Thursday, February 28, 2013

A fatally flawed model

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 27.)
Last week’s papers contained further depressing evidence of turbulence in the print media.
The Australian owners of the two big newspaper groups, APN News and Media and Fairfax Media, both reported gloomy financial results.

Unlike APN, which announced a whopping loss, Fairfax (which publishes the paper you’re reading) at least managed to declare a profit. But it looked anaemic once the proceeds from the company’s sale of its remaining 51 per cent in Trade Me were excluded.
In the same week, it was reported that APN’s chairman, chief executive and three directors had quit in a boardroom bustup – proof, if proof were needed, of continuing upheavals in the industry.

Both companies are struggling with high debt and declining revenue. Like newspaper companies worldwide, they are dealing with a crisis of a magnitude never before encountered and sometimes give the impression of having no clue what to do next.
So it’s not a good time to be in the newspaper business. The industry is bleeding and morale could hardly be described as buoyant.

I have spent my working life in the print media and it saddens me to see the industry in disarray, but I console myself that I was privileged to experience what was, in hindsight, the golden era of New Zealand newspapers.
From the 1970s till the early 2000s, the industry suffered the inevitable cyclical ups and downs of a capitalist economy but was mostly prosperous. Several afternoon dailies died as television ate into evening reading habits. But overall, newspaper readership was steady and revenue from advertising was such that the Australians coined a term for it: rivers of gold.

Papers were comparatively well-resourced, although of course we employees never thought so, and they were generally well-managed – the more so after the many small family-owned provincial titles were acquired by the two companies that then dominated the industry, INL and Wilson and Horton.
It was also a period of robust journalism, when editors and reporters were prepared to take risks and to hold the powerful accountable – something that couldn’t be said of the generally timid New Zealand press of the 1950s and 60s.

So what went wrong? By my reckoning, several things.
Crucially, the classified advertising that once provided newspapers with much of their income shifted to the Internet, which is why Fairfax made the smart decision (now reversed) to acquire Trade Me.

Another profoundly significant change was that INL and Wilson and Horton both fell into Australian hands. Fairfax took over INL – owner of the Dominion Post, The Press, the Sunday Star-Times and a stable of provincial papers – and APN acquired the old Auckland family firm of Wilson and Horton, which had the formidable New Zealand Herald as the jewel in its crown. These ownership changes had consequences.
If there’s one word that characterises Australian attitudes to New Zealand, it’s indifference, and I suspect that apart from wanting to run their businesses at a profit, the Sydney-based boards of directors that control the New Zealand newspaper industry are largely indifferent to what happens here.

In an industry that so closely reflects a country’s ethos and culture, that’s a problem.
I believe they also made the mistake of assuming New Zealand to be just a smaller version of Australia, a sort of more distant Tasmania, which it isn’t. They not only lack an emotional investment in New Zealand; they don’t understand the New Zealand market.

Perhaps they should have taken a lesson from another Australian. Rupert Murdoch controlled INL for decades but was content to leave the running of the company to trusted New Zealanders. The corporate culture was unmistakeably that of a New Zealand company.
One sad result of the Australian takeover was the demise of the New Zealand Press Association, a long-established national news sharing agency. Because it was foreign to the Australian way of doing things, the NZPA was disestablished.

I predicted at the time that New Zealanders would know less about themselves as a result, and so it has turned out.
What else has changed? Well, journalism has been feminised.

Before the feminist lynch mobs assemble, I should explain that I’ve worked with outstanding women journalists and editors who could match any of their male colleagues. Of all the editors I've worked for, there was none I respected more than Sue Carty at the Evening Post.

It’s not female journalists I’m concerned about – far from it – but the creeping feminisation of newspaper content.
By this I mean the increasing proportion of newspaper space devoted to “soft” topics – fluffy human interest stories, gossipy items and lifestyle-oriented content better suited to women’s magazines. In metropolitan papers especially, cafĂ© reviews and profiles of celebrity chefs, fashion designers, baristas and TV personalities have displaced investigative reporting and traditional “hard” news about events and issues of importance.

The feminisation of newspaper content runs parallel to another peculiar trend, the cult of youth. It seems some editors have been instructed to woo younger readers, even to the extent of publishing articles written in Generation Y jargon incomprehensible to anyone over 40.
The problem with this approach is that the most loyal consumers of newspapers are older readers, and it seems perverse to risk alienating them in pursuit of an elusive, capricious and quite possibly mythical youth market.

But the newspaper industry’s most destructive mistake of all, I believe, has been its response to the digital revolution.
Unnerved by predictions of the print media’s imminent demise, newspapers were panicked into placing their content online, where it can be viewed at no charge. In doing so, they painted themselves into a corner from which there is no easy escape.

The theory was that advertisers would flock to newspaper websites, but it hasn’t happened. I know of no newspaper offering free online content that makes money from its website. All that’s happened is that consumers have abandoned the medium that generates revenue in favour of one where they can read the news for nothing, as was entirely predictable.
But it’s even worse than that, because by ploughing journalistic resources into online content to the detriment of the traditional print product, as is undoubtedly happening, the industry is effectively cannibalising itself. It’s like the trapped animal that tries to free itself by gnawing off its own leg.

Even more bizarrely, newspaper bosses seem to regard increased website traffic as a cause for celebration. In effect, they are applauding their own impending extinction.
Here’s how I see it. Consumers realise they can read content online, often long before it’s printed, and not unreasonably deduce that there’s no point in continuing to buy the paper.

Sales consequently decline and advertisers respond by pulling out of the paper. But crucially, those advertisers don’t seem to be shifting to newspaper websites, so there isn’t enough revenue from the brave new digital world to offset the slump in print advertising.  Result: a vicious cycle of steady decline.
Am I the only person who sees this as a fatally flawed model?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The madness gripping the media

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 22.)
IT’S HARD to remember a new television programme that has been more relentlessly savaged than TV One’s Seven Sharp, but people should give it credit for achieving something no other programme has accomplished: it’s so bad it has forced the massive bloc of habitual, dyed-in-the-wool One viewers to change channels at 7 o’clock. This is a seismic shift.
I watched the very first Seven Sharp and was aghast. If that was the best they could do with weeks to prepare, and with an expectant audience primed by a promotional blitzkrieg, then the outlook was surely dire.

But it seemed only fair to give the programme time to settle down, so I left it for a couple of weeks and then tuned in again. And what was the first thing I saw? Several minutes of trite, self-indulgent banter between the three gibbering hosts and youthful New York correspondent Jack Tame, TVNZ’s boy wonder, who had purportedly been named in a Valentine’s Day survey – about which I would be deeply sceptical – as New Zealand’s sexiest male media personality.
Only people employed in the self-absorbed world of television could assume anyone else shared their delighted fascination with this morsel of non-information.

I can only conclude everyone associated with this show has a death wish. Seven Sharp is so lightweight it threatens to float away.
Its attempt to woo a young audience, as evidenced by the quirky graphics and links with online social media, is symptomatic of a strange madness gripping the entire media industry.

Everyone in the media and the associated advertising business is obsessed with the cult of youth. It doesn’t seem to matter that TV One’s traditional, core audience consists of older viewers, or that the youth market actually isn’t all that interested in watching free-to-air television at 7pm.
The state-owned TV network (and please remind me why the taxpayers still own an organisation that has long since abandoned any sense of public obligation) seems determined to drive off its loyal, long-term viewers in the hope of securing a younger, “cooler” audience.

It’s well on the way to achieving the first of those objectives, but the second may not be so easy.
* * *

ONE intriguing aspect of the Novopay fiasco is that the government has gifted the teachers’ unions with a significant propaganda victory.
For years governments have fought the PPTA and NZEI for control of the education sector. It’s a battle that shouldn’t be necessary, of course, because we elect governments, not unions, to decide education policy; but a combination of weak politicians and arrogant unions meant the teachers often had the upper hand, defying and even sabotaging attempts at reform for reasons that usually had more to do with self-interest than with the quality of education.

Since 2008, however, there have been signs that the balance of power in education is shifting back where it belongs. Under a less teacher-friendly government, the unions have struggled harder to get traction.
Then along came Novopay, and suddenly public sympathy swung back the teachers’ way.

Whatever else might be said about teachers, they are entitled to be paid. Yet far from throwing tantrums over the disruption and inconvenience of recent weeks, they have behaved with admirable restraint – and no doubt earned brownie points from the public along the way. Unions have gone on strike with far less provocation.
No government could defend the chaos over teachers’ pay, still less the incompetence of the company to which the payroll contract was awarded, apparently in the face of pointed warnings about Novopay’s shortcomings.

The upshot is that the National-led government has surrendered the moral high ground to the teachers just when it seemed on the verge of subduing them. Nice work, chaps.
* * *

IT’S A PHRASE you see all the time in advertisements and newspaper articles, but there are few words in the English language more meaningless than “award-winning”.
Whether it’s an award-winning house, restaurant, book, wine or film, all the phrase tells you is that someone has at some stage decided it was the best of a bunch.

But often we don’t know who that “someone” was and who the other contenders were (or how many). So we lack the vital context in which to make an informed judgment about the award’s merit. An extreme example would be an award given to the best kosher restaurant in Woodville.
Anyway, all such decisions are ultimately subjective. And who knows what personal prejudices the judge or judges may have brought to bear?

I have been a judge in various awards myself and know how flawed the judging process can be, even when the organisers go to great lengths to make it as fair and objective as possible. Suffice it to say that, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t want to win any competition in which I had been a judge.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Wait for it ...

I see Christian Bale is to play New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall in a Hollywood movie about Hall's death on Mt Everest in 1996, when he stayed on the mountain to comfort an ailing client during a blizzard.

Let me be the first to predict that in the movie, Hall will magically have become an American.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Out of the blue, tragedy

On a golden Wairarapa morning, a teenage girl’s life was extinguished.
I didn’t see it happen; apparently no passengers on our train did. But I had idly noted the white ute approaching from our right as we headed south from Masterton on the 7.50 am service to Wellington.

Apparently the ute ploughed straight into the locomotive, rupturing its fuel tank. The 15-year-old female passenger was flung 20 metres. The 17-year-old driver is in Masterton Hospital with head injuries.
The first inkling of something amiss was the sounding of an electronic buzzer as the train began to slow. We came to a halt several hundred metres beyond the scene of the impact, roughly midway between Masterton and Carterton.

A female guard, looking slightly shaken, came through our carriage and announced the train had hit a vehicle. On no account were we to leave, even if the train doors opened. It was only then that I made the connection with the white ute I had seen minutes before.
Someone asked whether there were lights at the crossing, on Wiltons Road. I said there weren’t; it was a quiet rural area. There are lots of uncontrolled crossings on Wairarapa back roads.

An elderly man with a Scottish accent wondered whether the driver of the ute had been blinded by the sun. Certainly the vehicle was heading east, toward the main highway; it was a glorious, bright morning and the sun, at 8.10 am, was still relatively low in the sky.  But how can you not see a train?
Was he, then, racing to beat it? We don’t know. In time there may be an explanation. In the meantime a girl is dead and a family will be grieving.
What gave this tragedy an almost surreal quality was that it happened in such a pretty place on such a blissfully calm, clear morning. The Wairarapa never looks better than in late summer, when the grass has browned off to an almost silvery grey, the trees are a deep, cool green and the formidable Tararuas look almost benign in the morning sun. You could clearly see the glint on the roof of Powell Hut, 1200 metres up. Only moments before the crash, I had been marvelling at how idyllic the countryside looked.

I was reminded again of W H Auden’s poem Musee des Beaux Arts, in which he memorably wrote about how terrible things happen in mundane circumstances: “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Or, as in this case, heading into Wellington to celebrate a grandson’s birthday and to pick up a car we’d left with our daughter several weeks before.
The mood in our carriage was subdued. People carried on reading or made phone calls. A heavily tattooed man played games on his smartphone.

Things happened quickly, considering where we were. Firefighters passed through the carriage, heading for the front of the train, and police were on the scene soon after. They were wearing casual clothes under their police vests and looked as if they had been called in from home.
They asked if anyone had seen anything. Remembering my sighting of the ute, I put my hand up, along with one or two others, and was interviewed later by a personable young Masterton cop named Matt. I told him what I had seen, but it wouldn’t have helped explain what most needed explaining.  
The performance of the train staff, one of whom I recognised as a near neighbour from Masterton, was impossible to fault. They moved back and forth through the train, constantly providing updates. Buses were summoned, and to save us the trouble of walking 500 metres back to the crossing – and possibly getting in the way of the crash scene examination – they came through the grounds of the nearby Ravensdown fertiliser works and picked us up in a paddock.

The buses that would normally have been sent had been broken into the night before (well, this is the Wairarapa) and couldn’t be moved until they’d been thoroughly checked for damage, so we were put on school buses. There was a quintessential moment of New Zealand levity when one of the drivers loudly informed the woman behind the wheel of our bus, who apparently hadn’t driven it before, that it went like a cut cat.
Actually, it didn’t. It was possibly the slowest trip over the Rimutaka Hill since the invention of the internal combustion engine, although the enthralled reaction of a young Russian tourist party on our bus gave me a new appreciation of a road regular users tend to become blasĂ© about.

We arrived in Wellington nearly four and a half hours after leaving Masterton – a trip that normally takes 90 minutes. Who knows what inconvenience this caused some of our fellow travellers, but I heard no one express impatience or frustration. I think everyone was more aware than usual that far worse things can happen.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A few thoughts on Paul Holmes

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 13.)
I NEVER met Paul Holmes, but we had a few things in common. We were only three months apart in age and grew up within 50 kilometres of each other: he at Haumoana on the Hawke’s Bay coast, I in the Central Hawke’s Bay farming town of Waipukurau.
We both spent our working lives in the media, although he with infinitely greater fame and impact. Reading friends’ and colleagues comments’ about him following his death, I think we would probably have got on well. He was obviously loved by many of those who knew him.

I was not a habitual viewer of Holmes’ TV show and didn’t hear a lot of him on the radio, but it was impossible to live in New Zealand during his years at the top and not be aware of his influence in national life.
I did read his newspaper columns, which I thought were very good. In fact I preferred his writing to his on-air persona.

I wrote in Holmes’ defence on at least two occasions when the po-faced enemies of free speech wanted him silenced. The first was over his reference to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a “cheeky darkie” – an attempt at ironic humour that went down the wrong way – and the second was over his angry column about Waitangi Day protesters, as a result of which the Press Council (wrongly, in my view) upheld complaints against him.
My defence of Holmes had little to do with whether the opinions he expressed were correct. It was all about his right to say what he thought – a fundamental principle in a free society that we undermine at our peril.

All that unavoidable exposure to the ubiquitous Holmes led me to form a few conclusions about him. And while convention decrees that we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, enough time has elapsed since his death to allow a more balanced assessment of him than has been evident during the past two weeks.
The first point to be made is that he was clearly a very talented broadcaster with his own idiosyncratic style and the confidence – audacity, if you like – to follow his instincts. Regardless of whether you liked that style, and I was mostly indifferent to it, his immense popularity attests to that.

But his contribution to New Zealand broadcasting appears to have been exaggerated in some of the tributes paid to him, often by people too young to know the relevant history.
To hear some of his associates talk, it’s as if no one had conducted tough, incisive television interviews before Holmes came along. People forget that the real trail-blazer was Brian Edwards in the late 1960s, followed by people like the upstart Simon Walker, who gamely refused to be intimidated by the great bully Robert Muldoon.

Holmes’ youthful former boss on Newstalk ZB even credited him with pioneering talkback radio, perhaps not realising that stations such as Wellington’s Radio Windy and Auckland’s Radio Pacific and Radio i were running talkback formats back in the 1970s (remember Gordon Dryden, Geoff Sinclair and Tim “Punch a Pom a day” Bickerstaff?). The old NZBC had experimented with talkback even earlier.
People also overlook the fact that Holmes was gifted with a large, ready-made audience when his TV show made its debut in 1989. A substantial proportion of the population were habitual viewers of TV One and tuned in nightly to the news at 6pm. Whichever programme followed the news was bound to inherit that large group of passive viewers who, to this day, show an extraordinary reluctance to change channels.

The importance of that TV One viewing habit was underscored when Holmes, in a blaze of publicity, defected to the rival Prime network in 2005. He clearly expected his fans to follow him, but they didn’t; they stuck with One. It turned out to be the channel, not the host, that commanded their loyalty. Holmes’ Prime show was an ignominious failure.
That misjudgement on Holmes’ part suggested that he over-estimated his own pulling power. Big egos come with the territory in broadcasting – you could almost say they are a pre-requisite – and Holmes was no exception.

I always felt, rightly or wrongly, that he was trapped by his ego. He seemed addicted to the limelight and the trappings of celebrity, living much of his life in public. His marriage to Hine Elder was a media event attended by a dazzling array of notables, including the country’s leading politicians.
Even in his last weeks, when he was plainly dying, he seemed unable to resist the siren song of television. Some people I know felt distinctly queasy watching that last interview with him on the Sunday programme. They said it felt intrusive.

I wonder whether it was ego that drove him to work such long hours – mornings on the radio, evenings on television. There’s a price to be paid for all that compulsive exposure, and Holmes recently admitted he wasn’t there for his children when he could have been. Who knows whether that was a factor in his adopted daughter Millie going off the rails?
He also revelled in his friendships with powerful and important people. Call me old-fashioned, but I get uneasy when someone in the field of journalism becomes too chummy with politicians and power-brokers. They should keep a respectful distance from each other.

Big egos are often also fragile egos, and there was evidence of that too.  Interviewed by the New Zealand Herald when he quit his breakfast radio show in 2008, Holmes anxiously inquired of the reporter, Carroll du Chateau, whether she thought people liked him. She concluded that at heart, he was a little kid wanting to be liked.
Big egos can be precious, too, and even vindictive. When journalist Wendyl Nissen wrote a critical review of that very first Holmes show in 1989, the one in which American yachtsman Dennis Conner stormed out, Holmes took the highly unusual step of complaining to her editor at the Herald. He was angry that she had accused him of sensationalism, and apparently put it to her boss that she might have been motivated by malice.  

Nissen feared for her job, yet Holmes recently admitted what had been obvious even then: that he had set out to goad Conner into walking out because it would be great publicity. Nissen’s review was more accurate than she knew – yet Holmes had her carpeted by her editor.
I am genuinely sorry that Holmes has died and I feel sympathy for his grieving family, friends and colleagues. But no purpose is served by whitewashing his memory. A man who thrived on controversy in life could hardly expect unquestioning adulation in death.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Oscar contender lied about NZ role in Tehran escape

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 8.)

SADLY, it’s too late to urge a New Zealand boycott of the over-rated film Argo, which has been nominated for several Academy Awards, including best picture.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a moderately well-made drama, although hardly an exceptional one. The final act, in which fugitive American diplomatic staff are smuggled out of Tehran in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution, is tense and well-executed.

But what should have had New Zealanders waving protest placards outside cinemas was that the film, although ostensibly factual, unfairly and inexplicably misrepresented this country’s role in the American diplomats’ escape.

Argo suggests that Canadian diplomats gave refuge to the Americans after the New Zealand and British embassies refused to help, which director and star Ben Affleck has admitted is untrue.

In fact the fugitives were initially sheltered by the Brits and later received help from the New Zealand ambassador in Tehran, Chris Beeby, and his second secretary Richard Sewell, both of whom are now dead. 

The author of a book about the affair said Dr Beeby went out on a limb to provide assistance, despite Iran’s importance as New Zealand’s biggest customer for lamb. He frequently visited the Americans, provided them with food and rented a vacant house in case they needed to make a quick escape.

What’s more, it was Mr Sewell who obtained Iranian disembarkation forms for the Americans and took the huge risk of driving them – masquerading as a Canadian film crew – to Tehran Airport. Robert Muldoon, who was prime minister at the time, reportedly knew of the New Zealanders’ involvement in the plot.

Affleck’s only explanation for the film’s misrepresentation of the part played by New Zealand and Britain was that he “needed to get a sense that these six people [the Americans] had nowhere else to go” other than to the Canadian embassy.

Most New Zealanders would probably say that’s not good enough. But now that the film has been feted in the Academy Award nominations, on top of its box office success, the falsehood has gone global. As someone once said, a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on.

 * * *

THE LETTER WRITER who complained in this paper that the so-called Treaty “debates” at Te Papa were nothing of the sort was right.

Only one view – the pro-Treaty one – was represented in the “debate” I attended and the few dissenters were silenced by moderator Kim Hill, with the vocal support of the audience.

Unfortunately, pretending there’s unanimity on Treaty issues won’t make it happen. The very reason many people distrust the current constitutional review is that they suspect one side of the argument over the Treaty’s place in our constitutional arrangements – perhaps the majority side – isn’t being heard.
* * *

THE STEADY creep toward separatism continues.

In a recent advertisement seeking a new chief executive for the New Zealand Nurses Organisation, the preamble stated that [the] NZNO “embraces Te Tiriti O Waitangi”.

It went on to explain: “Te Runanga o Aotearoa comprising our Maori membership is the arm through which our Te Tiriti o Waitangi partnership is articulated”.

The ad then listed some of the attributes sought in the appointee. These included “a proven track record of successful implementation of Te Tiriti O Waitangi within an organisation”.

But hang on a minute. The Treaty was between the Crown and the signatory tribes. It was about sovereignty and governance. What relevance could it have to the running of the nurses’ union?

But wait, there’s more. Another desired quality in the new CEO was “ability to implement biculturalism within an organisation with consideration to Matauranga Maori” – Matauranga Maori meaning traditional Maori knowledge.

These requirements were listed above virtually all others, so we can assume they are considered more important than leadership experience or negotiation and advocacy skills, which were well down the list.

Do you get the impression something is seriously out of whack here?

The health sector, along with education, has long been susceptible to woolly language and feel-good ideas about biculturalism.  But I have yet to hear anyone explain how anyone, other than a privileged Maori elite, will benefit from the creation of a divided society.

I’m no fan of Winston Peters, but he was right when he recently condemned  “the warped view that Maori will only progress if they have a separate system for everything”.
* * *

HAVE THE famous Tui billboards done their dash?

Once fresh and irreverent, they are increasingly lame and laboured. They may have reached their nadir with the recent example that read: “Mate, I won’t piss in your wetsuit – Yeah, right.”

This wasn’t only lame and labored, it was borderline offensive and so juvenile that I wonder whether the advertising agency responsible for the billboards has given the job to a fourth-former who comes in once a week after school.




Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Where were the white faces?

This afternoon my wife and I wandered around the local Waitangi Day celebrations at Masterton's Henley Lake. The turnout wasn't exactly overwhelming, probably because the weather was overcast and cool. But even more disappointing was that the crowd, if it could be called that, was probably 90 percent Maori.

This suggests that the local Pakeha population (yep, I'm one of those who, according to this poll, don't mind the term) doesn't consider Waitangi Day "their" celebration. This is disconcerting because despite the friction and acrimony of the past few decades, we still have plenty to celebrate. 

By world standards we are an exceptionally harmonious, integrated society. The factors that unite us are still far greater than those that divide us - although given present trends, I sometimes wonder how much longer we'll be able to say that.  We are also privileged to live in one of the world's most civilised, humane, liberal democracies.

Notwithstanding all the arguments about the status of the Treaty, it seems to me that if we're going to choose any day on which to celebrate our nationhood, it should logically be February 6. And we should be observing it together, Maori and Pakeha.

But I can't help wondering if one consequence of the annual unpleasantness at the Treaty grounds, and the increasing tendency to treat Maori and Pakeha interests as separate and even inimical, is that many Pakeha now switch off at the very mention of the Treaty, regarding it as a symbol of division rather than of unity. That might explain why there were so few white faces at Henley Lake today.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Television paying homage to itself

It's sad that Paul Holmes has died. He was a very popular broadcaster and a man clearly loved and admired by family, friends and colleagues. But Television One's report of his death last night was grossly over the top.

It was television doing something it does very well: paying homage to itself. It was self-indulgence on a grand scale.

When reporter Paul Hobbs finished his succinct wrap-up from the front gate of Holmes' property four and a half minutes into the bulletin, I assumed that was it. It was, I thought, an appropriate amount of time to devote to the death of a man who, although a household name in his own country, was ultimately just a broadcaster - not a world statesman, not a national leader, and probably not someone whose name will live in history, television being arguably the most ephemeral of media.

But no, there was more. About eight minutes more, as it turned out. The tributes to the former TV and radio host went on ... and on ... and on. And as the bulletin progressed, I grew more incredulous. It was television celebrating itself as much as mourning the death of its biggest name.

Even after One News thoughtfully provided some acknowledgement of the other news events of the day, the editors couldn't leave Holmes alone. They replayed several minutes of his last interview with Janet McIntyre on Sunday. And then newsreader Simon Dallow had to get his own five cents' worth with another maudlin tribute. It's as if Holmes' death had created a halo effect over the TVNZ building and no one could bear to be left out.

It wasn't just the abandonment of journalistic detachment and restraint that caused my eyes to roll. Some of the sweeping inaccuracies were startling too, such as TVNZ journalist Mark Crysell's assertion that "before Holmes [in radio and TV], it was all plummy accents mimicking the home country".

Wrong. Much as it might appeal to myth-makers to credit Holmes with pioneering the use of genuine New Zealand voices on the airwaves, the trend was well under way and irreversible by the time he became a national figure. He may have been part of it, but he didn't start it.

Even more brash was the statement by Dallas Gurney of NewstalkZB that before Holmes, talkback radio didn't exist. I must be imagining all those talkback radio shows from the 1970s, which Gurney is too young to remember. Perhaps what he meant to say was that NewstalkZB was the first station to adopt a 24-hour news and talk format, which certainly was audacious at the time. But even that's debatable, since Radio Pacific had a talk format long before the 1987 launch of NewstalkZB, of  which Holmes was the spearhead.

As for Susan Wood's statement that Holmes was "the greatest broadcaster of all times", we should perhaps be charitable and infer that she didn't quite mean that literally.

It was ironic that the most measured contribution came from a vox pop survey of the "ordinary" people in the street who were supposedly the broadcaster's core constituency. This revealed a more nuanced range of attitudes toward him. Many of those questioned were unabashed fans, but just as many had reservations about his style. One said he got the feeling watching Holmes that it was more  about him than the news.

I started this blog by expressing regret over Holmes' death, and I mean that sincerely. His family and friends will be grieving. But was his memory really honoured by these outpourings, other than within the self-absorbed world he worked in?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Punished for trying to save a life

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 30.)
I recently re-read an account of a case in which a baby who survived an abortion was callously left to die. The story is no less shocking now than when it happened nearly 30 years ago.
It didn’t happen in China or North Korea or one of those other countries that we regard as placing a low value on human life. Neither did it happen in the squalid rooms of a back-street abortionist.

It happened in Southland Hospital and was subsequently held to be entirely legal. No action was taken against the doctors who presided over the abortion and decreed that the baby boy should be left to die.
In fact the only person penalised – and this is one of the most disgraceful aspects of the whole sordid business – was a courageous and principled paediatrician who was so appalled by what happened that he complained to the police.

For that breach of professional etiquette, Dr John McArthur was hauled before the Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Committee and subsequently found guilty of professional misconduct.
He was pilloried, in effect, for dobbing in two colleagues whom he sincerely believed had broken the law. He had committed the cardinal sin of breaching club rules.

What in most decent people’s eyes was an infinitely more offensive act – the deliberate withholding of treatment from a baby whom expert opinion held was perfectly capable of surviving – went unpunished.
The story of Dr McArthur’s treatment by the medical and legal establishments is a shameful saga of moral equivocation and ethical whitewashing. It’s impossible to read it without having your confidence in the integrity of official institutions and processes shaken.

It started when Dr McArthur, a paediatrician at Southland Hospital, returned from a clinic in Queenstown one afternoon in November 1985 to be told by a concerned nurse that a male baby had been aborted after 25 weeks’ gestation (it later turned out to be 29, or more than seven months) but had survived the procedure.
He found the infant alone in a back room of the neo-natal unit, lying unclothed in a cot, covered only by a sheet. “He was cold, blue and grunting vigorously, fighting for his life,” Dr McArthur later wrote.

No attempt had been made to give the baby warmth, fluids or oxygen. According to Dr McArthur, the doctor who performed the abortion had wanted the boy left in the delivery suite until dead.
A fellow paediatrician, asked by Dr McArthur for a second opinion on whether they should treat the baby, tersely announced that he was going home.

Dr McArthur took the boy into the intensive care unit, where his colour and muscle tone improved in response to treatment. But by this time he was suffering from severe respiratory distress, “greatly aggravated by the withholding of care”, and died the next morning.

The baby had spina bifida – which was the reason given for the abortion – and would have been paraplegic had he lived, but Dr McArthur believed he could have grown up to be of normal intelligence. An expert witness would later testify that he could have lived to 50.
It’s important to note that Dr McArthur was known for his opposition to abortion, which wouldn’t have endeared him to all his colleagues – least of all those who relied on abortion fees for part of their income. But in this case his personal stance on abortion was incidental; he was simply observing his professional obligation to save a life.

His subsequent complaint to the police alleged not only that his colleagues had failed to provide the necessaries of life, but that the abortion had been illegal in the first place.
Up to 20 weeks’ gestation, a baby can legally be aborted for foetal abnormality (such as spina bifida); but after that time, the only legal grounds for abortion are to save the life of the mother or to prevent serious and permanent injury to her physical or mental health. Dr McArthur claimed this latter justification was put forward only after the event. (I should make clear that it appeared the parents – or at least the father – did not want the baby, although this had no bearing on Dr McArthur’s obligation to save it.)

Space limitations prevent me from recounting in detail the subsequent proceedings and the legal arguments advanced for and against Dr McArthur. Suffice it to say that although the Invercargill police investigated conscientiously, the legal section at police national headquarters performed tortuous legal contortions in concluding that no offence had been committed – an opinion later backed, no more convincingly, by the then Solicitor-General.
The coroner kicked for touch too, as did a High Court judge who held that the child’s life was a matter for the doctors.

igh CiouyrHigh Court Reading Dr McArthur’s account nearly 30 years later, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the authorities at the time – medical, judicial and political – wanted the case swept under the carpet. Memories of the divisive abortion debates of the 1970s were still fresh and there was no appetite for re-opening old wounds.
Not only would the case have been seen as an embarrassment, but some in the medical profession wanted to make an example of Dr McArthur for daring to upset the status quo.

The medical establishment appeared less concerned with the fact that a viable infant had been left to die of neglect – this in a public hospital – than with chastising Dr McArthur for disregarding the niceties of professional etiquette. Soon after, he left Southland and took up a position in Wellington.
He won a longer-term victory in 1993 when the Paediatric Society, at his instigation, introduced a policy emphasising that where there was any doubt about a premature baby’s viability, it should be treated. “The child’s welfare must be the paramount consideration.”

Dr McArthur was further vindicated in 1994 when Parliament passed a legal amendment making clear that doctors reporting suspected child abuse enjoyed absolute protection under the law, including from their own colleagues.
It’s a sad irony that in this case, the alleged abuse – albeit abuse by neglect – was perpetrated by medical professionals. But such incidents are an almost inevitable consequence of an abortion regime that encourages casual disregard for human life.  And the chilling reality is that we don’t how many other similar cases may have gone unrecorded.