an economic system that he said was beyond redemption.

Now I don’t care much for Moore as a documentary maker. He’s clever, but he's also highly manipulative and very selective in what he chooses to show and what he chooses to leave on the floor of the editing suite. In another place and time he would have been honoured for his consummate skills as a maker of political propaganda films. But could he be on to something in his latest work?

Certainly his timing couldn’t be better. Capitalism appears to have disgraced itself internationally, plunging the world into its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. People are likely to be receptive to a film that portrays capitalism as driven by selfishness and greed, which will undoubtedly be Moore’s message.

I couldn’t help but note that two pages further on, the Dominion Post had a report about the chief executives of two large New Zealand companies who, despite a substantial slump in profits, had been awarded massive pay rises. Skellerup boss Donald Stewart was paid $801,000 – up from $509,000 the previous year – while David Baldwin, the managing director of Contact Energy, made an extra $117,000, bringing his annual pay package to $1.6 million.

This is the same Contact Energy that outraged shareholders and the public last year with a proposal to double directors’ fees, a move that it admits severely damaged its reputation. You have to wonder whether the company learned anything. Mr Baldwin’s increase equates to nearly four times the median annual per capita income. Such figures are beyond the comprehension of wage-earners struggling to pay mortgages, school fees and, yes, outrageous electricity bills.

Such trends are not peculiar to New Zealand. The previous day, it was reported that the former head of Qantas banked a salary of $A10.7 million last year, despite being chief executive for only five months of that period. For the rest of the time he was retained as a “consultant”.

I turned the page again and I saw that Blue Chip founder Mark Bryers, whose dodgy property company hoovered up the life savings of many elderly New Zealanders, had lost the latest round in the ongoing legal battles that have followed Blue Chip’s collapse. Normally this would be good news, but wait; it turned out that the High Court had merely ruled that Bryers must repay a $4.3 million loan to a multimillionaire Auckland investor.

No comfort here, then, for the many superannuitants who were persuaded to place their money with Blue Chip and now face financial ruin. While wealthy men use all the legal means in their power to protect their investments, these ordinary New Zealanders – most of them unable to afford lawyers – sit fretfully at home, wondering when the bailiffs will call.

When you look at all this, it’s natural to start wondering whether Michael Moore might be right to condemn capitalism as an immoral system.

The issue of income disparity, highlighted so vividly by the salary packages of people like Contact’s Mr Baldwin, is particularly interesting.

For a long time I took the view that it didn’t really matter how much money the corporate elite made, provided ordinary workers were fairly paid and were able to share in the benefits of economic growth. The adage “a rising tide lifts all boats” seemed to make perfect sense.

The problem is that even when the tide stopped rising, corporate pay packages continued to head for the stratosphere. There have even been reports that some British and American finance institutions have resumed paying the outrageous bonuses that became a symbol of corporate greed and excess when the recession hit.

In any case, I have come around to the view that gross income inequality, such as we now see in New Zealand, does have an insidious, corrosive effect. Proportionality and fairness are important. People’s confidence in the capitalist system is undermined when they see a corporate elite being extravagantly rewarded for no obvious reason other than that “experts” say they need to be paid prodigious sums to keep them in New Zealand.

This argument conveniently serves the purposes of the corporate elite, but it has worn very thin. People have become rightly sceptical, especially when salaries appear to bear little relationship to performance.

In view of all the above, it would be reasonable to conclude that I have experienced a Road-to-Damascus conversion and am now firmly in the camp of people like Michael Moore and others like him, who can’t wait to dance on the grave of capitalism. Wrong.

Leftists the world over gleefully greeted the worldwide recession as proof of capitalism’s fatal flaws, but it’s nothing of the sort. Capitalism is a resilient and self-correcting economic system that invariably bounces back, as it is showing signs of doing now.

No one ever pretended it’s perfect. It can’t be, because human nature is imperfect. Capitalism has always been susceptible to greedy, selfish and unscrupulous behaviour. It has certainly disgraced itself over the past few years, and it won’t be the last time.

But the evidence is overwhelming that capitalism, particularly when combined with liberal democratic government that moderates its worst excesses, is the only economic system that has consistently demonstrated, over time, that it can improve the human condition. That’s why all the most humane, liberal, advanced societies in the world have capitalist economies.

Capitalism stumbles and stuffs up now and again, as it has recently done, but most of the time it functions pretty well. Contrast that with the socialism that men like Michael Moore seem to favour, which has never worked anywhere, under any circumstances. On the contrary, wherever it has been tried it has become synonymous with repression and deprivation.

The challenge, as always, is to promote a form of capitalism that balances the natural desire to improve one’s economic position – the essential driver of capitalism – against moral values such as fairness and the need for social cohesion. To quote my old school reports, a better effort is needed.

Friday, October 2, 2009

It's a strange old world, all right

(First published the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, September 29).

IT’S TRUE. There’s nowt so queer as folks.

An article in last week’s Listener by Michael Bain, defending his brother Robin, has re-ignited public debate about a matter that David Bain’s supporters fervently hoped was dead and buried, if that’s not a tasteless metaphor.

The ensuing hubbub has confirmed that public opinion is a wayward creature with a will of its own. Not even Joe Karam can control it.

Consider the exquisite irony of the Bain case. Initially found guilty of the murder of his family, David Bain was the subject of a dogged campaign by people who passionately believed in his innocence.

With public opinion behind them, they eventually had their way and won a retrial in which Bain was acquitted, amid much jubilation. But in a classic demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, the second trial appears to have raised nagging doubts in the minds of people who were previously convinced of Bain’s innocence.

A persuasive article by Christchurch Press journalist Martin van Beynen, who sat through the trial and reached a different conclusion from the jurors, wouldn’t have helped his case.

Bain has now gone overseas, supposedly to explore study opportunities. But I wonder if his departure had something to do with the fact that at least one opinion survey suggested many New Zealanders are more convinced of his guilt now than they were before his acquittal.

Bain won the legal fight but not necessarily the battle for the hearts and minds of his fellow New Zealanders. Who could have predicted this outcome? It’s a strange old world, all right.

* * *

WHEN Irene Van Dyk retires from netball, as she must surely do soon (she’s 37), she could do worse than set up an academy to provide media training for professional sports people.

It’s always a joy to listen to Van Dyk being interviewed. Her bubbly enthusiasm is contagious.

She can be frank and self-deprecating too, as when she acknowledged that Silver Ferns skipper Casey Williams was right to suggest she (Van Dyk) was “feeling off” when she had a success rate of only 73 percent in the fourth test against Australia. Van Dyk refused to take offence at Williams’ comment, saying: “Things happen and I had a shocker. So what?”

If all sports people had Van Dyk’s infectious charm and spontaneity, reading the sports pages and watching the sports news on TV would be a lot more fun.

It’s a requirement of professional sports people that they make themselves available to the media but you can see that most of them, the males in particular, would sooner have their teeth pulled.

When they do talk, what usually comes out is a string of wooden clich├ęs that reveal nothing.

Judging by their reported comments, most All Blacks have the personality of a rock. If only they had an ounce of Van Dyk’s joie de vivre.

* * *

WHO SAID satire was dead?

Air New Zealand Fashion Week is over for another year and once again the media, by pretending to take it seriously, have done a brilliant job of showing what a farcical pantomime it is.

I laughed like a hyena at the way reporters feigned breathless excitement not just at the ridiculous clothing on display, but at the “celebrities” who took their places in the front row, most of whom no one has ever heard of, and the contents of the goody bags handed out to freeloaders by the various fashion labels. Outstanding work.

It was satire, wasn’t it? Please tell me it was.

* * *

SO WE’RE going to get something called TiVo – free-to-air, digital TV, on demand. “Get ready to feel the TiVo love”, the inane ads exhort us. I can barely contain my excitement.

Technological advance is mostly a double-edged sword. The big question is whether the benefit, in terms of viewing pleasure and convenience, will outweigh the cost of buying the new equipment and the frustration of trying to master it. In my experience the answer is usually no, unless you’re a tech-head or a pimply 15-year-old.

It’s the same with the software upgrades that constantly bombard computer users. The benefits rarely compensate for the hassles and I’m sure I’m not the only computer owner who, like Greta Garbo, just wants to be left alone.

With TiVo, there’s also the underlying issue of programme quality. I relinquished Sky TV after several years because all it offered was a greater choice of crap. There’s no reason to believe TiVo will be any different.

* * *

DESPITE what all the tourism cheerleaders and political commentators say, I can't see much benefit in our prime minister lining up to be made fun of by a TV talk show host, as John Key did in New York last week.

I admire Mr Key for his willingness to take chances, but bowing to the demands of the celebrity culture, and risking being demeaned in the process, is below the dignity of his office.