Friday, March 26, 2010

Old Crow bring out the country aficionados

On Wednesday night my wife and I, with our daughter and her boyfriend, went to a concert by the Old Crow Medicine Show at the State Opera House in Wellington. If you’ve not heard of the OCMS, they’re an old-style American country band – old-style in the sense that they’re an acoustic “string band”, but with a fresh, contemporary spin. Rolling Stone magazine got it right (as even Rolling Stone must, once in a while) when it described OCMS as marrying old-time string music and punk swagger. Nashville-based, they’ve been described as melding bluegrass, alternative (“alt”) country, folk and traditional, old-time Americana – in other words, hard to pin down stylistically. I’d heard good reports about their last visit to Wellington last year and was determined not to miss them this time.

We weren’t disappointed. The OCMS throw a lot of energy into their performance and the crowd responded with a boisterous reception. Front man Ketch Secor cheesily ingratiated himself with the audience by making lots of jokey local references, gamely but accurately rattling off placenames like Wainuiomata and Paekakariki, and the punters lapped it up. The eclecticism of the band’s repertoire was highlighted by the inclusion of songs like the blues standard C C Rider and Dylan’s Corrina Corrina alongside more traditional acoustic country fare (I loved the wryly funny Let It Alone, sung in a quavering high pitch by guit-jo* player Kevin Hayes) and their signature tune, Wagon Wheel. In their willingness to plunder diverse strands of the American country-folk music tradition, OCMS reminded me of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In terms of musical virtuosity they’re not quite at the top of the ladder with, say, Alison Krauss and Union Station, but they’re certainly on the next rung down, and they play with a contagious exuberance.

What struck me even more, though, was the audience. Wellington isn’t exactly noted as a country music town, yet somehow enough people knew about OCMS to fill the Opera House. What’s more, it was a crowd as mixed as any you’re ever likely to see at a musical event: blokes and sheilas in roughly equal measure, and of all ages. And they knew the songs.

It wasn’t the first time I’d noted this phenomenon. Several years ago Gillian Welch and David Rawlings visited Wellington, and with very little advertising sold out the Paramount Theatre three nights in a row, as I recall. I wouldn’t have thought that many people in Wellington knew who Gillian Welch was, notwithstanding her performance – along with the aforementioned Krauss, among others – on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers movie O Brother Where Art Thou, which provided a Road-to-Damascus experience for many New Zealanders previously unexposed to old-time country music. (People were going straight from movie theatre to record shop to order the soundtrack, and many subsequently latched on to the documentary sequel, the magical Down From the Mountain.)

It’s not as if country gets a lot of airtime. Only National Radio finds space for it. Yet clearly there’s a subterranean enthusiasm for good country music that comes out into the open whenever acts like OCMS or Welch come to town.

Does this mean country music has finally overcome the sneering of New Zealand’s self-ordained cultural priesthood, who reflexively snigger at the very mention of the genre? As tempting as it might be, I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion. I know too many musical bigots, mostly masquerading as liberal sophisticates, who still associate country music with cheesy songs about horses and dogs. They make the mistake of confusing country music – a genre as wide and varied as pop, jazz or classical – with what is now often referred to as country and western, a sentimental, mutant sub-genre which grew out of the great American cowboy songs of the 1930s and 40s and survives mainly in New Zealand and Australia (and to some extent, oddly enough, in Ireland).

Invariably those who are most disparaging about country music are those who know least about it. For much of the past 40 years, I have bristled at their ignorant condescension. On occasions, like a bright-eyed missionary in 19th century Africa, I’ve misguidedly tried to convert musical heathens to the charms of outlaw music, country rock, honky-tonk, western swing, Appalachian folk, bluegrass, alt country, country gospel and all the other divergent strands that make up the vast country catalogue. Now I’ve come to realise that country music is something you either get or you don’t, and that's an end to it.

I must say, though, that it warmed the heart to see so many people getting it at the Opera House on Wednesday night.

Footnote: Special mention should be made of the Eastern (aka the Eastern Family), the Lyttelton-based country group that opened the show. Another acoustic string band, they tap into much the same vein of country roots music as OCMS, and do it with great panache, energy and authenticity. How does a great country band like this emerge from a South Island port town? Your guess is as good as mine.

* Guit-jo: a six-stringed instrument that combines the characteristics of the banjo and the guitar. It was a great pity that both Hayes’ guit-jo and Gill Landry's conventional five-string banjo were virtually inaudible for most of the night.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tramping without the scroggin and singalongs

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 17.)

Serious tramping has never appealed to me. The thought of having to endure a night trapped in a crowded hut with infuriatingly cheerful trampers wearing hand-knitted jerseys, munching scroggin and enjoying group singalongs makes my blood run cold.

But a one-day tramp … now that’s a different story. And so it was that my two daughters and I recently tackled what has been described as one of the finest one-day walks in the world: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

We booked into a backpackers’ lodge at National Park, which also provided transport to the start of the walk and a pickup at the end, and at 7.15am on a Saturday morning we set out.

When I say “we”, I mean us and several hundred others. A veritable convoy of buses and vans ferried walkers up the dusty Mangatepopo road to the start of the 19 km track.

For those thinking of undertaking this trip, here’s Tip No 1: if you like to experience your alpine rambling in solitude, forget about the Tongariro Crossing. Alternatively, do it midweek when the pressure is off. The crowd was such that at the first toilet stop, about one hour into the walk, there was a long queue outside the two dunnies. I suppose all that breakfast coffee has to go somewhere.

As we began the first long ascent above the headwaters of the Mangatepopo Stream, the sight of hundreds of trampers strung out down the track in single file struck me as resembling the escape of the Dalai Lama from Tibet. But as the day progressed and the gradient took its toll, what began as an unbroken procession gradually broke up and spread out.

Now here’s Tip No 2: when they describe the Tongariro Crossing as one of the world’s finest one-day walks, they are using that word “walk” rather loosely. It’s not a leisurely stroll through a gentle, neatly groomed landscape. It’s an alpine tramp that requires a greater degree of fitness than you might assume from reading the official information.

Much of the track is unformed, in places climbing steeply over rough terrain. About halfway up the ascent toward the Mangatepopo Saddle, which lies between Mounts Ngauruhoe and Tongariro, we passed a middle-aged man who appeared to have had little idea what he was letting himself in for. He was gasping for breath and looked distressed. I’d be very surprised if he completed the climb, let alone the entire walk. (In case you’re thinking we did an Everest and callously left him to die, there were family members with him.)

From the highest point of the track (1886 metres) there’s a steep descent down a narrow ridge that many walkers negotiated very gingerly. Once past that point, however, the terrain becomes gentler as the track crosses the Central Crater, passes the Blue Lake and winds around the flank of Mt Tongariro to the Ketetahi Springs before dropping into the shelter of beech forest. But even in the latter part of the walk the ground is rough in places and care has to be taken.

The payback for all this is, of course, the dramatic volcanic landscape – if you can see it. On the day we did the walk, the sky was bright and sunny to the west but cloud hung stubbornly over Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and neighbouring Ruapehu.

Much of the time visibility was down to a couple of hundred metres, but periodically the swirling mists would magically clear and we would find ourselves gazing at the summit of Ngauruhoe or down into the forbidding Red Crater, where wisps of sulphurous steam rising from fissures in the rock reminded us that this area is still volcanically active.

Here’s Tip No 3: no matter what the weather is like off the mountain, prepare for the worst. The day of our trip dawned bright and clear, but knowing how quickly the conditions could change in that alpine environment, we dressed for cold weather. I was glad we did, because a bitter wind was blowing.

An experienced tramper friend had told me how ill-prepared many people were for the Crossing, so I was pleased to note that most of our fellow walkers seemed well equipped. It was only toward the end that we struck a party heading the opposite way that included a teenage girl in T-shirt, shorts and bare feet – and no backpack. We could only hope one of her companions was carrying spare clothing and proper footwear, but you never know.

Now here’s something else that pleased me. All too often the people you encounter in places like the Tongariro Crossing are overwhelmingly foreign tourists. It seems they value our scenery more than we do. But on this day, though we heard several foreign languages, the majority of our fellow trampers were New Zealanders. That’s as it should be.

Our time for the walk was at the lower end of the 6-8 hours the Department of Conservation suggests people should allow. At the end, we waited in glorious sunshine for the bus to take us back to National Park. We were a bit stiff, but it was nothing that a soak in the hot pool at Tokaanu later in the afternoon wouldn’t fix.

In the evening, we enjoyed beers, burgers and fries at the pub adjacent to our accommodation. Now that beats scroggin and billy tea.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tuku and the gravy train

We are indebted to ACT MP David Garrett for providing us with a rare insight into the real nature of the Treaty gravy train.

A question put by Garrett in Parliament yesterday extracted the fascinating information that the Crown paid Tainui powerbroker Tukoroirangi Morgan $171,000 for 16 months’ work as a “facilitator”, a role which apparently involves “helping move other iwi through the [Treaty] settlement process”.

Nice work if you can get it. I don’t know exactly what the job demands but it doesn’t sound too onerous.

According to the New Zealand Herald, Morgan also banked $141,000 in director’s fees and a $100,000 “success fee” for completing Tainui’s Waikato River settlement.

Not bad for a former bumbling TV3 journalist – one who often had difficulty stringing a coherent sentence together – and failed MP, one of the self-aggrandising, opportunist Mauri Pacific Party (founded by his brother-in-law Tau Henare, now a National MP) that broke away from New Zealand First.

The voters wisely ditched Mauri Pacific at the first opportunity, but you have to hand it to Tuku – he’s nothing if not a survivor. He has very successfully, and very lucratively, re-invented himself as some sort of elder statesman of Maoridom.

He is close to the heart of power in the wealthy Tainui tribe and clearly wields influence in government circles. But whenever I see him holding forth on TV in the manner of a dignified and respected kaumatua, looking very imposing with his silver hair and expensive camel-hair overcoat, I still see the grasping freeloader who famously spent $4000 of Aotearoa Television funds on personal clothing – including $85 on a pair of underpants. And I’m sorry, but it offends me that that my taxes are finding their way into his pocket (silk-lined, no doubt).

Morgan briefly and tellingly let his carefully cultivated statesmanlike image slip yesterday when the Herald asked him about Garrett’s suggestion in Parliament that he was double-dipping. “I’m not going to enter into this kind of crap,” he reportedly said. “I don’t give a shit about what David Garrett is saying.”

Way to go, Tuku. That’s the spirit.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Going where no country has gone before

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, March 16.)

NOW that the heat has gone out of the global warming scare, if you’ll pardon the pun, how is our government going to justify its ill-conceived emissions trading scheme?

When the ETS kicks in later this year and people start squealing about higher power and fuel prices, how will National explain the fact that New Zealand, alone in the world, has chosen this quixotic stance?

At the time National rushed through its ETS legislation late last year, the global warming alarmists were in full cry and the government was eager to make a good impression ahead of the Copenhagen climate conference.

We all know what’s happened since then. Copenhagen was a fiasco and the discredited climate change alarmists are in undignified retreat.

The credibility of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which National relied on to justify its ETS) has been shredded and the really serious polluters, such as China and India, are carrying on unrepentantly.

In Australia, the United States and the other developed economies with which New Zealand trades, policies to counter global warming are stalled.

Meanwhile, here’s good old Enzed going it alone with an ETS that is going to cost a huge amount – some estimates are as high as $1 billion a year – and won’t make a blind bit of difference to global warming, assuming such a phenomenon exists.

When people see their already extortionate power bills rising later this year to pay for the ETS, prime minister John Key will have to do an awful lot of smiling to convince people it was a good idea.

* * *

I GENERALLY like Americans – heck, one of my children is married to one – but I wish something could be done to check the spread of some of their more irritating expressions.

My electricity company, which I’m disposed not to like anyway, insists on sending me email newsletters exhorting me to “Listen Up!”. Nothing is more guaranteed to ensure I hit the delete key.

Whatever offers Genesis may be dangling in front of me, I’m not remotely interested in hearing from a company that addresses me in the language of skateboarders and US Army drill instructors.

Facebook, meanwhile, sends me emails that start, “Hey, Karl”, as if assuming I’m one of those people who chew gum and wear a baseball cap back to front.

Addressing me with the words “Hey, Karl” does nothing to enhance my enthusiasm for Facebook, which I have come to regard as the digital equivalent of a dog turd that sticks to your shoe and defies all attempts to shake it loose.

* * *

BELATED congratulations are due to the Dunedin District Court judge who refused to continue a suppression order on the name of former Green MP Sue Bradford’s son, who was acquitted on charges of sexual violation.

Judge Paul Kellar acknowledged it was unfortunate that the stigma associated with serious allegations was rarely erased by acquittal, but said he had to weigh up whether the harm caused by publication of the accused’s name outweighed the public interest in open justice and the freedom to receive information (as set out in our Bill of Rights Act).

That Bradford’s mother was a high-profile person was not a determining factor in his decision, Judge Kellar said. “The law should apply equally to all.”

These are simple principles that many judges seem to have difficulty grasping, judging by the suppression orders granted recently to rugby players, entertainers, businessmen and a former MP.

When I was a court reporter decades ago, name suppression was rarely requested and even more rarely granted. Hard-bitten magistrates took a lot of persuading that offenders’ names should be kept secret because their grandma was sick, or they might jeopardise their career prospects, or any other of the plethora of excuses that were commonly advanced. “Tough luck” was the usual response from the Bench.

If name suppression was then the exception rather than the rule, these days it often seems the reverse is true – especially on defendants’ first appearances, when suppression now seems almost routine.

One of the most dangerous consequences of soft suppression rulings, especially those that create an impression of protection for the privileged, is that they undermine public confidence in the courts – a risk you’d expect judges, of all people, to be acutely aware of.

* * *

I WELCOME approaches from people who might wish to join me in forming the Happy Philistines Society Inc, for people who have no interest whatsoever in attending anything to do with the International Arts Festival now on in Wellington.

Being of a curious disposition, I peruse all the articles and reviews about festival events – I can hardly avoid it, since they take up a big chunk of my Dominion Post – and I’m satisfied that I haven’t missed a thing. Better still, I have saved myself a heap of money that I can spend on worthwhile purchases like Barry Manilow CDs.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A few thoughts on victim impact statements

Yesterday’s Dominion Post carried a story about a 23-year-old man who prowled the Internet looking for young girls. Douglas Charles Segetin pleaded guilty to three charges of unlawful sexual connection involving two 14-year-olds whom he'd met online.

It was, sadly, an unexceptional story. The Net provides opportunities that previous generations of sexual predators couldn’t even dream of.

But what caught my interest were the published excerpts from the victim impact statement made by one of the girls. I think I know enough about teenage girls to know how they talk, and this was not the language of a 14-year-old girl. It was the language of counsellors and therapists. Here are a few examples:

“I feel angry, disgusted and dirty whenever he comes to my mind, which is almost always more than once in a day.”

“You robbed me of … my personality, my faith and my trust in people and my courage.”

“I often turned to self harm because that was the only way I felt in control … even to this day I struggle with not trying to do it.”

“When it’s really bad all I can do is cry and think of the most horrible ways I could end my life because I just want everything to be over with. I want the old me back. I hate myself.”

“Did you ever think of how much pain, sadness, anger, guilt and grief you would cause? I want to cut you open just like you did to me – it wasn’t physically, it was mentally and emotionally.”

“I just want you to hurt like I hurt. Feel what I feel. When I look in the mirror I see this ugly, sad, damaged girl looking back. I just hope with all of my heart that some day I will get over this without too much permanent damage.”

Now I don’t want to play down the emotional impact of this girl’s experience, but this sort of thing worries me. The girl’s victim impact statement is couched in the familiar victim-speak used by sexual abuse counsellors and it wouldn’t surprise me if she had been coached to use phrases such as “robbed me of … my faith and my trust” and “I often turned to self harm because that was the only way I felt in control”. I don’t believe these are words or concepts that would come naturally and spontaneously to a typical 14-year-old girl.

Rather than trying to move past whatever trauma she experienced as a result of her encounter with Segetin, she seems to be reliving it; almost fixating on it, in fact. Is this cathartic, as we’re supposed to believe, or does it have the reverse effect of encouraging the victim to go through the rest of her life feeling “damaged”?

In a previous generation the girl would have been given some kind advice that might have gone something like this: you made a mistake, you got tricked, you had a bad experience. It wasn’t your fault. Learn from it, try to put it behind you and get on with your life. But the fashion for self-absorption and the cult of victimism demand that victims of sexual abuse immerse themselves in their misery and dig deep to uncover pain that might be better left buried.

You have to wonder if these victims have been abused twice over – once by their attacker and a second time by counsellors and therapists.

You have to wonder, too, about the wisdom of articulating these emotions directly to the perpetrator of the offence in the courtroom. Does this process empower the victim? Please tell me how. And does it induce shame and penitence on the part of the offender, as we’re led to believe, or does it give him the satisfaction of enjoying the victim’s pain and degradation all over again? Given that most of these male offenders are indifferent to the suffering of their victims, and are probably motivated in some measure by sadistic impulses, are we really expected to believe that victim impact statements will strike some chord of empathy and contrition?

In the above case, the mother of the girl delivered a victim impact statement of her own that was almost more emotive than the daughter’s. What’s the point? Does it make the victim feel better? Does it make the offender feel worse?

And since I’m on the subject, there’s another aspect of victim impact statements that makes me uneasy. Justice Minister Simon Power, who shows a marked inclination to announce policy changes on the hoof in response to the media firestorm of the moment, has initiated a review of the law that restricts what victim impact statements may say. This followed a public outcry over the censoring of the statement that the father of murder victim Sophie Elliott wanted to read at the sentencing of Sophie’s killer, Clayton Weatherston, and a subsequent controversy over statements by female relatives of Lower Hutt murder victim Mihi Tuhoro. In the latter case, the judge cut out bits of the statements but one of the two women defiantly read hers in its unedited form, apparently without protest from the bench.

Under current law, as I understand it, victims are restricted to talking about how the crime has affected them personally. It supposedly doesn’t permit them to say what they think about the perpetrator or how they would like him/her to suffer (although you have to wonder how strictly the law is applied, given some of the statements made in the Segetin case).

Comment on the heinousness of the crime has traditionally been the judge’s preserve, as it should be if the courts are to retain some semblance of restraint and dignity. But the mood of the times demands that people must be free to parade their emotional pain publicly in the interests of obtaining what is loosely called “closure”. Power appears to be pandering to this fashionable compulsion.

It’s probably futile, given the mood of the times, to point out that courts exist to dispense justice, not to provide emotional therapy. They are supposed to be places where the law is administered soberly and dispassionately.

If victims of crime are to be given the right to express their outrage, free of judicial restraint, courts risk becoming forums for unrestrained outpourings that more properly belong on Oprah-style TV shows and in women’s mags and tabloid newspapers.

What will come next? Whooping and whistling from teams of supporters in the public galleries? It may pander to the public taste for displays of sentiment, but it has very little to do with the justice that the courts are supposed to dispense.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Could the crowd (or the lack thereof) be the deciding factor?

It can hardly have escaped anyone’s attention that the Wellington Phoenix play Sydney FC tonight for a place in the final of the A-League football competition. But in all the welter of words devoted to this match, I don’t think I’ve seen or heard any mention of what could surely be the deciding factor.

Phoenix have built a reputation for being virtually unbeatable at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium, where their home fans provide deafening support. Last week’s match against the Newcastle Jets attracted a roaring crowd of more than 33,000 – a prodigious number in a country where football (or soccer, if you prefer) has traditionally been something of a Cinderella code.

That level of highly demonstrative support not only invigorates the Phoenix but must also have an intimidating effect on their opponents. It helped the All Whites, too, when they scraped into the World Cup at Westpac Stadium last November by beating Bahrain. Coach Ricki Herbert (who also coaches the Phoenix) conceded after that game – which the All Whites won 1-0 – that it was the vocal backing of the home crowd that got his team “over the line”.

My question is this: how will the Phoenix perform in Sydney tonight without the rowdy, rapturous support they have become accustomed to on their home turf? It must make a difference. They will be playing on enemy territory, in front of a smaller crowd, against a formidable side that has beaten the Phoenix three times this season and has the home ground advantage. There will of course be Phoenix supporters in the crowd, but not nearly enough to replicate the intense atmosphere of the Westpac Stadium.

It would be great to see the Phoenix win against the odds, but I have a sneaky feeling that our sports journalists are so elated at a New Zealand side getting into the preliminary final that they don’t want their enjoyment of the moment ruined by a reality check.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

So much for freedom of speech

Information and ideas are the oxygen and food of democracy. We need information on which to make judgments about who we want to govern us and how well they’re doing it. And we need ideas to promote debate about public policy and governance. Without these, democracy can’t function.

It follows that we should be open to ideas and debate. That’s the essence, surely, of a liberal democracy. It’s recognised both by common law – which sanctions the expression of ideas even when the majority considers them deeply offensive – and by statute law, which (in New Zealand’s case) guarantees the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinion of any kind and in any form”. And why wouldn’t it? Without the right to exchange and debate ideas, society would risk stagnation.

Against this background, there’s something disturbing about the way ACT MP David Garrett was howled down for his suggestion that parents with a record of serious child abuse should be offered money to undergo sterilisation.

Garrett put forward the idea on Kiwiblog and seemed to be making it up on the spot. It certainly didn’t emerge as a fully formed policy proposal, still less one that involved any element of compulsion. “If – say – $5000 was paid to the likes of both parents of the Kahui twins if they chose to be sterilised, this would address many … concerns,” Garrett wrote. “Nothing compulsory, just an option.”

The “ifs” demonstrate the tentative nature of the suggestion. Yet Garrett’s idea, once in the hands of the media, quickly morphed into a black-hearted manifesto reminiscent of the vilest excesses of Nazism. On One News that night, the item was illustrated with archival footage of a Nuremberg-style Nazi rally. (One News can do this safe in the knowledge that no one will protest, since no one expects any better of the state broadcaster.)

Critics of Garrett’s idea seemed incapable of seeing past the spurious association with eugenics, with all its connotations of enforced selective breeding. His explicit disavowal of any form of compulsion was quickly and conveniently forgotten. Given that New Zealand’s child abuse record is a source of continuing national shame, you’d think we’d be eager to debate all and any possible solutions. But no; the reflexive hissing and booing stifled virtually all prospect of Garrett’s suggestion being soberly and dispassionately assessed. Even his own party leader took fright and ran for cover.

I am not a fan of David Garrett and I don’t have a view on the merits of his sterilisation idea, but I do believe it merited a public conversation that went beyond kneejerk allusions to Hitler. It worries me that in one of the world’s most liberal democracies, which New Zealand undoubtedly is, debate can be shut down simply because an idea offends prevailing political sensibilities. It worries me even more when elements in the news media, which should be fostering and facilitating debate, appear to be complicit in stifling it.

There is a fine line between legitimately criticising an idea and creating such an intimidatory firestorm that people in future will be forced to think very carefully before daring to express a view that might be controversial, provocative or unpopular. My own feeling is that we crossed that line last week, or at least came perilously close to it. When we snuff out debate about ideas, we are no better than the Muslim fanatics who declare death sentences on Danish cartoonists for daring to draw images of the great prophet.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The end of the affair

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 3.)

My brief relationship with Facebook is over. In retrospect, I now realise it was doomed from the start.

The age difference was against us. Facebook is a bright young thing – gregarious and outgoing, a compulsive social networker at ease with an online world in which people share their intimate secrets.

I, on the other hand, am crotchety and suspicious. I guard my privacy and quickly lose patience with the unfathomable protocols of navigating in cyberspace. I have reached that point in life when time becomes precious – too precious by far to waste trying to master the intricacies of a social networking website.

In other words Facebook and I were fundamentally incompatible. Last week, realising we had no future, I broke off the relationship – or, in the sterile language of the digital age, I de-activated my Facebook account.

I admit it was painful. Over long, sleepless nights, I had come to terms with the futility of it all. Facebook, however, remained full of hope and optimism to the end, convinced we could make it work.

She didn’t make the breakup easy. When I clicked the “Deactivate” box on my computer screen, up came photos of all my Facebook “friends”. “Your Facebook friends will miss you,” said the accompanying message reproachfully. “Are you sure you want to deactivate?”

I guiltily averted my eyes from the beaming faces before deciding this was a low-grade form of emotional blackmail and clicked again to confirm. Our unhappy relationship was over.

I would like to think it was an amicable parting. I bear Facebook no ill-will and she, once the initial shock had subsided, seemed open to the prospect of a reconciliation. At least I must assume as much, because only minutes after deactivating my account I received an email from Facebook inviting me to reactivate my account at any time. No hard feelings, no recriminations.

Looking back, I can now see that the relationship was strained from the start.

It came about by accident when my daughter sent me an email inviting me to look at the latest online photos of my grandsons. To do so, I had to click on a link that took me to Facebook.

If only I’d known where that fateful click was going to lead. Facebook wasn’t prepared to let me look at my grandsons without finding out a few things about me first, such as my name, my sex and my date of birth.

I impatiently filled in the necessary details, not realising that in the process, I was creating my own Facebook page. (For the benefit of those sensible enough not to dabble in such things, Facebook is what’s known as a social networking website where you can share messages, photographs and suchlike with “friends” online.)

So fast and slick was Facebook’s act of cyber-seduction that I was entangled in her web without realising what was happening. Within minutes – literally minutes! – I was being bombarded with requests from people wanting to be my Facebook “friends”.

I don’t mean to give the impression that I’m an exceptionally popular or charismatic individual whom everyone is eager to befriend. As flattering as that might be, I suspect the same thing happens to everyone who joins Facebook. They become part of a virtual community in cyberspace and everyone else rushes to welcome them.

Some people may find this charming but I found it oddly unsettling. However, not wanting to seem churlish, I agreed – albeit rather uneasily – to become their friend. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be friendly with them, you understand; it’s just that I didn’t know where all this was going to lead, or whether I could control it. Besides, I had always been a pathological non-joiner.

How these “friends” instantly knew I was on Facebook is one of those mysteries that only a computer geek can explain. Suffice it to say that receiving all those welcome messages was a bit like joining one of those strange religious sects – the Moonies, perhaps, or Hare Krishna – where you are so overwhelmed by friendliness and goodwill that you couldn’t possibly offend your new-found companions by saying that you’d rather they kept their distance.

People then started putting messages and pictures on something called my “wall”. I was invited to respond but demurred, not wishing to conduct such public conversations. I was aware there were ways of configuring my Facebook “settings” so as to ensure privacy, but really – was it worth the time and effort? I decided it wasn’t, especially since I had other ways of contacting these people if I really wanted to.

I thus resolved to leave my Facebook page in a state of permanent hiatus, as it were, hoping it would die a painless death from benign neglect. People would soon stop visiting my page, I reasoned, if there was nothing to see there. But alas, I was forced to bring matters to a head.

In the process of entering my personal details on Facebook I had been required, as mentioned before, to give my date of birth. Normally I am fussily proper in such circumstances, but on this occasion I lost patience with the hoops I was being asked to jump through and impetuously chose a birth date at random. Sharp-eyed readers of my Facebook profile, including my daughters, subsequently chided me for shaving a couple of decades off my age, but what the heck.

What I hadn’t counted on was my Facebook friends sending me birthday messages. And so it happened that on February 22, the date I had fraudulently entered as my date of birth, I was embarrassed by a string of effusive greetings – five months early.

This presented me with a dilemma. Did I accept the birthday greetings, thus compounding my harmless act of dishonesty, or did I risk offending and humiliating my well-wishers – and possibly alienating them for all time – by telling them they’d been taken in by a bogus date?

I chose to confess my sin, but was deeply embarrassed at having to do so. It was at that point I decided my relationship with Facebook couldn’t simply be allowed to wither on the vine. Who knew what other traps I might fall into in the meantime? No, the relationship had to be terminated.

Sorry, de-activated.

So Warhol was right after all

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, March 2.)

THAT creepy little man Andy Warhol said that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. For years I didn’t have a clue what he was on about, but his prediction has eerily come true.

“Reality” television offers everyone a brief shot at celebrity – and boy, don’t people queue up to grab it. Whatever this says about the state of the human race, or at least the state of the human race in supposedly advanced societies like ours, it’s not flattering.

The factor common to virtually all reality TV shows is that participants must be willing to humiliate themselves twice over: first in front of some god-like, judgmental figure(s) on the programme and again in front of the television audience.

In the latest examples of Warhol-style television, contestants vie with each other in The Apprentice New Zealand and MasterChef New Zealand, both derived from international franchises.

I refuse to watch The Apprentice, but I gather participants are expected to indulge in ruthless back-stabbing in order to seek favour. This is not my idea of uplifting entertainment.

Now, MasterChef New Zealand. Television is so obsessed with cooking programmes that food has been described as the new sex. But are people actually cooking more, or cooking better, as a result of watching all this foodie porn? I wonder. The appeal of cooking programmes, like most shows masquerading as “reality” TV, is essentially voyeuristic, which makes the comparison with porn and sex all the more apt.

I’ve watched MasterChef only in bite-sized chunks, if I may use a gustatory metaphor. I would get a severe bilious attack if I tried to consume an entire show.

But I have seen enough to confirm that all the predictable elements are in place: portentous music, dramatic camera angles and tight editing to ramp up the tension; close-ups of contestants looking apprehensive and even tearful, as if their lives depend on surviving the cull at the end of each programme; and of course the stony-faced, omniscient judges, who are presented as super-beings to whom all must bow in awe.

The entire programme is imbued with an air of gravitas more befitting a murder trial, which serves only to accentuate the absurdity.

You have to wonder why self-respecting adults would allow themselves to be bullied and grovel submissively before fellow human beings whose only claim to distinction, for heaven’s sake, is that they know how to cook a steak medium-rare or prepare a perfect crème brulee. For their part, the judges look even more ridiculous, imperiously denouncing participants for their culinary transgressions before theatrically banishing them to the outer darkness where, we must assume, no hope resides.

The only touch needed to complete the pantomime is for the judges to don black caps and pronounce the words: “Your soufflé collapsed. I sentence you to be taken to a place of execution and there to be hanged by the neck until dead”.

* * *

THE CASE of Benjamin Easton, reported in this newspaper last week, is a striking example of the overweening sense of entitlement that weighs down the groaning welfare system.

Mr Easton collected an unemployment benefit not because he couldn’t get a job (although given what we now know about him, he may have great difficulty finding an employer willing to take him on), but because he had taken it upon himself to rescue the citizens of Wellington from their own council.

He went on the dole so that he could devote himself full-time to a campaign against allowing buses in what is now Manners Mall. No one asked him to do this, mind you. He just knew that this was what people would want, and that it was all for the good of his fellow citizens.

Never mind that the residents of Wellington elect a council to make decisions on their behalf. Mr Easton, displaying the customary intellectual arrogance and moral superiority of the Left, selflessly decided to save them from their own folly.

He probably reasoned that if only we could see the righteousness of his cause, we would be delighted to subsidise him in pursuit of his goal.

But not content with this humungous conceit, Mr Easton went further. He occupies a ratepayer-subsidised council flat while 380 people – some of whom, it can be assumed, are genuinely needy – languish on the waiting list.

He justifies this by saying that “As soon as democracy didn’t work for me I felt justified going into a council flat and taking a public wage”. So to his sense of entitlement we must add a sense of grievance and injustice.

Democratic decisions work against other people too, but most shrug their shoulders and get on with life.

Meanwhile the number of New Zealanders on welfare goes on climbing. Sickness benefits are up by a staggering 80 percent since 1999, invalid benefits by 63 percent. The ease with which Mr Easton was able to secure a benefit will only confirm people’s concerns that the welfare system is a soft touch.

The sad fact is that he is not alone in assuming that the rest of us owe him a living. There are thousands more like him. The difference is that Mr Easton is stupid enough to admit it.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Michael Laws and the Wanganui Chronicle

It’s stating the obvious to say there’s a natural tension between the media and politicians. Whenever the subject comes up the tendency is to think in terms of central government – Robert Muldoon’s infamous 1983 ban on The Dominion, for example. But some of the most unpleasant outbreaks of hostility between politicians and the media occur at local government level and often take place largely out of the public view.

When I was news editor of the Nelson Evening Mail (as it was then) in the 1980s, Nelson had a belligerent, autocratic mayor named Peter Malone. Malone fiercely resented the fact that the Mail not only closely scrutinised Nelson City Council affairs but had the audacity to provide a platform for his opponents. It wasn’t enough for him that the paper’s coverage was fair and balanced (which it was); he resented being held accountable and wanted a compliant paper that would provide bland and uncritical coverage – in other words, do a PR job. He took issue with virtually every story that didn’t portray the council, and the mayoralty, in a good light. I never had to deal with Malone’s harangues but Rick Neville, the editor, frequently did; and even Rick, who was no softie (along with Richard Long, he had borne Muldoon’s wrath for publishing leaked Budget documents while working as a political reporter for the Dom), found him difficult. A weaker editor would have been intimidated by Malone’s aggression and intensity – which of course was his aim.

Many years later I was involved in a long-running stoush between the Evening Post and the mayor of Lower Hutt, John Terris. Terris was a very different personality from Peter Malone. In-your-face bullying was not his style. But he was a very shrewd and experienced politician who exerted tight control over his council and his city. I believe he greatly resented the fact that the one element he couldn’t control in Lower Hutt affairs was the Evening Post’s stroppy local reporter Hank Schouten, who infuriated Terris by constantly unearthing embarrassing stories that showed the council, and sometimes Terris himself, in a bad light. This of course was exactly what a good reporter is supposed to do, but it drove Terris to distraction and he waged a determined campaign to discredit Hank – with the aim, I believe, of having him removed or reassigned. Again, a timid editor might have been worn down by the constant pressure and nitpicking; but Sue Carty, then editor of the Post, was a lot tougher than she looked (as many people discovered, to their cost). As long as she was satisfied Hank was simply doing his job, Terris could huff and puff for all he was worth – it wouldn’t get him anywhere.

These are just two examples from my own experience of controlling mayors trying to exert pressure on local media. Doubtless there are many others that I don’t know about. In cities run by dominating mayors, the local paper – if it’s doing its job properly – may be the only effective check on their power. In such cases, conflict is almost inevitable.

Only occasionally do these tensions erupt in full public view – as is happening currently in Wanganui, where mayor Michael Laws is engaging in some industrial-strength unpleasantness against the Wanganui Chronicle. Of course Laws loves a scrap, and the more public the better; it’s meat and drink to him. He thrives on combat and is accustomed to browbeating opponents.

Laws has taken the blowtorch to the Chronicle because … well, I guess because he doesn’t like the way the Chronicle reports things. Local health politics and lingering ill-feeling over the great spelling issue (Wanganui or Whanganui?) seem to be factors, judging by press statements emanating from the mayoral office (which you can find simply by googling Michael Laws and Wanganui Chronicle, or by going to Laws’ self-adulatory website He accuses the paper of editorial bias (now where I have heard that before?) and complains that its coverage of council issues over the past five years – in other words, since Laws became mayor – has been abysmal. This week he upped the heat by issuing an open letter in which he told the new editor, Ross Pringle, that he (Pringle) was the latest in a long line of “inconsequential” Chronicle editors. Such personal animus is a Laws trademark. Whether it’s the sort of behaviour the people of Wanganui expect from their mayor is another matter.

The real issue, it seems to me, is an age-old one: Laws wants to be in control of things and the Chronicle is making it difficult for him. It’s an irritant. So he’s out to hector, harass and if necessary starve the paper into submission.

On one level this makes great spectator sport, especially when the TV cameras go into the Wanganui District Council chamber to show Laws in mayoral attire – T-shirt and jeans – fulminating against the Chronicle. (Is it just me, or was there a slightly demented glint in his eye on One News a couple of nights ago?) But Laws is going beyond mere bluster. He wants to pull a council-prepared Community Link page from the Chronicle and have it published elsewhere. This would reportedly deprive the Chronicle of $100,000 in revenue at a time when local newspapers are already struggling for survival. Is this a proper use of mayoral power? Councillors held Laws back at Tuesday’s council meeting but the matter will come up again at forthcoming annual plan meetings and it would be out of character for him not to persevere until he gets his way.

So who’s in the right here? I’m sure the Chronicle has made mistakes and errors of judgment – what newspaper doesn’t? But any allegations of bias can be tested by the Press Council. I’d be more inclined to respect its opinion than that of Laws, who is not exactly a neutral party.

For his part, Laws has in many ways been a good mayor for Wanganui. He has greatly lifted the profile of a city that was in danger of sinking out of view, much as Tim Shadbolt did for Invercargill. But he also has an ego the size of St John’s Hill, and an apparent intolerance of anything remotely resembling opposition. His response to resistance (as he demonstrated last year against the unfortunate Otaki schoolgirls) is to mount a crushing attack. In other words he’s a bully.

In situations like this I ask, who has most to gain? And the answer that comes back is that Laws has much more to gain from subduing the Chronicle than the Chronicle has from running what Laws suggests is a biased and unfair crusade against him. And now he’s using public money as leverage to get his own way.

It’s not unheard of for powerful institutions – and in this context the Wanganui District Council is a powerful institution – to apply financial pressure in an attempt to bring troublesome media to heel. When I was editor of The Dominion the paper’s biggest advertiser, Telecom, pulled all its advertising because the then CEO, Peter Troughton, didn’t like the coverage his company was getting. It caused the paper a lot of pain but the late Mike Robson, then managing director of the Dom’s parent company, INL, held firm and Telecom was back within a matter of weeks. If Laws goes ahead with his threat, I hope APN – owners of the Chronicle – display the same resolve.

The two situations are not strictly analogous, of course, because Laws’ threat involves the use of public money to score a political point – and in a manner that may not be in the public interest, if it means the council’s Community Link page ends up being used less effectively. The bottom line is that when politicians parade themselves as arbiters of journalistic neutrality and fairness, we should automatically suspect base motives.

An anomaly explained and corrected

Note to readers: Ever since I started this blog the times displayed on my posts have been about 20 hours behind real New Zealand time. Obviously the default time setting for, the blog host, is Pacific standard time in the US. I realise this must have been confusing for readers at times, especially if I posted a blog relating to something shown on New Zealand TV on Wednesday night and the dateline above suggested I had posted the blog on Tuesday. (Whatever my talents, prescience isn’t one of them.)

It occasionally occurred to me that there must be a way of changing the settings to correct this anomaly but I never got around to it, reasoning that either it wasn’t important or that readers of the blog would figure things out for themselves. Besides, technical stuff like computer settings is an irritation I try to avoid. However, sharp-eyed readers may note that I finally decided to do something about it. Henceforth, my blogs will accurately display the time they were posted. My apologies for any head-scratching my dilatoriness might have caused in the past – and my compliments to, because when I finally got around to changing the time setting it was a very quick and easy exercise.

A case of Morning Report misjudging its listeners?

I had to laugh listening to Morning Report today. Interviewing former Children’s Commissioner Ian Hassall about ACT MP David Garrett’s suggestion that parents with a record of child abuse be offered $5000 as an incentive to undergo sterilisation, Geoff Robinson mentioned in an unusually disparaging tone (unusual because Robinson is usually scrupulously neutral) that the lines had been running hot in “Talkback Land” with calls favouring Garrett’s idea. To which Hassall - who peremptorily dismissed Garrett's suggestion as absurd - replied with a barely suppressed sneer: “That’s what you would expect”. The unspoken assumption by both interviewer and interviewee seemed to be that Morning Report played to a morally and intellectually superior audience that was above the crude redneckery displayed by talkback callers. How interesting, then, that when emails from Morning Report listeners were read out later in the programme, they ran strongly in favour of Garrett’s proposal – or at least in favour of having a discussion about it, which seemed to be all that Garrett was asking himself.