Sunday, March 20, 2022

Media freedom in New Zealand and how we differ from Putin's Russia

The tragedy in Ukraine illustrates with striking clarity the importance of a free and independent press.

People frequently express the naïve hope that the Russian people will rise up and depose the fascist war criminal Vladimir Putin, but that won’t happen as long as he exerts almost total control of the media.

Even in the digital age, most Russians get their information from state-controlled sources – mostly the TV news. That enables Putin and his apparatchiks to manipulate public opinion by bombarding the country with misinformation.

As a result, most Russians are convinced the invasion of Ukraine is a “special military operation” undertaken with the noble purpose of liberating the country from Nazis, drug-runners and terrorists. Or, as an alternative justification, that the Ukrainian government is a puppet regime of Western powers hostile to the beloved motherland. Failing that, there’s the rationale that the invasion was necessary to protect the Russian-speaking minority from genocide at the hands of Ukrainian nationalists. Or how about the argument that Ukraine is rightly part of Russia anyway? Take your pick.

Allusions to the Second World War, when some Ukrainians fought for Nazi Germany, feed into the sabre-rattling rhetoric. Reminders of the Soviet Union’s desperate struggle against Nazism make potent propaganda.

Russians have been fed the line that the invaders have been welcomed in Ukraine as heroes, much as the Allied armies were when they set about reclaiming Europe from the Nazis  in 1944. But we know, although most Russians don’t, that the Ukrainians despise their supposed liberators, much to the invading army’s surprise and dismay.

As for the scenes of carnage and ample evidence of civilian deaths, Russian audiences don’t see them. Or if they do, Russian TV reports that Ukrainian forces launched strikes against their own cities to make the invaders look bad. This is the propaganda technique known as the Big Lie – the use of an untruth so colossal and audacious that people believe it because it seems inconceivable that someone would invent it.

No doubt the Ukrainians have used propaganda tactics themselves, astutely playing on Western sympathy for the underdog – and who could blame them? But Putin has a couple of distinct advantages in the battle for hearts and minds. One is the Russian people’s historic admiration for authoritarian leaders (think Stalin, whom many Russians revere) and the other is their extraordinary stoicism in the face of hardship. Harsh economic sanctions such as the Russians are now experiencing must seem a minor inconvenience when compared with the Soviet Union’s agonies in the Second World War.

The barrage of Russian misinformation is so persuasive that even people in New Zealand have fallen for it. In the dead of night I’ve heard radio talkback callers argue vehemently that Putin has right on his side. One of Kim Hill’s listeners a couple of weeks ago took a similar line in an email challenging one of her interviewees.

These strange Putin cultists have uncritically bought the line that the invasion was launched for the Ukrainians’ own good and that Putin is justified in believing Russia is militarily threatened by Ukraine’s alignment with the West. What’s more, they think we’re the ones being bombarded with misinformation about what’s happening in Ukraine and that the nightly scenes of carnage on our TV screens are bogus.

While it would be comforting to report that Putin’s New Zealand supporters are mentally deficient, they’re not. The ones I’ve heard are articulate and obviously intelligent.  They’ve dived deep into Ukraine’s complicated past and are able to cite all manner of historical justifications for the invasion, including Putin’s line that Ukraine was a Russian creation in the first place and therefore has no legitimate claim to independent statehood.  

But theirs is a highly selective reading of history. It’s true, for example, that some Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis in the Second World War; my late Polish mother-in-law remembered them well from the atrocities they perpetrated in Warsaw. But Russians did too – most notably in the notorious Kaminski Brigade. For that matter so did Dutch, Scandinavian and Belgian fascists. Yet no one brands those countries as Nazi.

God alone knows where Putin’s antipodean sympathisers get their information, but it’s evidence of the insidious reach of online mischief –  and proof that there’s always someone ready to believe it.

More importantly, though, the Russian state’s brazen manipulation of information should stand as a stark reminder of the importance of press freedom. Strict control of what the public is told is an essential part of every tyrant’s playbook, and it’s enforced by a variety of means from censorship to imprisonment, exile and even execution.

Conversely, liberal democracy depends on an informed public that is able to observe, judge and react to the actions of its leaders. New Zealanders forget this at their peril.

Media freedom is one of the crucial defining differences between a liberal democratic state and a totalitarian one. Put simply, it can be described as the right to know. It’s arguably at least as important as the right to vote, since a vote is pointless if it’s not an informed one.

So how are we doing in New Zealand? In the global index of press freedom compiled annually by Reporters Sans Frontieres, we’re in the top 10 – ahead of Canada, Australia, Britain and the US.

While such indexes should be viewed with a degree of scepticism, since they are only as reliable as the information fed into them by “expert” sources who may have their own biases, it’s true that journalists and publishers in New Zealand operate in an environment of relative freedom.

Complacency is a continuing hazard. When the Newspaper Publishers’ Association commissioned me in 1992 to write a slender book on press freedom in New Zealand, I assumed it would be a relatively straightforward job. All I had to do was pull together everything previously published on the subject.

Ha! More fool me. I could find nothing. I was effectively starting from scratch. I concluded that a free press is something New Zealanders take for granted. But as my book pointed out, a freedom that’s taken for granted is one that can easily be eroded. Press freedom was seriously compromised during the 1951 waterfront dispute, when newspapers were forbidden from publishing anything that could have been construed as sympathetic to the troublesome unions, and again during the prime ministership of Robert Muldoon. The 1990 Bill of Rights Act provided some much-needed protection, but media independence remains a surprisingly fragile right and depends very much on the goodwill of judges and politicians.

But here’s the extraordinary thing. In 2022 the independence of the New Zealand media is jeopardised not by threats or coercion emanating from the state, but by the media’s own behaviour. In this respect we may be unique.

Journalistic bias is rampant and overt. It’s evident not just in how the media report things, but just as crucially in what is not reported at all. New Zealanders wanting to be fully informed on matters of consequence need to monitor online news platforms such as Kiwiblog, the BFD and Muriel Newman’s Breaking Views – to name just three – that cover the issues the mainstream media ignore.

One notable example of media failure is the Three Waters project, coverage of which falls far short of reflecting substantial opposition to the scheme and almost completely overlooks the profound constitutional implications of 50-50 co-governance. Another is climate change, where dissenting voices are suppressed as a matter of editorial policy.

Generally speaking, news that reflects unfavourably on the government tends to be played down or ignored. Bias is apparent too in the lack of rigour in holding government politicians to account. 

The prime minister in particular seems to enjoy a level of immunity from journalistic scrutiny that Muldoon would have envied. Jacinda Ardern is protected within a magic circle that the mainstream media almost never penetrates. Those who try to pierce it, as Mike Hosking did with his weekly interviews on NewstalkZB, are punished by the withdrawal of privileges.

After a lifetime as a journalist, I’m in the unfamiliar position of no longer trusting the New Zealand media to report matters of public interest fully, fairly, accurately and truthfully. This situation hasn’t arisen because of pressure from government communications czars or threats of imprisonment, as in authoritarian regimes such as Russia’s. It’s far more subtle than that.

The Labour government doesn’t have to tell the media what to report, or how, because most journalists, and especially those covering politics and important areas of public policy, are ideologically on board.  They are sympathetic with the government and want it to stay in power. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that this means relinquishing the impartial status on which they depend for their credibility. 

It follows that the $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund, ingenious though it may be as a means of co-opting the media as partners in a grand ideological project, may have been unnecessary. 

Nonetheless I wonder whether the editors and publishers who lined up to accept the government’s tainted money stopped to consider the full implications. While they indignantly reject claims that they are ethically compromised, they appear not to understand that the public is entitled to suspect that the acceptance of state money has influenced reportage and media comment even when it hasn’t. The public perception of media independence has been irreparably harmed.

To put this another way, in Russia the media can’t be trusted because they are controlled by the state, but in New Zealand the media have spared the government the trouble.  


Friday, March 18, 2022

Can Wellington rediscover its lost mojo?

I spent a couple of hours wandering the streets of downtown Wellington this week. What a dismal experience.

Actually, it was worse than dismal. It was profoundly depressing. The city where I spent most of my working life looks as if it has lost the will to live.

John Key got into a lot of trouble in 2013 for saying Wellington was a dying city. It seemed a preposterous statement then, but if Key said it today, I could only agree.

Absolutely Positively Wellington? That was the city’s confident – you might say brash – slogan in the 1990s. Now it sounds like a black joke. Ditto the phrase “Coolest little capital in the world”, which is how Lonely Planet (not an authoritative guide, even at the best of times) dubbed the city in 2014.

I’ve banged on about this before, here and here, so I won’t repeat myself. Suffice it to say that downtown Wellington resembles the urban wastelands of North American cities where you venture at your peril.

Lambton Quay on Tuesday was like a ghost town, Willis St only marginally better. Cuba Street, which once had an appealing raffishness, now looks just plain grotty. The CBD as a whole looks and feels tired and moribund.

Everywhere you look, businesses are closed or empty – a state of affairs documented in last Saturday’s Dominion Post. Beggars are ubiquitous, sometimes obtrusively so, and Cuba Mall is owned by derelicts.

Of course the city’s decline can partly be blamed on Covid-19, but the key word here is “partly”.

Many of the public servants and suits who normally patronise the city’s cafes and shops are working from home, and more worryingly may continue to do so even after the pandemic eases. The streets are also largely free of tourists – an absence for which Wellington should probably be grateful, since it would do the city’s image no good if word got out that downtown Wellington resembles the less salubrious parts of Flint, Michigan.

But Covid-19 has merely accelerated a decline that was already well advanced. For years the city has been in the grip of scaremongers and control freaks who used the hypothetical risk of earthquakes as an excuse to declare supposedly dangerous buildings off-limits. Risk-averse engineers, perhaps intoxicated by the power the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes unexpectedly bestowed on them, keep raising the bar. Compliant bureaucrats fall into line.

The Reading cinema complex, which once generated a needed daytime buzz in Courtenay Place, remains closed. The public library and town hall, ditto. Oh, and the St James Theatre too. And now I see that the Michael Fowler Centre, which has already been strengthened once, is getting another earthquake-prone sticker “because more documentation is required to verify the building’s seismic status”. The wording says it all.

These are institutions that collectively help define the city’s identity. As long as they remain closed, Wellington will remain in a state of inertia, if not paralysis. By the time the buildings reopen, it may be too late.

Even the Asteron Centre, an architectural showpiece opened as recently as 2010 and presumably built to state-of-the-art standards, was hurriedly evacuated last year for fear of imminent collapse. Yet the Railway Station immediately opposite, built on reclaimed land in the 1930s, has remained opened for business throughout. Can anyone explain this apparent paradox?

What’s astonishing is that this wretched state of affairs seems to be stoically accepted as inevitable. Perhaps the fact that the city’s decline has been gradual over many years resulted in the people living in its midst not noticing. The frog-in-boiling-water analogy comes to mind. Alternatively, the citizens of Wellington may have been browbeaten into submission and become simply too demoralised to resist.

All of this brings us to the matter of the city’s leadership, or lack thereof. From 1992 till 2010, Wellington had a succession of mayors – Fran Wilde, Mark Blumsky and Kerry Prendergast – who were energetic, capable and ambitious for their city. That was the Absolutely Positively era.

The rot set in under Celia Wade-Brown and since then, things have gone from bad to worse. Wellington in 2022 is cursed with the worst possible combination: a weak, ineffectual mayor and a council of fractious activists, several of whom treat their office as a licence to pursue ideological agendas.

So while the city’s infrastructure crumbles and its social and commercial vitality inexorably wastes away, the council sprays money on pet causes such as  cycleways (cost: $334 million) and virtue-signalling gestures on climate change – to say nothing of the comically misnamed Let’s Get Wellington Moving, which has become a synonym for expensive and futile dithering.

A striking example of the council’s resources being hijacked in pursuit of a radical political agenda – one not remotely connected with the concerns of ratepayers – is the proposed three-day wananga (forum) entitled Imagining Decolonisation, paid for by the council and promoted by councillor Tamatha Paul.

Official Information Act requests reveal that this “call to action” – the organisers’ own phrase – will cost Wellington ratepayers $35,000, including $6000 for something called cultural consultancy services. (That rumbling you just heard was the gravy train passing by.)

The quoted cost of the event should be treated as a starting figure because it doesn’t include time spent by council officials. But how the ratepayers will benefit from discussions about what “an equitable future in a decolonised Aotearoa could look like” isn’t clear.

Councillors who had the audacity to ask why the council was paying for an event that Cr Sean Rush described as radical and subversive were brushed off with bland assurances that different opinions could be voiced safely at the wananga and “held with care”, whatever that may mean. But it’s a fair bet that dissenting voices would have been firmly excluded had  councillors Rush and Nicola Young not started asking awkward questions. That was obvious from a council official’s acknowledgement that the postponement of the event due to Covid-19 would enable “wider participation”.

Whether the event will go ahead now that its true nature has been exposed (no thanks to the mainstream media, which have obligingly ignored the controversy) remains to be seen. In the meantime, there are important questions to be asked – such as, can Wellington rediscover and reclaim its mojo?

It will have an opportunity to at least make a start at the local government elections in October. What the people of Wellington must do is elect a mayor and council who reflect the priorities and aspirations of the city at large rather than those of a vociferous minority.

That won’t be easy, because Wellington is home to New Zealand’s greatest concentration of woke zealots. They are well organised, ferociously committed and have the support of a broadly sympathetic media, many of whose journalists are of a similar ideological persuasion.

The Left has made an early start. Tory Whanau declared herself a candidate for the mayoralty in November and has been energetically promoting herself at every opportunity. Whanau has no local government experience, but the fact that she’s a former chief of staff for the Green Party provides a clear pointer to the type of mayor she would be. It will also ensure the support of the impressionable young and the idealistic New Left from the inner suburbs.

She certainly doesn’t lack self-assurance, judging by a lavish photo spread in Capital magazine (what was that I said about sympathetic media?). But Whanau as mayor would be a disaster – a guarantee that the city would continue on its present wayward course, albeit even faster.

The question is, who will stand against her? Speculation centres on former deputy mayor Paul Eagle, now the Labour MP for Rongotai.  Eagle was generally well-regarded on the council and would have almost certainly been mayor by now had he not been seduced by the lure of Parliament in 2017. But he hasn’t enjoyed a high profile as an MP and might well be tempted to return to local government.

If he does, and stands as an official Labour candidate, he would presumably have the backing of the Labour Party machine, which would help counter the inevitable social media blitz promoting Whanau. And while party involvement in local government is not something to be encouraged, Eagle as mayor could at least be expected to counter the malignant elements who now hold sway around the council table.  

Whoever wins the mayoralty will need to be bold, decisive and visionary, because Wellington is a city that has tragically lost its way. Whether it can get its bearings again is in the hands of the voters.















Thursday, March 10, 2022

Pssst ... don't mention the iwi

From disgrace to sham to travesty and back again – that pretty much sums up the Three Waters project so far.  (I won’t use the government’s preferred term “reform”, because reform means a change for the better.)

When it became clear last year that Nanaia Mahuta’s pet ideological project faced concerted opposition across a broad front, the government sought to defuse it by setting up an “independent working group” to review the proposed governance arrangements.

The working group’s report is now in, and it has justifiably been slammed for merely tinkering at the edges – hardly surprising, given that the group was stacked with iwi representatives and people broadly sympathetic to the government. (One example is my own mayor, Lyn Patterson, a reliable friend of Labour who told the Wairarapa Times-Age that the report addresses local government’s concerns. Yet her own council recently joined 29 others in opposing Three Waters and looking at alternative proposals.)

The working group’s most significant recommendation is for a restructuring of shareholding arrangements in the proposed governance structure, in the hope this will create an illusion of greater accountability and so mollify opponents – among them, Auckland mayor and former Labour cabinet minister Phil Goff, who is standing firm despite having been on the working party. (Question: if the recommendations didn’t even satisfy one of the group’s own members, why should the rest of us be convinced?)

To appease those who complain that the existing proposals don’t allow sufficient input for local voices, the working party proposes to strengthen the roles of regional representative groups (RRGs) by creating advisory groups (sub-RRGs – I kid you not) that would “feed into the larger body”. So an already opaque and unwieldy governance structure would become still more opaque and unwieldy, and local voices would be safely submerged and rendered impotent.  The Labour Party is very good at this sort of thing, preferring to place its faith in big government rather than allow local democracy to get in the way.

The report also seeks to divert attention away from crucial governance issues to the supposed risk of privatisation of water, which my former colleague Barrie Saunders rightly dismisses as a red herring. Amid all the debate of the past few months, the fear of privatisation has hardly been raised at all.

Most significantly, the working group ignores the elephant in the room (or should I say the taniwha in the whare). The shibboleth of 50-50 Treaty partnership remains central to the project. The report does nothing to address concerns that Three Waters, as it stands, would represent a massive transfer of power and control to unelected and unaccountable iwi interests.

In the longer term that raises profound constitutional implications, because Three Waters could serve as a test run for implementing a radical re-interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi. If the government gets away with it, we should expect the principle of 50-50 co-governance to be extended into other spheres of government.

Already we’re seeing parallel Maori governance structures taking shape in health and education. The Three Waters project will take that a step further. No one should be in any doubt that what’s underway is nothing less than a subversion of democratic principles and a jettisoning of the notion that all citizens enjoy equal rights.

Interestingly, media coverage of the working group’s report – or at least what I’ve seen and heard of it – has deftly skirted around the crucial issue of tribal influence in the Three Waters project by the simple expedient of not referring to it at all. To paraphrase Basil Fawlty, it’s a case of “Don’t mention the iwi”.

Conspiracy theorists are likely to see this as further evidence of the government’s influence over the media via the Public Interest Journalism Fund – and who can blame them? That’s the type of suspicion media outlets inevitably invite when they line up to take the taxpayers’ money on terms dictated by the government, central among which is the insistence on recognition of arbitrarily defined Treaty rights.

Throughout this exercise, a persistent issue has been lack of transparency. At every step along the way, the government has seemed determined to (pardon the pun) muddy the waters.

A good example is the diagram purporting to show how the governance of Three Waters will work, which is a triumph of obfuscation. I defy anyone to make sense of it. There has to be a reason why it’s so convoluted, and I believe that reason is to disguise where true power and control will reside.

The public still has no idea who came up with the idea of four regional “water service entities” – whose territories just happened to be aligned with tribal boundaries – or what the rationale was. That part of the exercise appears to have taken place out of the public view. It emerged fully formed, without public consultation.

In place of transparency, the government has tried hyperbole, disinformation and scaremongering – witness the infantile and dishonest “public information and education campaign” put together by advertising agency FCB New Zealand (to its everlasting shame) at a cost to the taxpayer of $4 million. The aim was to frighten New Zealanders into thinking our water infrastructure is in a parlous state and thus soften us up for the hijacking of council-owned assets and the removal of democratic accountability mechanisms.

In fact many, if not most, councils manage their water infrastructure efficiently and safely. In any case, the debate now is not so much about whether the management of water can be improved, which many critics of Three Waters accept. What’s contentious is the means by which the government proposes to do it.

As I said in a recent letter to the Times-Age, New Zealanders need to decide what type of government they want: one that serves all citizens equally, or one that recognises a minority racial group as having rights that trump those of the majority.

This doesn’t mean sweeping aside Maori rights. But it’s one thing to treat Maori fairly and respectfully, as is their due, and quite another to undermine the fundamental democratic principles from which all New Zealanders – Maori, Pakeha and everyone else – benefit.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that people of Maori descent enjoy the same rights as the rest of us. These include the right to stand for councils and to get elected, as many have done. That would provide the opportunity to be represented in the running of a legitimately constituted Three Waters governance structure. But the powerful iwi interests that influence the government (and in particular Labour’s Maori caucus, which is a power centre in its own right) want to bypass that process and enjoy a seat at the table as of right.

To put it another way, the Three Waters project, as it stands, involves replacing democracy with another form of government for which we don’t have a name.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

The continuing mystery of the absent men

I bet I’m not the only one who heard Radio New Zealand’s news item about a homeless Napier woman with seven children and wondered why no man was mentioned.

I notice this time and time again in depressing news stories about solo mothers in desperate plights. Why is nothing ever said about the men who fathered the children?

Are they lurking somewhere in the background, too ashamed or embarrassed to come forward, or have they done a runner? My guess is that it’s the latter.

In the Napier case, the woman’s seven children are aged from 11 down to seven weeks. She spent her last money buying two flimsy tents which she erected in a park before a woman saw what was happening and took her in. She’s now in temporary accommodation, having apparently been given the run-around by the agencies that are supposed to help such people.  (Which is another story in itself. Perhaps Kainga Ora could free up space by evicting some of its gang tenants who terrorise their neighbours. But of course that would be racist.)

The age of the baby indicates there was a man somewhere in the picture until relatively recently. Where is he? Why is he apparently not contributing to the welfare of the helpless infant whose conception he was party to? And what about the other six kids? Did they all have the same father, or were they sired by other men?

Reporters never ask these questions – or if they do, they don’t tell us the answers. There are three possible explanations for this.

The first is that it’s considered rude to inquire into intimate personal matters. The second is that it’s considered judgemental, and contemporary morality insists we must never make judgements about other people’s behaviour (although we do it all the time, and rightly so). The third is that it’s none of our business.

But it is our business, because one way or another these families depend on public support. Where individual responsibility fails, society has to step in, and often that societal support becomes long-term.

That makes it our business. Moreover, if our sympathy is being invited – as in this case – then we are entitled to be told the full story. We deserve to know what circumstances led to a woman and seven kids having to pitch cheap Warehouse tents in a park.

It’s possible she had fled an abusive relationship. If so, we should be told, because it’s information that helps us make a judgment about the situation. (Oh, I forgot – we’re not allowed to be judgmental.)

As in all such cases, our primary concern should be for the kids. Adults have some control over their lives; children have none. They are at the mercy of the people who bring them into the world, and they deserve better than to suffer because of feckless ratbags who root, shoot and leave.   

In such instances, it seems to me there’s a good case for naming and shaming absentee fathers. There should be a penalty for their selfishness and indifference to the consequences of their actions.

But – and this is the hard part – the mothers cannot entirely escape responsibility. Yes, many do their best, in terrible circumstances, to give their kids a loving home. But we are entitled to wonder why, when contraception is subsidised and even free, some women continue to have unprotected sex with the wrong men.

Footnote: I’m not saying these factors apply in the Napier case, because we don’t know. That’s the point – journalists don’t give us the relevant background information.



Monday, March 7, 2022

Otago University pioneers bold new approach to the study of conflict

[Readers please note: the reference to the Media Council's decision on a  complaint involving Siouxsie Wiles toward the end of this post has been updated.]

Sometimes irony is just too delicious for words.

The Otago Daily Times recently reported that the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago has been exposed as having a culture described as “toxic”, “paralysing”, “isolating” and “divisive”.

Those words come from a confidential 31-page report leaked to the ODT, which said the centre is known on campus as the “conflict and conflict” centre. The report described the centre as dysfunctional, with “deeply entrenched conflicts”. Perhaps they could use themselves as a case study.

It’s a story that falls squarely into the “you couldn’t make this up” category, but which seems, for reasons that I couldn’t speculate on, to have been ignored by the wider New Zealand media.

Bizarrely, I heard about it in the early hours of Saturday morning on Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!, a satirical weekly quiz show broadcast on America’s National Public Radio network.

The show’s panel thought it was hilarious – and who wouldn’t? They would probably have been just as amused to learn that someone in Masterton, New Zealand, learned about it from a radio programme broadcast from Chicago.

According to the ODT, the director of the centre, Prof Richard Jackson, has decided to step down. He could hardly do otherwise, given that the report recommended the appointment of a new director.

But it might be unfair to hold Jackson solely to blame, since the report notes that the problems go back for a decade. That implicates his predecessor, Prof Kevin Clements, who retired in 2017. Clements is a tiresome moralist who was exposed in this blog in 2019 as having little credibility on one of his pet issues, gun control.

I don’t want to rush to judgment here, and God forbid that I should engage in stereotypes, but the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies sounds like a nest of feuding lefties who, while lecturing others about ways to resolve differences, are busy tearing each other’s eyes out, metaphorically speaking.

A clue to the ideological tone of the centre lies in Jackson’s profile on the university website, which lists his areas of academic interest as including critical peace research and critical terrorism studies.

That word “critical” is the giveaway. “Critical studies” and “critical theory” are broad umbrella terms for an essentially Marxist analysis that sees the world in terms of oppressive power structures.

Critical studies flourish in academia despite being wildly at odds with mainstream ideological beliefs. The University of Otago in particular seems to function as a breeding ground for leftist finger-waggers on a mission to lay bare the supposedly egregious failings of democratic capitalism and replace it with something better.

But there’s a further exquisite irony here. Judging by the ODT’s report, it seems the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies has been at least partly undone by its failure to measure up to woke diktats relating to diversity and biculturalism. The report criticised it for making only a tokenistic commitment to biculturalism and for having “a poor grasp of appropriate indigenous protocols”.

What can we conclude from that? Perhaps that the centre’s academics were so preoccupied fighting among themselves – sorry, I meant nurturing an atmosphere of harmonious collaboration – that they failed to notice the vindictive woke crusade rapidly approaching in their rear-vision mirror. That would truly be a case of the revolution devouring its own.

Meanwhile, in other significant news from the academic front lines, Stuff reports today that the Media Council has upheld a complaint against it for publishing an inaccurate column about the Listener Seven and then unreasonably delaying the publication of a correction.

The column was written following the fracas over the now-famous letter to The Listener from seven eminent academics challenging the definition of matauranga Maori – traditional Maori knowledge – as science. The columnist wrongly claimed that amid the furore that erupted, the writers of the Listener letter intimidated junior colleagues with lawyers’ letters, presumably for the purpose of discouraging further condemnation. (In fact letters were sent, but by Auckland University in response to privacy issues raised by two of the seven.)  

The Listener Seven complained their reputations had been damaged by the suggestion of intimidation, which the Media Council described as “a most serious allegation … striking at the heart of academic freedom by asserting that the Professors were trying to stifle opposing views”. The council agreed that the statement was inaccurate.

So – exoneration for the Listener Seven and a black mark against Stuff, which the council further rebuked over the timing and inadequacy of its corrections, one of which was ambiguously written and failed to acknowledge that the column was wrong.

But the most curious aspect of this affair is that although the errant columnist is named several times in the council’s decision, nowhere in its report does Stuff identify her. She happens to be Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, who was one of the leaders of the orchestrated backlash against the heretical Listener Seven.

The question now becomes: is Stuff protecting Wiles, and if so, why? There are lots of possible answers to that question, and none of them would surprise me.

Important update (added March 9): Journalist and blogger Graham Adams asked Stuff why Wiles wasn't named in its report and was told the published summary of the decision was supplied by the Media Council. Therefore Stuff can't be accused of protecting Wiles and the question becomes: why was the Media Council so coy about naming her in its press release?

Friday, March 4, 2022

Pseudonyms or real names? The results are in

The results are in and the judges have come to a decision. (Correction: that should be judge, singular. There’s only one judge, and it’s me.)

Thirty-eight readers – by my count, but my arithmetic is not to be trusted – responded to my invitation to give their opinions on whether or not comments on this blog should be anonymous. Their responses were thoughtful and constructive, and I thank them all.

There are persuasive arguments both ways, but on balance I’ve decided to retain the status quo – albeit with some slight modifications (see below).

I came to this decision because while I would rather that commenters identified themselves (and if it comes to the crunch, I will favour those who do), I accept that some people have legitimate reasons for not doing so.

I’m particularly persuaded by those who point out that social media can be vindictive  and toxic – far more so than letters to the editor, which I cited as a precedent for requiring names – and that the expression of the type of opinion found in the comments section of this blog may be career-limiting, or at least have unpleasant personal repercussions.

I find this appalling but have to accept that it’s true, and it would be wrong to deny people the right to express themselves for fear of damaging consequences. That would be a win for the other side.

Freedom of expression, after all, is arguably the most important right we have, and if insisting on people naming themselves results in free speech being discouraged, that’s a setback for open debate and the exchange of ideas. 

To put it another way, requiring names might satisfy my purist ideals, but at the expense of engagement in public debate. At a time when freedom of speech is under sustained attack by the woke Left, we need more opportunities to say what we think, not fewer.

And there’s another factor, albeit a more pragmatic one. The comments section is a vital part of this blog and I’m loath to do anything that might stifle it.

Having said that, I intend to introduce a few guidelines (note – guidelines, not rigid rules).

■ Bitchy attacks on other commenters will be firmly discouraged, especially when made from the cover of anonymity. I see these on other blogs and it’s not pretty. One of the great virtues of the comments section on this blog is its civil tone, and I mean to keep it that way.

■ Similarly, people who anonymously snipe at me, as happens occasionally, shouldn’t expect to have their comments published. This is not me being precious. It’s no different from the legal principle that people accused of wrongdoing are entitled to know the identity of their accuser. Besides, it’s an abuse of hospitality to bad-mouth your host. (This doesn’t mean I’m not fair game if I say something stupid or wrong. Just don’t hide behind a pseudonym.)

■ Commenters whose meaning is obscure shouldn’t expect to be cut any slack in future. Fortunately there are not many of them.

■ Similarly, I reserve the right not to publish long, rambling or repetitive comments. I’m the only one on this blog who’s allowed to be boring.





Wednesday, March 2, 2022

On the hazards of changing your telco

Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. So the cliché goes – and like most clichés, it has a core of truth.

A couple of weeks ago, I changed my phone and internet provider. A long and previously painless relationship with Spark started to unravel when the company informed me late last year that my mobile plan was ending, but that was okay because they could move me to another one. Problem was, the new plan was more expensive (who’d have thought?) and what’s more, I would lose the free Spotify account I had previously enjoyed.

Paying more for less seemed a raw deal, and from that point on my dealings with Spark went downhill. Other issues arose, like being billed $106 for a new router that I’d already paid for. Every time I went into the local Spark office to resolve a problem, I came out thinking everything was sorted only to discover subsequently that it wasn’t. Being barked at on one visit by a surly female employee because I forgot to put my mask on didn’t help either.

Long story short, I decided: Bugger it. Family and friends spoke highly of 2Degrees so I made arrangements to switch everything over – internet, mobile and landline.

More fool me. The changeover was supposed to happen two weeks ago and should have been almost seamless, but at every step along the way I had problems that required a call to the 2Degrees 0800 number.

Switching my cell phone over to the new provider – a process I was assured would take a couple of hours – stretched into several days. The problem turned out to be a discrepancy concerning my account number that took only a minute to sort out once I found out about it, but no one had bothered to tell me. If I hadn’t phoned the 0800 number to find out what was causing the holdup, I’d probably still be using Spark (which, as it happens, might not have been a bad thing, as I’ll explain shortly).

When the 2Degrees router arrived so I could set up my internet connection, the contents of the box didn’t correspond with what the setup guide said it should contain. Cables that were supposed to be grey were white and two Ethernet cables were missing altogether, as was a DSL adapter. Another adapter was incompatible with my standard phone cable. In the end I had to figure things out for myself by trial and error, which included cannibalising bits from my previous Spark setup.

When I went to the 2Degrees home page and clicked on a link that was supposed to authenticate my landline, it took me to a page that didn’t exist. That took another phone call to sort out. (I should add that the people I dealt with on the phone were helpful and courteous, with the exception of one who appeared to decide it was all too difficult and cut me off. My wife can vouch for that, because I had the speaker on and she heard it.)

Oh, and another thing. I noticed 2Degrees had my name as Karl du Frensen. No big deal; people often get my name wrong. But it wasn’t easy finding the page where my personal details were stored, and when I eventually succeeded and clicked on “edit” to correct the spelling, nothing happened. Nix, nada. The “edit” function was as lifeless as Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue parrot.

I can now report that after more than two weeks of jumping through a succession of hoops, wasting a vast amount of time and tearing my hair out in frustration, I have now reached a place where almost everything is sorted. But note that ominous word almost.  

You see, my mobile  phone is virtually useless. The signal is so bad at home that phone calls break up or don’t connect at all. Trying to send text messages is a lottery. I can sometimes get a weak signal if I step out onto my back deck, but I don’t fancy having to do that every time someone tries to contact me – least of all in the depths of a Wairarapa winter.

You might assume from this that we’re somewhere out in the wops. But no, we live in a town of 22,000 people – on the edge, admittedly, but still within the built-up, municipal area. On the TV news I see people using mobile phones in Sudanese refugee camps and bombed-out basements in war-torn Syria and think to myself: “They can do it – why the hell can’t I?”

Another call to another friendly person in the 2Degrees call centre brought forth the suggestion that I check their coverage map to see what the reception’s like where I am. So I did, and it’s supposed to be either excellent or good. Yeah, right.

The same person suggested I try a different Sim card, which was also the solution proposed by the sympathetic man in the local 2Degrees office this morning. So I’ve done that too, and the phone is still useless.

And don’t get me started on the multiple other irritants lying in the path of anyone dealing with telcos, such as the buzzy marketing jargon, much of it incomprehensible to ordinary human beings, and the vile noises to which callers are subjected while on hold, which Trevor Mallard might have found far more effective than Barry Manilow as a means of driving away the Molesworth St protesters. All things considered, it’s enough to make you pine for the days of the old P and T (Post and Telegraph) department.

So where do I go from here? Buggered if I know. But my advice to anyone else considering a change of phone and internet provider is to look before you leap.




Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Does the right to say what we think still apply when we do it anonymously?

Oh dear. It seems I’ve let the side down.

A number of people, on this blog and elsewhere, appeared to like what I wrote about the Molesworth St protesters challenging the woke Left’s long-standing stranglehold on what these days is called public discourse.

But then they got to the footnote in which I said I neither whole-heartedly supported nor opposed the protesters, and at that point I lost them. It seems that if you’re not 100 percent behind Camp Freedom, you’re part of the conspiracy against them. How sad (and I don’t mean that ironically, as in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum).

Of course this is nothing new. It’s a familiar, if perverse, quirk of human nature.

I get along fine with old friends with whom I’m almost totally at odds politically. The people whose friendship is sometimes less dependable are those who, because we share the same opinions on most issues, develop the irrational expectation that we’ll agree all the time, and who behave as if it’s an act of betrayal when I don’t fall into line with their thinking.  To put it another way, their approval is conditional on me agreeing with them on just about everything.

The urge to pick fights with people who are basically on the same side is well documented. If reports are to be believed, it has happened – quite literally – at the Molesworth St encampment.

Countless political organisations have fallen apart because people who were passionately committed to the same causes fell out bitterly over what often seemed like relatively minor ideological sticking points. That’s the principal reason the far Left in New Zealand has historically been so ineffectual (that is, until the 2020 election, when they sneaked under the radar). They were so busy disembowelling each other that they lost sight of the common enemy. The deep schism that split New Zealand communists into pro-China and pro-Soviet camps was a case in point.

G K Chesterton called it the Irish disease. According to Chesterton, “This consists of the ability to find yourself 99 per cent in agreement with someone and then focus with ferocious, unforgiving intensity on the other one per cent.”

But of course it’s not confined to the Irish. I don’t believe the people having a whack at me all have Gaelic surnames.

The peevish tone of some comments in recent weeks (not all of them published) illustrates a wider phenomenon. The tone of public debate, as many commentators have noted, has become volatile and intolerant. The mood of the country is brittle and feverish. People are splitting into tribal camps. A woman I know who works in a local retail business told me yesterday of confrontations with aggressive men making irrational demands. This is not normal.

Some of this unpleasantness can be blamed on social tensions created, or at least brought to the surface, by Covid-19.  But it can also be attributed to government policies that are driving a wedge through what has historically been, at least by international standards, an admirably harmonious society. Some days New Zealand feels more like the Balkans.

Some of the comments rebuking me for not taking an emphatic position in support of the Molesworth St protest were polite and considered. Others were snarly and sneering. Some commenters write as if I have some sort of obligation always to faithfully reflect their views, and when I don’t I’ve somehow failed them. But if people expect me to confine myself to opinions that they happen to share, they’re reading the wrong blog. Whatever happened to the notion that a pluralistic, liberal democracy allows us to express honestly held opinions, regardless of whether others agree? When did we split into absolutist camps, intolerant of any deviation?

Now, another thing. A good friend and regular reader of this blog – one who certainly doesn’t share all my views – asked me recently why I permit anonymous opinions. I’m starting to wonder the same thing.

I admit one reason I'm having second thoughts is that it irritates me when people snipe at me from the cover of anonymity. They know who I am; my identity is out there for anyone to see. Why should they be able to have a whack at me, on my blog, without identifying themselves?

But there are other good reasons for reconsidering my tolerance of anonymity. For one thing, I’ve always believed that if a view is worth expressing, it’s worth putting your name to. There are occasions when people have valid reasons for withholding their identity (for example, when disclosing sensitive personal information), but they’re rare.

For another, it’s important that people on the conservative side of politics should have enough confidence in their convictions to declare themselves boldly. I sometimes wonder whether they’re intimidated by the overwhelming weight of left-wing opinion out there in the public arena, and particularly in the mainstream media. But the Left wins the moral battle by default when they are prepared to stand up in public and the Right isn’t.  It’s like a rugby match where the opposing side hasn’t shown up. We live in a free society and we should take full advantage of it.

Thirdly, I believe the quality of comment improves when people have to put their names to it. That was borne out when newspapers began insisting on letters to the editor being signed and accompanied by a verifiable address rather than written using a nom-de-plume. Most papers adopted that rule decades ago and it seems odd that blogs don’t do the same.

People are less likely to express extreme, petty, abusive or defamatory opinions when they have to sign them. Admittedly, I have no way of verifying that commenters are who they say they are; it would largely be on trust. Nonetheless I believe a requirement that people identify themselves would reduce the risk of the right to comment being abused.

Having said that, I don’t want to deter people from commenting and I certainly don’t intend to stifle comments critical of me. The comments section is a crucial component of this blog and I greatly value readers’ contributions, which are often thoughtful, provocative and erudite. In fact I’ll stick my neck out and say that I sometimes think there’s more value in the comments than in the blog posts that trigger them. I’m very grateful to the people who take the trouble to comment and I especially thank those who write under their own names.

In the spirit of participatory democracy, since I regard readers and commenters as having a stake in this blog, I welcome input before I make any change.