Thursday, May 26, 2011

It's all about intimacy - or more precisely, the denial of it

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

A recent report on sexual abuse by priests in the United States conveniently lets the Catholic Church off the hook in crucial respects.

Researchers appointed by Catholic bishops concluded that homosexuality, the vow of celibacy and the all-male priesthood were not factors in the epidemic of clerical abuse uncovered in recent decades.

Rather, the researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Research in New York seemed to pin much of the blame on the fact that many offenders were trained for the priesthood during the 1940s and 1950s, a period when Catholic seminaries did not adequately prepare them for a life of celibacy.

They concluded that priests were not equipped to withstand the social upheaval of the 1960s, when traditional standards of morality were overturned.

I’m sure their findings are at least partly right, but I wonder whether their report is a bit of a copout.

Consciously or otherwise, researchers tend to produce findings that satisfy whoever is paying them – in this case, the Catholic Church.

Church authorities would be naturally reluctant to acknowledge that celibacy – the rule that priests cannot marry – might be a factor in the sexual abuse that has scandalised the church since the 1980s. They are probably even more reluctant to concede that having an all-male priesthood might be part of the problem.

Any such findings would challenge traditional Catholic teaching, which is firmly set against allowing priests to marry and even more resistant to the ordination of women. So it seems convenient that the John Jay report ruled out celibacy and the all-male priesthood as causes of clerical abuse.

Phew; no need for the Catholic hierarchy to re-assess its position on celibacy and female priests then. That must have come as a relief.

The conclusion that abusive priests weren’t necessarily homosexuals, as suspected by church conservatives seeking easy explanations, would have been reassuring too, but it’s hardly new. A courageous retired Australian bishop named Geoffrey Robinson, who was ostracised after arguing that forced celibacy was a cause of abuse within the Church, maintains that the reason boys were the victims in the overwhelming majority of abuse cases was simply that priests had greater access to boys than to girls.

In Catholic schools, for example, boys were generally looked after by priests and girls by nuns. Priests also had contact with altar boys, so boys presented more opportunities. (The one case of sexual abuse by a priest that I personally know of involved an altar boy.)

Another factor, according to Robinson, who worked with victims of clerical abuse, was that many abusive priests didn’t consider offending with boys to be a breach of their celibacy vow. They reasoned that they were only in violation of their vow if they had sex with adult women – an interesting rationalisation, to say the least.

One thing seems screamingly obvious, although I’ve never seen the Catholic Church acknowledge it. From a layman’s point of view, what emerges from the research into clerical abuse in the Catholic Church is that it’s all about the basic human need for intimacy.

By being denied the right to marry or form close relationships, priests are deprived of the warmth and intimacy that human beings naturally crave. In theory, they have no need of intimate physical relationships because they devote themselves wholly to God. But priests are still human; ordination doesn’t magically obliterate all their human needs and desires.

I believe that much sexual abuse by priests can be explained as a warped response to the absence of intimacy in their lives. This is consistent with findings that abusive priests who prey on boys are not necessarily homosexual or paedophile.

Anyone with knowledge of the Catholic Church knows that many priests lead lonely lives. Father McKenzie in the bleak Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby, “darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there”, is all too believable. (Paul McCartney's mother was Catholic, so the Beatle may have had some insight into life in the presbytery.)

Most priests seem to cope, but it’s hardly surprising that some find an outlet for their sexual desire and longing for intimacy by forming what are euphemistically known as “inappropriate relationships”. Some do it with adult female parishioners; others with minors.

In other times and other places, priests dealt with the challenge of celibacy in a variety of ways. In countries such as France, Spain and Italy, it was not uncommon for the parish priest to have a mistress. Perhaps they took their cue from the popes in bygone times who maintained illicit relationships and even fathered children.

In countries such as ours, previous generations of priests probably coped better with celibacy because society in general was far more disciplined and respectful of authority.

Individual freedom and choice were not the catch-cries they are today. Improper behaviour of any sort was liable to incur severe sanctions. Besides, temptation and opportunity were limited in a buttoned-up, conservative society where people were careful not to step out of line.

Even when people transgressed, it was much easier then than now to keep scandal out of the public eye. People were less inclined to complain about abuse or ill-treatment. “Making a fuss” was discouraged.

Hierarchical institutions such as the Catholic Church were rarely challenged and the generally passive news media were reluctant to stir up trouble. The aggressive style of journalism now familiar to us, which delights in exposing bad behaviour and arousing controversy, was unheard of.

All that changed, of course, with the social revolution of the 1960s, which emphasised personal and sexual freedom and the right to “do your own thing”, in the parlance of that era. Temptation flourished and old disciplinarian codes broke down.

Small wonder that for priests, maintaining the vow of celibacy became much more of a challenge, as the John Jay College findings concluded. In more recent times, the Catholic Church has also found itself in the unfamiliar situation of being subjected to intense outside scrutiny and pressure as previously hidden abuse was brought to the surface.

If the Church hoped that the John Jay report would provide it with some means of identifying and filtering out potential abusers within its ranks, it’s likely to have been disappointed. The researchers found no “psychological characteristics” or “developmental histories” that distinguished guilty priests from non-offenders.

All of which seems to support the contention that sexual abuse by priests is a distorted reaction to an unnatural denial of the basic human need for intimacy. A growing number of Catholics recognise this, but hell would have to freeze over before the ageing male hierarchy that controls the Church accepts the need for reform.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

DSK: a fine standard-bearer for socialism

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, May 24.)

THE GREAT paradox of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s downfall is that this man, whom some accounts portray as a serial and even violent harasser of women, professes to be a socialist. He was the French Left’s great hope for the presidency.

Socialism is supposedly about championing the cause of the poor and downtrodden, which makes it highly ironic that Strauss-Kahn should be accused of forcing himself on a hotel chambermaid; an African widow and solo mother struggling, no doubt, to improve her station in life – in other words, the very sort of person socialists profess to be concerned about.

A true friend of the proletariat would regard such a person as someone deserving to be empowered and treated with dignity. But if the allegations against Strauss-Kahn are correct, it seems he simply saw her as easy meat - someone he possibly assumed would be unlikely to resist his advances, still less complain about the actions of one so great and powerful.

This would confirm that for all its supposed concern about social justice, socialism is rife with hypocrisy and double standards. There are probably as many alpha-male bullies and sexual predators within its ranks as in any other “ism”.

It’s notable too that DSK, as he is known, enjoyed the high life. He and his wife lived in a US$4 million Washington home with five bedrooms, six bathrooms and a swimming pool.

Nothing unusual here. The scandal enveloping Strauss-Kahn simply shows how far contemporary “socialism” has strayed from its cloth-cap origins.

The representatives of the working class are very good at rewarding themselves by gorging on the trappings of wealth and power. A wise old friend of mine, who made a career out of observing the foibles of our own politicians, once said to me that no one took more delight from settling into the soft leather seat of a VIP limo than a minister in a newly elected Labour government.

Once they join the political elite, people’s egalitarianism has a remarkable way of evaporating.

* * *

THE TV NEWS recently showed us a defendant in the dock in Waitakere District Court on charges of escaping from police custody in Auckland Hospital.

Throughout his appearance, he was gesticulating and waving. At one point he made a defiant gesture to the TV camera. The reporter told us the man appeared to be conducting a conversation, using signs and gestures, with someone in the body of the court.

There was a time when such behaviour wouldn’t have been tolerated. At the first raise of his hand the defendant would have been firmly told by any policeman in the vicinity to behave himself. If that didn’t work, he would have been fixed with an icy glower from the Bench and ordered to be taken back down to the cells until he learned to show some respect.

If the defendant had the misfortune to strike a crusty old magistrate like the irascible Ben Scully, a legend in his day, he might well have been convicted of contempt without further ado.

Yet the policemen accompanying the defendant in the Waitakere court didn’t raise an eyebrow and evidently the judge said nothing about his behaviour. We can assume from this that such antics are commonplace.

When criminals are routinely allowed to get away with minor infractions, it’s hardly surprising that they feel emboldened to proceed to more serious offences. This is the theory behind the “broken windows” model of policing that has been effective overseas. Arrest the vandals who smash windows, the theory goes, and they might be discouraged from committing worse crimes.

Applying the same rationale, our lamentable crime rate might start to improve if the courts showed less tolerance toward arrogant young punks like the Waitakere show-off.

* * *

ONE UNSATISFYING aspect of Osama bin Laden’s death is that we don’t know whether he experienced the same terror that he and his followers inflicted on thousands of innocent people.

It’s possible, of course, that he felt no fear. He may have faced death with the disciplined composure of the true fanatic, convinced he would be glorified as an Islamic martyr.

On the other hand, he may have had a few minutes in which to experience something of the same terrible premonition of doom that the victims of 9/11 and other Al Qaeda atrocities must have felt in the last moments of their lives.

Was he gripped by panic at the sound of shooting and the clatter of boots coming up the stairs to his hideout? Did he have time to grasp the finality of his imminent fate? We can only hope so.

If he did, it would have been mercifully brief, unlike the agony and torment suffered by passengers in the doomed airliners over New York and Pennsylvania, or those trapped on the upper levels of the Twin Towers.

Whichever way you look at it, bin Laden got off lightly. A more appropriate fate would have been a long period of imprisonment in which he could have pondered the prospect of an ignoble death by execution.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

And again ...

Today it was the turn of the Dominion Post to use the loaded adjective "infamous" in connection with the Iwi/Kiwi billboard of the 2005 election campaign. Is there a competition within the press gallery to see how often the word can be used to smear anything connected with Don Brash?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

That word again

There’s that word “infamous” again – this time in a New Zealand Herald story by political reporter Adam Bennett. And once again, it pops up in a story about Don Brash. Funny, that.

Last time (see blog post dated May 5) it was Brash’s Orewa speech in 2004 that was deemed infamous (“evil, vile, disgraceful”). This time it’s advertising man John Ansell, who created the “Iwi/Kiwi” billboards for the National Party billboards in 2005.

The Orewa speech and Iwi/Kiwi billboards may have been considered evil, vile and disgraceful by political journalists, but they were clearly in tune with public thinking. In the subsequent election, National recovered from its worst-ever thrashing at the polls to win 39 percent of the vote – just two percentage points shy of Labour.

Given that it’s obvious the public didn’t regard the Orewa speech or the billboards as evil, vile or disgraceful, what are press gallery journalists trying to say when they use the word “infamous”? Is the parliamentary press gallery really so out of step with the people who consume the news? Do political journalists know better than the voters? Or is this just another loose use of language by reporters with only a rudimentary grasp of English?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Devastation on the Hawke's Bay coast

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

The coastal strip of Central Hawke’s Bay that was devastated by a freak storm recently is very familiar to me. In my childhood and teenage years, the line of sandy beaches that stretches from Kairakau in the north to Porangahau in the south was something of a summer playground.

One of my earliest memories is of a summer holiday in the shearers’ quarters on the sheep station at Kairakau, which were made available to my family out of gratitude for my father’s work in supervising the building of the electricity transmission line that connected the area to the national grid. Most remote properties on that coast had previously depended on generators.

In the 1970s, when I had children of my own, we enjoyed summer holidays in Dad’s home-built caravan at Kairakau. It’s still one of my favourite beaches.

As a teenager I tended to favour Pourerere, further south. Not only was it livelier (it had a younger demographic, in today’s parlance) but I had a friend whose family owned a bach there - although in Hawke’s Bay, the farming families that own seaside properties have always preferred the posher term “cottages”.

In those days the main cluster of baches at Pourerere, known to all as “the settlement”, was accessible only via the beach at low tide. Its relative inaccessibility lent the place a certain romantic aura and I had mixed feelings when a road was finally built along the foreshore in the 1970s.

Further south again, you come to Aramoana. It was off the coastal reef between Pourerere and Aramoana that my oldest brother drowned in a scuba diving accident in 1958, aged only 21. It was a long time before my parents could bring themselves to revisit that stretch of grief-laden coastline.

Like other beaches on that coast, Aramoana had a basic camping ground, but 10 years or so ago it was transformed into an up-market subdivision called Shoal Bay. I can only presume that the unimaginative name Shoal Bay was preferred over the poetic-sounding Aramoana to avoid negative associations with another Aramoana near Dunedin.

From Aramoana, at low tide and with the right sort of vehicle, you could carry on south to Blackhead. Then you had to cut inland to reach Porangahau, which I recall visiting as a boy with a friend and his father, who was our family GP in Waipukurau. He had patients in the small, predominantly Maori community at Porangahau and we would occasionally accompany him on his calls, driving at breakneck speed on winding metal roads in a 1953 DeSoto. (All country doctors had a reputation in those days for being wild drivers).

There are isolated sheep stations all along this stretch of coast, many of them farmed continuously by the same families since the 19th century. It’s not easy country: the coastal hills are steep and notoriously prone to slips. In the early days, they had no road access. The only way to get wool to market was to load it onto horse-drawn wagons and haul them out into the surf, where the wool bales would be transferred to lighters and then taken to a waiting ship further out.

There were easier ways to make a living, but those 19th century farming families were resourceful and resilient. Some became very wealthy and built magnificent homesteads (many of which, sadly, burned down, a common fate in the days before sprinklers and smoke alarms).

The descendants of those pioneers will need to call on that same resourcefulness and resilience in the months and years ahead, because the storm that struck in the week after Easter caused damage on a scale never seen before.

Some farmers lost up to 50 percent of their land. Entire hillsides have been stripped back to greasy papa bedrock and will never be farmed again. At Mangakuri Station, between Kairakau and Pourerere, 400 lambs were washed out to sea.

It was an especially cruel blow because things were looking up for sheep and beef farmers after several hard years. Meat and wool prices are at their highest levels for years and farmers have enjoyed a benevolent summer and autumn. To be dealt such a savage blow just when they were relishing a long-awaited recovery must have made the pain even harder to bear.

It takes a special sort of character to be a farmer. I can think of no other occupational group that is at the mercy of so many factors beyond their control: the weather, prices, the fickleness of the consumer and the exchange rate, to name some of the more obvious ones.

For some, the stress becomes intolerable. The chief coroner, Neil MacLean, sounded the alarm recently over the high suicide rate among farmers – 25 a year. He spoke of the mental and emotional toll caused by isolation, long hours, lack of sleep, erratic financial returns, pressure from banks and ever-increasing demands for compliance with new rules and regulations.

Matters are made worse because farmers by tradition are supposed to be staunch and stoical, so are usually reluctant to seek help. Traditional rural support networks such as sports clubs and churches are in decline and to make things worse still, Mum and Dad are often alone on the farm because their children see no future in farming and have migrated to towns and cities where life is more comfortable. The average age of the New Zealand farmer is 58.

Should we care? You bet we should.

During the 1980s and 90s it became fashionable to dismiss farming as a sunset industry. Politicians and pinstripe-suited policy makers had visions of New Zealand becoming a Switzerland of the South Pacific; an international centre for financial services. An economic activity as unglamorous as farming had no place in their grandiose aspirations. Even economists lost sight of the importance of the rural sector.

We now know better. Farming remains essential to this country’s prosperity, just as it always been. Those Central Hawke’s Bay farmers gazing in despair at their dead livestock, their wrecked fences, their denuded hillsides and their mud-smothered paddocks deserve our sympathy and support, for pragmatic as well as humanitarian reasons.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

That "infamous" Orewa speech

Sometimes it’s the apparently offhand remark, the casual throwaway line, that gives the game away. A journalist can convey almost as much with a single loaded word as with a full-on rant.

In an item about National MP Georgina te Heuheu’s impending retirement last night, TV3 political editor Duncan Garner referred to her falling-out with former National leader Don Brash following Brash’s “now infamous Orewa speech” – Garner’s words – in 2004.

Let’s get this straight. “Infamous” means evil, vile or disgraceful. Brash’s Orewa speech, in which he attacked race-based privilege and advanced the perfectly laudable principle of one law for all, was infamous only in the eyes of Maori radicals, the Left and much of the parliamentary press gallery.

The media attacks on Brash that followed his speech were some of the most savage I can recall, but his message resonated with the wider public and took a previously down-and-out National Party within a whisker of victory in 2005. That election gave Labour such a fright that it threw its previous fiscal prudence to the wind and embarked on a desperate three-year vote-buying campaign that substantially contributed to the mess we’re in now.

Garner’s use of the word “infamous” suggests that elements of the media are still determined to portray Brash as racist. But if Garner really considers the speech to have been infamous, he’s hopelessly out of touch with what most New Zealanders apparently think.

Nothing new there, of course. Political journalists may be up with the play in Wellington, but they’re ill-equipped to know what people are thinking in places like Dannevirke, Hamilton and Timaru – and don’t believe them when they try to convince you otherwise.

I have noticed in the past that Australian political journalists, who lean overwhelmingly to the Left, are never more vicious in their attacks on centre-Right politicians than when they sense conservative ideas are gaining traction. Perhaps we’re seeing the same trend here.

On the other hand, maybe we should give Garner the benefit of the doubt. It’s entirely possible that a political editor who can’t pronounce Tuwharetoa (he insisted on inserting an extra syllable into it last night, not once but twice) doesn’t bother to check a dictionary to find out what “infamous” actually means.

Tradition, pride, camaraderie ... but most of all, money

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, May 10.)

REMEMBER the euphoria that greeted the announcement that New Zealand would host the Rugby World Cup 2011? Well, it’s rapidly evaporating.

The realisation has dawned that this event is being staged not so much for the benefit of heartland rugby lovers – the so-called “stadium of four million”, to quote the seductive PR line New Zealand rugby bosses used in their successful Cup bid – as for the interests of World Rugby Inc and its big-business partners, the satellite TV broadcasters and corporate sponsors.

Oh, and we shouldn’t forget the politicians, who will doubtless be granted access to the plushest hospitality boxes in return for their tireless cheerleading efforts.

I detect a mood of growing public scepticism and disenchantment, even among rugby fans. You know something has gone seriously wrong when a high-profile sports writer, the New Zealand Herald’s Chris Rattue, declares we were sold a pup.

Economists are pooh-poohing the projected economic returns from the RWC as wildly optimistic Even the potential global TV audience is said to have been greatly overstated.

The RWC website tells us the event is all about tradition, pride, intensity and camaraderie. Strangely, it neglects to mention the real driving force, which is money.

It’s all about money. We spend it, and the International Rugby Board pockets it.

We spend it in the form of massive public investment – one estimate puts it at $1 billion-plus – in stadiums and infrastructure, to ensure everything is up to the ultra-fussy standards of the IRB and the broadcasters. Never mind that the country is already awash in debt and floundering economically.

We also spend it in the form of admission prices, which are far higher for All Black matches than for any other games. Tickets to watch the ABs range from $61 for a child in the least desirable seating areas to $460 for a “Category A” adult, plus a $15 “handling fee” for every ticket. We may be generously underwriting the event, but clearly there are no concessions to New Zealand rugby fans.

Visitors from overseas are being ripped off too, as greedy accommodation providers hike room rates by as much as 500 percent. It’s hardly surprising that interest from Australia is reported to be sluggish, with one travel agent quoted as saying rugby fans are balking at paying $5000 to cross the Tasman for just one game.

Greed may turn out to be the undoing of the RWC, and it starts with the organisers.

In the meantime, countless operators of legitimate businesses are fretting that they will fall foul of the ridiculous and repressive Major Events Management Act by mentioning forbidden words such as “world” and “rugby” in their advertising.

If I may use a sleazy metaphor, New Zealand is like a helpless maiden being ravaged while the politicians, the very people who should be protecting her, hold her down and insist she’s enjoying it.

* * *

OF COURSE, none of the above stops me from hoping New Zealand will win the Webb-Ellis trophy. We might as well salvage whatever pride we can from this costly extravaganza.

But as Sydney rugby guru Spiro Zavos warns, nothing can be taken for granted. Promoting his book How To Watch The Rugby World Cup 2011, Zavos says there are half a dozen teams that are capable of winning “on the day”.

The All Blacks may be rated the best in the world, but when it comes down to the RWC final, assuming they make it that far, the result may turn on something as fickle as the bounce of the ball or a referee’s call.

I like Zavos’s laconic response when people ask him who’s going to win. “We’re having a rugby match to find that out,” he tells them.

* * *

I BET I wasn’t the only person who bristled at the electronic signboards on all the highways over Easter weekend sternly reminding us that the police were out on the roads in numbers.

There’s something irritating about this finger-wagging approach to policing. It’s not only intrusive, in a slightly unsettling Big Brother fashion, but patronising too.

The underlying assumption seems to be that all motorists are rampant hoons in the making, kept in check only by the knowledge that the police are watching us and ready to pounce.

This head-prefect approach goes hand-in-hand with the increasing propensity for senior police officers to lecture us on our supposed behavioural failings – for example, tut-tutting over liquor consumption.

Fear of the cops is no bad thing. In fact I think it should be encouraged. But public respect for the police isn’t enhanced by their fondness for nannying us. Most people, I’m sure, would prefer them to concentrate on collaring villains rather than instructing us to sit up straight and eat our greens.

Incidentally, the electronic signboards at Easter were a giant fib. In several hundred kilometres of driving, I saw hardly a single police car.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

What's going on here?

I'm puzzled by the reported fuss over whether or not to release photos of the dead Osama bin Laden. TV3 News had a photo of his bloodied, grotesque face in its 6pm News on Monday night, preceded by a warning that the picture was graphic (which it was) and that viewers might find it disturbing. Intriguingly, the same channel last night reported the White House's indecision over the release of the photo without mentioning that it had already appeared on their main evening bulletin two nights before. What's going on here? Did TV3 get heavied for broadcasting the image without authorisation? Was the photo shown on Monday night a fake? I think we should be told.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Spiro and Orry have a lot to answer for

Something unusual happened to me last night. I found myself talking with two men who, it suddenly occurred to me, had both been instrumental – quite unintentionally – in propelling me into a career in journalism.

One was the former Wellingtonian Spiro Zavos, long domiciled in Sydney, where he writes about rugby for the Sydney Morning Herald and the sports website The Roar. The occasion was the launch of Spiro’s book, How to Watch the Rugby World Cup 2011 – his eighth rugby book, and the latest in a series of “How to” titles released by the innovative niche Wellington publisher Awa Press.

Also in attendance was Wellington lawyer Paul O’Regan, whose wife Mary Varnham founded and runs Awa Press.

Back in 1966, when I was in the lower sixth form (as it was then known) at St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, Spiro was my history teacher and Paul, who was a year ahead of me, edited a school newspaper called the Silverstreamer.

I was a newcomer to Silverstream, having been dispatched there because of my undistinguished academic record at Central Hawke’s Bay College. “Orry”, as Paul was known (there were three O'Regan brothers at Silverstream, all known as Orry), promptly signed me up as pop music columnist for the Silverstreamer for no better reason, I suspect, than that my brother Justin hosted the nightly Sunset Show on 2ZB, which all the Silverstream boarders listened to on their transistor radios. As it happened, I loved music and needed no encouragement. So Paul gave me my first taste of journalism, and my first byline.

Spiro’s contribution came several months later. The heroic instigators of Radio Hauraki were trying to break the state’s monopoly on broadcasting and the Holyoake government was doing everything it could to stop them. I was appalled at the lengths ministers and bureaucrats were prepared to go in their efforts to prevent the pirate ship Tiri putting to sea and broadcasting from beyond the territorial limit.

Spiro was always good for a discussion on the issues of the day – like many good teachers, he was easily distracted – and he readily responded when I asked what he thought about the Radio Hauraki furore. He said the government had adopted the Nazi tactic of using a law out of context to suit its own purposes.

I liked the sound of that and promptly wrote a letter to the editor of The Dominion, shamelessly repeating Spiro’s line as if it were my own. It was published as the lead letter – my first appearance in print (and, I hope, the last time I used someone else’s words without due attribution).

Up until that time I’d had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but it may have been the experience of writing that pop column, and seeing my letter in print in the Dom, that encouraged me a few months later to make the appointment with the editor of the Evening Post that resulted in my first job. If so, then Orry and Spiro have a lot to answer for.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Big-boots journalism

One of the most striking aspects of the drama surrounding the Act leadership has been the venomous nature of much of the media coverage.

I can’t think of any political party that has aroused more naked hostility from journalists. Even when the press gallery was gunning for Winston Peters, there was a tendency to cut him some slack because … well, because he was Winston Peters, and everyone expected him to be shifty, evasive and generally behave disgracefully.

No such tolerance is exercised when it comes to Act. The media malice is undisguised and unrelenting.

Admittedly, Rodney Hide and Don Brash have at times invited ridicule. I like Hide, but I struggled to take him seriously from the time he demeaned himself by taking part in Dancing With the Stars (in my book, an even more lamentable lapse of judgment than globe-trotting with his girlfriend at the taxpayers’ expense). And I wonder whether Brash still lies awake at night rueing the fact that he was talked into a series of silly photo opportunities during the 2005 election campaign.

But do these follies justify endless recycling of news footage showing Hide dropping his dancing partner, or of Brash clumsily trying to insert himself into the cramped driver’s compartment of a stock car? There is a point at which constant repetition of those scenes – and we saw them several times during the TV news last week – becomes more than simply gratuitous. The unmistakeable message it conveys is that these men are clowns, and we’d be mugs to think that either of them should be worthy of anyone’s support.

This, in the same week as we were expected to swallow mad John Minto’s straight-faced assertion on the national news that the new party formed by Hone Harawira for a tiny minority of the bitter, the angry and the vengeful represents “mainstream” New Zealand. I note that this flat-earth pronouncement passed without so much as an involuntary gasp of disbelief on the part of the reporter.

Interesting, that. Radical parties on the Left are treated with kid gloves; radical parties on the Right, on the other hand, are fair game for vilification.

We are, of course, now well accustomed to being told what to think by political journalists, especially on television, but TV3’s Patrick Gower takes things to a new level. Gower revels in his role as TV3’s hatchet man and seems to regard political journalism as some sort of gladiatorial spectator sport in which the spoils go to whichever reporter can perfect the most contemptuous sneer. I can’t watch him without being reminded of Stanley Baldwin’s famous description of the British press: “power without responsibility … the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”. (The line actually came from his cousin Rudyard Kipling, but Baldwin made it his own.)

Recalling a time when people who got beyond themselves were said to be too big for their boots, I call this big-boots journalism. It’s a deeply unattractive phenomenon in which journalists make the mistake of thinking they deserve to be more than mere reporters or observers. They consider themselves key players, positioned at the centre of the action and with the power – and, what’s more, the right – to influence events. The tragedy is that many politicians, fearful of the power of television, encourage them in this belief.

This is a distortion not just of the journalist’s traditional role, but of democracy itself. It shows a telling lack of respect for the ability of ordinary people to decide for themselves which politicians might be worthy of their support.

Journalists overstep the mark when they tell us what to think. As long as they do their basic job properly, which is simply to tell us what’s going on, their viewers and readers are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves what to make of it all. They don’t need smug, preening journalists making lofty pronouncements about who might be fit or unfit for office.

And here’s something else that journalists too often overlook. They like to think of themselves as somehow morally superior to devious, venal politicians. I suspect many of them genuinely believe the American journalist Frank H Simonds’ famous line that there’s only one way for a journalist to look at a politician, and that’s down. But in fact politicians in a democracy will always have one huge moral advantage over the journalists who pass judgment on them. That is that ultimately, they must subject themselves to the public’s judgment. I can think of more than a few journalists whose overweening self-confidence would rapidly evaporate if they had to submit to a similar test.