Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground: an alternative view

Lou Reed has died, and for the next few days the media will be awash with dribbling, fawning tributes. Most of them will probably be written by people who are tone-deaf.

No band in the history of rock music was more over-rated than the Velvet Underground, the "avant-garde" group Reed formed in New York in the 1960s ("avant-garde" being a term that should come with a flashing red warning light attached). Typical of the tributes we can expect is one I heard on Radio New Zealand this morning, in which it was said that everyone who heard the Velvet Underground was inspired to go out and start their own band. The explanation for that is simple: anyone hearing the Velvet Underground quickly realised you didn't need to be able to sing or play to form a group and be lionised by the left-wing, university-educated cognoscenti (who even then were trying to claim rock music as some sort of socio-political statement).

In that respect Reed's band foreshadowed punk by 10 years. Punk and the Velvets were both essentially anti-music in the sense that they made records for people who didn't like, or at least weren't interested in, music. The difference was that whereas punk at least had a redeeming working-class energy, everything the Velvet Underground did was an artful pose. They were rapidly adopted as the house band of the artsy-fartsy liberal intellectual elite, a status they have never entirely relinquished.

Fans of the Velvet Underground, who mostly exist in universities and the media, have assiduously promoted the myth that they were hugely influential. They were nothing of the sort, other than in the minds of their small coterie of admirers.

They are invariably referred to as a "cult" band, which is a snob code word meaning their appeal was too cerebral for ordinary joes to understand. The fact that the Velvets never cracked the Billboard Top 100 only confirms their credibility in the eyes of their fawning fans, to whom commercial success was the kiss of death and a sure sign of ideological error. But it's probably an accurate measure of the band's real worth.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Millmow catches up with Bill Skelton

Some pretty dire rubbish appears on the sports pages, but I've been enjoying the "Where are they now?" series in the Dominion Post by Jonathan Millmow, in  which he tracks down retired sporting identities - some well-known, some less so (last week's interview was with Wellington club rugby stalwart Morrie Standish). Today's instalment is about the great W D Skelton, laid low 19 years ago by a stroke from which he has never recovered.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Scandal, smear and spin - the new normal

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 23.)
As I write this, a lot of questions remain unanswered about the controversy swirling around Auckland mayor Len Brown.
Why did his former lover, Bevan Chuang, decide to expose him? She says she was pressured into doing so by another man with whom she claimed to have an intimate relationship – Luigi Wewege, who happened to be on the campaign team of Brown’s main rival for the mayoralty, John Palino.

As with so many of the claims made in this tawdry and convoluted affair, that has been denied; but text messages exchanged between Ms Chuang and Mr Wewege (who strikes me as one of those repellant people who hang around the fringes of politics, attracted by the buzz of power) suggested much more than mere friendship.
Was Mr Palino party to the conspiracy? He says he knew nothing – not even that Mr Wewege was in a relationship with Ms Chuang. But regardless of whether Mr Palino was in on it, some of the sleaze has rubbed off on him by association.

Why did right-wing blogger Cameron Slater choose to expose the affair when he did? One theory was that by waiting until after the election, he increased the likelihood that the right-leaning Mr Palino – as the second-highest polling candidate – would assume the mayoralty if Mr Brown (a Labour man) stood down.
But Slater’s explanation is that he couldn’t reveal the affair until he had persuaded Ms Chuang to swear an affidavit and hand over the text messages she had exchanged with Mr Brown. That would give him a strong defence in the event of a defamation action.

To make a complex picture even murkier, Slater’s father John, a former National Party chairman, was head of Mr Palino’s campaign. Conspiracy theorists wasted no time joining the dots and concluding Slater senior was implicated, which he denies (as does his son).
Who sent threatening text messages to Slater, Ms Chuang and Slater’s father? These were sent anonymously before Slater dropped his sleaze bomb. At that point he had merely made a veiled reference in his blog to Mr Brown and “Asian beauties”.

If Slater is to be believed, those text messages were the tipping point. It was then that Ms Chuang decided to hand over the evidence Slater wanted – not the outcome the anonymous texter wanted. Meanwhile, after seeing the reference to Asian beauties, Mr Brown evidently decided the game was up and told his wife about the affair.
Should he have resigned immediately? That’s a hard one to answer. As plenty of people have pointed out, the political ranks might look decidedly thin if everyone who had committed a sexual indiscretion was excluded.

On the other hand, as a Radio New Zealand listener texted to Morning Report, if the people closest to Mr Brown – his wife and family – can’t trust him, why should the people of Auckland? I have friends who voted for him, thinking him a solid family man and churchgoer (an image he promoted at every opportunity), and who now feel betrayed.
One more question: are there any other skeletons in Mr Brown’s closet? After all, philanderers are usually serial offenders. John Campbell put the question to Mr Brown on TV3 but allowed him to get away with what I thought was an equivocal answer.

By the time this column appears, some of the above questions may have been answered. Mr Brown may even have stepped down, though that seems highly unlikely.
He may not be the world’s most charismatic politician, but he’s clearly reluctant to relinquish power, no matter what humiliation comes his way (or the way of his hapless wife and daughters, who are the real victims of this squalid saga).

Like John Banks, who was also in the news last week, Mr Brown gives the impression of having developed a protective carapace – call it ego, ambition, vanity, attachment to power or whatever – that enables him to put his head down and push on when public contempt would have caused other men to throw in the towel.
Now, one last question that may be easier to answer.

Has politics got dirtier? Undoubtedly – and not just in New Zealand. The same is true in Britain, America and Australia.
It’s not only dirtier, but more intense. Scandal, smear and spin are now staples of the political diet.

The explanation for this lies largely in the digital revolution.
As recently as a few years ago, politicians and journalists worked to a daily news cycle that revolved around the evening television news bulletin and the deadlines of the morning and afternoon papers.

It was a pressured environment, but it usually allowed time to pause, take a deep breath and react to political developments in a considered way.
Not now. In the digital era, the news cycle operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The tempo has increased exponentially and a far more aggressive media constantly hounds politicians, hungry for new developments. It seems John Key can’t go anywhere without having microphones thrust at him.

But an even more potent factor is the emergence of new digital media – text messages, blogs, Facebook and Twitter – which provide a virulent forum for rumour, gossip, lies, abuse, propaganda and character assassination. It feeds on itself, each inflammatory item ratcheting up the intensity of the political conversation.  
Anyone can become a player in this new game, and they can do it in the safety of anonymity. In other words, it’s not just the pace of political journalism that has changed, but also the tone. Nothing is off-limits; everyone is fair game.

Bloggers compete for attention, often making outrageous claims that the mainstream media don’t bother to follow up. But the most successful bloggers, such as Slater, break stories that the mainstream press can’t ignore. They have made themselves part of the political landscape.
Slater is well informed and politically astute. Mr Brown is his biggest scalp yet, but he won’t be the last.

Some argue that this new political environment is healthy. It promotes transparency and has opened up the debate to new participants. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think it doesn’t come at a cost, and that cost may be that potential new entrants to politics might look at the sleaze that has enveloped Mr Brown and decide it’s not just worth the anguish and stress.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Another heroically barmy cause

Whenever Radio New Zealand journalist Jeremy Rose comes on air, I mentally prepare for a detour into a parallel universe - a left-wing la-la land.

It happened again at the tail end of Mediawatch on Sunday, when Rose interviewed a Massey University student who had set up a website on which people could put questions to candidates for the Wellington mayoralty.

It was obvious from the tone of the item that Rose thought some of these questions deserved wider exposure. There was an implied rebuke of the mainstream media for not having followed some of them up.

So what were some of the questions asked?

One questioner wanted to know what the mayoral candidates thought about the prospect of oil exploration in Pegasus Bay, which was described as being off the Wellington coast.

Last time I checked, Pegasus Bay was immediately north of Banks Peninsula. Somehow I can't imagine even Celia Wade-Brown, conscientious greenie that she is, regarding this as part of her bailiwick.

But more bizarre still was the question from someone who was concerned that one-third of Wellington's homeless were young LGBT people who had been rejected by their families, and what did the mayoral candidates intend to do about this?

Rose noted disapprovingly that this was not the sort of question that mainstream journalists would bother to ask. Well, of course they wouldn't. The notion that the mayor of Wellington should be held responsible for the dysfunctional family relationships of sexually confused young people is plain batty. It simply demonstrated - again - that there are no limits to the demands of the aggrieved for special attention.

On one level, the item was so absurd as to be laughable. In fact I briefly considered the possibility that it was a spoof. But the worrying thing is that Rose is in deadly earnest. And more alarming still is the fact that he continues to abuse his position by using publicly funded air time to promote his heroically barmy pet causes.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Are there rorts we don't know about?

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 18.)
THERE HAS long been a nagging suspicion that taxpayer-supported Maori organisations are not always held to the same standards of accountability as non-Maori ones.
Along with that, there is a suspicion that there exists within Maoridom a mindset which holds that allegations of dodgy practices should be dealt with in the Maori way; that Maori are accountable only to Maori, even when public money is at stake, and outside institutions have no business poking their noses in. Keep it in the family, so to speak.

What’s more, it’s sometimes hard to escape the feeling that government departments and other bureaucratic institutions play along with this in the interests of cultural sensitivity, even if it means turning a blind eye to irregularities.
There’s the additional problem that conventional accounting systems are not set up to deal with practices such as koha (the customary payment of money or other gifts to one's hosts), where bookkeeping niceties are not necessarily observed. The potential for abuse is obvious.

Nepotism – the granting of jobs and favours to whanau members – is an issue too. Many within Maoridom condone and even expect it, but it’s incompatible with the standards required of organisations spending public funds.
Take the current controversy over alleged misuse of kohanga reo funds. Thousands of dollars have reportedly been spent on personal purchases, including expensive designer dresses, and non-receipted koha payments. Family connections are implicated.

But what’s heartening about the kohanga reo affair is that it was exposed by the Maori Television programme Native Affairs. Moreover, the Maori broadcaster stood firm when the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust Board – which gets $79 million a year in government funding – tried to stifle the controversy by seeking an injunction.
Interestingly, before going to court, the kohanga reo board had reportedly leaned on the board of Maori Television - in other words, tried to deal with it the Maori way. It’s not hard to imagine a less stalwart Maori TV being persuaded to cave in for the benefit of Maori solidarity. That it didn’t is greatly to its credit. But it also raises a disturbing question: are there rorts that are not exposed? And if so, how many?

By courageously pursuing this story, and risking condemnation for blowing the whistle on her fellow Maori, Native Affairs journalist Mihingarangi Forbes has more than regained the respect she lost when, as a Campbell Live reporter, she conducted a disgracefully partisan and emotionally overwrought interview with the ill-fated Alasdair Thompson, then head of an Auckland employers’ organisation, over his statements on women’s sick leave in 2011.
Forbes told the Sunday Star-Times last week that in Maoridom, the usual six degrees of separation was “more like one degree”, and with that came pressure.

“We all got emails and calls saying ‘Just leave it alone’ and ‘Why is a Maori organisation investigating another Maori organisation?’.”
In other words, some in Maoridom consider they should be immune from media scrutiny – which makes Maori Television’s tenacity all the more admirable.

What’s equally encouraging is that lax financial management in the kohanga reo movement has been condemned by others within Maoridom, notably Labour MP Shane Jones – who has also been scathing about irregularities and dysfunctionality in other Maori institutions – and Maori blogger Morgan Godfery.
Godfery was understandably angry that that credit cards were reportedly being used for personal ends – such as a Kardashian-branded handbag – when kohanga reo learning centres were struggling to survive. 

Perhaps we are seeing an overdue sea change. Is it too much to hope that an indulgent state will be less inclined in future to turn a blind eye to slovenly accountability by taxpayer-supported Maori organisations?
* * *

I COULD BARELY contain my excitement at the announcement that Wellington is celebrating a Month of Mansfield to mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of Katherine Mansfield.
As every New Zealander learns, Mansfield was the greatest writer in the history of the English language – a household name even in the most far-flung corners of civilisation, read as avidly by Tibetan yak herders as by Oxford dons. But lest we forget this, worthy committees of blue-rinsed Mansfield admirers have spent years planning events in her honour.

My diary is so chocker with Mansfield commemorations that I don’t know how I’m going to get around them all. Must-attend events include the unveiling of a plaque on a Tinakori Rd lamp post where she’s believed to have waited briefly for a tram in 1906, and a reading at the Alexander Turnbull Library of her recently rediscovered short story At the Dentist, a vividly observed recollection of her first tooth extraction.
If you haven’t booked already, I’m afraid you’ve missed out. But never mind: the Mansfield Admiration Society has a great programme lined up for the anniversary of the day she took her first faltering steps, and another for the date on which she is thought to have first ingested solid food (the remains of the partly consumed rusk in question are carefully preserved at Te Papa). Further announcements are believed to be pending.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Why are the media doing Jock Paget's PR?

When word got out that Belarusian shot-putter Nadzeya Ostapchuk was being investigated for possible steroid use following her triumph at the London Olympics, the New Zealand media erupted in a frenzy of righteous rage.

It's interesting to contrast that with the response to the announcement that New Zealander Jock Paget's horse Clifton Promise, which carried him to victory in the Burghley horse trials, had tested positive for the banned substance reserpine.

The very suggestion that Ostapchuk may have unfairly robbed our own Valerie Adams of a gold medal had New Zealand sports journalists baying for blood. The fact that she was (a) ugly and (b) came from a former Soviet republic didn't help. In the court of New Zealand media opinion, Ostapchuk was found guilty before you could say Graham May*.

Yet when a New Zealand competitor is implicated in a drugs scandal, the default position is to assume it's all a terrible mistake. Either that, or someone must have set Paget up.  New Zealand coverage of the inquiry has been notable for its overwhelmingly sympathetic tone and the willingness to accept, without demur, Paget's statement that the test results came as a complete shock.

I have no reason to suspect Paget was party to anything improper and sincerely hope he'll be cleared of any wrongdoing. But is it too much to expect that the media will step back and take a slightly more detached stance in its coverage of the affair, rather than falling over itself in its eagerness to do Paget's PR for him?

* Graham May was the popular Kiwi weightlifter who won gold at the Christchurch Commonwealth Games in 1974. A true local hero, he later admitted taking performance-enhancing steroids (then merely illicit rather than illegal). New Zealand discus thrower Robin Tait was also known to take drugs. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

All in meetings?

How richly ironic, and how drearily predictable, that when Radio New Zealand sought comment from the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority on the $3 million it had spent in the last financial year on communications (an increase of one-third), no one was available. According to Morning Report, CERA's communications staff increased from 11 to 16 in 2012/2013 - in fact 26, if you take into account support staff. Notwithstanding all that PR firepower, CERA couldn't muster a single spin-meister to talk to RNZ. All in meetings, no doubt.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A shot in the dark

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 9.)

Some of us (but only a minority, by the look of things) have taken the time during the past couple of weeks to cast our votes in the local government elections.
As a result of this three-yearly exercise in participatory democracy, some cities and towns will have new mayors by this time next week. A much larger number will have an intake of new councillors.

As always, the candidates include a significant proportion of no-hopers, cranks, misfits, oddballs, mischief-makers, egotists and single-issue obsessives.
Fortunately, local government also attracts conscientious, capable people who genuinely want to serve their communities. The problem for voters is that it’s often hard to tell the difference between the two types of candidate.

The information we are given with the ballot papers, or in advertising material, is a wholly inadequate basis on which to cast our votes.
It tells us what candidates value – or at least what they say they value – and what they propose to do if elected. But it gives no indication of how they will perform if they succeed in winning office. The proof of the pudding, as the saying goes, is in the eating.

Mostly, candidates’ election promises consist of safe platitudes that no one could disagree with: stuff like keeping rates down, ensuring transparency and working hard to represent their constituents.
Usually the election bumph lists the councillors’ credentials, but these don’t tell us much either. Even a certifiable sociopath might be truthful in saying he’s lived in the town for 20 years and is married with four children – but it’s no guide to his competence as a councillor.

I recall years ago being impressed by the CV of a council candidate in Wellington. He seemed to tick all the right boxes, but turned out to be a disaster: erratic, argumentative, emotionally unstable and incapable of working with his colleagues.
Attending candidates’ meetings is more informative than reading election material. It provides an opportunity, albeit a limited one, to assess candidates’ personalities.

I went to one such meeting a couple of weeks ago and, as a result, changed my mind about a person I previously intended to vote for. A sitting councillor, he struck me as casual and complacent. He didn’t bother to confirm to the meeting organisers that he would turn up and he hadn’t prepared any speech notes, instead speaking off the cuff in a rambling fashion.
He dropped from number one on my preference list to last place. I reasoned that if he took such an offhand approach to a candidates’ meeting, he would probably be similarly lackadaisical in his attitude to council business.

The problem is, only a tiny handful of voters make the effort to attend such meetings. Many of the few dozen people present at the meeting I attended were senior citizens, and I suspect a lot of them knew enough about local politics to have already made up their minds about who they would vote for.
Now here’s another problem. Traditionally, people have formed judgments about the performance of their mayor or councillors through the local media. Media coverage was a never a perfect basis on which to cast an informed vote (in fact it sometimes had the perverse effect of giving prominence to stirrers at the expense of councillors who got things done), but it was far better than nothing.

Alas, many local newspapers that once provided detailed coverage of council meetings no longer have the resources to do so, or have diverted those resources into supposedly sexier subjects.
This means people wanting to make their vote count must find out more about the candidates for themselves, but the overwhelming majority don’t consider local government important enough to make the effort. They end up voting for people because they like the look of them, they recognise their name or they have a sister-in-law who has her hair done at a candidate’s salon and says she seems nice.

That is, if people bother voting at all. Most don’t.
A recent survey by Local Government New Zealand revealed that 31 per cent of people didn’t bother voting because they didn’t know enough about the candidates. Another 24 per cent intended to vote but forgot to, and 14 per cent were too busy. But only 14 per cent were genuinely not interested.

The low participation rate is hard to explain when you consider the profound impact local government has on our daily lives: the streets we drive on, the sewage plants that treat our waste, the hospitals we go to when we have an accident, the water we drink, the disposal of the rubbish we create, the sports grounds we play on, the libraries that issue our books and the hygiene standards of the restaurants and takeaway bars we patronise.
LGNZ chief executive Malcolm Alexander put an interesting spin on the elections last week when he pointed out that local government controls $120 billion worth of assets and spends $8 billion annually. If you were a shareholder in a company that size, he said, you’d surely want a say in who ran it. 

In many respects, local government has a more direct influence on our quality of life than legislation passed by Parliament. Yet a general election generates infinitely greater interest and excitement than the local government polls.
And it goes without saying that Parliament attracts a different type of candidate. National politics has an aura of glamour and power – words not normally associated with local government. The money’s better, too.

Yet there’s never a shortage of candidates for local office. For reasons that are not immediately apparent, it seems to appeal to a particular personality type. And I suppose the rest of us should be grateful, because someone has to do it.
All of which brings me back to those oddballs, mischief-makers and egotists.

Inevitably, some of them will get elected. And once in office, they can be hard to dislodge. They will attract publicity. Their names will become known.
And three years down the track, when people vote again, they may get re-elected simply because people recognise their names.

That’s one of the hazards of local government. We just have to hope that the sensible, conscientious councillors will outnumber those who are in it for self-aggrandisement or to pursue their own weird agendas.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Haunted by the c-word

I wrote the following piece for the Australian edition of The Spectator.
Ostensibly it was a contest between Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA. But as the America’s Cup yachting regatta tacked and gybed to its nail-biting conclusion on San Francisco Bay, it had morphed into something else.
The victorious Team USA may have flown the Stars and Stripes and been bankrolled by an American software billionaire, Larry Ellison; but as their boat remorselessly ate into what had seemed an unassailable New Zealand lead, a fingernail-chewing audience of four million Kiwis found it hard to see past the figure of Jimmy Spithill, Oracle’s Australian skipper.

Forget the Americans. This was the latest round in one of the longest-running sporting feuds in history: New Zealand v Australia. The fact that the Oracle campaign was masterminded by a Kiwi, Sir Russell Coutts, and that eight of the Oracle crew were New Zealanders – more than any other nationality – was neither here nor there.
Spithill became the focal point for a nation’s collective anxieties. New Zealanders are haunted by memories of previous humiliations at the hands of Australia – none more so than in the Rugby World Cup semi-final of 2003, won 22-10 by the Wallabies. Australian captain George Gregan’s taunt in the dying moments of that match – “Four more years, boys, four more years!” – is burned into the New Zealand psyche.

The other fear haunting New Zealand sports fans is that their heroes might be chokers, with a fatal propensity for losing their nerve at crucial moments. Sex therapists might call it performance anxiety, in which insidious self-doubt feeds on itself and becomes self-fulfilling. You could sense it taking hold in the New Zealand team as Spithill’s crew clawed their way back into the contest.
The c-word was first heard at the time of the 1999 Rugby World Cup semi-final against France, when New Zealand watched in horror as red-hot favourites the All Blacks snatched defeat from the jaws of victory after leading 24-10. It was again being muttered sotto voce by dismayed fans in the last days of the America’s Cup campaign, as Team New Zealand’s lead inexorably slipped away.

Certainly, the mental pressure on the Kiwis, watching their winning margin shrink race by race and burdened by the immense weight of a nation’s expectations (whipped up by cheerleaders in the overheated New Zealand media), must have been overwhelming. Moreover, Spithill had the psychological advantage of starting from so far behind he had nothing to lose. But did the Kiwis choke? New Zealand skipper Dean Barker admitted making tactical errors in the latter stages of the regatta, but the decisive factor appears to have been last-minute technical adjustments that coaxed vital extra knots out of the American boat. Ironically, the tweaking was done by a team flown in from New Zealand, where most of the boat was built.
There was the luck factor too. On day five, New Zealand was comfortably ahead when racing was abandoned because of high winds. But far more heartbreaking for the Kiwis was day 10, when light winds meant the race wasn’t completed within the allowed 40 minutes – a time limit imposed so that broadcasters could keep to their schedules. With New Zealand leading by a kilometre and the race 90 per cent completed, sailing was curtailed. Another few minutes, and the world’s oldest sporting trophy would have been on its way to Auckland. It was the defining moment of the regatta, and a demonstration of the power of television.

But those factors aside, the impression lingers that Spithill turned the psychological blowtorch on his opponents. When the pressure is on, Australians seem just that much more confident, more assertive.
Spithill is brash, combative and a stranger to self-doubt – the type of Australian sportsman, like the bantam rooster Gregan, who gets under New Zealand’s skin. Wellington’s Dominion Post noted that he played the role of pantomime villain to perfection.

New Zealanders bristle with resentment at Australian braggadocio, but they might well ask whether their sports people could do with a bit of that swagger. Spithill believed Oracle could overcome an 8-1 deficit even when no one else did. He and Barker were a study in contrasts – the Australian confident and assertive despite overwhelming odds against him, the Kiwi cautious and understated even when the Cup seemed comfortably within his grasp.
Barker comes from a tradition that values modesty and reticence. New Zealand sportsmen who display so much as a trace of hubris risk being labelled as up themselves. Only in recent years have the All Blacks allowed themselves a moment’s jubilation after scoring; for generations, they would jog back from the goal line with their heads down, as if apologetic for drawing attention to themselves. It may be a treasonous suggestion, but perhaps the low-key shtick has been taken a bit too far.

The other question New Zealanders should be asking is whether they invest more emotion in sport than is good for them. The America’s Cup became a national melodrama – a soap opera in which people gathered in their hundreds in public venues to watch the races unfold. Fist-pumping exhilaration at New Zealand’s early victories turned to despair as Spithill ratcheted up the pressure. The most emotionally involved spectators seemed to be women, many of whom, it’s fair to say, would have previously been only dimly aware the America’s Cup existed.
There was a strange sociological phenomenon in play here: almost a mild form of hysteria. New Zealand’s self-image is heavily dependent on its undoubted prowess in a relatively small range of sports. At such times it reveals itself as a tiny country justifiably proud of punching above its weight, but over-anxious to prove itself – and inclined to lapse into anguished breast-beating when things don’t work out. And it’s never harder to take than when it’s an Australian rubbing their noses in the dirt.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Leave it to Maori and hope for the best

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 4.)
THE RECENT conviction of a Hawke’s Bay kaitiaki, or “guardian” of customary fisheries, makes a mockery of the word.
Napier District Court heard that authorisations issued by Rangi Spooner under customary fishing regulations covered multiple dates instead of the allowed 48-hour period. A man named Jason Brown obtained 11 such authorisations and was later convicted of illegally selling crayfish for $10 each.

A separate hearing was told that Brown caught 1730 crays, supposedly for events at his house. That’s a helluva lot of crayfish.
Spooner was convicted of failing to meet fisheries officer Kelly Pouwhare despite repeated requests arising from concern about the permits he had issued.

Under the regulations, kaitiaki – who are appointed by their iwi – can authorise Maori to exceed normal catch limits and to take undersized fish, but not for commercial gain or trade.
The authorisations are issued so that Maori can provide for whanau or guests – for example, at a tangi or wedding. It’s a recognition of their traditional rights as tangata whenua. But the system depends on trust, and Spooner’s conviction is bound to reinforce suspicions that it’s wide open to abuse.

There is a delicate issue here. Given the importance among Maori of obligations to whanau, hapu and iwi, it’s easy to imagine people in positions of trust, such as kaitiaki, being put under pressure to rort the system.
In this case, fisheries officers were on to it. But you have to wonder whether other abuses go undetected – and if so, how many.

Can we be confident that the authorities are always rigorous in ensuring the regulations are respected? Probably not, because bureaucrats and their political masters fret about being labelled culturally insensitive – or even worse, racist.  Far safer to leave Maori to police themselves and hope for the best.
Like the rest of us (indeed, arguably even more so), Maori have an interest in ensuring the protection of vulnerable fish species. If they are genuinely committed to conservation, the onus is on iwi and hapu themselves to expose and condemn anyone who lets the side down by playing fast and loose with the rules.

* * *

MY WIFE and I have been enjoying an outstanding British drama series called Broadchurch, which Television New Zealand plans to screen next year (most likely, as a cynical friend commented, at 11.30pm or thereabouts).
The series, which revolves around the trauma and upheaval caused by the murder of a schoolboy in a quiet English seaside town, reaffirms my faith in British television drama. Almost everything about it – writing, acting, editing, camerawork, music – is nigh flawless.

It’s a reminder that the British seem to have a bottomless reservoir of acting talent to draw from. The only familiar face, from a large cast, is that of David Tennant, a former Doctor Who, who plays the tormented Scottish detective investigating the case.
But Broadchurch has a drawback, and it’s one that’s increasingly common. The dialogue is so mumbled and muffled in places that we found ourselves frequently rewinding the DVD to hear critical snatches of conversation again.

Perhaps my hearing isn’t what it used to be, but I have no difficulty following what’s going on in most programmes. It’s only in movies and TV dramas (and more noticeably in American than British examples) that the dialogue is muddy.
Presumably directors demand this from their actors on the misguided assumption that it sounds more authentic. Unfortunately the problem is compounded by modern flat-screen TVs that sacrifice decent speakers for elegant looks.

In the absence of subtitles, the only option is to fork out for auxiliary speakers in the hope of clearer audio. That’s progress for you.
* * *

NEW LABOUR leader David Cunliffe is getting good notices, even from those at the opposite end of the political spectrum, such as former ACT leader Rodney Hide.
But I’m withholding judgment. I decided I disliked Mr Cunliffe when, as Minister of Health in the Clark government, he sacked the democratically elected Hawke’s Bay District Health Board, describing them as “a nasty little nest of self-perpetuating provincial elites”.  He struck me then as a politician who liked to throw his weight around just because he could.

Nothing since then has changed my view of him. In fact my opinion was reinforced by an interview with Guyon Espiner in The Listener which exposed Mr Cunliffe as precious, controlling and acutely concerned – in fact almost neurotic – about his public image.
His pronouncements before and since his election as leader suggest he’s a politician who will say whatever he thinks will ingratiate him with voters. In this respect he is disconcertingly similar to former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd.

There’s a Uriah Heep-ish quality to Mr Cunliffe: rampant ambition overlaid by a phony air of humility. Those quibbles aside, I’m sure he’s a top bloke.