Sunday, July 31, 2011

The obligations of the rich

According to the Dominion Post this week, John Todd, the head of New Zealand’s wealthiest family, thinks the rich have a moral responsibility to help others.

It’s an admirable notion, but I think he’s wrong.

Provided the rich have acquired their wealth by honest, lawful means, I don’t see that they have any moral obligation to anyone. People who build up successful businesses are already performing a public service by providing useful goods and services, creating jobs and generating prosperity. They shouldn’t feel compelled to do any more than that.

Neither should they be taxed at a higher rate than others. The justification for the progressive taxation system has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with pragmatism. The wealthy are taxed at a higher rate not because they deserve to be, but because they can afford it and are therefore considered fair game.

If the rich choose to spread their wealth around, as members of the Todd family have done (possibly influenced by their Catholicism), that’s another matter entirely.

We could do with a stronger philanthropic tradition in New Zealand. There are many benevolent wealthy people operating below the public radar, but the welfare state tends to suppress philanthropic instincts because everyone assumes the government will take care of everything.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A plague on all their houses

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 20.)

I know it’s not right to gloat, but I couldn’t help feeling a frisson of pleasure at the discomfort experienced in high places as a result of the News of the World cellphone hacking scandal.

I detest the British tabloids. They are an abomination.

They have the ethics of sewer rats, using sleazy, underhand and even illegal means to get stories. This is not a recent phenomenon and neither is it confined to the News of the World. It has been going on for years, and no London tabloid can claim its nose is clean.

Indeed, as the Guardian journalist Nick Davies revealed in his 2008 book Flat Earth News, even some supposedly reputable British broadsheet papers have broken ethical boundaries in pursuit of exclusive stories. (Davies, incidentally, was one of the reporters who broke the story that the News of the World had hacked into people’s phone messages.)

I believe the well-documented misbehaviour of the British tabloids is one reason why journalists throughout the English-speaking world are regarded as sleazeballs, bereft of ethics and prepared to do anything for a scoop. We are all smeared by association.

The “redtops”, as the Fleet Street tabloids are called (because of the bright red ink used in their mastheads), have their defenders. It’s often pointed out, for example, that it was their relentless scrutiny that exposed the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana as a sham.

In the light of what we now know about that marital train wreck, the tabloids can claim to be vindicated. They can justify their hounding of the royal couple by arguing that the British public was entitled to know what was really going on behind the public relations smokescreen.

It’s hard to disagree. Yet I would find the argument a lot more convincing if I believed the tabloid press was driven by a high moral calling to search out and report the truth, rather than by an insatiable appetite for scandal and sensation (which the disintegrating royal marriage provided by the truckload).

And while it’s easy to cite the Charles and Diana story as an example of the press performing its noblest function – namely, exposing something that those in power would have preferred to hush up – it’s rather harder to justify everyday sleaze like trawling through the cellphone messages of private citizens in the hope of finding something juicy to splash on page one.

As long as you can produce a legitimate outcome, such as uncovering corruption – or even, at a stretch, a two-timing football star – it may be possible to construct a retrospective justification for unethical behaviour such as phone hacking. But where the victims are blameless people such as the families of slain soldiers and a murder victim, the News of the World doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

But it’s not just unethical journalists who have been rattled by the events of the past fortnight. What’s equally satisfying is that the nature of the relationship between British politicians and the media has come into sharp focus.

I take the purist view that politicians and journalists should keep each other at arm’s length, but in Britain the two groups have a long history of cosying up to each other.

Generations of wealthy newspaper proprietors from Lord Northcliffe to Rupert Murdoch have taken the view that ownership of a paper brings with it the right to exercise political power and patronage. Murdoch has done this more blatantly than most, switching the support of papers like The Sun (daily readership: 7 million-plus) between the two main parties as it suited him.

Politicians respond by ingratiating themselves with proprietors and editors to win their favour. It’s a political phenomenon that’s mercifully alien to New Zealand, where the British-style media tycoon is unheard of and the press has generally shunned political alignment.

In the past 20 years the relationship between British politicians and the media has entered very murky ethical territory as party leaders sought either to recruit the support of newspaper barons or to manipulate the press for their own ends – none more so than Tony Blair, under whose prime ministership media strategy seemed to command as much attention as economic or foreign policy. Now we learn that current British prime minister David Cameron, as well as employing former News of the World editor Andy Coulson (now in disgrace) as his communications supremo, was in the habit of hobnobbing socially with the Murdoch family.

Both Cameron and Blair went out of their way to court Murdoch. To me this degree of closeness has always seemed deeply unhealthy and ripe with the potential to compromise either side. And so it has turned out, with Cameron suddenly finding it expedient to distance himself from the powerful media friends that he was only too eager to cultivate until the News of the World scandal erupted. If it weren’t so hypocritical, there would be something almost comical about the speed with which he has abandoned the people he so recently wooed.

As the saying goes, those who sup with the devil should use a long spoon. But will the lesson be learned? We shall see.

For the rest of the British media there is a lot of what the Germans call schadenfreude - pleasure in other people's misfortunes - going on here. Many in the British media still deeply resent Murdoch as the impertinent colonial – he was branded the “Dirty Digger” – who marched in and took over some of their oldest and proudest media institutions (and successfully took on the notoriously obstructive Fleet Street unions, something the British proprietors lacked the courage to do). His detractors have taken great pleasure from this reversal in his fortunes.

But there are very few in the British media who haven’t been guilty of doing what Murdoch is accused of doing: allowing political considerations to influence editorial agendas and apparently turning a blind eye to dodgy journalism practices.

The collapse of the once-mighty News of the World holds lessons for them too. But you have to wonder whether the rotten tabloid journalism culture, with its tolerance of unethical journalism and creepily symbiotic relationship with politicians, is too deeply rooted to change.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How much trust can we place in the 'most trusted' list?

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, July 19.)

Reader’s Digest recently released a bizarre list purporting to name New Zealand’s most trusted people.

Bizarre, because there was no discernible logic or consistency in the names listed. The top 10 included three scientists, a fashion designer, a celebrity chef, a judge, a playwright and two comedians.

How some names ended up on the list is a mystery. I mean, Chief High Court Judge Helen Winkelmann? How many New Zealanders have even heard of her? Even as judges go, she has kept a relatively low profile. But there she was at No 4.

I’m sure Justice Winkelmann is a person of the utmost probity (I would certainly hope so, given her office), but the sceptic in me finds it highly unlikely that her name would spring forth spontaneously in the mind of the average Kiwi.

No 12 on the list was a radio host I’d never heard of, with the improbable name of Jay-Jay (reason enough, I would have thought, to have automatically excluded her).

What’s going on here? Well, there’s a clue at the bottom of the Reader’s Digest press release. It reveals that the “most trusted” New Zealanders were chosen by 532 adults who were given 100 names and asked to rank them in order of supposed trustworthiness.

In other words there was a high degree of pre-selection. That immediately undermines the “most trusted” description, because survey participants might have come up with completely different names had they been left to do so unprompted. But it does help explain why so many of those chosen are not household names.

The top three – Sir Ray Avery, Sir Peter Gluckman and Sir Paul Callaghan – are all scientists. My guess is that they were chosen not so much because each has demonstrated his trustworthiness, but because people like to think of scientists as incorruptible seekers after the truth.

In other words, it’s possible they achieved their rankings because of what they do rather than who they are. The same might be said of Justice Winkelmann, whose inclusion is otherwise so puzzling.

But playwright Roger Hall (No 5), comedian Bret McKenzie (No 6), fashion designer Denise l’Estrange-Corbet (No 7) and celebrity chef Simon Gault (No 9)? How do we explain those?

This is where it gets truly bizarre, because the public has little, if any, basis on which to judge whether these people really are to be trusted.

Before their lawyers reach for the phone, let me say I am sure they are all individuals of irreproachable integrity. But their high ranking suggests that many survey respondents simply voted for people they admire for their looks, talent, wit or whatever.

Perhaps in future the research firm should present survey participants with a list of names and ask whether they would trust these people with their life savings, or to look after their children for a week.

That might deliver a more meaningful result. As it is, the survey is barely more credible than a Nigerian email.

Now if Reader’s Digest really wants to know what New Zealanders think, how about compiling a list of the country’s most despised people? That would be something.

Let me suggest a couple of names to get the ball rolling: Rod Petricevic and Macsyna King.

* * *

IT’S HARD to recall a time when the tone of public discourse was more vicious and abusive.

The ill-fated employers’ spokesman Alasdair Thompson and ACT leader Don Brash have both been on the receiving end of attacks that made little attempt to address the substance of the issues they raised. Far easier to shout them down with offensive epithets.

Of course both are considered fair game because they are Pakeha men of a certain age. “Dinosaur” is the insult-du-jour. Throw in a few other simplistic insults – “sexist” and “racist” are much in vogue – and it’s game, set and match. Who needs rational discussion?

The level of rancour in public debate has been cranked up tenfold by the internet, which allows people to spray invective around with impunity. In comment threads on blogs and media websites, puerile abuse trumps civilised discourse every time.

This is partly due to the sheer ease with which Internet users can lob their toxic bombs. It’s immediate and effortless. But a much more important factor is that the net confers anonymity, and anonymity gives courage to cowards.

Newspapers learned decades ago that they attracted a higher standard of letter by insisting that people sign with their own names rather than hiding behind pseudonyms. The net has yet to attain that level of maturity.

* * *

SPARE A THOUGHT for the hapless Germans. In the 1990s, prosperous West Germany had to shoulder the deadweight of the moribund communist East. Now these same industrious, thrifty people are being called on to bail out corrupt, feckless, ill-governed Greece. It seems a very high price to pay for the Germans’ determination to be good international citizens.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Flat-footed on the CGT

My take on Labour’s proposed capital gains tax, for what it’s worth, is that the Nats didn’t see it coming.

Hang on, let me clarify that. Of course the government knew, along with everyone else, that Labour was about to unveil a new tax policy. But I wonder if they under-estimated its impact.

National’s response to the CGT proposal has been surprisingly unconvincing, as if they didn’t bother to rehearse their lines beforehand or even agree on a script. As a result they have looked flat-footed.

Could they be victims of their own success – so accustomed to Labour floundering in the polls that they convinced themselves they had nothing to worry about? Arrogance and smugness have always been among the National Party’s less endearing qualities.

Maybe the CGT is not yet the game-changer that Phil Goff claims it is. Labour remains open to the accusation that it is ultimately concerned not with creating wealth, but with redistributing it. But Goff exploits one of National’s greatest areas of vulnerability when he says Labour is prepared to tackle the big issues that the Nats won’t. It’s a line that could play well to an electorate that still doesn’t really know what National stands for.

Friday, July 15, 2011

1981 and all that

Historian Matthew Wright, writing in the Dom Post today, reminds us that it’s 30 years since the Springbok tour.

I agree with Wright’s premise that the protests against the tour were about much more than apartheid and rugby. They were an eruption of frustration and resentment against years of suffocatingly authoritarian, conservative government. The Springbok tour and the polarising figure of Robert Muldoon provided a convenient touch-paper.

However I question Wright’s conclusion that anti-tour protests had little impact on the white South African government or apartheid. He writes that “the white minority government wasn’t listening to international pressure”, but in fact the evidence suggests the republic’s burning desire to play rugby against New Zealand was a critical factor in bringing about political reform. Chris Laidlaw, who was New Zealand’s first diplomatic representative in black Africa, told me in 1994: “Rugby played a far bigger part in the transition to democracy [in South Africa] than most people realise.”

The African National Congress recognised that white South Africa’s rugby fervour was a pressure point that could be exploited to the ANC’s advantage. Laidlaw hosted secret meetings in Harare between ANC officials and South African rugby bosses Louis Luyt and Danie Craven, at which the message was clear: no more international rugby until apartheid was abolished.

“Once he [Luyt] got that into his head there was no stopping him,” Laidlaw told me. “He went straight to the South African government and said: ‘Things are going to have to change.’” So Wright may be slightly off the mark when he writes that New Zealanders bashing each other in Molesworth St weren’t going to change anything.

And it’s unfortunate that his piece is marred by a couple of minor factual errors. I observed the so-called Battle of Molesworth Street at close range and I don’t recall the police Red Squad being there, as Wright says. The Red Squad’s job was to protect the Springboks and match venues. What’s more, they weren’t commanded by Ross Meurant, as Wright implies, although that was a common misconception that Meurant may have been happy to go along with. The Red Squad was actually led by Phil Keber.

Oh, and I don’t recall seeing any PR-24 police batons (the so-called Minto bars that Wright refers to) at Molesworth St either. The batons used that night, as is clear from Evening Post photographer Ian Mackley’s black-and-white picture accompanying Wright’s piece, were standard, old-fashioned truncheons.

Footnote: As Wright remarks, the bloody clash between police and protesters in Molesworth St coincided with the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. This presented The Dominion with a dilemma: which story should take precedence? In the end, the Dom went with the royal wedding on the top half of the front page and the Battle of Molesworth Street below the fold.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The changing TV landscape (sorry, media ecology)

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 6.)

“Appointment viewing” is the fashionable television industry term for programmes that people can’t bear to miss.

Readers of a certain age will remember when the entire nation stayed home to watch shows like The Forsyte Saga or Upstairs, Downstairs. It was even said that borough councils changed their meeting nights to avoid missing an episode of The Avengers in its “Mrs Peel, we’re needed” heyday.

Back then, television was still something of a novelty and we had only one channel, meaning everyone watched the same shows and talked about them the next day. In an unexpected way, television served as a national unifier. It was as if we all shared one big living room.

So what programmes, if any, deserve to be described as “appointment viewing” these days? For reasons that elude me, Dancing with the Stars and the ghastly Master Chef New Zealand attracted huge audiences.

More recently, a certain type of viewer has been captivated by Downton Abbey on Prime. This costume drama was obviously intended to evoke fond memories of the golden age of British television, but you can almost see the keys protruding from the actors’ backs as they go through the motions as predictably as clockwork toys.

Friends of mine enjoyed it thinking it was a clever spoof, and were taken aback when they learned it was meant to be serious. (In fact Downton Abbey has itself been spoofed, wickedly and brilliantly, in a BBC production called Uptown Downstairs Abbey, viewable online at You Tube and starring such luminaries as Joanna Lumley, Jennifer Saunders and Kim Cattral.)

I can think of only three programmes that I make a point of watching, and as it happens, they're all local. One is Caravan of Life, which I stumbled on by chance a few weeks ago while waiting for the Saturday night news.

Caravan of Life is the sort of show New Zealand does very well. The presenter is journalist and former Good Morning host Haydn Jones, who trundles around the countryside in a 1960s Ford Falcon towing a vintage caravan. Yes, I know it sounds gimmicky - the sort of thing Te Radar might do. But the car and caravan are as far as the gimmickry goes.

Jones has a gift for seeking out ordinary New Zealanders - “characters”, in Kiwi parlance - who lead interesting lives. What’s more, he has the rare knack of being able to make them relax and reveal themselves on camera. His own style is engaging and whimsical without being forced or contrived.

It’s disappointing but hardly surprising that TVNZ, which relentlessly promotes appalling, exploitative British programmes about pathetic fat people, hasn’t done more to draw attention to this modest little gem.

My other appointment viewing is in the TV ghetto zone of Sunday morning, when I watch TV3’s The Nation and TV One’s Q&A back-to-back. Both are good but I’ve decided I prefer The Nation, hosted by Sean Plunket. It’s a no-nonsense, no-frills current affairs programme that typically includes a solid, thorough investigative segment on a current issue (last week it was asset sales; the week before that, farmer resistance to proposed environmental laws that over-ride property rights - both first-class reports by journalists I‘d never heard of.)

Q&A is flashier and more stagey, to the extent that I sometimes have the feeling that the format gets in the way of the content. But the interviews are searching and tough, and like The Nation, it offers us the opportunity to size up our public figures in a way that’s impossible from fleeting soundbites on the news.

It’s hard to imagine now, but programmes like these once screened in prime time. What’s more, people watched them. Current affairs interviewers - Brian Edwards, Simon Walker, Ian Fraser - were the aristocracy of New Zealand television. Gallery in its day was appointment viewing, though we didn’t call it that. Television took seriously its duty to inform as well as to entertain.

But the television landscape (or “media ecology”, as academics like to call it) has irrevocably changed. The multiplicity of channels now available means that no one broadcaster or programme can command the nation’s attention. The audience is fragmented and as channels proliferate, particularly on Sky, competition for premium programme content intensifies and acquisition costs escalate - all of which puts pressure on the free-to-air channels, which (unlike Sky) have no subscription income to cushion them.

The notion of the public service broadcaster survives in the form of Radio New Zealand, but otherwise it’s in peril. TVNZ is in the process of being released from its obligations under the public service charter introduced under Labour. Its sole objective in future will be to return a dividend to the government (not that viewers will notice much difference, since the charter was largely ineffectual).

Programmes like Q&A and The Nation are made only because they’re funded by the taxpayer through New Zealand On Air. And they are at the mercy of TVNZ programmers, who show what they think of serious current affairs by consigning them to a Sunday morning timeslot when only the truly committed will watch. Now that really is appointment viewing.

Yet the champions of public broadcasting haven’t entirely given up hope. They point out that although nearly 50 percent of New Zealand households now subscribe to Sky, on a typical weeknight 78 percent of eyeballs still watch the free-to-air channels. This suggests New Zealanders remain wedded to traditional mainstream TV even when Sky offers them a choice of 110 channels.

In any given week it’s likely that seven or more of the 10 most popular programmes will have been on TV One. In the week June 26-July 2, for instance, the four top-rating shows were Country Calendar, One News, Fair Go and The Food Truck - all on TV One. Only Shortland Street, on TV2, cracked TV One’s stranglehold on the top 5.

What’s more, six of the top 10 programmes were New Zealand-made. TVNZ chief executive Rick Ellis acknowledges that “New Zealanders love their local content”.

Figures like this give heart to a small group of academics, broadcasters and television producers who are fighting a rearguard action to protect what’s left of public television in New Zealand. But the outlook is bleak and neither the political nor the commercial environment are encouraging.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Not a good week for free speech

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, July 5).

New Zealand has been stricken by the most serious outbreak yet of the highly contagious condition I call acute sensitivity disorder.

Not all women were blinded by fury at what Alasdair Thompson said about menstruation affecting women's productivity. Some thought the outcry was grossly disproportionate to the supposed insult. But few people of either sex were prepared to stick up for Mr Thompson - not because they thought that what he said was indefensible, but because they were intimidated into silence by the howling of the lynch mob.

A high-profile Auckland businesswoman - a solo mother - told me she wanted to support Mr Thompson because she thought he had been unfairly pilloried, but she wouldn't take the risk of saying anything publicly.

That illustrates how easily free speech and public debate can be stifled when the vengeful mob takes over. This was Hitler's technique: to frighten opponents into submission with such an overwhelming show of force that no-one dared dissent. Mr Thompson was abandoned even by his spineless board of directors.

Worse still, elements of the media were complicit in this, stoking the flames of outrage and orchestrating the vilification of a man whose worst sin seems to be that he sometimes shoots his mouth off.

Many female journalists couldn't see past their own indignation. The professional obligation to report the issue fairly and dispassionately was discarded.

TV3 in particular savaged and mocked Mr Thompson, jettisoning all pretence of neutrality and abandoning the once-sacrosanct principle of separating reportage from opinion. Not a pretty sight.

I wonder how many of Mr Thompson's attackers - including a former prime minister who apparently suffers from the delusion that she's still the Queen Bee - took the trouble to watch the unedited version of his 28-minute interview with Mihingarangi Forbes from Campbell Live, in which he attempted to clarify his views on the disparity between men's and women's pay rates. (You needed to watch the whole thing online because TV3 broadcast only four minutes that showed Mr Thompson reacting to provocation by a reporter whose interest was solely in what he had said about women's periods.)

Nothing Mr Thompson said was belittling to women. He didn't say men were better workers (quite the contrary, in fact), and there was nothing to suggest that he thought the 12 per cent pay disparity between the sexes was a desirable state of affairs.

Much of what he said simply reflected the reality of the employment market: for example, that women are more likely than men to take time off when children are sick, and that many women's careers are interrupted by motherhood, with a consequent impact on their earning potential.

The worst he can be accused of is that he made a careless generalisation in the initial radio discussion and didn't have facts to support it. But he was howled down so deafeningly that public figures in future will think very carefully before expressing a view on anything, and good people who might otherwise be tempted to enter public life may decide it's just not worth the grief.

All of which is good for the control freaks who want to dictate what we think and say, but bad for democracy.

* * *

THE irony is that by the end of the week, much of the heat had been taken off Mr Thompson and the Employers & Manufacturers Association (Northern) by another ugly display of bullying that frightened two book chains into declaring they won't stock Ian Wishart's book about Macsyna King and her part in the death of the Kahui twins.

This edges us even closer to Nazism, which was ruthlessly efficient at discouraging people from reading things that those in power didn't like.

There is some frighteningly muddled thinking going on here. Boycotting Wishart's book won't bring back the Kahui twins, and it won't remove the stain left on the soul of the country by their deaths. Neither will a boycott prevent any more abused children from dying.

But if there's even a remote chance that the book will shed a chink of light on the circumstances that led the Kahui babies to die, and therefore help us understand how these things happen, then society stands to gain from its publication.

It has been said in defence of Paper Plus and The Warehouse that booksellers make decisions every week about what books to stock and what not to stock. True - but in this case the decision not to sell the book has been made for fear of a consumer backlash, which makes it an act of moral cowardice. It can't be because the two chains disapprove of the content, because no-one has seen it yet.

This raises the interesting question of whether booksellers, as disseminators of information in a liberal democracy, have special obligations to society that don't apply to other retailers.

All things considered, not a good week for freedom of speech.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

And now for something utterly inconsequential

It’s a bleak, grey Saturday morning and I’m feeling picky. There are innumerable things I could feel picky about, but I’ve chosen something utterly inconsequential.

Today’s Your Weekend magazine, which comes with my Dominion Post, contains a review of Ray Columbus’ autobiography in which the claim is made that She’s A Mod, the 1964 hit by Columbus and his backing band the Invaders, was the first New Zealand record to reach the top 100 in the United States. It’s not clear whether this claim is made in the book or whether the reviewer got it somewhere else, but it didn’t ring true with me, so I checked.

Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles: 1955-2002 is the bible of the Billboard chart, listing every song that made the top 100 in the US during that period. It’s a treasure trove for tragic students of pop minutiae, among whom I count myself, and it makes no reference to Ray Columbus and the Invaders. In fact there are very few New Zealanders listed. Among those I’ve stumbled across in its 1000 pages are Auckland-born Gale Garnett, whose We’ll Sing in the Sunshine went to No 4 in 1964; John Rowles (Cheryl Moana Marie, No 64 in 1971); Split Enz (I Got You, No 53 in 1980); Dragon (Rain, No 88 in 1984); Crowded House (whose Don’t Dream It’s Over went all the way to No 2 in 1987, one of five Neil Finn songs that made the Billboard chart) and the late Pauly Fuemana’s OMC (How Bizarre, No 4 in 1997). Keith Urban has four entries too, but I’m not sure whether we can claim him. In fact I’m not even sure we can claim Crowded House, strictly speaking, but Whitburn generously describes them as a New Zealand band and that’s good enough for me.

Alas, however, no Ray Columbus and the Invaders. This is not to diminish that group’s considerable achievements: they went to No 1 in Australia and in so doing, cracked open the Australian market for countless other New Zealand outfits. But we must keep the record straight.