Friday, February 28, 2014

When turning the other cheek is difficult

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 26.)
THERE hasn’t exactly been an overwhelming outpouring of sympathy in the media for Conservative Party leader Colin Craig over his threat of a defamation action against Russel Norman of the Greens. The general reaction from political commentators has been that Mr Craig should toughen up.
No surprises there. As US president Harry S Truman famously said in one his trademark folksy aphorisms, anyone who can’t stand the heat should get out of the kitchen. 

Politics in a liberal democracy depends on the free exchange of ideas and opinions. That’s how we decide who to vote for.
Accordingly, politicians enjoy a degree of licence in what they say about each other, although most are careful to make their most damaging accusations in the sanctity of Parliament, where the law of privilege protects MPs from being sued.

This rule recognises that there are situations in which the right of a parliamentarian to speak frankly, and even to make damning allegations against people who may be unable to defend themselves, is more important to democracy than the reputations of the people impugned.
Labour MP Shane Jones took full advantage of this protection in his crusade against the Countdown supermarket chain, although you have to wonder whether, by carrying on even after the Commerce Commission announced an investigation, he was simply grandstanding.

But back to Mr Craig. We accept that political rhetoric often involves an element of hyperbole. The question in this instance is whether Dr Norman overstepped the mark.
Addressing a crowd at Auckland’s Big Gay Out rally, the Green Party co-leader asserted that Mr Craig believed a woman’s place was in the kitchen and a gay’s place was in the closet.

I suspect that not even Dr Norman believed this to be literally true, but he was playing to a supportive gallery and knew it would go down well.  Ridiculing a moral conservative at a festival celebrating gays was like shooting fish in a barrel.
Whether it was a fair summation of Mr Craig’s personal views, even allowing for the customary hyperbole and metaphor, is another matter.

I thought it was the political equivalent of an underarm bowl, which Dr Norman, being Australian, should know all about. But whether it crossed the legal threshold for defamation is another matter. Most lawyers seemed to think it didn’t.
If Dr Norman were able to demonstrate in court that what he said was true, he would have a complete defence against a defamation action.

Even if he couldn’t, the law gives defamers a bit of leeway if the person claiming to have been defamed is a politician. This is due to a landmark case known as Lange v. Atkinson, which arose in the 1990s from an article written by Auckland University political scientist Joe Atkinson in the magazine North & South.
Atkinson criticised former prime minister David Lange’s performance as PM and suggested he had a selective memory of his time in power. It was relatively mild stuff but Mr Lange by that time had become uncharacteristically grouchy, even bitter.  He sued and lost.

The courts held, essentially, that in a democracy the public was entitled to hear discussion and comment about the performance of those in power. The case was generally viewed as making it harder for politicians to sue for defamation.
That may help explain why Dr Norman dug his toes in and refused to accede to Mr Craig’s demand for an apology. He would almost certainly have been acting on advice from his lawyer, media law specialist Steven Price.

Mr Craig has had a run of successes lately with threats of defamation action against the media, which may have emboldened him. But he seems to have backed away from his threat against Dr Norman and it may fizzle out.
His readiness to resort to lawyers hasn’t endeared him to journalists, and probably not to all his fellow politicians either. Constant threats of legal action can stifle the robust political debate that informed liberal democracies such as New Zealand depend on.

Yet I can understand why Mr Craig reacted the way he did. He may feel that the playing field is tilted against him, given the media’s generally negative view of moral conservative parties.
Some commentators, particularly on the left, treat him as an object of ridicule. That might explain his touchiness.

He may think he’s not getting a fair shake of the stick, and therefore feel less inclined to turn the other cheek (despite what the Bible says) when he believes an opponent has wilfully misrepresented his position.  
There’s no doubt that parties like the Conservatives struggle harder than most to win acceptance. New Zealand is one of the world’s most secular societies and many of us seem genetically programmed to be suspicious of anything smacking of religious fundamentalism.

Journalists tend to be especially unsympathetic toward religiously driven politicians and hold their noses, figuratively speaking, when writing about them.
Australian prime minister Tony Abbott knows this well. It was disappointing, but perhaps unsurprising, to see at least one high-profile New Zealand political journalist recently refer to Mr Abbott as the Mad Monk – a crude nickname widely used in the Australian press.

Mr Abbott suffers from the political liability of being a practising Catholic. Worse than that, he once entered a seminary with a view to becoming a priest. This makes him fair game for the Australian media, who can’t quite decide between referring to him as the Mad Monk or ridiculing him for once being photographed in a pair of “budgie smuggler” swimming togs.
Almost anyone who publicly professes any sort of belief in God invites derision from supposedly liberal commentators. In this context I use that term “liberal” advisedly, because such intolerance is the exact reverse of true liberalism.

What the sneerers don't mention is that Mr Abbott is a former Rhodes Scholar with several degrees, including a Master's in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University. It also seems to escape them that the Australian voters thought highly enough of this supposed religious nutter to deliver him a decisive election victory.

Mr Abbott would be less than human if the constant repetition of this gratuitous insult didn't offend him, but he doesn't react. Perhaps there's a lesson there for Mr Craig.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sigh ... here we go again

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 21.)
IT’S STARTED already, and the election is still months away. I refer to the tiresome (but all too predictable) Winston Peters blusterfest, which can be expected to gather momentum as the year progresses. 
He started 2014 as he no doubt intends to continue, spraying press gallery journalists with what one reporter described as a “suite of insults” in response to perfectly legitimate questions about his dealings with Kim Dotcom.

First he was evasive about whether he had met the grotesque German. None of the media’s business, he snarled. (In fact it’s very much the public’s, and therefore the media’s, business.)
Then, when he was cornered, Mr Peters admitted he had met Herr Dotcom, but had given him an assurance that their dealings would be confidential. That was the cue for a sanctimonious rebuke of the media for supposedly expecting him to betray a confidence.

“In many years of politics,” Mr Peters harrumphed, “I have never broken a confidentiality agreement and do not intend to start doing so, despite the squawking of beltway reporters in Parliament.”
Classic Peters. Deflect attention from the issue. Indignantly claim the moral high ground. Portray yourself as the aggrieved party. Turn the blame onto the media for trying to do its job, which is to tell the public what their elected representatives are getting up to behind their backs.

In a further display of the diversionary tactics at which he excels, Mr Peters affected moral outrage at the fact that the prime minister knew about the secret meetings. The only possible explanation was that the government was spying on him.
I thought it deeply ironic that a politician who has made a career out of making sensational allegations without disclosing his sources should be affronted when someone uses a similar tactic against him.

We can expect much more dissembling from Mr Peters as the year progresses. The tragedy is that a small proportion of the electorate will fall for it. The best we can hope for is that being bewildered souls, they won’t be able to find their way to a polling booth.
* * *
PHILIP Seymour Hoffman was one of the very few actors I would go to see regardless of what film he was in. His death from a heroin overdose was a shock and a tragedy.
But it brought into the open a strange phenomenon. Suddenly the press was full of junkies and ex-junkies describing how their lives had been affected by their drug habits.

The justification, presumably, was that all this publicity would serve as a warning to others. But in the eyes of the impressionable, the overall effect may have been to romanticise drug addiction and lend it in air of alluring mystique. 
Even former junkies who have been clean for years seem to relish talking, almost to the point of boasting, about their addiction.

There’s a note of nostalgic yearning in the way some recall their junkie days, as if they still rather miss the buzz and the danger. And the media seem to get a vicarious thrill from recounting their stories. Perhaps they should all just shut up.
* * *
ONE OF THE least surprising pieces of news in the past 100 years or so is the revelation that women in the armed forces are given a hard time.
Allowing women to join the military may have been considered a glorious milestone in the march to sexual equality, but it was bound to end in tears.
The armed services have been male institutions for centuries. They attract men who enjoy the company of other men.
Expecting them to shed their strange tribal traditions and open their arms to women was a worthy but naïve ideal. Bullying and sexual harassment, as reported last week, were almost inevitable.
Personally, I don’t understand why any sensible woman would want to join the military in the first place. It makes as much sense as a rabbi applying to join Al-Qaeda.
* * *
I RECENTLY drove across the Rimutaka Hill behind a McLaren sports car. It was so low you could park it in the garage without having to open the roller door.
I have no idea what it would be worth, but I’d hazard a guess and say several hundred thousand.
What intrigued me was its colour. It was grey.

Now why would you spend megabucks on one of the world’s most exciting performance cars and have it painted a dull grey? It’s a mystery.

Perhaps this says something about us as a country. Internationally the most popular car colour is white, but my own unscientific surveys suggest that in New Zealand it’s grey. Perhaps that should be the colour of the new flag everyone’s talking about.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Are we really witnessing the last days of newspapers?

Back in the 1990s when I was working for Wellington’s now-defunct Evening Post, we experienced a series of printing press breakdowns which meant the paper was repeatedly late coming out.
I recall an unusual sight as I drove home late in the afternoons. Along the streets leading to my house, people were standing at their gates gazing along the footpath to see whether the paper was on its way.

It was striking to see how keenly people anticipated their paper each day and how discombobulated they were when it didn’t arrive on time.  
I thought of this recently as I read a book on the state of the New Zealand and Australian newspaper industries. Stop Press: The Last Days of Newspapers was written by New Zealand journalist Rachel Buchanan, who has worked for papers on both sides of the Tasman.

It’s a pessimistic title – some would say unduly so. But there’s no doubt newspapers are going through a period of unprecedented upheaval and no one quite knows where or how it’s going to end.
Certainly the book has the tone of an obituary, even though the death hasn’t occurred yet. 

One or two senior newspaper executives quoted in the book clearly have no time for prophets of doom. Buchanan quotes New Zealander Campbell Reid, editorial director of Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, as saying: “Those in the newspaper and journalism profession that talk themselves into their funeral will get no help from me. They should shut up and retire and wander off in disgrace and let the next generation get on with it.”
The future of journalism, Reid insists, “is literally at our fingertips every single day courtesy of the information revolution”.

That’s bold talk. A cynic might observe that Reid has no option but to sound bullish, given his position. He has to believe in the revolution. Certainly I’ve heard lots of similar talk over the past couple of years from cheerleaders for online media, and it’s only fair to acknowledge that my own gloomy view of the industry, although widely shared within journalism, is hotly contested by some.
They may be right. We shall see.

What we can say with certainty is that the revolution Reid speaks of has transformed the print media. Whether it’s for better or for worse is a matter of fierce debate. I fall into the pessimist camp, but I would be delighted to be proved wrong.
We can also say that no matter how much we might wish to, we can’t turn the clock back to the halcyon days before the worldwide web transformed the newspaper business.

That was the era when newspapers effectively had a monopoly on printed information. If you wanted to know what was happening in the world, around New Zealand or in your community, you read the paper.
Television and radio provided competition of sorts, but couldn’t match the print medium for depth or breadth of coverage.

Newspapers set the journalism agenda, breaking virtually all the big stories. They were able to do so because they had more reporters on the ground. And the reason they could afford to employ lots of journalists is that they made healthy profits through advertising.
Classified advertising in particular – by which I mean all those small-print ads for jobs, cars, real estate, second-hand goods and so forth – generated so much revenue that it gave birth to the phrase “rivers of gold”.

Alas, the rivers of gold began to dry up the moment the Internet made it possible for people to advertise more cheaply and efficiently online. Arguably the two most lethal words in the history of New Zealand newspapers were Trade Me.
The digital revolution had another consequence which, even if it couldn’t have been avoided altogether, might have been a lot less damaging had the newspaper industry reacted differently.

I believe that newspaper owners, panicked by predictions that the mainstream media was headed for obsolescence, committed a potentially fatal strategic error by making all their content available free online.
The theory was that advertising would follow, but it didn’t – at least, not to anything like the extent that would be necessary for newspaper websites to be profitable.

We’re now left with a situation in which newspaper publishers have diverted journalistic resources away from their traditional core product in pursuit of what may be an illusory holy grail. The fact that they haven’t yet worked out how to make money in this brave new world doesn’t seem to have dimmed their faith.
If we are indeed observing the last days of newspapers, as Buchanan argues, then I fear the industry may have hastened its own demise.

What’s more, I believe newspaper owners have compounded their mistake by pandering to the capricious online grazer – the Facebook generation – over the habitual newspaper reader, who tends to be older and more loyal.
A new type of journalism has evolved to cater to this new market. The flag-bearers for this new journalism tend to be dismissive of what they call “legacy” journalism, which is their disparaging term for dreary stuff about matters of public interest. What attracts website traffic is titillating stories about celebrities, scandal, political conflict, gossip, crime and controversy.

In the newspaper industry, such stories are known as clickbait. The objective is to attract as many “clicks” as possible from browsing readers, thereby bumping up readership figures.
Meanwhile, having belatedly woken up to the fact that the online business model is seriously flawed, publishers are exploring ways of introducing paywalls, whereby readers will have to pay for online access.

Admittedly hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but shouldn’t they have done this from the outset? Good journalism costs money; making it available free of charge was suicidal.
Will paywalls work? I’m sceptical. Now that online readers are in the habit of getting access for nothing, it may be an uphill battle persuading them to pay.

But back to Buchanan’s book. It’s an affectionate, nostalgic and ultimately sad portrait of an industry struggling to adapt in a fast-changing environment. Though often witty, the book’s dominant tone is one of impending loss.
Newspapers are a defining feature of an informed, literate and engaged society. Sir Bob Jones acknowledged this in a recent column in the New Zealand Herald in which he wrote: “Nothing matches the daily newspaper for sheer stimulation, education and entertainment value for money.”

I’ve spent my working life in the newspaper business, but until I saw all those people standing at their gates waiting for the Evening Post, even I didn’t grasp how important the daily paper was in people’s lives. My concern now is that we won’t realise how much we stand to lose until it’s too late.







Thursday, February 13, 2014

Common sense and courtesy - too much to ask for?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 12.)
Cyclists get up many people’s noses. There’s no getting around the fact.
Why? It could be the perception – justified or otherwise – that they’re inclined to moral smugness because they use a form of transport that keeps them fit, doesn’t pollute and doesn’t burn fossil fuels.

It could be a peculiar resentment aroused by cyclists’ brightly coloured clothing and other accoutrements that are seen by some motorists as a statement of difference and exclusivity. For some drivers, the sight of a cyclist wearing designer lycra seems to trigger irrational rage. (I’ve heard non-cyclists sneer at lycra bike shorts as if they’re some sort of self-indulgent fashion statement, but they might think differently after riding for 50 kilometres or more in conventional clothing.)
It could be anger at the documented fact that some cyclists see themselves as exempt from road rules. In a recent Auckland City survey, 60 per cent of red light runners were on bikes.

It could be a gut reaction to the sight of a Saturday morning peloton (that’s cycling-speak for a group of riders) taking up an entire lane, or a cyclist hogging the middle of a narrow street – and needlessly holding up following traffic – simply because technically the law allows him to.
It could even be something as minor as the clatter of metal-cleated cycling shoes on a café floor as a bunch of riders stop for a latté (bloody cyclists, always drawing attention to themselves). Or it could be a complex mix of all the above, with one or two other as yet unidentified psychological phenomena thrown in.

For their part, cyclists have good reason to feel jaundiced about motorists. Drivers often don’t look behind before opening their car doors – one of the most frequent causes of cycling injuries, and even deaths.
A common mistake made by motorists is that they under-estimate cyclists’ speed and cut across their path, thinking there’s plenty of time to execute the manoeuvre when in fact there isn’t. And they often pass too close, even when there’s plenty of room.

Sometimes motorists don’t see bikes at all. As a cyclist myself I’ve learned to be particularly wary of older male drivers, who often seem blissfully oblivious to anyone on two wheels. If I’m approaching a car stopped at an intersection or pulling out of a driveway, I like to make eye contact with the driver just to make sure that I’ve been seen.
Unfortunately, as cycling increases in popularity, them-and-us attitudes seem to be hardening. This runs counter to the theory that the more cyclists there are on the road, the more aware and considerate motorists become.

Childish, tit-for-tat behaviour – “you held me up so I’m going to cut you off” – can ratchet up the hostility level to the point where all reason is abandoned.
For some drivers, the mere sight of a bike seems to trigger a hostile reaction akin to that of a dog spotting a cat. Many cyclists have experienced abuse from passing cars even when riding considerately.

On rare occasions motorists hurl more than insults, as an Australian on a cycling tour in Canterbury learned in December when he was shot in the face with a paintball. In 2003, a Swiss cycle tourist was hospitalised (also in Canterbury, oddly enough) after a bottle was thrown at her bike and shattered, severing tendons in her leg. She and her partner had cycled 9000 kilometres in the United States, Canada and Mexico and thought New Zealand drivers were the least friendly they had encountered.
But these are exceptional occurrences and I wouldn’t want to give the impression that it’s war out there. I do most of my cycling alone on rural roads and find that the overwhelming majority of motorists are considerate and courteous – sometimes more than they need to be. 

And of course there is fault on both sides. I occasionally see arrogant or inconsiderate behaviour by cyclists and may have been guilty of it once or twice myself. But it goes without saying that in any confrontation between a bike and a car, the cyclist is going to come out worse off, as attested by the $15.8 million paid out by ACC in 2012 for motor vehicle-related cycling injuries.
While the imbalance in terms of vulnerability doesn’t excuse a “might is right” mentality on the part of motorists, neither does it entitle cyclists to special treatment or exempt them from showing the same consideration that they expect from drivers.

Although attitudinal changes would be helpful on both sides, it’s motorists who must make the bigger shift. They need to get over the mindset that roads exist exclusively for them and that bicycles are an intolerable intrusion.
They must also accept that cyclists won’t go away. In cities such as New York and London (whose colourful mayor, Boris Johnson, is a cycling advocate), bikes are now mainstream. The same will happen here.

For local authorities, the challenge is to find ways to reduce conflict between cars and bikes. In cities like Wellington, where the topography is not obligingly flat as in the European lowland countries often touted as cycling utopias,  that’s not easily achieved.
Some of the demands by the cycling lobby in such places are unrealistic. The number of cyclists simply doesn’t warrant the expense required to bring roads up to the bike-friendly standard they might like.

It’s no accident that historically, cycling has been most popular in flat, spread-out cities such as Christchurch and Palmerston North. But where narrow, winding streets leave little room for cycling lanes, responsibility falls on motorists and cyclists to show greater regard for each other.
Cyclists can also do their bit by countering the widespread perception that they are arrogant. A useful first step would be to observe the road rules: for example, stopping for people on pedestrian crossings, complying with traffic signals and displaying lights at night.

No matter how righteous they might feel as environmentally clean commuters, cyclists are not entitled to dispensation from the law. They can also encourage goodwill by pulling over when possible to allow cars to pass, or by acknowledging a courteous motorist with a friendly wave.
All that’s required from both sides is common sense, respect and courtesy. It doesn’t seem too much to ask.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

When hardship is self-inflicted

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 7.)
FEW New Zealanders begrudge some of their taxes being spent on welfare for people who, through no fault of their own, have fallen on hard times and need a hand to get back on the rails.
Most draw the line, however, at helping people who assume a right to be maintained by their fellow citizens in the lifestyle of their choice.

I’m not talking here about the usual sad suspects, such as the women who leave school at 15 and have a succession of children, often by multiple feckless fathers, and rely on the state to pay for their upbringing.

No, I’m talking about people like the Auckland couple interviewed recently by the New Zealand Herald on what the Labour Party’s $60-a-week baby bonus would mean for them.
The female partner lectured in art history until a couple of years ago, when she took time off to study for a doctorate (since attained).

She and her partner were on the unemployment benefit when they had a son 16 months ago, though she went back to work for two days a week when the boy was five months old and now works a three-day week.
The couple also received an accommodation supplement and family tax credits for the baby and the male partner’s 13-year-old son from a previous relationship, though we were not told what their total taxpayer support came to.

The male partner, meanwhile, was described as an actor and musician with an “unstable” income. He had a low-paid sales job but gave it up for a six-week acting engagement. He’s now studying full-time.
What’s striking about this couple is that they appear to have choices. They are educated. Unlike some beneficiaries, they have some control over their lives.

But they chose to have a baby, despite being on an unemployment benefit.
She chose to toss in a full-time job to study for a doctorate. Assuming her qualification is in art history, it’s not exactly a field rich in career opportunities – but then, who are we to question her life goals?

He had a full-time job but chose to drop it in favour of a short-term acting gig. Perhaps he felt a sales job was not worthy of his talents.
The article didn’t say whether he gets a benefit while he studies (another choice), but it’s reasonable to infer that he does. They could hardly exist on her income from three days’ work.

If these people have experienced hardship, as they claim, then it was self-inflicted.
They are not no-hopers, powerless to determine their future.  They have options. But underlying their decisions is the implicit assumption that the taxpayer will fund their chosen lifestyle.

This is a perverse outcome of a welfare system that has expanded far beyond what its original architects envisaged.
We can only be thankful that the couple’s sense of entitlement isn’t more widely shared – because if everyone felt free to do what they wanted, comfortable in the assurance that the state would support them, society would have collapsed long ago.

* * *

I RECENTLY spent a week in Taranaki, a province much under-rated as a visitor destination.
Taranaki boasts the wonderful Tawhiti Museum just out of Hawera, which deserves to be far better known than it is. It has nice beaches too. Oakura is justifiably famous for its surf and Opunake Beach, snug in its little cove beneath the cliffs, has a charm all its own.
As for New Plymouth, it has become a very attractive city, albeit in an agreeably understated way. What a shame, then, that it’s burdened with a monstrous visual blight in the form of the power station chimney that rises above the port.

I remember my late mother, a Taranaki girl, being appalled when this abomination rose up beside the imposing Paritutu Rock in the early 1970s.

The rock is 153 metres high; the adjacent chimney 40 metres taller.  It’s almost as if the hubristic, all-powerful Ministry of Works was determined to demonstrate its supremacy over nature. No one would get away with it today.
The power station has been defunct for years and it’s a mystery that this eyesore has been allowed to remain. A controlled demolition with explosives would be spectacular. It would attract more tourists than Womad.

* * *

OAKURA Holiday Park, where we stayed for three nights, has found an admirably efficient way to dissuade campers from loitering in the bathrooms and toilets.
It subjects them to what Sir Bob Jones used to call swamp-dwellers’ music, relayed from a local rock station and played at industrial volumes.  This has much the same repellent effect as the Barry Manilow-style songs that some European city councils play to drive young troublemakers out of public spaces after dark.

What’s puzzling is why an otherwise quiet, pleasant camping ground feels the need to bombard its predominantly older patrons with rock music. Is it another sign of deference to the cult of youth, or simply a case of the radio station offering a sweetener to have its music piped in?
Either way, it meant that I brushed my teeth in record time.