Saturday, December 29, 2012

Are Brits the people to run our public sector?

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 28.)
TWO RECENT events – education secretary Lesley Longstone’s abrupt departure and the appointment of Kevin Lavery as chief executive of Wellington City Council – have touched off an overdue debate about the wisdom of appointing Brits to top public sector jobs.

Ms Longstone, who was recruited from England, joined a New Zealand public service already top-heavy with appointees from the UK.
Other British department heads include Gabriel Makhlouf at the Treasury and David Smol at the new super-ministry, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (although to be fair, Mr Smol has been here for some time).

Both men seem well regarded. Yet when Brits are appointed to lead three of our most crucial departments of state, not to mention several lesser government agencies – including, ironically, Te Papa, which supposedly embodies what it means to be a New Zealander – it’s time to start asking why there were apparently no suitable local candidates.
Did they not come forward, or were they judged to be inferior to those from the British Isles? If it’s the latter, perhaps we have yet to overcome the cultural cringe which holds that overseas people must be more capable than we are.

In Ms Longstone’s case, things didn’t work out. Perhaps British appointees are better suited to advising on esoteric policy matters than trying to run  departments such as education, which are close to the ground and have a profound impact on ordinary New Zealanders in their everyday lives.
Now Mr Lavery, from Cornwall, has been appointed Wellington’s top bureaucrat. He can expect his performance to be scrutinised very closely, especially as he was chosen at the expense of a New Zealand incumbent whom most agree has done a good job.

The issue is not whether the British appointees have the right credentials on paper. Even her critics conceded that Ms Longstone came with an impressive CV. But our culture, attitudes and ethos are different. Decades have passed since we took our cue from what we then respectfully called the Mother Country.
British recruits inevitably bring with them their own cultural baggage, which may not be compatible with our way of doing things. As a Massey University academic (another Pom, as it happens) remarked of Ms Longstone, she was possibly not well-equipped to read the New Zealand mood.

She is hardly the first such appointee to come unstuck here. If the State Services Commission goes back through its files, it will find no shortage of high-level overseas appointees who terminated their contracts prematurely, apparently after finding things weren’t quite as they expected.
Invariably the hapless taxpayer ends up picking up the tab. Perhaps it’s time to consider a different approach.

* * *
STILL, you can’t entirely blame the British for wanting to escape. They must sometimes feel like strangers in their own country.

The latest census showed that white Britons are now a minority in London. More than 7 million, or one in eight, of the people in England and Wales were born abroad – one in eight.
There’s a lot to be said for cultural diversity, but it’s surely impossible to sustain immigration on such a scale without fundamentally altering a society. Were the British given any say in this? Most would probably say they were not.

This is not a racist argument. The same would apply if Tonga was suddenly swamped with immigrants from China.  It’s not a matter of race, but the right of people to preserve their society as they know it.
Perhaps the cruellest irony is that some immigrant groups in Britain are so hostile to their host country that they commit acts of terrorism against it. France, the Netherlands and other European countries have experienced similar smouldering resentment from migrant communities.

There are lessons here for New Zealand, which is undergoing profound demographic change of its own. Most of us welcome the more vibrant and colourful society that a liberalised immigration policy has created – but it has to be carefully monitored and managed.
* * *

THREE expressions I hope not to see or hear in 2013:
“Added bonus”. By definition, a bonus is something additional. That means an added bonus must be a bonus on top of a bonus. It’s a nonsense.

“Signed off on”. Some of us recall a distant time when things were approved. Now they are “signed off”, a term that makes no sense whatsoever, or even more bizarrely, “signed off on” (as in, “the cabinet has signed off on more Treaty settlements”).  Hanging is too good for perpetrators of this atrocity.
“Fur children”. I heard a marketing executive from a chain of pet stores say on the radio that this is now the preferred term for your cat or dog. The radio interviewer was too polite to say it, so I’ll do it for him: anyone neurotic enough to call their pets fur children should be barred by law from owning any.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Tragic radio stunt: who's not to blame?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 19.)
We become almost impervious to bad news. We have to be, otherwise we would go through life in a permanent state of crippling despondency.

Yet even as blasé as we are, every now and again something happens that has the capacity to shock.  Two such items on early morning radio news bulletins have penetrated my semi-conscious state in the past two weekends.
The more recent, and by any measurement the more appalling by far, was the news of the Connecticut school shooting. But this column concerns the earlier item, in which the newsreader announced that a nurse who had put through a hoax call at the London hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge was being treated for morning sickness had been found dead. It was clear she had taken her own life, presumably out of shame.

I wondered, in my half-awake state, whether I’d heard correctly. Could a silly radio stunt really have had such tragic consequences?
Well, yes – it could, and it did.

My first reaction, like that of many people, was anger that a pair of infantile radio hosts, eager to make names for themselves, should have perpetrated a hoax that led a mother and wife to kill herself.
Mine was a natural response, but not entirely rational. The young radio hosts had no malicious intent. Their motive was another M word: mischief. But it was mischief of an essentially innocent kind. They could have had no premonition that their amateurish, juvenile prank would result in such misery.

Now they too are going through their own private hell. Even if their radio careers survive, they will have to carry this misconceived act on their consciences for the rest of their lives.
And human nature being what it is, they have become victims themselves. They are now experiencing the cowardly rage that always surfaces when someone is the butt of wholesale condemnation and is therefore deemed an easy target. 

The people reportedly making anonymous death threats against the radio hosts belong to the same wretched sub-group of lowlifes who turn out to shout obscene threats and curses whenever a much-vilified criminal – usually a sex offender – appears in court. These people get very few opportunities in life to feel morally superior to anyone else and they always make the most of them, even if in doing so they expose their own pathetic inadequacies.
The best that can come out of this ghastly business is that ratings-obsessed radio stations and so-called shock jocks (another contemptible life form) will think very carefully in future before perpetrating their puerile stunts.

These pranks may be ostensibly harmless in their intent, but I’m inclined to agree with my fellow columnist Rosemary McLeod that practical joking is often a form of bullying. How else can you explain a form of humour that usually relies on humiliation and embarrassment for its impact?
In any case, the two radio hosts are not the only people who should be ashamed of what happened at King Edward VII Hospital.

They would never have made the phone call if such pranks weren’t condoned, and possibly encouraged, by their bosses. We now know that the radio station management approved of the stunt. It was run past the station’s lawyers before being put to air. They too could have had no idea of the consequences, but they must share culpability.
The station’s claim that it tried to alert the hospital before broadcasting the hoax call is not convincing. For one thing, the hospital insists there was no attempt to warn it; but more to the point, it would be highly unusual for a media outlet to provide advance notice that such a stunt was to be broadcast.

So the station has been badly bruised too. If, as a result, radio station owners are motivated in future to curb the excesses of their attention-seeking personalities, that will be no bad thing.
But the net of blame can be spread more widely still. What about the hospital management, for example?

They had a royal patient who was the subject of intense worldwide media interest. Previous experience (the hospital is no stranger to royalty) should have alerted them to the probability of media incursions.
Fleet Street photographers were camped outside. You can be sure that elaborate precautions were taken to ensure Princess Kate’s safety and privacy. The place would have been swarming with police and security officers intent on protecting the patient not just from prying photographers and reporters, but from terrorist attack.

In the circumstances, how could the hospital management be so naïve and careless as to leave it to an unprepared nurse, the hapless Jacintha Saldanha, to intercept outside phone calls?
The hospital owners have done a great deal of indignant harrumphing over the radio station’s behaviour, but their own handling of the situation appears to have been at best sloppy and complacent, at worst incompetent.

There are other possible factors that we can only speculate on.
Most nurses in Mrs Saldanha’s position would have felt embarrassed and ashamed, but not to the point of taking their own life. The nurse who gave the radio station details of Princess Kate’s condition – arguably a far worse misjudgement – obviously didn’t feel so guilty as to hang herself. Was there something in Mrs Saldanha’s cultural background that gave her a heightened sense of shame and disgrace – a feeling that she had brought dishonour on her family? That might help explain why she thought her action could be redeemed only by killing herself and leaving two children without a mother.

Another possible explanation is emotional or mental fragility, but I have seen nothing to suggest Mrs Saldanha suffered from any such condition.
Was she harassed by the notorious London tabloids? Again, there has been no such suggestion. That would very likely have been her fate had she lived, but the tabloids scarcely had time to identify her before they were reporting her death.

One aspect of this sad affair not widely commented on is the shadow it has cast over what should be a happy event: the birth of the royal couple’s first baby in a few months’ time. That will now forever be tarnished by association with tragedy. But establishing who is to blame is far from straightforward.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

How to stay onside with teachers

As was to be expected, there was an almost deafening chorus on Morning Report this morning calling for Hekia Parata's head. But the comment that most interested me came from Massey University education academic Professor John O'Neill, who said Parata's biggest mistake from the outset was that she got offside with workers in the education sector - in other words, teachers.

Problem is, the only way to stay onside with the teachers' unions is to allow them to dictate policy - the easy option, but obviously untenable in a democracy. The price of their support is to avoid doing anything that might upset them. No other body of public sector workers behaves like this.

This is not to say that teacher unions don't sometimes have good and legitimate reasons to oppose government policies or lobby for public support. But ultimately we elect governments, not teacher unions, to determine policy. That may be why John Key feels it necessary to stand up for his beleaguered education minister, even when her record so far has been less than stellar.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

More mangled pronunciation

One News reporter Helen Castles was careful to get her Maori pronunciation correct last night, but struggled with English. In an item on shellfish poisoning she twice pronounced "paralytic" as "paraletic". Doesn't anyone check these items before they go to air?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Our resident morepork has been silenced

Sadly, we’ll no longer enjoy the call of the morepork (ruru) that we often heard at night in the reserve behind our house. We had some friends around for a barbecue last night and one of our guests, while inspecting the garden, happened to look up into a big plum tree by our back fence and saw a large dead bird suspended in the branches. Closer investigation showed it to be a morepork – presumably the one that has been resident all these years.

I took the body to the local DOC ranger today, thinking it might be of interest. He explained that although moreporks are incredibly skilful fliers, their navigation system can sometimes be affected by storms and gale-force winds (which we’ve had lately). Apparently they have very precise mind maps, and if the branch of a tree (for example) suddenly pops up where they don’t expect it, they can come to grief. We can only assume that’s happened to our bird, which was hooked up in a tangle of branches and was dangling upside down.

Very sad, because it was a beautiful bird. I left it with DOC because they thought someone might be able to use the feathers. I might put up a “vacancy” sign by the entrance to the reserve and see if we can attract another one.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

An unsung hero of print

Today's Dominion Post contains a fine tribute by my friend and former colleague Peter Kitchin, New Zealand's most celebrated obituarist, to another old colleague: Nick Wrench, former deputy editor of The Dominion Post, who died last Sunday at the age of 55 from brain cancer.

Nick was one of the unsung backroom heroes of the newspaper business: smart, creative, energetic, committed and endlessly enthusiastic. As chief sub-editor and later news editor at the old Evening Post, he loved nothing more than to hurl himself into a really big, fast-breaking story, marshalling all the paper's resources - words, pictures, headlines, graphics, design - to produce a complete and compelling package. An outstanding example was the Post's coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks, which conveniently fell in the paper's time. (We were able to make an early start because, being something of an insomniac, I heard of the attacks as they happened in the early hours of the morning and was able to rouse key editorial staff from slumber and get them on deck. Nick and his old mate Mike Aston, the Post's design maestro, were the first people I phoned, knowing they would be the kingpins.)

Nick's finest moment, undoubtedly, was when he organised publication of the Christchurch Press - the Dom Post's sister paper - on the night following the disastrous quake of February 22, 2011. The Press's production systems were put out of action by the quake, though its printing press in the suburbs was still working and reporters and photographers were all on the job. Nick stepped into the breach, masterminding production of the Press's earthquake edition by remote control from Wellington. Christchurch marvelled not only that the paper was able to come out, but that it was able to provide such comprehensive coverage. Readers rarely get to hear of people such as Nick, but good newspapers couldn't happen without them.

He was an admirable figure in more ways than one, facing his terminal illness with inspirational optimism, courage and spirit. The big crowd at his funeral at Old St Paul's on Thursday was testimony to the respect his former colleagues (Nick parted company with the Dom Post last year) felt for him. A Waikato farm boy to the end, he was buried at Ohaupo.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Rata speaks out - but is anyone listening?

Dr Elizabeth Rata of Auckland University is one of very few Maori with the courage to speak out against the pernicious consequences of what she calls Treaty-based biculturalism. (Another brave and lonely voice is that of Tata Parata, whose letters often appear in The Dominion Post.) In this piece in today's New Zealand Herald,  Dr Rata persuasively explains why so many New Zealanders, including Maori, are alarmed at the "profoundly undemocratic nature of political arrangements proposed by Treaty activists within all levels of government". It's an article everyone should read, but I suspect that the politicians who most need to heed its powerful message have their hands clapped firmly over their eyes.

An ego punctured, but probably only temporarily

Tau Henare is reportedly bitterly disappointed at being passed over for the plum post of Speaker. But what inflated sense of self-regard could possibly have led this swaggering blowhard to believe he deserved the job in the first place? Henare's political career has been utterly undistinguished other than by his predilection for tweeting - which says a lot, given that it demands neither intellect nor application - and his exchange of blows with Trevor Mallard (so much for the dignity of Parliament, which the Speaker is expected to uphold). Appointing him to succeed Lockwood Smith would have made about as much sense as making me the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Who are the worst drivers?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 5.)

I am about to go where few male columnists are reckless enough to stray.
Having fortified myself with several stiff single malt whiskies, I am going to venture an opinion on the relative merits of male and female drivers.

This is high-risk territory, since it’s well established that women drivers are one of those subjects that only other women are allowed to comment on. But before female readers erupt in fury, anticipating another tiresome round of male derision, I should explain that I’m on their side.
In fact my purpose in writing this column is to defend them against belittling comments made by … a woman.

Writing recently in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Jessica Fellowes observed that when she saw motorists hogging the middle of the motorway while driving under the speed limit, or blocking an intersection while deciding which way to turn, or changing their mind about whether to let a mother with a pram cross the road, nine times out of 10 it was a female driver.
“It always makes me furious,” she wrote, “not because bad driving is dangerous, but because she is letting the side down.”

Fellowes went on to argue that while women may have fewer accidents, that doesn’t make them better drivers. “Pootling at 65 kmh in the inside lane on the motorway may prevent you from crashing into anyone,” she wrote, “but it is probably causing a pile-up in the outside lane as other drivers turn their heads to swear at you for forcing them to overtake at high speeds.”
She concluded that when all is said and done, men are generally better drivers.

This would be an incendiary claim if it came from a male, although many men may secretly agree. But I believe Fellowes is wrong.
Yes, men are technically better drivers, generally speaking. Most men have a more natural affinity with anything mechanical – although oddly enough, I’ve known far more men than women who didn’t drive at all.

A male driver is more likely to master a hill start without too much difficulty. He’s more likely to be at ease with a manual rather than an automatic transmission, less troubled by having to reverse (I know a woman whose husband has to back the car out of the garage for her) and more comfortable with parallel parking, which some women drivers go to great lengths to avoid – even if it means leaving the car several blocks from wherever they want to go.
Obviously there are exceptions to this rule – a British survey indicated that 11 per cent of men avoid parallel parking – but in general terms, men are more confident drivers: more willing than women to back a trailer down a narrow driveway, tackle a rough 4WD track or enjoy the thrill of driving fast on a twisty mountain road.

But does that necessarily make them better drivers in the broader sense? Confidence is a double-edged sword. Men’s mastery of the technical aspects of driving may lead them to take risks that women, for lack of confidence, avoid.
The great British Formula One driver Stirling Moss once said there were two things no man would admit doing badly: driving and making love.

Combine a surfeit of that self-confidence with the aggression and competitiveness that comes with testosterone, and you have a much greater risk of an accident.
It all comes down to how you define a good driver. Is it one who is technically competent, or one who doesn’t take silly risks – even if that means sometimes being more cautious than is strictly necessary?

Jessica Fellowes seems to judge drivers purely by their technical skills. In that case I wonder how she would rate boy racers, many of whom are skilful drivers – they know how to put a car into a controlled drift, for example, or apply opposite lock to control a skid  – but are tragically accident-prone because they lack maturity and sound judgement.
This much I can say with absolute conviction: in nearly 45 years of driving in several countries, the worst driving displays I have witnessed have invariably been by men.

Some of these men may have been technically competent drivers, but dangerous nonetheless because of their aggression and ego. Put some men behind the wheel and they behave like strutting bantam roosters, regarding every other male on the road as a (sexual?) rival. There are no road users more menacing than these macho primitives, and sadly New Zealand is full of them.
I don’t recall ever seeing such behaviour from a woman driver, although they are not without their faults. Despite being labelled the gentle sex, many women accelerate harder and brake more sharply than they need to. It makes for a jerky drive, burns fuel unnecessarily and wears the brakes out prematurely. But it could hardly be called life-threatening.

More worrying, and just as hard to explain, is the tendency of many women drivers to tailgate, often at speed. Some men do it too, but usually for the purpose of harassing or intimidating the driver in front – the human equivalent of the bantam rooster’s aggressive body language in the barnyard. Why so many women do it is a mystery.
Arguably the worst drivers of all are older men, who remain convinced of their superior driving skills but become stubbornly oblivious to every other road user. The worst possible combination, in my experience, is an elderly man wearing a hat and driving an old ute.

I’m not ashamed to say that only last week I dobbed one such older driver in to a highway patrolman after he crossed the Rimutaka Hill, between the Wairarapa and Wellington, at a pace that would have made a funeral procession look like the Monaco Grand Prix.
Despite having plenty of opportunities to pull over and let faster vehicles pass, he doggedly held his ground even when more than a dozen cars had backed up behind him. Inevitably, impatient drivers then began taking risks. Three cars pulled out and overtook in places where clearly it wasn’t safe to do so.

The cop I alerted, who then stopped the errant vehicle (a tired old van), told me later that the driver, a man in his late 60s, was nonplussed; he didn’t realise he’d done anything wrong. Perhaps he thought that mirror thingy in the centre of the windscreen was for hanging things on.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Where do I get my ticket?

What a difference a hyphen can make.

Today's Dominion Post contains an advertisement for the annual Carols by Candelight concert hosted by Nick Tansley at Wellington's Waitangi Park.

It includes the words "Alcohol Free". If that were the case, every freeloading drunk in the lower half of the North Island would be there.

But put a hyphen between those two words and it conveys quite a different meaning - the one I'm sure the organisers intended.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Cooper's wine guide has become a door stop

Michael Cooper's latest Buyer's Guide to New Zealand Wines arrived in the mail a few days ago.

It's a veritable door stop. The very first edition of Cooper's annual guide, published in 1992, ran to 280 pages and listed more than 800 wines. The latest edition has 670 pages and reviews 3260 wines.

Whereas you could have stuffed the 1992 edition into your back pocket, at a pinch, while scanning the shelves at your local wine shop, you'd risk a hernia doing the same with the latest version.

Quite apart from being a useful reference book for risk-averse wine lovers, the Buyer's Guide doubles as a chronicle of the New Zealand wine industry. If you want to see how winemaking in New Zealand has evolved and grown, you need only compare the various editions over the years.

Whereas the 1992 edition reviewed only three syrahs, the 2013 edition has 30 pages of them. But the reverse is true too: the inaugural guide reviewed 34 muller-thurgaus (remember them?), but the latest book has only two. Many of the wine varieties listed in the new book - such as albarino, arneis, gruner-veltliner, tempranillo and nebbiolo - were unheard of, other than by wine nerds, when the first edition was published.

The book has evolved too. Cooper reviews the 2012 vintage conditions in the various wine regions (although whether casual wine buyers would be interested in such esoteric detail is a moot point), lists his two best buys of the latest releases (one white, one red - buy the book if you want to know what they are) and continues his practice of nominating "super classic", "classic" and "potential classic" New Zealand wines.

Unsurprisingly, he no longer feels it necessary to include, as he did in 1992, a section discussing the relative merits of cask (aka bag-in-box) and bottled wines. That's another measure of how the wine industry has matured.

Cooper has been writing about wine since the mid-1980s  (the first edition of his Wines and Vineyards of New Zealand came out in 1984) and has earned a full-time living from it since 1991, most recently as wine columnist in The Listener. In that time his annual guide has seen off at least two competitors.

His approach has changed little. He's meticulous and conscientious to a fault. For many wine writers, part of the attraction of the job is being schmoozed by wine companies - treated to free trips and lavish lunches, bombarded with free wine and generally made to feel very important (all of which wine companies do very well). But from my observations, Cooper is utterly immune to such blandishments. He has a job to do and he takes it very seriously.

In fact if I have a criticism of him, it's that he takes it a little too earnestly. Wine is about enjoyment, after all, and I sometimes feel that Michael could afford to lighten up a bit. But if that's the most damning thing that can be said about him (and I believe it is),  his reputation as "New Zealand's most acclaimed wine writer" (to quote the publisher's blurb) is safe.

[Michael Cooper's Buyer's Guide to New Zealand Wines 2013 is published by Hodder Moa and has a recommended retail price of $39.99.]

Public must own constitutional review

I recently wrote an article for The Listener backgrounding the constitutional review currently being undertaken in line with the confidence and supply agreement negotiated in 2008 between the National and Maori parties. I didn't take a position on the issue but thought (as did The Listener) that it was crucial people were aware the review was taking place, given its profound implications.

It can't be left to the political elite to determine our constitutional arrangements. On this issue, above all others, the public must have the final word - which is pretty much what constitutional law expert Professor James Allan is saying here in a commentary for Muriel Newman's Centre for Political Research.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sellman resorts to demagoguery

An article in yesterday's Dominion Post shows how readily anti-alcohol campaigners resort to shonky propaganda techniques more often associated with demagoguery.

The article examines the influence of scientific advice on government policy and notes that the government appears to have ignored the views of chief scientific adviser Sir Peter Gluckman on alcohol law reform.

Commenting on this, Professor Doug Sellman is quoted as saying: "The PM gets advice from all sorts of places, and he's obviously taking his advice from the alcohol industry over his science adviser."

So ... if the government decides not to follow the advice of Sir Peter Gluckman, it can only be because it has been captured by wealthy liquor barons. This conveniently plays to  public prejudices in the same way as populist politicians like to blame identifiable "villains" -  whether they be black people, immigrants, Jews or foreign powers - for whatever's upsetting people.

But Sellman's statement disregards something that Gluckman himself acknowledges in the same article: namely, that governments have to weigh up all manner of factors in making policy decisions. "Expert" advice is part of that mix, but as Gluckman says: "Science and scientific knowledge is not the only thing that makes policy. We don't live in a technocratically dominated society, we live in a participatory democracy."

Clearly, Gluckman accepts that governments don't make decisions just to gratify "experts". Politicians are often in a position to assess broader factors which academics, with their narrow specialist focus, may ignore or overlook. (If politicians get it wrong, we can vote them out - a fate that taxpayer-funded academics, no matter how flawed their arguments, escape.)

Sellman, on the other hand, suggests that if the government doesn't listen to the increasingly hysterical arguments of the anti-liquor propagandists, the only possible explanation is that evil capitalists have prevailed.

I wonder, does he really believe this? Is he  being wilfully dishonest, or is his view of the alcohol issue so black-and-white, so obsessively negative in its focus, that he's incapable of understanding that politicians might have perfectly legitimate and honourable reasons for not listening only to "expert" advisers?

People can make up their own minds on that. But either way, it confirms to me that Sellman is fundamentally an ideologue whose  title of professor confers a patina of academic authority.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Hobbit mania: where reality and fantasy converge

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 30.)
IN HIS WILDEST imaginings, J R R Tolkien could hardly have envisaged a world stranger than the real one.
The weirdness takes multiple forms. Busloads of overseas tourists descend on a dairy farm near Matamata to gasp in awe at a few holes in the ground; Tolkien obsessives from around the world travel to Wellington so they can they dress up in Hobbit costumes and hairy feet to attend a Hobbit party; and not least, star-struck reporters abandon all semblance of journalistic detachment – not to mention all sense of proportion – in their gushing coverage of the Hobbit premiere.

Somewhere along the line, reality and fantasy have converged to such an extent that it’s hard to know where one stops and the other begins.
Someone should have gently explained to the awe-struck fans pressing in on actor Elijah Woods at Monday night’s party that Woods isn’t really Frodo Baggins. He’s just an unusual-looking bloke pretending to be Frodo Baggins. This point sometimes seems lost on them.

Similarly, you have to wonder whether the tragic tourists gawking at the Hobbiton film set realise that Bilbo Baggins doesn’t actually live there.
It’s all harmless, and a handy boost for a beleaguered economy, but mystifying to anyone not gripped by Hobbit mania.

No doubt the experts can explain the popular obsession with fantasy as evidenced by the popularity of Tolkien, Harry Potter and the infantile comic strips that Hollywood has inflated into big-screen epics.
One theory is that they fill the belief void created by the decline of religion (something of an irony, given that Tolkien was a devout Catholic). Another is that people are so disenchanted with the real world that they seek refuge in an alternative universe.

Whatever the explanation, you have to hand it to Sir Peter Jackson and his associates. They have taken the work of a bookish Oxford don and built it into a billion-dollar franchise – although whether Tolkien would recognise his work, or feel comfortable with what has been done to it, is another matter entirely.
* * *
THE MOST important two hours on television are between 8am and 10am on Sunday mornings. That’s when TV3 screens The Nation and TV One follows it up with Q&A.
No other programmes take the time to illuminate important political and economic issues or expose politicians to in-depth examination.  

Sometimes the result is that you find yourself forced to revise previously held views. A recent interview with John Key on The Nation, for example, may have come as a revelation to anyone who previously dismissed him as a lightweight with limited command of policy detail.
On the other hand, existing prejudices can be reinforced – as when David Cunliffe, ahead of his thinly disguised play for the Labour Party leadership, came across on the same show as smug and evasive.

A diminishing segment of the population can remember when TV channels showed programmes like these in prime time. There was no competitive pressure then; viewers watched because they didn’t have dozens of other channels jostling for their attention with foodie porn, talent quests and home renovation shows.
Virtually everyone in the country saw the famous 1970 Gallery programme in which Brian Edwards mediated in the resolution of a long-running Post Office industrial dispute. Similarly, the exchange between prime minister Robert Muldoon and the fearless young upstart Simon Walker on Tonight in 1976 (“You’re not going to set the rules, my friend”) was a talking point for days.

We were probably a better-informed democracy then. These days, serious current affairs attracts a pitifully small audience. The ratings-driven networks have succeeded in their long-term mission to turn viewers’ brains to mush. Most people probably don’t even know the Sunday morning programmes exist.
Of the two, my preference is TV3’s The Nation. It’s less flashy and production-driven than Q+A, and all the better for it. Presenter Rachel Smalley manages the unusual feat of being a sharp interviewer while also looking elegant and cool.  

The Nation also benefits from its regular media panel consisting of the aforementioned Edwards, who is nearly always witty and insightful, and Bill Ralston – although I’m amused at how Ralston, an absolute bodgie in his heyday, has reinvented himself as some sort of elder statesman of journalism. 
* * *
IN MY last column I feigned indignation at the ageing BBC correspondents reporting on television from world trouble spots, and asked why the illustrious Beeb didn’t follow the example of our own TV networks by employing attractive young women.
I had hoped it would be obvious that I was writing tongue-in-cheek, but no – I have been condemned by some readers as ageist and sexist.

My apologies to anyone whose sensibilities were offended. Clearly such items should come with a warning that they are not to be taken seriously.