I sometimes get the odd feeling, reading the Dominion Post, that I’m reading two entirely separate and distinct newspapers.
Take today’s edition, for example. The editorial offers a bracing antidote to some of the sentimental maundering that has attended the passing of Ben Hana, aka Blanket Man, the Wellington street identity who finally paid the sad, inevitable consequence at the weekend for years of self-neglect.
The editorial rightly observed that there was nothing to celebrate about the way Hana chose to spend the last years of his “sad and tormented life”.
“He was not, as some regarded him, a happy-go-lucky vagabond cheerfully thumbing his nose at the establishment and living without a care on the streets of Wellington. Rather, he was a broken man, mentally unwell, haunted by personal demons, chronically malnourished and with a serious drug and alcohol problem that caused him to waste away before the eyes of those who genuinely tried to help him.”
The editorial went on: “The near-glorification of him by some as a symbol of liberty and non-conformity, a ‘Wellington icon’ or, even more grotesquely, a tourist attraction to be pointed out and photographed like a circus freak, is said to have contributed to his refusal to accept the help he was offered and so desperately needed.”
Right on the nail. I wonder if the editorial was read by the compilers of the Capital Day page in the same paper, where an item on Hana’s death exemplified the mushy romanticism that the leader-writer deplored. It reported that locals “mourning the loss of Wellington icon Ben Hana” had taken to the web – that first resort of the inarticulate and emotionally incontinent – to share their memories of him.
“I will miss your presence on Courtenay Place, it won’t be the same without you”, one commenter was reported as saying. Another expressed the hope that Hana would “always bathe in the light of the sun.”
The item went on to say that many people lamented that more wasn’t done to find Hana a safer place to stay. On a similar note, elsewhere in the paper, local Labour MP Grant Robertson – clearly not one to let a chance go by – is quoted as saying (let me guess: Twitter): “RIP Ben Hana. Let’s make his memorial addressing homelessness in Wgtn and its causes, esp access to mental health and addiction services.”
In fact it’s been reported that Hana repeatedly rejected efforts to help him. The life he led was of his own choosing, as is often the case with street people. As the editorial noted, “Hana came to believe that his Blanket Man persona gave him a public identity that was more important to him than his health and wellbeing”.
The need for the media to create and nurture its own myths too frequently overcomes sound journalistic judgment. We saw this recently with the exaggerated tributes to the late Carmen – a colourful character, misrepresented in death as an indefatigable campaigner for human rights – and we are seeing it again with Hana.
Of the two contrasting pictures of Hana’s death presented in today’s Dom Post, I think I know which was the more accurate.
Singer Hollie Smith was reported to have posted the following tribute: “RIP Ben Hana AKA blanket man. Had good times listening to music gettin’ high with you fa long time ago.”
Says it all, really.