Saturday, January 31, 2015

Taking us for a ride with our own cash

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 28.)
We have a pronounced aversion to TV commercials in our house. It’s the job of whoever is in possession of the remote to hit the “mute” button the moment an ad comes on screen.
Failure to do so earns a look of stern reproof – even sharp words if the reaction time is too slow.

I don’t know where my wife’s abhorrence of commercials comes from, but in my case I think it must be inherited. Way back in the 1960s, long before the first remote control units hit the market, my father made his own.
He wired the necessary bits and pieces and packed them into a decorative little pot that had previously contained Alberto V05 shampoo. In the lid he mounted an old-fashioned switch.

The device sat on a little table beside Dad’s armchair and was connected to the TV set by a cable that ran under the carpet. The moment the ads started, click! Blessed silence.
Dad was an electrical engineer by profession and made a lot of ingenious gadgets, but I reckon that was his crowning achievement.

The mute function is even more precious now than it was then. In fact we often leave it on through entire programmes, occasionally glancing up from whatever we’re reading just in case a subversive TV programmer has breached policy by showing something that isn’t a complete insult to taste or intelligence. Needless to say, they never do.
But even with the sound off, you can’t help occasionally noticing what’s on screen. And over the holiday period, my attention was captured by a commercial showing water being poured into a glass accompanied by the caption “Not Beersies”.

I briefly considered the possibility that this was an advertising campaign aimed at persuading everyone to drink water instead of beer, but dismissed the idea as ridiculous. Who would waste money on something so cringingly patronising?
The juvenile language – “beersies” – suggested some sort of spoof. I concluded it must be a satirical ad, the purpose of which wouldn’t be clear unless I turned the sound on – something I wasn’t prepared to do.

Well, more fool me. I must have been the only mug in New Zealand not to realise that a substantial sum of public money – our money – had been blown on a po-faced social engineering campaign exhorting us to do just that: drink water instead of beer.
Documents obtained by the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union, a lobby group set up to expose wasteful use of taxpayers’ money, show that the campaign cost at least $1.2 million. That doesn’t include advertising agency fees, which were treated as confidential because of commercial sensitivity.

Moralistic advertising campaigns designed to change our behaviour are a gold mine for the advertising industry. But whether they have any impact is another matter.
This one, which was financed by the Health Promotion Agency, was clearly predicated on the assumptions that we’re a nation of drunks – which statistics prove isn’t true – and that a TV advertising campaign will magically convince us to change our ways, which is another highly suspect proposition.

Ironically, the Taxpayers’ Union also obtained the results of focus group research which showed that the people least likely to take notice of the campaign were “entrenched, high-risk drinkers” – the one group whose drinking behaviour needs changing.
So if anyone is going to be influenced by the commercials, which is improbable, it’s likely to be people whose drinking actually isn’t a problem. And as the Taxpayers’ Union points out, beer consumption is in steady decline anyway, although you won’t hear the alarmist wowser lobby mention that.

More damningly, the Health Promotion Agency disclosed that it conducts no cost-benefit analysis of its campaigns. In other words, no one knows whether the silly “Not Beersies” ads will make a blind bit of difference.
The HPA takes refuge in woolly, imprecise phraseology such as “long-term culture change”. That way it can’t be pinned down.

I’ve now made the supreme sacrifice by watching the ads – all six of them – on You Tube, with the sound on, and they confirm my most cynical thoughts about TV advertising.
The campaign is a crock. First, it’s patronising. It treats us as imbeciles who need help to make the choice between water and beer, and it compounds the insult by using childish language (“Beersies”) more suited to a day care centre.

It doesn’t even get the message clear, as the focus group feedback showed. Some viewers found it confusing.
But the most objectionable aspect of the campaign is that it pretends complex social issues can be addressed through quirky TV commercials. The underlying premise is lazy, deceitful and simplistic.

Government agencies like the HPA must be God’s gift to the advertising business. They have lots of money to throw around on social engineering projects, they are highly susceptible to advertising agency bullshit, and they obligingly don’t insist that the ads produce measurable results.
That leaves the agencies free to do what they most like doing – making commercials designed to impress other agencies and to win prizes at industry awards ceremonies, of which there seems to be least one every month.

It’s a lethal combination, then – a taxpayer-funded bunch of do-gooders on a mission to make us all better people, and an advertising agency eager to use the our money to make ads that don’t achieve anything.


Either Key's on drugs, or it's all just a game

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 23.)
I HAVE never met John Key, but like anyone who follows politics I’ve been able to observe him via the media. And after studying him carefully, I think I now realise the explanation for much of his behaviour. He’s on drugs.
Not the illegal kind, I should stress, but the mood-calming type that doctors prescribe.

This may sound flippant, but consider the following.
In the 2014 election campaign, Key was subjected to possibly the most sustained media offensive faced by any prime minister in New Zealand history.

Day after day he was tackled by an aggressive media pack trying to trap him on dirty politics, illicit surveillance and other touchy issues.
His answers were often unsatisfactory, which served only to ramp up the media frenzy. But through it all Key appeared supernaturally imperturbable.

He patiently batted away reporters’ questions and accusations with his familiar bland inscrutability. There were no meltdowns, no hissy-fits, no petulant walkouts.
This was downright unnatural. No politician should be that unflappable. He can have achieved it only by the ingestion of large amounts – indeed, industrial quantities – of tranquillisers.

This may be one of the secrets of Key’s extraordinary success. After three terms he’s had only one falling-out with the media, over the so-called teapot tapes, and remains both accessible and affable. He resists all attempts to provoke him.
New Zealanders seem to like that, but I find it slightly creepy. Politicians are supposed to be peevish with journalists.

Helen Clark’s withering death stare could turn reporters’ bowels to water. She could be personable, even charming and witty – a side of her that the public rarely saw. But she didn’t take kindly to being subjected to the journalistic blowtorch, as John Campbell discovered when he ambushed her over genetically modified crops.
Robert Muldoon’s intolerance of all but the most obsequious journalists was legendary. He banned reporters he didn’t like, such as Tom Scott, and on one occasion issued a fatwa against an entire newspaper – the precursor of the one you’re reading – because it had published politically embarrassing stories.

David Lange’s relationship with the press gallery started out promisingly enough. Reporters were charmed by his wit, especially after nine sour years of Muldoon. But even Lange turned prickly once the media honeymoon was over and the press started focusing on rancour within the divided Labour Party. In the end he became uncharacteristically bitter and grumpy.
Such behaviour is entirely human, which makes it all the more puzzling that Key manages to remain pleasant and co-operative even when the media is clearly out to skewer him.

Okay, my drugs theory is flippant. But to turn serious for a moment, I can’t help wondering whether Key’s irrepressible niceness reveals something significant about his character.
He is now in his third term as prime minister, but we still have little idea of what drives him, other than the attainment of power. We don’t really know what his core values are and what, if anything, he’s deeply committed to. He’s never really told us.

It’s accepted that National is, above all, a party of pragmatists, supposedly committed in a vague way to free-market capitalism and individual freedom, but not too hung up on ideological purity and willing to bend whichever way is necessary to hold the political centre ground.
But even by National Party standards, Key comes across as Mr Neutral, with no rock-solid, non-negotiable convictions. If he has an over-arching vision, it's not visible. His approach is to do what works politically, which isn’t necessarily what’s right.

This may explain why he manages to remain so unruffled. Perhaps there’s no real passion there. Perhaps he enjoys power for its own sake more than for the ability to achieve things, which is what attracts most people to politics.
This is not so say Key isn’t highly intelligent or capable. Clearly he is. It’s also possible that he’s a naturally nice person, or alternatively so controlled and disciplined that he has trained himself not to bite back.

He may also be well-intentioned, in a very general way. It’s stretching credulity to suggest, as some people do (and not just on the Left), that his smiley exterior is a mask, and that he’s really ruthless and malevolent.
But we occasionally hear about his post-Beehive ambitions, and there remains the disconcerting possibility that the reason he never gets rattled is that politics is just another step on his glittering career path – a game, almost – and that when he tires of it he’ll find something else. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

The ugliness of ardent nationalism

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 14.)

A small news item caught my eye a few days ago. It came from Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, and reported there had been yet another setback in moves toward re-unification of the divided Mediterranean island.
It was what you might call a groundhog moment; one that seems doomed to be repeated over and over again.

For almost as long as I can recall, politicians on either side of the so-called Green Line that divides Cyprus have periodically inched cautiously toward reconciliation, only to rear back when agreement seemed to be within reach. It’s like a strange, elaborate dance in which the partners occasionally hover tantalisingly close to each other but never quite touch, still less embrace.
This time the government of the “official” Cyprus in the south of the island blamed the breakdown  on Turkey, which effectively controls the internationally ostracised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, for wanting to search for oil and gas off the coast.

“Arrogant and provocative”, a spokesman for the Cyprus government said of Turkey.
Yeah, yeah, it’s all been heard before. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Disputes between the Greeks and Turks on Cyprus seem to be one of the few constants in an otherwise uncertain world.

It’s like Palestine and Israel: you suspect one side or the other will always find an excuse to pull back if negotiations are going too well. Ultimately, it seems, neither side wants to give anything away.
It’s all terribly sad. Cyprus is a beautiful island, rich in history, but its occupants seem determined not to get along.

It’s a reminder of how fortunate we are in remote New Zealand not to be cursed with ethnic and religious feuds like those that plague parts of the Old World. One of the greatest benefits of emigration is that it enables people to put age-old conflicts behind them and start afresh.
Most immigrants in countries such as New Zealand realise, fortunately, that life is much more pleasant when unencumbered by ancient enmities. (It’s a tragedy that the same can’t be said for all Muslim migrants in Europe, but that’s another story.)

Before I go any further, a brief history lesson. A former British colony, Cyprus was granted independence in 1960 but was invaded by Turkey in 1974 and has been divided ever since.
The stated reason for the invasion was that the Turkish minority on the island was at risk following a coup which deposed the elected government and replaced it with Greek nationalists agitating for union with Greece.

Certainly there had been conflict between the two ethnic groups and an element of what we now call ethnic cleansing. Both sides suffered, but the vulnerable Turkish minority had more reason to be fearful.
The Turks ended up with the northern part of the island while Greeks occupy the lower half, with United Nations troops patrolling the no-man’s-land – the Green Line – in between.

I probably wouldn’t take much interest in Cyprus had I not spent several days there nearly 15 years ago. It was like a Mediterranean Cuba, stuck in a time warp because of isolation imposed by international sanctions. The streets of Girne, the main town, were full of Vauxhall Vivas, Hillman Minxes and Austin Cambridges – hangovers from the days of British rule. 
Of course such a fleeting visit doesn’t qualify me as an authority, and even less so given that I was there as a guest of the government of Northern Cyprus, which is recognised only by Turkey.

But it did enable me to observe things on the ground, and I came away saddened that neighbours could be so divided on the basis of ethnicity (although there’s a religious factor too, the Turks being Muslim and the Greeks being Orthodox Christians – not that religion’s any excuse).
The experience reinforced for me the ugliness of ardent nationalism, once aptly characterised as a cock crowing on its own dunghill.

Regrettably, it seems to be the fate of people in some parts of the world to be at each other’s throats. Nationalists tend to have very long memories. History always seems close. Wars fought and humiliations suffered centuries ago still weigh heavily on people’s minds. Old grudges refuse to die. 
We saw that in the Balkans, especially. For as long as the communist strongman Marshal Tito ruled Yugoslavia after World War II, he kept a lid on rivalries between Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims and others. But after Tito’s death in 1980 the lid came off, and the result was a bloodbath.

To its enduring shame, the world stood by and dithered while appalling atrocities were perpetrated. Would innocent lives have been shed in Cyprus too, without Turkish intervention? No one can say it wouldn’t have happened.
The lesson from the Balkans was that it’s too late to step in and hold people accountable once the killing is over. That conflict was brought to a close only when Nato aircraft started dropping bombs – but by then more than 100,000 people had died, most of them innocent of anything other than the accident of having been born into the wrong ethnic group.

Now the world has another moral crisis on its hands with the fanatics of Boko Haram and the Islamic State, and once again the international community seems ambivalent about intervening. It’s all too chillingly familiar.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Police claim public support for crackdown. Hmmm ...

The day after it published my column criticising the heavy-handed police enforcement of speeding and alcohol limits (see previous post below), The Dominion Post ran a story quoting Assistant Commissioner Dave Cliff [click to read] as saying police were very encouraged by public support for the police crackdown.

Saturday's story didn't mention my column, but I'm sure police would have taken note of the 400-plus comments that it generated - which were overwhelmingly supportive - and the 7000-plus readers who "shared" it.

In the circumstances, I would imagine police are very keen to cite any shred of evidence suggesting that the public supports their over-zealous approach, which would explain why Cliff was quick to boast of the number of *555 calls advising police of bad driver behaviour. But it's a big leap to infer from these phone calls, as Cliff did, that the public endorse what the police are doing. In fact it's such a huge leap, I wonder whether it's honest.

An equally plausible explanation is that people are phoning *555 because they  think the police have got it wrong. Many of those callers might be phoning in exasperation because they keep seeing dangerous driving that goes undetected and unpunished because of the rigid police fixation with speed traps and checkpoints.

Their message to the police may well be: "Where the bloody hell are you? While you're ticketing people for  driving slightly over the limit on relatively safe stretches of road or for having one glass of wine too many over dinner (even though they may still be perfectly capable of driving safely), out on the highway people are doing far more dangerous things - passing on double yellow lines, running red lights, texting while driving or  sticking doggedly to 70 kph and not noticing in their rear-vision mirror (because they never use it) that dozens of cars are stuck behind them."

Most people realise that patrol cars can't be everywhere, but what makes many motorists angry and cynical is that the police direct their resources at soft targets and pretend it's working. Even the AA, in its impeccably polite way, suggests the police have got it wrong, and that they should be focusing on known danger spots rather than blitzing safe stretches of road knowing that a few drivers are going to edge over the 100 kph limit and get pinged.

As much as Dave Cliff may want us to believe that the public are behind the police,  that's not the impression I've got from the reaction to last Friday's column or from the many people who have been in touch with me directly.

In fact if I were the police, or Police Minister Michael Woodhouse (heard of him?), I'd be deeply concerned - because the dissatisfaction is being expressed not by the anti-police brigade, but overwhelmingly by conservative, law-abiding people who would normally be heartily pro-police. These are the very people whose support and goodwill the police can least afford to lose.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Heavy-handed policing invites resentment

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 9.)

Human nature is a perverse thing. It consistently thwarts all attempts to coerce us into behaving the way bureaucrats, politicians and assorted control freaks think we should.
Take the road toll. Since early December New Zealanders have been subjected to a ceaseless barrage of police propaganda about the futility of trying to defy speed and alcohol limits.

Stern-looking police officers have been in our faces almost daily, warning that zero tolerance would be shown to lawbreakers.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who has found their lecturing increasingly tiresome and patronising.
Of course the police can claim the best possible justification for all this finger-wagging: it’s about saving lives. But what was the result? The road toll for the holiday period was more than double those of the previous two years.  For the full year, the toll was up by 44 on the record low of 2013.

The figures suggest that people crash for all manner of reasons, and that the emphasis on speed and alcohol is therefore simplistic. The police focus on speed and booze because these are easy targets, and when the road toll comes down they can take the credit.
In the ideal world envisaged by ever-hopeful bureaucrats, wayward citizens can be managed much as sheep are controlled by heading dogs. But people will never be harangued into driving safely; human nature is just too contrary.

Besides, police crackdowns are only one factor in achieving a lower road toll.
Improved road design, safer cars, better-equipped emergency services and more immediate medical attention all contribute too. It would be interesting to know, for example, how many lives have been saved because of the use of helicopters to get victims promptly to hospital.

Given that their heavy-handed propaganda campaign appears to have had minimal effect, I wonder if the police will now be humble enough to sit down and review their tactics.
They might also ponder the potential damage done to their public image by the zeal with which they immediately began enforcing the new alcohol limits.

It must have been like shooting fish in a barrel as they set up checkpoints to catch otherwise law-abiding citizens who had inadvertently consumed one glass of sauvignon blanc too many. 
It was a formidable display of police power, but how many lives did it save? And how many of the apprehended drivers were left feeling humiliated and angry at being made to feel like criminals for unwittingly doing something that was legal only days before, and that probably posed no danger to anyone?

Police will say, of course, that they were merely enforcing the law. But there is a point at which the benefits of aggressive law enforcement have to be weighed against potential negative consequences, such as public resentment. I’m not sure our police bosses have done this equation.
Sir Robert Peel, the 19th century British politician who established the police force on which ours is modelled, established the principle that police must operate with the consent of the people they serve. Put another way, they can’t risk burning off public goodwill.

Judging by public reaction to the zero tolerance campaign, as expressed in forums such as letters to the editor, talkback shows and online news sites, that’s exactly what is now happening.
This is the consequence some police officers feared when the old enforcement branch of the Ministry of Transport merged with the police in 1992. They realised the negative public sentiment attached to traffic cops was likely to rub off on police. And so it has turned out.

We tend to associate the phrase “police state” with brutal fascist regimes, but the term can apply to any country where the law is enforced so zealously that it impinges on the lives of responsible citizens. It’s not overstating things to suggest that our own police are in danger of slipping into that danger zone.
In November, TV3 reported that police had thrown an impregnable cordon around Hamilton’s CBD on a Saturday night. No vehicle could get out (or in, presumably) without going through a checkpoint. To me, that sounds almost like a police state.

Yes, I know the object of the exercise was to catch lawbreakers, but I bet I wasn’t alone in thinking we had crossed a new threshold. And I bet I wasn’t alone in feeling uncomfortable at the obvious satisfaction of the police inspector in charge, who seemed to relish exerting such control over the lives of her fellow citizens.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Why glamorise chaotic lives?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 31.)
In the early hours of New Year’s Day 1953, a powder-blue Cadillac pulled into an all-night gas station at Oak Hill, West Virginia.
The driver, a man named Charles Carr, turned to speak to the lone passenger in the back seat. When there was no reply, Carr touched the man’s hand. It was cold.

Hank Williams, one of the first superstars of country music and still one of its most influential figures, had quietly expired while en route to his next engagement in Canton, Ohio. He was just 29.
We tend to think of early deaths from drug abuse and general excess as a phenomenon of the rock era, but Williams was ahead of his time. He died of heart failure brought on by a lethal cocktail of alcohol and pills. His personal life had been an utter mess.

The brilliant black jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker was another early casualty of the destructive lifestyle often associated with the music business. Parker’s heroin addiction resulted in him being fired so many times that he was sometimes reduced to busking in the street.
When he died in 1955 at the age of 34, the coroner who performed the autopsy presumed him to be aged between 50 and 60.

The British rock singer Joe Cocker, who died of lung cancer last week, could probably count himself relatively lucky. Cocker developed a serious drug and alcohol habit after his career went off the boil in the early 1970s, but he cleaned himself up. He lived to be 70, but you have to wonder whether his life was foreshortened by substance abuse.
Cocker lived through an era when drug use was rampant among rock musicians. And the casualties didn’t always die young, as the sad story of Jim Gordon attests.

Gordon was one of three drummers who backed Cocker on his wild Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour of America in 1970. He was greatly sought after as a studio musician and played on countless Los Angeles recording sessions.
He was also a drug user whose abusive and erratic behaviour became increasingly problematical. Eventually Gordon murdered his mother, claiming her voice had tormented him for years. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic and 30 years later remains in a California prison, having been ruled a continuing threat to society.

Was Gordon’s mental illness caused by his drug habit? I’m no psychiatrist, but it seems well established that mental illness can be greatly aggravated – if not triggered – by drug use.
Some of Gordon’s fellow musicians have testified that he never eased up on his drug and alcohol intake, even after he began having auditory hallucinations. As a consequence, he may spend the remainder of his life in jail.

The death toll among rock stars seemed to reach a peak in the late 1960s and early 70s. Some deaths were accidental (Mama Cass comes to mind), but drink and drugs were frequently implicated – most notably in the deaths of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin.
Even when death wasn’t the direct result of drugs or booze, there was often ample evidence of destructive lifestyles. Sam Cooke was shot dead by a motel owner; a deeply disturbed Marvin Gaye by his own father.

These deaths have been well documented, but it was only recently that a Sydney University psychologist took the trouble to undertake a study of the overall phenomenon. Professor Dianna Kenny examined the lives and deaths of 12,665 musicians and found that rock stars have a lifespan up to 25 years shorter than average, with high rates of death from accidents, suicide and homicide.
The unanswered question is whether some rock stars are predisposed to a high-risk lifestyle by their temperament (which is often fragile to start with), or whether we can blame the stress and pressure that often accompanies stardom. I suspect it’s often a combination of the two.

What can be said with certainty is that there’s nothing admirable or glamorous about an early death, which makes it all the more distasteful that many music writers insist on romanticising drugged-out, deeply flawed rock stars as if their lives are something to aspire to.
Musicians are frequently celebrated in the media not so much for the quality of their music as for the quantity of alcohol and drugs they have ingested or for the antisocial way they have behaved. Some journalists get a vicarious thrill from recounting the chaotic lives of the people they write about.

I recently read a book review in which reference was made to the Australian singer and songwriter Nick Cave, who has made no secret of his drug use, arriving on the London scene with his “glorious drug-addled rabble”. Sorry, but it’s hard to see any glory in heroin addiction.
A few months earlier I had read a fawning review of a book by the late Dave McArtney, of the Auckland band Hello Sailor. The reviewer wrote with almost breathless awe about the role drugs played in the band.

The irony is that McArtney’s fondness for the needle ultimately led to his sad death at 62 from liver cancer. I wonder whether, given his time again, McArtney might have chosen to exchange the drugs for a few precious extra years of life.