Friday, May 29, 2020

Redefining racism in 21st-century New Zealand

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, May 28.)

Trevor Richards, once famous as the driving force behind Halt All Racist Tours (HART), recently wrote an essay in which he reflected on the history of New Zealand race relations.

He recalled growing up in a country where history was viewed entirely through a Pakeha lens and the notion of racism was hardly acknowledged. 

I grew up in the same era and recognised the country he described. We learned little about Maori history or culture at school and the Maori world only occasionally overlapped with that of white New Zealand. Racism was something I associated with America’s Deep South.

Richards went on to deride what he clearly regarded as a smug belief that New Zealand enjoyed the best race relations in the world. I found this criticism a bit more problematical.

I can see why, when viewed through an ideologically pure 21st century lens, aspects of the old New Zealand could be seen as racist, if only in a passive way. But I also believe a persuasive case can be made that by world standards, our race relations were admirable.

We were a highly integrated and harmonious society.  It’s easy to judge ourselves harshly now, but it was reasonable to look at race relations in other countries – Australia and the United States, for example – and conclude that ours were pretty good.

Of course much has changed for the better since then, and people like Richards can take some of the credit. But I wonder what purpose is served by denigrating past conduct and attitudes, other than to congratulate himself on his own enlightened thinking. It struck me as an exercise in presentism: the tendency to interpret and judge the past according to contemporary values.

And here’s something else that struck me. Richards freely used the words “racism” and “racist” to describe the New Zealand of that era, but nowhere did he attempt to define those terms. No one ever does. I think it suits activists to leave them loose and undefined. That way the words can mean whatever the user wants them to mean.

On that note, it was disappointing that Sir Robert Jones abandoned his defamation action earlier this year against the Maori film maker Renae Maihi, who had called him a racist. I had hoped the trial might result in the judge attempting to pin down the exact meaning of the word.

For what it’s worth, here’s my own attempt at a definition. I believe racism is the belief that some races are inherently superior or inferior to others, and that discriminatory treatment is therefore justified. But discussion about racism in New Zealand is muddied by the fact that the definition has deliberately been stretched to encompass virtually any statement or action that is perceived as not favourable to Maori or other minority groups. 

We are told, for example, that it’s racist not to have unelected Maori representatives with voting powers on city or district councils. Or that it’s racist to object to roadblocks set up to inhibit the public’s freedom of movement and to police iwi “borders” that have no basis in law.  In effect, any opposition to the activist Maori agenda is routinely condemned as racist.

But surely another definition of racism is the assertion by one racial group of rights that are not available to others. Try to imagine, for example, how far a Pakeha group would get trying to block public roads without legal authority. Is this the new racism?

Truth is, the situation described by Richards has largely been turned on its head. We have moved down a path to a form of institutionalised separatism so well-entrenched that people barely notice it.

We have special funding for Maori affected by Covid-19 (over and above the billions for the community at large, as if Maori suffer differently), separate Maori streams in public policy formation, an unelected and inscrutable iwi leaders’ forum that exerts influence at the highest levels of government (and behind closed doors), Maori control over lakes and rivers, state-funded Maori media outlets that confuse journalism with advocacy, special courts for Maori youth and “cultural reports” for Maori defendants, preferential quotas for Maori medical trainees and elaborate mechanisms for iwi engagement on major public projects, regardless of whether they specifically impact on Maori. I could go on.

Then there’s the matter of the Maori seats in Parliament, which survive even though 20 of the 27 Maori MPs currently in Parliament were elected from the general rolls. Oh, and the country has acquired a quasi-official Maori name without any public mandate. (If we want to become Aotearoa, fine – but let’s do it properly, through a referendum.)

In almost every area of public policy, Maori are treated as having separate, exclusive needs. We have been persuaded that this is necessary to remedy 180 years of disadvantage. But at what point do we realise we’ve over-corrected and created a society where racial division is permanently built in and officially sanctioned?

Thursday, May 28, 2020

New Zealand English falls prey to a linguistic pandemic

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, May 27.)

I’m not sure whether this qualifies as some sort of psychological disorder, but I have become mildly obsessed with the way we use the English language. It’s reached the point where I find myself frequently jotting down newly observed quirks of linguistic usage and pronunciation.

Some of these irritate me because they’re lazy or ignorant, but just as often I’m simply curious about how they originated and fascinated by the speed with which they take hold. They are as virulent as the most rampant pandemic and as invasive as old man’s beard.

One example is the use of “surgeries” in place of “operations”. My Oxford New Zealand Dictionary, published in 2005, doesn’t define “surgery” as an operation and lists no plural form of “surgery” other than doctors’ surgeries – i.e., the premises where GPs work.

But somewhere along the line, “surgeries” has morphed into a synonym for “operations”. The takeover is now so complete that the latter word is rarely used.

How did this come about? Beats me. “She had three surgeries” conveys no more information than “she had three operations”. But someone, somewhere, decided surgeries was the preferable term, and it took off like a fire in the fern.

The pluralisation of “surgery” is consistent with the equally inexplicable fashion of putting an “s” on the end of other nouns that previously didn’t have one, such as “harm” and “behaviour”.

A British language writer perceptively noted recently that people who talk about “harms” and “behaviours” tend to be the same ones who begin statements with the word “so” – another linguistic practice with no obvious purpose.

Academics and bureaucrats are particularly prone to such usages. Linguistically they are early adopters – eager to embrace new trends, presumably to show they are ahead of the game. Language, after all, has always been a potent means of demonstrating exclusivity and superiority. That’s why so many academics take refuge in pretentious, impenetrable gibberish.

Now here’s another weird thing: “pupils” have become “students”. There has always been a sensible and commonly understood distinction between these words. Children are pupils while they’re at primary school and become students when they move on to secondary school and later to university.

But primary school pupils are now routinely referred to in the media as students, and logically it’s only a matter of time before kindergarten-aged children are similarly labelled. This may result from a misapprehension that the word “pupil” is somehow demeaning, in the same way as “actress” and “waitress” are commonly but mistakenly thought to imply inferiority.

Thus language becomes an ideological tool for putting everyone on the same level, theoretically at least. In the process, English is robbed of words that helpfully convey a precise meaning.

But if some changes in the usage of words may be explained by ideology, others can only be attributed to ignorance. Twice recently I’ve heard broadcasting journalists, one quite senior, say “exasperated” when they clearly meant “exacerbated” – a muddling of two words that sound vaguely similar but have completely unrelated meanings. 

Some journalists also confuse “formally” with “formerly” and “incredulous” with “incredible”, and mangle their tenses – for example, using rung instead of rang and shrunk when they should have said shrank. The present generation of journalists may be the most educated ever, in terms of paper qualifications, but their understanding of basic grammar is often poor.

Does it matter? I suspect some journalism tutors would say no, as long as the meaning is clear. But the rules of grammar exist for a reason. Journalism depends on precision and clarity in the way sentences are constructed and words are used. Meaning can be blurred by sloppy writing.

Speaking of grammar, another distinction in danger of being lost is the one between adjectives and adverbs. We’ve all been exhorted recently to “drive safe” and “shop local”.  Apparently that extra “ly” – safely, locally – is just too darned cumbersome.

Harmless? I suppose so. In any case, we have to accept that English is in a constant state of flux. But the puzzling question remains: how and where do these linguistic fashions start? “Bored of”, instead of “bored with”, is another. Do these usages originate in some linguistic equivalent of a Wutan wet market?

Last but not least, there’s the relentless advance of American English. Recently heard Americanisms include grocery store for supermarket, yard for garden, to-go for takeaway and the ridiculous “reached out to” for contacted.

We can expect to see more instances of the conjunction and vanishing, resulting in such phrases as “go see this movie” or “come stay with us”. American pronunciation is gaining ground too; “route” is increasingly pronounced to rhyme with “out” and the emphasis is shifting to the first syllable in “address”. This is especially noticeable among millennials.  

I have nothing against American English; it’s swell in America. But language is a key part of our culture and identity, and we should treasure it as one of the things that sets us apart.

On the other hand, perhaps we should at least be thankful that we’ve been spared some of the more exceptionally unpleasant Americanisms, such as sonofabitch, asshole and mother****er. Long may it stay that way. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Muller could take a lesson from BoJo

A bit of free media advice to Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye (and I’d happily offer the same advice to Labour politicians): don’t allow yourself to be manipulated into playing the media’s game.

There are journalists in the parliamentary press gallery (and I’m sorry, but the name Tova O’Brien springs to mind again) whose modus operandi is to probe constantly for any sign of weakness, conflict or contradiction, and to pounce triumphantly when they uncover anything that looks remotely capable of being blown into a scandal. They then sanctimoniously editorialise about it to an audience that often can’t see what the fuss is about and probably couldn’t care less.

Their mission is to make mischief. Paddy Gower was another master of this game. As I wrote in a profile of Paddy years ago for The Listener (remember The Listener?), political journalism in the 21st century has become essentially a form of sport.

Exposing hypocrisy, inconsistency and double standards is a legitimate function of journalism, but something’s out of kilter when catching politicians out begins to look like its raison d’etre.

O’Brien – and possibly other reporters too, although I got the impression she was the principal provocateur – sprang a trap for the new National leadership team and they obligingly walked straight into it.

If they deserve ridicule for anything, it’s not that Muller failed to include a Maori in his shadow cabinet; that’s just another confected outrage stirred up to produce a lead item for the 6 o’clock news bulletin, like the MAGA cap.  No, the reason they should feel embarrassed – and why questions should be asked about their judgment – is that Muller and Kaye (and even more astonishingly, their media advisers) apparently failed to see this coming. Did it not occur to them that in an era obsessed with identify politics and minority grievances, someone would demand to know why they had an all-white front row?

As an aside, Muller could have easily avoided this by promoting one of the party’s capable Maori MPs to the front bench; perhaps Shane Reti, who seems an impressive performer. It needn’t have been seen as tokenism, since Labour appears unembarrassed by having Kelvin Davis as its deputy leader – a status presumably acquired on the basis of his Maori roots rather than through ability and achievement.

By this morning, Muller seemed to have regained his equilibrium and was saying what he should have said yesterday: namely, that he chose his front-bench line-up on the basis of ability and merit, and with a focus on broad issues. End of story. Voters can show at the ballot box whether they agree with his choices; isn’t that how democracy is supposed to work?  

Advancing transparently absurd pleas in mitigation – such as citing Paula Bennett at No 13 in the rankings, and even more comically identifying the palpably Pakeha Paul Goldsmith as Ngati Porou – was playing the media’s game. It looked desperate and pathetic – but worse, it looked weak.

Muller should have taken a lesson from Boris Johnson, another conservative politician with his feet to the fire, and stood his ground. The public would have respected him more for it. He should at least give the impression of having faith in his own judgment even when he doesn’t.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Welcome home, Stuff

The acquisition of Stuff for $1 by CEO Sinead Boucher is arguably the best possible outcome for the company, and potentially a good one for the country. 

Crucially, it places a major media player, albeit a terribly weakened one, back in the hands of a New Zealand owner with a solid grounding in journalism – one that I hope will be reflected in a renewed commitment to traditional journalistic values.

I’ve been critical of Stuff’s strategy in dealing with the enormous challenges of the digital era. In particular I felt the company made the mistake of allowing itself to be mesmerised by the false promise of digital at the expense of its traditional print product, which generated most of its revenue. But it’s hardly the only media company to have made such mistakes.

In the process of switching its primary focus to the internet, and in the carnage that followed as papers were downsized, rationalised or closed, Stuff alienated many of its core readers and dispensed with some of its most capable and experienced staff, which I found hard to forgive.

But now we have the prospect of a fresh start, and I wish Sinead and her 700 employees, many of whom I have worked with (indeed, still do), nothing but the best. They now have a basis on which to plan for the future. Few things would give me greater pleasure than to see a revival of a vigorous and profitable New Zealand-owned print media.

One lesson to emerge from all this, as I’ve written before (and as former New Zealand Herald editor-in-chief Gavin Ellis emphasised in a recent blog post) is that we should never again allow major media outlets to fall into the hands of foreign owners with no real commitment to New Zealand and no emotional stake in our affairs. As both an expression and a reflection of national identity, with a crucial role to play in helping to shape and sustain an informed democracy, the New Zealand news media are far too important to fall under the control of outsiders interested in this country only as long as they can extract profits.

German-owned Bauer Media showed the depth of their commitment when they callously and needlessly destroyed much of the value of their long-established magazine titles by shutting them down without warning, meaning that anyone who now buys them must try to rebuild them from scratch rather than take them over as going concerns. At least Stuff’s former owners, Australia’s Nine TV network, handed over a company still in working order.

Ironically, the one foreign media owner who did right by his New Zealand interests – at least for the several decades that he controlled Independent Newspapers Limited, which Sydney-based Fairfax acquired in 2003 – was the much-reviled Rupert Murdoch. In hindsight, he looks positively benevolent.

Disclosure: I spent much of my newspaper career with what was then INL, including more than two years as a not terribly distinguished editor of The Dominion, one of the two Wellington papers that merged in 2001 to become The Dominion Post. I continue to provide regular columns to that paper and to other Stuff titles, although how long that will continue – as with everything in an industry where the ground is constantly shifting – remains to be seen.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Two more reasons why the public have lost faith in the news media

We live in the age of the media sideshow. In Britain, the press is in a state of uproar because Boris Johnson’s closest adviser, Dominic Cummings, broke the lockdown rules to drive 400 kilometres to his parents’ home, apparently so that extended family could care for his four-year-old son.

It doesn’t look good, especially when his wife was showing coronavirus symptoms and Cummings, according to Johnson, was worried that he would contract the virus himself. There were surely other ways of making sure their son was looked after.

But it’s worth noting that the story was broken by The Daily Mirror and The Guardian, two papers aligned with the left. The British left loathe Johnson, deeply resent his popularity, and will use any means they can to damage him.

Cummings makes it easier for them because he’s personally unpopular and appears to revel in his image as a master of the dark political arts. He’s also resented within the Conservative Party because of his perceived influence over the prime minister, which probably explains why some Tory MPs are demanding his head on a platter.

Yes, this is an issue for Johnson, and he’s characteristically tackling it head-on. It’s refreshing to see a political leader standing his ground rather than meekly capitulating to sanctimonious left-wing media bullies, as so many gutless centre-right politicians do.

Does Cummings deserve to be defended? I couldn’t say. But what’s clear is that a frenzied media beat-up has blown the issue out of all proportion. That was apparent from Corin Dann’s interview on Morning Report this morning with an over-excited Vincent McAviney, one of Radio NZ’s British correspondents.

McAviney signalled his bias when he made a snide remark suggesting that because Johnson has had multiple children with various partners, he’s in no position to talk about fatherly instincts. Really? Johnson has spread his seed around, so he’s a hypocrite for sympathising with Cummings’ desire to protect his son? Is that a gigantic non-sequitur, or what?

Warming to his theme, McAviney proceeded to paint Cummings as some sort of sinister Rasputin-type figure exercising “huge” control in Downing Street – more than anyone before him, he reckoned. Perhaps McAviney is too young to remember the egregious Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s all-powerful communications supremo, whose toxic behaviour supposedly inspired the character of Malcolm Tucker in the BBC political satire The Thick of It.

But the British journo well and truly blew any chance of being taken seriously - you could say he jumped the shark - when he cited angry tweets by J K Rowling and - get this - a former winner of The Great British Bake Off as conclusive proof of public outrage. The case rests, m'Lud. 

I wonder, do people like McAviney realise how absurd they sound? And does RNZ expect us to regard him in future as a sober and reliable observer of British politics?

Meanwhile, an equally ludicrous sideshow was playing out right here in New Zealand over the supposedly scandalous MAGA cap that someone spotted on a shelf in the office of new National leader Todd Muller.

In a comically hysterical piece in the New Zealand Herald, Damien Venuto argued that this was no innocent political souvenir brought home (along with a Hillary Clinton badge) by someone with a harmless interest in American politics.  No, it was apparently prima facie evidence of sympathy for white male supremacists.

Even the redoubtable, hard-core leftie Martyn Bradbury drew the line at this, pointing out that Venuto’s column was exactly the type of over-reaction that free-speech advocates seize on as proof of the left’s intolerance of differing views.

He’s right, but for me the greater tragedy is that woke journalists like Venuto – McAviney too, for that matter – are the reason the New Zealand public have almost completely lost faith in the media.

Friday, May 22, 2020

That media feeding frenzy: what's the point, exactly?

Coverage of the National Party leadership contest has taken up acres of newsprint and hours of airtime. Political scientist Bryce Edwards’ daily online compendium of political news and comment this morning listed 48 items about the challenge to Simon Bridges; yesterday there were 39, and that excludes much of the content on TV and radio. Yet most of it is utterly pointless, because by this afternoon we’ll know the outcome and all the feverish analysis, speculation and comment will be redundant.

Of course the public has an interest in knowing the majority party in Parliament has been destabilised by a leadership crisis. It’s also entitled to know more about the leadership challenger, who was a political Mr Nobody – at least in the eyes of the public – until a few days ago. But beyond that, much of the coverage has served only to fill space and excite political tragics.

All those opinion pieces in print and online, all those radio interviews with political commentators (some with their own undeclared interests), all those ambushes of National MPs by over-stimulated TV reporters demanding to be told who they’re going to back (while knowing there’s virtually zero chance of getting an honest reply) … it’s all as evanescent as a puff of smoke.

It’s hard to see what pressing public interest is served here. There’s little evidence that the public shares the media’s excitement, since the public – if they’re interested at all – realise all questions will be answered later today. There’s even less evidence to suggest the media feeding frenzy will influence the outcome of the caucus vote. So what’s the point?

The answer, of course, is that it feeds the commentariat’s need for drama and excitement. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has generated headlines almost non-stop since February, is tapering off and something needed to be found to fill the void. The Reid and Colmar opinion polls that showed Simon Bridges and National tanking came along at just the right moment.

Oh, and here’s another thing. Morning Report today had seven items on the National leadership crisis, including interviews with commentators Matthew Hooton and Ben Thomas. Later, someone emailed the programme objecting to Hooton being presented as an impartial political commentator, which he’s not. But who the hell is? Virtually all the “commentators” regularly trotted out by the media, from Hooton on the right to Chris Trotter on the left, are contaminated by their political leanings and connections. Some are actively involved in politics up to their armpits. They may all contribute their own particular insights, but few can claim to be pure and detached. Who knows what private agendas they might be running, or whose interests they might be covertly promoting?

Arguably the least dangerous are those whose political affiliations are well known, such as the two already mentioned. More worrying by far are those whose loyalties and agendas are not disclosed, yet who are presented as objective observers. I suspect this group may include some political journalists, whose relationships with the politicians they report on – and on whom they depend for information – are by their very nature opaque. I’m reminded of my late colleague Frank Haden’s useful dictum: doubt everyone with gusto.

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic came at a good time for Winston Peters

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, May 14.)

The coronavirus crisis has been very good for Winston Peters.

He came back from his Northland lockdown firing on all cylinders. If you wanted confirmation that this is an election year, there it was.

Perhaps he needed that spell of seclusion to recuperate from the bruising effects of a court case that blew up in his face and a donations scandal that refuses to go away.

Whatever the explanation, the Great Tuatara was quick to re-assert himself on the political stage. The Covid-19 pandemic enabled him to present himself as statesmanlike in his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs and made him look good as the saviour of New Zealanders trapped overseas and desperate to come home.

It also allowed him to promote himself as a Man of the People by disclosing that health officials had been rebuffed when they advised the government to close our borders, which would have left those travellers stranded.

It was inconceivable, Peters declared, “that we [would] ever turn our backs on our own”. He was thus able to parade as a patriot who stood firm against flint-hearted bureaucrats.

Normally such advice to Cabinet is kept confidential, but Peters went public. Did he do so in the hope that his own image, as the minister whose officials had successfully argued against the health advice, would be enhanced? Perish the thought. And shame on anyone cynical enough to suspect that Peters spoke out because he was feeling aggrieved that Jacinda Ardern was sucking up all the political oxygen and leaving none for him.

The virus scare also gave Peters an opportunity to unleash his inner Muldoonist by railing against globalisation and promoting  protectionism – all of which might have sounded appealing to anyone not old enough to remember what New Zealand was like when everything from shoes to cars was shoddily made and overpriced.

He was on equally safe ground advocating a trans-Tasman bubble, calling for greater state control over Air New Zealand and championing Taiwan’s bid, over China’s objections, for observer status at the World Health Organisation. All three moves played to populist sentiment.

Not only would Peters have been confident that the public would back his support for plucky little Taiwan, since China is seen as the nasty bully standing in the Naughty Corner, but it also had the advantage of differentiating his position from that of Ardern, who appeared less keen to buy into the controversy.

No one should be surprised if Peters exploits more such opportunities between now and the September election. Remember, this is a politician with a history of going rogue whenever he perceives the need to distance himself from his coalition partners.

All this couldn’t have happened at a better time for the New Zealand First leader. He’ll be counting on the Covid-19 pandemic to help the public forget a stream of highly damaging disclosures about his party’s dodgy conduct.

Those disclosures related to big donations made to the shadowy foundation that bankrolled the party. The donations, some of them made by ultra-wealthy individuals in fishing, horse racing, property and forestry, are now being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office – a fact that should be included in every news story about New Zealand First, lest voters succumb to amnesia.

Being subject to an SFO investigation doesn’t make the donations illegal, but it’s worth recalling that party president Lester Gray felt so uneasy about the opacity of NZ First's financial affairs that he resigned.

In any case, it’s one thing to pass a legal test and quite another to pass the sniff test, which is how voters decide whether something smells “off”. Going by what's been reported so far, the public is entitled to conclude that the NZ First Foundation was a mechanism for disguising the source of donations to the party, and thus making it hard to determine whether favours were bought.

Then there’s the small matter of the court case in which Peters sued former National Party ministers and top public servants over the leaking of his superannuation overpayment. Remember that? The case he kept quiet about, thus making nonsense of claims that post-election coalition talks in 2017 took place in good faith?

Peters may be hoping the lockdown drama will erase memory of those court proceedings, during which he backed down on his claims that Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley, whom he sued for $450,000, had leaked to embarrass him.

In the end, all the theatrical huffing and puffing came to nothing. The High Court dismissed all of Peters’ claims. But the taxpayers lost too, because the bill is expected to total more than $1 million. That’s a big price to pay for one man’s quest for utu.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Manipulative men and gullible women

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, May 13.)

In February this year, a Wellington man named Lewis Scott was convicted of rape and unlawful sexual connection.

It was the second time he had been found guilty of the same offences. After the first trial, in 2017, his convictions were overturned and a new trial was ordered. He was sentenced last month to six years in jail.

The victim alleged the rape happened after she went to Scott’s home in 2007 for what she thought was going to be a business meeting. The court heard that the offence involved considerable force.

Note the year: 2007. She didn’t lay a complaint at the time because she felt ashamed and embarrassed. It wasn’t until 2014, when she read that Scott had been convicted of raping another woman, that she summoned the courage to go to the police.

That’s right: Scott had previous form. His other victim had been raped in a room at the back of his shop. 

I remember that shop and I remember Scott, although I never met him. Lots of people knew about him because from the time he arrived in Wellington in the mid-1970s, he was something of a media darling.

An African-American and a Vietnam War veteran, he cut a flamboyant, exotic figure in grey, Muldoon-era Wellington. He wrote poetry and wore colourful kaftans. His shop, Kwanzaa, sold goods from African countries and became a gathering place for Wellington’s African community. In 2009 Scott organised a big party to celebrate President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

The media loved him. As recently as 2013, Scott was the subject of an admiring - you might almost say fawning - interview on Radio New Zealand.

It was perhaps small wonder that he was welcomed in Wellington’s arty, left-leaning circles. He would have been seen as a refugee from heartless capitalism.

Not only had he personally experienced the racism of the Deep South, where he grew up, but his social cachet would have been reinforced by the fact that young black men like him had been used as cannon fodder in an unpopular war. In the eyes of those who became his friends, he would have been almost as much a victim as the Vietnamese themselves.

But Scott was not the person he seemed. We now know he was a secret rapist. He would hardly have been the first charismatic male to take advantage of women – possibly impressionable women – who came within his orbit. 

Were there other victims too ashamed and embarrassed to accuse him publicly? It can’t be ruled out.

I wonder, too, what Scott’s old friends make of him now. Do they reproach themselves for not seeing through him? Or do they excuse his behaviour by blaming it on a dehumanising upbringing in a harsh, racist society?

It wouldn’t surprise me if that were the case, because history is littered with manipulative men who take advantage of gullible hangers-on. In fact I was reminded of Scott while reading last week about the recent death of Ira Einhorn.

Einhorn was a hippie activist and  leading light in the American counter-culture movement of the 1960s and 70s. He campaigned against the Vietnam War and later jetted around the world commanding enormous fees as a speaker on environmental issues.

He was friendly with other key counter-culture figures, including the poet Allen Ginsberg and the radical activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. But Einhorn was also a murderer who killed his girlfriend and stuffed her body into a trunk in his apartment after she tried to leave him because she was fed up with his infidelities and controlling ways. Other former girlfriends later testified that he turned violent when they ended their relationships with him.

Einhorn, in other words, was a deeply unpleasant human being and a gold-plated hypocrite. Like many frauds and phoneys who preach a gospel of liberation, he was a supreme egotist and an exploiter. He managed to elude justice for more than two decades, living in Ireland and France and surrounding himself with admiring acolytes who helped him to stay out of reach of the law.

Sadly, there has never been a shortage of people prepared to be conned by such charlatans, and willing to make excuses for them. As an obituary in The Times noted, the help Einhorn received from influential friends highlighted the moral confusions of the hippie era.

Obviously there’s a vast difference between Ira Einhorn and Lewis Scott. For a start, the latter is not a killer.

But the two cases appear to have certain factors in common. Both show how easily people with guile, audacity and a conscience deficit can deceive those whose shiny-eyed idealism gets in the way of their ability to see beyond the charismatic façade to the person beneath.

One thing can be said with certainty. There will be more Ira Einhorns and Lewis Scotts, and there will be many more victims.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Memo to Tova O'Brien: spare us the moralising

The words journalist and moralist happen to share the same last five letters, but beyond that they have nothing in common. So what makes some television journalists think their job entitles them to share their sanctimonious (and often simplistic) moral judgments on the events of the day?

Their function is to report the news and leave viewers to form their own conclusions. They have no more moral authority than a bus driver or supermarket checkout operator.

Newshub’s political editor Tova O’Brien is an habitual offender. She was at it again last night, self-righteously declaiming – prompted by leading questions from newsreader Mike McRoberts – on the government’s failure to anticipate and head off every personal misfortune suffered as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

O’Brien reported that a woman had her publicly funded breast surgery cancelled and had to pay for an operation with her own money. Another cancer patient had to be told by phone rather than face-to-face that the illness was terminal. A woman miscarried but her husband wasn’t allowed into the hospital to comfort her. A new mother said she felt “disempowered” because she was unable to have the water-birth that she had planned and complained about being treated like an animal, which I suspect might have been just a tad melodramatic.

Oozing empathy and indignation, O’Brien lamented that Kiwis (we’re always referred to using the folksy term “Kiwis”, never as New Zealanders) had to face these “heartbreaking” experiences alone. Tragedies that were impossible to bear were made even harder, she said. Later she resorted to the emotive phrase “horror stories”. Of course.

But hang on. New Zealand is in the middle of an unprecedented medical and economic emergency that no one saw coming. The ground is shifting day by day, almost hour by hour, under the government’s feet as it scrambles to deal with issues no New Zealand government has faced before. Inevitably, a lot of people will suffer sad and painful consequences; politicians and bureaucrats can’t anticipate every personal tragedy and salve every psychological wound.

Oh, but O’Brien thinks they can and should. Fortunately for her, journalists are able to take refuge on the moral high ground. They are in the privileged position of observing and critiquing without actually having to take responsibility for finding solutions to the myriad unforeseen problems they report. They are even free to grandstand at the prime minister’s daily press conference and insist that something be done, then note with smug satisfaction that the prime minister has promised to act.

O’Brien has previous form. It was she who led the media charge against Health Minister David Clark when he broke the lockdown rules. Clearly, she wanted a scalp to hang on her belt. Okay, so Clark acted stupidly and embarrassed the government. Even cabinet ministers do dumb things. But O’Brien pursued him so fiercely that I half-expected her to call for the reinstatement of the Nuremberg war tribunals. 

Again, fortunately for O’Brien - in fact all journalists - their own lives aren’t subject to the same remorseless scrutiny that public figures must endure. If they were, they too would be revealed as flawed – in some cases deeply flawed – human beings. (And lest this be misconstrued, I'm not alluding here to O'Brien, whose private life I know nothing about.)

What, then, makes them think they’re entitled to impose their bumper-sticker moral judgments on their audience, night after night? They certainly can’t claim to represent public opinion. Few people are in a worse position to gauge what the public is thinking than press gallery journalists, trapped as they are in their own little self-absorbed Wellington bubble.

Why can’t they just stand back, tell us what’s going on, free of emotive or moralistic embellishment, and leave the viewers to decide for themselves what to make of it all? They might find that by doing so, they’ll win back some of the respect journalists have lost.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

One morepork, two moreporks

You sometimes have to smile at the confusion that can result from misguided attempts to display cultural sensitivity.

Many New Zealanders (me included) long ago dropped the “s” from the plural form of Maori names and words, since there’s no “s” in the Maori language. Hence Maoris became Maori, tuis became tui, pauas became paua and so forth – this despite a valid argument that as long as the words were being used in English, the English practice of adding the “s” should be followed.

Where it starts to get a bit silly is when people become so locked into the habit of dropping the “s” that they reflexively start doing it with non-Maori words too. There’s an example in a story about native birds in today’s Dominion Post, which quotes a Te Papa bird expert as saying that “morepork were common around Wellington”.

Hello? Morepork is an English word (onomatopoeic, since you ask – the same bird is found in Tasmania, where it’s called the mopoke). Ergo, the same practice should be followed as with the plurals of other English bird names – for example, thrushes, seagulls, hawks. So, moreporks and fantails, though not tuis and wekas – or rurus or piwakawakas, come to that. 

Because the morepork in this instance was mentioned in the context of birds that are commonly known by their Maori names, either the bird man or the reporter (I don't know which, because the bird man was quoted using reported speech) apparently couldn't see the distinction.

Friday, May 1, 2020

They might be polite bullies, but they're still bullies

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, April 30.)

Pssst. Don’t mention the checkpoints.

That seems to have been the rule followed by politicians and much of the media in the five weeks since Hone Harawira and his supporters took the law into their own hands and began stopping travellers in the Far North.

The official response has been to either ignore the checkpoints or pretend they are a non-issue. On the few occasions when interviewers have asked hard questions about them, government politicians and police have danced around the question of whether they’re legal.

If they were confident of their legality, they would surely say so. That leads us to conclude they are not. They are, in fact, an audacious and calculated challenge to the rule of law.

Until this week, even Opposition MPs seemed strangely hesitant about raising the subject. Either National was frightened of being labelled as racist, or it didn’t want to risk being seen as less than 100 per cent committed to the fight against Covid-19.

In the mainstream media, the issue has been treated as a minor diversion; an inconsequential sub-plot to the main narrative. NewstalkZB’s Mike Hosking tried unsuccessfully to pin down the prime minister on the issue this week, but otherwise there has been little critical examination of the checkpoints’ legality and still less of what they might lead to, which is potentially an even more problematic issue.

Meanwhile the checkpoints have spread like … well, like a virus.

From the Far North and the East Coast, they have spread to Maketu in the Bay of Plenty, to Murupara on the fringe of the Urewera and now to Taranaki. In recent days, iwi elsewhere have asserted control over lakes and rivers by means or rahui, or bans – again, of dubious legal status.

Along the way, there has been a significant shift in the justification for the highway checkpoints. At the start, their purported purpose was to protect vulnerable Maori communities in remote places – an objective many people could sympathise with, even though the checkpoints were set up with no mandate or legal authority other than a nod and a wink from the police (and in Northland, from the mayor).

But the original pretext began to look less convincing once checkpoints started materialising in places where there were no isolated communities to protect, and it looks even less so now that the government has announced that the coronavirus is technically eliminated, which means the worst risk has passed. It's worth noting that Tairawhiti, which includes the East Coast, is one of four regions with no current cases of the virus.

This being the case, you might expect the vigilantes to pack up and go home. But not only are the checkpoints still there, there are more of them. This suggests that the purpose is something other than the protection of Maori communities.

Join the dots. Iwi activists watched what was happening in the Far North and the East Coast, noted that no one tried to stop it, and decided to organise their own checkpoints elsewhere. All of which was utterly predictable.

Under the smokescreen of the coronavirus crisis, the activists are boldly advancing a separatist agenda. Their objective is clear from their statements that they are policing their “borders”, which implies tribal sovereignty. And the longer they are allowed to get away with it, the messier it’s likely to be when the legally constituted authorities who are supposed to govern this country intervene.

For the moment, public unease has apparently persuaded the police to take a more active role in the checkpoints. But it’s clear they are involved only in a supporting role, if they’re present at all.

Pressed to clarify the situation, Jacinda Ardern and police commissioner Andrew Coster have kicked for touch with statements of masterful ambiguity. Coster sounds much surer of himself when he’s wagging his finger at dangerous lawbreakers driving the family Honda to the beach to take the dog for a walk. This is called picking the low-hanging fruit. 

Note that I use the word checkpoint rather than roadblock. That’s because the roads, to my knowledge, aren’t physically blocked.

Defenders of the checkpoints say no one is forced to stop. But a powerful psychological factor comes into play when motorists see people – often quite large people – standing on the road wearing masks and hi-vis jackets, surrounded by traffic cones and holding signs saying “stop”.

Most people’s natural instinct is to comply, whether they’re obliged to or not. That instinct is likely to be reinforced if people on the checkpoint are wearing gang insignia, as at Murupara. Small wonder that those defending the checkpoints insist that people are happy to stop.

And having stopped, many people are either too timid or too uncertain to refuse to give personal details or answer questions about where they are going, even though their interrogators have no right to ask such questions.

Intimidating people into stopping when they're not legally required to is bullying, pure and simple. Sure, the vigilantes might be polite. But that merely makes them polite bullies.

Footnote: This column has been amended since publication yesterday morning to take into account National's questioning of Andrew Coster at the meeting of the Epidemic Response Committee later on the same day. But the question remains: what took them so long?

Thursday, April 30, 2020

China must be held to account

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, April 29.)

When – or should that be if? – the world gets on top of the Covid-19 pandemic, attention must turn to the issue of Chinese culpability.

In an ideal world, President Xi Jinping and the government of the People’s Republic of China would be presented with a bill for reparations, but that’s not going to happen. No amount would be big enough to atone for the massive economic and social harm done internationally, and China wouldn’t pay anyway.

Nonetheless, China – or more specifically the Chinese Communist Party, since the Chinese people are blameless – must be held to account. Beijing must be made to realise there are consequences for allowing the coronavirus to leak across China’s borders and for silencing courageous people who tried to alert the world to the looming catastrophe.

The first of those consequences is the loss of trust. The world must now see that the image China has assiduously cultivated over several decades – that of a benign emerging power willing to play by the rules – is a sham. To put things bluntly, China has played us for suckers.

Chinese culpability for Covid-19 starts with its tolerance of “wet” markets, where captive live wild animals are a potential breeding ground for lethal diseases.

At a stretch, wet markets – cruel and unhygienic though they are – might be condoned on the basis that they’re a long-standing cultural practice. But nothing could excuse China’s failure to warn the World Health Organisation about the disease, as it was obliged to do, or its punishment of whistle-blowers.

In the meantime, travellers were allowed to carry the contagion around the globe. If China’s aim was to cripple Western economies, it couldn’t have done a better job. Just saying.

And it wasn’t the first such time. In 2002, China allowed vital weeks to pass before notifying the WHO of the Sars pandemic.  As with Covid-19, the communist regime’s obsession with secrecy and self-protection outweighed its concern for even its own citizens, who were kept in the dark.

Countries that have previously courted Chinese favour, including New Zealand, should now be appraising their relationships with Beijing in a much more critical light.

Not only has China revealed itself to be untrustworthy, but its aggressive global ambitions can no longer be disguised or ignored. These are most apparent in the South China Sea, where China has put military installations on artificial islands, originally created for supposedly peaceful purposes amid strategic shipping lanes.

In a recent discussion on America’s National Public Radio, US foreign policy specialist Michele Flournoy, who’s tipped as a possible Secretary of State in the unlikely event that Joe Biden wins the presidency, said China for decades had pursued a policy of “hide and bide” – hiding its real agenda while waiting for the right time to drop its mask, as she put it.

Xi’s ascendancy to the Chinese leadership was the moment the mask fell, Flournoy said. To which she might have added that the coronavirus pandemic was the moment the West took off its blinkers and realised that China is interested in behaving as a good international citizen only when it suits it to do so. 

Meanwhile, China’s ascendancy continues. In trade, it’s using the so-called Belt and Road Initiative to extend its economic influence over a large swathe of the globe. Less conspicuously, and by means that are often incompatible with the way things should be done in transparent democracies, it is exploiting political, diplomatic, business, academic and cultural channels to acquire influence in other countries’ affairs – a trend highlighted by Professor Anne-Marie Brady of Canterbury University, a courageous lone voice on Chinese interference.

Regrettably, there seems to be no shortage of high-profile New Zealanders happy to be schmoozed by Beijing. John Key had an audience last year with Xi, who said he hoped the former prime minister would continue to enhance the friendship between the two countries. The state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Key as praising Xi for his “vision and leadership”. All very chummy.

Another former prime minister, Jenny Shipley, served until last year (when she was implicated in the disastrous collapse of Mainzeal, of which she was a director) on the board of the state-controlled China Construction Bank, one of the world’s biggest financial institutions. 

New Zealand, like many countries, has allowed itself to become economically reliant on China and cannot easily disentangle itself.

Even America took a fatally complacent view of Chinese expansionism, allowing China to steal millions of manufacturing jobs and build a vast technology sector based largely on American innovation.

Chanting the mantra of globalisation, Western leaders encouraged China to take an active role in world trade. America even sponsored China’s membership of the World Trade Organisation. 

Successive US administrations, both Republican and Democrat, thought that if China was opened up to the world, the country’s leaders would reciprocate by playing a responsible part in international affairs, just as Germany and Japan did after America aided their revival following World War II.
In hindsight, it now looks a bit naïve. But to use an epidemiological metaphor, the lessons of the past few months may at least serve to inoculate the world against future delusions about China’s trustworthiness.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Guest post: Alwyn Poole

Alwyn Poole has kindly allowed me to post the following commentary. An innovative thinker on education issues, Alwyn was the founder of two successful partnership or “charter” schools (officially known as designated special character schools) in Auckland and co-founded Innovation Education Consultants.
The Value of a Life
It is astonishing how quickly key foundations of education and society can become twisted or subverted. A genuine proponent of education advocates important foundations: question everything, critique everything, suggest and evaluate counter scenarios (and other “experts”), ask who gains and who loses from a particular action, attack the argument and not the person. Children, youth and indeed all citizens need to apply these principles to current events and what appears to be deep moral confusion.
Everyone dies. It is maybe the least digestible fact of life, but the rate of death in every generation is 100 percent. I complained about this to my mother once and she placated me by saying that it wouldn’t happen to me. I was eight years old and at that stage accepted my immortality. In New Zealand in 2018, 33,225 human beings died. That is a little over 91 people per day. Apart from media coverage of road deaths and murders these deaths, by and large, pass unnoticed except for those close enough to attend the funerals.
In 2020 we have suddenly decided, as a society caught up in a global emergency, that these lives are more important than ever before. We have decided this to the extent that we have severely damaged significant sections of the economy, drastically restricted human rights, and allowed a very small sector of government to create edicts without due process or challenge.
New Zealand is a tiny country. If we were an American state we would rank approximately 24th by population, making all comparisons of Jacinda Ardern’s job to that of Donald Trump fatuous at best. Her role is closer to that of governor of a small state. We are highly disconnected geographically and uniquely placed to make our own decisions. We are resource-rich and relatively well educated. We should be looking at the big health picture and not being dragged into an international bunfight to prove that we can deprive citizens of their rights better than any other for very little relative gain.
As of yesterday, 19 New Zealanders had died from Covid-19. It could be argued that without state intervention it could have been more. You could argue the same if you chose not to have speed limit enforcement or mental health services. If 2020 is reasonably typical we will see around 670 people die from suicide (2.5 men for each woman, and disproportionately Maori). We will see approximately 70 homicide deaths. If this year is typical around 200,000 of us will get influenza (even with the ’flu vaccine being widely available) and between 400 and 500 will die either “with” or “because of” this virus.
Around 30 percent of our premature deaths will involve cancer and many of those will be associated with lack of early detection, alcohol and an unwillingness to seek help. At the other end of life we have thousands of babies born each year with foetal alcohol syndrome; suffering that we could surely ameliorate with the right spending and education for pregnant women.
The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, to which New Zealand is a signatory, says “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth”.  In New Zealand, we have suddenly decided that every life is of incredible value and yet we ignore this declaration. Justice Minister  Andrew Little looked uncommonly gleeful when changing the abortion law and telling Kiwis that they did not deserve a say through a referendum. There were 13,282 unborn children who lost their lives in 2018 in our life-valuing nation. It is also more than ironic that in this year’s elections, when we are desperate to save every life, we will be voting on euthanasia.
Turning to suicide, a very credible US study has concluded that the correlation between unemployment and suicide is that for every 1 percent increase in unemployment there is a 21 per 100,000 increase in suicides. In New Zealand, brilliant mental well-being campaigners like Mike King and Paul Whatuira have struggled to get even a sideways (excuse the pun) glance from government to support their wonderful work. If we truly value life as we now seem to have chosen to do, these two men and others like them should never have to ask again. We are all touched by suicide (my birth dad’s choice of exit was a shotgun to the head); it is time to do ALL that we can.
John Donne was brilliantly right: “Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
I miss my parents and many others. We are right to take a strong stand to value life and be against premature death. What we should now ask of our leaders is that they be consistent and place equal value on the risks, both physical and mental, for all people. One of the important roles of teachers in a crisis situation is to hear students’ questions and concerns with an open mind and allow them to work their way through things. Suppressing this process can only lead to conformity for the sake of it and a deep sense of helplessness.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Coster: a masterclass in fudging

So the police are belatedly having second thoughts about the roadblocks set up by iwi vigilantes. But it’s several weeks too late, and even now Police Commissioner Andrew Coster can’t bring himself to categorically state what is obvious to everyone  – namely, that the checkpoints are illegal – or make a commitment that they will be removed.

Interviewed on radio this morning, Coster floundered as he tried to justify what plainly cannot be justified. He indicated that the police would be more actively involved in what are euphemistically called “community checkpoints” but left listeners unclear as to whether they would be allowed to continue.

In the meantime, checkpoints that were originally justified on the basis that they were protecting vulnerable Maori in remote places, such as the Far North and the East Coast, have materialised at locations where there’s no such justification, such as Maketu in the Bay of Plenty, where a Mongrel Mob member reportedly prevented a 70-year-old man from going to buy milk.

The figleaf of justification is further diminished now that health authorities are making real headway against Covid-19, meaning the risk of infection is being reduced by the day. Yet the checkpoints remain. This gives a clue to their real purpose, which has less to do with keeping elderly Maori safe than with asserting Maori control and defying the law to do anything about it.

Challenged on whether the checkpoints were illegal, Coster took refuge in bureaucratic flannel. He said while it was understandable that local communities were concerned about the coronavirus, they were not “specifically authorised” to undertake “checkpoint-type activity”. That’s a masterful bit of fudging.  

His rationalisation seems to be that police were willing to tolerate checkpoints at the outset, but the situation has changed now that the risk of widespread infection has receded. That’s a convenient way of retrospectively justifying the dangerous precedent the police created by allowing Harawira to go ahead without any mandate or authority. (It bears repeating that Harawira lost his parliamentary seat in 2014 and was roundly rejected by Maori voters again in 2017, raising questions about who, if anyone, he represents.)  

The time for the police to act firmly was weeks ago, at the outset. Why they failed to step in is unclear. Timidity? Misplaced cultural sensitivity?

And we still don’t know whether the checkpoints will be disbanded. Coster said the police were now “actively working to ensure that there is a police presence or indeed preferably that the checkpoints cease because the risk to our communities is lower”. More fudging.

On Morning Report, Corin Dann put it to Coster that residents of Muriwai Beach, near Auckland, were concerned about a possible influx of outsiders once the country goes to Level 3 and asked what the police would do if Muriwai locals – whom  I guess are overwhelmingly Pakeha – took matters into their own hands and established a roadblock.

His reply was a masterpiece of bureaucrat-speak. “Level 4 controls have aligned with the way various communities have gone about trying to manage movement that is inappropriate. But we cannot have communities running checkpoints preventing movement that is permitted under whatever level we’re in.” He went on to say police would ensure that “people who are entitled to use the road are free to do that”.

Interpret that how you will, but I took it to mean the police would not look favourably at any attempt to set up a checkpoint at Muriwai. So why is it apparently okay at Maketu? And when, exactly, did the police decide that people’s freedom of movement shouldn’t be infringed? Form your own conclusions.

The one thing most people would heartily agree with Coster on was his statement that “it’s not in anyone’s interests to let things escalate to the point where you have a bigger problem than you started with”. Er, precisely.

Meanwhile, he’s warning that the police will crack down on anyone deemed to be travelling beyond their permitted area once we go to Level 3. “Our message is very clear,” Coster told Mike Hosking on NewstalkZB. Except that it isn’t. The police talk tough when it comes to pulling errant motorists into line but tip-toe around people who blatantly defy their authority.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Only New Zealanders can judge Ardern

The latest edition of the left-leaning American monthly magazine The Atlantic includes a piece about Jacinda Ardern that might be described as fulsome. Most journalists wrongly use this word as a synonym for extravagantly generous, as in “fulsome praise”. But strictly speaking, fulsome means nauseatingly sycophantic or excessive. To be truly fulsome, the praise must be laid on so thickly that the automatic reaction is to screw your nose up at the excess of it all.

Journalist Uri Friedman pretty much satisfies that requirement with his profile of our prime minister. The tone is set by the headline: New Zealand’s Prime Minister May Be the Most Effective Leader on the Planet. The following blurb carries on in similar vein, declaring that “Jacinda Ardern’s leadership style, focused on empathy, isn’t just resonating with her people; it’s putting the country on track for success against the coronavirus.”

Friedman writes: “Her leadership style is one of empathy in a crisis that tempts people to fend for themselves. Her messages are clear, consistent, and somehow simultaneously sobering and soothing. And her approach isn’t just resonating with her people on an emotional level. It is also working remarkably well.”

Make no mistake, Friedman dug deep before reaching these conclusions. His principal source seems to have been Helen Clark, Ardern’s mentor and former boss – a thoroughly objective observer, in other words.

Clark told Friedman that New Zealanders feel that Ardern “doesn’t preach at them; she’s standing with them”. She continued: “They may even think, Well, I don’t quite understand why [the government] did that, but I know she’s got our back. There’s a high level of trust and confidence in her because of that empathy.”

The other source quoted in Friedman’s article, an American who’s described as an international relations scholar at Victoria University and former US Defense Department official under the Obama administration, largely echoes Clark’s assessment. “She [Ardern] doesn’t peddle in misinformation; she doesn’t blame-shift; she tries to manage everyone’s expectations at the same time [as] she offers reassuring notes,” Friedman quotes Van Jackson as saying in an email. “She uses the bully pulpit to cue society toward our better angels—‘Be kind to each other’ and that kind of thing. I think that’s more important than people realise and does trickle down into local attitudes.”

Friedman goes on to cite Ardern’s “informal and informative” Facebook Live chats. “During a session conducted in late March, just as New Zealand prepared to go on lockdown, she appeared in a well-worn sweatshirt at her home (she had just put her toddler daughter to bed, she explained) to offer guidance ‘as we all prepare to hunker down’.” 

Later in the article, he writes: “In a more recent Facebook Live, one of Ardern’s staffers walked into her office just as she was launching into a detailed explanation of what life would look like once the government began easing its lockdown. ‘Oh look, it’s Leroy!’ she exclaimed, assuring viewers that he was in her ‘work bubble’. A children’s toy was visible just behind her desk. The scene seemed apt for an era in which work and life are constantly colliding.”

That these folksy-sounding interludes may have been orchestrated to reinforce Ardern’s media image doesn’t appear to have occurred to Friedman. (I’m not saying they were, but a little journalistic scepticism might be in order.) He might also have noted the conspicuous placement of a photo of Michael Joseph Savage on a shelf behind her in a televised speech from her office in the Beehive. It would mean nothing to an American journalist, of course, but it would resonate with many New Zealanders, subtly conveying the impression that Ardern has inherited the mantle of New Zealand’s revered first Labour prime minister – the man entrenched in political mythology as the saviour who hauled the country out of the depths of the Great Depression.

For the record, I think Ardern has done a pretty remarkable job handling the Covid-19 emergency. At her daily press conferences she comes across as composed, assured and personable. There’s little hint of the immense pressure her government is under.

Considering that only three years ago she was a newly installed deputy leader of the opposition with no experience in government, still less any preparation for the demands of leading a country through not one but three major political crises (the Christchurch mosque attacks, the Whakaari/White Island eruption and now this), her coolness and apparent decisiveness under pressure is almost preternatural. 

Moreover, I don’t believe her affability (or as Ardern would pronounce it, affabilidy) is phony. I don’t think anyone could fake that charm for all this time, and under all this intense scrutiny.

Neither do I doubt her sincerity. But when all is said and done, she’s a politician and will do whatever works for her. In her case that means oozing empathy, appearing on Facebook Live in a grungy sweatshirt and smiling a lot (even when what she’s saying isn’t particularly cheerful, a habit she may have picked up from Clark). Her response to the mosque attacks made her a global media superstar, and naturally she’s going to play to that strength.

Even so, Friedman has allowed his admiration for Ardern to override any sense of journalistic detachment. He could have approached any number of New Zealand sources for a more measured assessment of Ardern, but that’s probably not what The Atlantic and its readers want. Journalists (even those on The Atlantic) love stereotypes, and the image the world media have built around Ardern is that of a warm, caring Madonna.

The only acknowledgment that New Zealanders are not unanimously enamoured of the prime minister comes when Van Jackson suggests that Ardern, like Barack Obama, is “polarising at home [while] popular abroad”.  It’s the most perceptive observation in the piece; Friedman would have done well to take note of it.

There have been other articles in a similar vein. CNN carried an item headlined Lessons in leadership: New Zealand’s virus response which highlighted Ardern’s announcement that the Easter Bunny had been declared an essential worker – a bit of Kiwi whimsy bound to appeal to those accustomed to thinking of politics as staid and humour-free. A column in the Financial Times headlined Arise Saint Jacinda, a leader for our troubled times (was a subversive headline-writer taking the piss?) described Ardern as “a model of compassionate leadership”. London-based New Zealand freelance journalist Laura Walters suggested Ardern’s “clear and decisive” leadership made Boris Johnson look floundering and ineffectual. Meanwhile, back at home, Stuff columnist Sue Allen, whose background is in PR (or as they prefer to call it now, “communications”), wrote that Ardern’s daily press conferences were “appointment viewing”. (Allen also praised the clarity of the government’s pandemic messages, but in fact they were – and still are – often fuzzy, ambiguous and inconsistent.) And of course there was that piece in the Washington Post by the paper’s Beijing bureau chief, New Zealander Anna Fifield, which portrayed the government under Ardern as showing the way in the fight against the coronavirus.

There’s a common factor here. Many of the journalists cooing with approval are young(ish) women, like Ardern. It would hardly be surprising if they felt an affinity with her and wanted her to succeed. The same is probably true of the female journalists in the Wellington press gallery, which may explain the largely uncritical coverage Ardern gets domestically. The old journalistic notion that reporters should try to distance themselves emotionally from their subject has been suspended.

But an additional factor comes into play when the journalists are outsiders. Many overseas journalists’ perceptions of Ardern are coloured by their disdain for their own leaders. They look at Ardern – young, female, left-wing, intelligent, articulate, empathetic (that word again) and attuned to concerns like climate change and multiculturalism – and lament that their fellow Americans (or Brits, or Australians, or whatever) are too dumb or racist or myopic to elect someone like her. Behind every homage to Ardern penned by a star-struck journalist from overseas, there’s a sense of hurt and resentment that they’re saddled with leaders they see as yesterday’s politicians – male, stale, pale and worst of all, conservative.

New Zealanders lap all this up, of course. Friedman’s article was reported in the New Zealand media as if it were the voice of God. We love to be noticed, and never more so than when other countries look up to us. (After decades of sheep jokes from across the Tasman, it’s taken as the ultimate compliment that many Australians, especially those from the achingly woke inner-city suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, gaze longingly at our prime minister and fervently wish she were in The Lodge in Canberra instead of Scott Morrison. They just know that Jacinda would never have gone to Hawaii on holiday while her country was burning.)

But while we may feel a warm glow reading these adulatory appraisals of Ardern in the foreign media, they don’t amount to a hill of beans, as she must know. Because ultimately, it’s only what New Zealanders think of their leader that counts.

Years ago, I stopped being a judge in the New Zealand newspaper awards because I reasoned that the only people in a position to know whether a paper was doing a good job were the people who read it every day, 52 weeks a year – not a group of outsiders making their decisions based on what the paper considered were its four best issues of the year. The same applies to prime ministers. Only New Zealanders are entitled to decide whether Ardern is doing a good job.

There was a parallel of sorts in the 1980s and 90s, when extravagant praise was showered on Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson by overseas admirers of their economic reforms. While I supported many of those changes, it jarred with me that Douglas and Richardson were lionised on the international conference circuit. The reforms may have looked great when seen from the glass towers of New York and London, but the economic shock and dislocation experienced in New Zealand led to a far less sanguine view at home. That explains why Jim Bolger, noting Richardson's unpopularity, came to regard her as a liability and sacked her as Finance Minister.

But back to that Friedman piece. Arguably his biggest mistake was the premature assumption that Ardern and her government have shown the way to beat Covid-19. While that assessment may yet prove to be true, it’s almost certainly coloured by the writer’s obvious liking for Ardern and his desire for her to succeed. But defeating the disease is one thing; dealing with the economic mayhem created in the process is a potentially much tougher challenge. And in the end, all the glowing reports from overseas journalists will count for nothing, because only New Zealanders will be in a position to judge how well Ardern has done.