Thursday, August 30, 2018

There's more than one thing about this story that's Groundhog Day-ish

Auckland Council has got itself in a helluva mess over botched building consents after it misinterpreted its own confusing rules. The consents relate to building alterations in “character” suburbs such as Ponsonby and Devonport and will probably have to be applied for again, at huge inconvenience to the home owners and expense to the ratepayers, since the council will meet the costs and may have to pay compensation as well.

Radio New Zealand interviewed a planning lawyer who said the cockup showed how complicated the council’s planning rules were. It all seemed wearisomely familiar, but that wasn’t the only reason the Radio NZ news item sounded a bit Groundhog Day-ish. They also interviewed the council’s resource consents general manager, who turned out to be an Englishman.

Am I the only one who’s struck by the number of bureaucrats in local and central government who speak with a Pommy accent? If I was less lazy and more methodical, I would keep a record of the number of times they pop up in the TV and radio news.

I don’t want to be dragged before the Human Rights Commission and accused of racism (I actually like most Poms), but it seems to me that a quite disproportionate number of the officials who enforce nitpicking rules and regulations in New Zealand are English. Is it because they’re gifted managers, or is it that they’re naturally officious and attracted to jobs that involve telling other people what to do? Cases like the Auckland Council consents row suggest it’s unlikely to be the former.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

What on earth was Woodhouse thinking?

I could scarcely believe my ears yesterday when I heard that National Party immigration spokesman Michael Woodhouse was urging the government to ban the American whistleblower Chelsea Manning from entering New Zealand to give two speeches. For heaven’s sake, did this Womble pull a Rip Van Winkle and sleep through the recent debate about free speech?

I was pleased that the Free Speech Coalition, of which I’m a member, promptly spoke out in favour of Manning’s right to come here and be heard. Our credibility would have taken an irreparable hit if we had remained silent.

Over the past 24 hours Woodhouse has taken a richly deserved hammering from commentators on both the left and right. There’s nothing left to be said, other than to make the point – as political scientist Bryce Edwards does today in an excellent opinion piece for newsroom ( – that the attempt to shut down Manning should be a lesson to the illiberal lefties who wanted to keep Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux out of the country. Having argued that the Canadians should be barred, they are in no position to object when the same intolerance is exercised against someone they want to hear.

The point is that the right of free speech must apply across the board, ideologically, or it’s meaningless. Or as I put it in a blog post two weeks ago, an attack on one person’s right to free speech is an attack on everyone’s. 

Unfortunately the National Party has demonstrated that its support for free speech runs out the moment there’s a risk of upsetting an important ally. And this is the party that champions individual freedom? Pfft.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Warwick Roger, journalist

(This obituary was published in The Dominion Post and on, August 25.)

Warwick Roger, journalist. Born 21 August 1945, died 16 August 2018

Warwick Roger was the most influential New Zealand journalist of his generation.

He is remembered primarily as the audacious founder of Metro, the glossy Auckland monthly that reshaped New Zealand magazine publishing and steered indigenous journalism in a new direction. Partly modelled on the American magazines Esquire and New Yorker, Roger’s magazine dared to publish articles of a length never before seen here in a mainstream publication: 10,000 words and more.

It was technically known as long-form journalism and Roger had faith that the market was mature and sophisticated enough in 1981 to welcome it. He also had unshakeable confidence in his own judgment, even when many of his peers were predicting – in fact openly hoping – he would fail.

Where others would have lost their nerve, the stubborn, combative Roger refused to be swayed by detractors. Neither was he deterred by the reluctance of advertisers to come on board. And ultimately he proved the doubters wrong, even if it meant, according to one former colleague, wildly overstating Metro’s circulation figures in the early days as he struggled to attract advertising support.

By the mid-1980s, Metro’s golden era, the magazine had a circulation of 45,000, sometimes ran to 350 pages and was eagerly read far beyond its intended catchment of metropolitan Auckland. Piggybacking on its success, sister title North & South was launched in 1986 and applied the same journalistic formula to the national market, taking on the long-established Listener.  

Between them, Metro and North & South changed the face of New Zealand magazine journalism. But they had a lot more going for them than simply the length of their articles.

Roger was an astute spotter and nurturer of journalistic talent. He generally avoided hiring newspaper reporters and graduates of journalism schools, dismissing them as hacks and hackettes trained to write formulaic news stories. Roger preferred to recruit unproven writers with a flair for a freer, less stylised and more creative form of journalism, one that borrowed some of the techniques of fiction writing. He was a master of the style himself, though often parodied by his critics.

Roger’s protégés, who could have wallpapered  their houses with the journalism awards they won,  included Carroll du Chateau, Nicola Legat, the late Jan Corbett, Deborah Coddington and Robyn Langwell, who was to become his second wife (and founding editor of North & South). Roger also hired art director William Chen, who gave Metro its bold, stylish appearance.

Roger pushed the boundaries. He wrote savage restaurant reviews.  He created the scurrilous gossip column Felicity Ferret (partly inspired by the satirical English magazine Private Eye), which delighted in mocking the silvertails and high-flyers of Remuera and Parnell while simultaneously promoting an image of an Auckland that was glamorous, sophisticated, racy and cosmopolitan.

But most important of all, Roger courageously published big, complex and high-risk stories – none more so than The Unfortunate Experiment in 1987, which chronicled the deliberate non-treatment, with fatal consequences, of cervical cancer patients at National Women’s Hospital. The article, by health activists Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle, led to the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry, led by Judge Silvia Cartwright, and a subsequent overhaul of patients’ rights.

It was a high-water mark for investigative journalism in New Zealand. Yet it was typical of Roger’s ornery streak that in 1990, Metro published an equally explosive exposé by Jan Corbett entitled Second Thoughts on the Unfortunate Experiment, in which the Cartwright inquiry was branded a radical feminist witch hunt. The second article came about after Roger was presented with evidence that led him to suspect his magazine had been used to advance an ideological agenda.

Roger would tell his journalists that their job was to investigate the bad smell at the back of the cave that everyone else pretended to ignore. Anyone in power was considered fair game, which may explain why Roger was passed over several times for inclusion in the honours list. He was finally made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2008.

ROGER grew up in the Auckland suburb of Greenlane, the youngest son of a butcher. His father, whom he described as the meanest man he’d ever known, died when Roger was only 11. His mother was left virtually penniless and had to take in boarders.

He went to Auckland Grammar School, studied to become a primary school teacher and spent two years teaching before deciding that what he really wanted was to be a journalist like the Auckland Star columnist Noel Holmes, whom he greatly admired. He joined the Waikato Times in 1968, only a few weeks after the late Michael King, who was to become a long-standing friend. That was also the year when he married his first wife Anne Batt, with whom he had two children.

By the early 1970s Roger was working in Wellington at the Sunday Times under the editorship of the late Frank Haden, who implanted in him the radical idea that a reporter should do more than simply regurgitate quotes and recite sterile facts.

It was at the Sunday Times, and later its sister paper The Dominion, that Roger began to refine a style inspired by the so-called New Journalism of the time as practised by the American writers Truman Capote, Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe – writing that combined reportage with literary techniques borrowed from fiction.

The late Jack Kelleher, then editor of The Dominion, was a sympathetic boss who gave him the time and space he needed to research and write long, in-depth stories that sometimes ran over two or three days. Perhaps the most memorable was Roger’s detailed reconstruction of a shocking 1975 crime in which an irascible but harmless 70-year-old drunk was beaten to death by two street kids in Wellington’s Hopper St.

It was ground-breaking journalism, but it aroused a mix of envy and hostility from many of his colleagues who regarded Roger as pampered, elitist and self-indulgent. Not that hostility ever bothered him; in fact he seemed to thrive on it. He and kindred spirit Spiro Zavos, who was to become a lifelong friend, formed a tight, defiant team of two in the Dominion’s newsroom.

Roger was to encounter the same antipathy from colleagues at the Auckland Star when he moved back to his home town. Even the Star’s editor, Keith Aitken, a newspaperman of the old school, objected to the space that was lavished on Roger’s Saturday feature stories. For his part, Roger seethed with resentment at the changes made to his copy by sub-editors.

Rather than go on chafing with frustration at the constraints imposed on him by people unsympathetic to his ideals, Roger put his money where his mouth was. He launched Metro in partnership with investor Bruce Palmer and from day one, imposed his own uncompromising personality on the publication.

Never a man to make things easy for himself, Roger made an art form of getting offside with people. Even those closest to him admitted he had a cranky, vindictive streak. He pursued vendettas with a vengeance and was acutely sensitive to criticism. Intimidating letters from lawyers were treated with contempt.

The low point of his editorship came when Metro was sued by Sunday Star-Times gossip columnist Toni McRae in 1994 over a snide reference to her in the Felicity Ferret column. Broadcaster Brian Edwards, one of several to give evidence against Metro, later reportedly said of the trial that never had so many scores been settled in such a short time.

The court awarded McRae damages of $373,000, almost an unprecedented sum. The amount was later reduced to $100,000 plus costs, but Roger took the defeat badly. He stood down as editor later that year, having evidently lost much of his enthusiasm for the job.

Roger reverted to simply writing for Metro under the title of editor-at-large. Two years later he assumed the same role at North & South, where Langwell was editor. The two had married in 1986, two years after Roger hired Langwell to write for Metro. They had two children.

His move to North & South came in the same year that Roger was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the neurological disorder that progressively robbed him of his power of movement. He resisted the illness with the same stubbornness he had exhibited as a journalist, continuing to write, run, swim and play cricket even as he gradually lost control of his limbs. He eventually gave up full-time writing in 2004.

His determination to continue swimming almost led to his death in 2012, when his daughter found him face-down in the water at Cheltenham Beach, close to his Devonport home. He was resuscitated at the scene and eventually recovered, but lost all memory of the time leading up to the incident. He died aged 72.

FOOTNOTE: I wrote this obituary at the Dominion Post's request in 2012, when it seemed possible Warwick would not survive his near-drowning. It probably says something about him that it took six years to be published. 

Friday, August 24, 2018

The dogs around the corner

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on, August 22.)

My wife and I moved to a different part of town about 18 months ago. Since then I’ve been acquainting myself with the dogs in our new neighbourhood.

There’s a black and white one, possibly part-dalmatian, that barks menacingly from behind a high wooden fence on my approach, but then jumps up and whimpers with gratitude when I reach through a gap to pat it.

There’s a big, sad-looking black fellow of indeterminate breed with a deformed paw, an eager young chocolate-brown lab that bounds up to greet me, and a couple of St Bernards whose basso-profundo woofing must almost register on the Richter scale.

Then there are the two dogs just around the corner that I regularly encounter on my walks.

The first is a ghastly little creature that seems to spend its day waiting to ambush passers-by. At the sound of approaching footsteps it rushes out, yapping furiously from behind a gate.

It darts back and forth in a frenzy as if wanting to tear me from limb to limb, but I suspect that if I opened the gate, it wouldn't know what to do. It would be like the dog that chases a car but loses all interest when the vehicle stops.

I reckon there’s a good case for treating dogs like this – ones that noisily harass people exercising their right to use the footpath – as a public nuisance, and penalising their owners accordingly. Not only do their pets disturb the peace, but their habit of rushing out unexpectedly (the dogs, I mean, not the owners) could pose a risk to elderly pedestrians who are frail or have a weak heart.

Some barks are easy on the ear, but the shrill yapping of angry little dogs seems calibrated to cause maximum annoyance.

I love dogs, but I would happily administer a sharp kick to this one.  The howl of pain and shock as it scuttled indoors would give me immense satisfaction.

But of course we shouldn’t blame dogs for the failings of the people in charge of them. The kick should more correctly be directed at the animal’s unseen owner, who does nothing to discourage the demented yapping.

For all I know the owner may smile indulgently when little Honey or Treasure or whatever it’s called rushes out as if to defend its property from orcs and goblins.

Doggy people can be strange like that. Behaviour that other people regard as infuriating may be seen by a dog’s doting owner as cute and endearing. Such people can be completely insensitive to other people’s feelings about their beloved pets.

There’s another reason why kicking the dog would be unfair. The animal displays aggression to passers-by not only because it’s allowed to get away with it, but because it’s almost certainly bored and neurotic and consequently bad-tempered.

You can usually tell at a glance whether a dog’s happy, and they’re generally happiest when they’ve got something useful to do.

The domestic dog wasn’t bred to sit around being fussed over, but to be of assistance to humans – to hunt, to herd or to guard against wild animals. But now we have an infinite variety of small dogs that were bred to look cute and keep human beings company.

I understand their appeal – they don’t eat a lot or take up a lot of space, they don’t need much exercise and they’re often affectionate, loyal and highly intelligent – but some of their owners are blind to the irritation they cause to others if they’re poorly controlled.

And since I’m writing about the irritating habits of over-indulgent owners, I should also mention the vile, anti-social offence of not cleaning up after dogs that defecate in public places. Some deluded owners seem to assume that treading in the occasional dog turd is a price the community is happy to pay for the sheer joy of having dogs around. Well, it’s not.

At this point, you’re possibly thinking: hang on, I mentioned two dogs around the corner, but told you about only one. What about the other?

Well, he’s very big and shaggy and I suspect quite old, and I always stop and talk to him.

Alerted to my approach by the furious yapping of the little dog I mentioned earlier, which lives next door to him, he pokes his great, hairy head over the fence and waits to be patted. I rub his ears and talk to him in dog language, in which I’m quite fluent, and when I go to leave he gently takes my hand in his enormous mouth as if imploring me to stay a bit longer.

If he could talk back, I’m sure he’d apologise for the appalling behaviour of his canine neighbour and explain that not all dogs are like that. And I’d assure him that I know that.

FOOTNOTE: At some risk to my reputation (such as it is), I have posted this column as it appeared in print. I have retained the paragraph in which I fantasise about kicking the noisy little dog around the corner, which provoked some flak from dog-lovers in the Stuff comments section. For the record, I should state that I wouldn't kick a small dog, no matter how irritating it was, although I admit the thought - just the thought, no more - sometimes appeals to me. When I read it now, I see why people took offence. Obviously I should have made it clear that the paragraph contained an element of journalistic hyperbole. 

What's the Latin for "too little, too late"?

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, August 23.)

It can’t be easy being Catholic right now. Barely a week passes without fresh revelations of sexually predatory behaviour by priests and squalid attempts by their superiors to cover up their crimes.

Recent examples include the exposure of historic abuse by monks at two leading English Benedictine schools and a grand jury report detailing accusations, some of them truly grotesque, against 300 priests in Pennsylvania.

And the finger of blame points ever higher. An American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, was recently removed from office following allegations involving boys as young as 11. A sickening photo from 1974 showed a gloating McCarrick, then a priest, in swimming togs with his arm around the bare waist of one of his alleged teenage victims.

Another prince of the church, the Australian cardinal George Pell, has been ordered to stand trial over historical claims of abuse. Pell’s countryman Philip Wilson, the archbishop of Adelaide, resigned after being convicted of protecting a paedophile priest in the 1970s.

In Chile, three bishops quit under a similar cloud. Thirty-one others offered their resignations, indicating some degree of culpability. Only months earlier, Pope Francis had dismissed accusations against one of the offending bishops as slanderous.

The pope has now issued a letter apologising to all Catholics. I wonder what the Latin translation is for “too little, too late”.

Here in New Zealand, the Church continues to shudder at a steady stream of sordid disclosures.

Two recent examples: the late Father Michael Shirres of Auckland, a theologian and authority on Maori spirituality, who admitted abusing a young girl – although it’s suspected there were many others – and was quietly placed on a sex offenders programme; and Fr Magnus Murray of Dunedin, who remained a priest for nearly two decades after his offending against boys was revealed to his bishop. He eventually admitted 10 charges and was jailed in 2003.

Records show that Murray was shifted from parish to parish while his past was kept secret – the so-called geographical solution.

The scale and impunity of offending by priests beggars belief. A 2012 American documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, chronicled in chilling detail the brazen, systematic abuse of vulnerable boys and young men and the ease with which the perpetrators – playing on their standing in communities that were conditioned to revere priests – were able to evade accountability for their monstrous acts.

All Catholics should watch Mea Maxima Culpa, as painful as it might be.

The offenders were typically charismatic and confident – so confident that they would even abuse boys during the rite of confession. The Church hierarchy was principally concerned with protecting itself, quietly paying off complainants and binding them to declarations of confidentiality.

How far up the hierarchy did the cover-up extend? “The higher you go, the more they know,” said a former Benedictine monk who now counsels victims of clerical abuse. 

Courageous whistle-blowers within the Church have been ostracised as troublemakers – even traitors. 

All these themes are explored in the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally’s book Crimes of the Father. It’s a rather plodding novel but Keneally, who once trained for the priesthood, accurately depicts what you might call the “atmospherics” of the Church – the calcified rituals, the obeisance to hierarchical authority and the resistance to outside scrutiny.

It goes without saying that preying on the young and vulnerable, and cynically taking advantage of parents’ reluctance to believe that priests could do anything wrong, is the antithesis of what the Church is supposed to stand for.

I say this as someone who grew up immersed in Catholicism and remains what Keneally calls a “cultural Catholic” – someone who, like him, rejects Catholic dogma but has absorbed Catholic values and can empathise with those who have stayed loyal to the Church.

I feel sorry for the many blameless and dedicated Catholic clergy who must live with the taint of suspicion, and for the many devout and genuinely holy Catholics who have remained staunch despite being repeatedly failed (betrayed might be a more accurate word) by their leaders. Obviously, they see beyond “the cold and largely self-interested corporation” – Kenneally’s term for the Church – to something much nobler.

There seems to be two Churches. One is rotten and diseased while the other remains true to the faith.

The Catholic Church as an institution needs its doors thrown wide open, metaphorically speaking, so that a cleansing wind can blow through. Perhaps it needs another Martin Luther to purge it of its impurities, or a bloodless coup by lay people.

A good start would be to allow priests to marry, which might go some way toward destroying the Church’s appeal to sexually dysfunctional men seeking a shelter in which to safely pursue their warped predilections.

Another would be to give equal status to women, who have a proud history in the Catholic Church of standing up to the vain, controlling males who have made such an ungodly mess of running the show.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

I'm a bit happier now than I was a few weeks ago

So where are we, after a month of fervid debate about freedom of speech?

Call me a pollyanna, but I reckon we’re in a slightly better place than before.

I didn’t feel so optimistic when Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux were barred from speaking in Auckland Council-owned venues, and even less so when the owners of the Powerstation in Ponsonby were intimidated into reneging on an earlier agreement to host the Canadians.

In both instances it seemed a victory for the enemies of free speech. The message was clear: all that’s needed to deny someone a platform is to make a lot of angry noise and threaten disruption. Presto – problem solved. The safety and security mantra not only gave risk-averse officials an out but, more importantly, got Gauleiter Phil Goff out of a hole after he had self-righteously taken it upon himself to decide what views his fellow New Zealanders could safely be exposed to.

At the risk of labouring a point, I should repeat that the debate wasn’t about the Canadians’ ideas, although the protesters tried to frame it that way. It was about the right of New Zealanders to hear them and make up their own minds. Even now I don’t know whether I agree with Southern and Molyneux on anything, because they never got a chance to tell us what they were on about.

Newshub’s Patrick Gower could have helped enlighten us when he interviewed them, but he blew his chance because he was more interested in trying to score points. By the time the Canadians flew out, the only conclusion I’d come to was that they were a pair of rather egotistical self-publicists and probably not the sort of people you’d want to be confined with in a small room.

So that was Round One of the great free speech debate, and I admit that it left me feeling pretty morose. I should know better than to take much notice of media opinion, which has probably never been less reliable than now as a barometer of what the public is thinking, but the hostility of the media commentariat toward Southern and Molyneux did lead me to wonder what hope there could be for free speech when the very people who depend on it, such as columnists and bloggers, were so vigorously attacking it.

But then Massey University vice-chancellor Jan Thomas did us the great and unexpected favour of introducing Round Two by barring Don Brash from the Massey campus, and suddenly the tone of the debate changed completely. The backlash against Thomas, from across the political spectrum and in media forums that had been uncertain about Southern and Molyneux, was emphatic, salutary and heartening. New Zealanders may have been uncertain whether the Canadians were suitable pinups for the cause of free speech, but they had no trouble deciding that Thomas’s attempt to portray the mild-mannered Brash as a dangerous demagogue and a threat to student safety was preposterous, and that the underlying reason for her objection to him must therefore be ideological.

Thomas apparently issued her edict on the basis of a single letter from an overwrought student railing against what he called (quite erroneously) Brash’s “separatist and supremacist rhetoric”. It was a spectacularly inept own-goal, made worse by public indignation that Thomas, an Australian and a relatively recent arrival at that, should consider herself entitled to decide what New Zealanders could safely say to each other. Ironically, the speech that Brash never had a chance to give barely touched on the divisive issues that Thomas was so nervous about.

So where does all this leave us now? Well, we’ve had had a useful and frank debate about freedom of speech. At times it has been overheated. I admit I’ve contributed to that febrile atmosphere myself, because few issues are more important to me and I sometimes have a rush of blood to the head.

It would be wrong to say a consensus has been reached, because everyone has their own idea of what free speech should look like, but I think we have a much better appreciation of how important free speech is. Most importantly, there has been a concerted pushback against those who want to restrict it. The strident alarmists who cry “hate speech” at the distant sound of a contrary opinion haven’t been silenced, but they no longer dominate the debate and I suspect their smug self-assurance has taken a bit of a knock.

There has also been an outpouring of support for Brash, who is unquestionably the most vilified man in New Zealand. Some of this support has come from leftists to whom Brash’s brand of neo-liberalism is anathema, but who nonetheless uphold his right to be heard. In fact one of the most striking aspects of the entire debate has been the ringing defence of free speech from old-school Marxists. They have a particular reason to champion free speech, because restrictions on free speech have historically been used in an attempt to crush them.

This doesn’t signify any softening of their ideological line. It will be a cold day in Hell before they agree with Brash – but they understand, even if a younger generation can’t see it, that free speech benefits everyone; or to put it another way, that an attack on one person’s right to free speech is an attack on everyone’s.

That generational difference is something else that has emerged over the past few weeks. It’s the idealistic young – some call them snowflakes – who seem least comfortable with free speech, and I wonder whether they don’t value it because in their lifetime it’s never been seriously challenged. It’s a long time since the repressive Muldoon era, longer still since the 1951 waterfront dispute – when the right of free speech was shamefully curtailed – and longer again since World War Two, when New Zealanders died resisting fascist totalitarianism. Even taking those events into account, New Zealanders have little history of having to fight for our democratic rights (we’ve had no revolutions or wars of independence) and as a result we perhaps don’t cherish them quite as much as we should.

In fact I think all of us who have participated in the free speech debate, on both sides, are guilty of a certain smugness. We’re able to say exactly what we think without having to fret about the secret police banging on the door in the middle of the night. Would we be so heroically outspoken if we lived in Russia or Iran, or even Fiji? Somehow I doubt it. All the more reason, then, to uphold those rights we enjoy.

Difficult questions remain, and may always remain. Anjum Rahman from the Islamic Women’s Council, who appeared on Q+A last week, pointed out that real hate speech was allowed to prevail in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, with catastrophic consequences for humanity. How do we guard against that happening again? There’s no obvious easy answer.

Nonetheless I remain at the libertarian end of the spectrum when it comes to free speech. I support the right of Holocaust deniers to spout their crazy theories and of Valerie Morse to burn the New Zealand flag on Anzac Day, even if she then hypocritically seeks to deny others the right to give offence. I support the right of protesters to demonstrate when Brash speaks at Auckland University, but not when the purpose is to drown him out.

In a liberal democracy, all points of view should be exposed and all ideas tested, but there are no sharp, bright lines between what’s acceptable and what’s not. This argument will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.  But I’m more comfortable now than I was a month ago, when the needle on New Zealand’s tolerance-of-free-speech dial seemed stuck at the wrong end. It’s shifted since then to a point where New Zealand really does seem to be the open, broad-minded democracy I have long imagined it to be. The challenge now is to make sure it stays that way.

AFTERTHOUGHT: When I wrote this post a few days ago, I omitted one other very important point. When it looked as if protesters had succeeded in preventing Don Brash from speaking during a debate at Auckland University, the crowd insisted on Brash delivering his speech in full and without disruption. It was an emphatic rebuff to the protesters, and even more encouraging was the fact that it wasn't what you might call a Hobson's Pledge audience, but a diverse one in terms of age and sex. Free speech was very clearly the winner on the night.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Free speech and the illiberal left

(First published in The Dominion Post on August 9, but I've added an important footnote here.)

If the furore over the Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux achieved nothing else, it at least destroyed the myth of the so-called liberal Left.

Extremists on the Left have been misappropriating that honourable word “liberal” for decades, aided and abetted by news media that seemed not to recognise that “liberal Left” had become a howling contradiction.

A handful of genuinely liberal Leftists still exist, and some were brave enough to speak out in favour of free speech. But those few exceptions aside, the Left now stands exposed as the antithesis of classical liberalism.

No one should be in any doubt that free speech, a fundamental hallmark of liberal democracy, is under concerted attack. We have confirmation of that from Massey University’s Australian vice-chancellor Jan Thomas, who has introduced to New Zealand the repugnant practice known elsewhere as no-platforming – denying speaking rights to anyone who doesn’t meekly fall into line with leftist orthodoxy.

Thomas vetoed a talk by Don Brash, supposedly on the basis that it raised safety issues, but her accompanying comments made it clear she was swayed by personal ideological objections.

In any case, who was likely to pose a safety risk? Certainly not Brash, who is unfailingly civil even when under venomous attack, and whose proposed speech had nothing to do with the contentious issues Thomas referred to. The risk, if there was one, would have come from those who want to shut him down.

I believe the Left targets Brash not because he holds extreme views, but for precisely the opposite reason: a large number of New Zealanders agree with him. That makes him a potent threat.

But Thomas may have done us all a favour. She has laid bare the authoritarian bigotry that thrives in institutions which once stood for intellectual freedom.

She has also provoked an almighty backlash, much of it from people who didn’t quite know what to make of Southern and Molyneux but who certainly recognise censorship and suppression of dissent when they see it.

Now, back to that word “liberal”. Liberalism is defined as being open-minded rather than prejudiced. It means favouring individual freedom, tolerating different opinions and being open to new ideas.

The supposedly liberal Left are none of these things. They have closed minds and fixed world views. They are intolerant of people who see the world differently, to the point that they will they harass, intimidate and shout down anyone who disagrees with them.

They invoke the right of free speech for themselves while seeking to deny it to others, as was seen outside Parliament recently when a crowd of pro-choice protesters created a barrage of noise with the aim of overwhelming a quiet and peaceful pro-life demonstration.

They don’t like others sharing freedom of speech. They want it all for themselves.

They use the loaded term “hate speech” to denigrate ideas they don’t like and to demonise anyone who dares express them. But the only hateful speech I heard during the Southern-Molyneux furore came from angry shouters on the Left.

Anyway, who defines “hate speech”? They do, on their own self-serving terms.

Those protesting against Southern and Molyneux even had the nerve to label the people they sought to silence as fascists and Nazis, which shows no understanding of history and even less sense of irony.

Fascists and Nazis use coercion to impose their will. It follows that if there have been any fascists and Nazis active in New Zealand over the past two weeks, it’s those who were determined to deny New Zealanders the right to hear what the Canadians had to say, and to decide for themselves whether it was hateful.

But while the illiberal Left made sure that Southern and Molyneux were denied a public platform, we have at least had a useful debate about free speech – one which, thanks to Thomas, is bound to continue.

Interestingly, most mainstream media comment was openly hostile to the Canadians. An outside observer would have formed the impression that New Zealanders were united in their distaste for the visitors.

Perhaps that’s what encouraged prime minister Jacinda Ardern to make the presumptuous statement that she was proud her fellow New Zealanders didn’t share the Canadians’ views. But an opinion poll conducted by Newshub – admittedly not a scientific sample – showed that 78 per cent of respondents thought Southern and Molyneux should be allowed into New Zealand, and by logical implication that New Zealanders should be permitted to hear them speak.

In any case, the prime minister got it wrong. This debate was not about whether New Zealanders shared the Canadians' views. It was about our right, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights Act, to "seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind and in any form".

FOOTNOTE: Since this column was submitted for publication 48 hours ago, there have been many ringing declarations of support - triggered by the Massey ban on Brash - for free speech. Some of the most powerful and unequivocal have come from the left, and even the hard left. If I were writing the column now, I would have to draw a sharper distinction  between the honourable, old-school left who understand the value of free speech, and the fragile (and mostly younger) creatures who shriek with horror when confronted with ideas they don't like.    

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Arthur Miller's epigram no longer holds true

One of the most striking points to emerge from the free-speech furore has been the failure of the media to reflect public opinion.

In my column in the Dominion Post today, I noted that a Newshub poll – not a scientific opinion sample, but still an indication of what the public was thinking – showed that 78 percent of New Zealanders thought Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux should be allowed into the country. (This was when their immigration status was still in doubt.)

It can be inferred from this that the majority of people believed the Canadians should be allowed to speak here – and more to the point, that we should be allowed to hear what they had to say so that we could make up our own minds about whether their views were harmful or hateful.

But you would never have guessed this from commentaries in the mainstream media, which were overwhelmingly hostile to Southern and Molyneux. As I wrote in my column, an outsider would have formed the impression that New Zealanders were united in their distaste for the visitors. Those who spoke out in defence of free speech, such as Don Brash, were generally caricatured by the media commentariat as pathetic dinosaurs and even as a threat to public safety.

There is a jarring disjunction here. The American playwright Arthur Miller famously defined a good newspaper as a nation talking to itself, but something has gone seriously wrong when the media seem so demonstrably out of touch with what ordinary people are thinking – and worse, when some in the media treat those they disapprove of with sneering contempt, lazily labelling them as racists without attempting to answer their arguments.

There is no rule that says the media should fall into line with popular opinion (God forbid), but they do have some obligation to reflect it, especially if they wish to remain credible.

To be fair, the picture improved markedly with media coverage of Massey University’s decision to ban Brash, which resulted in some spirited (if somewhat belated) defences of free speech. But Massey’s authoritarian edict was such an egregious affront to democracy that it could hardly be ignored.

And even then, some in the media couldn’t help parading their bias. Today’s Morning Report included a travesty of a panel discussion in which the three participants, egged on by Susie Ferguson, all piled into Brash – like-minded leftists united in smug, bigoted, intellectually snobbish groupthink.

Radio New Zealand, as a public broadcaster, has a special duty to observe principles of balance but it is routinely ignored, and rarely more shamefully than this morning. RNZ seems to have decided that it need only cater to the demographic group known as chardonnay socialists, and to hell with everyone else. I feel sorry for the employees there – there must be some – who take its charter obligations seriously.

Incidentally, we’ve heard a lot of semi-hysterical hyperbole in the last few weeks about something ill-defined called hate speech, but the great irony is that the New Zealander most subjected to hateful vilification is the very man who’s constantly accused by the left of fostering it.  

The perils of imported appointees

(First published on and in Stuff regional papers on August 8.)

I wonder if Shane Jones, the Minister of Macho Bluster, had a point when he called for a New Zealander to be appointed the next chief executive of Fonterra.

After all, our biggest company hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory under the leadership of the Dutchman Theo Spierings, who will quit later this year, or his Canadian predecessor.

And while it may be simplistic to assume that a New Zealander would do the job better, Jones has focussed attention on one of our more peculiar national quirks: namely, the assumption that important jobs are best given to outsiders.

We kid ourselves that we’ve outgrown the old cultural cringe whereby we automatically defer to people from supposedly more advanced societies, but the syndrome persists.

This is most evident in the public sector, where British appointees, in particular, are rife in both national and local government. It would be a rare Morning Report that didn’t include at least one interview with a bureaucrat whose formative work experience was gained in a country 20,000 kilometres away – one with a culture quite dissimilar to our own, and becoming less like us with every passing year.

Brits tend to be naturally officious, gravitating to jobs that often involve administering rules and regulations. They come from a more rigid, rule-bound society – one described last year by the British author Lee Child, who chooses to live in New York, as “very managed and precious, the epitome of a nanny state”. 

They also tend to carry a bit of nationalistic baggage from the days of empire, and with it a belief that British ways are naturally superior. This doesn’t always gel with our more casual, egalitarian culture.

No doubt many of them are competent administrators, but you have to wonder whether some bring attitudes, values and mindsets that don’t transfer easily to a New Zealand setting.

This probably matters less where decisions on pure policy are involved – as at the Treasury, where former British public servant Gabriel Makhlouf runs the show – than in jobs that call for an intuitive understanding of New Zealand culture and the ways in which it is unique.

Another risk with high-level imported appointments is that they may have no emotional stake in New Zealand or long-term commitment to the country. The New Zealand gig may be just another step on their career path. If they screw things up, they can walk away and start afresh somewhere else.

The public sector doesn’t have a happy record with overseas appointees. Remember the unfortunate Englishwoman Lesley Longstone, who lasted only 15 months as Secretary of Education? A Massey University academic euphemistically commented at the time that she was possibly not well-equipped to read the New Zealand mood.

Another Englishman, Michael Houlihan, brought big ideas with him when he took over as chief executive of Te Papa, but his disastrous four-year tenure resulted in massive financial losses and a lot of unhappy staff. It remains to be seen whether the man now in charge - a Welshman - has a better handle on what it takes to run a New Zealand museum.

Then there was the embarrassing case of Stephen Wilce, a senior Defence official recruited from Britain, whose dazzling CV turned out to be largely a work of fiction.

Questions might even be asked about the wisdom of putting an Irishwoman, Grainne Moss, in charge of Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Children.  

She’s obviously capable and committed (she swam the English Channel at the age of 17), but her background is in the aged-care and forestry sectors. There’s little in her CV to indicate she has the empathy and understanding necessary to run a ministry that’s up to its eyeballs in intractable social issues and has a very substantial Maori and Pasifika clientele.

Were there no suitable New Zealand applicants for these key jobs, or didn’t we bother to look locally? I have a friend in the corporate sector who claims that executive recruitment agencies prefer to cast their net overseas because it gives them an excuse to fly around the world and stay in posh hotels.

Part of the problem is that some of the most capable Kiwis end up taking their talent abroad because this country is just too small for them. Conversely I suspect we attract a lot of second-rate people from other countries because the bar is lower here. I suspect this is especially true in academia.

But it’s not just the public sector that seems to remain locked in a mindset that people from overseas have better ideas about how to run our affairs than we do. Under an English chief executive, New Zealand Football comprehensively lost its way and managed to alienate the entire Football Ferns team by importing an Austrian coach whom no one liked.

Both men are now on their way home, and deservedly so. But how often must we repeat these mistakes before the message sinks in?

FOOTNOTE: This column was written before Massey University vice-chancellor Jan Thomas issued her edict banning Don Brash from  speaking on campus. Thomas is an Australian who has been in the job since January 2017. Her background is in veterinary science. She is not a New Zealand citizen, but considers herself entitled to determine what New Zealanders can safely be allowed to say to each other. Whoever appointed her can now bask in the knowledge that she has done serious damage to Massey's reputation and probably succeeded in alienating more New Zealanders than any Australian since Greg Chappell.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Sick to the pit of my stomach

Where should I start?

Perhaps with the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. She told reporters on Saturday that she was proud her fellow New Zealanders didn’t share the views of the Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux.

But how would she know New Zealanders don't share their views? We never even got a chance to hear what their views are, still less decide whether we disagreed with them. That’s what this whole shameful episode was about.

In any case, I’m not aware of any opinion poll that showed what New Zealanders think about Southern and Molyneux. Does the prime minister claim some preternatural insight into what’s going on inside New Zealanders’ heads?

Then there’s Newshub’s Patrick Gower. Perhaps I should have started with him.

Gower interviewed Southern and Molyneux (it wasn’t screened, but you can see it online) and afterwards told newsreaders Samantha Hayes and Mike McRoberts that it was one interview he wouldn’t forget for a while, “and not for any good reason”.

Er, quite so. Gower complained that the Canadians’ response to his questions was “attack-like” and that they indulged in “intellectual nitpicking”. But it was Gower who set the tone of the interview with a needling, aggressive approach which seemed to proceed from the assumption that the two were purveyors of hate speech, whatever that might mean.

He can’t blame the Canadians if they fought fire with fire and left him floundering on more than one occasion. Interviewers who throw punches can’t complain if their subjects strike back.

It was not Gower’s finest moment. At one point he accused Molyneux of indulging in a rant – “rant” now being the favoured New Zealand way of dismissing any expression of opinion that someone else doesn’t like.

The Southern-Molyneux furore cried out for some sober, dispassionate journalism that sought to explain to New Zealanders why the Canadians have aroused such fury.  Well, Gower was not the man to provide it. In fact throughout this saga, the media generally have made little or no attempt to probe beyond the hysteria and the simplistic name-calling. (An example was Newshub’s panel show The Project, where “racist” – a word rendered almost meaningless by misuse – seemed to be the juvenile insult du jour.)

It’s not good enough to tell us, as Gower did in his news report, that Southern and Molyneux had made “controversial comments’” about indigenous Australians. What were these comments, exactly? If we knew, we could decide for ourselves whether they deserved to be called controversial, and whether they justified the hysterical hostility the Canadians encountered in Auckland.

Similarly, it was not good enough for Radio New Zealand to say they made “disparaging” remarks about Aborigines. Tell us what they were, for heaven’s sake, and let us decide whether they were “disparaging”. I don’t trust journalists to pronounce that something is “disparaging” or “controversial” and expect us to meekly accept their word that whatever was said was reprehensible.

A few facts would be helpful, rather than shallow, subjective judgments. But throughout this affair we have repeatedly been expected to accept unquestioningly that Southern and Molyneux are “fascists”, “racists” and purveyors of “hate speech”, as if there were settled definitions of what those overheated terms mean.

Now, where else could I have started? Oh, yes – that placard carried by a protestor at Saturday’s “Rally against Racism” in Aotea Square. “Fascist trash”, it said, in a clear reference to the Canadians. Another placard depicted a swastika with the word “Nazis”.

Pardon me, but who are the real purveyors of “hate speech” here? I have yet to see or read anything said by Southern and Molyneux that could be construed as hateful. Objectionable to some people, perhaps, but not hateful.

But to call someone “fascist trash”or a Nazi – now that strikes me as crossing the boundary between robust attack and crude, unreasoning abuse. It is, however, entirely consistent with the many other derogatory labels that have been promiscuously hurled around over the past couple of weeks as if undergraduate insults convey some immutable and settled truth.

Then there’s Shane Te Pou. Gower reported a verbal exchange in the reception area at MediaWorks involving Te Pou, who just happened, by a strange coincidence, to be standing at the reception desk when the Canadian visitors left after their interview.

Te Pou is a Labour Party activist and former Labour candidate, although Gower’s report omitted to mention that (which also seems a bit odd). Te Pou later told RadioLive that he had suggested to the Canadians that they catch the next flight home, “and don’t let the door hit you on the backside on your way out” (although I suspect that “backside” was not the word he used).

It was uncouth and unprovoked, but typical of the febrile rage that has spread like a contagion as the hard left mobilised and rarked itself up over the Canadians.

There are other players in this ignoble affair who deserve a special mention. One is the idiotic NewstalkZB talkback host Marcus Lush, who told callers on Friday night that the denial of a venue for Southern and Molyneux was a victory for free speech.

In Lush’s tortured logic, the people who bullied the owners of the intended venue into cancelling the Canadians’ engagement with only a few hours’ notice were exercising their right of free speech. ouseSomeone should try to explain to him that free speech actually doesn’t triumph if it deprives someone else of the opportunity to speak. That’s the triumph of the baying mob, pure and simple. And the lesson is that if you make enough noise, if you threaten violence and boycotts and disruption, then you’ll bully people into backing down.

I don’t know whether I agree with the views of Southern and Molyneux, and I suspect I might not like them much as people. Molyneux in particular strikes me as a bit strident and dogmatic for my taste. But New Zealanders are entitled to hear them and decide for themselves whether their views are poisonous. Our democracy isn’t so fragile that we need protecting from mere opinions. The Bill of Rights, after all, guarantees not only the right to express all manner of views, but for others to hear them.

Not that this matters to the smug, myopic prigs who celebrated in Aotea Square. It wouldn’t occur to them, in their overweening self-righteousness, that they are hypocritically insisting on their own right to free speech while denying it to others. Neither would it occur to them that a dangerous precedent is set for everyone – them included – if society decides it’s okay to silence anyone with unpopular opinions.  Who’s to say that couldn’t be used against the left in future? The sight of them congratulating themselves on suppressing someone else’s rights made me sick to the pit of my stomach.

The case against "constructive journalism"

Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch this morning featured an interview with Stuff journalist Nicola Brennan-Tupara, who’s promoting the notion of “constructive journalism”. She’s seen it in action in Denmark, where the Danish Broadcasting Corporation has evidently adopted a policy of not depressing the hell out of the Danes by relentlessly bombarding them with bad news.

It’s an approach I have some sympathy for. A good editor will always try to ensure that bad news is leavened with more positive stuff. But the inescapable fact is that news, by definition, is about the unusual; anything that’s outside the norm. And what’s outside the norm is often bad.

To give an example, it’s not news if the 6.47am commuter train from Masterton to Wellington arrives safely and on time. But it is news if the train breaks down and catches fire in the middle of the Remutaka Tunnel.

You can try to brighten up the news with cheerful items, but tragedy, misfortune and conflict are always going to make up a substantial part of any newspaper or TV bulletin, and editors would be failing in their duty if they set out to suppress it. After all, the function of journalism is to reflect, as accurately as possible, the world as it is, not as some of us might wish it to be.

Besides, “good news” journalism has been tried before and it doesn’t work. Some people might complain that they don’t watch the TV news because it brings them down, as Brennan-Tupara says (heck, even I sometimes give the 6pm bulletin a miss at the end of a gruelling week), but they will soon see through a bland, sanitised news diet that misrepresents what’s happening in the world.

Of course there’s scope for news items that present the better side of the human condition, which is what Brennan-Tupara seems to be on about. But a zealously pursued “constructive journalism” policy risks being misleading and even downright dishonest. It could also serve as a smokescreen for social engineering, of which we have a surfeit already.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that much of the bad news that features so frequently in the New Zealand media – for example, stories about poverty, inequality, homelessness, climate change and obesity – is promoted by agenda-driven leftist reformers whose doom-laden claims are unquestioningly accepted by sympathetic journalists who shirk the hard questions.

Much of this is opinion dressed up as news and given a spurious aura of credibility because those pushing it have academic titles like “doctor” and “adjunct professor”. If there’s any category of bad news that could be dialled back (note that I say “dialled back”, not suppressed), I’d suggest this might be a good place to start.