Saturday, April 17, 2021

Best in show - really? Des Gorman on New Zealand's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic

If New Zealand were Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Professor Des Gorman would have had the Alexei Navalny treatment by now. Government agents would have broken into his house and spread Novichok on every surface.

Like the Russian dissident whom Putin’s goons tried to eliminate, the distinguished University of Auckland medical professor insists on presenting a narrative that’s jarringly at odds with the one pushed by the people in power.

Fortunately New Zealand hasn’t got to the point of liquidating dissenters, though you couldn’t blame Gorman if he made a habit of checking under his car bonnet before turning on the ignition.

In a recent Leighton Smith podcast, the eminent medical academic was witheringly disparaging about New Zealand’s response to Covid-19, saying the government was caught with its pants down when the pandemic struck and hasn’t got any better since. “The only thing we had going for us is our geography.”

He described the public health system as being in a parlous state, citing its failure to deal with measles and ’flu epidemics, and said the response to the coronavirus pandemic had been “driven by political optics”.

He highlighted the government’s initial reluctance to close the border and the Health Minister’s resistance to the compulsory wearing of masks – as urged by experts such as epidemiologist Michael Baker, and eventually adopted – as examples of dangerous complacency.

Gorman accused the government of cultivating a culture of fear while simultaneously spinning the message that New Zealand was “best in show – the envy of the world” when in fact, countries such as Taiwan had “left us for dead”.

Most damningly, he reeled off a series of government claims that were contradicted by the facts. “‘All Russian crewmen have been tested’; no, they hadn’t. ‘They’ve all been in quarantine’; no, they hadn’t. ‘All the border workers have been tested’; no, they hadn’t. ‘No people are leaving quarantine early’; yes, they are. ‘There’s no mixing and mingling’ [in quarantine]; yes, there is. ‘There’s plenty of ’flu vaccine; no, there isn’t. ‘Nurses have plenty of PPE’ [personal protective equipment]’; no, they haven’t.

“I don’t know how many times we’ve been misled,” Gorman said. Yet he acknowledged that most people think the government has done a wonderful job. People who are frightened are more likely to accept authoritarianism, he suggested.

Gorman didn’t let the media off the hook, either. He said that with a few exceptions such as Newshub’s Michael Morrah, NewstalkZB’s Mike Hosking and Smith himself, journalists were saying what they thought people wanted to hear. “When you have the media and the government navigating [by] a populist star, you get a low level of critical thinking.”

Gorman’s critique comes as the government’s credibility is looking increasingly thin. Morrah continues to do sterling work in highlighting discrepancies between what politicians and officials are saying about the management of the pandemic and what’s actually happening “on the ground”. The latest inconsistencies arose over assurances that GPs were primed and ready for action on the delivery of vaccines – a statement that obviously came as news to doctors on the front line, who had heard nothing.

The sainted Ashley Bloomfield, in particular, keeps getting caught out telling fibs, though most New Zealanders don’t want to consider the possibility that he might be just another public sector careerist who can’t be counted on to tell the full, unvarnished truth, especially if it reflects unfavourably on his ministry’s handling of the pandemic.

Peter Williams is the latest to cast doubt on Bloomfield’s reassurances about how well everything’s going. In a recent commentary, the Magic Talk host quoted Bloomfield as saying serious adverse reactions to the Covid-19 vaccine were being managed appropriately and none required hospitalisation. Williams continued: “Now I know, and you know, that is not true. Because we had a woman on this show the week before last who was admitted to hospital after getting the vaccine and she was off work for at least two weeks and when I spoke to her on March 24th she was only then getting back to normal after three weeks.

“I know who she is, and who she works for. So I’m very concerned that we are not being given the full truth here about the adverse reactions, and when these vaccine numbers are rolled out every week, I think we should keep a very, very close eye on those numbers from the CARM [Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring] in Dunedin.”

Meanwhile, Jacinda Ardern’s practised earnestness (you know that pained, imploring expression she wears when she’s explaining to reporters why the government has to do things it really rather wouldn’t do?)  is looking increasingly forced too, especially when she tries to wriggle out of an awkward corner by dumping on a security guard who supposedly lied to his employer about getting tested (neatly side-stepping the point that if half-decent systems were in place, the lie would have been picked up months earlier).

So much for Ardern’s entreaties to “Be Kind”. That one’s coming back to bite her.

Gorman, of course, is right. When the history of New Zealand’s management of Covid-19 comes to be written, it will record that almost every government action to protect the country happened too late, and then only after politicians and officials were forced into action because a sceptical journalist (there are still a handful, thank God) or alert opposition MP (not a lot of them either) exposed glaring deficiencies in their performance or flagrant porkies in what the country was being told.

It makes you wonder whether Hosking might be right when he says, as he did in this commentary on Thursday, that it’s only sheer dumb luck that’s getting us through.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Why we should be sceptical about Kris Faafoi's grand broadcasting project

In a previous life, I served for two years as a member of the Library and Information Advisory Commission (LIAC).

You’ve never heard of it? That’s hardly surprising. Not many people have. It was established by Helen Clark’s government for the purposes of, among other things, “maintaining a strategic overview of the library and information sectors” and “providing stakeholder perspectives on issues and proposals”. Make of that what you will.

I was nominated for a seat on the board by the Newspaper Publishers’ Association and accepted, naively thinking LIAC might occasionally deal with issues related to freedom of information.

I can’t pretend it was an onerous job. It involved driving to Wellington once every couple of months for an all-day meeting where various people reported on various things and we were given a pleasant but simple lunch. For this I was paid a modest emolument.

Our minister was Marian Hobbs, whose responsibilities included the National Library. I recall the board strolling across Molesworth Street to the Beehive for a meeting with her and wondering why we bothered, since there seemed nothing of any substance to tell her. But apparently it was a statutory requirement.

My fellow board members were a likeable bunch but came from the public sector and spoke what seemed to me to be a foreign language. That is to say, I recognised the words but struggled to comprehend the sentences they were arranged into.

I particularly remember the late Paul Reynolds, a loquacious Scotsman with a background in IT, who would talk at great length and with irrepressible enthusiasm about the rich potential of the digital information sector. It was impossible not to like Paul, but he needed an assertive chair to rein him in. More to the point, I don’t recall anything actually happening or being decided as a result of his effusive rhetoric.

My occasional protestations that I needed a translator were usually met with the slightly condescending assurance that I served a valuable purpose by keeping my fellow board members grounded in the real world. But after serving one term I decided that keeping LIAC grounded in the real world – if indeed I succeeded in doing so, which I doubted – wasn’t enough to justify my continued presence. So I resigned.

Here’s the thing: at the end of my two years, I was no clearer about LIAC’s purpose than I was at the start. I still had no idea what I was doing there and couldn’t see what, if anything, our meetings were achieving. To me it was just talk, talk, talk, with no discernible outcome, though I admit I seemed to be alone in reaching this pessimistic conclusion. Perhaps I missed something.

Before writing this, I went to the Department of Internal Affairs website to check that LIAC still exists (it does), and to remind myself what it was set up to do. I’m still none the wiser, since its terms of reference are described in woolly bureaucratese that can mean anything and nothing.

Its remit is a masterpiece of vague abstractions and circular reasoning, empowering LIAC to do whatever it thinks might be worth doing, but not actually explaining in simple, practical terms what that is, or guaranteeing that anyone will take any notice of it anyway. It’s there because it’s there. Where LIAC’s reason for existing should be clearly explained, there’s a vacuum.

I came to the conclusion that LIAC was one of those quangos that Labour politicians, in particular, love to create because they create a perception of action, change and dynamic forward momentum.

You can see how this happens. Labour typically languishes in opposition for prolonged periods (in that case, nine years), chafing with frustration and grinding its teeth at all the things it thinks the government should be doing. By the time it eventually gets its hands on the levers of power (mixed metaphor alert!), a massive head of reformist zeal has built up.

All that energy has to go somewhere, so it tends to get diffused in a frantic welter of political and bureaucratic activity that employs legions of public servants, consultants and advisors but often produces no lasting, tangible or beneficial results.

Labour, after all, is a party of change. It has a compelling urge to re-invent the wheel; to re-arrange things, sometimes for no better reason than that it has the power to do so. In this respect it’s fundamentally different from National, whose instinct is to leave things alone. (Unfortunately, National’s inertia means quangos created under Labour often survive a change of government, which may explain why LIAC still exists.)

No doubt there are other LIACs lurking out of the public view, all hoovering up taxpayer money and consuming energy that might be better expended elsewhere. In fact on a government profligacy scale of one to 10, LIAC would barely register 0.5.  I mention it only because I happen to have had personal experience of it. (The Taxpayers’ Union does a very good job of exposing the countless other government feel-good exercises which squander public money, like the new Hamilton-Papakura commuter train that in its first week often carried fewer than 30 passengers per trip.)

This brings me to the point of this blog, which is the work going on behind the scenes toward a reinvention of public broadcasting in New Zealand – or to be more precise, a merger (although the government doesn’t like that word) of TVNZ and RNZ.

No one has satisfactorily explained why this is necessary, still less urgent (as Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi seems to think), or what benefits it will bring. But it’s going ahead regardless, at pace and mainly out of public view, and you get the feeling it’s likely to happen whether it makes sense or not. It looks like Faafoi’s big legacy project – one that’s almost inevitably fated to be dismantled and reconstructed by some other reformist minister further down the track, because that’s what happens.

The potential pitfalls in the proposed amalgamation are obvious. The two organisations’ cultures are fundamentally incompatible. Yoking TVNZ and RNZ together would be like trying to mate a komodo dragon with a barn owl.

Admittedly, the model the government is considering, which would combine a commercial television service and a non-commercial radio network under common management, has worked satisfactorily in the past. It’s pretty much how the old New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation operated before it was broken up (under a Labour government, as it happens) in 1975.

The NZBC was funded by commercial revenue not only from television but also from its profitable ZB radio network, which was sold off in the 1980s. This income was supplemented by a licence fee, similar to the one that funds the BBC, which everyone with a TV set was required to pay, and which theoretically funded non-commercial broadcasting.

But that was then and this is now. Under the NZBC and its immediate successors, a strong public broadcasting ethos prevailed despite the hybrid funding model. The people who ran the two state TV networks that emerged from the 1975 overhaul were still influenced, consciously or otherwise, by the lingering legacy of British-born Sir James Shelley, New Zealand’s first director of broadcasting. That was apparent from their programming policies, which strove for a balance between populist entertainment and more serious content – and mostly achieved it. Ratings were important, but not paramount.

That can’t be said of TVNZ, which long ago shed any trace of its origins as a public broadcaster. It has been commercially driven – aggressively so – for decades, despite futile attempts (notably the Clark government’s meaningless “TVNZ Charter” in 2003, which the broadcaster appeared to ignore) to impose public service obligations on it.

I would be the first to applaud the restructuring of broadcasting if it signalled a return to public broadcasting values, but I suspect that genie is well and truly out of the bottle as far as TVNZ is concerned.

People might feel happier if Faafoi could at least present a succinct, compelling case for change, but he hasn’t. We’re told the new organisation must be “fit for purpose” – but what purpose, exactly? That’s conveniently undefined. “Fit for purpose” is a fashionable phrase that, like LIAC’s terms of reference, can mean anything or nothing. We should be very suspicious of politicians who take refuge in jargon whose meaning is impossible to pin down.

A key justification advanced for the creation of a “strong new public media entity” (the officially endorsed terminology) is that the media sector is in crisis and needs government help. But a cynical interpretation is that the “crisis” – if it exists, which commentators such as Newsroom's Mark Jennings dispute – offers a perfect opportunity for a deep-pocketed government to step into the market and swamp private operators.  This raises the worrying prospect of a state-controlled media behemoth.

Commentators on all sides have expressed scepticism, and not all of it can be dismissed as self-interest or politically motivated. They have also expressed disquiet at a lack of transparency.

As Stuff’s Tom Pullar-Strecker wrote in a perceptive analysis a couple of weeks ago, the longer the government holds out against demands for wider involvement in the exercise, “the more likely it is that people may feel the merger is something that is being done to them, rather than for them”.

Pullar-Strecker also pointedly asked: “Might this simply be a case of public sector empire-building by Faafoi, himself a former TVNZ journalist?

He went on to suggest that it’s possible “there simply is no strong thinking behind the new public media entity and it is just the product of ill-defined aspirations that have been allowed to snowball in a policy vacuum”. 

In other words a bit like LIAC, perhaps, but on an infinitely grander and costlier scale.


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Why I'm suspicious of the phrase "award-winning"

I’ve said for years – not that anyone was listening – that two of the most useless words in the English language are “award-winning”.

Award-winning wine, award-winning magazine, award-winning artist, award-winning TV commercial, award-winning restaurant, award-winning book, award-winning movie, award-winning building … Many of these accolades can be dismissed as meaningless. I wouldn’t necessarily condemn them all out of hand, but people should be very wary of accepting them at face value.

I speak from some experience, having been a judge of journalism and newspaper awards, restaurant awards and even cheese awards. Though in all those instances the judging process was as transparent and fair as it could be, my misgivings grew to the point where I declined to be involved.

The reliability of awards depends on too many variables. Who was eligible? Who were the judges? What were the criteria? How could anyone ensure judges’ decisions were not subject to potentially unfair personal bias? Of critical importance, who bothered to enter and who didn’t? (Often, the best practitioners in any field don’t bother to enter competitions because they don’t need to. Wine competitions are a case in point.)  

Awards often don’t tell you what you most need to know. Just as a glowing review of a new car doesn’t tell you how reliable it’s going to be once it’s left the showroom, which is the crucial factor for most buyers, so an award for an individual piece of work doesn’t necessarily prove anything in the longer term.

In the same way that a clever winemaker can craft a wine that will stand out in a competition where judges might have to taste several hundred samples in a day, it’s possible for a newspaper or journalist to produce an individual edition or article that attracts high praise. But the real test is the ability to do the job to a high standard consistently over weeks, months and years.

Keri Hulme’s celebrated novel the bone people comes to mind. Hulme won the Man Booker Prize in 1985 and was lionised by the literati, but she appears to have done nothing of any note since. Which raises another question: how long can someone go on being described as “award-winning” before the award recedes so far into the past that it’s no longer relevant?

The honour showered on Hulme's novel, which some critics described as incomprehensible,  raises another problem with awards. Sometimes they represent the verdict of a rarefied elite that almost takes pride in being out of touch with popular taste. Art awards are another case in point.

The intimate (some might say incestuous) nature of New Zealand society presents additional risks. There’s always the danger that people will be judging the work of friends – or just as insidiously, enemies and rivals, especially in the bitchy literary community.

Returning to journalism, which is the field I know best, I can think of reporters who won acclaim for outstanding stories and never rose to the same heights again. As an editor, I once hired a reporter on the basis of a major award he had won but whose performance was mediocre. Some people thrive in a particular environment but, for whatever reason, are unable to reproduce that same level of excellence once they move on.

I know other editors who had similar experiences. A reporter I once worked with in Australia had several major newspaper titles bidding for his services after he happened to score a prize-winning national scoop simply by being in the right place at the right time (he happened to be close to the scene of a terrible accident in a remote location), but who proved a disappointment to the paper that ended up hiring him.

Digressing slightly, what about those stickers on wine bottles which purport to assure buyers of the wine’s quality? They guarantee nothing. As Michael Cooper pointed out in a recent Listener wine column, the relationship between some wine “critics” and the wineries that supply them is sometimes ethically compromised, to put it politely. Some critics are hired guns, paid to talk up a wine (though they presumably wouldn’t risk their reputations by putting a five-star sticker on an indifferent product).

Right now, the international media are getting excited about the most celebrated awards of all – the Oscars, which take place in a couple of weeks.  But it can be instructive to go back through the lists of past Academy Award winners. Many of those that scored the coveted Best Picture gong are soon forgotten. They came and went and made no lasting impression. Birdman (2014)? Moonlight (2016)? The Shape of Water (2017)? I rest my case.

Conversely, many movies that people still watch over and over again – true classics – never got recognition from the pompously named Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Even Citizen Kane, widely acclaimed – rightly or wrongly – as the greatest Hollywood movie ever made, failed to win either a Best Picture or Best Director award. (How Green Was My Valley won Best Picture that year – a wonderful film, but it didn’t have the staying power of Orson Welles’ magnum opus.)

And who knows, in the opaque maelstrom that is Hollywood, what political factors or studio power plays might have influenced the nominations?  

Arguably the Oscars will have even less credibility now that ideology, in the form of a continuing backwash from the Black Lives Matter and Me Too! movements,  has intruded. In future the awards are likely to be handed out not on the basis of how good a film is, but on how well it’s deemed to reflect ethnic and gender diversity. Could this be the final kiss of death to an overblown ritual that has outlived its usefulness?

Now, to get to the point (finally, I hear you say) of this rambling dissertation. My long-standing scepticism about that phrase “award-winning” has been resoundingly vindicated today by two stories on Stuff. Both concern buildings described as award-winning.

One, a house at Pekapeka, on the Kapiti Coast, was demolished in 2016 at a reported cost to the owners of $1 million. The avant-garde house, designed by Wellington firm Parsonson Architects, was a Home of the Year finalist and won an NZIA colour award. Unfortunately it didn’t keep the rain out. The owners were quoted $800,000 to fix leaking windows and mould-damaged cladding, but decided instead to demolish the house and replace it with one built by Lockwood.

To be fair, it appears the problem was caused by the building products used rather than by any inherent design fault, but the owners clearly weren’t impressed by architect Gerald Parsonson’s reported refusal to discuss possible solutions.

It was hardly good publicity for the architect, and made even more embarrassing by the fact that the owners contacted Stuff after reading about another “award-winning” Parsonson home, this time in the Wellington suburb of Northland, that was pulled down last month because of similar leakage issues. This was after the owner had spent $200,000 on remediation.

She ended up selling the property to a developer for $1.4 million – the value of the land. Earlier attempts to sell the house for nearly $3 million failed when building reports identified moisture damage to the timber framing.

In this instance the architect’s shame should be shared by the New Zealand Institute of Architects, which gave the condemned Northland house its “Supreme Award” in 2003. Oh, dear.

But wait, there’s more. Stuff also reports that the Altera Apartments in Auckland, built by Fletchers in 2015, is the subject of a TV documentary (screening on Prime tomorrow night) which reveals the building has leaky curtain walling and is not fire compliant. Stuff reports that repairs are expected to cost $15 million which will be covered by the builders.

Do I need to add that Altera Apartments won a 2016 NZIA award for the architects, Warren and Mahoney? Probably not. Readers of this blog, being an unusually astute and prescient lot, would have sensed that coming.

I have long suspected that some architects design buildings chiefly to impress other architects. Obviously I can’t prove that this was the case in these instances, but let’s just say my suspicions haven’t been erased.

I have similarly suspected for a long time that advertising people make ads to impress other advertising people. Architects and advertising agencies seem to share an insatiable appetite for awards and peer recognition, to the extent that I believe the prospect of an award is often more important to some agencies than whether an ad succeeds in generating business for the client.

I’m encouraged in this belief by the advertising news updates that regularly arrive in my inbox, which largely consist of a stream of announcements detailing who’s won what in the latest awards, which seem to occur almost weekly.

No other industry celebrates itself, or congratulates itself, with greater zeal. But I often wonder where the clients’ interests fit in, if indeed they do.  

Further confirmation of this apparent obsession with what other ad industry practitioners think came recently from an unlikely source: Margaret Hayward’s 1981 book Diary of the Kirk Years, which is a fascinating account of 1970s politics from the inside.  At one point Hayward describes an exchange during the 1972 election campaign between Labour leader Norman Kirk and a young Bob Harvey (now Sir Bob, and a former mayor of Waitakere City), who was handling Labour’s advertising.

Kirk was trenchantly critical of Harvey’s efforts, and cited one of his ads – a TV commercial which a Labour supporter mistook for a coffee ad – as evidence that the ads were not hitting their target. To which Harvey protested that two other agencies had been in touch with him to say how good the ad was, as if that emphatically settled the issue.

Was it an award-winning ad? Very likely.

Footnote: The writer has never won any awards, though he vaguely recalls being awarded with a certificate for an editorial (on sport, of all things) that he was reluctantly persuaded to enter in a competition in the 1990s. 


Thursday, March 25, 2021

Why move to a new country if your first instinct is to change it?

In a recent blog post, I drew attention to the fact that New Zealand’s leading pro-abortion activist, Terry Bellamak, is an American. She has brought to the abortion debate the type of aggressive, hard-ball approach that you might expect from a driven New York feminist and former executive of Goldman Sachs (which she is). Bernard Moran of Voice for Life describes her as coming from the “whatever it takes” school of political combat.  

I also pointed out that the examples of bad behaviour by anti-abortion protesters that Bellamak cited in an article for The Spinoff supporting 150-metre “safe zones” outside abortion clinics were all from America. I suggested that as long as we’re stuck with Bellamak, surely the least she could do is deal with the situation as it applies here, not in Colorado or Arizona. But of course it suited her purpose to portray the New Zealand anti-abortion lobby in the worst possible light, and to hell with the facts.

There’s a broader issue here. As immigration has ramped up, so New Zealand has become home to an increasing number of activists, political aspirants, bureaucrats and academics from countries whose values and mindsets are often dissimilar to ours. They arrive with attitudes moulded and fixed in societies that are, in some cases, thoroughly f**ked up (Somalia and Mexico, for example, though some might say that description also applies to the US) and which can teach us nothing about freedom, wellbeing or human dignity. But that doesn’t prevent these recent arrivals from insinuating themselves into positions of prominence and influence here, stridently finding fault with the way we do things and demanding that New Zealand – an exemplar of liberal democracy and a country respected worldwide for its human rights credentials – reshape itself to conform to their radical ideological prescriptions.

I’m aware that this sounds like textbook xenophobia, but generally speaking, I’m pro-immigration. Would I be happy to have neighbours from Iraq, Zimbabwe or Vietnam? Too right I would. I welcome ethnic and cultural diversity, though always with the proviso that immigration be managed carefully so as not to destabilise the host country or provoke a backlash.

But here’s the thing. Logically, immigrants are drawn to New Zealand because they recognise this as a country where they can live in peace, own their own homes, get a university degree, enjoy freedom of speech, vote for the politicians of their choice in free and fair elections, practise their religion without let or hindrance and enjoy the protection of the rule of law.  

This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t avail themselves of the rights available to native-born New Zealanders: the right to stand for public office, to lobby for political causes, to join political parties, to phone talkback shows and write letters to the editor. In other words, we shouldn't expect immigrants to remain silent and invisible. But neither should they expect those of us who were born and raised here, whose families in many cases have been here for generations, and who have paid taxes and voted in elections all our lives, to welcome newcomers whose first instinct on arrival is to plunge into political activism aimed at refashioning our laws and institutions.  

So if agitators like Bellamak, former poverty campaigner Ricardo Menendez-March (now a Green MP with a stonking sense of entitlement) and Black Lives Matter activist Guled Mire sometimes encounter a bit of pushback, it shouldn’t simplistically be dismissed as xenophobia or racism. Those of us who have been here much longer, and who have a lot more invested in this country, not unnaturally tend to resent new arrivals whose foreign-inspired inflammatory rhetoric magnifies points of difference and undermines social cohesion that has been painstakingly cultivated since the 19th century.  

A related issue that I’ve banged on about before (here, here and here) is the tendency to fill key public service positions with overseas appointees, usually from Britain. We like to think we’ve grown out of the so-called cultural cringe, whereby we instinctively looked overseas for guidance on how to conduct our affairs, but the evidence suggests otherwise. A particularly egregious example was the Labour government’s appointment of Paul Hunt, a Corbynite socialist academic from England, as Chief Human Rights Commissioner – a position in which he’s capable of causing enormous harm.

Like the aforementioned political activists, these globe-trotting careerists often arrive with a set of values, attitudes and ways of doing things that belongs to another culture and doesn’t necessarily transfer easily to ours. When they screw things up, as they too often do, they are able to fly away without so much as a backward glance and get on with their careers elsewhere, leaving someone else to clean up the mess they’ve left behind.

A contributory factor in all this, of course, is our own complacency and passivity. As I said in a column in 2019: “Because we tend to be passive and polite, we make it easy for shouty, highly motivated outsiders to push their way to the top. But they don’t speak for us.”

A fallacy exposed

Parliament last night passed a Bill that will provide three days’ paid bereavement leave for women who have experienced a stillbirth or miscarriage.

The Bill’s sponsor, Labour MP Ginny Andersen, argued that stillbirth and miscarriage can have traumatic consequences, and the House unanimously agreed.

Interviewed this morning on Morning Report by Suzy Ferguson, Andersen acknowledged that the Bill wouldn’t apply to women who have had abortions, as some submitters had urged.

She explained this was because the legislation was introduced before last year’s radical overhaul of the abortion laws and she wanted to remain focused on her principle objective.

However, when asked whether the new legislation could be amended to cover abortion, Andersen answered: “I think that’s a really good idea and definitely should be considered.”

This may have been a more significant statement than she realised. Andersen was one of the 37 Labour MPs who voted for the dismantling of the abortion laws on the basis that the right to abortion is all about women’s health. But by acknowledging that the procedure can have harmful consequences, she has exposed that argument as a brazen fallacy.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Free Kiwis! A flicker of light in the gloom

I recently recorded a conversation for the podcast Free Kiwis!, which was established several months ago by two Victoria University academics, Michael Johnston and James Kierstead. You can find it here: (663) Free Kiwis! Episode 8: Karl du Fresne - YouTube

I’m not linking to it because what I say is worth hearing. I cringe when I hear myself talk. Suffice to say that it reminds me why I should stick to print journalism, where you have the chance to weigh and fine-tune your words before setting them loose.  

But Free Kiwis! deserves to be brought to the attention of a wider audience. As true believers in free and open debate, James and Michael are rowing against the prevailing ideological current in New Zealand universities.

The podcast I did with them was the eighth in a series. Earlier ones included conversations with the Sydney-based American sociologist Salvatore Babones and the former ACT Party leader Jamie Whyte. You can find them all here: (664) James Kierstead - YouTube

The very existence of the podcast is a heartening sign that the spirit of free academic inquiry and the contest of ideas hasn’t entirely died, despite the stifling homogeneity of most comment emanating from our halls of higher learning. 

Free Kiwis! is a flicker of light in the Stygian gloom. Give Episode 8 a miss by all means, but I urge followers of this blog to check out some of the others.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

The parlous state of the media and its implications for democracy

 I've just caught up with this opinion piece by Oliver Hartwich of the New Zealand Initiative. It deserves a wider audience.

A nation talking to itself | The New Zealand Initiative (

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Terry Bellamak, The Spinoff and the anti-abortion terrorists

The online news and comment site The Spinoff published an opinion piece a few days ago by Terry Bellamak, the president of Abortion Rights Aotearoa, entitled Why we need safe areas outside abortion clinics.

It was written in support of a Bill that would create 150-metre “safe zones” (that word “safe” again, implying that people’s physical wellbeing might be at risk when the only life imperilled is that of an unborn child) around premises where abortions are provided.

The introductory blurb above Bellamak’s piece said these zones would ensure pregnant women wanting abortions don’t have to be confronted by “angry mobs” (really??) outside clinics.

The Bill, introduced by Labour MP Louisa Wall – no doubt with the approval, if not the active encouragement, of prime minister Jacinda Ardern and health minister Andrew Little – would make it illegal to “intimidate or obstruct” women attending abortion clinics. It would also outlaw attempts to communicate with patients “in a manner … likely to cause emotional distress”.

The Bill is a mopping-up exercise aimed at taking care of business that was left unfinished when Parliament abolished restrictions on abortion last year. Abortion activists wanted "safe zones" included in that legislation, but were thwarted by what Bellamak calls a “procedural misstep”.

On a conscience vote, Wall’s Bill passed its first reading on Wednesday night by a margin of 100 to 15, with two abstentions. But that’s not necessarily an indication of its level of support, because some MPs probably want the Bill to proceed to a select committee so they can then propose changes.

ACT, whose nine MPs voted for the Bill on its first reading, is said to oppose (as it should) the provision barring attempts to communicate with abortion patients, on the grounds that it’s an infringement of free speech rights. Rather embarrassingly, Attorney-General David Parker has found himself forced to agree. In the report that he was required to provide on the implications of the Bill, Parker said it appeared inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression guaranteed in Section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act. But don’t expect that minor technicality to impede its progress.

Now, back to The Spinoff. The hysterical reference in the introductory blurb to “angry mobs” was a clue to the tone of Bellamak’s piece, in which she talks of abortion patients fearing “escalation to violence”.

But if you take the trouble to follow the links that supposedly substantiate Bellamak’s fears of incipient violence from anti-abortion fanatics, they all refer to situations that have occurred in America – in other words, utterly irrelevant to the New Zealand experience.

If there was evidence that women attending New Zealand abortion clinics had been threatened or menaced, you’d expect Bellamak to cite them. The fact that she has to refer to American examples is telling. The one New Zealand instance of violence relating to abortion that she cites was the act of a plainly disturbed man who assaulted Greens co-leader James Shaw – an offence unrelated to vigils outside clinics.

Bellamak, of course, is herself American, and has introduced a strident American element to the abortion debate in New Zealand. This is probably not helpful, since the issue is strained enough without the introduction of American-style extremism and hyperbole.

Unfortunately, being passive people, New Zealanders tend to let the loud and assertive take over, which is what appears to have happened to Abortion Rights Aoteroa. But as long as we’re stuck with Bellamak, surely the least she could do is deal with the situation as it applies here, not in Colorado or Arizona.

So what’s the reality in New Zealand? As it happens, I have a sister and niece who regularly maintain a vigil outside a provincial abortion clinic. As my sister describes it to me, their presence is essentially passive. “Generally we say ‘hello’ to passers-by but get into further conversation only if they respond,” she tells me. “We follow their lead.”

If the girl or woman is receptive, she says, they offer information on alternatives to abortion, such as adoption, and practical or emotional support through the pregnancy. They also pray and display posters (of the most inoffensive kind, in my sister’s words, although of course others may decide they’re “unsafe”). But most women attending the clinic are in cars anyway, so the protesters’ presence (although my sister doesn’t think of herself as a protester) is purely visual.

“Any ‘harassing’ or bullying’,” she adds. “is done not by us, but to us, by people passing in cars, on foot, on bikes.”

No one attending the clinic is obstructed, confronted or shouted at, then? “Never, never, never.”

So the Bill before Parliament, quite apart from the issues it raises in relation to free speech, may be based on a wildly distorted and exaggerated version of what actually happens “on the ground”.

Though I’m strongly opposed to abortion, as readers of this blog will know, I’ve never stood outside a clinic and probably wouldn’t. But I respect those who do, and I understand why they put themselves “out there” (literally). One reason is that many women and girls referred for abortion have been given the impression there’s no alternative. No one has offered them support if they want to continue the pregnancy. The protesters (I’m sorry, but I can’t think of another word) are letting them know they have options that “the system” doesn’t tell them about.

As an aside, it’s funny how the Left, which has always vigorously asserted the right to protest – sometimes violently, and often without regard for the rights of others, such as freedom of movement – wants to deny that right to others now that it’s in a position of power. Same old same old, as they say.

But don’t expect The Spinoff to acknowledge there are two sides to this story. The last time Bernard Moran, former president of Voice for Life, wrote to The Spinoff rebutting something Bellamak had written, Spinoff editor Toby Manhire replied that he preferred to believe Bellamak.

There’s an open mind for you, fearlessly committed to the pursuit of truth and the contest of ideas.

I can probably do no better here than quote from an email Moran sent to Manhire last Tuesday.

“I see Terry Bellamak is at it again unchallenged in yesterday’s Spinoff,” Moran wrote.

“Again I make the point: if our people behaved as she alleges, they would be creating a public nuisance and disorder.

“That would justify the clinics calling the police. It doesn’t happen.

“What she wrote is a series of fantasies. She presumably gets away with it because people at The Spinoff appear to believe that’s the way 'anti-abortionists' would behave.”

And this, from Moran’s previous letter to Manhire on March 6, 2019:

“You have run another oped by ALRANZ’s Terry Bellamak today and she makes serious and very damaging allegations without mentioning Voice for Life.

“But your outraged readers will naturally think our members are responsible.

“She says pro-lifers stand outside clinics and shout ‘whore!’, ‘murderer!’ and throw plastic foetuses at the women entering.

“We have had to put up with this damaging smear tactic for decades and like the Himalayan Yeti, we never ever get credible evidence of who is doing it, when and where.

“I’ll give you an example. Back in 2014, the Abortion Supervisory Committee, without checking with us, went public with similar accusations which were reported in the media.

“As the national president of Voice for Life, I immediately phoned the secretary and asked for evidence, which was refused.

“I then wrote to the committee saying that we took this very seriously and would expel any member who behaved as alleged – and asked for any evidence. They refused to provide any.

“Faced with this Kafka-like obduracy, Right to Life and Voice for Life requested the Ombudsman to investigate.

“The Ombudsman reported back that the committee couldn’t provide them with any evidence apart, from vague ‘verbal complaints’ from abortion clinic staff.

“I carried out an audit of our branches in 2014 and questioned those involved in prayer vigils outside clinics. They were adamant that such allegations were baseless.

“OK, so I carried out another survey in November, 2018. This was just after four Wellington High School students lodged a petition with Parliament calling for ‘exclusion zones’ to prevent anti-abortion protesters ‘harassing’ women seeking legal abortions.

“I discovered that Pro-Life Action operates in Wellington and they have one member, MH, who also is in Voice for Life. [Full name deleted by me – KduF.]

 “I contacted MH and she emailed back: ‘I take a sign which says ‘Pregnant? Anxious? Confused? Unsure?’ and sit on the concrete wall on the left side of the hospital driveway. I only speak if someone approaches me and wants to talk.”

“Christchurch – nothing going on.

“Dunedin used to have a Friday prayer vigil with a few pensioners.

“Invercargill: ‘We have a group of 8-10 people who meet each week near our hospital for one hour on a street corner. We have a banner and simple pro-life placards. We do not harass anyone.’

“That report is from Norman Maclean, a former head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Southland Hospital.

“Thames has a small group of pensioners who meet on a street corner every Friday morning when abortions are performed. They pray and in their seven years there, three babies have been saved when their mothers stopped to talk and changed their minds.

“Hastings has a group of two young women and one guy who meet outside the hospital. So far 33 babies have been confirmed saved (their mothers sent photos or brought them along as toddlers).

“Now if pro-lifers were behaving in the way Terry Bellamak claims in The Spinoff, that would be real harassment (public disorder) and the clinic staff would be justified in calling the police. We are not aware of that happening.

“Once again we are playing catch up to baseless allegations. Bellamak is never challenged to provide chapter-and-verse evidence.”

Moran has now followed up with a stronger letter to Duncan Greive, founder and managing editor of The Spinoff, in which he wrote:

“I was the national president of Voice for Life from 2011 to 2017, so I had a ring-side seat to judge the veracity of Terry Bellamak’s allegations.

“She wrote about mobs of protesters shouting abuse and throwing plastic foetuses at vulnerable women – surely assault and a police matter.

 “I imagine your readers would have been appalled at the antics of these anti-choice Brown Shirts – that’s us. But was it true?

“Well, as true as me writing that Duncan Greive and Toby Manhire wear MAGA caps at home, secretly attend Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church, beat their wives and are cruel to animals.”

Moran continued: “I’ve had many years experiencing Terry Bellamak’s tactics.

“She’s a very smart operator, ran her own technology company in New York contracting to Goldman Sachs and now a lawyer in Wellington.

“Terry appears to be from the ‘whatever it takes’ school and she plays to win.

“She obviously recognises that the editorial staff at The Spinoff are sympatico with her cause and ready to assist.

“That’s why as a real New Yorker she sold you the Brooklyn Bridge of tales about anti-abortion protesters, knowing you would buy it without checking or questioning.

“In March 2019, she did the same thing and I responded to Toby Manhire with a two-page rebuttal. He replied dismissively that he preferred to believe Terry Bellamak.

“I re-sent the rebuttal to him last Tuesday as a reminder. You can ask him for it.

“It’s galling for us to be subjected to such awful falsehoods, knowing that you two guys accepted them at face value – that you both wanted to believe them. Otherwise you would have done some basic checking with us and the police.

“I’m sorry to have to say this, but the historical example for what you have perpetrated on us are the editorial and journalistic values of Der Stürmer*.”

I leave it to readers of this blog to decide who’s the more credible.

*Der Stürmer: a rabble-rousing pro-Nazi paper in Hitler’s Germany.

Footnote: I have corrected a reference to Norman Maclean. The original version of this post said he had been head of O and G at Southland Hospital for 40 years. He was with the department for 40 years, but in charge for 10.

Friday, March 12, 2021

In New Zealand today

■ It was drearily predictable that young, female commentators online and in print would unquestioningly accept Meghan Markle’s account of the affronts and injustices supposedly heaped upon her. So it was refreshing to see the New Zealand actress Teuila Blakely suggest that perhaps the “racist” comment about the colour of young Archie’s skin – supposedly made by a member of the royal family who remains unidentified (if indeed it was made at all) – might not have been so racist after all.

In these situations, as Blakely (who is of mixed race) points out, context can be everything. “At a time where [sic] racism is at the forefront of our world in terms of creating awareness around it, I think [those comments] can be damning,” the New Zealand Herald reported her as saying. “[But] I think what’s really important to remember [is] we didn’t understand the context of that conversation or how those those concerns were presented.

“For the royal family, who have never had a person of colour come into their ranks before, the possibility that their first great-grandchild could be coloured would be a conversation you would have.” She said similar conversations had happened in her own extended family when her Samoan mother entered the picture.

The Herald reported the former Shortland Street star as saying the context of the situation dictated whether the comment was the product of racism or something more innocent.

Precisely. Until we know in what context the supposedly racist comment was made – and specifically what was said, by whom and in what tone – we can’t judge whether it was malignant or harmless. But that hasn’t stopped Markle’s enraged supporters automatically concluding that she has been grievously wronged and that the Windsors are a family of contemptible white supremacists.

And here’s another thing. It’s Markle who insists on making an issue of her race and therefore presenting herself as a victim. Is it possible that the fact she and Archie have African-American blood actually doesn’t matter to most people, including the royal family?

■ So Wellington City Council has voted 12-3 to establish a Maori ward. “Maori voices must be at the table; it can’t be left to chance,” said Cr Jill Day, who is of Ngati Tuwharetoa lineage.

Spot something odd in that statement? That’s right – Maori voices are already at the table. Day is one of two councillors who identify as Maori, the other being Tamatha Paul.

They were elected without the benefit of a Maori ward and there’s nothing to stop other Maori candidates from being similarly elected, provided they put themselves forward for office and persuade voters to support them, just as Day and Paul did. I could also mention Paul Eagle, who was seven years a councillor and would almost certainly now be mayor of Wellington if he hadn’t been elected MP for Rongotai (a general electorate where in the last election he won 57 percent of the votes competing on equal terms with every other candidate).

Oh, and we shouldn’t forget Ray Ahipene-Mercer, who served on the council for 16 years and is quoted in the Dominion Post today as questioning whether a Maori ward is necessary. “I would only ever stand on the same basis as any other person, irrespective of ethnicity,” Ahipene-Mercer said. Good on him.

“It can’t be left to chance” is an absurd statement. The only element of chance in winning election to the council is the one faced by all candidates. They have to convince voters to support them. That’s how democracy works.

Or at least it did, until now. But the legislation that was shamefully rushed through Parliament last month under urgency – the legislation Labour was careful to keep quiet about during last year’s election campaign – fundamentally changes the dynamics of local democracy by introducing race-based wards, thereby bestowing on Maori a privilege not enjoyed by other sectors of the community (and one they clearly don’t need, as the election of Eagle, Ahipene-Mercer, Day and Paul, not to mention  the many Maori councillors in other districts, shows).

Already there are signs that this may turn pear-shaped. Liz Mellish, speaking for an iwi grouping that regards Wellington as its rohe, or territory, is quoted today as saying she wants to know who would be eligible to vote in the Maori ward and how the new arrangement would affect her organisation's relationship with the council. “In a city like Wellington, we as mana whenua are outnumbered by other Maori. We need to ensure that mana whenua relationship continues.”

This sounds like an assumption of prior rights based on iwi affiliation, regardless of numbers or voter support, and seems to bear out warnings that tribalism and democracy are fundamentally incompatible.

The last thing Wellington needs now, on top of all its existing torments, is the prospect of an iwi power struggle over who has the right to represent the new Maori ward. But perhaps the city should start bracing itself for more convulsions.

■ A New Zealand Herald story today – I won’t embarrass the reporter by naming him – quotes Chris Hipkins as saying, in relation to criminal deportees from Australia: “To all intensive purposes many have lived the vast bulk of their lives in Australia.”

Good grief. I imagine that Hipkins actually said "to all intents and purposes" - a phrase perhaps unfamiliar to the reporter. The current generation of journalists, at least on paper, is probably the most educated in history. So why do so many write as if English is their second language?

Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong again

It was WRONG of NZ Cricket to invite Ashley Bloomfield to be their guest at a T20 match and then lobby him about getting the Black Caps vaccinated against Covid-19 so they could go overseas, but perhaps that’s the type of crass, unsubtle behaviour we should expect from sporting administrators. After all, they tend to have just one object in mind, which is the promotion of their sport. No worries for them about perceptions of conflict of interest or important principles such as transparency and the improper exercise of influence over public officials.  Of the three parties in this affair, NZ Cricket is the least culpable. But at least the controversy has cast a brief glimmer of light on the schmoozing industry, where corporates and sporting organisations play on the vanity of politicians and senior public servants – not to mention their fondness for sport – by inviting them to glamour events and plying them with free drinks, food and an opportunity to mingle with the players. This is the soft, vulnerable underbelly of a political system that prides itself on being corruption-free.

It goes without saying that it was also WRONG for Bloomfield to accept the invitation, especially when he should have foreseen that he might be subjected to pressure, however gentle it may have been, regarding vaccinations. Hasn’t he heard the old adage that there’s no such thing as a free lunch? Outfits like NZC are unlikely to invite the director-general of health to a match out of pure goodwill; they generally do it in the hope of securing some benefit. Bloomfield now appears to accept that he erred, and has apologised.  But the fact that he accepted the invitation can’t be reversed, and we are left with the perception that he’s either extremely naïve or wasn’t too concerned about the ethical propriety of accepting a freebie. Either way, it’s a worry – the more so when we add this to the sainted Bloomfield’s proven tendency to make reassuring public statements about Covid-19 that are subsequently contradicted by health workers on the front line. I suspect most New Zealanders like Bloomfield and want to feel they can trust him, but public confidence in him has taken another hit.

It was woefully, inexcusably WRONG for Bloomfield to defend himself by saying he attended the match “in a private capacity” (which he now appears to have retracted). What did he take us for? He’s a very senior and high-profile public servant in a position of almost unprecedented influence. He may go shopping at the local supermarket in a private capacity; he may go to the movies with his wife, paying for their own tickets, in a private capacity; but he certainly can’t attend a major public sporting event, at the expense of an organisation that’s hoping for a favourable decision from him, and then disingenuously claim it was “private”.  Did he really believe, as he claims, that he was acting within the rules?  Did no alarm bells ring? Or if they did, was he was so excited about the prospect of meeting his cricketing heroes that he clamped his hands over his ears? Whichever way you look at it, his judgment has to be regarded as gravely suspect.

Finally, it was more than just WRONG for Jacinda Ardern to say that she didn’t think anyone in New Zealand would want to deny Bloomfield the opportunity to watch some cricket. This was so patently and grossly disingenuous as to insult every New Zealander’s intelligence. No one has suggested Bloomfield shouldn’t watch a cricket match. All we ask is that he pay for his own tickets, which he can well afford to do on his very generous taxpayer-funded salary. Did Ardern really expect to spin that line and get away with it? We can only conclude that her judgment isn’t too sharp either.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

A note of appreciation

I’ve been meaning for some time to write a tribute to the people who regularly comment on this blog.

Other than those who post under their real names, I have no idea who they are. But their comments are almost invariably thoughtful, articulate and erudite.

I hope followers of this blog take the trouble to read them, because they often greatly enhance and expand on whatever I’ve said, to the extent that I sometimes think it’s they, not I, who should be blogging.

Crucially, in addition to the qualities listed above, they are overwhelmingly civil – a virtue not to be undervalued when so much online content is petty, mean-spirited and toxic.

So thank you, whoever you are.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Barrie Saunders on democratic integrity

My old friend and long-ago colleague Barrie Saunders has written a thoughtful and perceptive column on the Treaty in which he raises important concerns about transparency and democratic process.

I'm more troubled than Barrie by Maori council wards, for the reason that they are qualitatively different from, say, geographically based (general) wards. The latter are created for reasons of administrative efficiency and to ensure fair representation, whereas the former are based purely on race, which introduces a wholly new - and I believe insidious - element to local government. But Barrie's blog post is a useful contribution to the debate and deserves to be widely read.


Friday, March 5, 2021

On freedom of expression and that $55 million media handout


It seems I’ve achieved the great distinction of being deleted from Reddit. A friend emailed me recently to advise that my Spectator Australia article – ‘NewZealand is being transformed, but not in a good way’ – had been uploaded to Reddit several days previously, but had then been taken down. A notice explained: “Sorry, this post has been removed by the moderators”. This was followed by what appeared to be a standard explanatory note: “Moderators remove posts from feeds for a variety of reasons, including keeping communities safe, civil and true to their purpose”.

Who are these moderators? They’re not identified. Neither did the weasel-word explanatory note say exactly what the problem was with my article. I’m left to conclude that the anonymous moderators deemed it “unsafe” – but in what way?

We should be very suspicious of the word “safety” when used in this type of context. It has become another cover for the Stalinist authoritarianism that infects public discourse and seeks to silence and marginalise dissenters. “Unsafe” used to apply to situations where one’s health or physical wellbeing was at risk. Generations of New Zealanders grew up being told that it wasn’t safe to play with matches or go too close to the water. Then we started hearing the phrase “cultural safety”, especially in the context of health care. An invention of neo-Marxism, it broadened the definition far beyond its traditional and accepted meaning. Ensuring “cultural safety” became a coded synonym for purging the health system of supposed institutionalised racism. Notions of power and identity were central to this approach. Nursing students who pushed back against the doctrine, insisting that the same standard of care should apply to all patients regardless of ethnicity, paid a price for their defiance. Some readers of this blog may recall the celebrated case of Christchurch Polytech nursing student Anna Penn, who was branded as “culturally unsafe” – a term then new to most of us – by the polytech’s kaumatua in 1991 for daring to challenge the denial of her right as a woman to speak on a marae. Penn failed the “culture and society” component of her course and was subsequently described in a vindictive Polytech report as having demonstrated “such flaws of judgment and behaviour that she would not now be welcome back as a nursing student”. (She later graduated in Brisbane.) Soviet-style suppression of dissent was emerging even then, and today is nowhere more rampant than in the health sector, where the New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation – to take just one example – has been convulsed by bullying race politics.

Since the Penn affair, this highly inventive concept of “safety” has widened even further, to the extent that it’s now invoked if there’s a risk that some fragile soul might feel offended or psychologically damaged by something written or said. But in the case of my Spectator article there’s more to it than that, because talk of “safety” is, of course, a red herring. The only threat my article presented is that it challenged the woke Left’s attempt to control the public conversation.  That’s what we’re really talking about here.

And how interesting that the sanctimonious moderators should mention the need to keep things civil. Let’s examine that for a moment.

My article wasn’t abusive or insulting.  It didn’t use offensive language, it didn’t attack anyone personally and it didn’t seek to incite hatred, violence or ridicule. It merely expressed opinions that the people who control Reddit think should be suppressed.

Yet the same moderators who took down the link to my column, supposedly out of concern for safety and civility, were obviously untroubled by some of the comments that appeared beneath it, which they left on the page. These included one (anonymous, of course – aren’t they all?) that attacked me in terms so coarse that I refuse to dignify my attacker’s words by reproducing them here. Civil? Pffft.

This was my first encounter with Reddit, and it seemed to validate my impression that much of what we inaccurately call “social” media is a seething, toxic snake pit. Reddit, which Wikipedia describes as a social news aggregation and discussion platform, is supposedly the world’s 18th most visited website. But like many “social” media platforms it seems infested by angry, raging cowards hiding behind puerile pseudonyms.

It probably doesn’t need to be said that I won’t lose any sleep over my article being pulled, and still less from the accompanying comments. When something I’ve written provokes a keyboard warrior into anonymously responding with infantile vituperative, I take that as a moral victory. But the deletion of my article, and the conveniently vague and self-serving justification given by the Reddit moderators, says something about the profound change in the tone and scope of public conversation in New Zealand.

At the dawn of the Internet era, we were encouraged to think of social media platforms as anarchic and liberating. They were supposed to free us from the shackles of the “old” media, where editors (who were routinely caricatured as old, conservative white men) served as gatekeepers controlling the dissemination of news and comment. That promise now stands exposed as fraudulent; a giant con. Many social media platforms have turned out to be far more controlling and authoritarian than the despised “legacy” media they displaced, which were committed to principles of fairness, accuracy and balance.

As Chris Trotter (an old-school socialist, but a courageous champion of free speech) wrote recently, “citizens determined to spread ‘unacceptable’ ideas can no longer rely upon the major social media platforms for their dissemination. Increasingly, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are ‘de-platforming’ individuals and groups (including a former President of the United States!) whose beliefs have been anathematised by the woke”.

There’s an irony here. The young(ish) entrepreneurs who control social media, such as Mark Zuckerberg, are infinitely wealthier, greedier, more powerful and more controlling than the reviled press barons of old, the sole survivor of whom is Rupert Murdoch. They exercise their power in a way that acknowledges no public accountability or responsibility for the consequences of the harm they do. They use their resources to influence public opinion in a far more direct and active way than the “old” media. Yet they seem magically immunised against criticism.

The crucial difference, presumably, is that in age and appearance they are not dissimilar to the commissars of wokeness. They wear jeans and tee-shirts rather than suits and ties, and they give the impression of being anti-establishment (which they are, though not in the sense that the term was originally used a generation ago). Perhaps this makes their ruthless style of capitalism acceptable.  

Unfortunately the malaise isn’t confined to social media. In a recent blog post about Magic Talk’s sacking of John Banks, I wrote that both the range of subjects New Zealanders feel free to discuss, and the language they may use in discussing them, is constantly being narrowed down. Authoritarian wokeness is increasingly crowding out alternative conservative views, even where those views may represent mainstream thinking.

Since Banks’ sacking, of course, Sean Plunket has been added to the list of deplorables – not because of any fresh complaint against him (the one upheld by the Broadcasting Standards Authority in December related to a broadcast last May), but because Magic Talk, panicked by pressure from woke vigilantes and virtue-signalling advertisers, threw him under the bus.

Peter Williams, as the only surviving high-profile conservative host at Magic Talk, must now be feeling rather lonely and exposed – the more so since deputy prime minister Grant Robertson announced he would no longer be making his regular weekly appearance on Williams’ show because he objected to the host’s valid questions about the so-called Great Reset, which Robertson huffily dismissed as a “giant conspiracy theory”.

Jordan Williams of the Free Speech Coalition called the decision petulant and suggested Robertson should harden up. “Maybe Mr Robertson should seek the advice of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who has fronted often extremely hostile interviews with Mike Hosking,” Williams suggested. “Would she enjoy such grillings? Unlikely. But the PM clearly understands that she has a duty to not only address misinformation, but to engage with Kiwis on the other side of the political fence.

“We counter bad ideas with better ideas, and address misinformation with facts. This is why free speech is so central to democracy: bad and false ideas can be freely aired precisely so they can be addressed by more informed speech.”

Amen to all that. But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Robertson’s decision was the timing, which made it look like a calculated attempt to undermine Williams (who, incidentally, is no-one’s idea of a far-Right ranter) when his position already seemed precarious following the defenestration of his fellow hosts. That would be contemptible.

It’s in this worryingly censorious environment that the government recently announced funding of $55 million for the news media. Broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi framed the decision as one driven solely by noble public interest motives, aimed at helping the media through a rough patch. But an alternative view is that virtually all politicians secretly dream of controlling the media, and it’s possible this government has cynically chosen an opportune moment to ensure the industry’s co-operation in achieving it.

Don’t be fooled by seductive talk of the government wanting to subsidise “public interest” journalism. Any journalism that provides citizens with “the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies and their governments”* is, by definition, public interest journalism.  But when used by left-wing academics in journalism schools, the phrase has a much narrower and more ideological meaning. In that context, “public interest journalism” is code for journalism that attacks power structures – that “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable”, to use a definition much favoured by those who see journalism principally as a form of activism, and who believe the only journalism worth supporting is that which has an ideological purpose.

So here, for what it’s worth, is my take on the proposed government media bailout:

■ If I could be confident that the government was truly and wholly committed to a vigorous, balanced, independent, non-partisan media;

■ If I could be confident that media owners were capable of resolutely asserting their independence while simultaneously accepting state funding;

■ If I could be assured that most media bosses weren’t already ideologically aligned with the government on such crucial issues as climate change and hate speech;

■ If I could be confident that media bosses were truly and wholly committed to the principles of editorial balance and freedom of expression;

■ If I could be confident that government politicians could be trusted not to exert influence over where the money went, and what type of journalistic activity it supported;

■ If I could be confident that government appointees charged with deciding how the money should be spent could be trusted not to worry about getting offside with their political masters should they give it to the wrong people;

■ If my confidence in the media were not already gravely undermined by journalists who consistently confuse journalism with activism and advocacy, and who bombard us relentlessly with their own opinions;

■ If I could be confident that some of that $55 million wouldn’t be used to further swamp us with fashionable wokeism;

… then I might think the proposed state bailout of the media was a good thing. But that adds up to a lot of worrying “Ifs”, and somehow I don’t think my misgivings will be easily assuaged.

*The definition comes from The Elements of Journalism (2001), by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. I’ve yet to see a more succinct description of what journalism should be about.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

An assumed right of veto?

The protest occupation at the site of a proposed Erebus memorial at Sir Dove-Myer Robinson Park in Parnell is the latest evidence of what seems to be an assumed Maori right of veto.

Dame Rangimarie Naida Glavish is leading the protest, claiming it’s a culturally significant site (isn’t it always?) and that there was inadequate consultation with Maori. Yet her own iwi, Ngati Whatua, gave the project its blessing after a consultation process going back to October 2018. In a statement issued on Wednesday, Ngati Whatua Orakei – the hapu with mana whenua (territorial authority) over the site – detailed its involvement in the approval process and reaffirmed its support.

There’s a pattern emerging here. As at Ihumatao and Wellington’s Shelly Bay, protesters are asserting a right to block projects that had been given the green light - in the case of Shelly Bay, after years of squabbling.

In all three cases, dissidents have challenged decisions made by their own iwi organisations. To put it another way, significant public projects have been compromised - some might say sabotaged - as a result of intra-tribal disputes.

In the case of Ihumatao, this will come at a substantial cost to the taxpayer after the government agreed in December to pay $30 million to undo a housing development deal previously agreed between the local iwi and Fletcher Building.

We can safely assume the eventual bill will be much higher once legal costs and consultancy fees are totted up after a process that we’re told could take five years. That’s the price of the government’s eagerness to win the approval of the Ihumatao activists and their media supporters, who ensured the occupation got plenty of sympathetic publicity.

In the Parnell affair, Auckland mayor Phil Goff appears – so far, at least – to be standing firm against demands that the Erebus memorial be placed elsewhere, though I wouldn’t put money on him holding his ground if the heat goes on.

You certainly don’t have to look far for examples of timid councils backing down in the face of Maori insistence that approved projects be reversed. A notable instance was the about-face executed by Hastings District Council in 2018 over a walking track up the eastern face of Te Mata Peak. The $300,000 track was built and paid for by the adjacent Craggy Range winery, which owned the land and did everything by the book. But the local iwi objected at not having been consulted and demanded that the track be removed.

Both the council and the winery meekly capitulated. The estimated cost of “remediation” at the time was $650,000. I don’t know what the final cost came to, but I noted recently that you can still clearly see the outline of the track zig-zagging up the Te Mata escarpment. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.

In this case, the iwi veto – which, as far as I can tell, had no basis in law – was exercised retrospectively, making it all the more expensive. But the lesson was clear: bullying works, especially when councils are terrified of being accused of racism.

It worked in New Plymouth last month too, when council workers rushed to remove American flags that had been placed along the main highway to promote a rally of classic American cars.

The organisers had council approval to put them up. But when Taranaki Iwi chief executive Wharehoka Wano took exception to American flags being flown ahead of Waitangi Day, the order went out from the town hall: take them down! Never mind that the council had okayed them in the first place, or that it had also arranged for special Waitangi Day flags to be displayed around the city.  This seemed a case of unelected, unaccountable people exerting authority just because they can.

Of course the council apologised. “We’re sorry we dropped the ball in the run-up to our national day,” it said in a grovelling statement. “We’ve been in touch with iwi to apologise.” The council was taking steps to ensure it wouldn’t happen again, and the flags would be put up again once Waitangi Day had passed and fragile cultural sensitivities were presumably less likely to be bruised.

But “apologise” for what, exactly? Not asking the iwi’s permission? Are councils now expected to anticipate iwi objections to something as harmless as a display of American flags? Should they obtain prior iwi consent to all approvals, even those that look routine and innocuous, just in case they might offend someone?

Here’s the thing. Councils are elected to represent the interests of all citizens. They are required to follow processes laid down in law to ensure fair and equal treatment. Once they start going outside those processes to humour a privileged interest group – whether it’s one based on ethnicity or any other characteristic – then they invite public contempt and distrust. It’s not how democracy is supposed to work.