Friday, March 30, 2012

What happens when the school principal is a controlling bully?

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, March 28, and the Nelson Mail, March 29.)

I WAS contacted recently by a primary school teacher. She tracked me down after reading something I had written about a nasty incident in which two Northland school principals bullied a colleague who had dared to speak out in favour of national standards.

I was alarmed by what this teacher told me. A relative newcomer to New Zealand, she had been attracted here because we had a high literacy rate and, in her own words, “seemed to be doing all the right things in education”.

She had 25 years’ teaching experience in her home country, working mainly in schools serving poor urban communities, often with a high ratio of pupils from ethnic minorities. She enjoyed working in that environment so was happy to accept a position in a decile one school with a predominantly Maori roll in a small, economically backward country town. As she explained it to me, she relished being confronted with a class of “challenging” pupils and motivating them to succeed.

After three years, however, she was disillusioned and disheartened – if not with the state of New Zealand education generally, then certainly with the potential for abuse of power by dysfunctional individuals within the system. She was so disquieted by what she encountered that she began a blog, seen by only a few close friends and fellow teachers, in which she catalogued her experiences and impressions.

In this case the school principal was a controlling bully who ran the school as his personal fiefdom, rewarding teachers who were on his side and punishing those who dared to make waves.

Often it was the pupils who ended up being penalised, since the principal exercised control by withdrawing resources and privileges from the classes of teachers who were seen as troublesome.

The principal also had what are euphemistically known as anger management issues. According to my informant, it wasn’t just pupils who were subjected to his rages; parents and staff copped it as well.

She told me of one girl who was so distressed by a tirade in the principal’s office (for the offence of chewing gum) that she wet herself. In another incident, a pupil was grasped by the shirt, lifted to eye-level, slammed against a wall and told never to “f***ing do that again” after overturning a rubbish bin.

On another occasion, three staff felt so intimidated by the principal that they stood outside his house, too scared to wake him and ask him to move his car so that the school vans could be backed out and used for a scheduled field trip.

My informant listed several other incidents, but you get the picture.

The principal’s techniques for managing staff are worth noting, too. Favoured teachers were promoted without vacancies being advertised. Extra payments known as units, which are meant to compensate teachers for taking on special responsibilities, were handed out as rewards, like lollies. Though they were supposed to be allocated transparently after consultation with the staff, no one but the principal knew who had been awarded the units or even how many were available for distribution.

When an Education Review Office team visited the school, the principal warned teachers beforehand that jobs would be lost if the school got a bad report, and that he would insist on knowing the source of any adverse comment made to the ERO reviewers. My informant wrote in her blog: “The [ERO] report came out glowing with plausible explanations given for the high turnover in staff, dropping enrolment and low test scores.”

The teacher concerned has now left the school after being declared surplus, partly due to the school’s steadily declining roll.

In the course of several conversations with her, I concluded she was a dedicated professional who was genuinely distressed by what she saw. This impression was confirmed by a neutral third party who was familiar with the situation at the school.

Now, here’s the bigger issue. If this were just one dysfunctional school with a rogue principal, that would be serious enough. But what if it’s not simply a one-off aberration? Could there be other schools in a similar predicament?

The answer seems to be yes, because my informant’s observations point to a critical deficiency in the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms of 1989, which bestowed autonomy on school boards of trustees, concentrated power in principals’ hands and stripped away a layer of supervision previously provided by district education boards.

In theory the reforms sounded fine. But what happens when the board of trustees is controlled by an alpha-male principal and effectively does what he tells them?

In this case, according to my informant, the man had been a principal for a long time and the board of trustees rubber-stamped everything he proposed. “When he offered me a job I assumed I would have to be interviewed by the board, but he told me: ‘The board does everything I say’. I thought, okay, this is the way they do things in New Zealand. I didn’t want to rock the boat.” It was only later, when she talked to another experienced teacher who had recently joined the school, that she realised it wasn’t the way schools were supposed to be run.

But it was even worse than that, because the principal effectively chose the board himself. He would invite community members to put themselves forward but no elections took place because the number of individuals asked to be on the board always equalled the number of vacant seats.

In her blog, my informant wrote that the several levels of checks and controls she was used to in her home country did not exist in New Zealand to oversee and monitor individual schools.

Education minister Hekia Parata, who is currently overseeing a review of school governance, should take note.

A lot has been said and written in recent years about the inadequacies of the Tomorrow’s Schools model, especially in isolated rural communities such as the one described above, where it’s hard to attract board members with the required skills. It has also been noted that the 1989 reforms greatly enhanced the position and control of the principal.

Combine those two elements – a weak board and a bullying principal – and the consequences, as my informant’s experience shows, can be very damaging.

Oh dear - and just when I was starting to like him

I never used to be an admirer of Mike Hosking. Too image-conscious, too vain, too caught up in the whole journalist-as-celebrity shtick. Lately, though, I’ve warmed to him after hearing some of his morning commentaries on Newstalk ZB, which are generally sharp and perceptive. (In other words, I usually agree with him.) I was at risk of becoming a Hosking fan.

Now, dammit, I have to reappraise him again in the light of the New Zealand Herald’s revelations about his commercial association with Auckland’s SkyCity casino.

If the Herald’s John Drinnan is to be believed, and I have no reason to doubt him, Hosking is paid to act as some sort of celebrity “ambassador” for the casino. Paul Henry reportedly had a similar association with SkyCity before he moved to Australia.

Apparently there are quite a few of these “ambassadors”, including entertainers and top sports people. Some are paid to perform specific duties for the casino, such as MC or promotional duties; others accept generous freebies – such as accommodation, drinks and meals – in return for just being seen there.

Now what sports people and entertainers do to earn a bit on the side is their affair, unless it happens to be illegal; but journalists are a different story. If they are to retain the confidence of their viewers, listeners or readers, they have to be above any suspicion that they might be commercially tainted.

It’s not as if there’s no room for potential conflict of interest here. As Drinnan points out, SkyCity was recently in the news over children being left in cars while their parents played the pokies. That’s the very sort of item Close Up , on which Hosking regularly fills in for Mark Sainsbury, is likely to cover. Would Hosking be compromised by his commercial association with the casino? Of course you’d hope not, but the risk shouldn’t arise in the first place.

What makes things worse is that he apparently didn’t think it necessary to tell TVNZ about the SkyCity tie-up, although a TVNZ spokeswoman said his contract required him to declare such issues. Now, just suppose Hosking had to present an item about problem gambling, or the government’s sweetheart deal with SkyCity over Auckland’s proposed new convention centre. It would be unsatisfactory enough knowing he had an association with the company and wondering whether he was giving us the full, warts-and-all story; but it would be utterly beyond the pale if the viewers – and even his employers – had no idea he worked for the people he was reporting on.

TVNZ, to its credit, seems to have recognised the ethical black hole here, even if Hosking chooses not to. Drinnan reports that TVNZ has forbidden Hosking from covering stories related to SkyCity when he fills in on Close Up. That’s the very least it should do. TV3’s head of news and current affairs, Mark Jennings, reckons TVNZ should get rid of Hosking altogether. (It’s not often these days that Jennings can claim the moral high ground over his rival, so he can hardly be blamed for grasping the opportunity.)

Hoskings’ Monday-to-Friday employer, Newstalk ZB, seems more relaxed about his involvement with SkyCity. Hosking has told the network of the relationship and is simply required to declare it to listeners if SkyCity-related issues come up on his programme. Is that enough? I wouldn’t have thought so. Better to avoid the perception of conflict of interest altogether.

Apparently Paul Henry’s radio employer, MediaWorks, was similarly laidback about his association with SkyCity while he was on RadioLive. That’s disappointing too, but not entirely surprising; Henry is first and foremost a showman and for all I know, thinks “ethics” is the way a man with a lisp might pronounce the name of a southern English county. But Hosking has a solid journalism background and expects us to take him seriously.

The bigger problem here is that journalism, particularly its television and radio variants, has been fatally contaminated by the cult of celebrity and the temptations it dangles in front of those who are easily seduced by wealth, fame and the thrill of seeing their photos on the gossip pages.

It doesn’t seem to matter that some broadcasters are already paid the equivalent of a small South Pacific country’s GDP. In fact it sometimes seems that the more they get, the more they need to sustain their image and lifestyle – whether it comes from accepting gigs as celebrity MCs, taking payment from women’s magazines for exclusive non-stories, or hiring out their services on the quiet as media trainers to politicians and business people.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Four months in, and National's looking wobbly

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 27.)

IT WOULD BE overstating things to say the wheels have fallen off the National government four months into its second term, but they’re looking decidedly wobbly.

Pumped up by its resounding election victory and freed from the constraints it imposed on itself with its ultra-cautious first-term agenda, National has been far more ambitious this time around. There’s a new toughness in its approach, though it still shrinks from tackling some of the big issues such as Working for Families, national superannuation and interest-free student loans.

You have to wonder, however, about the government’s ability to drive through the changes it is pursuing – and perhaps even more crucially, to carry the public with it.

The partial privatisation of state assets, a defining policy initiative, has been poorly handled. The electorate has been given confused and unconvincing messages about why the partial selloff is so important and what the benefits will be. In the vacuum that has opened up, public scepticism has taken root and the government has ceded the initiative to its opponents.

Things are looking messy elsewhere too. Budget stringencies have left an already weakened Defence Force bleeding, adding to a long record of inept and erratic decision-making in that portfolio. (Defence, once a senior Cabinet appointment, has been steadily downgraded since the Vietnam War protest generation came to power and is now in the hands of one of the government’s least impressive ministers.)

In Foreign Affairs, National is frantically back-pedalling after the diplomatic establishment, famously change-averse at the best of times, staged a spirited revolt against a proposed shakeup. Minister Murray McCully’s main concern now seems to be to distance himself from changes that he initially appeared to endorse.

On the industrial front, the government has to deal with a troublesome national union leader, Helen Kelly, who combines her late father Pat’s fiery combativeness with sharp political instincts and communication skills. Union disruption may never again become the issue that it was in the 1970s, but it has the potential to be a continuing distraction and irritant.

Add to all that the Crafar farms imbroglio, suggestions of conflict between Mr Key and his deputy Bill English, allegations of crony capitalism arising from sweetheart deals such as the one with casino operator Sky City, and now the fiasco surrounding Nick Smith’s resignation, and any report card for the government at this stage of its term would have to read: “A much better effort needed.”

Perhaps the most disquieting aspect of National’s second-term performance so far is that its programme seems scattergun and ad hoc. There is little sense of a consistent, over-arching philosophy. Despite Mr Key’s protestations to the contrary, his much-touted “Super Thursday” speech amounted to little more than a wish list, and a rather disjointed one at that.

Of course there’s still Steven Joyce, who will preside over a new super ministry to be formed by the hasty merging of four departments. He’s touted as some sort of secret weapon, but it seems a lot to ask of one minister.

In the meantime it’s hard not to be sceptical. The government talks of achieving 120 key targets but that’s a hopelessly unwieldy goal, and according to Mr Key the list isn’t even complete yet. It reminds me of those brainstorming sessions government departments hold where expensive consultants are brought in to “facilitate” ideas which, at the end of the day, fill several whiteboards but are promptly forgotten once everyone goes back to work.

ONE TARGET the government has already ticked off, but which may come back to bite it once the full implications become apparent, is the elaborate new regulatory regime governing the building industry.

Legislative changes like this can sneak up on people. Unlike the new give way laws, they don’t get a million-dollar publicity campaign. It’s not until they take effect that people start to squeal.

Under the new regime, builders have to become “licensed building practitioners”, complete with shiny plastic cards and photo IDs. The new rules also impose restrictions on traditional Kiwi do-it-yourselfers, who are about to learn that some jobs they were previously allowed to tackle must now be done by an LBP.

The licensing of builders is the regulators’ response to the leaky homes catastrophe. It’s a classic kneejerk reaction to the perception that something must be done.

The irony is that it not only lets some of the people who created the leaky homes mess, such as architects, off the hook, but enhances the power of the bureaucracy that presided over the leaky buildings epidemic.

What are we to make of all this? Simply that once again, the mug citizen ends up being penalised for the failings of others – and is expected to be grateful for the costly and cumbersome regime now in place, because after all it’s for our own good.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A heads-up on expressions that have passed their use-by date

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 14.)

It’s a truism that the English language is in a constant state of flux. And no aspect of it changes more rapidly, or more frequently, than the figures of speech we use.

Consider some of the expressions common in my childhood but now used only by people of a certain age, such as “good as gold” and “right as rain”. You may hear them at the local bowling club but not in a trendy bar in the Viaduct Basin or Courtenay Place.

Who these days cadges money or suggests going for a burl in a car? Who refers to a good friend as a cobber, or exclaims “corker” as a term of approval?

Who says “What a dag” when referring to something funny, or complains of being rooked at the corner dairy? And what member of Generation X or Y would know what it means to kick up bobsy-die or rattle your dags?

These were all common terms when I was growing up, but are unlikely these days to be heard from anyone under the age of 50. In their place we have acquired a new vocabulary which, given the speed at which things now pass into obsolescence, will almost certainly have a much shorter shelf life than some of the expressions mentioned above.

There, I’ve just used a contemporary figure of speech almost without thinking: “shelf life”. This comes to us from the supermarket business, where products that have reached their use-by date (another relatively recent term) must be taken off the shelves and discarded.

“Shelf life” and “use-by date” strike me as clever and inventive expressions. They are abstract but their meaning is clear.

I can think of many other evocative figures of speech that have come into common usage in the past decade or two. I quite like the term “high maintenance” for someone who is emotionally demanding. The same person might also be described as having emotional baggage – another apt metaphor.

Similarly, the saying that someone is out of their comfort zone strikes me as an effective use of metaphorical language, as is “wake-up call” for something that jerks you to your senses.

The expression “low-hanging fruit” irritates the hell out of some people, but it’s one of the more striking figures of speech to come out of the business sector. To pick the low-hanging fruit is to take the easy and most obvious options; after that, the going gets tougher.

The trouble with all these expressions is that they can very quickly become tired and hackneyed through overuse. “Singing from the same song sheet”? “On the same page”? These too started out as appealing expressions, but they illustrate how easily today’s vivid figure of speech can become tomorrow’s ghastly management jargon.

When the appalling David Brent uses them in the cringingly believable TV satire The Office, thinking he’s being cutting-edge (whoops, there’s another one), you know any freshness or credibility these expressions once possessed has been well and truly exhausted.

But at least they started life with the virtue of being imaginative. Other ubiquitous slang expressions sounded silly and clichéd right from the get-go (and there’s a particularly absurd cliché, one that makes no sense no matter how you look at it).

We all have our linguistic peeves, not all of them necessarily rational, and the following are some of mine.

“To die for.” Soldiers die for king and country, martyrs die for their faith and mother animals die protecting their young from marauding predators. But no one ever died for a double-shot flat white, 600 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, a perfect Caesar salad or any of the other ridiculous things that airheads and luvvies constantly proclaim are “to die for”. This silliest of expressions exposes our pathetic preoccupations with the glossy, the glitzy and the trivial.

“Gobsmacked.” If only the people who claim to be gobsmacked actually were smacked in the gob; now that would be something worth seeing. It might also shut them up for a while, or at least until the bleeding stopped.

“Blown away”. Oh, I wish. In one of my recurring fantasies, users of this expression are picked up by a rogue tornado and deposited hundreds of kilometres out to sea.

“Gutted”. Hardly a day passes when we don’t hear of someone feeling gutted because they weren’t selected for the Black Caps, or because their favourite pub closed, or because the bus no longer stopped at their gate. In fact disembowelling would be far too gentle a fate for perpetrators of this preposterous hyperbole.

“Rock up” (as in, “I rocked up to the bar and ordered a beer”). This has its origin in ghetto drug slang, which is where it should have stayed. Unless they’re users of crack cocaine, anyone talking about “rocking up” is trying tragically hard to sound cool. Leave it alone, please.

“Heads up”. A favourite phrase of mediocre middle-management types who think it conjures up images of being alert and on the ball. In fact it marks them as drearily unimaginative and conformist, and therefore never likely to progress any further.

“On the back of”. Journalists are the principal offenders here, thinking it sounds authoritative to report, for example, that share prices have risen on the back of encouraging economic news. But like the equally silly “rolled out” (as in “ultra-fast broadband will be rolled out nationwide”), it reveals them as slaves to fatuous jargon.

It pains me that journalists, who should be a good example to everyone else, resort so readily to the tedious and predictable. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was gutted by it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Abortion and infanticide - what's the difference?

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 13.)

WHEN I read recently that two medical ethicists had suggested it should be legal to kill newborn babies, my first thought was that they must be anti-abortion campaigners choosing an unusually dramatic way to make their point.

After all, what’s the difference, ethically speaking, between aborting a baby at 20 weeks’ gestation or waiting till it’s born, then quietly suffocating it or administering a lethal injection? None that I can see.

And that’s exactly the point made by doctors Francesca Minerva and Alberto Giubilini in a recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics.
As it turns out, the two “ethicists” are not opposed to abortion. Far from it. They are simply advancing, in a clinically dispassionate way, the argument that it doesn’t make any difference whether babies’ lives are terminated in the womb or after birth.

Newborns aren’t “actual” persons, they suggest; merely “potential” persons. Neither the foetus nor the newborn baby is a “person” with a moral right to life. Only “actual” persons can be harmed by being killed.

It’s a proposition that would shock decent people. Yet it exposes the fundamental flaw, both logical and moral, behind liberal abortion laws such as those that apply in New Zealand.

Most people who think it’s okay to abort babies in the womb would recoil in horror at the thought of snuffing their lives out once they’ve been born.

But I ask again, what’s the difference? Some babies that are legally aborted under present law (there were 16,630 in 2010) have reached a stage in their development when they are capable, with intensive medical care, of surviving outside the womb.

Newborn babies also need intervention to survive. So at what point do we decide a baby has a right to life – at six months old, perhaps? One year? Only when it’s capable of feeding itself and walking?

No civilised society would countenance the killing of babies at any of these ages. It would equal the worst horrors of Nazism.

Yet the Australian state of Victoria already allows babies to be aborted right up to the time of birth, and pro-abortion lobbyists would like the same law adopted here. It’s only a short step from there to infanticide.

And why not? After all, Drs Minerva and Giubilini make it clear there is no ethical difference between killing babies in the womb and murdering them after birth. Any point after conception at which society decides it’s legally permissible to end their lives is entirely artificial and arbitrary.

One chilling argument advanced by the “ethicists” is that parents whose babies are born disabled without prior warning, as happens frequently, should be able to have them killed.

A society that considers itself humane would draw back in horror from such a proposal – but it’s simply a logical extension of what we’re doing now.

* * *

EVERY NOW and again, debate erupts in a journalists’ online discussion group that I belong to about the difficulties of dealing with government PR people.

Theoretically the function of these public servants is to facilitate the flow of information between the bureaucracy and the public. In reality, their purpose often seems to be to obstruct journalists making legitimate inquiries.

This is frustrating for reporters, but it points to a much deeper problem.

A couple of years ago, the head of a high-profile government department casually remarked to me that he employed more journalists than most newspapers. In fact he boasted that his communications staff could easily put out a paper of their own.

This illustrates how the balance of power, for want of a better phrase, has shifted from the media to the bureaucracy. Media management has become almost an obsession in many branches of government. More and more journalists have abandoned the media for better-paid jobs funded by taxpayers and ratepayers.

Many of these ex-journalists, in a variation of the old poacher-turned-gamekeeper model, seem to regard it as their mission to make life hard for their former colleagues. Their primary task, after all, is to protect their masters.

Should this concern people outside the media and PR businesses? Of course it should, because participatory democracy depends on the free flow of information. Disrupt that flow, and ultimately it’s the public that suffers.

* * *

IT’S FASHIONABLE to sneer at the 1970s as the era of flares, disco and fondue parties, but in retrospect it can be seen as the high-water mark of television.

It seems inconceivable now, but that was the decade when state-owned TV showed Kenneth Clark’s masterful documentary series Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man in prime time. What’s more, everyone watched them.

What do we get in prime time now? The World’s Strictest Parents, Masterchef New Zealand, American Idol and Hotel Inspector. Look no further for proof of the state-sanctioned decline of popular culture.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A fresh new take on Peter and the Wolf

Last night I took my daughter and two grandsons, aged 6 and 3, to Peter and the Wolf at the Michael Fowler Centre. Staged as part of the International Arts Festival, it was a once-only performance, and an unusual one in that the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra played Prokofiev’s score while an animated film of the famous Russian fairy tale was projected onto a giant screen above the stage.

It would have been a challenging exercise for the conductor, Hamish McKeich, since the orchestra had to be perfectly in synch with the film. But the effect was fantastic.

The film itself is a tour de force and deservedly won the Academy Award in 2006 for best short film (they do get things right occasionally). Directed by English animator Suzie Templeton with Polish and Norwegian co-producers, it’s a highly original interpretation - fairy tale meets social realism - of an otherwise familiar story. Templeton’s Peter and the Wolf is uncompromisingly dark in places, the sort of animated movie Ken Loach might have directed if he made animated movies, but also uproariously funny.

Templeton brings the story up to date by setting it in a bleak, contemporary location somewhere in Eastern Europe. There's no narration; the audience are left to work out the story for themselves, which is just fine. Another example of the director’s readiness to break with tradition is that the hunters in this version are not hearty, bearded heroes coming to the rescue, but a pair of nasty white-trash types with whom Peter has had an unpleasant encounter early in the piece.

Fortunately, just when things threaten to get a little too grim, the tension is released with explosions of riotous humour – much of it at the expense of the cat in the story, which is here depicted as fat, spoiled and sly. What particularly impressed me was that though the visual gags are often quite sophisticated, the children who made up most of the audience got the joke every time. In fact the NZSO strained at times to make itself heard over the hilarity.

Apart from that small problem, Prokofiev’s familiar music never sounded better. To my untutored ears the orchestra also made a superb job of Wellington composer Jenny McLeod’s The Emperor and the Nightingale, another fairy story – this one by Hans Christian Andersen – charmingly set to music, with a lively score deftly calibrated for younger ears. Helen Medlyn, better known as an opera singer, helped breathe life into the story with an animated and full-blooded narration. But without the distraction of a film, a lot of the younger kids present – my grandsons included – squirmed and fidgeted throughout. Programming a classical concert for children can’t be easy.

Incidentally, I’ve just googled Templeton’s film (on which the music is supplied by the Philharmonia Orchestra) and I see it’s available on DVD. I’ll certainly be doing my best to get a copy – I can see it challenging Spike Milligan’s Badjelly the Witch for the status of most-requested DVD at our place when the grandsons come to stay.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Startled in the checkout aisle

What is it with women of a certain age wanting to take their clobber off?

Standing in the checkout aisle at the supermarket a couple of days ago, I was confronted by the sight of Robyn Malcolm – Cheryl West in Outrageous Fortune – coyly posing naked on the cover of Next magazine.

A flick through the magazine revealed several other women in the buff, including – for heaven’s sake – the editor. All very discreet and tasteful, of course, but still …

This wholesale shedding of clothes was justified on the pretext that women should be proud of their bodies. The editor wrote that it was all about “celebrating the female form in all its shapes and sizes”. I have no quarrel with that, but I can’t help wondering whether it really requires women to get their kit off just to prove their point.

I’ll go further and express the sneaking suspicion that this is simply a new form of exhibitionism. It started with middle-aged and even elderly women posing naked for fundraising calendars, but it seems to have stepped up a few notches. It goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of the “sexy” mature woman, as personified by Helen Mirren and Nigella Lawson (and in New Zealand by Malcolm, who's in her mid-40s).

Now I’d be the last to deny older women the right to be sexy, but does it necessitate stripping off for a magazine cover, a la Ms Malcolm? At the risk of sounding old-fogeyish, it strikes me as … well, undignified. But then I’m just a bloke. What would I know?

And before anyone tries to pins that hackneyed “sexist” label on me, I should add that I'd feel exactly the same about magazine shots showing naked men of a certain age. Some things are simply better kept concealed.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

As with so many things, a question of balance

It’s one of those debates among journalists that are never satisfactorily resolved. How much should you assume your readers know?

In sport, the assumption seems to be that readers know lots, otherwise they wouldn’t be reading the sports section. Hence no effort is made to explain why an overcast sky can make a difference in a cricket test, or what a mankad is.

Lately I've read several references to the influence cloud can have on the outcome of a cricket match - the latest example occurring in yesterday’s Dominion Post preview of the first test against South Africa - but I’m no closer to understanding why. Sports journalists clearly don’t feel any need to explain. It’s assumed that anyone reading these stories has been initiated into the ineffable mysteries of cricket and would probably be irritated if they were spelled out.

And don’t even get me started on the vagaries of pitches, which are routinely referred to in language that’s as impenetrable to me as Urdu. Fairfax sports reporter Mark Geenty managed to squeeze two cryptic references (by which I mean cryptic to anyone who isn’t a cricket geek) into one sentence yesterday when he wrote that cloud cover and swing bowling were likely to have a bigger say on the outcome of the first test than a pitch with the living daylights rolled out of it. Then he made things worse by quoting Daniel Vettori: “Overhead conditions dictate what it’s going to be like. You talk to the Otago guys and they say it’s a completely different wicket depending on the overhead conditions.”

A little elaboration would have been appreciated. Surely I’m not the only person reading the sports pages who scratches his head when he comes across statements like these?

Similarly, only a few weeks ago in the Dom Post sports pages I read a reference to something called a mankad. What could this be, I wondered – some sort of grotesque garment, perhaps, like the mankini made famous in the movie Borat?

Well, no. It turns out that it’s a controversial run-out in cricket, one that’s regarded as poor form and not in the traditions of the game. The name comes from its original perpetrator, Indian cricketer Vinoo Mankad, who pulled the stunt in 1947 and whose name, as a result, lives in cricketing infamy. Should your average reader be expected to know this? Is it reasonable to expect them to go to their computer keyboard and google the word to satisfy their curiosity?

There’s no simple answer to this. I would argue that in the case of the mankad, it would have been a simple matter – and a courtesy to readers – to slip in a sentence enlightening the ignorant. But such matters are not always straightforward.

Years ago there was spirited debate in newspaper newsrooms about whether it was necessary to explain what Maori words such as hui, iwi and whanau meant. At what point do we accept that such terms have entered common usage and no longer need their meaning spelled out? There’s no sharp, clear line to help journalists make these decisions. It’s probably safe to assume, after all this time, that such common Maori words are well understood; yet even now there are probably people in New Zealand who mutter resentfully whenever they encounter them.

Certainly it can be exasperating to encounter a word or phrase whose meaning isn’t clear. My late colleague Frank Haden used to rage against the use of foreign expressions in newspaper stories, partly because journalists more often than not got them wrong ("Wankers!" Frank would thunder), but more because he regarded it as a form of one-upmanship over readers and therefore bound to get their backs up. I know what he meant, because I subscribe to The Spectator and often stumble over Latin or French words and phrases written by people who have doubtless received a classical education at Oxford or Cambridge and probably assume all Spectator readers have done likewise.

Yet there is a powerful counter-argument that I would deploy in debate with Frank. A newspaper or magazine can just as easily insult its readers’ intelligence by treating them as if they have the reading level of 10-year-olds as offend them by going over their heads with high-falutin’ language. The line between the two isn’t sharply defined and a good paper will constantly cross from one side to the other. Apart from anything else, how can people’s vocabularies expand if not by being exposed to new words? If the reader is occasionally provoked into picking up a dictionary to check a meaning, as I am, then surely that’s no bad thing.

Where newspapers can avoid antagonising readers is by shunning exclusive jargon. This is most commonly encountered in sections such as sport and business, where journalists can safely assume they are writing for an audience with a higher degree of specialist knowledge than those reading the general news pages. Here the line becomes even fuzzier, and it’s all too easy for journalists to fall into the trap of using “in” jargon to demonstrate their familiarity with the subject. This may signal to the cognoscenti who read those pages that the journalist is up with the play, as it were, but it breaches the basic principle that the purpose of journalism is to communicate to the widest audience possible – not to a narrow clique of insiders.

Some business stories are damned near incomprehensible, but here we encounter another problem: spelling everything out in words that anyone can understand, particularly where the subject is complex (as is often the case with business stories), is not only cumbersome but consumes precious space.

As with so many things, it’s a question of balance. And at the moment, I don’t think the journalists who write for sports and business pages always get the balance right.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Kennedy: charismatic, idealistic - and a misogynist

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 29.)

When the first accounts started seeping out decades ago about President John F Kennedy’s philandering, they scarcely seemed credible.

The world had unquestioningly bought into the fairy-tale portrayal of the White House during the Kennedy years as a latter-day Camelot occupied by a dashing, charismatic young president, his coolly elegant wife and their photogenic children.

It was an era when a respectful news media didn’t pry into the private lives of politicians, least of all the president. It was only after Richard Nixon and the disgrace of Watergate in the 1970s that American journalists collectively decided that presidents could be deeply flawed human beings, like the rest of us, and no longer entitled to be immune from scrutiny.

Coincidentally, it was at about that same time that the media began carrying the first accounts of JFK’s clandestine love life. These stories were so much at odds with his popular image as the devoted Catholic husband and father that at first, many people were inclined to dismiss them as scurrilous libels.

But as the reports multiplied – not just in tabloid scandal-sheets but sober, conservative newspapers and magazines – the truth about Kennedy’s compulsive philandering became impossible to ignore.

What made the revelations even more sensational were the women he was romantically linked with. It’s now generally accepted that he had a fling with Marilyn Monroe, although whether the emotionally fragile star’s infatuation with Kennedy was a factor in her death in 1962 is impossible to confirm.

Another of Kennedy’s mistresses was Judith Exner, who was simultaneously having an affair with gangster Sam Giancana, the head of the Chicago Mafia. (Kennedy was supposedly introduced to Exner by Frank Sinatra, who had Mob connections.)

It was common knowledge among Kennedy’s aides and Secret Service minders that he had a ravenous sexual appetite. All this information trickled out long after Kennedy’s death as former associates of the president came forward with stories of his dalliances.

Yet even after all that, the recently published memoirs of Mimi Alford provide an astonishing new insight into Kennedy’s predatory behaviour.
Alford was recruited from an exclusive Boston girls’ school to work as an intern at the White House in 1962. Just 19 years old, she was a virgin, but she wasn’t to remain one for long. Kennedy had sex with her on her fourth day in the job.

It happened in Jacqui Kennedy’s bedroom after Kennedy offered to show Alford around the White House. Judging by her account, it was perilously close to rape: she didn’t resist, but neither was she given much opportunity to consent. She writes in her memoirs: “The experience was so wholly unexpected and surreal that, as I was driven home in a limo afterwards, I wondered if it had all been a dream.

“Could I have done anything to resist? I doubt it: once we were alone in his wife’s bedroom, he’d manoeuvered me so swiftly and unexpectedly, and with such authority and strength, that, short of screaming, I don’t think anything would have thwarted his intentions.”

Perhaps the most striking thing about this encounter, if it happened as Alford describes, is the sheer, brazen audacity of it. Clearly, Kennedy was supremely confident that he could force himself on a vulnerable young woman – and in his wife’s bedroom – and get away with it.

That to me suggests not just a rampant sexual appetite (Kennedy reportedly once told British prime minister Harold McMillan that he suffered headaches if he went without sex), but massive hubris and a huge sense of entitlement. This may have been the product of his upbringing in a wealthy, privileged household headed by a father infamous for his ruthlessness and ambition.

The other significant aspect of the incident in Jacqui Kennedy’s boudoir is that it seems to have been immaterial to Kennedy whether his partner got any pleasure from the sexual act. That’s consistent with my amateur psychologist’s theory that he simply felt entitled to take whatever he wanted.

Interestingly, JFK’s nephew Christopher Kennedy Lawford, interviewed last weekend by Kim Hill (though not in connection with Alford’s disclosures), referred to that generation of Kennedy men as being misogynists. Certainly the record indicates they were users of women.

To be fair, Alford’s account shows that she subsequently entered willingly into a continuing sexual relationship with Kennedy. Not surprisingly, she was hugely flattered by the attention of the most powerful man on earth. Their affair lasted until his death 18 months later, though she never doubted that he had other lovers.

A peculiar aspect of the affair was that he never kissed her, which seems to suggest (I’m playing the amateur psychologist again here) a fear of emotional intimacy. I mean, how can anyone carry on a sexual relationship without kissing? It doesn’t seem natural.

Alford also saw a much darker side to Kennedy’s personality when he prompted her to give oral sex to his loyal aide Dave Powers when the three were together in the White House swimming pool. Again, you get a sense here of a manipulative man enjoying his power over others. Alford called it callous and unforgiveable.

Kennedy later tried to persuade her to do the same with his younger brother, Ted, but by that time she had the confidence to refuse.

That Alford fell under Kennedy’s spell is hardly surprising. Powerful men have always attracted women. Henry Kissinger, an adviser to Nixon, famously described power as the ultimate aphrodisiac.

The qualities that make men natural leaders – confidence, ambition, ego and often a generous dose of testosterone – are the same ones that make some of them compulsive womanisers. They don’t even need to be handsome: British prime minister David Lloyd George was no Adonis, yet he was known as “the Goat” on account of his busy sex life.

In the case of Kennedy, it wasn’t just power that made him attractive, but good looks and the force of his personality as well.

Judging by Alford’s account, he was also a risk-taker – another attribute that some women find irresistible. Notwithstanding the protective aides and Secret Service men around him, he lived dangerously by engaging openly in illicit liaisons. Perhaps he just felt bulletproof.

The picture Alford paints of Kennedy adds yet another dimension to one of the most complex personalities of the 20th century: idealistic, visionary and inspirational, yet personally decadent to the point of being almost amoral, and very much concerned with satisfying his own needs and desires. It’s a tale that can only further stain his already tarnished image.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Nasty little creatures, but you can't help admiring them

I detest wasps, ugly, sinister, menacing creatures that they are. I daresay they serve some ecological purpose but I’m buggered if I know what. However my aversion doesn’t stop me from having a grudging respect for their cleverness and industry.

Our house is on a large section with lots of trees, shrubs and undergrowth, and we’ve learned to be alert in late summer/early autumn for evidence of wasp nests. In the years we’ve been here we’ve eradicated at least five.

Sure enough, a couple of days ago we observed a constant procession of wasps coming and going from beneath a clump of toetoe. Closer inspection revealed they had created a tunnel through layers of toetoe to what I presume was a hole in the ground leading to their subterranean nest.

This is what impresses me about wasps. First, they had scouted out this location and selected it as fit for purpose (excuse the jargon – I can’t help myself). Then they had proceeded to clear a flight path to the entrance of the nest. This they had done by chewing through countless stalks of tough, sharp-edged toetoe to create an opening as tidily symmetrical as the portal of the Seatoun Tunnel.

Consider the degree of sophistication necessary to achieve this. Clearly, wasp society is sufficiently well organised for them to be able to communicate with each other, agree on the job to be done (and where), then set to work on the construction. And all with no resource consents.

I didn’t dare get close enough to spot the entry to the actual nest, but no doubt that was a piece of clever excavation too. Wasp nests can apparently accommodate as many as 5000 insects, and judging by the nonstop traffic to and from the opening in the toetoe, this was a good-sized one.

We dealt with it as we’ve dealt with them before. This meant waiting till dark (and I mean dark, because wasps remain active as long as there’s any light), then approaching the nest with a torch (its lens covered with a red cloth, since wasps apparently can’t detect red) and a container of carbaryl. Just to be on the safe side, I wore gloves and covered my head with a mesh head net that I bought years ago in the Aussie Outback to keep the flies off (one of the best few dollars I ever spent). I wasn’t taking any chances: according to the Landcare Research website, if you shine the torch too long on the entrance to the nest, red filter or no red filter, wasps are likely to fly up the beam and sting you.

Not being able to see far enough into the opening to detect the nest entrance, I spread carbaryl liberally everywhere I could in the hope that wasps arriving back at the nest next day after foraging would carry the insecticide inside with them and poison the whole colony.

Morning came, and the heavy aerial traffic had resumed. Wasps were coming and going at the rate of one every couple of seconds. But after an hour or so, we could see telltale evidence that the carbaryl was taking effect. Rather than entering the nest, returning wasps would buzz around the opening in an agitated fashion before heading off somewhere else.

Here again, one assumes a sophisticated level of communication and organisation. The wasps seemed to be telling each other something wasn’t right and possibly even agreeing on a rendezvous point somewhere else.

By mid-morning the coming and going had all but ceased. Mission accomplished. I take no pleasure in killing things but it’s hard to feel sorry for these nasty little predators, notwithstanding their cleverness.

It won’t have been a 100 percent kill. The survivors will be regrouping somewhere even as I write this. I just hope it’s on some other mug’s section and not mine.

No sane person wants Maori to fail

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 28.)

EVEN IN a supposedly liberal democracy, there’s a price to be paid for speaking your mind. Broadcaster and columnist Paul Holmes demonstrated that when he was subjected to a barrage of vitriol for expressing his disgust over the latest unpleasantness on Waitangi Day.

Writing in his New Zealand Herald column, Holmes described Waitangi Day protests as repugnant and said he dreaded the inevitable TV coverage of “irrational Maori ghastliness with spitting, smugness, self-righteousness and the usual neurotic Maori politics, in which some bizarre new wrong we’ve never thought about will be lying on the table”.

Hone Harawira, Maori academic Rawiri Taonui and former broadcaster Brian Edwards were among the many who went on the attack. Holmes was even the subject of a savage editorial in the Herald on Sunday, sister paper of the one he writes for.

Edwards described Holmes’ column as a racist diatribe and suggested he must have been drunk to write what he did. The implication here is that when someone as intelligent as Holmes expresses an opinion that doesn’t conform to Edwards’ own world view, the only possible explanation is that he must have been intoxicated. If Edwards was serious, this elevates intellectual conceit to a new level.

The fury unleashed at Holmes exemplified a now-familiar technique in what passes for public debate in New Zealand. When someone in a position of prominence makes a statement that’s deemed politically threatening, the response is to subject the offender to such overwhelming vilification that anyone tempted to speak out in agreement will be intimidated into silence.

It’s a crude and brutal tactic, but very effective. The message couldn’t be clearer: raise your head above the parapet and the guardians of political orthodoxy will blow it off. We last saw it with the hapless Auckland employers’ chief Alasdair Thompson, whose unguarded, off-the-cuff remark about women’s sick leave saw him carted off to the guillotine to the gratification of a howling mob.

But here’s the thing: Holmes’ column attracted 390 online responses that were overwhelmingly supportive.

The kneejerk reaction, of course, is to dismiss all those who agree with Holmes as racists who want to keep Maori subjugated. But no one in their right mind wants to see Maori fail; every New Zealander has a vital stake in Maori succeeding, not only economically but educationally and socially. Everyone benefits from a Maori population that is employed, healthy and fulfilling its considerable potential.

The real debate is about how to achieve that, and in writing his column, Holmes gave voice to a large swathe of New Zealanders who are increasingly exasperated: exasperated that the more Maori demands are met, the more strident and divisive they become; and exasperated that despite decades of Treaty settlements and power-sharing arrangements, Maori social problems such as welfare dependency, crime, poor health and child abuse – which are a shocking blight on us all – seem if anything to be growing worse. Inevitably people start to wonder whether Treaty settlements and other provisions for empowering Maori simply end up enhancing the influence, wealth and status of a tribal elite.

While corporate Maori interests exert pressure on a compliant government to give them preferential treatment in the partial sale of state assets, Maori children continue to suffer from rheumatic fever, endure sometimes fatal abuse from their whanau and go to school without shoes or lunches. I’m reminded of rich Arab oil states that moralise indignantly about the plight of Palestinian refugees yet seem extraordinarily reluctant to part with any of their wealth so that their fellow Arabs in the refugee camps might have a better future.

I believe most Pakeha New Zealanders are anxious to do the right thing. They have been willing to be persuaded – albeit with some scepticism at times – that historical wrongs must be righted by settling Treaty claims and, more recently, by discarding democratic principles through the creation of non-elected and largely non-accountable Maori bodies that wield significant political and economic power.

But an environment has now been created in which each settlement becomes a platform for others. Far from satisfying Maori demands, each payout seems to reinforce the sense of entitlement. So we now have perversions such as special Maori seats on local authorities, even in areas where Maori represent only a small proportion of the population, and demands for $295 million in ratepayers’ money to be spent by a non-elected board on Auckland Maori.

Captain Hobson famously said at Waitangi: “Now we are one people”. Paradoxically, we are now accelerating headlong into a future where New Zealand is at risk of becoming two countries, to the detriment of Maori and Pakeha alike.

If Holmes’ column lifted the veil of polite silence on these issues (and obviously it did, or I wouldn’t be writing about it), then he did us all a favour. It’s a vital debate and it must not be stifled.