Tuesday, June 28, 2011

We now know a bit more about John Key - or at least I think we do

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 22.)

I recently watched Sean Plunket interview prime minister John Key on TV3’s The Nation.

Plunket’s pre-interview spiel gave the impression we were finally going to learn what drives Key politically – a tantalising prospect, since this is a question that has lots of people scratching their heads.

In fact the interview succeeded only partially in telling us what the nation’s most powerful politician stands for.

That’s not to say Key wasn’t honest, or that the interview wasn’t revealing. But in some ways it only served to deepen the Key enigma, and to remind us how different he is from his predecessors.

We certainly learned a few things about who inspired Key, and what he cares about.

Clearly, the dominant influence in his life was his late mother. He learned from her that you get out of life what you put into it (my apologies if I make that sound like a line from Forrest Gump). Despite her straitened circumstances as a solo mother, bringing up her children in a state house after the death of her alcoholic husband, she took control of her life. She taught her son to look forward, not to look back, and not to feel sorry for himself.

She also encouraged him to be ambitious. She had “huge” expectations of him and firmly set him straight when, at 15, he wanted to leave school and train horses.

His mother also taught him to be frugal. He remembered her putting the tips she earned as a hotel night porter into a jar to pay for occasional treats. So when his high-flying colleagues in the foreign currency dealing rooms were blowing their money on champagne, long lunches and flash cars, Key and his wife Bronagh concentrated on paying off their mortgage.

He bluntly described his high-living former workmates as stupid for not realising their stratospheric incomes wouldn’t last forever.

How, then, did these early life experiences mould John Key the politician?

We learned that although his mother was a Labour supporter (in common with many of her era who were grateful for a state house), the young Key was an admirer of National prime minister Robert Muldoon. He thought Muldoon had a vision of what New Zealand needed to be.

I found this revealing because Muldoon, while leading a party that ostensibly championed private enterprise, didn’t hesitate to exert tight economic and social controls using the apparatus of the state. (Full marks to Key for his honesty, at least. The only other contemporary politician I can think of who might cite Muldoon as a role model is Winston Peters.)

Key also revealed himself as a fan of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, an authoritarian leader who used the power of the state to suppress dissent.

Plunket noted, as I did, that both the leaders cited approvingly by Key were political strong men with little patience for opposition, but we shouldn’t assume from this that Key has a hidden authoritarian streak. He has a boyish enthusiasm and comes across as open, affable and reasonable. I can’t think of any New Zealand prime minister in my lifetime who was harder to dislike.

He explained that he admired Lee Kuan Yew because his bold, aspirational policies had transformed what was once a poor, Third World country - although he acknowledged that the same approach, which placed economic progress ahead of human rights, wouldn’t necessarily work here.

Key’s respect for Muldoon and Lee Kuan Yew is significant because neither leader seemed to care about ideology. They were pragmatists who adopted whatever policies they thought would work, regardless of any philosophical inconsistency.

The same might be said of Key’s government, which in its first term has been virtually an ideology-free zone – much to the frustration of many people who voted for it, expecting a much stronger commitment to traditional centre-right values.

Key gave some clues to what he believes. He wants everyone to have equality of opportunity and he sees education as crucial; but he also thinks people are responsible for their own success or failure. “You can make a difference in your own life.”

He clearly has little time for trade unions but appears to care deeply about the number of people trapped on welfare. As he said, something has clearly gone wrong when 13 percent of the working-age population are on a benefit compared with two percent in the 1970s.

He believes in celebrating success, which is why his government reinstated the traditional honours list. A consistent theme in the interview was that people should be encouraged to aspire to greater things. “You make your own luck.”

What was lacking, however, was a clear picture of how these beliefs translate into policies. We learned quite a lot about John Key the man, but there remains a credibility gap between what he professes to be motivated by and what his government is actually doing. He says the right things but his party remains cautious to the point of timidity.

Plunket rightly questioned whether Key’s performance in government was consistent with his maiden speech in Parliament, in which he talked about the need for politicians to be bold and to ignore public opinion when necessary.

Perversely, one of the few times Key appeared to disregard public opinion was when his party supported left-wing MP Sue Bradford’s anti-smacking bill, much to the disgust of most National voters. He also antagonised his own party’s supporters by pushing through a senseless, quixotic emissions trading scheme and pandering to divisive Maori claims on the coastline.

There may of course be a master plan behind Key’s apparent reluctance to embrace radical change. Colin James, one of our most perceptive political commentators, says National’s strategy is to make changes each term which are not earth-shattering in themselves but which the electorate can broadly go along with.

“After two or three terms of this pragmatic incrementalism the piecemeal changes add to a significant total,” he wrote recently. We shall see.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Another reason to keep our heads down and our mouths shut

Once again we see how fragile free speech really is in this supposedly liberal democracy. The lesson from Alisdair Thompson’s crucifixion in the media this week couldn’t be clearer: express an opinion at your peril.

In the deafening barrage of righteous indignation that followed Thompson’s comment that some women take sick leave when they have their periods, everyone was too busy taking offence to take much notice of what he actually said or the context in which he mentioned it.

The reference to periods came in a radio interview prompted by Green MP Catherine Delahunty’s bill that would require employers to provide information about pay rates, therefore testing whether there is sex discrimination in the workplace. Thompson’s main concern was that this would burden business with more bureaucracy and compliance costs.

Toward the end of the interview, on Mike Hosking’s NewstalkZB breakfast show, Thompson asked rhetorically: “Who takes most sick leave? Women do.” Some had to look after children at home, he said; others had a “sick problem” once a month.

He went on to say it wasn’t their fault, and perhaps there were issues they needed to sort out with their partners.

Not that anything mattered after he mentioned menstruation. At that point rational debate ceased as elements of the media, abandoning all semblance of objectivity, lashed themselves into a shark-like feeding frenzy.

It seems to me that Thompson can be accused of two things. He expressed an opinion – clearly a very dangerous thing to do these days – and he appeared to base it on information from his own workplace, which may or may not be indicative of the wider situation.

Hardly hanging offences, you might think. Freedom of speech includes the right to get things wrong, if indeed Thompson was wrong (we don’t really know). Yet in the ensuing hysteria, the CEO of the Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern) was pilloried as if he were Pol Pot, Hitler and Idi Amin collectively reincarnated

Thompson subsequently tried to salvage things in a 28-minute interview with Mihingarangi Forbes from TV3’s Campbell Live. Faint chance. Once television has decided it wants your bloodied head on a spike, you’re a goner.

Among other things, Thompson tried to clarify his position by saying that women take more sick leave than men (a point that appears to be confirmed by public service figures, though the difference isn’t huge). They take time off to look after kids. Some have period problems. Some take maternity leave and may not come back to work for several years.

He mentioned all this in an attempt to explain why women’s productivity, which is central to the setting of pay rates, may be lower than men’s – which in turn might explain why women on average get paid 12 percent less. For the life of me, I can’t see why any of these comments should be considered exceptionable. He was simply saying that women employees have to deal with issues that don’t confront men, and that this can interfere with their careers and therefore prevent them from reaching the same pay levels as men. That seems to me to be a simple statement of fact.

Crucially, Thompson didn’t say he approved of this state of affairs, or that it was the fault of women. On the contrary, he emphatically declared himself to be in favour of equal pay for equal productivity, equal opportunity and flexible workplaces. He believed pay should be based on productivity, not sex, and he added that he thought the total productivity of women, taking into account their home life as well as their paid work, was higher than that of most men. He agreed it was odd that there are so many female schoolteachers yet so few female principals (a point raised by Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly on the Hosking programme, though it wasn’t directly related to the issue under discussion). He even saw merit in the objective of Delahunty’s bill, if not its remedy. These don’t strike me as the views of a sexist dinosaur, to use the two terms of abuse repeatedly hurled at Thompson in recent days.

Just as crucially, Thompson acknowledged that there was a pay gap between women and men. The real issue, he said, was whether the Delahunty bill would fix it, and British experience with similar legislation suggested it wouldn’t.

This was an attempt to bring the discussion back to where it had started, but Thompson might as well have been speaking in Swahili for all the notice Forbes took. She seemed interested only in skewering him over his comment about periods. (That, and whining repeatedly about her heroic efforts as a working mother with three children. At times you got the impression the interview was all about her.)

I’ve seen some outrageous TV interviews but this was one of the worst. Most of the time Forbes gave the impression she either wasn’t listening, didn’t understand what Thompson was saying or wasn’t interested. Perhaps all three.

It reached a point of almost comical absurdity when Forbes suggested Thompson should resign “because you cannot represent half of the population”, adding: “You certainly don’t represent me very well.” Thompson’s response – that his job was actually to represent employers – seemed lost on his dim-witted, self-absorbed interrogator, as was just about everything else he said.

Media coverage of the Campbell Live interview made much of the fact that at one point, Thompson stood up, walked over to Forbes and confronted her in what could have been interpreted as a a menacing manner. Shown in isolation, this certainly looked bad. What wasn’t clear was that Thompson was acting out of sheer frustration after spending 25 minutes trying to explain himself to someone who clearly paid no attention to anything he said. Watch the unexpurgated interview (it’s available at TV3 on Demand) and you’ll see what I mean.

If anything, Thompson was admirably restrained. I would have slung Forbes and her crew out of the office long before that point.

But perhaps Forbes shouldn’t be held solely to blame for her disgraceful performance. She was, after all, taking her cue from most of her colleagues in the electronic media, who jettisoned all pretence of balance, fairness and neutrality. When there’s a choice between playing sexual politics and observing professional journalistic standards, we now know which will win.

We also know what a media gang-up looks like, and it’s not an edifying spectacle. Want to stamp out New Zealand's bullying culture? Perhaps we could start here.

Watching TV3's highly partisan news coverage of the issue last night, I got the distinct feeling they won't rest until they can brandish Thompson's scalp. Signing off at the end of her item, the reporter said: "It's fair to say this is not the end of the debate." Yeah, right; I'm sure TV3 will see to that. It's a shame that a network that does so many things right should allow its professional judgment to lapse so badly on occasions like this.

But then it’s hard to identify anyone who emerges from the furore with any credit. I wonder how many of the illustrious public figures who lined up to condemn Thompson took the trouble to listen to what he said, in its entirety. Bugger all, I'd guess. Too busy being outraged.

Shame too on the business leaders who ran for cover or stayed silent when Thompson was being hung out to dry. Will the EMA cave in and sack him in response to the vengeful cries for blood? It will be a black day for business and for freedom of speech if they do.

Helen Kelly shrewdly made the most of the situation, playing on the EMA’s embarrassment in an obvious attempt to secure political leverage. Her father Pat, a union firebrand who died in 2004 and whose anniversary fell on Friday while the row was at its height, would have approved.

For his part, Thompson handled the affair clumsily. His first mistake was to panic and make what looked like an insincere apology. He shouldn’t have to apologise for a genuinely held view. Perhaps some nervous nellie in the EMA got in his ear and urged him to back down, but it only made things worse. Apologising doesn’t deter attackers – on the contrary, it encourages them because it makes the apologiser look weak and indecisive.

His performance led comedian Raybon Kan – described on this occasion as a media commentator – to suggest on Campbell Live that the entire affair was an ad for media trainers. But no amount of media training could prepare anyone to deal with the sort of vicious onslaught Thompson faced.

In the end we are all losers, because every time someone is publicly savaged for having the temerity to speak his or her mind, the rest of us take note and make a mental resolution to button our lips in future for fear for incurring similar punishment. How gratifying that would be for the control freaks and tut-tutters who want to banish all opinions that don’t conform with their own. And how ruinous for democracy.

Saddest of all, the very institution that should be protecting freedom of speech, the media, is busily imperilling it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

In defence of duFresneism

Several people have responded to my recent post about the academic takeover of journalism training, including a couple of the individuals mentioned. Herewith, in no particular order, are my responses:

1. Martin Hirst of AUT, writing under his cutely enigmatic nom-de-blog Ethical Martini, asks when I was last in a journalism school or spoke to a journalism tutor. In fact it’s several years since I was last in a journalism school (it was Wintec). I can visit a journalism school only if I’m invited, and oddly enough my post box isn’t jammed with pleas from journalism tutors for me to come and speak to the students. I suspect the reason is that they don’t want their students to hear what I might have to say; it might conflict with their theoretical models.

Hirst says I have a standing invitation to visit the AUT journalism school. I don’t recall any such invitation, and in any case a “standing invitation” is pretty much like saying “we must catch up over coffee some time” without intending ever to act on it. Besides, I’m in Masterton and AUT is in Auckland, and I don’t have a taxpayer-funded travel budget.

I certainly wouldn’t expect an invitation anytime soon from one prominent journalism school whose head, a former student told me, was in the habit of badmouthing me in front of his students. (The aforementioned head of school, it almost goes without saying, is a man with no mainstream journalism experience.)

However I have had some dealings with tutors. I attended the Jeanz (Journalism Education Association of NZ) conference in 2007 and would happily go again if given the opportunity. I don’t have a closed mind. I also have occasional social contact with some former journalists who have become tutors. In general they are people I respect.

2. Martin Hirst also claims that as part of my “long list of errors”, I wrote that Sean Phelan teaches journalism. Wrong. It worries me – and it should certainly alarm Hirst's students – that a man who is proud to use the honorific “Dr” has such poor comprehension skills that he didn’t see my very explicit acknowledgment that Phelan teaches media studies. But since Hirst raises the issue, it’s worth noting that the Massey website includes Phelan in the profiles of its journalism staff. That suggests to me that his role includes getting inside the heads of journalism students with his thoughts on “post-Marxist discourse”, whatever that may be. Hirst urges me to check the facts. It seems he could do with a good fact-checker himself.

3. Bomber Bradbury, according to Hirst, has plenty of mongrel in him. I certainly wouldn’t dispute that. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if Bomber Bradbury howls at the moon. Listening to Bradbury’s splenetic outpourings on Jim Mora’s Panel, I often imagine there’s a nice man in a white coat waiting outside the studio door to lead him (Bradbury that is, not Jim) gently back to the secure ward. But when I lament the lack of “mongrel” in academically trained journalists, I’m not suggesting – and I suspect Hirst knows this – that simply being a noisy non-conformist and exhibitionist is qualification enough for being a good journalist. You’ve got to have proven journalistic skills too, and to my knowledge Bradbury has none. He’s a polemicist and political activist who has no place as a “role model” in a journalism school paid by the state to turn out graduates for an industry he appears to despise and hold in contempt.

4. Samantha Ives challenges me to visit her journalism school (Whitireia, obviously) and praises her no-nonsense tutor Jim Tucker. Fair enough. Jim and I have had our disagreements but I respect him as someone who has “done the business” (he’s a former editor of the Auckland Star), and I’d be surprised if his teaching was contaminated by leftist ideology or flawed theoretical models.

5. I thank Sean Phelan for doing me the honour of naming something (du Fresneism) after me. If he’s so stung by my criticism that he feels impelled to write long (and I daresay impenetrable) articles in rebuttal, I’ll take it as a compliment.

6. Finally, I’d suggest that my academic critics have it all arse-about-face. They seem to be calling on me to justify myself, but I’m just a lone voice in the blogosphere wilderness. I don’t have my hand in the taxpayer’s pocket and I’m happy to stand on my journalistic record, which is far from flawless but is out in the open for anyone to see. My attackers are the people who need to be held accountable. They’re the ones who are paid by the hapless taxpayer to teach the next generation of journalists, and who use this publicly funded sinecure to promote a highly politicised model of journalism that is at odds with, and hostile to, the one followed by the industry that employs their graduates. It’s they who should be justifying themselves, not me.

No, he's not drunk; it's Alzheimer's

It was sad but not altogether surprising to hear today that singer Glen Campbell has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

I saw Campbell perform in Wellington about three years ago and it occurred to me then that something wasn’t quite right. He occasionally repeated himself in his on-stage patter and though his singing and playing couldn't be faulted, he gave signs, in between songs, that his brain wasn’t 100 percent engaged. I’m no neurologist but I said to my daughter, who was with me, that he looked like a man in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s.

That impression was reinforced the next morning when I met him at his hotel for an interview kindly arranged for me by his tour promoter, Stewart Macpherson. Campbell was courteous and obliging, especially considering that Simon Sweetman’s review of his concert in that morning’s Dom Post was uncharacteristically (and I thought unfairly) savage, but he seemed a tad vague and distracted. Several times he invited me to help myself to a grape from a bowl on the table in his room, clearly not remembering that I’d turned down the offer only moments before.

Some might suggest that Campbell’s vagueness had something to do with his years of drug and alcohol abuse, but Alzheimer’s seems a more likely explanation. After all, he’s reportedly been clean for years; and in any case, countless other country and rock stars have consumed prodigious quantities of mind-altering substances without any obvious long-term consequences.

Campbell’s wife Kim told the American magazine People: “Glen is still an awesome guitar player and singer, but if he flubs a lyric or gets confused on stage, I wouldn’t want people to think, ‘What’s the matter with him? Is he drunk?’ ” She said he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six months ago, although his short-term memory had been poor for some time.

Campbell, 75, plans to release one more album before a final tour. That will signal the end to a remarkable career that began when he joined his uncle’s Western Swing band in Alberquerque, New Mexico, and gained momentum when he moved to LA in 1958 to became part of the “Wrecking Crew” – a fabled group of session musicians that included Hal Blaine, Leon Russell, Larry Knechtel, Jim Horn and Carol Kaye. Campbell played guitar on countless 1960s hits and even joined the Beach Boys (filling in for the mentally fragile Brian Wilson) before becoming a singing star in his own right with songs such as By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Wichita Lineman and Galveston (all written by the great Jimmy Webb).

Campbell was never given his due by highbrows and purists, probably because his repertoire was aimed squarely at middle America. But even in his 70s he was outstanding both as a singer and guitar player, as anyone who saw him in concert can attest.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

An uncharacteristic attack of bonhomie

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, June 21.)

PLEASE disregard the title of this column. Just this once, it’s written in a non-curmudgeonly tone. Stop reading now if this is likely to be too much of a shock.

A recent sequence of unconnected events brought on an uncharacteristic attack of bonhomie; a sense of wellbeing and goodwill toward my human fellow human beings which, try as I may, I cannot suppress.

It started when I needed to upgrade my BNZ Visa credit card to avail myself of free travel insurance. For reasons that I won’t attempt to explain, I had to do this overnight rather than wait the customary two or three days for the new card to arrive in the mail.

Most of us dread dealing with call centres. This usually requires responding to a series of automated inquiries as to what the problem is, and almost invariably the options don’t include the issue you’re calling about. (The purpose, of course, is to make the experience so frustrating that the caller will be deterred from ever seeking help again. That’s the raison d’etre of call centres.)

But my dealings with the Visa call centre couldn’t have been smoother. I phoned three times and each time encountered an operator who was charming, helpful and lucid. My new card was activated at midnight, enabling me to use it the next morning even though I wasn’t yet physically in possession of it.

The last of the three operators noted that I was in the habit of paying off my card debt before any interest fell due, which doesn’t make me a very profitable customer for the bank, and politely suggested I might repay the BNZ for its help by not being so punctilious in future.

Fair enough, I suppose. I’ll keep it in mind.

* * *

A FEW DAYS later I was on the Interislander ferry Kaitaki, bound for the South Island.

I’ve lost count of the number of ferry crossings I’ve done but it was some time since I’d last made the journey and my first trip on the Kaitaki. It’s a very pleasant ship, spacious and comfortable – in fact the first Cook Strait ferry I’ve travelled on where passenger comfort seemed to be the primary consideration rather than an afterthought.

But the real revelation was the staff. It’s hard to imagine a more striking contrast with the take-it-or-leave-it culture of the era when surly members of the Cooks and Stewards Union did what they had to do and no more.

These days you’re served by smiling, smartly dressed young women who give the impression of enjoying their work. The food has greatly improved too, and there’s a respectable selection of wines and beers.

In the days when my family and I used the ferry often, we made sure we took our own food rather than risk scungy, overpriced pies and stale sandwiches served grudgingly by people who gave the impression they would rather be somewhere else. I’m delighted to report that such precautionary measures are no longer necessary.

* * *

THE REASON I went south was that a group of us were tackling the Heaphy Track on mountain bikes, which brings me to my next non-curmudgeonly expression of appreciation.

It was years since I’d stayed in a Conservation Department hut and I didn’t know what to expect. I packed a small cooker, assuming I would need it to prepare a hot meal.

More fool me. The DOC huts on the Heaphy are equipped with gas cooking facilities. Not only that, but they have potbelly stoves and ample supplies of coal and firewood.

I expected the usual long-drop dunny 30 metres away in the bush, but no; our hut had flush toilets – flush toilets! – right beside the front door, under the shelter of the verandah. You didn’t even need to get your feet wet. Sheer luxury, and the hut appeared to be rat-proof too.

If you happened to be stuck in one of these huts because of bad weather, as happened to a group that came in a day behind us, you’d be bored but cosy. All that was missing was someone to turn down the bed and leave a chocolate on the pillow (not there was a pillow, of course; DOC huts aren't quite that flash).

* * *

FINALLY, I can report that the best qualities of the old-style New Zealand country pub are alive and well in Karamea.

Isolated towns at the end of the road, such as Karamea (population 400), can be insular and wary of outsiders, but our ragged, mud-covered group encountered nothing but warmth and hospitality from the owners and staff at the Karamea Village Hotel. They plied us with hearty pub grub, kept the kitchen open for the late arrivals, made phone calls for those of us needing transport the following morning and turned a blind eye to the mess we made in our rooms with our filthy gear.

What’s more, they did a cooked-to-order breakfast that would shame five-star hotels with their wretched, serve-yourself buffets.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Another reason to be suspicious of journalism schools

Anyone who has followed my sporadic musings about journalism will know that I have mixed feelings about the academic takeover of journalism training.

My misgivings start with the fact that I have been privileged to work with, and learn from, a long list of great journalists who had no academic training. They learned by doing.

Prior to the establishment of the first journalism school at what was then Wellington Polytechnic (now Massey University) in 1967, people drifted into journalism via a variety of routes. Many came straight from school, working their way up from menial jobs as messengers or copyholders in reading rooms. They were generally not the sort of people who had been swots or academic achievers at school but they either had, or soon acquired, the instincts and skills that made them great reporters.

To use a cliché, they had a bit of mongrel in them. They included a disproportionate number of misfits and non-conformists, drunks and womanisers. But they knew how to unearth stories and they were free to develop their own individualistic style and flair.

I’m not totally set against formal journalism courses but I suspect (and I know some other journalists of my era do too) that some of the people described above wouldn’t have entered journalism had they been compelled to complete a one-year course of study first, as is now required. And I wonder how many potentially good practitioners are deterred from entering journalism by the thought of having to jump through academic hoops. The qualities that make a good journalist aren’t necessarily those that produce conscientious students.

I also suspect that the selection process for journalism schools filters out potentially good rough-diamond candidates, instead favouring goody-two-shoes types who tick the right boxes and are unlikely to make waves. You can sense how radically the culture of journalism has changed the moment you walk into a modern newsroom and note all the earnest young faces staring intently at their computer screens. Old hands, accustomed to the shouting and swearing of a previous era, find the silence unsettling.

I’m not alone in thinking this. Warwick Roger wrote a column years ago in which he pointed out that, like me, none of the journalists he most admired had been to journalism school. More recently, Deborah Hill Cone lamented the prevalence of what she called “white bread” journalists and the disappearance of the bolshie eccentrics and lowlifes who populated newsrooms when she entered journalism.

So there’s one good reason to wonder whether the academic teaching of journalism is entirely a good thing. I’m not arguing that it should be abandoned, but I think it would be in journalism’s interests to leave the door ajar for people who don’t necessarily meet the academic test. (I should again point out here that Jane Bowron, whose dispatches from the Christchurch quake zone in the Dominion Post have won her legions of fans, slipped into journalism through the back door when she retrained as a sub-editor after the old Dom’s proofreading room was disestablished. We should all be grateful for the fact that she twice failed to get into journalism school, because I doubt that her idiosyncratic style would have survived the tut-tutting of the journalism tutors.)

That leads me to another of my concerns about journalism schools. They tend to encourage a bland orthodoxy, with the result that everyone comes out writing in much the same style. I search the papers in vain for the individualistic and sometimes slightly anarchic flair that once encouraged readers to hunt out the bylines of particular reporters. When you do find examples of such writing, it’s usually under the name of people who are not trained journalists, like Joe Bennett. I fear that the graduates of our journalism courses have any endearing quirks drilled out of them.

Then you have to look at the people doing the teaching. There are a few very good journalism tutors, usually people who have done the business themselves and teach from experience. But there’s also an awful lot of second-raters – some with minimal practical experience, others with nondescript CVs who have been drawn to teaching as a soft option. I remember years ago being on a selection panel charged with appointing a head tutor at a journalism school and despairing at the pitiful paucity of talent and experience among the candidates.

Even when good journalists become tutors, they almost invariably mutate into academics. Over time, they stop thinking and talking like journalists and lapse into the unintelligible jargon of academia. I reckon it should be a condition of all journalism tutors’ appointments that they be required every three years or so to work for at least six months in a newsroom, just to put them back in touch with reality. Some hope.

If anything, the insistence on academic credentials serves to discourage the appointment of experienced journalists. The appointment system is skewed in favour of candidates with qualifications, such as masters’ degrees and even doctorates, that virtually no working journalist possesses. This increases the risk that over time, the teaching of journalism will become ever more concerned with theory and more distanced from practice.

This suits some journalism academics very well, since it permits the intrusion of leftist ideology into the lecture room. Academics such as associate professor Dr Martin Hirst, who rejoices in the grand title of curriculum leader in journalism at Auckland’s AUT University, approach the teaching of journalism from a highly politicised standpoint. An avowed socialist, Hirst is of the school that believes journalism is all about challenging the established order. He and others like him sneer at the notion of objectivity that for decades has underpinned mainstream journalism in Western liberal democracies.

Media studies departments are even more vulnerable to political contamination. Marxism as an economic theory may be dead and buried, but what is known as cultural Marxism, which applies Marxist class theory to society and culture, is firmly entrenched in academia. Dr Sean Phelan, who teaches media studies in Massey’s Department of Communications, Journalism and Marketing, specialises in “post-Marxist discourse theory” and regards the teaching of journalism as an “instrument of the existing hegemonic order”. He thinks journalists need more instruction in critical (read Marxist) theory.

The extent to which some journalism schools have fallen under the sway of leftist ideology became startlingly evident with the appointment earlier this year of Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury as editor-in-residence at the Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec), which teaches the national diploma in journalism. In a press statement proudly trumpeting Bradbury’s appointment, the head of Wintec's School of Media Arts (a person I'd never heard of - nothing new there) said he would be a “mentor and advisor” to Wintec’s current crop of journalism and communications students.

What are Bradbury’s qualifications for “mentoring” budding journalists? You might well ask. I’d describe him not as a journalist but as a leftist polemicist, albeit a very noisy one. (Bradbury has variously been described as “the man who will not shut up” and “the most opinionated man in New Zealand”.) His home, the Listener revealed in a profile in 2005, was decorated with posters of Marx, Che Guevara and Mao, which suggests a man who never matured beyond the undergraduate phase in his political views. If Wintec wants to be known as the journalism equivalent of an Islamist madrassa, it couldn't have chosen a more perfect appointee.

Bradbury probably can’t believe his good fortune at being given a state-funded job in which he can indoctrinate impressionable students. I get the impression, from occasionally reading his blog and listening to him loudly declaiming on Jim Mora’s afternoon panel, that he’s interested in journalism only as a means of advancing a leftist, anti-capitalist agenda. This of course makes him ideally suited to academia, where antipathy toward the corporate mainstream media and all its bourgeois values – such as balance and neutrality – runs deep.

The paradox, of course, is that the same corporate mainstream media will be expected to provide Wintec graduates with jobs, assuming they survive the formidable endurance test of being ear-bashed by Bradbury for a year. Not for the first time, I marvel at the media industry’s benign tolerance of media academics who are hostile to it. Media companies don’t fund journalism courses, but they employ their graduates. This surely gives them some influence over the way courses are run and who teaches them. How much longer, I wonder, will they remain silent on the subversion of mainstream journalism values by leftist theorists?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Curran surprised? I don't think so

Going back through last week’s papers before putting them in the recycling bin, I came across a story by Dom Post political reporter Kate Chapman about Labour MP Clare Curran’s banishment from the parliamentary debating chamber for wearing non-authorised apparel – to wit, a Highlanders jersey.

Chapman wrote that Curran “got more coverage than she had bargained for when Speaker Lockwood Smith took offence to her outfit and ordered her to leave the House”.

I would say that in fact Curran got exactly what she bargained for. A former journalist and union PR adviser, she would have foreseen Smith’s reaction and would have known perfectly well how the media would react. It was, in other words, a publicity stunt.

No harm in that, but it was intriguing to see how the media played up the story. Curran must have been enormously gratified. That single incident earned her more coverage than she’d previously attracted in the two and a half years since she was elected.

That’s is the way it is these days, and not just in New Zealand. Lindsay Tanner, who was Minister of Finance in the Australian Labour government led by Kevin Rudd, recently published a book, aptly titled Sideshow, in which he says, among other things: “After spending much of my life dedicated to the serious craft of politics, I have to admit that I am distressed by what it is becoming. Under siege from commercial pressures and technological innovation, the media are retreating into an entertainment frame that has little tolerance for complex social and economic issues.

“In turn, politicians and parties are adapting their behaviour to suit the new rules of the game — to such an extent that the contest of ideas is being supplanted by the contest for laughs.”

Commenting on Tanner’s book in Spectator Australia, former ALP leader Mark Latham chimed in: “Tanner makes the argument I have been making for a decade: that the trivialisation of politics in the mass media is destroying the effectiveness of parliamentary democracy.”

What Latham doesn’t say is that the politicians are complicit in this. They understand the new dynamics of political coverage and happily play along. In fact Christchurch Press editor Andrew Holden revealed on TV3’s The Nation at the weekend that John Key spoke to Fairfax editors on the day Curran wore the Highlanders jersey and correctly predicted that the story would be leading the bulletins that evening.

If Key knew exactly what the media response would be, I'm sure Curran did too.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

NZ shouldn't give Mara the time of day

Why did the government even consider granting entry to the shifty Lieutenant-Colonel Tevita Mara? We shouldn’t be giving him the time of day. A man previously happy to align himself closely with the repressive, illegitimate regime of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, he now expects us to believe he has had a road-to-Damascus conversion to the virtues of democracy. How convenient.

Mara, clearly the embittered loser in a power struggle with his former mate, should have been left to stew his own juice. Yet Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully confirmed on TVNZ’s Q+A this morning that the government has granted him an exemption from the travel ban that normally applies to people associated with the Fijian military.

On the same programme, political scientist Jon Johansson suggested this was because the government wants to find out what’s inside Mara’s head. I would suggest that whatever’s inside his head, it’s probably so ugly it should be left there.

TVNZ’s Guyon Espiner subjected Mara to his first real grilling, at least that I’ve seen, in the course of which Espiner extracted the admission that Mara had been present when Bainimarama assaulted female pro-democracy activists. He is up to his eyeballs in allegations of torture, illegal detention and assault, admitting that soldiers under his command took part in beatings. He lamely acknowledged, in response to Espiner’s probing, that those responsible for human rights abuses – including senior officers – must answer for their actions.

That must include him, as former army chief of staff. Perhaps we should let him in to New Zealand and then arrest him. That would represent some sort of poetic justice, but sadly I don’t think that’s what McCully has in mind.

Mara has no status and no credibility. He was happy to be part of a bullying, anti-democratic regime but now that he has fallen out with Bainimarama, he’s desperately trying to re-invent himself as some sort of freedom fighter. No one’s going to buy it, least of all when you observe Mara's telltale body language during interviews – constant blinking, eyes darting everywhere except at the person asking the questions. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I can spit.

It's often the case with Fijian politics that outsiders struggle to discern exactly what’s going on. Even experienced Pacific-watchers scratch their heads trying to make sense of the political tensions and under-currents there. But certain things can be taken as given – namely, that the upheavals that have wracked the country since the Rabuka coup in 1987 have largely been about the protection and preservation of privilege by one or another faction or interest group, and have very little to do with the will or wellbeing of the people at large. From Rabuka through George Speight to Bainimarama, we have witnessed a parade of untrustworthy and/or megalomaniac, self-appointed leaders pursuing murky agendas.

Another constant is that the chiefly caste of which Mara is a member is usually pulling strings behind the scenes. His father, the late prime minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, was regarded in the West as a great Pacific statesman, but observers had reason to wonder, in all the covert manoeuvrings that followed the 1987 coup, how deeply committed he was to democracy. When Mara Jr fled after being charged with sedition last month, it seemed wholly fitting that he should seek refuge with relatives of the same chiefly caste in Tonga – another country where an elite rules at the expense of the people.

And now he invites us to welcome him as a champion of democracy. Well, pull the other tit, as we used to say when we were kids.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

On judging the newspaper awards

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 8.)

I’m in two minds about competitions and awards. I’ve been involved as a judge in restaurant awards, journalism awards and even cheese competitions (a peculiar combination, admittedly), but I've grown ambivalent about them. I feel the same about wine competitions, which I’ve never judged but have had the opportunity to observe.

On one hand it seems that every professional or craft group, whether it’s the pompously named Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or the Takaka women’s needlework circle, feels the need to recognise meritorious performance and provide some sort of benchmark to aspire to.

That seems a valid objective. Competitions and awards are an incentive to people to perform at their best and a means of celebrating outstanding achievement. They are also a useful way of bringing promising newcomers – whether they’re actors, writers, chefs or winemakers – to wider attention.

Yet I can’t help having misgivings, to the extent that I’m reluctant to accept any further invitations to be a judge. There is a randomness and subjectivity about most judging processes that often makes me sceptical about the outcomes.

Take wine competitions. It’s accepted in the wine industry that clever winemakers can craft a wine that stands out among dozens of others. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best, but it gets noticed.

Besides, wine judges are sometimes expected to taste and assess a couple of hundred wines in a day. Even disregarding the inevitable element of subjectivity (because even expert opinions differ sharply), how can that deliver a dependable result?

This partly explains why many wineries, including some of the best, simply don’t bother entering. They prefer to concentrate on pleasing the people who really matter – the people who buy their wines. Yet there is pressure to enter wine shows, because wines that win high-profile awards almost invariably become big sellers. The commercial spinoff is hard to ignore.

But enough about wine. What prompted this soul-searching is that I recently helped judge the Canon Newspaper of the Year awards.

I should state here that the judging process was probably the fairest, and least likely to throw up a dodgy result, of any competition I’ve been involved in. Three judges independently and separately read the same papers and came to their conclusions without consulting each other.

We each awarded points to every paper covering several different criteria – the quality of the journalism, the design, the extent to which the paper connected with its community, and so on. The results were returned to the Newspaper Publishers’ Association and the points we had awarded each entrant were totted up and averaged out.

So although we might have each come up with different winners in each category, the overall result was likely to reflect a consensus. That seemed to me an admirable way to minimise any possible bias, conscious or otherwise, and to avoid any anomalies. An odd decision by one judge, for instance, would be offset by the verdicts of the other two.

Moreover, the fact that we never discussed our scores meant there was no chance for one persuasive judge to talk the others around to his or her point of view. I have seen this dynamic at work in other competitions and it can skew the result.

So if I was happy with this aspect of the judging process, what were my reservations?

I suppose my main concern is that ultimately, a judge in Christchurch, Dunedin or (in my case) Masterton isn’t the best person to assess how well a newspaper in Invercargill, Nelson or Rotorua is meeting the needs of its readers. The judge can award a score based on how it measures up to strict journalistic criteria, but only the people who read the paper every day in those communities can know whether it meets their expectations.

In this respect I sympathise with wineries that refuse to enter competitions on the basis that it’s not the opinion of illustrious wine judges that matters; it’s whether their wine pleases the consumer.

That raises another point. For practicality’s sake, newspapers are invited to submit four editions from throughout the year. They are free to choose any four they like, and inevitably select those that show them in the best light.

But just as a clever winemaker can make a wine that catches the judges’ attention, so a newspaper can choose four editions that show the paper at its best but may not necessarily reflect the paper’s performance day-in, day-out. Again, that’s something only the paper’s readers can judge.

Ultimately the judges’ decision says that this or that paper performed outstandingly well, or at least better than the others, on four days. This is not necessarily a definitive measure of a paper’s quality but it’s probably the best we can do.

Clearly, no judge can be expected to wade through a year’s papers. Even after carefully reading four entries from each paper (a job that takes days if it’s done thoroughly), you tend to get cross-eyed and wonder whether your critical faculties are getting blurry, just as a wine judge’s nose and palate inevitably become jaded after sniffing, tasting and spitting all day.

Interestingly enough, several papers submitted editions that covered the same big news events – namely the September 4 Christchurch earthquake and the Pike River tragedy. I had to wonder about the wisdom of this, because dramatic events are not hard to cover well. Journalists invariably rise to the occasion when they have a major story on their hands.

When parts of a large city are reduced to rubble or 29 miners are trapped underground, it’s almost difficult not to produce an impressive paper. Obviously it’s vital that newspapers tell such stories well, but what really sets a good paper apart is the ability to sniff out and report things that no one previously knew about. That shows a newspaper is burrowing under the surface and asking awkward questions.

If all this sounds rather downbeat, I should add that judging the awards left me feeling generally positive about the state of New Zealand journalism. Yes, there are some papers that look good but are weak in terms of content – all sizzle and not enough steak, as they say. But there are many others that are determinedly keeping the alive the best journalistic traditions: reporting what needs to be reported, engaging with their communities and holding politicians, bureaucrats and scoundrels to account. New Zealand would be unimaginably poorer and more ignorant without them.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Twitter: an exercise in pointlessness

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, June 7.)

RARELY was anything more appropriately named than the social networking site Twitter, a word that brings to mind a flock of sparrows noisily chattering over a crust of bread.

It’s the perfect moniker for a mode of communication whose defining characteristic is its sheer pointlessness.

Even the creator of Twitter, Californian Jack Dorsey, admits the name sums it all up. “We came across the word ‘twitter’, and it was just perfect,” Dorsey is quoted as saying. “The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information’ and ‘chirps from birds’. And that’s exactly what the product was.”

There. I rest my case.

The “tweets” that Twitter users send to each other are limited to 140 characters, which seems admirably suited to people with the attention span of goldfish. Small wonder that tweets are rarely concerned with anything more profound than what the tweeter has just had for dinner at KFC. The fact that National MP Tau Henare is Parliament’s most active tweeter – in fact is best known for his tweeting – speaks volumes.

What’s mystifying is that some branches of the news media have embraced Twitter with almost evangelical enthusiasm. Tweets from politicians, obscure celebrities and rugby players are excitedly reported, no matter how puerile or banal the content.

Journalists who would never dream of listening to talkback radio, considering it the domain of the ignorant and bigoted, nonetheless delude themselves that they are taking the pulse of the nation by monitoring the aptly named twittersphere.

When TVNZ’s Guyon Espiner on the current affairs show Q+A tells Labour leader Phil Goff that Twitter users are demanding that he spell out policy, you can’t help feeling that the Twitter phenomenon – or at least the media fascination with it – is getting out of hand.

Some Twitter users are mesmerised by its speed. I have read one journalist boasting that he heard about the February 22 Christchurch quake from Twitter while it was still happening. Another marvelled that Twitter had news of the ditching of an airliner in New York’s Hudson River in 2009 30 minutes before news sites were posting it as “breaking news”.

Well, wow. I suppose that counts for something if you’re the sort of person who loves to be one step ahead of the pack, just for the sake of it. But it’s about as silly as a motoring writer arguing that one car is better than another because it takes 0.5 of second less to get to the speed limit.

I mean, so what?

* * *

ECSTATIC reviews for the British television series Downton Abbey merely reveal how starved New Zealand viewers are of half-decent entertainment.

By the standards of the 1970s, the golden era of British TV drama, it’s rather ordinary. The characters are stereotyped and one-dimensional. The script is clichéd and formulaic. The actors are competent, but do little more than go through the motions – no one more so than Maggie Smith, who has played similar roles a dozen times before and could do it in her sleep.

The programme tends to lead viewers by the nose, giving them heavy-handed cues as to how they should respond to the characters and storyline. I suspect this is because the producers realise TV audiences have forgotten how to react to seriously good drama and need to be retrained.

Despite all this, the critical response has been little short of gushing – demonstrating that after years of cheap, banal “reality” shows and sordid American crime programmes, we’ll eagerly embrace anything remotely reminiscent of the quality drama we once took for granted.

* * *

ONE OF THE pitfalls of being self-employed is that I have to deal with ACC.

I recently sent them an email asking why I received not one but two invoices every year. The reply appeared to be written by someone with English as a second language. It clearly hadn’t been proofread and was nigh incomprehensible.

To give you an example, ACC’s email began (and I reproduce it exactly as it was sent): “We you select coverplus extra you receive two invoices.” (CoverPlus Extra is the policy I’m covered under.) Further on, it referred to levies that are “not aloud [sic] to be charged on a nominated amount”.

What’s especially galling is that I have no option but to deal with ACC. I am not allowed to find an alternative provider that ensures its communications make sense and might even arrange things so that everything is covered by one invoice.

Fortunately this will change next year, assuming National is re-elected and proceeds with its plan to open accident compensation to competition. As ACC Minister Nick Smith says, ACC needs the constant pressure of choice to keep it on its toes – an argument applicable to all monopolies.

National could hardly be described as fearless champions of free enterprise but in this instance, at least, it’s moving in the right direction.