Friday, March 29, 2013

RNZ must right its lean to the left

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 27.)
I have some advice – unsolicited – for whoever takes over from Peter Cavanagh, the chief executive of Radio New Zealand, who steps down toward the end of this year.

RNZ is a national treasure, but it’s a flawed treasure, and that makes it vulnerable. By correcting the most obvious of those flaws, whoever takes over from Mr Cavanagh could help protect the organisation against political interference.
RNZ’s vulnerability arises from the fact that it’s a non-commercial broadcaster owned by a government which, insofar as it could be said to be ideologically committed to anything, favours private enterprise.

In itself, that shouldn’t place the organisation at risk. RNZ has co-existed relatively amicably with National governments before. The very reason National has remained the dominant party in New Zealand since the 1950s is that it’s essentially pragmatic, and happy to live with a mix of private and public ownership.
But the political climate has changed in recent years. The global financial crisis has put pressure on the government to save money wherever it can.

John Key’s government is not ideologically averse to state ownership of key broadcasting assets. That’s obvious, since it continues to cling to Television New Zealand long after TVNZ abandoned any pretence of being a public service broadcaster (and probably long after anyone else would have been interested in buying it).
But at least TVNZ returns a profit, albeit a relatively modest one ($19.2 million after tax last year). RNZ does no such thing. It is funded by the taxpayer and generates no commercial revenue.

Its funding has been frozen since 2009, which suggests it doesn’t rate highly in the government’s priorities. In fact if Wellington gossip is to be believed, there are influential figures in the government who are at best indifferent, and possibly even hostile, to the state broadcaster.
Take Steven Joyce, for example. As the fourth-ranked minister in the Cabinet, he carries a lot of clout – probably more than his ranking suggests.

He is also a former broadcasting entrepreneur who built a small New Plymouth radio station into the RadioWorks network and pocketed $6 million when he sold his interest.
Mr Joyce is said to be less than sympathetic to arguments that RNZ deserves more money. And while there may be others in the Cabinet who don’t share his robust support for private enterprise (it would be interesting, for example, to know the attitude of someone like the Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson), the brutal reality is that National probably takes the view that there’s little electoral risk in upsetting RNZ listeners because most of them vote Labour anyway.

So what might the new RNZ chief executive do to enhance the organisation’s standing in a political climate that is less than favourable? One obvious step is to take a tougher line against the editorial bias that still permeates some RNZ programmes.
Public broadcasting organisations, by their very nature, tend to be left-leaning.  Australia’s ABC is perpetually under fire for partisan reporting and the prevalence of left-wing views in current affairs programmes; Britain’s illustrious BBC only slightly less so.

It’s not hard to understand how this comes about. Journalists distrustful of capitalism (and many journalists, being of an idealistic bent, tend to the left anyway) naturally gravitate toward state-owned media organisations, seeing them as untainted by the profit motive. This becomes self-perpetuating, since the more left-leaning an organisation becomes, the more it attracts other people of the same persuasion.  The result is often an ideological mindset that permeates the entire organisation.
But while this can be reassuringly cosy for the employees, publicly funded broadcasters have an obligation to make programmes that reflect the views and interests of the entire community – not just those the broadcasters happen to favour.

This is explicit in RNZ’s charter, which commits the organisation to impartial and balanced coverage of news and current affairs.
It’s the duty of the chief executive, who also has the title of editor-in-chief, to ensure this happens. But in this respect, Mr Cavanagh, an Australian who was recruited from the aforementioned ABC in 2003, has been missing in action.

Overall, RNZ presents a more balanced range of perspectives than it used to. But on some programmes, a stubborn left-wing bias persists.
Kim Hill is the worst offender. This is a problem for whoever runs RNZ, because she’s also its biggest name.

Chris Laidlaw lists to the left too, as does Jeremy Rose, a journalist and producer who frequently crops up on Laidlaw’s Sunday morning show. Rose appears to be on a lifelong mission to convince people that there are humane alternatives to nasty, heartless capitalism, and assiduously trawls the world looking for examples (worker-owned co-operatives in Spain are a favourite).
He’s perfectly entitled to believe whatever he pleases, of course, but he has no right to co-opt the resources of RNZ to pursue his fixation. It’s an abuse of power to use a taxpayer-funded medium to promote pet ideological causes.

And while I used to be a firm admirer of Nine to Noon host Kathryn Ryan, I’ve reluctantly been forced to file her under “L” too.
I had my first misgivings when she conducted a disgracefully partisan interview during the furore over the beleaguered Auckland employers’ leader Alasdair Thompson in 2011. I was reminded of that episode when I recently heard Ryan aggressively hectoring Chester Borrows, the Minister of Courts, over a government proposal to take action against the partners of welfare cheats.  

No one who heard the Borrows interview could doubt that Ryan allowed her personal views and emotions to override her professional obligation of impartiality (which, I stress, doesn’t preclude hard and rigorous questioning).
An editor-in-chief who was doing his job properly would crack down on such abuses, for two reasons.

The first and most important is that they breach RNZ’s duty to the public to present information fairly and impartially. The second, more pragmatic, reason is that the left-wing bias apparent in some of RNZ’s programmes is hardly likely to endear the organisation to the politicians who control its fate.
In saying this, I’m not suggesting for a moment that RNZ should become a tame government puppet. That would be far worse than the status quo. 

But we all have an interest in Radio New Zealand surviving, and a genuinely independent, non-partisan RNZ will be in a far stronger position to defend itself than one that consistently leaves itself exposed to allegations of bias.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Pacific's own Papa Doc

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 22.)
APOLOGISTS for the illegitimate Fijian government led by Frank Bainimarama have melted away as the regime’s true thuggishness has been exposed.
In the years following Bainimarama’s seizure of power, many gave him the benefit of the doubt, deluding themselves that he was genuinely concerned about breaking the dominance of the Fijian elite and protecting Fiji Indians from discrimination.

But in the murk of Fijian politics, it seems no agenda is pure. Whatever his motives at the start, Bainimarama has morphed into a stereotypical melagomaniac.
In the unlikely event that anyone still believed in him after he intimidated the media, suppressed dissidents, repeatedly postponed elections and tore up a draft constitution (partly paid for by the New Zealand), then the ugly truth must have finally dawned when Bainimarama defended the police thugs shown on video beating up two prisoners.

There can no longer be any doubt that Bainimarama is the Pacific’s Papa Doc. Which raises the question, what can we do?
We can certainly no longer look the other way and pretend it isn’t happening. Neither can we expect that normal diplomatic tut-tutting will cut any ice. Bainimarama is impervious to such gestures and grows more arrogant by the month.

On an individual level, New Zealanders can protest by not going to Fiji for their holidays. The smiling faces on tourist posters can’t disguise the reality that Fiji is an oppressive police state, run by a tyrant who is contemptuous of human rights and the rule of law.
But acts of individual conscience are not enough. New Zealand and Australia should be thinking hard about the putting the squeeze on Bainimarama by applying economic sanctions.

The argument against such sanctions is that they penalise the innocent. Jobs will be lost and people may go hungry. But that argument didn’t stop the world from blockading South Africa in the apartheid era, and ultimately it worked. Bainimarama has shown that he is immune to anything less.
* * *

THE COUNCIL of Trade Unions has backed calls for a “living wage” of $18.40 an hour. At the same time, it’s concerned about the high rate of unemployment. But aren’t these two positions contradictory?
In a struggling economy that’s bound to shrink even further as a result of the drought, bullying employers into paying higher wages hardly seems likely to encourage them to take on more staff. It can only have the opposite effect.

Now here’s an alternative idea. Rather than being made to pay their rank-and-file employees more, why don’t companies pay their executives less? It would free up money for investment in productive capacity, possibly creating more jobs, while also making a powerful symbolic statement.
Corporate executives alone seem insulated against adverse economic trends, their pay packages increasing year after year regardless of performance. Just look at Solid Energy, where CEO Don Elder was paid $1.1 million for a year’s work even as the state-owned company’s finances were in freefall.

That sum included a “performance” payment of more than $300,000. By what sprinkling of corporate fairy dust was that justified? And how come, in the year ended last June, 427 Solid Energy employees were paid salaries of more than $100,000?
On the face of it, these sums bear no relationship to the company’s fortunes. But such is the way these days in the corporate sector, where stratospheric salaries and mysterious formulas for the payment of so-called “at-risk” bonuses – “at-risk” apparently being management-speak for “guaranteed” – are evidence of an out-of-control entitlement syndrome. 

What a dramatic signal it would send if CEOs began taking voluntary pay cuts. If business wants to enhance its image while at the same time deflecting calls for higher wages for employees, it has the means to do it.
* * *

THE SPORTS NEWS is no longer mere soap opera. It has become a morality play.

Former All Black Zac Guildford was paraded before us on the 6 o’clock news, a rugby union minder at his side, and made to admit his alcoholism. Did anyone else find this distasteful?
Guildford is an imperfect human being like the rest of us. But because he’s a sporting hero, he’s considered public property.

The journalists at the press conference and the nation at home sit in smug judgment. We now own people like Guildford and demand that they appear before us to confess their sins and beg forgiveness.
Never mind that he thrills crowds with his talents on the field. We want more. The price he pays for being a great rugby player is public humiliation. Professional sport contracts don’t include words like privacy and dignity.

Now we’ll all watch and wait for Guildford to transgress again, so we can tsk-tsk and see the ritual abasement repeated. What a degrading spectacle – for us as well as him.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Poor John Howard: so disliked that he won four elections

I read a lot in The Spectator Australia about the supposed pervasive left-wing bias of the Australian media, particularly in the papers published by the Fairfax group. But not being a frequent reader of the mainstream Australian press, I rarely see direct evidence of it.
However there’s a telling line in a piece reprinted in today’s Dominion Post by Anne Summers, a leading Fairfax columnist and former editor of the company’s Good Weekend magazine, which is published with the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age.

In a highly sympathetic article about the latest crisis to envelop prime minister Julia Gillard, Summers suggests that previous Australian leaders have been through similar turmoil and eventually emerged with their reputations intact and even enhanced. She mentions Gough Whitlam – “now revered” – and Malcolm Fraser, once seen as a “chaotic and divisive figure” but now greatly admired by the left.
Then she delivers the line that most interested me. “Maybe even John Howard will eventually become beloved”.

Hang on a minute. Howard won four elections in a row. He was the second longest-serving Australian prime minister ever, after Sir Robert Menzies. That suggests the Australian public liked him well enough, even if the Canberra press gallery didn’t.
That one short sentence is massively revealing. It exposes the enormous conceit of the left-leaning political commentariat.

They so despise Howard for being popular that they can’t bring themselves to admit that he was. Election after election, they forecast his defeat. Election after election, they were wrong. But they remain in denial even now.
Worse than that, columnists such as Summers display contempt for the Australian public. To them, it counts for nothing that Australian voters thought highly enough of Howard to elect his government four times. Stupid, naïve voters – what would they know? Why couldn’t they listen to their betters in the media? There’s a deeply anti-democratic streak evident here.

I’ll admit Howard’s personal appeal was lost on me, but he obviously struck a chord with the ordinary Australian. What’s more, his prime ministership coincided with a golden era of prosperity and stability – not something that could be said of the chaotic, shambolic government led by Gillard.
But commentators like Summers still insist Howard was a failure. He must have been, because they say so. (The rest of her column, incidentally, was so risibly sycophantic about Gillard that I could only conclude that it doesn't matter to Summers whether anyone takes her seriously.)

On a similar note, it was intriguing to hear Kerry-Anne Walsh – another Fairfax commentator – discussing the latest Australian leadership crisis on Morning Report yesterday. She repeatedly referred to Labour politicians by their first names – “Kevin” for Kevin Rudd, “Simon” for Simon Crean.
As a dinosaur who still believes journalists should exercise professional detachment, I thought this struck a jarring note. But if Walsh is going to breach journalistic convention, then she should at least be consistent. I therefore expect that the next time we hear her mention the leader of the Liberal Party opposition, she’ll refer to him as “Tony”. And pigs will soar aloft on gossamer wings.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

The new pope will inherit two Churches

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 13. Note: this appeared before the election of the new pope.)
It’s highly ironic that the resignation of the pope, who is seen by more than one billion Catholics as the world’s holiest man, was accompanied by the sort of feverish gossip and speculation normally associated with a Hollywood marital bustup, or perhaps the picking of a Melbourne Cup winner.
There has been rampant conjecture about what caused him to throw in the towel – the first pope to have done so for 600 years. Although Catholic law allows the pope to step down, it’s assumed that the appointment is for life.

This is connected with the belief that the pope is chosen by God and only God can remove him, which explains why some conservative Catholics were shocked and disappointed at Pope Benedict’s announcement.
So why did he choose to go? He said he was too tired to do the job properly – which, from a secular perspective, seems a fair call at 85. It’s suggested he didn’t want to suffer the fate of his predecessor, John Paul II, who spent his last years trying to run the Church while weakened by Parkinson’s disease and osteoarthritis.

But the rumour mills in Rome were suggesting other reasons. Some say Benedict quit because he knew of a looming crisis within the Church that he didn’t want to deal with, although it’s hard to imagine what could be worse than the sexual abuse scandal that has already blackened the name of the Catholic hierarchy.
Others suggest he was disheartened by his inability to make headway against the Vatican bureaucracy. Pope Benedict, according to Vatican watchers, was first and foremost an intellectual, with little experience at running an institution – least of all a bureaucracy as byzantine as the Roman Curia, Catholicism’s governing body.

In particular, it’s said that he faced obstruction in his attempts to deal with the sexual abuse crisis, astonishing though that may seem.
There is some evidence too that the pope no longer felt he could trust some of his closest aides. This emerged after his butler, charged with passing confidential papers to a journalist, told prosecutors that from conversations he overheard while serving meals, it was clear the pope was being kept in the dark about scandals in the Vatican.

On top of all this, reports persist of financial skulduggery involving the Vatican Bank – not a new phenomenon, as anyone with memories of the murky Banco Ambrosiano affair of the early 1980s can attest. 
In that saga, the American archbishop Paul Marcinkus, head of the Vatican Bank, was heavily implicated in corrupt dealings involving the Mafia and a secret Masonic lodge called P2.

British author David Yallop – the same man who wrote Beyond Reasonable Doubt, about the conviction of Arthur Allan Thomas for the murders of Harvey and Jeanette Crewe – produced a book entitled In God’s Name, in which he put forward an elaborate conspiracy theory surrounding the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I, whose reign lasted only 33 days.
I was a practising Catholic at the time, and well remember my shock on reading Yallop’s book. If even one quarter of it was true, it was an appalling exposé of moral rot within the Vatican.

It’s reasonable to conclude from what we have read lately (much of it written by Catholic journalists) that the Catholic Church is no different from any other human institution. Wherever power is concentrated there is also ambition, vanity, rivalry, envy and greed. Devout Catholics naively assume their leaders are above all that, but of course they are not.
But enough about possible explanations for the pope’s resignation. The more pressing question now is who will replace him, and what direction the Church will take under its new leader.

Many within the Church would say it desperately needs a new pope who will throw open the windows of the Vatican, metaphorically speaking, and let in some sunlight and fresh air.
There seems little prospect of that happening if the conclave of cardinals reverts to tradition and elects an Italian pope. There have been 217 Italian popes, far more than any other nationality. For the past few centuries their domination has been almost total, broken in modern times only by Benedict, a German, and his Polish predecessor.

Italy remains a powerful influence in the Church, with half as many cardinals as the entire Southern Hemisphere, where more than half the world’s Catholics now live. But the Italian cardinals are too closely associated with the status quo, and for many Catholics that means corruption and stagnancy.
In fact it’s time to ask whether any European pope can revitalise the Church and restore its moral authority. The truth is that the Church in Europe and North America is in steady decline; the real dynamism and growth is in the New World.

That’s evident even in New Zealand, where Asian priests increasingly make up for the shortage of New Zealanders in the priesthood, and where congregations in many urban churches reflect the rapidly changing ethnicity of our cities.
I believe that whoever succeeds Benedict will inherit not one Church, but two. On the one hand there is the Church represented by the Vatican and its discredited, calcified hierarchy – an institution that remains stubbornly opaque and inscrutable in an age that increasingly demands transparency and accountability.

Then there is the Church “on the ground”, which is a different thing altogether.
Although no longer a practising Catholic, I still occasionally attend Mass when staying with family members. And what I often see when I go to Mass is a vibrant congregation of believers; good, devout people who remain loyal Catholics despite having been repeatedly let down by so-called “princes of the church” – people like the disgraced Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland, recently forced to resign after admitting “inappropriate” behaviour with young priests.

It seems to me that these people – the “faithful” as they known in Catholic jargon – remain committed to their religion despite the Church’s leadership, rather than because of it. The first priority of whoever becomes pope should be to rebuild their trust in, and respect for, the Vatican.
Catholics deserve better than to see their Church shamed by some of the deeply flawed old men who control it. You have to wonder what Jesus Christ would make of them.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Sport: one melodrama after another

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 8.)
SPORT has morphed into pure soap opera.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this happened; perhaps somewhere between David Beckham and Tiger Woods.

There have always been occasional instances of sportsmen whose lives became tabloid newspaper fodder (the footballers George Best and Diego Maradona come to mind), but these days it’s constant.
Just think back over the past few months. It’s been one melodrama after another.

There was Lance Armstrong fessing up as a drugs cheat on Oprah’s TV show, a spectacle watched by millions.  
Before that, there was the overwrought weeping and wailing over Black Caps captain Ross Taylor’s sacking by new coach Mike Hesson (a man I can’t see without being reminded of the character Brains from Thunderbirds).

There was the slow, painful unravelling, week by week, of the Wellington Phoenix – a saga that came complete with a textbook villain (Gareth Morgan) and a stoical hero (Ricki Herbert), nobly sacrificing himself for the greater good.
There was the pantomime surrounding media darling Sonny Boy Williams’ boxing match with the “lumbering oaf” (Sir Bob Jones’ description) Francois Botha – a fight that was supposed to go for 12 rounds but was suddenly and inexplicably reduced to 10 when it seemed Botha was getting the upper hand.

So many allegations and counter-allegations flew around in the aftermath of that encounter that the media hardly knew which way to turn – not that it mattered, since boxing is now so irredeemably sleazy that you have to wonder who still takes it seriously.
But wait, there’s more. There was the international media frenzy over the death of Oscar “Bladerunner” Pistorius’s glamorous girlfriend.

There was the sensational case of talented young English cricketer Tom Maynard, fatally hit by a train while on drink and drugs and fleeing from police. Even the Coro Street scriptwriters would have been hard-pressed to come up with a more dramatic storyline.
And what about Australian rugby league glamour boy Ben Barba, very publicly heading for a private clinic to deal with his personal “issues” while his managers wrung their hands and solemnly vowed to stand by their wayward idol? It all seems tediously familiar.
Former All Black Zac Guildford, too, was back in the headlines as he prepared to face disciplinary proceedings over an alleged assault, although nothing so dramatic as the famous Rarotonga incident in which he got drunk, took his clothes off and started hitting people.

Now he has been joined in the naughty corner by cricketer Jeetan Patel – injured, we are told, in an “alcohol-fuelled” (aren’t they always?) altercation with a pub bouncer. Explanation: he was struggling to cope with the death of his mother. Pure soap.
In the circumstances, it seemed almost anti-climactic to watch this week’s prissy tut-tutting over the behaviour of Black Cap Doug Bracewell, whose only offence was having a few rowdy mates around to watch the rugby. For goodness sake, couldn’t he have managed a drunken brawl or drug overdose? At least that might have justified all the fuss.

To think that sporting heroes such as Brian Lochore, Peter Snell and Bob Charles lived their lives in the public spotlight without a whiff of scandal or notoriety. What a dull lot they must have been.
* * *
AS SOMEONE brought up in Hawke’s Bay, I wince when I hear people refer to it as the Hawke’s Bay.

It was never described thus when I lived there. It was simply Hawke’s Bay, as it should be.
The only explanation for the use of the definite article is that it’s a convention applied to some other regions. For example, we talk about the Waikato, the Manawatu and the Wairarapa.

But there’s no logical consistency here. We don’t refer to the Otago or the Taranaki, still less to the Northland or the Southland. Why the definite article attaches itself to some regional names but not others is a mystery.
What we need is a statutory body empowered to impose some consistency and slap heavy fines on non-compliers. In fact I would like to nominate myself as chief executive, with a salary of – oh, $250,000 sounds about right, with a performance bonus thrown in, which would of course be paid regardless of how poorly I did the job.

* * *

THE LATE Phillip Leishman personified a species of broadcaster fast approaching extinction.
He wasn’t flamboyant and he didn’t have a big ego. He had a style New Zealanders related to easily: not flashy, but relaxed and personable.

It was probably just as well that Leishman carved himself a niche in the last 15 years of his life with his golf programme, HSBC Golf Club, because mainstream television programmers have long since lost interest in broadcasters like Leishman. Wrong age, wrong sex.
The sole survivor of that breed is Peter Williams, another consummate professional. I hope I’m not putting a hex on him by pointing this out.