Sunday, May 15, 2016

Case studies in self-absorption and overkill

(First published in The Dominion Post, May 13.)
Is the world going mad, or is it just me?
On second thoughts, don’t answer that. But please consider, just for a moment, some of the issues that have been making headlines over the past couple of weeks.

First, Hilary Barry. The announcement of her resignation from MediaWorks was reported as if Earth had momentarily tilted on its axis.
Here I was thinking Barry was just a newsreader – a competent newsreader, admittedly (although her pronunciation and personal asides sometimes grate), but just a newsreader, nonetheless – someone who reads words written by other people.

Obviously I completely misunderstood her place in the life of the nation. If the media coverage of her resignation is any guide, she’s a totemic figure whose career moves are a matter of urgent and compelling public interest.
No doubt media people would justify the fuss over Barry’s resignation by saying it was the tipping point that led to the departure of the unloved MediaWorks boss Mark Weldon. But they didn’t know that then.

Even if they did, it was an example of media people being too absorbed in their own affairs, and assuming that the ordinary punter in the street shares their fascination. My advice would be to get over themselves.
In television especially, detached judgment in journalism is old-hat. The rule now is that if journalists are interested in it, it must be news.

Hence the deaths of David Bowie and Prince also dominated news bulletins. On TV3, Bowie’s demise in January took up the entire first segment of the 6pm news.
This can’t be justified by any objective measurement of public interest or importance. The reason the two singers’ deaths got saturation coverage, quite simply, is that the journalists who make decisions about what’s important are of the generation that idolises Bowie and Prince, and they insisted that everyone should share their grief and desolation.

Bowie was a unique talent, to be sure, but he hardly justified the emotional incontinence triggered by his passing. As for Prince, hmmm.
Now, the Panama Papers. After all the frenzied media coverage of the past couple of weeks, I have to ask: where’s the smoking gun, exactly?

Reporters eagerly burrowed through truckloads of leaked documents from Mossack Fonseca and came up with … nothing much at all.
The conspiracy theorists struck out here. The only damning disclosure related to John Key’s lawyer, who used his relationship with the prime minister as leverage to secure a meeting with Revenue Minister Todd McLay – a worrying blurring of the lines of propriety, but that's par for the course from a government that sometimes gives the impression of having had an integrity bypass.  

And oh, the schadenfreude. While media outlets that had been granted advance access to the latest Panama Papers leak struggled to find anything newsworthy in it, those denied that privilege (if that's the right word) took delight in pooh-poohing the whole affair as a non-event.

Hence TV3 political journalist Lloyd Burr triumphantly announced that no bomb had gone off. In other circumstances Burr, if he’s like most political journalists, would have been keen to find the bomb and detonate it himself. It was hard to escape the conclusion that he was more concerned with scoring a point against TVNZ, which was one of the media organisations that had the inside running on the release.
As for the general public, I imagine a lot of people would have switched off the moment they learned Dirty Politics author Nicky Hager was a key player in the leak. People are justifiably sceptical about those who describe themselves as journalists but pursue a political agenda.

There was a breathless post on the Radio New Zealand website about the thrill of collaborating with Hager in sifting through the supposedly incriminating documents, but RNZ and TVNZ severely compromised their credibility by aligning themselves with a man whose ideological crusades are a matter of public record. What on earth were they thinking?

For the third placing in this column’s trifecta of weirdness we must turn to the police, who have bullied two Canterbury secondary schools into cancelling after-ball parties under the threat of a $20,000 fine.
One of those parties has been run by the Ashburton Community Alcohol and Drug Service for 17 years, apparently without problems. Now the police have told the organisers they’re breaking the law.

It’s a sad commentary on law enforcement priorities that while 111 calls from victims of crime routinely go unheeded because police are supposedly too busy, they always seem to find the time and resources to crack down on soft targets.
Burglary clearance rates are a scandalous 10 per cent, brazen young thugs virtually rule the streets of South Auckland and hapless motorists are subjected to extortion by criminal windscreen washers, but don’t worry: you can rest easy in the knowledge that the police are fearlessly cracking down on the organisers of harmless after-ball parties, heavying law-abiding citizens with oppressive alcohol checkpoints at all hours of the day and supplying the media with a seemingly endless procession of officers eager to lecture us on our bad habits.

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