Friday, June 29, 2012

When public opinion is okay

THE LEFT keeps howling that the government has no mandate for the partial sale of state assets.  Opinion polls seem to support this view, suggesting that about 70 per cent of the public don’t want the sales to go ahead.

But since when has the Left recognised the primacy of the people? Polls showed that about 80 per cent of the public opposed Sue Bradford’s misbegotten anti-smacking law in 2007, but that didn’t deter Labour and the Greens from pushing it through (with John Key’s complicity, for which some National supporters still haven’t forgiven him).

The Left presents itself as the champion of the people when it’s politically convenient to do so, but has no qualms about disregarding public opinion when it conflicts with the leftist agenda.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Colleen Bain was the shy one in the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band – the one who occasionally smiled self-consciously but never spoke or sang. Four decades on, she’s Colleen Trenwith, and she’s found her voice.
Trenwith (fiddle and vocals) is the centrepiece of the four-piece country band Tales of Tennessee, currently on tour, who presented an excellent concert last night at the impressive new (well, newish) Carterton Events Centre.

It’s probably not quite accurate to describe Tales of Tennessee as a band. They’re more of an act that has coalesced out of other outfits and comes together when other commitments permit. Andrew London (guitar, banjo, keyboards, mandola and vocals) is best known as a member of Hot Club Sandwich and western swing exponents the Cattlestops, while Moira Howard (acoustic bass guitar and vocals) and Ian Campbell (guitar and vocals) form the core of Kapiti Coast-based acoustic country band Legal Tender.

It was a laid-back concert in which Trenwith, whose day job these days involves teaching bluegrass at the University of East Tennessee (imagine that – a New Zealander teaching budding bluegrass musicians from the Appalachians), charmed the capacity audience with anecdotes about life in Johnson City, Tennessee, a town located at the epicentre of American roots music: hence Tales of Tennessee (Trenwith suggested googling the grotesque story of the day the good citizens of Erwin, TN, hanged a circus elephant for murder).
She played a couple of traditional Appalachian fiddle tunes, provided sweet harmonies and even sang one song herself in a nicely balanced set that ranged through Alison Krauss, Bob Wills, Gillian Welch, Guy Clark, Neil Young and even Doris Day. Trenwith’s sensitive, sonorous fiddle was the unifying element in this eclectic selection, underscoring the fact that this is a country band even when performing a crowd-pleasing pastiche of Doris Day’s decidedly non-countryish Everybody Loves a Lover.

The crowd was also treated to three of London’s compositions, including the whimsical Concrete Block Motel, a song about the tribulations of touring small-town New Zealand. London’s an extraordinarily accomplished musician, effortlessly fluent on every instrument he picks up and an excellent singer and songwriter as well.
All the songs were superbly rendered but for me the most affecting was a heartfelt version of Fleetwood Mac’s Songbird, with Howard providing the lead vocals. The only slightly disappointing aspect of the concert was that they chose as their encore Neil Young’s Long May You Run, which seemed a bit of a downer after all that had gone before.

Otherwise it was a great night’s entertainment, low-key but very satisfying. If Tales of Tennessee happen to be coming to a town near you, shake off that stubborn snobby prejudice against country music and get along.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

On Monday, for just the second time, I was on the Panel on Jim Mora’s afternoon radio show. And as before, I found it an oddly unsettling experience.
I’m okay before the programme and I’m reasonably comfortable – at least, most of the time – while we’re on air. Then after it’s over, I get an attack of post-broadcast nerves.

Holy sheepshit, I think to myself, what did I say? I didn’t really say that, did I? Me and my big mouth! What will people think? I drive home a gibbering wreck, mentally flagellating myself all the way to Masterton, where I pour a stiff drink to regain my composure.
My problem is that despite having been live on air many times over the years, it still feels like teetering on a high wire.

It’s not that I’m bothered by having to express an opinion; I’ve been doing that in newspaper columns for more than 40 years. The difference is that in writing a column, you exert complete control over the finished product. If you’re not happy with the way you’ve said something, you can go back and do it again, tweaking and rehashing until you’re happy that the words used are the appropriate ones and that you’ve qualified your statements where necessary so as not to leave yourself wide open to attack (or at least have taken a vaguely defensible position).
But live on air, the words tumble out and you can’t suck them back, no matter how fervently you sometimes might wish to. I remember being told decades ago by a broadcaster that what radio hates more than anything is silence – “dead air”, as they call it in the trade. So no matter how much I might want to, I can’t say in response to a question from Jim: “Er, can I have some time to think about that?” No, you’ve got to formulate a reply and just hope you don’t make a complete dick of yourself. Being able to think on your feet is a great help, but it’s not one of my attributes. I’m a master of what the Frenchman Denis Diderot called l’esprit de l’escalier – the ability to think of a clever riposte about two minutes too late.

I’m also aware that the Panel has a discerning and critical audience that’s likely to pounce on any weakness in one’s arguments. For that reason I make a point of not listening to Jim’s programme the next day, when any critical emails are likely to be read out.
And it’s not exactly as if I’ve been tested under hostile fire, since by sheer good luck my fellow panellists on both occasions, Stephen Franks and Joanne Black, have been people I know well and whose opinions are generally not too far removed from mine (although Joanne rightly pulled me up on Monday when I made a statement about solo mothers that was far too sweeping, forgetting for the moment that she had been one herself).

All in all, the experience of being on the Panel sharpens my admiration for those who, like Jim, earn their living in this most risky business, when mortifying embarrassment or worse (dismissal, a defamation action, a complaint to the BSA) is never more than an injudicious slip of the tongue away.

Friday, June 22, 2012


(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 20.)
Strange creatures, blokes. Even harder to understand, in some ways, than women.
I thought about this recently while driving from the Wairarapa to Wellington. It was a Sunday morning and as often happens, there was a steady stream of motorbikes heading in the opposite direction across the Rimutaka Hill.

A fine Sunday in the Wairarapa has that effect on Wellington motorcyclists. It triggers some impulse deep within them – not unlike a homing instinct, but in reverse. They get up, glance out the window at the leaden grey sky enveloping Wellington, then check the weather forecast – or perhaps text someone they know in Carterton or Martinborough to find out what it’s like over the hill – and before you can say Harley-Davidson, there are convoys of bikes heading north.
They’ll spend the day enjoying fast rural roads and lovely scenery, have lunch at a café or country pub – the Gladstone Tavern and Lake Ferry Hotel are favourites – and return home in the late afternoon, tired but happy, like the Famous Five.

What’s striking is that they travel in packs. A solitary motorcyclist on the Rimutaka Hill on a fine Sunday is a relatively rare sight.
Having ascertained what the Wairarapa weather is like (hardly necessary, since it’s always better than in Wellington), they phone around their motorcycling mates, agree on a rendezvous point and then all head off together.

Groups of them often congregate at the lookout area on the Rimutaka summit, not so much to admire the view as to appraise each other’s bikes (which they haven’t seen since their last ride the week before) and discuss the relative merits of the inline four as opposed to the horizontally opposed twin.
Later in the day you’ll see lines of bikes parked outside the aforementioned pubs, where the riders stand around in their leathers appraising each other’s bikes again and discussing the relative merits of belt drive versus chain drive, a conversation they haven’t had since the last stop at Featherston.

The other striking thing is that they are almost all men. Female riders or pillion passengers are the exception.
Now perhaps I missed out on some male bonding gene – my father was possibly the least blokey man I’ve ever known – but this behaviour puzzles me. Men finding pleasure in the exclusive company of other men (unless of course they’re gay, and I’m not suggesting any such thing here) just seems downright odd.

Not to put too fine a point on it, male company and male talk is usually tedious. Give me female, or at least mixed, company any time.
But I have to accept that it’s I, not the motorcyclists who swarm over the Rimutaka Hill for some quality time together, who’s the odd one out. Lots of blokes just seem to love hanging out with other blokes.

Freemasonry is the ultimate example of this male quirk. Whatever possesses some men to dress up in strange clothing and indulge in arcane rituals behind closed doors is a mystery. (Yes, I know some freemasonry lodges now admit women, but it’s still essentially a male thing.)
You don’t have to look far for less extreme manifestations of the male bonding urge. Rotary clubs used to be very blokeish until women broke down the barricades, although why they bothered is a bit of a mystery.

And think of those clannish supporters’ groups, invariably almost entirely male, that follow certain sports teams around – English cricket’s Barmy Army, for example, or the Wellington Phoenix fan club Yellow Fever. How odd is that? The predilection for male company is peculiar enough, but the vicarious thrill in identifying with male sporting heroes is even more perplexing.
Perhaps a psychologist can unravel what’s going on here. I certainly can’t, although I suspect that the members of these groups must lead awfully dull lives if they feel the need to dress up in uniforms, drink bad beer and chant from the terraces (and even more bizarrely, in the case of Yellow Fever, bare their pale torsos when the excitement of watching their idols reaches fever pitch).

On a more benign level still, I occasionally read newspaper columns by men in their 30s, married with families, who get a big kick out of enjoying boys’ weekends with mates they have been close to since school days.
This is another phenomenon I don’t understand.  When I had a young family I relished the rare opportunities to get away for a night or two with my wife, but a weekend with “the boys” would have had as much appeal as a seminar on endangered arthropods.

Fishing trips, hunting trips, cycling trips … these are all activities that male friends of mine engage in, but which hold little appeal for me. Cycling friends scratch their heads when I decline invitations to go riding with them, puzzled that I should prefer solitude. They probably think of me as antisocial or curmudgeonly, but the combination of testosterone and compulsory bonhomie that often accompanies male group activities leaves me cold.
There’s a defining difference here between men and women. I know some women occasionally enjoy a girls’ night out – indeed, have an uproarious time in each other’s company – but it doesn’t seem to be the compelling need for them that it is for many men. Perhaps the traditional expectation that women stay home and look after the kids means they simply haven’t had the same opportunities, or maybe the female bonding gene is more concerned with family relationships than friendships with the same sex.

And speaking of women, I sometimes wonder whether the road warriors I see swarming over the Rimutaka Hill on sunny weekends have partners at home. I wouldn’t necessarily assume all of them do, since many of the riders have the look of men who live alone.
But assuming that at least some have left a wife or girlfriend behind for the day, what are the women expected to do while their menfolk cruise the Wairarapa countryside and discuss the virtues of liquid cooling and telescopic forks over a beer at the Lake Ferry pub?

Do the women feel resentful at being excluded from this male ritual? Or are they, as I suspect, secretly relieved at being left at home to do the ironing and watch TV?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 19.)
THE TROUBLE with New Zealanders, I’ve decided, is that we’re just too darned nice.

We’re decent and anxious to do the right thing. Our sense of fairness, respect for human rights and lack of corruption are recognised worldwide, which explains why New Zealand is often invited to play a bigger role in international affairs than our size justifies.  

But at home, these admirable qualities are a crippling liability. Why? Because whenever anyone proposes a course of action that threatens to disadvantage someone or strip them of some privilege, we wring our hands in anguish and say it can’t possibly be allowed. Someone, or something, might suffer.
This applies regardless of whether we’re talking about welfare reform, public sector cutbacks, changes to teacher-pupil ratios, new roads, oil exploration, hydro-electricity schemes, mining on wilderness land or even reducing the opening hours of public libraries.

The moment someone protests that some initiative might be unfair to someone, or pose a theoretical threat to the environment in a remote valley that no one has ever heard of, we tut-tut and earnestly nod in sympathy with whoever claims to represent the aggrieved party.
We’re suckers for a hard-luck story and ever ready to side with the perceived underdog. This is wonderful for moralistic crusaders and sectional interest groups, which have become adept at exploiting the public desire to do the right thing, and even more skilled at disguising their self-interest as a matter of morality or public wellbeing.

But it’s a sure formula for political and economic stagnation, which is what we have experienced in recent years. And it’s hugely exacerbated by MMP, a system we were persuaded to embrace because it seemed to be fair (always a winning argument in New Zealand, even when it’s fallacious), but which holds the major parties hostage to the demands of political rats and mice, thus snookering all chance of decisive reform.
Effective government means making hard decisions that are bound to upset and even disadvantage some people, but this is altogether too brutal for fair-minded New Zealanders to countenance. So nothing happens, except that we continue to lose 40,000 people a year to Australia.

* * *
IT HAS LONG been apparent that this government has no compelling philosophical vision. Now it’s becoming obvious that they are poor strategists and political managers too.

Of all the issues on which the government could have taken on the teachers’ unions, it chose one on which it should have realised the teachers would have little trouble winning public support. By not adequately explaining what it was trying to achieve, National surrendered the high ground to its opponents.
There is a pattern emerging here. Similarly, National has got itself into all sorts of bother with the partial selloff of state assets, a relatively modest initiative, because it has failed to convince New Zealanders of its merits.

In the meantime, John Key maintains his characteristic sunny demeanour. Could his apparent insouciance be due to the fact that he’s not a career politician and may not plan on sticking around?
After all, he has made it clear he’s interested in politics only as long as he can remain prime minister and once that job is removed from him, either by the voters or his party, he’ll move on. He’s still relatively young, after all, and not exactly short of a bob.  

* * *

IF ANY lesson has emerged from the Leveson inquiry into the British press, it’s that media proprietors and politicians should have nothing to do with each other.
It shouldn’t take an inquiry to establish this. Nothing good can come from press barons thinking they are entitled to exercise political power; and equally, nothing good can come from sycophantic politicians sucking up to media magnates.

But it’s rich that British politicians are trying to pin all the blame for this wretched state of affairs on Murdoch. They sucked up to him for years, which makes the present orgy of score-settling only slightly less nauseating than prime minister David Cameron’s lovey-dovey text messages with the ghastly Rebekah Brooks.
The Leveson inquiry reminds us that unhealthy relationships between politicians and press proprietors are one British tradition we are fortunate not to have inherited in New Zealand.

* * *

IN A RECENT column I mentioned the writer Gordon McLauchlan and said he was 75. That information, which came from my New Zealand Who’s Who, turns out to have been incorrect. McLauchlan is a youthful-looking 81.
What’s more, he tells me he enjoys occasional convivial gatherings with several other Auckland notables born in 1931: former governor-general Dame Cath Tizard, journalist and educationist Gordon Dryden and former privacy commissioner Sir Bruce Slane. Author Maurice Gee is also 81 but lives too far away (Wellington) to join them.

They are all fit and active. Clearly, 80 is the new 60.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


There was a public meeting in my home town last night to protest against the impending closure of TVNZ7. As a firm believer in the virtues of public television I might have been tempted to attend, but for one thing.
The crusade to save TVNZ7 started out with sound motives but gives every impression of having been hijacked by the Left. While this was probably inevitable, it does nothing for the campaign’s credibility. In fact it’s counter-productive, since it ensures an already indifferent government will dismiss the campaign as just more bleating by its habitual enemies and therefore not worth bothering about.

I mean, who can take seriously any campaign in which the neo-Marxist loudmouth Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury has been assigned a central role? Bradbury was the “moderator” – hardly the most appropriate word in his case – at last night’s meeting, as he has been at several others. Personally, I’d rather be roped to a chair and forced to sit through endless reruns of MasterChef New Zealand than endure one of Bradbury’s splenetic rants.
He was to be joined on the platform last night by Green MP Julie Ann Genter, Labour MP Kris Faafoi and Wayne Hope, a leftist academic (almost a tautology) from the Auckland University of Technology. It’s hard to imagine a more highly politicised roster of speakers, or one the government would be more happy to ignore.

There is a broad constituency of people who support public broadcasting and it shouldn’t be assumed they are all on the Left. It’s unfortunate that the promoters of the Save TVNZ7 campaign have risked alienating so many of them by allowing a worthwhile cause to be presented as just another skirmish in the ideological wars.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


I’ve been doing something over the past couple of weeks that surprises even me. I’ve found myself watching the TV One news again. And what’s even more surprising is that it’s not too bad. Perhaps I’m going soft in my dotage.
I gave up on One’s news years ago, repelled by the touchy-feely presentation style (which began way back with Judy Bailey), the silly gimmickry (the tandem newsreading technique, which goes back even further, still strikes me as absurd, as does the more recent fondness for live crosses to reporters who could just as easily be in the studio), the preposterous jargon (as in “Lisa Owen is across developments”), the promotion of celebrity reporters (step forward, Jack Tame) and TVNZ’s obvious preference (Jack Tame notwithstanding) for young, attractive female journalists over older, more experienced hands.  All this drove me into the welcoming arms of TV3, whose style by comparison was restrained and sensible.

But bugger me, everything seems to have been reversed. It’s TV3 now that habitually overcooks everything, while One seems to have reverted to a more sober, no-nonsense form of presentation. There seems to have been a subtle but important shift in One’s news values. More of the stories we’re seeing each evening are about matters of substance rather than froth. It no longer seems to be assumed by the news editors that viewers have the attention span of goldfish, or are incapable of dealing with stories about serious issues. What’s more, some of those attractive young females, given the chance to relate the news without gushing and simpering, have shown they’re capable of a lot more than merely looking decorative.
The turning point for me came when I switched on 3 News the night both channels led their bulletins with that painful interview with the parents of the Weekes triplets, who died in a Qatar shopping mall fire. It wasn’t the interview itself that repelled me – as far as I can tell, the content was pretty much the same on both channels – but the mawkish tone of Mike McRoberts’ intro, which seemed designed to milk the tragedy for all it was worth (and I say that as someone who has generally admired McRoberts).  A story like the deaths of the Weekes triplets doesn’t need embellishment. Viewers don’t need to be given a cue as to how they should respond emotionally. It’s an insult to them, and to the Weekes family.

That emotionally manipulative style of news treatment used to be One’s domain, and it pains me to see 3 News adopting the same meretricious techniques. But it comes on top of other aspects of 3 News that have perturbed me, such as the aggressive, highly opinionated reporting style of Patrick Gower and former political editor Duncan Garner and the increasingly frequent, gratuitous and often loaded throwaway lines from newsreader Hilary Barry. It seemed 3 News had decided it was no longer enough merely to report the news; it had to take an assertive, even provocative, position. Well, Fleet Street operates that way too, and it doesn’t seem to have earned itself much public respect.
So now I’m watching One News again, and while there are still aspects of it that grate (Wendy Petrie always reminds me of those girls at school who weren’t terribly clever but always sat at the front of class, took part in everything and were eager to impress the teacher), it’s currently by far the better of the two options at six o’clock.

What’s behind this change? Well, it seems more than a coincidence that it’s happened since TVNZ acquired a new head of news and current affairs, Australian Ross Dagan. I can only conclude that Dagan has presided over a partial reversion, at least, to old-fashioned, no-frills news values. Blessings upon him, if that’s correct.
My tentative conclusion that we have Dagan to thank for the improvement was reinforced by New Zealand Herald media writer John Drinnan’s column yesterday, in which Drinnan revealed that Dagan is reviewing the use of American news consultants Frank Magid and Associates.

A consultant to TVNZ for 20 years, Magid has had a huge and baneful influence on how One presents the news. It’s generally accepted that he’s behind the frothy, populist approach and all the accompanying fatuous gimmickry. As one anonymous TVNZ news executive told Drinnan, Magid-style bulletins are all about the sizzle, not the sausage.
I rejoice at the prospect that Magid, under whose guidance the TV news came to resemble something only marginally more edifying than a Wild West medicine show (and whom Drinnan reckons costs TVNZ $1 million a year), is about to get the heave-ho. Perhaps there is a God.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Fran O’Sullivan has an excellent commentary in today’s New Zealand Herald setting out aspects of the ACC fiasco that the rest of the media has largely ignored.

While journalists and the government’s political opponents focus on shortcomings within ACC – and can claim the scalps of former ACC minister Nick Smith and now ACC chair John Judge as well – it’s clear that a huge part of the problem, right from the outset, has been the determination of claimant Bronwyn Pullar and her advocate, former National Party president Michelle Boag, to exploit their political connections to advance Pullar’s case.

Some of those connections, notably Smith and ACC deputy chair John McCliskie, whom O’Sullivan says unwisely agreed to intervene on Pullar’s behalf, have exacerbated the affair by getting involved when they should have seen the danger signs – Pullar might as well have had a flashing red light surgically implanted in her skull – and stayed well clear. But their bad judgment shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that Pullar and Boag have used their contacts, inside knowledge and media savvy to pull every string they can in order to extract a settlement on the most advantageous terms.

These women take no prisoners. Pullar clearly has a highly developed sense of entitlement and isn’t content to take her place in the ACC queue along with the hoi-polloi. She and Boag have used a repertoire of sophisticated tactics not available to run-of-the-mill ACC claimants, and while they have presumably operated entirely within the law, I don’t buy the spin that Pullar is the helpless victim that she has been made out to be. O’Sullivan’s piece helps put the whole malodorous affair in perspective.

Meanwhile, the old forces of the Left have seized the moment and are seeking to exploit the ACC crisis by pushing for a complete cleanout of the corporation’s board and a return to a more “client-focused” culture.

Lawyer Hazel Armstrong, an accident compensation specialist who previously served on the ACC board herself and has deep connections with the union movement, urged on Morning Report this morning that a revamped board should include union representatives. Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? Unions have wielded powerful influence over the ACC in the past – the Labour government made Ross Wilson chairman after he resigned as head of the Council of Trade Unions – and would like nothing more than to regain control. But unions represent less than 18 percent of the labour force; why should anyone assume that union officials speak for ACC claimants?

Armstrong talks about rebuilding trust, but I suspect that what the unions and union-friendly accident compensation lawyers really want is a return to the soft, benign ACC culture of the past. It may well be that the ACC is in need of a tune-up, and that some of its staff need reminding that claimants shouldn’t be seen as the enemy. But we shouldn’t forget that when National came to power in 2008, ACC was a financial basket-case. As O’Sullivan reminds us in her article this morning, that has since been remedied.

The Left gripes that under the present ACC regime, the bottom line is all that matters. The problem is that under previous administrations, it sometimes didn’t seem to matter at all.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 6.)
I happily admit to being a Luddite. Technology often baffles and infuriates me.

I assume this is one of those left brain/right brain things. The people who create computers and write the incomprehensible instructions that appear on my screen obviously think in a fundamentally different way from me.
As exasperating as this is, I realise I must learn to live with it. I have come to the view that the people who transcribed the Gospels got one vital letter wrong. It is the geek who will inherit the earth.

But I also willingly confess to sometimes being proved wrong. Back in the 1990s, I was deeply suspicious – contemptuous, even – of the Internet, which was then making its presence felt. Yet I’ve become increasingly dependent on the Net and these days couldn’t function without it. It enables me to live in a quiet provincial town, far from where the action is, yet still make a modest living as a journalist.
I was similarly sceptical about texting in its early days and dismissed it as a mere passing fad. My conversion to the benefits of texting came on a holiday in Europe in 2002, when I embraced the novelty and convenience of being able to communicate instantly and cheaply with my family on the far side of the world while sitting in the sun outside a café in Warsaw or Rome.

More recently, of course, we have learned how invaluable texting can be in emergency situations such as the Christchurch earthquakes, when the cellphone came into its own as a means of communicating with people trapped in wrecked buildings and locating missing family members in the chaos and confusion. 
I have also become a regular user of Skype. With children and grandchildren living in other countries, I’d have to be crazy not to take advantage of technology that enables me to speak to them face-to-face via my computer screen, and at no cost.

I haven’t yet succumbed to the siren call of the iPad or iPhone, though some of my friends – even those of a mildly Luddite bent like me – are hooked on them.
I can certainly see their virtues. Only a fortnight ago, my wife and I were camping with our son, daughter-in-law and grandson in a state park at Big Sur, on a wild part of the California coast, when a discussion arose as to the origin of the name of a nearby restaurant. There and then, at a campsite where there wasn’t even electric power, my daughter-in-law casually googled the name (Nepenthe, from Greek mythology) on her Android phone and came up with the explanation.

I can’t begin to imagine how my technologically inclined father, who died before the first clumsy mobile phones appeared on the market, and even before the compact disc began making inroads into vinyl record sales, would have marvelled at what we take for granted today. Yet I remain deeply sceptical about some aspects of the digital revolution.
Take Twitter, for example. It has now been in existence for nearly six years and we have yet to see evidence that it serves any purpose other than as a vehicle for statements of unutterable triteness and banality. Twitter’s popularity hinges on the deluded belief of its users, most of whom seem barely literate, that the world is fascinated by the mundane details of their self-absorbed lives.

Then there’s Facebook. I’ve written here before about my unfortunate experience with Facebook several years ago, so won’t go into it again. Suffice it to say that I was thrilled beyond description when the much-vaunted launch of Facebook shares on the open market several weeks ago collapsed like a punctured balloon.
Like almost everything related to Facebook, and social media generally, the share float was grossly overhyped. It was a bubble primed to burst.

For those capable of looking beyond the media frenzy that preceded the float, there were straws in the wind. Perhaps the most significant was the announcement, not widely reported, that General Motors had pulled all its advertising from Facebook because it wasn’t selling any cars through the site.
This fatally undermined a fundamental premise of the Facebook float – namely, that in the bold new digital world, social networking services like Facebook would unlock boundless commercial opportunities.

It was surely no coincidence that only a short time after GM’s announcement, it emerged that some of the founding investors in Facebook had substantially increased the number of shares they were putting on the market – in other words, getting out while the going was good.
If there’s any lesson to be learned from the anticlimactic outcome of the Facebook float, it may be that the corporate world has been too readily sucked in in by the social media phenomenon. I wonder if this serves as a warning to some media companies, including the one that publishes this paper, that they risk putting too many of their eggs into the digital basket.    

One last point about the technological revolution. It may have transformed our lives in positive ways, but like most advances it can have negative consequences too. We were reminded of that by the inquest last week into the death of a 15-year-old Rotorua girl who fatally overdosed on her father’s heart pills after being harassed with text messages from the wife of the man with whom she had been having an affair.
The coroner decided against a verdict of suicide, which seemed rather puzzling, but called on the government to pass legislation that would make “cyber bullies” culpable for their actions. Justice Minister Judith Collins seems sympathetic and has instructed the Law Commission to consider whether “incitement to suicide” should be made a criminal offence.

Notwithstanding the tragedy of the Rotorua teenager’s death and my general aversion to technology, this seems an over-reaction. Technology shouldn’t be made the scapegoat for human failings.
Politicians find it hard to resist the temptation to pass new laws to cover every risk, but it’s impossible to legislate for every terrible thing that happens to vulnerable people who get into bad situations through immaturity or poor judgement.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


(First published in The Dominion Post, June 5.)

A FRIEND of mine recently reminisced that the first time he flew internationally, back in the 1960s, airline passengers dressed as if for a Sunday church service or a race meeting. He wore a suit and tie.
I recall doing the same when I first flew to Australia in 1972. Back then, flying had an aura of glamour. There was even a special term – “jet set” – for the elite who were privileged and affluent enough to fly regularly.

How quaint that seems now. The only airline passengers wearing suits and ties these days are the haunted-looking business types you see anxiously checking their emails in the oppressive corporate ghetto known as the Koru Club. Sensible long-haul passengers wear tee-shirts, track pants and sneakers, recognising that any trip longer than four or five hours is an ordeal more easily endured in loose, comfortable clothing.
Flying in the 21st century is about as exotic and exciting as catching an Island Bay bus. The modern equivalents of the jet set are safely insulated in first or business class, well away from the resentful eyes of the lumpenproletariat. The rest of us travel in the modern equivalent of steerage, the fetid lower decks where the poor were crammed together in immigrant ships.

Air travel has become just another form of mass transportation: pack the punters in like battery chooks and distract them with multiple forms of in-flight entertainment in a futile attempt to maintain the pretence that flying is still a pleasurable experience – that getting there is part of the fun, rather than the endurance test it has become.
You may surmise correctly from this that I have recently been on a long plane trip. If there were an alternative way of travelling long distances, I’d happily take it, but it’s a curse inflicted on all New Zealanders that flying is something we have to do if we want to travel anywhere. It’s the price God exacts for living in His own country.

Is there any other nation on earth, I wonder, whose inhabitants have to fly for more than three hours before seeing anything other than water? Even Iceland, by comparison with New Zealand, is a mere hop away from its nearest neighbour.
Yet I read recently that New Zealanders, per capita, are the most travelled people in the world. You can put this down either to masochism or to sheer, stubborn perversity.

ONE THING about long flights, mind you, is that they give you ample time to ponder some of the peculiar things airlines do. 
Why is it, for example, that when modern aircraft are so technologically sophisticated that they can virtually fly themselves, their PA systems are still so primitive?

On a domestic flight I took in the United States last week, the softly-spoken flight attendant might as well have used semaphore to deliver her safety briefing. No one could hear a word. At the other extreme, I’ve known captains’ voices to come over the intercom at such ear-piercing volume that passengers’ teeth fell out.
I have also noted recently a propensity for airlines to refer to their passengers as “guests”, as in: “At this time [airlines always say “at this time”, never anything as prosaic as “now”] we will be boarding guests in rows 1 to 16.”

Now let’s get this straight: hotels have guests, airlines have passengers. I can only speculate that this new terminology, which sounds like the work of marketing shamans, is aimed at making us feel more valued.
The word “guest” carries subtle connotations of being pampered and cocooned. “Passenger”, on the other hand, implies simply being carried passively from one point to another, much as a sheep is carted to the abattoir. This is at odds with the image of air travel that airlines wish to convey, which is one of luxury and indulgence.

And what about the issue of cabin baggage? Airlines routinely make announcements about strict limits on the number and size of carry-on bags, but I have yet to see anyone enforce them. It has become the norm for passengers to struggle onto planes toting bags that far exceed the stated allowance, then hold up everyone behind them as they try to stuff their grossly oversized belongings into the overhead storage bins.
This is irritating enough in New Zealand but has reached truly farcical proportions in the US, where airlines charge extra for checked baggage. The inevitable result is that everyone tries to beat the charges by carrying all their belongings on board.

I have a recurring fantasy in which a cabin attendant – in my mind’s eye she would be a 180cm-tall blonde with icily cold blue eyes and wearing a black, SS-style leather coat – seizes one of these oversized bags and hurls it out onto the runway. And when the passenger whines in protest, she pulls out a Luger and coolly shoots him in the knee, IRA-style. That might make the baggage pests think twice.