Friday, May 16, 2014

The public couldn't see the smoke, let alone the gun

(First published in The Dominion Post, May 16.)

FOR WEEKS, political news was dominated by allegations swirling around Justice Minister Judith Collins. Night after night, it was the lead item on television news bulletins.
Press Gallery journalists closed in, sensing a kill. As the breathless disclosures accumulated, it was easy to get the impression the government was on the ropes.

Then came the reality check. Two opinion polls indicate the government hasn’t taken the big hit that might have been expected. In fact the results suggest the public was pretty relaxed about the whole affair.
A Colmar Brunton poll for TVNZ asked respondents whether Collins should remain a minister or resign. They were split 42 per cent each way – hardly a resounding condemnation.

A question about whether her behaviour would damage the government drew a slightly stronger response, but hardly a fatal one. Fifty per cent said it was damaging and 42 per cent thought it would make no difference.
On the crucial question of whether the Collins affair would be a factor in deciding who to vote for, the overwhelming response – from 75 per cent – was a ho-hum “not much”.

Those findings were reinforced by a poll which showed that National’s support has remained steady while Labour, which might have been expected to benefit handsomely from the furore, has slipped.
Should we be surprised? Probably not. The poll results simply confirm that issues which excite journalists and political junkies often barely register with the wider populace.

Press Gallery journalists live and breathe politics. They immerse themselves in detail – who said what, to whom and when, or who was at dinner and why – and go to great lengths to join the dots. But the public hasn’t the time or patience for all the minutiae and often fails to see what the fuss is about.
Maurice Williamson was different. The public got that. A ministerial phone call to a senior police officer about a wealthy Chinese donor to the National Party could look nothing but dodgy.

But the issues in the Collins affair were harder to explain. The public struggled to see the smoke, let alone the gun.
Call it the bubble effect. Britain has the Westminster bubble, America the Washington bubble and New Zealand the Wellington bubble. The things that fascinate people inside the bubble – and that means journalists as well as politicians – often fail to resonate with those on the outside.

* * *

TWITTER is the perfect protest platform for the social media era. It requires zero effort, no sacrifice and no risk, yet still imparts a warm glow of self-righteousness.
Millions worldwide have tweeted their outrage at the terrorist group Boko Haram’s abduction of 300 Nigerian schoolgirls. The fact that weeks had passed before they thought to do this, and the abductors had long melted into the bush, didn’t seem to matter. Until it’s happened on Twitter, it hasn’t happened.

Neither did it matter that the sad-looking African girl whose photo was tweeted in support of the protest campaign wasn’t from Nigeria and had nothing to do with the abduction.
Who cares whether the photo was relevant or authentic, when the only purpose is to stir shallow sentiment? One African girl is as good as the next.

And what will the vacuous outpourings on Twitter actually achieve? As an article in this paper pointed out, a video aimed at bringing the murderous Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony to justice went viral on YouTube two years ago.
Countless millions saw it. For a few days, Kony was world public enemy No 1. Then social media found something else to get excited about, and moved on. As it does.

Needless to say, nothing happened. Kony is still at liberty. People using Twitter and Facebook have the concentration span of a goldfish. They need to be constantly fed with new distractions.
There was a time when the act of protesting required people to put themselves on the line. It meant marching in the streets or manning picket lines, and risking arrest or abuse. But in the Twitter age, when it can be done instantly and in comfort, it’s all about narcissistic self-gratification.

* * *

A MAN BASHES his partner’s 2-year-old son so savagely that half his brain dies, turning into what an expert medical witness calls a watery mush. The basher is sentenced to 3½ years in jail.
On the same day, a former teacher is sentenced on charges of sexual grooming, unlawful sexual connection with girls under 16, offering to supply methamphetamine and trying to flee the country on a false passport. He gets 9½ years.

The two men were sentenced last week. Who was the more monstrous offender? The New Zealand public would have no trouble deciding, even if judges can’t.

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