Saturday, January 27, 2018

Time to dial back the anti-Trump vitriol?

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 26.)

The late country singer Waylon Jennings once wrote and recorded a song with the splendid title Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand.

It was a wry comment on the consequences of being identified as a key figure in country music’s outlaw movement, so named because it rebelled against the white-bread conservatism of the country music mainstream.

A magazine article about Jennings had referred to his cocaine use, which resulted in federal drug agents raiding the studio where he was recording. That was the genesis of the song, which included the lines: “Someone called us outlaws in some old magazine/And New York sent a posse down like I ain’t never seen.”

It wasn’t exactly Jennings’ most memorable song, but its title sprang into my head a few days ago while I was reading the latest frenzied denunciations of Donald Trump. 

I loathe Trump, as does virtually everyone I know. But things have got to the point where it’s fair to ask: Don’t you think this Donald Trump bit’s done got out of hand?

The unceasing barrage of anti-Trump vitriol in the media has reached fever pitch, but you have to wonder what it’s achieving. The polls show virtually no decline in the number of American voters who approve of him, while the number who strongly approve of him remains steady at 28-30 per cent.

Meanwhile, inconveniently for Trump despisers like me, economists are talking about the “Trump bump”. The American economy is humming along merrily and there has been a rise in consumer confidence.

Some anti-Trump comment is right on the nail. An example was Tom Scott’s cartoon three days ago which had Trump saying: “Fake news says that I am a narcissist, which I am not. But if I was, I would be the best narcissist ever, period, no question!”

It perfectly encapsulated the US president’s combination of vanity and oafishness and might even have coaxed a grudging smile from Trump fans.

But mostly the condemnation directed at Trump is preaching to the converted. After all, the people who are appalled by him made up their minds long before he got to the White House. Constantly disparaging and ridiculing him may reinforce their sense of moral certitude, but there’s no evidence that it will change anything.

In fact it may be counter-productive, because those who support Trump look at the outpouring of loathing in the media and take it as proof that he’s the victim of a conspiracy by elitist journalists who are overwhelmingly biased against him and interested only in publishing material that reflects badly on him.

Some American journalists are wise enough to see this. On America’s National Public Radio last week I heard Michael Woolf say that the US press was behaving hysterically and making a fool of itself. “As we go after his [Trump’s] credibility, our credibility equally becomes a problem,” he said.

Woolf is no cheerleader for Trump. He’s the author of the recent best-seller Fire and Fury, an exposé of the president’s bizarre behaviour in the White House. 

It was also on National Public Radio (which, incidentally, wrings it hands in anguish over Trump 24/7) that I heard an even more damning condemnation of the US media from another journalist, Glenn Greenwald.

This might seem surprising, since Greenwald is a hero of the Left. He collaborated with National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden and came to New Zealand for Kim Dotcom’s much-vaunted “Moment of Truth” event, which was supposed to turn the tide against John Key’s government immediately before the 2014 election.

I can’t imagine Greenwald is a fan of Trump any more than Woolf is. But to his credit he exposed the fact that several major American media outlets, including CNN and CBS, published a false story implicating the Trump camp in a Russian hacking operation.

The media outlets portrayed the story as a smoking gun and claimed it had been verified by multiple sources. But a crucial date proved to be wrong, which completely nullified their account – and when it became obvious they had got it wrong, they tried to wriggle out by broadcasting a grudging, half-hearted correction.

According to Greenwald, it was the latest in a series of serious mistakes made by journalists reporting Trump’s suspected links with Russia. He says the US media are in such a frenzy to “get the goods” on Trump that they are willing to violate the principles of good journalism, thereby confirming public suspicions that they cannot be trusted and inviting Trump’s taunts about “fake news”.

If Waylon Jennings were still around, it would make a great song.  I’ve got just the title for it.

FOOTNOTE: An anonymous commenter took a whack at me on Stuff yesterday for making the supposedly “obligatory declaration for media types” of disclosing my loathing for Trump. Well, I do loathe Trump. Would this person have preferred that I was dishonest about admitting it? Didn’t the rest of my column serve as a warning that “media types” – that includes me – risk having their journalistic judgment distorted by their aversion to him? And didn't I acknowledge that the US economy was thriving, as this commenter was anxious to point out? Sigh. You just can’t win. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Jacinda Ardern and the Trudeau effect

It’s natural that journalists are attracted to Jacinda Ardern. For a start, she’s of the same generation as most people working at the front line of the media, and the same sex as a large proportion of them. It’s fair to say that her political views probably mirror those of many, if not most, journalists too. To put it simply, she’s like them.

Besides, journalism thrives on newness and novelty, and Ardern represents what many journalists see as an exhilarating and overdue generational change in the Beehive. For nine years we were governed by middle-aged men in suits – men who, moreover, were nominally on the conservative side of politics, even if their policies didn’t always reflect that. Ardern is still in her 30s. She’s fresh, spontaneous, personable, accessible and seems effortlessly in control of things. To use a silly popular expression, what’s not to like?

Call it the Trudeau effect. Admittedly Pierre Trudeau was a lot older, at 48, when he became prime minister of Canada in 1968, but the media reaction was similar. The press were mesmerised by the charismatic, left-leaning lawyer – a phenomenon replicated more recently by his youthful-looking son Justin.

It happened under John F Kennedy too, and anyone who was in Australia in the 1960s and 70s will remember South Australian premier Don Dunstan having a similar effect. Dunstan was another suave lawyer and intellectual whose relative youth and liberal views set him apart from the crusty old reactionaries – such as Queensland’s Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Victoria’s Sir Henry Bolte – who then dominated Australian politics. The Australian media loved him.

There’s an obvious professional hazard here, because it’s hard to write critically about someone you like. Journalists should be aware of this trap – women journalists especially, since they are more likely than men to identify with Ardern. They should recognise their affinity with her and offset it by making an extra effort to be hard-headed in the way they report her, but there’s not much evidence of that happening. You have to search hard in the mainstream media for any comment pieces that are critical of Ardern, or that even ask awkward questions about her leadership. I believe most of the journalists covering her want her to succeed and, consciously or otherwise, shy away from writing anything that might shatter her golden halo. But democracy depends on politicians being held accountable – and for that, we need journalists to be professionally sceptical, regardless of how they might feel personally.

The golden halo effect has been obvious – you might say almost nauseatingly so – in the way the media covered the announcement of Ardern’s pregnancy.  The political scientist Bryce Edwards compiles a very useful daily compendium of virtually everything written about New Zealand politics in the mainstream media and the better-known blogs. Monday’s summary contained nearly 100 news stories and comment pieces on the Jacinda Ardern-Clarke Gayford baby, many of them written in  fawning tones more appropriate to the women’s magazines. Even a few veteran, hard-nosed hacks in the Press Gallery seemed to have been reduced to jelly by an attack of Woman’s Weekly-style baby fever.

The coverage rarely failed to rise above facile, superficial slogans and feel-good clichés. Amid all the gushing, a few commentators seized the opportunity to push ideological barrows or score points in the gender war. But almost without exception, it was cheerleader journalism. Conspicuously absent was any cool, detached analysis of the announcement, its timing or its political implications. No one wanted to break ranks and suggest that Ardern giving birth while running the country might be anything but a resounding triumph for New Zealand womanhood.

Bizarrely, you had to turn to the sport section in Stuff today to read a clear-eyed piece – by columnist Mark Reason – asking some of the questions that need to be asked. Reason used tennis star Serena Williams’ struggles with the demands of motherhood as the basis for a thoughtful and courageous analysis of the reasons why we shouldn’t necessarily be ecstatic about Ardern’s pregnancy. His reasoning (pun not intended) was probably summed up when he wrote: “Being a mother is one of the greatest and most demanding jobs a human being will ever do. So is being a prime minister. Do we seriously expect anyone to fully function in both at the same time?” It’s a question no political commentators dared ask because we’re told that girls can do anything. But not all can, as the experiences of some first-time mothers show.

Reason’s piece is important because he’s a dissenting voice at the back of the room breaking through the excited chatter and saying, “Okay, but hang on a minute”. An informed democracy needs such voices. It makes me very uneasy when media opinion runs so overwhelmingly one way that people become frightened to express a contrary view.

Before I finish, one more point about the prime minister’s pregnancy. Ardern believes in a woman’s right to have an abortion and it’s a fair bet that most, if not all, the people applauding the news of her pregnancy do too. I imagine most would support moves to liberalise the abortion laws, which are likely under this government.

What mystifies me is that the same people can be enraptured about the impending birth of a baby in one set of circumstances, yet believe that in a different situation, it can be disposed of without qualms. Pro-choice activists will say the crucial difference is whether the mother wants the baby or not, and Ardern clearly does. But how can a baby be regarded as a source of immense joy in one situation and as an inconvenient lump of tissue to be got rid of – flushed down the toilet, in effect – in another?  After all, the intrinsic worth of the baby doesn’t change from one situation to the other; it’s still the same human being in the making. Can someone please explain?

None of our business? Of course it is

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, January 24.)

First things first. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern and her partner Clarke Gayford are entitled to our congratulations and goodwill following the announcement that they are expecting a baby.

There are few experiences more joyous or life-changing than becoming a parent, and anyone with a modicum of human empathy will want them to be blessed with a healthy baby who will grow up loved and happy. 

But amid the wave of euphoria that swept the news media following the announcement, one or two inconvenient questions appear to have been overlooked.

There is enormous pressure, even on Ardern’s political opponents, to unreservedly welcome the impending birth. Anyone not caught up in the general mood of feel-goodism risks being pilloried as a sexist, a reactionary and a killjoy.

Make no mistake: This is an ideological minefield, and the Left-leaning commentariat lost no time firing warning shots across the bows of anyone who might dare to question the circumstances of the pregnancy or its political implications.

After all, everyone knows what happened to AM Show co- host Mark Richardson when he asked Ardern, following her elevation to the Labour leadership last August, whether she had motherhood aspirations.

Richardson has a reputation as a jock and a bit of a loudmouth (that’s his role), but it was a fair and arguably obvious question to ask on behalf of viewers, many of whom might have been wondering about the same thing.

Indeed, Ardern acknowledged that Richardson was entitled to ask about it, since she had raised the issue herself and effectively invited questions. In any case, shouldn’t all cards have been on the table when someone was asking us to elect her as prime minister?

But the subject was deemed to be off-limits because we’re told that motherhood intentions are no one’s business but the woman’s, and certainly not the business of a prospective employer. This applies even when the prospective employer is the public of New Zealand and the woman in question is running for the most important office in the land.

The message from that episode was clear: anyone who asks personal questions, particularly relating to the prime minister’s gender, can expect to be crucified. But in politics, the personal and the political constantly overlap, since personal factors unavoidably influence political positions.

It follows that only the most sensitive and intrusive personal matters should be off-limits. Yet the boundaries around what are deemed to be legitimate subjects of public discussion are being drawn ever tighter.

So what awkward questions, if any, have the media shied away from asking about Ardern’s pregnancy? They relate mainly to disclosure and political practicalities. 

Ardern has said she learned of the pregnancy on October 13. At that stage Labour and National were still vying for the favour of kingmaker Winston Peters.

The discovery that she was pregnant must have presented Ardern with an acute moral dilemma. Should she have said something?

Couples are understandably reluctant to announce a pregnancy in the early stages because apart from anything else, there’s a chance something might go amiss. Besides, Ardern at that stage might not have been confident of forming a government.

Even so, there was a chance that she would become prime minister, in which case she would have to take time off – and this during her vital first few months in charge of an inexperienced government that would still be feeling its way.

There is a valid argument that Ardern should have disclosed then that she was pregnant. That would have enabled the pregnancy to be factored into coalition negotiations, and later into how the new government would be set up and who might deputise for her.

She had a choice between disclosure and staying silent, and she chose silence. Some people, while appreciating that she must have been in an awkward predicament, will think less of her for that. Some say she misled by omission.

She then agreed to the appointment of Peters as her deputy, knowing that a man whose party won only 7 percent of the vote would be acting prime minister while she takes six weeks off – and possibly longer, given the unpredictability of childbirth and the challenges of adjusting to the demands of a baby.

And if anything goes wrong, or if Ardern struggles with the combined demands of motherhood and the prime ministership (although we’re not supposed to consider that prospect), what then? These are issues of public interest. We are entitled to discuss them without being shushed.

I don’t have an opinion on whether Ardern can do a good job as PM while simultaneously attending to the needs of a new baby. Perhaps she can, although mothers I know say the demands of a baby, particularly a first one, can be all-consuming and overwhelming.

We shall see. But if things don’t work out, it could have consequences for the country. This puts Ardern’s pregnancy in a different category from other expectant mothers whose personal decisions are said to be none of our business. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

50 years as a print hack

This week marks a significant anniversary for me. Fifty years ago on Monday, I began my career in journalism.

Looking back, it seems like it was a different century. Oh, that’s right, it was.

Three of us started together in the reading room of the old Evening Post in Wellington. I’m the only one still in journalism. The others dropped out decades ago.

The reading room was where everything printed in the paper – classified ads and all – was checked prior to publication for typographical errors, misspellings and other potential embarrassments.

I was a copyholder, the most menial job in journalism. It was mind-numbingly tedious work, and poorly paid at $21 a week (unless you worked extra hours  on Saturdays for the Sports Post, in which case you earned the giddy sum of $23), but it was the first step on the career ladder.

All three of us who started that day were male and straight out of secondary school. There were women in journalism then, but they were very much in the minority.

Frances Kitching, now known as Dame Fran Wilde, was one of a handful of young women in the general reporting room. She covered the Magistrate’s Court, but most female recruits were assigned to the journalistic ghetto known as the women’s pages.

Of course the gender balance has largely been reversed since then – just one of the many changes in journalism since I reported for work in the rabbit warren that was the Blundell Brothers' Evening Post building (actually three buildings, linked by a maze of corridors and walkways) on January 22, 1968.

Another change is that no one now goes straight into journalism from school and learns on the job. From the late 1960s onward, the training of journalists was gradually taken over by tertiary education institutes and universities.

I lament this. Admittedly the old system wasn’t perfect; training was haphazard and we were largely left to learn from our mistakes. (As a green cadet reporter, by then working for The Dominion, I remember a notoriously cantankerous sub-editor bellowing at me, for all the newsroom to hear, that if I didn’t learn to spell “accommodation” by the following day, he would stand me on the subs’ desk and kick my fucking arse.) But overall, it worked.

And notwithstanding all the talk now about diversity in newsrooms, the old off-the-street entry model attracted recruits with a wide range of backgrounds and life experience. Many came from working-class or lower middle-class homes. They had never been near a university and probably wouldn’t have entered journalism had they been required to study for a year beforehand.

What’s more, the system, such as it was, allowed them to develop their own individual and sometimes idiosyncratic styles – far more so than today’s academic assembly line, which tends to produce bland, cookie-cutter journalism, mostly devoid of wit or story-telling skill.

And here’s another concern about the academic takeover of journalism training. There are still journalism tutors with solid newsroom experience. Some of it was acquired so long ago that over time, they have morphed into academics. But of far greater concern are those who come from an academic background, and whose view of journalism is rooted in theory – sometimes overtly neo-Marxist theory – rather than practice.

Many of the latter type inculcate their impressionable students with the idea that the purpose of journalism is to change the world. It’s not. The purpose of journalism is simply to tell people, as objectively and even-handedly as possible, what’s happening in their world. What people choose to do with that information is over to them. 

That was the understanding implanted in previous generations of journalists, and transgressors were quickly pulled into line. Journalists who privately held strongly left-wing views, as many did, were conscientious about not allowing personal opinions to influence their work.

It all seems quaintly old-fashioned now. While many of today’s journalism graduates go out into the working world with frighteningly skimpy knowledge of history, geography, science and the English language (supposedly their stock in trade), they are exquisitely schooled in matters of class, race, sexism and inequality. One word they can all be relied on to spell correctly is “inappropriate”.

The politicisation of journalism training is just one of several adverse trends to have influenced the profession in my lifetime. Another was the takeover of our two biggest newspaper groups by Australian interests.

The Australians who acquired what were previously Wilson and Horton (owners of the New Zealand Herald group) and Independent Newspapers Ltd (publishers of The Dominion, The Evening Post, The Press and others) didn’t understand New Zealand, probably didn’t want to, and had little interest beyond making money. They had no emotional stake in the country and therefore little incentive or commitment to protect the New Zealand newspaper industry when the digital revolution kicked in and the going got tough.

Early evidence of their inability to understand this country, and their disdain for our way of doing things, came with their dismantling of the old New Zealand Press Association – an act of corporate vandalism that unravelled decades of news sharing by papers around the country. Under the NZPA arrangements, someone in in Tauranga or Invercargill could read about events of significance in Nelson or New Plymouth. We know far less about ourselves as a result of its demise.

I’m going to stick my neck out now and suggest that New Zealand journalism has also been damaged by feminisation. I hasten to emphasise that I’m not arguing, and would never argue, that women are not good for journalism. I have been fortunate to work with innumerable talented and sometimes formidable female journalists. I won’t name names because if I started, I wouldn’t know where to stop.

What I’m referring to is the feminisation of newspaper content. Pages once devoted to news of substance – so-called “hard news” and journal-of-record stories about parliamentary debates, court cases, council meetings and suchlike – are now filled with “soft”, lifestyle-oriented content: food, fashion, health, interior design, personal finances, travel and entertainment. I can’t imagine that the distinguished women journalists I’ve worked with would be any happier about this trend than I am.

But of course the most damaging development of all has been the devastation inflicted on the print  media as a result of the digital revolution. Tragically, newspaper owners have been complicit in this process. Panicked into joining the online revolution, they diverted precious resources from print and thus made inevitable the decline of their most valuable assets. In the process they brutally shed many of their most talented and experienced people, plugging the holes with younger, cheaper and (dare I say it) more compliant staff whose editorial judgment was often suspect.

I have sometimes asked myself whether the people who controlled the industry in the 20th century – distinguished New Zealand newspapermen such as Mike Robson of INL and Michael Horton of Wilson and Horton – would have succumbed so easily. I don’t believe they would have.  Cautious and conservative they may have been, but they had ink in their veins and would have regarded newspapers as worth fighting for. It’s no coincidence that the paper which most successfully weathered the ravages of the Internet era, the Otago Daily Times, is one that remained in New Zealand hands and under the control of an old-school proprietor.

To an old print hack like me, the devastation of the New Zealand media over the past 10 years has been heartbreaking. I console myself with the knowledge that I lived through what I now see as a golden age of New Zealand journalism – an era when newspapers were not only prosperous and well-resourced, but willing to challenge authority, to dig up stories that powerful people would have preferred to remain safely buried, and when necessary to spend lots of money defending their right and duty to do so. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the 1980s and 90s were a high-water mark for gutsy, risk-taking journalism, most of it done by newspapers.

For me, journalism has been a good career. I have met interesting people, been to fascinating places and witnessed events that most people don’t get to see. I have also worked with some unforgettably colourful characters, the like of whom will probably never again be seen in newsrooms, and made lifelong friends.

I didn’t get rich. No one in New Zealand ever became wealthy from journalism, although for some people it served as a springboard into other activities – notably public relations – that enabled them to buy flash cars and big houses in fashionable suburbs.

Would I recommend a career in journalism now? Sadly, no.

Footnote: In a past life I was editor and news editor of The Dominion and assistant editor of The Evening Post. I have worked on daily and Sunday papers in Australia, spent several years as a staff writer at the New Zealand Listener, and still cherish the memory of four happy years as news editor at what was then the Nelson Evening Mail (now simply the Nelson Mail). I have worked as a freelance journalist since 2002 and know how to spell “accommodation”.

Monday, January 15, 2018

If RNZ caters to all New Zealanders, why have so many given up on it?

A recent Dominion Post column of mine headlined “Dinosaur versus Dominatrix” (reproduced on this site), about an on-air clash between Kim Hill and Don Brash, brought a couple of old-school broadcasting grandees out of the woodwork.

Ian Johnstone, a familiar face on TV screens from the 1960s till the 1990s, and Geoffrey Whitehead, a former BBC deputy political editor who became CEO of Radio New Zealand and now lives in retirement in Napier, both had a whack at me for criticising Hill’s hostile demolition job on Brash.

Both seemed to think that unleashing RNZ’s most aggressive interviewer against Brash, for the sin of criticising Morning Report’s Guyon Espiner over his use of the Maori language, was a perfectly legitimate thing for the state broadcaster to do.

I haven’t responded to either of my critics until now because more important things – family and holidays – have occupied my attention. But before I get on to Johnstone and Whitehead, there are a couple of points to be made about the furore that arose from Brash’s Facebook post about Espiner.

Was it a storm in a teacup, as the leftist comedian Jeremy Elwood (“leftist” and “comedian” are virtually synonymous these days) disingenuously wrote in a column? Yes, it was. But it was the Left that whipped up the storm, and it did so for a reason. It seized on Brash’s objection to the use of te reo on RNZ and turned it into a rallying point in the ongoing culture war between “progressives” and conservatives.

That’s the wider context in which the debate played out, and it explains the ferocity of the reaction against Brash. The aim was to make an example of him: to inflict such bruising punishment that opponents of the Left’s identity politics agenda would be fearful about the consequences of speaking out in future.

Kim Hill’s overtly hostile “interview” [sic] with Brash was part of this response, which brings me back to Johnstone and Whitehead. These two men clearly regard themselves as lofty guardians of the public broadcasting heritage and see it as their duty to correct those of us who, for reasons of ignorance, malice or political misguidedness, don’t properly appreciate it.

Johnstone wrote a piece in the Dominion Post in which he defended Hill's confrontation with Brash as “lively, challenging and entertaining”. It didn’t surprise me that he approved. Johnstone is a genteel old Leftie – too genteel by far to have attempted a Hill-style demolition job when he was still a broadcaster himself, but I’ve no doubt he would have quietly applauded. Brash’s neoliberalism would be anathema to him.

Johnstone adopted a patronising tone toward me, wagging a finger at me for my “comical hyperbole”. Here was the seasoned broadcasting veteran patiently explaining, for the benefit of the irksome johnny-come-lately (hell, I’ve been in the media for only 50 years – what would I know?), that what Hill did to Brash fell within the finest traditions of public broadcasting.

Strangely, he wrote of me: “I guess what he’d really like to say, but dare not, is that he thinks too many RNZ staff are ‘Left-leaning’.” I can’t imagine why Johnstone would think I dare not say that, seeing I’ve been saying it for years, but let me say it again, unequivocally. I not only think many RNZ staff are left-leaning; I know they are, because I know many of them personally and know their political views.

It’s virtually imprinted in the DNA of public broadcasting organisations that they lean to the left. One of the reasons people seek work with state broadcasting organisations is that they distrust capitalism and the profit motive, and regard state-owned media as pure and untainted. And since like attracts like, there evolves a self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing monoculture. That’s true of RNZ just as it is of the BBC, Australia’s ABC and National Public Radio in the United States (all of which I listen to).

This becomes a problem only if RNZ employees allow their political views to influence their work. Many of them don’t, and I respect them for it, but others make no attempt to disguise their political leanings. (I note that Finlay Macdonald, whose wife Carol Hirschfeld is RNZ’s head of content, recently used the RNZ website a to write a piece gleefully rubbing the National Party’s nose in  the dirt over the election outcome. It doesn’t say much for RNZ’s, Hirschfeld’s or Macdonald’s ethics that this cosy nepotistic arrangement is permitted, but it certainly says something about the political ethos of what is supposed to be a neutral organisation.)

Back to Johnstone. He rebukes me for saying that RNZ no longer regards its job as being to serve all New Zealanders, and he asks rhetorically whether I hear its daily news reports from all over the country, as if these contradict my argument. Well yes, I do, but they don’t prove a thing. RNZ generally – generally – plays with a straight bat when it comes to news reportage, and I’ve praised it in the past for adhering to journalism values that have largely been abandoned by other news organisations. The country would be much the poorer without RNZ’s news bulletins. But news reports are just a small part of what RNZ does, and Johnstone can’t expect to get away with the trick of cherry-picking his evidence to suit his argument.

The political taint that permeates much of what RNZ does is found elsewhere – in current affairs and magazine-style interviews and discussion programmes, in the subjects and interviewees selected, in the slant of the questions asked and the stance (either sympathetic or hostile) of the presenter, and in so-called “debates” that are anything but, because only people with views that are deemed acceptable (and who all conveniently agree with each other) are invited to take part.

Even then the picture is far from uniform across all of RNZ, because some of its programmes (Nine to Noon, for instance, and Morning Report, at least most of the time) are generally even-handed. I have huge regard for Nine to Noon host Kathryn Ryan.

I would never subject RNZ to blanket condemnation, because it continues to do a lot of things very well and conscientiously. In a moment of cultural sensitivity, I once labelled it a national taonga. But to those like Johnstone who insist that RNZ caters for all New Zealanders, I can only ask why so many people I know – intelligent, informed people with a keen interest in politics, society and culture – have long since given up listening to it because they object to the relentless political and ideological spin. They ask me why I still bother, and I reply that I listen to RNZ because it it’s my right to listen to RNZ and to expect it to adhere to its charter. I’m a part-owner of it, after all, and my taxes help pay the salaries of its employees. Call me bloody-minded, call me naïve, but if more New Zealanders, rather than giving up and switching to NewstalkZB or Radio Live, listened to RNZ and insisted that it cater to a true cross-section of tastes and political views, as is their right, perhaps it would feel obliged to lift its game.

As it is, RNZ will of course continue to be defended by people like Johnstone and Whitehead. They have spent their lives in public broadcasting and regard RNZ’s pervasive soft-Left bias and uncritical embrace of "progressive" causes as the natural order of things.

One last point. In his letter, Whitehead pompously suggested I didn’t understand the role of the public broadcaster. In fact I not only understand it perfectly well, but I believe in public broadcasting and have said so many times. Where I differ with Johnstone and Whitehead is in my interpretation of its role. It is not the function of the public broadcaster to act as an agent of social and political change or to promote ideological views that some of its presenters and producers think would benefit us all. In fact I would say that ultimately, the greatest threat to public broadcasting may come from those within who abuse its power and therefore undermine its standing and credibility.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Resolutely po-faced

Publicly funded wowsers never rest in their attempts to whip up moral panic over our supposed enslavement by alcohol. Even when statistics point to declining liquor consumption, which you’d think would be welcomed, these doomsters remain resolutely po-faced.  

RNZ led its 7 o’clock news bulletin this morning with a report that Australian teenagers are turning away from alcohol. Deakin University researchers found that only 45 percent of teenagers in 2015 had drunk a full glass of alcohol compared with 70 percent 15 years earlier.

Nicki Jackson, executive director of New Zealand's Alcohol Healthwatch, said that was in line with what was happening here. Reason to be positive, surely? Er, no. According to Jackson, we mustn’t be complacent.

“Yes, there’s been declines [sic] in young people choosing to take up drinking but we’ve seen no declines whatsoever in the style in which young people drink. They’re still drinking very heavily, so that culture hasn’t changed.” Even good news is bad news, then.

Then comes Jackson’s alarmist crunchline: “hazardous binge-drinking” has been getting worse (she cited no figures, and the official definition of “binge-drinking” is dodgy anyway) and the government needs to raise the price of alcohol.

Nothing new here: it’s the same tired old refrain. In fact the only surprising thing about this non-news item was that someone at RNZ considered it important enough to lead the bulletin.

Alcohol Healthwatch would realise, of course, that Sunday morning is a quiet time in newsrooms and would have timed its statement to take advantage of that fact. Obviously, it could also count on the RNZ duty editor giving the non-story prominence, because RNZ journalists – in fact journalists generally – tend to be sympathetic toward sanctimonious pressure groups pushing moral panic buttons.

There was evidence of that in another alcohol-related story on Stuff three days ago. This one, sourced from the taxpayer-funded Health Promotion Agency, cited research that purportedly showed older New Zealanders were drinking to greater excess and more frequently than adults in eight other countries.

According to the research, New Zealand had the second-highest proportion of 50-plus drinkers after England. And what were the other countries? The United States, South Africa, China, Mexico, Ghana, India and Russia.

Of the nine countries with which we were compared, only two – England and the US – could be described as culturally and socially similar to New Zealand, and even the US is very different from us when it comes to social habits.

It follows that no self-respecting researcher could draw any useful conclusion from this “research”. It’s a nonsense. Far more meaningful (and ideologically unbiased) are the per capita alcohol consumption figures compiled by the OECD, which consistently show New Zealand to be roughly in the middle of the table and behind comparable countries such as Britain and Australia.

This doesn’t deter academics such as Andy Towers from Massey University, who was quoted in the Stuff story, from extracting pessimistic conclusions from the available “research”. Towers was quoted as saying New Zealanders aged 50-plus had “concerning” drinking habits.

There was a time when journalists were trained to be sceptical and to “doubt everything with gusto”, in the words of my late colleague Frank Haden. Not so these days, when claims by moralistic academics are accepted unquestioningly and meaningless surveys are cited in an attempt to convince us, contrary to all our everyday observations and experience, that New Zealand is awash in alcohol.

The real winner in 2017: Winston Peters, the Great Tuatara of New Zealand politics

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 12.)

Almost without exception, political commentators declared Jacinda Ardern their politician of 2017, and you could see why.

Thrust into the leadership of a floundering and demoralised Labour Party six weeks out from a general election, she re-energised the party and ran an assured, upbeat campaign that saw Labour bounce back from woeful poll ratings to win 37 per cent of the vote and 14 new seats.

History will record that she failed on election day. The gap between Labour and National remained too wide. Yet contrary to expectations, probably including her own, Ardern ended up as prime minister.

For the first time since New Zealand adopted the MMP system in 1993, the party that won the biggest share of the vote didn’t form the government. How we arrived at this outcome was down to one man: Winston Raymond Peters.

The Peters party, a.k.a. New Zealand First, won 7 per cent of the vote. It lost three of its electorate seats in Parliament, including Peters’ own. Despite this less than resounding endorsement by the people of New Zealand, Peters ended up determining the makeup of the new government.

Many insist, bizarrely, that this is an example of MMP working exactly as intended, but I would argue that it points to a gaping void in our constitutional arrangements – one that allows a politician whose party commanded an almost negligible share of the vote to decide who will govern us.

For his willingness to exploit this wonky system to his advantage, and for the sheer audacity of the way he went about it, Peters is a hands-down winner of my award for Politician of the Year in 2017.

The Great Tuatara of New Zealand politics brazenly played the system to ensure he became not only deputy prime minister but Minister of Foreign Affairs as well.

Foreign Affairs seemed an odd portfolio choice, given that his political preoccupations have always been domestic. But it’s tailor-made for him, involving maximum prestige in return for minimal effort. The ink was barely dry on the coalition agreement before he was jetting to Vietnam to hob-nob with world leaders at an Apec summit.

Peters played everyone for suckers in the post-election coalition game. He was allowed to orchestrate the entire coalition-forming process.

Just to make sure no one was in any doubt about who was in charge, he announced the formation of the new government live on television without even bothering to first inform the party leaders he had been negotiating with.

In a proper rules-based democracy, this whole process would surely have been controlled by the head of state – or in our case, her representative, the Governor-General. But Dame Patsy Reddy was just another impotent observer on the sidelines.

The coalition negotiations took place in an environment of almost paranoid secrecy. We now know there’s a document covering what was discussed and agreed but we’re not allowed to see it.

The political establishment insists this is the way it must be done. Voters are not to be trusted with information about how decisions are made on who will govern us.

But there are some things we do know. One is that National and Labour believed they were negotiating with Peters in good faith. Both thought they were in with a more or less equal chance of becoming the government.

We now know, of course, that on the day before the election, Peters had quietly commenced legal proceedings against four National cabinet ministers, including then prime minister Bill English. This made it extremely improbable that he would seal a deal with National, but it wasn’t divulged at the time.

Peters must have known all along who he would go with, but it suited him to allow both parties to think they were competing on a level playing field. 

It was especially to his advantage to play Labour along. Left-wing commentator Chris Trotter reckons the party fell into line with Peters’ agenda because it never expected to be in government.

It’s also now clear what some of Peters’ demands were. Apart from four cabinet seats – which is more than twice what New Zealand First would have been entitled to if appointments were proportionate with its poll result – he also insisted on a waka-jumping bill to ensure no MPs went rogue on him.

You could call this his utu bill. Peters has a long memory and is clearly still smarting over the eight MPs who deserted him in 1997.

The bill smacks of vindictiveness and runs counter to democratic principles because it shifts control over MPs from voters (where it rightly belongs) to party bosses, but Labour and even the supposedly principled Greens were happy to humour him.

How long can a government formed in such shonky circumstances last? Good question. But there can be no doubt who the real winner was in 2017.

Footnote: Sharp-eyed readers will have detected an error in this column where I referred to New Zealand First losing three  electorate seats. Of course only Peters held an electorate seat; the others were list seats. Ironically, my original version of the column was correct. But in the process of hastily correcting a relatively minor error in that particular sentence, I inadvertently created a greater one. There was a time when such a mistake would very likely have been picked up by a beady-eyed subeditor, but those days are gone.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Life as a skinny man in a society that values beefiness

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, January 10.)

There’s no point in mincing words about this. I have skinny legs.

There, I’ve said it.

At boarding school my nickname was Twiggy, after the waif-like English model whose emaciated face and body were the symbol of fashionable Swinging London. 

My older brother cruelly joked that I risked being arrested under the vagrancy laws because I had no visible means of support. “Boom boom!”, as Basil Brush would have said.

I was the 90 lb weakling who got sand kicked in his face at the beach, as in the old Charles Atlas body-building ads. The girl I fancied at an earlier secondary school shunned me for a brawny member of the First XV. Who wouldn’t develop an inferiority complex in such tragic circumstances?

I could sympathise with the character in Spike Milligan’s comic novel Puckoon, who objected to the legs the author had given him.

“Did you write these legs?” the feckless Dan Milligan demanded to know. When the author admitted he had, Milligan grumbled: “Well, I don’t like dem. I don’t like ’em at all at all. I could ha’ writted better legs meself.”

All my life I have been self-conscious about my legs. Growing up tall and skinny in a culture where the ideal male body type has a low centre of gravity, a barrel-like torso and legs the thickness of jetty piles – in other words, the build of a rugby prop – I felt out of place.

I was often reluctant to wear shorts, although I observed that overweight people felt no constraints about exposing their surplus flesh. Some even seemed proud of it.

Somehow that was OK. Being beefy was culturally acceptable in a way that skinniness was not.

My mother, a practical woman, did her best to console me by pointing out that my legs reached all the way to the ground, which was all that mattered.

Later, after I got married, my wife often told me I had legs that would be considered highly desirable on a woman. Strangely enough, this was no comfort. What self-respecting heterosexual Kiwi bloke wants to be fancied by other men because he has shapely legs?

My physique posed practical problems for me too, and still does. The jeans and trousers stocked in New Zealand menswear stores are made for men built like … well, like rugby props. The waists are too low and the legs too short.

I wait until I’m travelling overseas. Then I go crazy, bingeing on jeans and trousers that actually fit me. I’ve found Germany good for this – there are lots of tall men there – and America even better.

Today, my wardrobe has several surplus pairs of jeans from the US. Set loose in American clothing stores with an infinite range of sizes, I’m like one of those grizzly bears you see on TV wildlife documentaries when the salmon are running upstream. I barely know which one to grab first. I gorge myself. 

But here’s the thing. At my advanced stage of life (I’m 67), I’ve decided I no longer care what people think if I walk down the street in shorts. Who the hell do I need to impress?

Besides, after growing up feeling a bit inadequate because I didn’t have the right physique for most sports, I discovered a physical activity at which I was at least competent. I started riding a bike, and discovered my legs weren’t totally useless after all.

These skinny shanks have propelled me around Lake Taupo several times in the 160 km Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge. They have tackled some formidable mountain bike rides: the Karapoti Classic, the Rainbow Rage, the Haurangi Crossing, the Heaphy Track and the St James Cycle Trail, to name a few.

They once even stepped up on a podium when I finished second in my age group in a mountain bike race. I began to feel a defiant pride about my spindly limbs.

But while my legs are no longer the source of self-consciousness that they once were, I’d like to make a statement on behalf of skinny-legged men everywhere.

I’ve noticed many times that people don’t hesitate to comment on my legs – not necessarily in an insulting way, but bluntly making the point that they’re, er, rather deficient in the flesh department. Only a few days ago, my brother-in-law remarked on how skinny they were.

He’s a good-hearted, generous man, my bro’-in-law, but he’s Polish, and he tends to say what he thinks. It doesn’t occur to many Poles that just because you think something, you don’t necessarily have to say it.

I invited him to consider why, in our culture, it’s considered okay to comment about a person being thin when it would be deemed offensive to draw attention to the fact that someone is overweight. I think he got my point.

Incidentally, he turned up the following day wearing shorts himself. I was tempted to comment on the ghostly whiteness of his limbs, but held my tongue.