Monday, December 31, 2018

My Law of Unattractive National Traits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 28, 2018

Why I've become a pessimistic traveller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 3, 2018

The purpose of journalism

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

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

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

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