Friday, November 27, 2009

All Ihimaera's work is now under suspicion

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 25.)

The Wellington writer and academic Vincent O’Sullivan was right on the nail last week when he compared literary plagiarists with drug cheats in sport.

He was talking, of course, about the scandal surrounding acclaimed author Witi Ihimaera’s latest novel The Trowenna Sea, which an alert reviewer in The Listener exposed as being littered with passages pinched from other writers (16 at first count, though more have since been discovered).

In a clever analogy with sport, O’Sullivan described plagiarism as a performance-enhancing technique that provided an unfair advantage over contemporaries and colleagues.

More to the point, it’s also an unforgiveable breach of faith with Ihimaera’s loyal readers, who will be left wondering whether other passages in the books they have so admired were not the writer’s own.

O’Sullivan was one of only two writers, to my knowledge, who spoke out unequivocally about Ihimaera’s conduct. The other was C K Stead, who was sharply critical of Auckland University, Ihimaera’s employer, for playing down the gravity of the author’s ethical breach. Otherwise the literary world observed a deafening silence.

Retired historian Keith Sorrenson waded into the debate too, disclosing that he had been plagiarised in Ihimaera’s novel The Matriarch back in 1986. So Maoridom’s most accomplished literary figure – the man who also gave us The Whale Rider – has previous form, to coin a phrase.

I loved Sorrenson’s answer to a question put to him by Kathryn Ryan of Radio New Zealand. Asked if plagiarism could be committed accidentally, the retired professor conceded that it could, but then added pointedly that Ihimaera seemed to be accident-prone.

Inevitably there has been an element of the tall poppy syndrome in the public outcry over Ihimaera’s deceit. Writers have a reputation for preciousness and a lot of people will have quietly enjoyed the spectacle of one being publicly skewered.

Nonetheless, plagiarism is a very serious charge and the affair has heaped shame not only on Ihimaera himself but also on the university, which employs him as a professor of English and “Distinguished Creative Fellow in Maori Literature” (don’t they love grandiloquent titles?), and on Ihimaera’s publishers, Penguin.

The Arts Foundation has egg on its face too, having honoured Ihimaera with a $50,000 grant only days after the Listener’s exposé appeared. The Dominion Post carried a photo of a beaming Ihimaera proudly posing with his fellow grant recipients as if nothing had happened.

The foundation’s error of judgment reflected what seemed to be a complacent misconception, shared by all those in Ihimaera’s camp – and perhaps by Ihimaera himself – that his illustrious reputation would protect him from lasting harm.

All those in a position to act decisively when the controversy erupted chose instead to tread water in the apparent belief that it would soon blow over. An anonymous commenter on David Farrar’s popular Kiwiblog speculated mischievously that Ihimaera may have been considered bulletproof because he was Maori and gay.

The foundation subsequently defended itself by saying the $50,000 award recognised Ihimaera’s whole body of work. Problem is, a cloud of suspicion now hangs over that body of work. Credibility can take a lifetime to achieve but only a moment to destroy.

Once caught out, Ihimaera seemed to hope that an apology would put the affair to rest, just as it apparently did all those years ago when Sorrenson confronted him over The Matriarch. But it very quickly became clear that people struggled to accept the writer’s assurance that the plagiarism in The Trowenna Sea was nothing more than an inadvertent oversight.

An incredulous Paul Holmes, writing in the Herald on Sunday, challenged Auckland University’s Dean of Arts, Jan Crosthwaite, over her bland statement that the university was satisfied there was no deliberate wrongdoing on Ihimaera’s part.

“Excuse me?” wrote Holmes. “How do you plagiarise in a way that is not deliberate? How do you plagiarise by accident?”

Like Holmes, I fail to see how Ihimaera could have lifted whole chunks of text from other people’s books and then somehow forgotten to acknowledge them.

Ihimaera says in his defence that the plagiarised passages made up only 0.4 percent of The Trowenna Sea. This is like a thief pleading in mitigation that he stole only one flat-screen TV when he could have done a ram raid and stripped the entire store.

But here’s the real puzzle: why on earth would a writer of Ihimaera’s reputation risk everything for 0.4 percent of his novel? Why would he jeopardise his credibility for the sake of such a tiny fragment?

In a long career in journalism I have known several people who were exposed as plagiarists and whose careers suffered as a result. Most of them, like Ihimaera, were good writers who didn’t need to rip off other people’s material, and I wondered why they would take the chance.

I suppose they did it because they thought they could get away with it. But the risk of being found out was higher than one might think.

It seemed that no matter how obscure the source material, someone had read it before and recognised it when it turned up in another guise. Google’s Internet search engine, which is how Ihimaera was caught out by The Listener, makes it even more likely than ever that plagiarists will be exposed. But of course we can never know how many cases have gone undetected.

At the time of writing, I get the impression this affair still has some way to run. Those in a position to have done something meaningful to atone for Ihimaera’s misconduct ducked for cover in the hope that the whole nasty business would go away, but it hasn’t, and it won’t.

Remember Tau and Tuku? Not much has changed

[First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, November 24.]

DEFENDERS of MMP pooh-pooh the notion that it’s an electoral system in which the tail wags the dog, but the evidence has rarely been clearer than in the past week.

All the weasel words in the political lexicon can’t disguise the fact that the National Party has bought Maori Party support for its dodgy climate change legislation at the expense of the taxpayer.

Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples saw that National was in a fix and sniffed the opportunity for a deal favourable to Maori interests. National obliged.

As a result, an already prosperous Maori elite will get richer still by pocketing carbon credits worth a potential $25 million a year, according to one estimate.

The Maori Party won just 2.39 percent of the total vote in the last general election, yet National panders to it because it needs the party’s backing to push through legislation that no one else wants.

This is a travesty of democracy but it’s nothing new. Back in 1999 Tau Henare, then leader of the renegade Mauri Pacific Party – which no one voted for, since it broke away from New Zealand First – boasted that he had screwed $170 million out of Jim Bolger’s National Government as the price of his party’s support.

Mr Henare, of course, is now back in Parliament as a National MP. Meanwhile his ex-Mauri Pacific colleague and fellow member of the infamous “Tight Five”, Tukoroirangi Morgan, has re-invented himself as a sleek front man for the wealthy Tainui tribe. You have to admit there’s a certain synchronicity here.

* * *

PERHAPS the most obnoxious aspect of the sweetheart deal with the Maori Party is that it will place still more economic power in the hands of a tribal elite that shows little interest in spreading its wealth among less privileged Maori.

This powerful iwi coterie fought tooth and nail through the courts to prevent the spoils of Treaty settlements trickling down to so-called “urban Maori” who don’t have the right connections. Their success in fighting off claims by urban Maori is measured by the continuing existence of a substantial Maori underclass that has been cut out of the Treaty bonanza.

It is in this underclass that the problems of Maori unemployment, drug abuse, domestic violence and welfare dependency continue to fester while the Maori aristocracy looks the other way. Not their problem.

* * *

SIR WILLIAM Gilbert, the half of Gilbert and Sullivan who wrote the words, came up with the perfect name for public officials who suffer from an inflated self-regard. He called them pooh-bahs.

Oddly enough, that was the word that flashed into my mind when I read that Children’s Commissioner John Angus had urged people to stay away from last weekend’s “march for democracy” in Auckland, organised to protest at the government’s decision to ignore the 87 percent of New Zealanders who voted in a referendum against the criminalisation of smacking.

What a cheek. What business is it of the Children’s Commissioner if New Zealanders want to exercise their democratic rights by marching up Queen St? What extraordinary conceit makes him think we could benefit from his moral and political guidance?

No one outside the social welfare bureaucracy had heard of Dr Angus before his appointment earlier this year. Perhaps this silly statement was his way of letting people know he exists.

Like his colleague, Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres, who gratuitously stirred up the squabble between Michael Laws and a group of Otaki schoolgirls over the spelling of Wanganui, Dr Angus needs to pull his head in.

* * *

AT THE risk of sounding treasonous, isn’t it time for a reality check after the hysteria over the All Whites’ win against Bahrain?

Fact: New Zealand is at odds of 750 to 1 to win the 2010 World Cup. It shares these ignominious odds with North Korea.

Fact: New Zealand is 77th in the world football rankings. It jumped six places following its win at Westpac Stadium but still languishes behind such football giants as Togo, Cyprus and Benin.

Fact: All Whites coach Ricki Herbert said it was the enthusiastic backing of the Wellington crowd that got his team “over the line” against Bahrain. Conclusion: Unless New Zealand’s World Cup games can all be played in the Cake Tin, or the government charters fleets of Boeing 747s to carry noisy Wellington fans to match venues overseas, the 1-0 result against Bahrain was as good as it’s going to get.

Commentators who say that rugby needs to watch its back clearly had their judgment clouded by the euphoric mood at the Westpac Stadium. All it proved was that Wellington loves an excuse for a good party, which we already knew.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

As usual, the Air New Zealand wine awards spring a few surprises

It’s always interesting to browse through the results of the Air New Zealand Wine Awards, the most important of New Zealand’s annual wine competitions.

Some things change little – like the swag of gold medals picked up every year by Villa Maria, which has an unparalleled record of competition success. But the awards always turn up a few unexpected results, and often throw light on previously obscure wineries that are destined for bigger things.

This year the big surprise was sprung by Julicher Estate, a small, family-owned winery in the Te Muna Valley near Martinborough whose 2008 pinot noir was named the Champion Wine of the Show. Remarkably, given Martinborough’s status, it was the first time in 20 years that a wine from the South Wairarapa winemaking region had won the supreme prize.

Perhaps even more remarkably, given the fact that Martinborough was the first New Zealand region to produce consistently good pinot noir and still makes many of the country’s best examples, it was the first time a Martinborough pinot noir had won. This is partly explained by the fact that some exalted Martinborough wineries, such as Ata Rangi and Dry River, don’t enter competitions. (The previous Martinborough wine to win the coveted champion’s trophy, in 1989, was a Martinborough Vineyard chardonnay.)

Julicher Estate was founded only 10 years ago by Dutch immigrant Wim Julicher (pronounced You-licker), a retired Hutt Valley builder. Though the Dutch are not noted as a nation of wine drinkers, it’s one of several New Zealand wineries established by immigrants from the Netherlands. Others include Alpha Domus (Hawke’s Bay), Mebus Estate (Wairarapa) and Staedt Landt (Marlborough). Even more intriguingly, Julicher has a Finnish winemaker, Outi Javovirta.

Before the Air New Zealand awards were announced last weekend, Julicher was a label familiar to wine lovers in the Wairarapa, and perhaps Wellington, but probably little known further afield. There had been signs, however, that this was a winery to watch. Julicher’s 2005 riesling scored the maximum five points in a Cuisine tasting three years ago, and the winery's 99 Rows Pinot Noir 2008 – an early-drinking style of pinot, cheaper than the label’s premium, trophy-winning wine – was another Cuisine five-pointer, securing a place in the Top 10 in the magazine’s recent annual pinot tasting.

The irony is that Wim Julicher started out in 1996 intending to grow olives, not grapes. It was only after his olive trees were devastated by frost in 1998 that he decided there might be a more promising future in wine.

As a result of its weekend triumph, Julicher Estate will now enjoy a cachet in the marketplace and status-conscious wine drinkers who hadn’t previously heard of the label will be clamouring to acquire its wine. This demonstrates one of the great virtues of competitions: they alert the market to promising new wineries (well, newish in this case) that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Julicher isn’t the first obscure winery to have beaten more illustrious names to top honours. In the 2001 Air New Zealand awards, a sweet riesling made by Canterbury House (a label now part of the Mud House group, but rarely heard of these days) was named champion wine of the show. Best-in-class trophies have often gone to outsiders such as Gisborne’s small Amor-Bendall winery, which in 2004 won the hotly contested sauvignon blanc trophy, and Martinborough’s now-defunct Lintz Estate, whose shiraz won the champion “other reds” trophy in 1998 (a prize controversially withdrawn after British judge Oz Clarke realised the wine submitted for judging was different from the one under the same label that was served at the awards dinner.)

These examples show that success in the Air New Zealand awards is no guarantee of a stellar future – but it’s a good start nonetheless, and my guess is that Julicher will be no flash in the pan.

Catalina Sounds, Couper’s Shed and Georgetown are three other little-known names that thrust themselves into the spotlight in the 2009 Air New Zealand awards, winning the trophies for best sauvignon blanc, best pinot gris and “best exhibition red wine” respectively. Marlborough label Catalina Sounds, owned by an Australian wine distributor, produced its first vintage in 2006. Couper’s Shed is an even newer name; it’s a Hawke’s Bay label owned by Pernod Ricard and targeted mainly at the restaurant market. Georgetown is a Cromwell (Central Otago) label about which I know nothing, and which appears to be so new it isn’t even mentioned in the 2009 Winegrowers New Zealand annual report which lists all its members.

Otherwise the trophies went to well-established and mostly familiar names, as can be seen from the following complete list:

Air New Zealand Champion Wine of the Show Trophy
Julicher Pinot Noir 2008
Bell Gully Champion Sustainable Wine Trophy
Olssens Annieburn Riesling 2009
JF Hillebrand New Zealand Ltd Champion Pinot Noir Trophy
Julicher Pinot Noir 2008
Label & Litho Champion Chardonnay Trophy
Villa Maria Reserve Barrique Chardonnay 2007
OI New Zealand Champion Sauvignon Blanc Trophy
Catalina Sounds Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2009
BDO Champion Other White Styles & Rosé Trophy
Church Road Reserve Viognier 2007
Fairfax Media Champion Open Red Wine Trophy
Waipara Hills Southern Cross Selection Central Otago Pinot Noir 2008
Fruitfed Supplies Champion Syrah Trophy
Coopers Creek SV Hawkes Bay Syrah Chalk Ridge 2008
LatitudeGT Champion Pinot Gris Trophy
Couper’s Shed Pinot Gris 2009
Newstalk ZB Champion Other Red Styles Trophy
Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Tempranillo 2008
New World Champion Open White Wine Trophy
Forrest The Doctors’ Riesling 2009
New Zealand Winegrowers Champion Gewurztraminer Trophy
Johanneshof Cellars Marlborough Gewurztraminer 2009
New Zealand Winegrowers Champion Merlot Trophy
Villa Maria Reserve Merlot 2007
Plant & Food Research Champion Riesling Trophy
Esk Valley Marlborough Riesling 2009
Rabobank Champion Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot/Cabernet Blend Trophy
Mills Reef Elspeth Cabernet Merlot 2007 Champion Sparkling Wine Trophy
Deutz Marlborough Cuvee Blanc de Blancs 2006
Wineworks Champion Dessert Wine Trophy
Farmgate Noble Harvest Riesling 2007
Corbans Viticulture Champion Exhibition White or Sparkling Wine Trophy
Villa Maria Reserve Marlborough Chardonnay 2006
Kapiti Champion Exhibition Red Wine Trophy
Georgetown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007

A few points of interest about the awards:

■ The jury is still out on which region does best with pinot noir. Marlborough and Otago dead-heated for gold medals in the pinot class, with seven each. Wairarapa wines scored four, including one not from Martinborough (Fairmont Estate). [Point of explanation: a gold medal does not indicate that a wine has won its class, merely that it has been awarded more than 18.5 points out of a possible 20. A wine that wins its class is awarded a trophy. In contrast to the Olympic Games, there is theoretically no limit to the number of medals that can be awarded in each category.]

■ The number of trophies seems to be steadily expanding, perhaps to ensure more winners and therefore create an additional incentive for wineries to enter. For example, three rieslings and three pinot noirs were awarded trophies, though in separate categories. This seems to muddy the results and create uncertainty as to which has been judged the “best” wine.

■ The trophy-winning Villa Maria chardonnay is a Gisborne wine, which may provide welcome encouragement to chardonnay growers in a region that has shown signs of falling out of favour.

■ Keep an eye on Waipara. The low-profile North Canterbury region didn’t make a huge splash in the awards, but picked up gold medals for the wine styles it’s best suited to, namely riesling and pinot noir. It was fitting that one of those medals went to Glenmark Weka Plains Riesling 2003, a wine bearing the label established by the pioneer of Waipara wine, farmer John McCaskey. Waipara Springs also picked up a gold medal for its Premo Riesling 2005 and up-and-coming Waipara label Greystone scored with its 2008 pinot noir.

■ Seven gold medals were awarded in the gewürztraminer class, despite it being a small category and a relatively unfashionable wine style that many wineries regard as too troublesome to bother with. Riesling also did well, scoring 10 gold medals. By comparison, only 13 gold medals were awarded in the much bigger sauvignon blanc class.

■ Only one merlot scored gold, suggesting that merlot on its own, while warm and plump, needs the tannic structure of cabernet sauvignon to give it some spine. (Even one gold medal would be too much for the lead character in the cult movie Sideways, who despised merlot.)

■ Of the 10 gold medals awarded for syrah (another very high ratio), three were for Waiheke Island wines. The rest, predictably, went to Hawke’s Bay.

■ It was pleasing to see Mills Reef take home the trophy for best Bordeaux-style red – appropriate recognition for a winery that consistently delivers without hype or fanfare.

■ Small Martinborough winery Margrain walked away with a remarkable haul of three gold medals – from a total of seven – for dessert wines. One of the medal-winning Margrain wines was a botrytis chenin blanc from vines planted 30 years ago by Martinborough wine pioneer the late Stan Chifney, whose vineyard Margrain acquired after his death. Two of the four remaining golds for dessert wines went to Hawke’s Bay producer Ngatarawa, long a proven performer in this class. (Farmgate, the champion dessert wine, is a Ngatarawa label.)

■ Montana Sauvignon Blanc won gold – a fitting honour in the year marking the 30th anniversary of the wine many still consider the archetypal Marlborough sauvignon blanc. Another Marlborough producer, St Clair, won four of the 13 gold medals awarded for sauvignon blanc.

All very interesting, but of course wine competitions are not infallible. Wine judging is subjective, even when carried out by experts, and can throw up quirky results. Bear in mind that the judges do their tasting in a very different setting from that in which most people enjoy wine, and that noses and palates can become tired and jaded over the course of a long day in which literally hundreds of wines may be sampled. It’s well known that wine contests tend to favour “look at me” or “show pony” wines while quieter, very worthy wines may go unnoticed.

Bear in mind too that many of the country’s most distinguished wine producers – among them Te Mata Estate, Ata Rangi, Neudorf, Felton Road, Dry River and Pegasus Bay, to name just a few – rarely, if ever, enter New Zealand wine competitions. Even Montana for many years didn’t bother. One obvious reason is that these wineries don’t need awards to enhance their reputations, but an additional factor is that they don’t make wines to a formula aimed at winning competitions.

This reflects no discredit on wines that do well in competitions, or wineries (such as Villa Maria) that consistently win trophies. A wine that wins a gold medal in a competition such as the Air New Zealand awards will almost certainly be a very good wine, but that’s not to say there are not better wines out there. In any case, the best judge of any wine is the person drinking it.

For the awards in full, go to:

[My book The New Zealand Wine-Lover’s Companion is published by Craig Potton Publishing and has a recommended retail price of $29.99.]

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cactus Kate and that smoking gun

Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch yesterday reported a furore, largely confined to the blogosphere, over legal guidelines reportedly issued to editors of APN publications, which include the New Zealand Herald and The Listener.

News of these guidelines, supposedly emanating from APN’s head office in Sydney, was broken by blogger Cactus Kate under the headline APN Chicken Out . Cactus Kate could barely contain her excitement, writing that she was on to such a humdinger of a story that her hands were shaking.

The Hong Kong-based New Zealand lawyer, much of whose writing (or at least what I’ve seen of it) seems to revolve around social gossip, sexual exploits, international travel and bragging about expense accounts, breathlessly reported that she had been told of the guidelines by “not one, not two, but three separate, anonymous sources”. She added in melodramatic tones that none of her sources could write about the story themselves for fear of losing their jobs.

(Did it occur to Cactus Kate, I wonder, that it was a coincidence that three “separate, anonymous sources” apparently chose – independently, separately and simultaneously – to notify her of their concerns? That would have caused my journalist’s antennae to twitch, just as they twitched a few years ago when Nicky Hager claimed several National Party insiders independently, separately and simultaneously had leaked damaging information to him about dodgy goings-on inside the party. Fancy that! But then Cactus Kate, perhaps seeing herself as positioned at the epicentre of the news media universe, may have thought it perfectly natural that these whistle-blowers would come straight to her. In any case, surely no disaffected APN journalist would set her up? No, of course not. Let’s move on.)

After giving herself a hearty pat on the back for having the balls to break the APN legal guidelines scoop when no gutless mainstream media hack would, Cactus Kate finally got around to telling us what was in them.

“Not content with slashing their newsrooms and replacing real free-ranged [sic] journos with young battery hens,” she wrote, “they [APN] are now thrusting guidelines from Sydney upon editors such as the ones at New Zealand Herald. The thrust is all to do with NO budget allocated for legal action or defence [the bold type is Cactus Kate's] so the editors have basically been told not to run stories that could cause legal action or are risky in other ways.”

I’m afraid those antennae started twitching again here. When I see vague phrases such as “the thrust is all to do with” and fuzzy words like “basically” I wonder why we are not being shown the source material on which such claims are based.

If it’s true that APN editors have been told they have no budget for legal action or defence, and if this means editors have no money to consult lawyers over potentially risky stories, then that would certainly be cause for alarm. But it’s hard to tell from Cactus Kate’s vague paraphrasing whether this is in fact what it means, and in the meantime the Herald has published a statement by editor Tim Murphy categorically stating that “there is no truth whatsoever to the claim that our editorial legal budget has been restricted or that we need to alter our approach to legal challenges or threats over Herald stories. No cut. No change.”

Now it’s possible that Murphy has put his reputation at risk by telling a huge fib but somehow I doubt it. Moreover, his statement is clear and emphatic whereas Cactus Kate’s use of language such as “the thrust is all to do with” is suspiciously imprecise. So for the time being, I’m putting my faith in Murphy. Time will soon tell if the Herald has lost its nerve and stopped publishing risky stories, in which case people will notice and stop buying it.

So what of the other guidelines? Unlike the above, these are purportedly reproduced in their entirety on Cactus Kate’s blog, so we can judge for ourselves what they mean. And I’m afraid that for the most part, they strike me as standard advice from a big media firm that not surprisingly wants to keep a check on legal costs.

Let’s go through them one by one.

1. Conservative editorial approach
Editorial could take a more conservative approach to the subject matter and content of the risky or contentious articles. Where editorial identifies an issue or risk in an article the relevant passages could be proactively removed, or rewritten internally, to remove the perceived risk, as an alternative to obtaining legal advice on the risks of publication.

Cactus Kate condemns this as “utterly soft cock” and concludes that it means “the poor editor cannot even go and get legal advice as to whether to keep subject matter in an article. They have to basically remove the content as an alternative to obtaining legal advice!”

I don’t see where it says that. I read it as simply saying the “full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes” approach shouldn’t necessarily be the first option for an editor considering whether to run a risky story. I interpret the guideline as saying editors should weigh up whether the importance of the story justifies the potential legal risk. This is a routine judgment call which is made more or less daily on big newspapers, though Cactus Kate – not being a journalist – wouldn’t necessarily know that. Significantly, the guideline doesn’t say editors must take a more conservative approach or that relevant passages must be removed. Yes, it’s cautious; but that’s the way media lawyers are.

2. Checklist for common issues
There are a number of issues which have arisen repeatedly and have either required legal advice and the re-writing of articles, or have not received legal advice and have led to claims. Editorial could avoid the need for a reasonable amount of legal advice and potential claims by applying the following general guidelines:
a. In criminal reporting:
i. Avoid the publication of any information which discloses the fact that a person facing prosecution has any previous criminal convictions (in addition to revealing that directly, this includes reference to having been in prison, use of police “mug shots”, etc)
ii. Check whether there is any name suppression order, or order suppressing any particular evidence, and that no details are published which could lead to identification or revelation of the suppressed information.
iii. Be mindful that it can be contempt (as a breach of the sub judice rules) for the newspaper to carry out and publish its own investigations into matters that are before the Court, or to publish other evidence which may be contentious at trial.
b. Particular care should be taken to ensure that people are always correctly identified and that photographs accurately depict the intended people, and do not implicate unrelated people.
c. Avoid entirely, or take particular care in relation to, any allegations or implications of fraud, dishonesty, untruthfulness and other improper conduct, unless they can be clearly substantiated.

This is standard stuff that all journalism students learn (or should learn) in their media law classes. Nothing to see here, folks; move on.

Quivering with indignation, Cactus Kate then goes on: “This is not however the worst affront to investigative journalism - this is:

d. There are categories of people who are more inclined to sue if they are the subject of adverse publications, so particular care should be taken in reporting allegations of misconduct against lawyers, doctors, judges, other professionals, politicians, critics and wealthy businessmen/women.

I ask you, how outrageous is that? “Particular care should be taken”. Gasp!
Please note that it doesn’t say you must not write stories about these people – simply that if you do, you should check your facts and weigh your words very carefully so as not to give them an invitation to sue. Again, this advice won’t come as a surprise to any experienced journalist. It’s not merely standard editorial practice; it’s common sense. But Cactus Kate, in a rush of blood to the head, reads it as a signal that APN newspapers will no longer run stories that reflect badly on prominent people.

She writes: “It chops the cock off the rooster so to speak as most investigative pieces of journalism are by definition against the most successful people in society, or those with the most power such as politicians or judges. Bloggers will simply take you over as I have done in reporting on your behaviour as figures in your own industry gave me this story to run and not a MSM publisher.” (Dear me, she doesn’t write very well, does she? I think I can see why Fairfax dropped her as a columnist.)

But wait, she hasn’t finished. Cactus Kate then cites the following, highly incriminating “guidelines”:

e. It should be remembered that the fact that a publication merely repeats allegations or statements that have been made by other people does not provide a defence to a defamation claim if those statements cannot be substantiated; and that describing such statements as “allegations” or as “claims” rather than as facts does not necessarily provide a defence to a defamation claim (if, for example, the publication implies, or people may believe, that there is some substance to the allegations).
f. It should be remembered that when reporting any death that may have been self-inflicted that it is unlawful to publish any particulars relating to the manner in which the death occurred without the permission of the coroner before the inquest has been completed.
g. The fact that a story has been broken elsewhere without apparent repercussions does not necessarily mean that it is then safe for APN to pick it up. APN should make its own independent assessment of risk.

Ho-hum …. more standard legal advice of the sort that chief reporters and news editors have been handing out to gung-ho young reporters for decades. But CK sees it as the death knell for vigorous, investigative journalism. “APN are chickening out and creating MSM Lite in New Zealand,” she wails.

The guidelines so dramatically exposed by Cactus Kate are not so much a smoking gun as one of those toy pistols with a flag that comes out of the barrel saying “Bang!”. As Tim Murphy says in his statement on the New Zealand Herald website, her supposed exposé consists of “a heavily truncated mish-mash of unremarkable legal discussion points (a to g) in a 66-page media law training paper put together by our lawyers, Bell Gully, and provided to 80 or so participants from throughout APN. Nothing secret about them and nothing new.”

I suspect Cactus Kate’s secret informants either have a grudge against their employer (a possibility that incriminates APN’s entire editorial staff, since nearly all journalists heartily resent their bosses) or have played a practical joke. But at least she has the excuse of not being a journalist, and therefore not knowing how the business functions. The same can’t be said for Janet Wilson, a former television current affairs producer, now married to Bill Ralston, who energetically took up CK’s crusade on Mediawatch.

Wilson worked herself into a highly agitated state over the supposed timidity of media organisations but conspicuously failed to answer presenter Colin Peacock when he asked for examples of the media backing away from risky stories. The best she could do was relate a completely irrelevant anecdote relating to an investigative story she heroically (one assumes) got past TVNZ’s editors two and a half years ago, before she decided her future lay in running a media training company.

Perhaps Wilson was out of the country, or too busy instructing her clients in the dark art of deflecting problematical media inquiries, when The Dominion Post went to court to defend publication of the so-called Urewera terrorism files – just one example of the type of high-risk story she claims the media are no longer tackling.

Wilson was especially incensed over APN’s reported injunction to staff to “take particular care” with stories about potentially litigious people. Brushing aside presenter Colin Peacock’s reasonable protestation that such advice was nothing new, she uttered the tedious old cliché that one of the basic tenets of journalism was to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. (Actually that’s not, and has never been, a basic tenet of journalism, although the idea has successfully been planted in the heads of countless gullible journalism students, of whom Wilson was possibly one.)

Wilson even had the nerve to suggest that Murphy didn’t know about the instructions being given to editors in his own company (though Wilson of course does – yeah, right). “I think Tim is being left out of the loop,” she said. It was a strange, angry rant that made little sense and left me wondering why Mediawatch bothered.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Gary Glitter and the Morris Marina weren't good ideas either

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 11.)

Let me take you back to 1974.

New Zealanders were driving Holden Kingswoods, Morris Marinas and Hillman Hunters. Police cars were painted battleship grey.

An ailing Norman Kirk was prime minister and Sir Denis Blundell was Governor-General. The president of the Federation of Labour, Tom Skinner, was one of the most powerful men in the country.

Popular TV shows included Happen Inn and Upstairs, Downstairs. Philip Sherry and Bill Toft were reading the news and viewers were enjoying the novelty of colour, introduced just in time for the Christchurch Commonwealth Games. Television transmissions ended before midnight and there was no advertising on Sundays.

Flares, platform shoes, glitter and Afro hairstyles were all the rage. John Hanlon was topping the charts with Lovely Lady and Blazing Saddles was showing at the movies, along with The Towering Inferno.

Men still did most of their drinking in smoky public bars before staggering home to the missus. They drank Lion Brown and DB Draught because there was little else available.

McDonald’s hadn’t yet arrived in New Zealand and licensed restaurants were expensive places you went to for special events such as 21st birthday celebrations or wedding anniversaries.

Andy Leslie was captain of the All Blacks and rugby’s image was still untarnished by the 1976 Olympic Games boycott and the 1981 Springbok tour.

Feminism was in its infancy. The domestic purposes benefit had just been introduced and abortion was illegal.

CDs and DVDs hadn’t been invented and the internet, if anyone had thought of it, would have seemed the stuff of wild science fiction.

New Zealand had a highly protected economy that had been largely dependent on trade with Britain. We had not yet felt the full impact of the 1973 oil price shocks and the chronic inflation that was to follow, or the pain from Britain’s decision to abandon us by joining the European Economic Community.

It was the last year in which we enjoyed the same per capita income as Australians. New Zealand farmers, encouraged by generous taxpayer subsidies, had 56 million sheep compared with 34 million now. Milk – also generously subsidised – was four cents a pint.

It would be another 10 years before the government of David Lange, forced to take drastic action because of New Zealand’s dire economic predicament, pushed through a radical programme of deregulation that transformed the country.

You get the picture? New Zealand in 1974 was a very different place than it is now. It was, quite literally, a lifetime ago.

It was in this context that the accident compensation scheme, or ACC as it became known, was introduced. The concept of a universal, no-fault accident compensation scheme was a world first, and New Zealanders were proud of it. But the world moves on.

What’s intriguing about ACC is that because it seemed a good idea in 1974, many people insist it must still be a good idea now.

Flared trousers, Gary Glitter, Morris Marinas, import restrictions and lousy beer didn’t seem bad ideas in 1974 either, but no one is clamouring to reinstate them. So what’s so precious about ACC that it must be frozen in time, presumably as a permanent reminder of a warm, fuzzy era when a paternalistic state bandaged our knees and kissed us better?

The comparison with flares, beer and crappy British cars might seem frivolous, but you can see what I’m getting at. Nothing is permanent in a turbulent, dynamic world, and what seemed entirely appropriate and even visionary in 1974 may be hopelessly inefficient and anachronistic in 2009.

In 1974 we felt economically secure and we placed our trust in mummy state. That was even truer in 1967, when the Woodhouse Commission first proposed ACC.

At that time we enjoyed one of the world’s highest standards of living and probably felt we could afford a gold-plated accident compensation scheme that was, essentially, the biggest extension of the welfare state since the 1930s.

Not only have economic circumstances changed radically since then, but politicians have bought electoral support by weighing ACC down with ever greater responsibilities, usually in response to the special pleadings of aggrieved groups which exist in numbers unimagined 35 years ago.

On top of that, ACC exhibits all the usual symptoms of cumbersome bureaucracies that face no competition and therefore little pressure to perform. These symptoms include perversely paying long-term compensation to freeloaders and malingerers while simultaneously fighting tooth and nail to deny compensation to deserving cases, of which almost every New Zealander knows at least one example.

Yet whenever anyone dares to suggest the scheme should be modified or (horror!) exposed to competition, the opinions of Sir Owen Woodhouse, the architect of the scheme, are trotted out as if he remains the Oracle.

Sir Owen naturally feels proud of his baby, but with respect, he’s now 93, and though he’s still clearly as sharp as a tack, he should accept that New Zealand is a different country from the one in which he embarked on his ambitious social experiment.

ACC’s five principles – which included “community responsibility” for accidents, comprehensive entitlement regardless of what caused the accident, and compensation at 80 per cent of previous earnings – were in tune with the collectivist mood of the time. But they haven’t aged well in a society which has learned to its cost that many people will happily take something for nothing, and which has grown intolerant of people who expect others to pay for their own failure to behave safely or responsibly.

Sir Owen and his many supporters talk about these “principles” as if they are sacrosanct, but very few things are sacrosanct and institutions such as ACC should certainly not be regarded as permanently cast in stone. A radical overhaul of the entire accident compensation regime is long overdue.

Going cold turkey on the TV news

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, November 11.)

I HAVE ALMOST given up entirely on the television news.

This is not easy. Watching the TV news is like addiction to tobacco; you know it’s not good for you, but a lifetime habit is hard to break. There’s always the nagging fear that I might miss seeing something really important.

Fortunately the television networks, bless them, are doing their best to make the parting painless for me.

A watershed moment came when TV3 led its 6pm bulletin with coverage of Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe’s apology for the way the airline treated the families of those who died in the Mt Erebus tragedy in 1979.

The bulletin editors decided that in her preamble to the item, newsreader Hilary Barry should give viewers the benefit of her opinion on the airline’s behaviour 30 years ago. “Frankly, it stank”, Barry harrumphed.

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I neither expect nor want to hear facile editorial opinions from newsreaders – least of all from one who, by my reckoning, was about nine years old when Flight NZ901 slammed into Erebus, and who probably remembers less about it than many of her viewers. What gob-smacking effrontery.

Of course it may not have been Barry’s opinion at all, but words written by someone else for her to say – which, if anything, makes it worse. Was it Barry’s own opinion, in which case it was worth no more than that of the corner dairy owner, or was it the opinion of some anonymous TV3 person behind the scenes whose view might carry some weight if only we knew who the person was? It’s anyone’s guess.

The very vagueness of this editorial posturing makes it meaningless, yet at the same time slightly disturbing. Unlike a newspaper editorial, which is clearly an expression of opinion for which the editor takes responsibility, the viewers don’t know where this opinion emanated from or what, if any, importance to attach to it.

More disturbingly still, the promiscuously casual mixing of news and comment – long the journalistic stock-in-trade of TV3’s political editor Duncan Garner – means viewers increasingly have to guess which is which.

A few nights earlier, TV3 had repelled me with its highly opinionated coverage of the discovery of missing toddler Aisling Symes’ body in a stormwater drain at Henderson.

Being wise after the event, which is something TV reporters do very well, the journalist slagged off the police for not finding Aisling earlier. My guess is that the reporter was instructed to adopt her smugly moralistic tone. Certainly it wouldn’t have happened without her editors’ approval.

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 in 1931: “Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”.

What is noticeable about editorialising by TV journalists is that it seems calculated to exploit populist sentiment. They choose soft targets, playing to the public appetite for scapegoats and moral outrage.

It’s considered safe to heap scorn on Air New Zealand, especially since most of the people who might once have defended the airline are no longer around, and it’s considered safe to rubbish the police for not finding a dead toddler earlier, though there were good reasons why that didn’t happen, and Aisling’s life wouldn’t have been saved in any case.

Police, like politicians, are considered fair game in almost any circumstances.

A British newspaper journalist once wrote, tongue only partly in cheek, that editorial writers hid in the hills till the fighting was over, then came down and bayoneted the wounded. The same is now true of TV reporters.

This coincides with a fundamental change in the role of the TV journalist, whose primary function these days is not so much to impart important information as to provoke an emotional reaction from the viewer – be it grief, fear, anger, sympathy, disgust or whatever.

So I must now steel myself at 6 o’clock and try to ignore the temptation to switch on the TV set. Each evening I assess whether the benefit of anything I am likely to learn by watching the news will be outweighed by the irritation of sitting through so much pap. Most nights the balance of probabilities favours leaving the TV off.

The intrusion of editorial comment into the news is the proverbial last straw, coming on top of silly gimmickry like tandem newsreaders (can anyone remember when it took only one person to read the news?) and pointless live crosses to attractive reporters who have the language and pronunciation skills of pre-schoolers.

TVNZ offers no respite, since the two networks are locked in a downward spiral of crassness in which any new form of idiocy adopted by one is quickly mimicked by the other.

Newspapers can irritate me too, but there’s a vital difference. Reading the paper, you can see at a glance the stories you have no interest in reading – the depressing child abuse trial, the antics of celebrities you’ve never heard of – and pass over them.

Television doesn’t allow that luxury. You either endure the dross, hoping it will throw up an occasional nugget, or you forgo it altogether. More and more often, I’m choosing to do the latter.