Monday, December 31, 2018

My Law of Unattractive National Traits

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on, December 26.)

A friend and I were discussing our travel experiences. I’m reasonably well-travelled, he a lot more so.

He’s one of those adventurous New Zealanders who ends up in odd places. There’s no spot on the planet so remote that you won’t hear someone speaking with a New Zulland accent.

In my friend’s case, working on offshore oil rigs took him to places most people probably didn’t realise existed. I, on the other hand, have mainly confined myself to mainstream destinations. I don’t like to venture too far out of my comfort zone.

The most offbeat place I can boast of visiting is a country that doesn’t officially exist: the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.  It was created after Turkish forces invaded the northern part of Cyprus in 1974 to protect the minority Turkish population from what Turkey feared was an imminent takeover by Greek nationalists.

The island was split in two, with a United Nations buffer zone, the Green Line, separating the Turkish sector from the “official”, overwhelmingly Greek Cyprus in the southern part of the island. But the TRNC is effectively a subsidiary state of Turkey and was never recognised by any other country.

The UN considers it to be part of the official Cyprus and deals with a long-standing diplomatic impasse by enforcing sanctions and policing the Green Line but otherwise behaving essentially as if the TRNC simply doesn’t exist. 

All this has given the country a slightly surreal, anachronistic ambience. When I was there 20 years ago, the faded waterfront hotels and 1960s-era British cars made it feel a bit like a Mediterranean version of Cuba.

But I digress. My well-travelled friend and I were talking about national stereotypes, which was the subject of a previous column of mine in which I had criticised the commonly held view of Americans as loud, brash and unsubtle.

I thought this stereotype was inaccurate and unfair, but my friend challenged me on this point. He reckoned it accurately described many of the Americans he had encountered in New Zealand.

This led me to expound on Du Fresne’s Law of Unattractive National Traits, which I formulated after exhaustive international study. This law states that the worst characteristics of any nationality tend to become much more pronounced when they’re on foreign ground.

American loudness, Australian crassness, Kiwi gaucheness, the English tendency to complain – all are greatly magnified when they’re away from home. Or perhaps they just become a lot more noticeable.

I’ll always remember sailing into Milford Sound long ago on a cruise ship whose passengers were mostly Australian. A spectacular storm was raging. Great torrents of water cascaded down from sheer cliffs and were dispersed in clouds of spume by violent, swirling winds before they could reach the bottom.

I and a few others went out on deck to enjoy this elemental thrill, but where were most of the Australians? Inside, playing pokie machines.

There’s a negative national stereotype, right there. They might as well have been in the Manly RSL.

The English at home are mostly likeable people, but there’s a certain type of  Englishman abroad who seems determined to live up to the worst stereotypes – for example, by refusing to make even a token attempt to communicate in the local language. If he can’t make himself understood, his solution is to speak more loudly – in English.

We New Zealanders are not exempt from du Fresne’s Law. Observe a group of New Zealand tourists in a foreign place and you can’t help but notice that we sometimes look a bit awkward, unsophisticated and provincial: jovial and good-hearted, but a bit wide-eyed and unworldly in our jandals and shorts.

We also tend to be clannish when abroad, clustering together for mutual support and reassurance.

My well-travelled friend was impressed with my theory but then presented me with his own First Law of International Travel. This was that women from other countries are always more appealing than the men.

Of course you’d expect a heterosexual male to say that, but what he meant was that the good looks of foreign women are rarely matched by their menfolk. He gave the example of some young Germans he once socialised with in the Greek Islands: the women sexy, witty and charming, the men - in his words - fat, loud and boorish.

“Almost like two different races,” my friend said. “Since then I’ve tested it in many other countries and it works every time, to a greater or lesser degree.” 

I pondered this and had to concede that he might be right. I immediately thought of Poland, where the women are tall, well-groomed and elegant and the men are anything but.

Does my mate's First Law also hold true in New Zealand? That's something on which I'm not prepared to speculate. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

Why I've become a pessimistic traveller

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, December 27.)

I’ve become an abject pessimist when it comes to travel. Things go wrong so often that I’ve come to expect it.

It doesn’t take a bizarre occurrence like the recent shutdown at London’s Gatwick Airport to prove that airline passengers are at the mercy of events over which they have no control. It happens to me all the time. And while it’s possible that I’m jinxed, more likely it’s just the way things are. So many people are travelling that airlines and airports can’t cope.

On a trip last month, my wife and allowed two and a half hours between arriving at Sydney and catching an onward flight to Canberra – ample time to have a drink and an evening meal.

Fat chance. Our Qantas flight from Wellington left 90 minutes late – I can’t remember the excuse, and I don’t believe them anyway – and we ended up having to rush lickety-split between terminals to make our connection. Dinner that night came from a McDonald's drive-through in the Canberra suburbs.

Ten days later we were back at Canberra Airport for a Tiger Air flight to Melbourne. I know now, although I didn’t then, that savvy Australian travellers avoid Tiger Air. As well they might.

First, the inbound plane was late arriving, supposedly because of bad weather at its point of origin. Strangely, we didn’t hear of other flights from the same city being delayed.

Then, just as we were expecting a boarding call, we learned that one of the plane’s tyres had to be replaced, and the new one had to come from Melbourne.

Several hours passed before I watched a pair of engineers fit the new wheel. But by that time, the flight crew had exceeded their permitted hours and a replacement crew had to be flown in.

Long story short: we sat in the airport for 10 hours, eventually arriving in Melbourne after 11pm. By the time we got to our AirBnB accommodation, it was well after midnight.

In pitch darkness, we spent 10 minutes trying to get into the wrong property. The occupants of an apartment building in St Kilda are probably still wondering what lunatic was banging on doors and pressing buzzers at dead of night.

My narrative now shifts to Christchurch, where I recently flew for what should have been a cruisy one-day return trip from Palmerston North.

On arrival at the airport in Palmy I drove around the carpark for 20 minutes because there were no vacant spaces. A helpful man directed me to a long-term parking area, but I couldn’t get there because the terminal had been evacuated due to a fire alarm and my way was blocked by fire engines.

I ended up parking on a residential street more than five minutes’ walk away, and barely made my plane. You gotta laugh, as they say.

That evening, we were 15 minutes into the return flight from Christchurch when the captain announced we were turning back because of a warning light.

It soon became clear that none of us would be getting to Palmy that night. We spent more than an hour and a half milling around while four Air New Zealand staff arranged motel accommodation in Christchurch.

They did their best, but it was hard to avoid the feeling that they weren’t prepared for this sort of contingency. Anyone would think it never happened.

There was no seating, so it was no surprise when a passenger collapsed and was taken away in an ambulance. Another woman with a walking frame somehow managed, admirably, to stay upright.

By a happy coincidence I found myself in the company of a cousin who happened to be booked on the same flight. He was a calming influence (I'm not always patient in these situations) as well as providing congenial company. 

We were put in a motel on the far side of the city, so distant from the airport that it felt like I was halfway home already. Most of us went to bed without dinner, although my cousin had an apple which he ate while having a bath.

I eventually got home at 3pm the next day after flying back to Palmerston North via Auckland. As I said, you gotta laugh.

I relate these experiences not because what happened to me was outrageous or even exceptional. I hear of people of being subjected to far greater inconvenience by airlines that left them in the lurch and seemed unaccountable for their failings.

The common reaction from passengers is one of helpless resignation. Most people accept that the contract they enter into when they buy a plane ticket is overwhelmingly loaded in the airlines’ favour. They might get you to your destination on time, but if not … well, tough luck.

What struck me in both Canberra and Christchurch was how my fellow passengers stoically shrugged and accepted their plight as if it were the new normal – which, of course, it is. But I can’t help wondering whether airlines might sharpen their performance if people weren’t so infuriatingly good-natured.

Friday, December 14, 2018

The kiwi is a bird. I am a New Zealander.

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, December 13.)

Call me the paper’s resident Grinch. While other people make lists of cards to send and presents to buy, I’ve been compiling an inventory of things that get on my nerves. Here are a few:

• I am not a kiwi. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a freakish-looking bird with nostrils at the end of its beak. I do not scurry around in leaf litter at night probing the soil for grubs and worms.  I am of the species homo sapiens, not apteryx australis.

Accordingly, I cringe at the fashion across all the media for referring to New Zealanders as “Kiwis”. It’s patronising, cloyingly sentimental and just plain wrong. It promotes a comforting nationalistic myth that we are all the same, with common characteristics, opinions and aspirations, rather than representative of what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the crooked timber of humanity, in all its glorious complexity.

In any case, we managed perfectly well with “New Zealanders” until someone decided to infantilise us. It may be four syllables rather than two, but I think we can still get our tongues around it.

• That Air New Zealand engineers’ strike threatened for the week before Christmas. Déjà vu, anyone?

People over 50 will recall the Cook Strait ferry strikes that just happened to coincide with school holidays, or the walkouts by freezing workers that left yards full of sheep at the height of the killing season – anything to maximise the pressure on the employers to cave in.

A generation has grown up with no memory of the enormous economic harm done by industrial disruption during the 1970s. Some would say the subsequent labour law reforms which stripped unions of much of their power went too far. But by cynically and heartlessly calling a strike at the busiest time of the year for domestic air travel, the Aviation and Marine Engineers’ Association has obligingly reminded of us how things used to be.

The sense of nostalgia was sharpened by hearing the engineers’ spokesman interviewed on Morning Report. He spoke with an English accent, recalling an era when New Zealand unions were infected by British class warfare.

• What has Jacinda Ardern got against the letter T? On the TV news the other night she referred to hospidalidy and modorists. I’ve previously heard her speak of credibilidy, creadividy and inequalidy. And because the prime minister is an influencer and role model, other people are already imitating her pronunciation.

Nothing is more susceptible to the whims of fashion than pronunciation and language. The letter L seems well on its way to extinction in some usages – note how often you hear “vunnerable” and “howth” in place of “vulnerable” and “health” – while other words have inexplicably gained an extra syllable, so that we now have “befor-wah” and “unknowen”.

Now the inoffensive letter T, which never harmed a soul, is being usurped by a rampant, invasive D. Someone should mount a campaign to prodect the integridy of spoken English.

• Someone from Otago University watched 24 James Bond movies and read all the Bond books, carefully noting every occasion on which he drank alcohol and the high-risk activities that he engaged in afterwards. I’m not sure what the purpose of this exercise was, but I’m assuming the taxpayer paid for it.

Perhaps we’re supposed to assume it was a bit of a jape, but that wasn’t obvious from the interviews given by the professor (an academic title that once commanded respect) who led the project. He po-facedly pronounced that Bond drank a potentially fatal quantity of alcohol on one occasion and was a consistently heavy drinker over six decades.

But for heaven’s sake, Bond is a fantasy character. So what did this exercise achieve? Are the Otago researchers trying to persuade us that we shouldn’t try to emulate Bond’s drinking?

That would be consistent with their obsessive taxpayer-funded wowserism. But New Zealanders are no more likely to mimic Bond’s drinking patterns than they are to tussle with komodo dragons or indulge in any of the other absurd escapades that occur in his movies. What the research project really reveals is that the Otago academics don’t trust us to distinguish real life from Hollywood escapism – just as they don’t think we can be trusted to drink responsibly. 

• On a cheerful note more appropriate to the festive season, it was a joy to hear the prickly Chris Finlayson, former Minister of Treaty Negotiations, frankly unburden himself on radio of his feelings about the iwi leaders who for years have frustrated attempts to achieve a Treaty settlement in the Far North.

Finlayson, of course, is stepping down at the next election, so could afford to be blunt. But what a shame that politicians should have to wait for their impending retirement to tell us what they really think.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

How Trump weaponised distrust of the US media - and how the media obliged him by playing along

(Published in the Manawatu StandardNelson Mail and other Stuff regional papers, December 12.)

Whenever I read something about Donald Trump, my eyes go straight to the credit line at the bottom of the story to see where it came from.

If it’s sourced from the Washington Post or the New York Times, I read it with a degree of scepticism. These once-great newspapers have dangerously compromised their credibility by allowing their almost obsessive dislike of the American president to contaminate their reportage.

This is made worse by their tendency to allow fact and opinion to become so entangled that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other starts. It’s open season on Trump, and many American journalists make it clear that they despise him.

And actually, I understand why they feel that way. I despise Trump too, and worry about the damage his presidency might do to America and to the world. He’s a man who appears to have no moral compass and no respect for the truth.

He has also, consciously and deliberately, made an enemy of the media. The terrible mistake made by news organisations such as the Washington Post and the New York Times is that they have been suckered into playing his game.

There is always tension in the relationship between politicians and journalists, but it’s usually kept under control by both sides. Not so with Trump.

He has weaponised public distrust of the media in much the same way as Robert Muldoon did in New Zealand 40 years ago. Trump knows, as Muldoon did, that it can be politically advantageous to portray the media as biased and elitist.

Trump plays this political card more blatantly and unscrupulously than even Muldoon did, repeatedly branding the American media as the enemy of the people.

Sadly, by buying into the adversarial relationship and adopting an openly hostile stance toward the White House, the media have perversely enhanced Trump’s political capital.

He can point to their antagonistic coverage as proof that the liberal media can’t be trusted to report things fairly and accurately. This played well to his supporters on the campaign trail in 2016 and it continues to play well for Trump now, because there will always be an element of the public that is prepared to believe the worst of supposedly elitist, out-of-touch reporters.

And it has to be said that many journalists are elitist and out-of-touch – especially in the US, where the big media organisations are headquartered far from the neglected heartland where Trump’s support base is located. That helps explain why the media so dismally failed to foresee Trump’s victory in the presidential election.

The best counter to Trump’s game, surely, is to do what reputable newspapers used to do as a matter of course: play it straight.

News columns are not the place for editorial opinion. They should be concerned only with detached, factual accounts of what Trump has said or done.

This doesn’t preclude journalists from documenting inconsistencies and obvious untruths, or from reporting the turmoil created by Trump’s erratic behaviour. Neither does it stop columnists and editorial writers from expressing themselves freely in opinion sections.

But tone is everything, and what passes for news coverage in papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times is often freighted with emotive rhetoric and laced with the reporter’s obvious contempt. In those circumstances, even readers who dislike Trump are entitled to wonder whether they are getting a reliable, unbiased account, or whether the media are reporting only what happens to align with their perception.  

Many liberal Americans share this concern. A recent programme on National Public Radio, which is anything but pro-Trump, attracted calls from listeners who called out media bias. As one said, “I think they [the media] have decided what’s right for everyone and think it’s their job to convince people.”

All of this leads me, in a roundabout way, to last month’s declaration by Patrick Crewdson, editor-in-chief of Stuff, that his organisation will no longer give space to the views of people he classifies as climate change sceptics and “denialists”.

Okay, the parallel with Trump isn’t obvious, but Stuff’s stance does raise a serious question relating to trust in the media.

When a news organisation decides to shut down dissenting comment on an issue as important as climate change on the basis that the debate is “settled”, it assumes a position of omniscience that will rankle with many readers. But far more importantly, it raises doubts in readers’ minds about its commitment to free and open debate.

I would have thought the media faced enough challenges in the current environment without incurring accusations of elitist bias. That threatens to take us into Trump territory, and who wants to go there?

Stuff appended the following editor's note to my column:

Stuff has not shut down discussion on climate change, but we will not provide a forum for its factual existence to be countered with fictions and call it "balance".

It added: Stuff accepts the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and caused by human activity. We welcome robust debate about the appropriate response to climate change, but do not intend to provide a venue for denialism or hoax advocacy. That applies equally to the stories we will publish in Quick! Save the Planet [a Stuff project highlighting climate change] and to our moderation standards for reader comments.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The purpose of journalism

Today’s Dominion Post reproduces part of an editorial from the Sydney Morning Herald commenting on an Australian philanthropist’s pledge of $100 million “to strengthen Australian journalism and help restore faith in its central role in a healthy democracy”. The editorial comments: “The challenge is not just to produce information but to package it and focus it so it has an impact on society and brings about concrete change.”

Right there, in one sentence, the left-leaning SMH demonstrates two of the besetting faults of modern journalism and the reason why public confidence in the media continues to decline. The first is the assumption that the mission of journalists is to change things – a mindset encouraged by journalism courses taught by leftist ideologues. The second is the conceit that journalists know what’s best for us.

One of the best definitions of journalism that I’ve read comes from The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. It defines the purpose of journalism as “to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies and their governments”.

You’ll note there’s nothing there about promoting change. That’s a concept that has taken hold in recent decades, along with the pernicious view that objectivity is a myth and that journalists therefore have no obligation to cover issues even-handedly. The proper purpose of journalism remains as Kovach and Rosenstiel defined it – not to lead society toward the outcome that journalists think is correct, but to give ordinary people  the means to make their own decisions about what’s in their best interests.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Identity politics and the Pride Parade

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, November 29.)

There was something strangely familiar about the spectacle of the LGBTQ+ movement chewing itself up over the Auckland Pride Parade.

It was vaguely reminiscent of the destructive paroxysms that convulsed New Zealand’s communist Left throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s as rival factions competed to show who was most faithful to Marxist-Leninist ideology.

The feuding began when Moscow and Beijing fell out and New Zealand communists split into Soviet and Maoist camps. The plotting and infighting was so vicious and all-consuming that no one had any energy left to fight the supposed common enemy, capitalism.

As the doctrinal differences became ever more esoteric and breakaway groups peeled off in new directions, the squabbling only seemed to intensify. As a wise Frenchman wrote a long time ago, revolutions have a way of devouring their own.

Meanwhile, life went on. Mainstream New Zealand was only dimly aware, if at all, of the feuding among its suburban armchair revolutionaries.

There are faint echoes of that era in the turmoil over the Pride Parade. In one sense, as political scientist Bryce Edwards has pointed out, the dispute over whether uniformed police should be allowed to join the parade was simply a classic clash between pragmatists and purists.

The pragmatic moderates want to work alongside the establishment. They accept that police harassment of gays is in the past.  

The radicals, however, obviously place a high value on their status as an oppressed minority and are determined to remain on the margins.

Ideologically, it suits them to view the police as fascist enforcers of white male supremacy. In their own eyes, no doubt, they remain ideologically pure while the original gay custodians of the parade have sold out.

Both stances raise interesting questions. In respect of the mainstream gay movement, the question is whether there even needs to be a Pride Parade.

Gay rights is no longer the edgy cause it once was. Homosexuality has been legal for more than 30 years and gays are allowed to marry.

If homosexuality is now seen as accepted and unremarkable, which is surely what the gay lobby has campaigned for over the past few decades, then the battle has been won and gays have no more need of a “pride” parade than indoor bowlers or model train hobbyists.

But the more interesting question relates to the zealots who banned uniformed police from participating, despite all their efforts to ingratiate themselves with the gay community. 

Here in full view, once again, is the neo-Marxist phenomenon known as identity politics, whereby minority groups define themselves by their point of difference – whether it be gender, class, race, sexual identity, disability or age – and by their perception of themselves as oppressed. 

The activists love to talk about inclusivity but in truth, they rejoice in their apartness and have little interest in aligning themselves with the mainstream. After all, why diminish what defines you?

Besides, it’s no longer a simple case of a single, homogenous “queer” community asserting itself, because the queer community has split into multiple factions, all pushing different agendas and sometimes fighting among themselves – just as in the communist cadres of the 50s and 60s.

New groups seem to appear by the week. It’s getting hard to navigate in this increasingly complex ideological landscape.

Not only do we now have to get our heads around a “trans” community that virtually no one had heard of a year ago, and whose agenda provoked a backlash from feminists, but we’ve also been introduced to a neo-Marxist theory called intersectionality.

Wikipedia defines this as “an analytic framework that attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact [on] those who are the most marginalised in society”.

Intersectionality grew out of resentment at the domination of the feminist movement by white middle-class women. It holds that if you’re a lesbian, working-class woman of colour, you’re far more oppressed than a Pakeha woman who lives in a restored Thorndon villa and teaches women’s studies at university.

In this new hierarchy of the oppressed, it goes without saying that middle-class gay men just don’t cut it anymore. Small wonder that they’ve lost control of the Pride Parade.

Meanwhile, as with the communist schisms of the mid-20th century, ordinary New Zealand gets on with life. After all, identity politics and the associated culture wars are the concerns of a tiny portion of the population.

But the row over the Pride Parade is the tip of a rather ominous iceberg. The difference between the mid-20th century and today is that whereas the old-school communists never achieved influence beyond the trade unions, today’s neo-Marxists have got traction in politics, education, the media, the arts and even the churches.

And their aims are similar: to undermine, destabilise and ultimately deconstruct mainstream society. We ignore them at our peril.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Pike River: a lot of ifs, buts and maybes

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on, November 28.)

This might seem an insensitive question, but it needs to be asked. Exactly what will be achieved by going back into the Pike River mine?

The justification for the $36 million re-entry operation is often vaguely expressed and seems to vary depending on who’s doing the talking.

Anna Osborne, who lost her husband in the Pike River disaster, wants the 29 miners’ remains recovered. Bernie Monk, whose son was killed, talks about wanting “justice and accountability”.

The Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-Entry, Andrew Little, says the purpose of the proposed re-entry is to better understand the cause of the tragedy and “perhaps to recover remains”. 

But the crucial question has already been answered. There was a series of explosions caused by a build-up of lethal methane gas. The mine was high-risk and the hazards were poorly managed.

This was established by a royal commission of inquiry. Will sending in a recovery team provide additional information of such critical importance that it will justify the risk and expense involved?

That’s the crucial question that not only hasn’t satisfactorily been answered but can’t be answered, because no one knows what the recovery team will find – that is, assuming the re-entry succeeds.

So what else might be achieved? Well, human remains might be recovered – but again, they might not be.

The police might find evidence that might lead to a prosecution – but who knows? That’s a lot of mights.

And overhanging all of this is the possibility that after all the anguish, the anticipation and the planning, the re-entry operation will have to be abandoned because it is either too difficult or too dangerous. 

The project is fraught with ifs, buts and maybes. So how did we get to this position?

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it has come about through a feverish interaction of populist politics, media attention and the unresolved grief of the bereaved families, all feeding off each other and pushing inexorably toward an uncertain outcome that may turn out to be of dubious merit.

At the outset, I felt enormous sympathy for the Pike River families. I still feel for them. But as the years have passed that sympathy has been tinged with a degree of cynicism as I’ve watched the key players become seasoned media campaigners and political lobbyists.

They have developed a symbiotic relationship with the Labour-led government and been rewarded with a seat at the decision-making table.

Along the way, a note of hubris and entitlement has entered the picture. This was apparent when a miner’s mother, Sonya Rockhouse, demanded an official apology but in the same breath, reserved the right to reject it.

The carefully orchestrated PR event at which the re-entry plan was announced would have played well to the public, with its hugs and tears and allusions to victory for the “little people”. It also pushed the right buttons for Labour, which has close sentimental and historical associations with coal mines and the West Coast.

But is it good public policy to commit so much money and potentially risk more lives for such an uncertain and ill-defined outcome? I’m not so sure.

It must also be said that not all the families support re-entry. Marion Curtin, whose son was killed at Pike River, courageously spoke out against what she described as an appalling waste of money – especially, she says, given the lack of certainty about what might be achieved.

Curtin wants her son’s remains left undisturbed and says people shouldn’t assume that the Pike River activists speak for all the bereaved.

She has pointed out that coal mines, by their nature, are dangerous places that involve an element of risk. To which it might be added that some of the dead men were experienced miners who must have known about the mine’s safety shortcomings but chose to work there nonetheless.

Curtin told Radio New Zealand she loathed the fact that the issue had become so political and that she saw it as “sacrilege, really, to go in fossicking around for remains … to go in just to see what they find”.

The key underlying issue here, I suspect, is that Pike River remains a matter of unfinished business for one very obvious reason: no one has been held accountable for the disaster. That must gnaw away at the families who have pushed so determinedly for the re-entry.

In the void left by the failure to hold anyone criminally liable, the mine re-entry has become the focus of the families' anger, grief and frustration. They are looking for what is fashionably called closure, but there's no guarantee they will get it. And even if they do, what will be the cost?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Ian Grant's history of NZ newspapers

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, November 15.)
It’s odd, when the print media are fighting for survival, to read of a time in our history when people couldn’t get enough of newspapers.

I’ve been reading about such a time in Ian F Grant’s new book Lasting Impressions: The story of New Zealand’s newspapers 1840-1920.  Among other things, it reveals that New Zealand once had more newspapers per head of population than any other country in the world.

In colonial New Zealand, newspapers were often among the first businesses to be established as new towns arose from the wilderness. Opportunist publishers known as “rag planters” would move around the country, launching newspapers in embryonic communities then moving on when better prospects beckoned elsewhere.

Early colonists, Grant writes, regarded information and debate in newspapers as a crucial component in working towards a self-governing, independent society. Newspapers were the glue that held communities together and gave them a sense of identity.

The early New Plymouth settler Charles Hursthouse expressed it in plaintive terms. “Nothing has tended to retard the progress of the settlement more than the absence of a newspaper,” he lamented in 1848.

Before I go any further, a disclosure. Ian Grant was one of my employers when I worked at the National Business Review in the mid-1970s and we see quite a bit of each other in Masterton, where he and his wife Diane run a small but frenetically busy book publishing company. 

I had a sneak preview of two chapters in his book and was astonished at the depth and detail of the research. Grant is the first to admit that his job was made a lot easier by Papers Past, the National Library’s digital archive of old newspapers, but it was still a prodigious undertaking.

His interest in the newspaper business isn’t purely academic. A former editor of the Victoria University student paper Salient, he was one of a group of risk-taking young entrepreneurs who took over the floundering National Business Review in its early days and turned it into a success story.

He later founded the New Zealand Cartoon Archive, which grew out of his 1980 book The Unauthorised Version: A Cartoon History of New Zealand. 

Grant’s background was in advertising and it shows in his book, in which he repeatedly emphasises the importance of the advertising dollar in sustaining the newspaper business. That much has never changed.

He has little patience for academic theorists who insist on ascribing political motives to the men who laid the foundations of the New Zealand newspaper industry.

Several 19th century newspapermen did enter politics – including the premiers John Ballance and Julius Vogel – but the motivation for most proprietors and editors was to make money, and the papers that survived tended to have commercial rather than political objectives.

The one you’re reading right now was an exception. The Dominion was founded by wealthy farmers, merchants and professional men who opposed the policies of Richard Seddon’s Liberal Party government. But the paper it merged with in 2002, the Evening Post, was more in the standard mould, having been established and owned for more than a century by a family that had no political agenda. 

Lasting Impressions confirms – not that confirmation is needed – that newspapers thrived partly because human beings are social creatures with a natural interest in the affairs of others.

That hasn’t changed either, except that curiosity about the lives of others has mutated into a grotesque form of voyeurism that finds an outlet in social (or should that be anti-social?) media, where it’s reciprocated by people’s willingness to lay bare the most intimate details of their lives.

A lot else has changed too, and not necessarily for the better. The advent of the Internet has done untold damage to the traditional media.

Many people welcome this because it has democratised access to information. Editors in newsrooms are no longer the gatekeepers.

But it has come at a cost. One sad consequence is that the traditional “broad church” newspaper, which served as unifying force of civil society by providing readers with a smorgasbord of impartial news and information and also, crucially, by exposing them to a diverse range of opinions, is now threatened with extinction.

In its place we have an increasingly toxic and polarised cyberspace where people go to have their ideological prejudices reinforced.  Even the mainstream media often seem less concerned with providing balanced news than with offering a platform to advocacy groups intent on highlighting all the shameful ways in which our society is supposedly failing disadvantaged minorities.

Ian Grant has now turned his attention to the history of New Zealand newspapers since 1920, an assignment made unusually challenging by the very fluid state of the industry. Let’s hope Volume II doesn’t end up as an obituary.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

When TV drama is used to promote messages of diversity and inclusivity

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on, November 14.)
In the opening episode of Bodyguard, a BBC drama series screening on Netflix, an off-duty police terrorism specialist (a man) confronts a female suicide bomber on a crowded train.

It’s convincingly tense, but there’s not a lot to distinguish it from other post-9/11 plotlines – that is, except for one thing.

The commander of a police anti-terrorism squad that boards the train is a cool and efficient black woman. Nothing remarkable about that, in itself. But then we see a police sniper waiting to get a clean shot at the suicide bomber, and the sniper is a woman too.

The next cop on the scene is an officer who has the perilous job of defusing the bomb. Wow, another woman. There seemed to be a pattern here.

Fast-forward now to when the crisis is over and the cop is back at the office telling his boss all about it. And waddya know, she’s a woman too.

She has some news for the cop: he’s been assigned to protect a high-profile politician. It will probably come as no surprise to learn that she, too, is a woman.

By this time it was clear that Bodyguard wasn’t just a well-made drama series; it was also making a statement about gender equality.

The message was that women can be just as tough and fearless as blokes. And actually, I’m okay with that. The days when granite-jawed men got all the good parts and women were in subservient roles are far behind us.

It makes perfect sense, for example, that the new Doctor Who is female. What took them so long, for heaven’s sake? In the 21st century, no man should baulk at seeing women calling the shots.

In fact, when I think about it, I realise that many of the TV dramas I’ve enjoyed most in recent years have had women in central roles. There was the grim but outstanding Happy Valley, starring Sarah Lancashire, and The Fall, starring Gillian Anderson of The X-Files fame.

There were two series, River and Unforgettable, which featured the wonderful Nicola Walker, and a swag of Scandi-noir crime series, whose names I can’t recall because they all seemed pretty much the same, in which the main characters were female. And I shouldn't omit the dark but stylish Killing Eve, starring the great Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer.

I also recently enjoyed repeats of some early episodes of Prime Suspect, which is credited with being one of the first TV dramas to put a woman front and centre, and which derived much of its drama from her struggle against the sexism of her police colleagues.

On reflection, I wondered whether Prime Suspect was really such a big deal, because even in the 1960s and 70s there were shows in which women had the star billing.

There was Diahann Carroll in Julia, which first screened in 1968. Not only was she female, but she was black too, and a solo mother to boot. And even before that, Lucille Ball had her own long-running comedy show.

Later came The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Policewoman and the first female take on the “buddy” cop show, Cagney and Lacey. Perhaps this was one area in which Hollywood was ahead of the Brits.

No one made a big fuss of these programmes, and why should they? What could be more unremarkable than making TV shows in which the sex that represents 50 percent of humankind takes centre-stage? But the preponderance of women in Bodyguard seemed a bit over the top. 

I had read in the British media about the BBC’s slavish commitment to policies of inclusivity and diversity. Was that what it was all about? Did Bodyguard reflect the world the way the scriptwriters think it ought to be?

It wouldn’t be the first time TV programme-makers have bowed to identity politics. In 2011 the co-creator and producer of ITV’s Midsomer Murders was forced to stand down because he objected to being told to include ethnic minorities in the series.

He wasn’t being racist. He just thought it would be inconsistent with the tone of the programme, which was set in a mythical, timeless and quintessentially English village. And I think he was right.

We watch TV dramas for entertainment, not to be morally improved or have our cultural sensitivity enhanced. When a TV show is used as a means of ideological virtue-signalling, as I suspect has happened with Bodyguard, it rankles.

At worst it conveys a faint but unsettling whiff of Stalinist-style totalitarianism, which used art to enforce ideological orthodoxy and ruthlessly suppressed anything that didn’t conform.

How sad it would be if the BBC, which was once greatly admired for boldly pushing the boundaries and defying the establishment, had meekly fallen into line with the “progressive” political agenda. But I suspect that’s what it has come to.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Someone wanted a link, so here it is

The Dominion Post today published a response by abortion activist Terry Bellamak to my column of last Thursday. In the online comments section on Stuff, someone subsequently recalled reading about a recent situation in the United States in which a woman went ahead with an abortion after receiving counselling and being convinced it was the right course. The baby was born alive but subsequently died, leaving the mother devastated. According to the commenter’s account, the mother implored nurses to help the baby, but was ignored. The commenter went on to mention that he or she was aware of a similar case in New Zealand in which a baby was “left on the side to die”.

Someone then responded to ask, “Can this appalling example be backed up? Or is it one of the many horror stories pedaled [sic] by various groups and lovingly spread by those opposed to abortion?” Someone else, apparently equally sceptical, chimed in: “Provide the link,please”.

Well, I hadn't previously heard about the incident in the US, but I do know about the New Zealand situation referred to. I wrote about it here five years ago:

Dr John McArthur, the paediatrician involved, wrote about it in Professional Misconduct, a book published only this year, which he provided to the Law Commission to consider as part of its review of the abortion law. His story is a chilling illustration of the professional indifference to life that results when the unborn child is viewed as less than human.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Expect to hear this Big Lie repeated endlessly

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, November 1.)

On Radio New Zealand recently, Kim Hill interviewed an Irish poet named Doireann Ni Ghriofa. Don’t ask me to pronounce her name, but she sounded a very pleasant, gentle person.

She had a lovely voice that was even more beguiling when she spoke in her native Irish, which sounded like the sort of fairy language Tolkien might have invented.

Ni Ghriofa was brought up bilingual and writes poems in Irish (aka Gaelic). She recited a couple of them, then gave us the English translations.

One of these poems was about pregnancy. Ni Ghriofa has four small children, so presumably she loves kids. That impression was confirmed by the poem, which she wrote when she was carrying her second child.

In the English version, Ni Ghriofa marvels at the “jumble of limbs”, the “shadow stirring under my skin” and her “swollen middle suddenly punctuated by nudge of knee or ankle”.

She writes of piecing this “jigsaw” together until she could recognise the parts of her baby’s anatomy, right down to its “wee feet”. She finished with the charming line: “Then you grew, little stranger, and I grew to know you.”

It was a poem that thrilled at the human taking shape inside her – all of which seemed strikingly at odds with what she and Hill had been discussing only minutes before.

Hill had asked about the recent referendum which overwhelmingly approved the liberalisation of Ireland’s abortion laws.  Ni Ghriofa welcomed this “progressive” development as heartening for her generation of Irish women and a change that needed to be made.

Now I can see, at a stretch, how a woman might celebrate her own pregnancy while supporting the right of other women to terminate theirs. But it’s still hard to grasp how a baby can be a source of such joy in one set of circumstances, yet be treated as an inconvenience to be discarded in another. Hill could have chosen to explore this paradox with Ni Ghriofa, but didn’t.

It can make sense only if the incipient human life is considered intrinsically valueless unless its mother happens to want it. Is that what we’ve come to? In which case, in what circumstances does a life become worth saving?

A similar question arose last year amid the general rejoicing at the news that Jacinda Ardern was having a baby. Many of the people who expressed delight at the prime minister’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford support the right of women to have an abortion, no questions asked.

But isn’t it odd that we placed such value on Neve’s life when hardly anyone batted an eyelid at the 13,285 unborn babies who were aborted last year? What sort of strange lottery determines that one baby becomes a source of national celebration while others are sucked from the womb and consigned to a hospital incinerator?

A similarly strange dichotomy occurs when skilled doctors perform miracles to save fragile newborns while elsewhere in the same hospitals, other doctors are paid by the state to kill them in the womb.

More than 40 years after abortion was made pseudo-legal, we seem to be no closer to resolving this moral conundrum. It’s an issue that now confronts us again as pressure builds for the few existing controls on abortion to be removed.  

The Big Lie, which you can expect to hear repeated endlessly, is that abortion is a health issue. This is now a feminist article of faith. But no amount of repeating makes it true, because pregnancy and childbirth are not illnesses or disorders, and it’s impossible to imagine anything less healthy for the unborn child than to have its life terminated.

The debate will be ugly – we know that from 1977. And the anti-abortion camp will be fighting with one hand tied behind its back, because the media are overwhelmingly pro-choice.

Broadcaster Alison Mau gave an early example of the fatuous arguments likely to be deployed when, in a predictably one-sided panel discussion on Radio New Zealand, she proposed that men should be required to get permission from certifying consultants before getting prostate checks, as women seeking an abortion have to do.

This reduced the whole issue to a puerile game of gender tit-for-tat. It got her a cheap laugh, but the nature and purpose of the two procedures are fundamentally different. Prostate checks are about identifying and treating a potentially fatal disease. Their purpose is to save life.

But pregnancy is not a disease, a foetus is not a tumour, and the consequence of an abortion is that life is extinguished, not saved. If a high-profile broadcaster like Mau can’t grasp that crucial difference, we’re in bigger trouble than I thought.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Canberra elite's visceral loathing for Pauline Hanson

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on, October 31.)

I first wrote about Pauline Hanson in 1997. She was then a newly elected Australian MP whom the liberal media – indeed most of the Australian political establishment – openly despised.

Hanson had been selected as a Liberal Party candidate in the 1996 elections but was dis-endorsed because the party was embarrassed by her opposition to special government assistance for Aborigines. She won the Queensland seat of Oxley anyway, despite it being an Australian Labor Party stronghold, and went on to form the One Nation Party.

Journalists and commentators made much of the fact that she had previously owned a fish and chip shop. She was seen as bigoted and uneducated and therefore not worthy of a seat in the Australian parliament. It didn’t seem to occur to her detractors that the bigoted and ignorant, in a democracy, are as entitled to representation as anyone.

Hanson wasn’t helped by the fact that she came from a state that many liberal Australians considered racist and socially backward.  All this made her the target for a lot of mockery and thinly disguised intellectual snobbery. When a TV interviewer asked her whether she was xenophobic, it was clear Hanson didn’t know what the word meant. The howls of derision could be heard from Brunswick to Balmain.

Her conservative stance on Asian immigration and Aboriginal rights made her even more of a pariah. At One Nation meetings, she and her supporters were abused and pelted with missiles. Ironically they were branded as Nazis, a label that could more accurately have been applied to the people trying to silence her.

I pointed out in my 1997 column that while the media and the political establishment were busy pouring scorn on Hanson, she was steadily building voter support. In the 1998 Queensland state elections, One Nation won 23 per cent of the vote.

Notwithstanding all the derision heaped on her, Hanson shrewdly exploited her “outsider” status. There remained a significant body of old, conservative Australia – some would say redneck Australia – that liked what she was saying.

More than 20 years on, a lot has changed. A flawed human being who arouses intense feelings from friends and foes alike, Hanson has been through some turbulent times.

A gang-up by the major parties ensured she lost her parliamentary seat in 1998, despite winning the biggest share of the vote. She was later expelled from the party she founded and was imprisoned for electoral fraud, although her conviction was quashed on appeal.

Subsequent attempts to revive her political career were dogged by conflict and controversy, but in 2013 she was reconciled with One Nation and by 2016 she was back in Canberra as a senator for her home state. 

One thing that hasn’t changed in all that time is the Australian media’s visceral loathing for her. While Hanson remained in the political wilderness she could be treated with lofty disdain. But with her return to the corridors of power, elements of the media seem to be back in “Get Hanson” mode.
Evidence of this is a recent book called Hoodwinked: How Pauline Hanson Fooled a Nation, by Canberra press gallery doyenne Kerry-Anne Walsh.

If that name rings a bell with some readers, it’s probably because Walsh is a regular Friday morning commentator on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report. But judging by reviews of her new book, Walsh – who previously wrote an overwrought and highly partisan account of how former Australian Labor prime minister Julia Gillard was supposedly shafted – has done nothing to erase doubts about her ability to comment impartially on Australian politics. 

One review on a left-wing website carrying the imprimatur of the Catholic Jesuit order applauds Walsh for “dismembering” Hanson. The same review, incidentally, continues the relentless disparagement of Hanson’s background as a fish and chip shop proprietor, as if that negates any right she might otherwise have to be taken seriously.

A less admiring review in the Spectator Australia by maverick former ALP leader Mark Latham, who is something of an outsider himself, describes Walsh’s book as 300 pages of non-stop abuse.

Latham says Walsh’s first sentence sets the tone, describing Hanson as looking like “she’d been slapped with something wet and smelly from the old days, when she ran a fish and chippery”.

Ah, there it is again: the fish and chip shop. The Canberra commentariat won’t let anyone forget it. It’s a striking example of how contemptuous some of the media elite have become toward ordinary people.

From what I’ve read of her, I don’t think I like Hanson, but I like media gang-ups even less.

A tough but dispassionate journalistic assessment of Hanson would be entirely legitimate, but Walsh’s book sounds more like a toxic rant. One otherwise sympathetic reviewer described it as “depthless, open loathing”. Not much has changed in 21 years, then.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Brexit exposes the imperious mindset of Fortress Europe

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, October 18.)

Let’s start with a brief history lesson.

What is now the European Union originated in 1957 as the European Economic Community. It had just six members: France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy.

It began as a customs union and common market, the aim being to promote free trade and economic co-operation. Neutralising the historic enmity between France and Germany was a crucial objective.

The EEC’s founders, eager to avoid a repetition of the horrors of World War Two, theorised that countries that were inter-dependent in terms of trade were less likely to start shooting at each other. And so it turned out.

But the ultimate goal always involved more than trade. From the start, the concept of supranationalism – the creation of a multinational political union with broad powers delegated to it by member states – was central to the EU’s evolution.

Accordingly, the EEC morphed into the European Union in 1993, reflecting the reality that its interests were now political rather than simply economic. That was followed in 2002 by the introduction of a common currency, the euro.

Along the way, membership expanded far beyond those original six countries. The EU now consists of 28 member states (soon to reduce to 27 with Britain's exit) with a far more diverse mix of ethnicities and cultures than was originally envisaged.

And as the EU has expanded, so tensions have emerged – perhaps inevitably, given that many of its member states have little in common, culturally and historically.

The first fault lines were exposed during the global financial crisis, which highlighted disparities between the rich industrial countries of Northern Europe and less resilient member states such as Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Resentment of their subservience to dominant economies such as Germany was a key factor in the emergence of populist nationalist parties in Greece and Italy.

Since then, strains within the EU have been greatly magnified by conflicting attitudes toward the massive tide of refugees and asylum-seekers flooding into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa.

Liberal, affluent Europe, led by a Germany that is still anxious to atone for Nazism, considers it has a humanitarian obligation to provide for the newcomers. But dissenting EU countries such as Hungary and Poland insist on the sovereign right to decide who should cross their borders.

As a result of these tensions, nationalism is again on the rise in Europe. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s understandable. When push comes to shove, these dissenting countries resent being subjected to rules imposed from outside.

All this suggests that the old-fashioned nation-state, forged by its own common history, culture, language and sense of identity, is not easily erased. This is not what the visionaries who founded the EU were hoping for, but it’s hardly the first time grand, idealistic projects have had unintended outcomes.

And then, of course, there’s the British experience, which tells us a lot about the true nature of the EU and the imperious mindset of the Grand Viziers who control it.

The British people voted by a margin of 52 to 48 to leave the EU. Concern about uncontrolled immigration was one factor, but there was also understandable resentment at being subjected to an ever-increasing set of arcane rules and regulations imposed by a remote bureaucracy that was seen as un-representative and unaccountable.

Ah, but the men who run the EU don’t like having their power challenged. They have gone to great lengths to frustrate British attempts to negotiate a fair and honourable exit. It’s obvious that they mean to make an example of Britain by punishing the country for its impertinence.

Their behaviour toward the British prime minister, the beleaguered Theresa May, has been bullying and vindictive. The fact that May personally favoured staying in the EU hasn’t saved her from the taunts of arrogant Eurocrats such as Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, who humiliate her at every opportunity – even to the point of putting mocking pictures on Instagram.

The message to other EU member countries is that they can expect similar treatment should they dare consider leaving. But the more striking message these men send to the watching world is that the protection of Fortress Europe takes priority over the democratic right of the British people to decide their own future.  

That surely tells you something about the monster the EU has become, and how its ideals have been corrupted. As the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt wryly observed recently: “The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving.”

You have to wonder how many countries would have joined the EU had they realised what it would turn into – a surreal Hotel California where you could check out any time you like but never leave.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Male power and control - the factor common to virtually all organised religions

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on, October 17.)

Power and control. In the final analysis, that’s what most organised religion comes down to.

To those three words you can add two more: power and control by men. This is the defining characteristic of virtually all hierarchical religions. 

It's strikingly at odds with a society in which women have rightly demanded, and often obtained, equality in other spheres. But it has ever been thus. You don’t need a PhD in religious studies to understand that organised religion depends heavily on the ability of a small, male elite – a priesthood, in other words – to exercise control over its followers.

I have been more than usually aware of this in recent weeks, partly because of a couple of challenging films.

In the 2017 drama Disobedience, two women from an Orthodox Jewish community in London risk ostracism by rekindling an illicit relationship. It’s a film whose claustrophobic settings powerfully convey the stifling atmosphere of an insular society in which the rules are dictated by men for the benefit of men.

Even more unsettling, because it’s factual, is the Netflix documentary One of Us, which follows three people who face isolation and harassment after leaving an oppressive Hasidic Jewish community in New York.

By coincidence, I recently interviewed a man named Imtiaz Shams, co-founder of Faith to Faithless, a British-based organisation that supports people trying to break free from repressive religions.

Shams himself was raised as a Muslim, but Faith to Faithless welcomes defectors from all faiths. In Britain, former Jehovah’s Witnesses and Orthodox Jews as well as ex-Muslims have turned to it for help.

Many keep their apostasy secret out of fear, because “coming out” as non-believers often has serious consequences, not the least of which is estrangement from their families. The male leaders of these religions understand only too well the power of family ties, and how they can be exploited to deter prospective dissenters.

In One of Us, a Jewish mother is tormented by the prospect of being cut off from her children because she has exercised her right to leave the faith. In New Zealand, the Exclusive Brethren sect and the Gloriavale religious community follow a similar practice of shunning anyone who leaves.

This is a particularly cruel and effective tool of control. When someone has been immersed since birth in a tightly knit community that deliberately isolates itself from wider society, it takes an act of massive courage – or desperation – to walk away and start afresh in an unfamiliar and intimidating world.

Shams described this experience as like entering a black void. Islam so totally defined his existence that it took him a long time to realise he could leave. And when he finally quit, he thought he must have been first person ever to do it.

Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, the conservative strands of Islam and nominally Christian sects such as Gloriavale and the Exclusive Brethren all operate at the extreme end of the religious control spectrum.

The men who run these religions – and they are always men – impose their will by prescribing elaborate and often arcane rules that govern the way their followers must live their daily lives: the clothes they wear, who they should marry, the way they style their hair, the food they eat (right down to the ingredients and how it’s prepared) and, in the case of sects like Gloriavale, the names they go by.

There is little rationale for these oppressive rules other than that they provide a means of control and domination.

At the other end of the spectrum there are religions which seem to avoid male-dominated hierarchical structures and allow a reasonable amount of room for followers to act according to their conscience. The Baha’i Faith strikes me as one example; Quakers another.

In between these extremes there are Churches that we generally think of as liberal, such as the Church of England. But even here, there has been a marked reluctance by men to relinquish power. In British Anglicanism, the male establishment fought a determined rearguard action against the ordination of women.

Yet the Bible indicates that Jesus Christ respected and valued women. Would he have approved of religions in which women were expected to be subordinate to self-important men with a fondness for dressing in peculiar costumes? I don’t believe so.

As for Catholicism, you can only sigh. On the rare occasions when determined women such as New Zealand’s own Suzanne Aubert have achieved positions of influence in the Catholic Church, it has often been in the face of resistance and disapproval from the male hierarchy.

For now at least, men remain firmly in control of Catholicism. But they have made such a grotesque and scandalous mess of things that you have to wonder how long it will be before the long-suffering Catholic laity, male and female, demand that the whole rotten structure be torn down and rebuilt.