Monday, May 28, 2018

To anyone hoping for impartial coverage of the abortion debate, these are not promising signs

This afternoon on National Radio I heard Jesse Mulligan interview a spokeswoman for a group of Irish Wellingtonians who backed the “yes” vote in Ireland’s abortion referendum.

It was a soft interview, as you might expect of a light, chatty afternoon show. The interviewee told how her group gathered at a Wellington bar on Saturday night to watch the referendum result come in.  There were heart-warming scenes of joy and happiness, she said, when the “no” campaigners – the people who opposed liberalisation of Ireland’s strict abortion laws – conceded defeat.

The tone of the conversation was celebratory. A visitor from a distant galaxy would have had no trouble concluding that the right side had won the argument.

(As an aside, I accept that the referendum result was greeted as a triumph for women’s rights. Nonetheless I find it grotesque that people should rejoice at the prospect of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of unborn babies having their lives snuffed out. It strikes me as a triumph of warped ideology over humanity - but that’s just me.)

Mulligan stopped short (just) of congratulating his guest on the outcome, but he did feed her an obliging cue by effectively inviting her to say that New Zealand now lagged behind Ireland in terms of restrictions on abortion – the implication being that we should get our skates on if we want to catch up.

This followed an interview earlier in the day on Morning Report in which Susie Ferguson questioned Abortion Law Reform New Zealand president Terry Bellamak about the implications of the Irish referendum result. That was a soft interview too, although Morning Report professes to be a hard current affairs show.

Like her afternoon colleague, Ferguson fed her guest a sympathetic question (“Is it acceptable that you have to lie to get an abortion?”) which seemed to give a pretty clear idea of her own position on the issue. And like Mulligan’s guest, Bellamak seized on the Irish result as an argument for reform of New Zealand’s own abortion laws. After all, who wants the embarrassment of having the most conservative abortion regime in the English-speaking world? We can expect this to become a recurring theme from pro-abortion activists as pressure mounts for repeal of the abortion provisions in the 40-year-old Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act. It’s a weak argument (after all, the fact that other countries have wide-open abortion laws doesn’t make them right), but that won’t stop them.

Earlier, Ferguson had tried repeatedly to corner National leader Simon Bridges with the same “Why should women have to lie to get an abortion?” question, clearly implying that the law is bad and should be overturned. I wonder, what prospect is there of the abortion debate getting fair and impartial coverage from Radio New Zealand when the presenter of its top-rating current affairs show so plainly displays her personal feelings on the issue?

This is no idle question. Abortion liberalisation is likely to be on the Labour-led government’s legislative agenda next year, and those old enough to remember the turbulent passage of the 1977 legislation will know how bitter and divisive the debate could be. In that case Radio New Zealand will be expected to report the issue fairly and impartially – an expectation made all the weightier because it’s a state-owned broadcaster with a special duty of neutrality. But I wonder what the prospects are of that happening, given what I heard today.

As far as I can tell, Morning Report carried no comment from anti-abortion groups on the Irish result and its implications, if any, for New Zealand. Why go to one side and not the other?

Granted, journalists generally take a “liberal” stance on abortion. That was clear from media coverage of the Irish referendum, which was generally framed as a clash between the “old” Ireland of fossilised reactionaries, still under the baneful influence of the discredited Catholic Church, and a heroic new, younger Ireland determined to cast off a long legacy of oppressive theology. Small wonder that most journalists thought the right side won, and reported it accordingly.

But just as prosperous white middle-class people are instructed to “check their privilege” – meaning we should be aware of our inbuilt class-based assumptions before we judge others – so journalists need to be reminded to check their prejudice.  When they have strongly personal held views on issues, they should be doubly diligent about ensuring the other side have their say too.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The bottom-feeders and mischief-makers who infest the fringes of politics

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, May 17.)

The kerfuffle over rumours about Clarke Gayford, Jacinda Ardern’s partner, came as a double surprise to me.

The first surprise was that the rumours existed. The second, which kind of flows inevitably from the first, was that I hadn’t heard them.

I suppose this is what happens when you’ve been living in Masterton for a few years (well, 15 actually). You get disconnected.

Mind you, I’d suspected for a while that I was no longer “in the loop”. A friend used to email me whenever he heard reference to some dark secret about a public figure or wanted to know the identity of someone important whose name had been suppressed in a court case, assuming that I’d be able to fill him in on all the salacious detail.

The email inquiries stopped coming long ago. My friend obviously deduced, not unreasonably, that I was a fraud – someone who gave the impression of knowing important and sensitive stuff, but in fact had no more inside knowledge than the guy who came to unblock his drains. 

I suppose this is what happens when you no longer work in a newspaper newsroom, which functions as a kind of clearing house for rumour and gossip. Working from home, I can go for days – nay, weeks – without so much as a phone call.

I’m so isolated that I get excited if someone knocks on the door to ask if I’ve seen their missing huntaway. So hearing that Gayford was the subject of malicious scuttlebutt – scuttlebutt apparently so persistent that the police had to issue a statement saying he wasn’t under investigation – merely confirmed for me that I was pathetically out of touch with what was happening out there in the real world.

To this day I have no idea what the Gayford rumours were about, still less where they originated or who was circulating them.

What’s more, I don’t want to know. So I’ve made no effort to find out what lies people were spreading, even though I probably only need to ask the next-door neighbours or the woman behind the counter at the corner dairy. I’m sure they know, because the media kept telling us that the rumours had been so widely circulated that the police felt compelled to act.

I suppose that as someone who has worked for (gulp) 50 years in journalism, a game whose practitioners generally know a lot more than they actually report, I should feel disconcerted by the realisation that I no longer know things that other people don’t. 

But in fact it feels strangely liberating, because perhaps the least appealing aspect of politics is the febrile, overheated atmosphere it generates among camp followers, and the toxic bile spread by angry, bitter bottom-feeders and mischief-makers.

No one should delude themselves that Gayford was targeted simply because he’s the partner of a Labour prime minister. I recall that within days of John Key announcing he was resigning, left-leaning friends were regaling me with juicy versions of the “real” reason for his sudden departure. Malicious gossip is ideologically non-prescriptive in whom it chooses to vilify.

We could learn something from the Baha’i Faith, which strongly disapproves of gossip. “Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner,” wrote Baha’u’llah, the religion’s founder.

He was just rephrasing Christ’s injunction to the mob that was stoning a prostitute: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. But I get the impression that followers of the Baha’i Faith adhere to the rule more conscientiously than most people who call themselves Christians.

David Lange used the famous phrase “demented reef fish” to describe panicky share-market investors, but it can be applied equally to the hangers-on who infest the extreme fringes of politics – on both Right and Left – and who swarm around looking for morsels of malice to feed on.

Social media has given these cowardly malefactors a powerful amplifier for their venom. It has also had the effect of magnifying the binary them-and-us nature of politics, because it’s easier to hate when you’re safe in an ideological echo-chamber surrounded by people who share your rage. It’s also easier to dehumanise your perceived enemy and to construct your own cyber-age version of a witch’s wax effigy to stick pins into.

The effect on the body politic is potentially poisonous, because the time may come when only an exceptionally courageous, foolhardy or egotistical few will risk running for public office knowing there’s a chance that they will be subjected to vicious calumnies and anonymous abuse.

Exile to the Auckland Islands would be an appropriate fate for the perpetrators of this unpleasantness. They might tear each other apart, in which case well and good. But on the other hand they might be forced to co-operate in the interests of survival and thus learn something about their common humanity.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

If we start banning people of bad moral character, where do we stop?

CLARIFICATION: In the column published below, I said that Harvey Weinstein had been found guilty of sexual assault "by non-denial". In fact a spokesperson for Weinstein, quoted in the October 2017 New Yorker article that first revealed the accusations against him, said he "unequivocally denied" allegations of non-consensual sex. However it would be fair to say that subsequent statements on his behalf have been equivocal at best.  

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and, May 16.)

I have never heard the American R&B singer R. Kelly – not consciously, anyway – so it’s unlikely that I’ll lose any sleep over the announcement that the digital music streaming service Spotify has taken his records off its playlist. Nonetheless, I’m intrigued.

Spotify removed Kelly from its playlist as part of a new “Hate Content and Hateful Conduct” policy. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that the implementation of this policy is probably related in some way to the uproar over Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent naming and shaming of countless alleged sexual predators in show business.

The virulent Me Too and Time’s Up movements, which have given a voice to women claiming to have been the victims of celebrity abusers, has achieved such power and momentum that companies in the entertainment business have been forced into damage control mode. There is a hint of panic in the way some of these corporations have hastened to protect their precious brands from stars whose sexual histories have become a liability.

The world has witnessed a veritable parade of the disgraced as previously respected entertainment names have been sacked or blacklisted, often on the basis of unproven allegations. 

Weinstein and Bill Cosby are the highest-profile casualties so far – found guilty by non-denial in Weinstein’s case and by a criminal trial in Cosby’s. But I didn’t realise how many more names had been implicated in this unedifying saga until I conducted a search on Google.

Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Dustin Hoffman, Ben Affleck, Steven Seagal, Garrison Keillor, the writer-director James Toback and the TV host Charlie Rose I knew about. But I was unaware of allegations against others including Richard Dreyfuss, celebrity chef Mario Batali, Larry King, Charlie Sheen, Oliver Stone, John Travolta and Sylvester Stallone, along with many more whose names were unfamiliar to me but are obviously prominent in the entertainment world.

In some of these cases, offending was acknowledged and apologised for; in others it was strenuously denied. Either way, reputations are tarnished, perhaps irreparably. The principle that people are innocent until proven guilty has been trampled underfoot in the media feeding frenzy.

But back to R. Kelly. Even cursory research into his background reveals allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, some of it too unpleasant to detail here. He has never been convicted of an offence (he was acquitted on child pornography charges over a sex video involving an under-age girl and separately paid $250,000 to settle a claim that he had sex with a 15-year-old), but a social media campaign called #MuteRKelly has had him in its sights for some time.

Spotify insists it doesn’t censor content because of the behaviour of the performer, but its own statements suggest otherwise. Its head of content told Billboard magazine, in tortuous management-speak: “We look at issues around hateful conduct, where you have an artist or another creator who has done something off-platform that is so particularly out of line with our values, egregious, in a way that it becomes something that we don't want to associate ourselves with.”

This is where it gets intriguing, because if R. Kelly has been censored because of bad behaviour, as seems obvious, it could set a fascinating precedent.

Consider this. One of my all-time favourite movies is Chinatown, from 1974. It was directed by Roman Polanski, who fled America in 1977 after being charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. He remains a fugitive from the American courts today, although he lives as a free man in Europe.

Should I refuse to watch Chinatown because of the loathsome Polanski’s behaviour with young Samantha Gailey at Jack Nicholson’s place? There is a moral case for taking that stance, and Spotify’s action in respect of R. Kelly suggests that moral judgments can now be brought to bear in deciding what people should see and hear.

But this is tricky territory, because many of the artists, actors, musicians and writers we admire led less than exemplary lives.

Rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry served a prison term for having sex with a minor. Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin. Hollywood idol Errol Flynn’s reputation was permanently damaged by allegations of sex with under-age girls.

Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old and Mick Jagger wrote a song about enticing a 15-year-old upstairs. Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso had a penchant for girls young enough to be their granddaughters, and Picasso was sometimes abusive as well.
Woody Allen is seriously creepy, at the very least, and even Charles Dickens abandoned his wife and family for a teenager.

It’s a bit unrealistic to talk about boycotting these men’s artistic creations, no matter how much we might disapprove of their morals or behaviour. So as vile as R. Kelly might be, in the interests of consistency perhaps his work should be left alone too.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Stating the obvious

Quote of the day, from a Hawke's Bay District Health Board paper urging a ban on the sale of liquor at school fundraising events: " ... the promotion of the benefits and consumption [of alcohol] are likely conveying the message to the population of Hawke's Bay that drinking alcohol is a normal and socially accepted activity that has positive and wide-reaching consequences" (the italics are mine).

I couldn't have put it better myself. So what's the problem?

Friday, May 4, 2018

Capitalism cowed: The Craggy Range backdown

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, May 3).

Let me see if I’ve got this straight. The Hawke’s Bay winery Craggy Range spent $300,000 creating a walking track up the eastern side of Te Mata Peak.

It owned the land and did everything by the book, which included securing the necessary consent from the Hastings District Council. The council’s planners waved it through without requiring public notification, as they were entitled to do (although it could be argued they shouldn’t have, given Te Mata Peak’s status).

It was only after the track had been built, zig-zagging up the spectacular limestone escarpment overlooking the Tukituki river valley, that people started objecting.   

A petition was launched. One resident melodramatically declared that Te Mata Peak had been “butchered”. Someone else said it looked as if it had had open-heart surgery.

The man who designed the track insisted that regrowth would soon mask the initial scar, but no one seemed to take much notice. People were too busy being indignant.

Later, the busybodies of the Environmental Defence Society got in on the act with threats of legal action. But the killer blow was landed by the local iwi, Ngati Kahungungu, who were offended because Craggy Range didn’t consult them beforehand.

Why the winery should have gone cap-in-hand to the tribe wasn’t entirely clear, since the land belonged to Craggy Range and legally speaking, it was none of Ngati Kahungungu’s business what the company did with it. But property rights count for little when they conflict with the assumed right of an iwi to have a say over the affairs of others.

According to the tribe, the track disfigured a sacred site which is said to resemble the reclining figure of an ancestral chief. Iwi leader Ngahiwi Tomoana said seeing the track was like a stab in the heart. The tribe demanded that it be removed.

Of course all this happened after the track had been built. It would have been helpful if the whistle had been blown earlier, when work began. I’m told it was initially assumed that it was just a farm track – but even so, wouldn’t that too have been a scar on the sacred slope? Or was it perceived as different because a wealthy wine company was paying for it?

It’s strange too that the eastern flank of Te Mata Peak should be considered sacrosanct when there’s a road up to the peak and multiple walking and cycling tracks on the other side. Perhaps these are considered a lost cause, having been built in the days before Maoridom learned how to exploit Treaty-era politics and Pakeha guilt.

At first the winery mounted a half-hearted resistance against demands that it restore the hillside to its prior state. Then, notwithstanding CEO Michael Wilding having declared himself “thrilled” and “excited” when the project was first announced, Craggy Range suddenly caved in, as companies often do these days when they are panicked by noisy activist campaigns.

The u-turn seemed symbolic of the state of capitalism today – so cowed that it has lost the confidence to stick up for itself, and jumps with fright at the sight of its own shadow.

In hindsight, perhaps Craggy Range made a mistake when it ingratiated itself with Ngati Kahungungu by inviting the iwi to give the winery its blessing when it was opened in 2003.  That gesture apparently entitled Tomoana to say his iwi felt “betrayed” when the track was built without its permission.

“We gave our mana to that place and now it’s shattered,” he said. There may be a lesson there for companies that think they’re doing the right thing by being culturally sensitive and engaging with the mana whenua.

Of course the iwi gave Craggy Range a pat on the head for capitulating. You can afford to be magnanimous when you’ve browbeaten your opponents into submission. But in the meantime, a project lawfully undertaken for the benefit of the community has been derailed.  We have a political climate in which companies can be intimidated into backing down when they have nothing to feel guilty about.

So where are we now? Predictably, people who want the track kept intact have started their own petition, which at last count had 17,500 signatures. And it seems that removing the track would not only cost as much again as building it in the first place, but would itself require a resource consent which is bound to be opposed. That would open a whole new can of worms.

In short, it’s an unholy mess for which the council, the iwi and Craggy Range itself – if for no other reason than its timidity – must all share responsibility.

But perhaps we shouldn’t blame Ngati Kahungungu. They’re simply exploiting the desperate desire of well-meaning Pakeha to avoid being condemned as racist. And the lesson is, it works.