Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Compelling questions for troubled times

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, August 30.)

More pressing questions for our times:

Billions have been lost in finance company collapses, but the big question remains unanswered: where did all that money actually go?

Is there a British actor still standing who hasn’t been found a role in The Hobbit, even if it meant ignoring the source book and creating one?

Further to the above, and with all due respect to the paper that kindly publishes this column, would it cause you any grief if you never read another word about Sir Peter Jackson’s latest work?

Is Titewhai Harawira mad?

When will disgruntled Jetstar travellers get the message that budget airlines are cheaper because they offer lower levels of service?

Given all this “breaking news” on TV and radio, isn’t it time someone fixed it?

When did the rugby jersey become a “strip”, and why?

Are the Greens a more likeable party for being rid of angry Sue Bradford?

When will TV3 shout its Christchurch reporter Jeff Hampton a new sportscoat?

Do you lie awake at night fretting that you might have missed out on something important because you’re not on Twitter?

Was the answer to the previous question: “Er, no”?

Had enough of Nigel Latta?

When did journalists drop the perfectly good phrase “gun battle” in favour of the dramatic-sounding but erroneous “firefight”?

Why are so many sports programmes on TV and radio introduced with pounding, thrash metal-type music when most of the listeners are of the Mantovani generation?

Ever wondered why there are no Scottish restaurants?

Why do we now pay down debt when we used to pay it off?

Should all emails that start “Hi guys!” – especially if they come from businesses seeking your custom –be deleted without a second glance?

Why does All Blacks assistant coach Steve Hansen, when talking to the media, always give the impression he has just been shaken awake from a deep sleep?

Ever wondered why so many believers in man-made global warming angrily demand that the media stifle the views of sceptics, but never the other way around?

Puzzled by Paul Holmes’ increasingly effeminate mannerisms on Q&A?

Would Remuera be such a fashionable Auckland suburb if people knew that the name means “burnt buttocks” and commemorates the eating of a Maori chieftainess?

Have Tui’s Yeah, right ads done their dash?

Why do so many women drivers tailgate?

Still waiting for a glimpse of the leadership potential that press gallery journalists keep insisting they see in Labour MP Shane Jones?

Is there now a rule in television that says no programme worth watching can start before 9.30pm?

Had enough of the Rugby World Cup yet?

Teachers planning routine school trips have to file comprehensive “risk assessment” plans, historic churches are required to install unsightly handrails outside, yet coalmines can get away without even rudimentary safety measures. Something wrong here?

Would cooking goddess Nigella Lawson have made it past first base without those breasts?

Is there anyone on earth whose appearance was enhanced by a tattoo?

Should New Zealand troops be risking their lives propping up a regime that tortures people and threatens them with execution for the crime of being Christian?

How hard can it be for TV news bulletins to put captions under talking heads so that we know who’s speaking?

Matamata, Kerikeri, Whatawhata, Katikati, Ongaonga, Pekapeka – is it possible these places were named by a rangatira with a bad stammer?

Was there ever a more pointless big boy’s toy than the jetski?

Could the American songwriter Stephen Foster have had any inkling of how the language would change when he wrote the line: “’Tis summer, the darkies are gay”?

Was anything ever more grievously misnamed than the express lane at the supermarket?

Is “going forward” the most superfluous phrase in the English language?

Had enough of rugby team promotional shots portraying players as brooding, mythic gods?

How come television and radio journalists insist on referring to “fay-talities” on the roads? Are they graduates of the Ozark Mountains Academy of Speech Training?

Considering all the synthetic fragrances at their disposal, how come aerosol companies appear unable to come up with anything that can overcome the vile dunny odours that nature produces?

Has the fatuous phrase “spot you later” finally died a deserved death?

Fed up with contrived on-screen banter between newsreaders, weather presenters and sports reporters? Can’t they just read the news and leave it at that?

Why does Phil Goff (like Helen Clark before him) wear a permanent smile, even when he’s talking about something serious?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Noise: boy racers' only chance to make an impact

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

BOY RACERS are a curse where I live. It’s a flat town – no hills to soak up or deflect noise – and the air is often still. This means boy racers can be heard right across town, especially at night.

This of course is their intention. Their consuming desire is to be noticed.

Though not possessed of the sharpest intellects, they are smart enough to be dimly aware that they will never amount to anything in life.

Somewhere in the recesses of their amped-up, petrol-addled, baseball cap-clad brains, they sense that their only chance of attracting attention is by making a lot of noise in their ludicrous, pimped-up cars.

Noise is central to the boy racer culture because while you can avoid looking at them, you can’t ignore the high-decibel output of their car exhausts. They demand your attention.

That this intrusive noise interferes with people’s common-law right to quiet enjoyment of life doesn’t deter them. Quite the reverse – it’s the boy racers’ raison d’etre.

In recent months, however, I’ve been less conscious of them. Sure, there are still times when I hear them buzzing around the town in the small hours of the morning like so many demented mosquitoes, or pitifully amusing themselves by drifting and doing wheelspins. But it’s as if the noise has become more noticeable because it happens less frequently.

I don’t know whether this is because the police have cracked down on them or if it’s just another silly craze coming to a natural end. Perhaps a combination of the two.

Either way, it’s a good thing. The day the last luridly painted Subaru Impreza or Nissan Skyline disappears up its own ridiculously oversized exhaust pipe will be an occasion for rejoicing.

* * *

IT’S NEARLY nine months since Simon Mercep took over from Sean Plunket on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report, plenty of time to allow a measured assessment. And I have to agree with Listener columnist Joanne Black that the pleasant, mild-mannered Mercep is too similar to his co-host, Geoff Robinson.

Like many Morning Report listeners, I was surprised that Radio New Zealand didn’t replace Plunket with a woman, or at least someone with a style that contrasted more sharply with that of the veteran Robinson.

Mercep is a competent interviewer but lacks Plunket’s take-no-prisoners approach. Admittedly there were times when Plunket was more aggressive than he needed to be and his hectoring style became tiresome, but it worked overall because of the contrast with Robinson. It was the old good-cop, bad-cop dynamic.

Mercep has a soft, unthreatening voice that doesn’t command the listener’s attention. It lacks cut-through. Plunket is a big man with a voice and interviewing style to match. In rugby terms, he’s the equivalent of the enforcer in the front row of the scrum. You don’t need physical bulk on your side to interrogate people – Brian Edwards proved that – but I’m sure it helps psychologically. Mercep just seems too darned nice to unsettle his interview subjects.

As for Robinson, he’s a marvel: always composed and civil, but still capable of asking the hard questions. And he’s been doing it since 1975.

His ability to bounce from one interview to another with barely enough time to catch his breath, and to conduct them all intelligently and with authority, marks him as a consummate professional. But it also points to a strong team of producers and researchers working behind the scenes and feeding him the right material.

* * *

FROM THE “so what’s new?” category: a recent news report that overseas tourists don’t find Auckland visitor-friendly. Has it ever been?

Almost every time I fly into Auckland Airport, whether on a domestic or international flight, I’m struck by the inadequate signage and paucity of information. How visitors cope, especially those who don’t speak English, is a mystery.

But the airport is a fitting introduction to a city that always seems too busy going about its business to bother being friendly to outsiders; too busy taking tourists’ money to pause and smile.

If the airport-to-city bus is the visitor’s first encounter with Auckland, it’s a miracle that most don’t immediately turn around and fly out again.

Unless things have improved lately, waiting passengers are made to stand out in the weather at a poorly marked stop, surrounded by surly-looking airport staff having a cigarette break. I once waited an eternity for a bus and when one finally came into view, it carried on straight past me despite a sign indicating it was the city shuttle.

And when a bus finally deigns to stop and pick you up, you often encounter an unsmiling, non-communicative driver with the charm of a pitbull.

Some cities exude an aura of welcome and friendliness. People often say it about Wellington. But unless Auckland has undergone a remarkable cultural transformation, Rugby World Cup visitors are likely to be unimpressed.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

W P Reeves saw much to like in Murdoch

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

The late W P (Bill) Reeves was one of the most distinguished New Zealand journalists of the 20th century. He was also a friend and admirer of Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media tycoon now demonised as a malevolent, manipulative press baron in the tradition of the infamous American William Randolph Hearst, the man who inspired the film Citizen Kane.

A refined, erudite man, Reeves was editor of Wellington’s Dominion when the then 32-year-old Murdoch acquired a controlling interest in the paper in 1964, his first foray outside Australia. The two developed a warm rapport.

Writing in the centennial history of “the Dom” in 2007, Reeves described the Murdoch of that time as “sophisticated, clever, ardent, handsome and, of course, ridiculously young”. He added that the Australian knew more about newspaper production and content, and industry politics, than anyone on the board or management of the paper he had just acquired.

Murdoch was born with printers' ink in his blood. His father, Sir Keith Murdoch, was a distinguished war correspondent in World War One – in fact the first journalist to thwart military censors and report the fiasco at Gallipoli. He went on to head the then-mighty Herald and Weekly Times empire based in Melbourne.

Murdoch Jr earned Reeves’ respect because he was a passionate newspaperman. The journalists at the Dominion loved him, Reeves wrote. “Here was an enlightened rich boss who knew all about what made newspapers succeed and was a journalist to boot.”

I have since learned that Reeves and Murdoch would spend hours sprawled on the floor of Reeves’ living room, planning the layout of the soon-to- be-launched Sunday Times (now the Sunday Star-Times). When in Wellington, Murdoch would stay with the Reeves family rather than put up in a hotel.

Reeves wrote that Murdoch never attempted to interfere with the Dominion’s editorial policy, which during Reeves’ tenure underwent a transformation from its traditional trenchant conservatism to a much more liberal stance (in line with Reeves’ own leanings). Indeed, Reeves recalled that Murdoch himself was something of a left-winger in those days.

An old journalist friend of mine who worked for Murdoch’s News Corporation for many years – indeed was a Murdoch favourite, working for him in three countries – largely echoes Reeves’ affectionate view of the Australian. Though strongly disapproving of Murdoch’s political machinations, and particularly his support for the Right, my friend remembers him as personally fair, understanding and generous.

Why do I relate this? Because it presents a very different picture of Murdoch – or perhaps I should say a picture of a very different Murdoch – from the one portrayed in recent weeks.

Murdoch has made innumerable enemies in his march to global media dominance, nowhere more so than in Britain. Those enemies are now so gleefully relishing his fall from grace that hardly anyone pauses to give him credit for the good things he has done.

These include the establishment of Australia’s first national paper, The Australian, in 1964 – a paper Murdoch patiently bankrolled for years before it began to turn a profit. It was something that only a man passionately committed to newspapers and serious journalism could have done.

As mentioned in this column previously, Murdoch also rescued the technologically moribund British newspaper industry from the grip of the greedy, bully-boy unions that controlled Fleet Street. Murdoch’s biographer, William Shawcross, has written that without his epic victory over the print unions, “there would be far fewer papers in Britain today”.

Not that he was ever thanked for it. British columnist Simon Jenkins has gone so far as to say that Murdoch was the best thing that ever happened to the British media – “and they hate it”.

In New Zealand, his influence was generally benign. Until 2003 he had a controlling interest in Independent Newspapers Ltd (INL), which evolved out of his Dominion purchase, but he was a distant figure who seemed content to leave INL in the safe hands of its New Zealand bosses. INL had become, after all, a remote and inconspicuous corner of Murdoch’s global business; he had much grander ambitions to pursue.

One journalist has written, rather fancifully, that “journos up and down New Zealand celebrated” when Murdoch sold INL to Fairfax, the current owners. This implies that the purchase by Fairfax liberated INL from the clutches of an evil empire, but I spent much of my career with INL, including two and a half years as editor of its flagship paper, and Murdoch’s influence was virtually imperceptible.

Indeed, his contribution to New Zealand newspapers was positive. He was a solid cornerstone shareholder in INL throughout its expansion from the 1960s to the 1990s, a period that saw the acquisition of many provincial papers which would very likely have foundered without the capital and resources that came with ownership by a bigger company.

We are left, then, with something of a paradox: a man who at times has demonstrated an admirable commitment to newspapers and serious journalism, but is now irrevocably tarnished by the sleazy behaviour of his ghastly tabloids and by his naked exercise of political patronage.

We can only conclude that he has been corrupted by power. He would hardly be the first; the history of the press is replete with examples of men – Northcliffe, Rothermere, Beaverbrook, Hearst, Robert Maxwell and (closer to home) Australia’s Sir Frank Packer – who somehow thought the ownership of mass-circulation newspapers gave them the right to exercise political power.

But journalism should never be about the direct exercise of power. Its purpose should be to empower ordinary people by giving them the knowledge they need to make informed choices. British prime minister Stanley Baldwin, quoting his cousin Rudyard Kipling, famously described the exercise of political power by press barons as “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”.

For all their failings, politicians are ultimately answerable to the voters. Media owners are accountable to no one.

One last thought, though. Before we get too sanctimonious, abuse of media power is not the exclusive preserve of the evil press baron.

The opportunity exists for any media gatekeepers to control and manipulate the flow of information and opinion for their own purposes. In fixating on obvious targets like Murdoch, we overlook the fact that even publicly owned media organisations, such as the sainted BBC and our own Radio New Zealand, are capable of abusing their power.

I'm with Winston on this

I never thought I’d say this, but for once I’m on Winston Peters’ side.
The New Zealand First leader was quoted earlier this week as saying to a female journalist, “God, you dick” – this in response to a question about whether former North Shore mayor Andrew Williams, a new recruit to NZ First, would be a party spokesman.

Granted that Peters is often irascible in the presence of the media, but this didn’t sound quite right. I’ve never heard a woman called a dick, which is a term of abuse reserved for males. Besides, for all his huffing and puffing, Peters isn’t so ill-mannered as to direct such an offensive putdown at a female.

So it was no surprise to see in today’s Dominion Post that Peters denies saying any such thing. What he actually said, he insists, was “crikey dick”.

This rings true to me. “Crikey dick” seems a much more likely thing to say, particularly for someone of Peters’ age. But it’s easy to see how it could be misheard, especially if it’s an expression the reporter is not familiar with.

Is this partly a generational problem? Many of the journalists now covering politics are young women – you can see that whenever gallery journalists swarm around John Key or Phil Goff in the lobby at Parliament.

The expression “crikey dick” is used frequently by people of a certain age but might be less familiar to anyone in their 20s or 30s. It’s not inconceivable that someone of that age might mistake it for something more objectionable.

The Dom Post says Fairfax journalists played the tape to four people, all of whom heard “God, you dick” – but then conceded, when told that Peters denied using those words, that they could be wrong. I’d be curious to know what age they were.

Wallowing in death

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, August 3.)

YOU CAN SEE what Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell was getting at when he said teenagers who kill themselves shouldn’t be rewarded by having their lives “celebrated” on the marae.

It was a statement that caused pain to the families of young people who have taken their own lives. But desperate situations call for blunt speaking, and Mr Flavell was no doubt moved by despair at the high rate of youth suicide, particularly in his own Waiariki electorate.

He was also right to highlight the temptation for the young to glamorise death, whether it’s by suicide or other means such as car crashes. It’s not hard to imagine troubled teenagers regarding an emotional tangi as a suitably glorious end to an unhappy life.

But romanticising premature death is not a problem confined to Maoridom, or to those who kill themselves intentionally. Earlier this year I drove past a young Pakeha woman grieving at the foot of a power pole where her friend had been killed in a car crash a few days before. Flowers, balloons and scrawled messages – artefacts that are now de rigueur wherever young people have died tragically – had been left at the scene.

This has become a familiar pattern. On most weekends, somewhere in New Zealand, young people kill themselves in high-speed smashes. They are often drunk and not wearing seatbelts.

Invariably these tragedies trigger an extravagant public outpouring of grief. Friends gather at the scene, weeping volubly and clutching each other for support.

Tributes are posted on Facebook pages, usually written in the primitive sub-language favoured by texters and tweeters. “Luv u 4 eva,” they say – an emotion of no use to the departed, so presumably expressed purely for the cathartic benefit of the griever.

Public displays are part of the grieving ritual. The sorrow of the young woman I saw sobbing beside the road would have been no less real had she wept at home, but the death cult demands that people mourn conspicuously.

There is something unsettling about this death cult. While grieving for those who have died, the mourners are also celebrating the lifestyle that killed them – a lifestyle characterised by behaviour that invites disaster, such as drinking too much, driving too fast and not thinking very much.

Those who grieve for their friends wallow emotionally in death yet seem incapable of learning anything from it. You get the feeling that this week’s mourners could be next week’s victims.

* * *

I ASK YOU – who are the real deniers when it comes to global warming?

Climate change alarmists are fond of dismissing sceptics as denialists – a potent word, because people associate it with the lunatic fringe that insists the Holocaust never happened.

But who’s really running away from the climate change debate? Why, it’s the alarmists.

They don’t want to confront leading British climate change sceptic Lord Monckton on his visit to New Zealand because to do so might be seen as conceding that the other side has a case. That would never do.

The alarmists peddle the line that the scientific debate is closed – that all the facts are in, and to continue arguing the toss only gives credibility to the sceptics.

This is the basis on which the Greens and National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) principal scientist James Renwick have said there’s no point in engaging with Lord Monckton. In Dr Renwick’s words, “there’s nothing to debate”.

This overlooks the inconvenient truth that there remains a large body of reputable opinion that challenges the science behind global warming hysteria. Perhaps the alarmists think that if they ignore it, it will go away.

This to me is real head-in-the-sand denialism. If they are so convinced of their correctness, what do they have to fear from people like Lord Monckton?

The alarmists should be reminded of the poet Milton’s resounding call: “Let truth and falsehood grapple; whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

* * *

ONE OF THE least surprising pieces of news in recent weeks was that ticket sales for the Rugby World Cup are running well below expectations.

The explanation is simple. New Zealanders love their rugby but are repelled by the greed and rampant corporatism surrounding this event.

They resent having to pay extortionate prices to see their own team play, especially when they are already generously subsidising the event as taxpayers and ratepayers.

They resent the state-sanctioned corporate bullying which sees the creation of Orwellian-sounding “clean zones”, patrolled by government enforcers, to ensure that the tournament’s big sponsors aren’t upset by competitors.

Their resentment deepens when they learn that even the cash-strapped St John’s ambulance service, which for generations has provided first aid for amateur sport, has to cover its own sponsors’ logos on ambulances and uniforms so as not to fall foul of “ambush marketing” laws.

They also see the game being corrupted by the intrusion of commercial agendas – such as the promotion of fluoro-coloured boots – that show no respect for the traditions of the national team.

They know the Rugby World Cup has precious little to do with the true spirit of the game and they are showing their disapproval in the most logical and forceful way – by staying at home.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What hope for balanced coverage?

On Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon yesterday, Kathryn Ryan provided a graphic lesson in why the Alasdair Thompson affair became so overheated.

Interviewing Bruce Goldsworthy, who took over the running of the Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern) after Thompson was sacked for his comments about women’s productivity, Ryan left listeners in no doubt about where she stood on the issue.

Normally a scrupulously fair and even-handed interviewer, she adopted an uncharacteristic hectoring tone – unnecessarily, I thought, since Goldsworthy seemed almost indecently keen to join her in rubbishing his former boss.

It would be fair to assume, on the basis of this interview, that Ryan is one of the many women who regard Thompson as a sexist dinosaur for whom burning at the stake would be too charitable a fate.

I thought that if any woman journalist could approach this issue coolly and dispassionately, it would be Ryan. But no: the hounding of Thompson continues even after his career was destroyed as punishment for what was, at worst, an infelicitous choice of words.

This was disappointing, but revealing. It exposed the extent to which the media debate about Thompson has been framed in a context in which most women insist on seeing themselves as victims of a male conspiracy.

Female journalists, rather than exercising the professional detachment that their job demands, seem to have taken Thompson’s comments as a personal attack and responded accordingly. On this issue, they are women first and journalists second. When even someone of Ryan’s reputation can’t maintain a semblance of impartiality, what hope is there for balanced coverage?

It’s Thompson’s unfortunate fate to have been made the scapegoat for women’s anger and resentment at being disadvantaged in the workplace (if indeed they are). In effect he has been punished because the world is not quite as they would like it to be.

But we are left with the fact that “pay equity”, along with equally fuzzy associated terms such as “flexibility” and “family-friendly workplaces”, is easier to talk about than to implement. As eager as he was to portray himself as a sensitive New Age kind of guy, and thus to distance himself from Thompson, even Goldsworthy stumbled when Ryan challenged him on why employers weren’t leading the march to a glorious Utopia where women can effortlessly juggle work and parenthood without penalty.

Women’s Affairs Minister Hekia Parata took a more realistic line when she acknowledged the complexities of the pay equity issue in the New Zealand Herald yesterday. Asked for comment on an opinion poll that found 65 per cent of women thought they were paid less than men simply because they were women, she rightly criticised the “simplistic” poll question.

She reminded us that “women are still the only child bearers, women tend to work part time more, women tend to be in lower paid industries, women seek more flexible working hours, so there are some parts of that pay gap that you would have to exclude for those reasons”. Oddly enough, these are pretty much the points that Thompson tried to make.

The most striking lesson to emerge from the furore over Thompson is that 41 years after Germaine Greer wrote The Female Eunuch, the gender war is still raging. I admit this comes as a surprise to me, but I’m probably a sexist dinosaur too.

Footnote: Asked about the appointment of a new EMA chief executive, Goldsworthy told Ryan that the organisation wouldn’t be appointing a woman just to appease the Thompson-haters. But given the way the EMA threw Thompson to the wolves, and its apparent eagerness to ingratiate itself with the tut-tutters, it wouldn’t surprise me if they did.