Wednesday, December 6, 2023

A massive gesture of contempt for the voters

It’s said that great minds think alike. Unfortunately the same is true, by definition, of conformist minds.

As an example, take the political news headlines of November 29. They were strikingly similar. Almost without exception, the mainstream media pounced on the new government’s decision to axe Labour’s ambitious (but possibly unworkable) plan to make New Zealand smokefree.

Not only did the major media outlets agree, as if by consensus, on what should be played up as the big story of the day. Even the wording of the headlines was often virtually identical.

And so we got Health experts furious over government’s plan to scrap smokefree measures (Newshub): Government’s smokefree law repeal ‘a massive step back’ – health orgs (1 News); Disbelief as a smokefree generation slips away (The Detail, RNZ); Top Pasifika doctor Collin Tukuitonga slams plans to repeal smokefree laws – says most vulnerable will suffer (NZ Herald); Government defending the indefensible in scrapping smokefree efforts – health leader (RNZ); Experts warn health system will bear burden of government abandoning smokefree regulations (Newshub again).

There was also a predictable anxiety attack over what the rest of the world might think. Smoking laws: what international media is [sic] saying about NZ’s scrapping (the Herald); Smokefree laws: what the world is saying about NZ’s ‘shock reversal’ (1 News); What the world’s media says [sic] about new government’s plan to scrap smokefree laws (Newshub). In other words some overseas media disapproved, therefore the governing coalition must have got it hideously wrong. How embarrassing for New Zealand; how shameful.

True, the BBC, Time magazine and America’s National Public Radio all took the line that the new government was foolishly (or callously) snuffing out progressive laws that had been passed by Jacinda Ardern’s enlightened administration - laws that were seen as a blueprint for the rest of the world, or so the journalists pronounced. How could anyone take such a retrograde step? That was the dominant tone of the overseas coverage. To be fair, though, the overseas stories were nuanced, balanced and contextualised in a way that was generally lacking locally. New Zealanders reading them would have been considerably better informed than by their own domestic media.

The following day, November 30, brought an even more striking example of media groupthink. A selection of headlines: Luxon honeymoon rained on by Peters and cigarettes (Toby Manhire, The Spinoff); Winston Peters killed Christopher Luxon’s honeymoon with anti-media antics (Jenna Lynch, Newshub); Christopher Luxon tries to get his plan and honeymoon back on track without Winston Peters butting in (Claire Trevett, the Herald); Winston Peters making it look like Chris Luxon has lost control (Tova O’Brien, Stuff); Winston Peters’ bad behaviour overshadowing Christopher Luxon, David Seymour (Audrey Young, the Herald); Christopher Luxon refuses to pull Winston Peters into line over anti-media comments, laughs it off (Jenna Lynch again, taking a second swipe).

This time two themes were competing for the excitable journalists’ attention. One was that Peters was hijacking Luxon’s moment in the spotlight; the other was that the deputy prime minister was defaming the media with false claims that they had been bribed by the previous government’s $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund, and Luxon was doing nothing to rein him in. Why wasn’t the PM defending the media, or at least telling Peters to pull his horns in? (As if ...)

How do we know Peters’ statements about the media were false? Because Jenna Lynch told us so, more than once. She didn’t explain how they were false; they just were. We were supposed to take her word for it.

The NZ media now automatically insert that word “false” in every story about Peters’ accusations about the PIJF, just as the US media inserted the word “false” in every story about Donald Trump complaining the 2020 presidential election had been stolen. (We can now be reasonably confident those claims were false after several courts ruled they were. But that wasn’t the case when the US media, almost without exception, began using the word. They took upon themselves the right to assert it as an established fact.)

A previous generation of journalists, both here and in the US, would have said the claims were alleged to be false or had been condemned as false. They would have explained who was alleging they were false and why, then left the public to make up its own mind. The court of public opinion was the ultimate arbiter.

Not anymore. The media decide what’s false and what can be regarded as credible. As with Lynch, we’re expected to take their word for it.

The claims about the PIJF may indeed be false, as was the case with Trump. But the media have taken a dangerous leap into new territory by acting as if contentious issues are definitively settled when in the public mind they may not be. In effect, they have assumed a mantle of omniscience.

Climate change is another case where the mainstream media have decreed there’s no room for dispute and that, accordingly, no contrary views will be given space or air time. I’ve been a journalist for 55 years and I can’t recall any previous issue on which the media arrogantly asserted the right to shut down all public debate on the basis that an issue was “settled”. But this is the new normal.

It’s an attitude that flows from the emergence of a new priestly caste of university-educated journalists who reject the idea of objectivity, contemptuously dismissing it as “bothsidesism”. Former generations of journalists were trained to present both sides of a story, but to the priestly journalistic caste now in control, this risks giving an aura of legitimacy to opinions and ideas they fear and despise. They have therefore taken upon themselves the right to determine what the public can safely be allowed to read or hear, and thus to proscribe modern heresies such as climate change scepticism or Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy.

Journalists seem to think that simply by baldly asserting that statements they disagree with are false, they will convince the public. Certainly some of the public, such as RNZ’s steadily diminishing number of rusted-on devotees, will need little persuading. However it’s more likely the media will simply get a lot of people’s backs up. What many journalists don’t grasp is that most of the public no longer trust them and wonder, quite reasonably, why they should believe them – a state of affairs made worse by the media’s rush to sign up to the Ardern government’s Public Interest Journalism Fund, which brings us back to Peters’ claims of bribery.

Was it “bribery” to accept government money in return for a commitment to a highly politicised interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi, as Peters says? At worst, his use of the word could be described as hyperbole. But the indignant chorus of howls from the media can’t disguise the fact that by taking the money, they laid themselves open to the accusation that the government had bought their support. 

Even if some media outlets convinced themselves they were behaving honourably, the mere acceptance of government money created a very damaging public perception. I don’t think media bosses gave sufficient thought to the harm that would be done to their credibility, especially in a febrile political climate highly charged by divisive identity politics and dissent over such issues as the vaccine mandate. And their image wasn’t helped by the perception that the media were giving Ardern’s government a conspicuously easy ride.

That the PIJF was at heart a propaganda exercise (I called it the Pravda Project) is not in any doubt. Raewyn Rasch, who ran the fund on behalf of NZ on Air – and who, for the fund’s duration, became one of the most powerful figures in the New Zealand media – admitted as much on RNZ’s Mediawatch. In an interview with Colin Peacock after the first funding round in 2021, she said NZ on Air wanted to encourage conversations about the Treaty, but those conversations had to “come from an understanding of what the Treaty is about”. And who decided what the correct “understanding” was? Why, Rasch and NZ on Air, that's who.

Rasch argued that this didn’t preclude anyone from taking a critical view of Treaty issues – but if you’re dictating how the Treaty is to be interpreted, and therefore limiting the parameters of the “conversation”, to use Rasch’s cute term, you’re choking off the scope for legitimate debate and automatically excluding most, if not all, dissenting opinion.

Some of what Rasch said in that interview was nonsensical and contradictory. She said the fund didn’t dictate how applicants should cover Treaty issues, but then almost immediately and quite unabashedly told of a PIJF-funded documentary about the South Island Alpine Fault that fell short of the fund’s expectations because it included no Maori input. Rasch’s team “went back and had a chat” – how chilling those words can sound – with the documentary makers, as a result of which they then “engaged” with Ngai Tahu. Even Peacock, an apologist for the Pravda Project, seemed surprised that a documentary about seismology had to pay homage to NZ on Air’s idea of the Treaty principles. But oh, yes: “Te Tiriti comes into everything,” Rasch declared. So there you are.

Now, back to that remarkable media consensus on the story of the day. On November 29, it was the scrapping of Labour’s idealistic but impractical anti-smoking legislation; on November 30, the focus was on Peters’ attacks on the media, and the implied weakness of Luxon for not silencing him.

The election of any new government almost invariably precipitates an avalanche of news – this one more so than most because it brought together three parties which, despite often incompatible ideologies, agreed on an ambitious programme of change.

There were 49 items on the 100-day plan announced by the government on November 29. The media latched onto one – the smokefree reversal – and almost ignored the other 48. Why? 

The same uniformity was notable the following day in the coverage of Peters’ bribery claims - a story of importance primarily to self-absorbed, hyper-sensitive journalists. 

I wonder, do parliamentary press gallery reporters confer among themselves to decide which subjects to cover and what line to take? The homogenous tone of the coverage suggests so, but I doubt it. Conspiracy is too strong a word, implying some sort of secret agreement. However it surely says something that so many journalists come away from an announcement and all spin it the same way. If that doesn’t suggest groupthink, I don’t know what does.

Fortunately there remain a few thoughtful, independently minded press gallery journalists who don’t hunt with the pack and who develop their own angles. I won’t put them in a difficult position by naming them.

All this took place against a backdrop of wall-to-wall weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth over the election of a government that the priestly media caste doesn’t approve of. I can’t recall any new government being confronted with such intense, naked hostility from people whom the public expect to be fair, neutral and balanced. 

State-owned media are some of the worst offenders. Throughout last week, RNZ’s Morning Report featured a daily parade of the aggrieved and disaffected: renters, unionists, public transport lobbyists, climate activists, teachers, academics, health and disability advocates, Treaty crusaders and environmentalists, all beating their breasts in despair – egged on by sympathetic interviewers – at the depredations wrought by a government of barbarians. As Richard Prebble perceptively wrote in a column, “power and privilege are never surrendered voluntarily”.

TVNZ is no better, giving more air time to politicians the electorate rejected than to ones who were elected – and often needling the latter and trying to trap them with “Gotcha!” questions. The state TV network also makes space on its website for whiny opinion pieces by the nation’s Hand-Wringer in Chief, John Campbell. Make no mistake, the media will ensure that the coalition parties are punished for their electoral success.

Note too the deafening media silence over incendiary statements from Maori politicians – among them, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer’s allegations of “systemic genocide” and “state-sponsored terrorism”, which bordered on unhinged, and Willie Jackson’s threats of “war” and civil unrest “five times worse” than the 1981 Springbok tour, which were tantamount to an incitement to violence.

These intemperate verbal eruptions pass unremarked by the media high priests, as did the circus at the swearing-in of MPs yesterday when the Maori Party wilfully made a mockery of parliamentary procedure. Those same Maori MPs would not take it well – and neither should they – if visitors to a marae refused to honour protocol and tradition. Why do they not show the same respect for the institution to which they have been elected? And why do media commentators appear united in their determination not to denounce the debasement of the House of Representatives that sits at the heart of New Zealand’s system of government? 

All this follows six years during which the mainstream media gave a free pass to probably the most extremist government in New Zealand history. Time and again under Ardern, dodgy law changes went unreported and issues that reflected badly on the government were either treated as invisible or played down until exposure by online platforms made them impossible to ignore. Now journalists have suddenly and miraculously rediscovered the critical scrutiny mechanism that inexplicably lay dormant for two terms under Labour.

To finish, three points:

1. I didn’t vote for this government (I didn’t cast a party vote at all) so can’t be considered blindly loyal to any of the parties in the coalition. I did, however, welcome the ousting of the former government and believe that its successors, who were legitimately elected under the system the country voted for in 1993, are entitled to a fair shake.

2. Where are the boards of directors and CEOs of media organisations? Directors are rightly reluctant to interfere in editorial decisions, but the unprecedented media animosity toward an elected government is unhealthy for the body politic. Hubristic presenters and political journalists are out of control and intoxicated by their own imagined power. It has reached a point where more senior figures need to step in for the sake of democracy, to say nothing of their sagging corporate reputations. This is especially true of the state-owned media companies TVNZ and RNZ. If those boards allow things to continue as they are, they should be shown the door on the assumption they are hostile to the government that employs them. (The boards are politically appointed, of course, and we can't discount the possibility that at least some directors were chosen because they were on board with Labour's agenda.) I never imagined myself advocating boardroom intervention in newsroom decisions, still less political appointments to media organisations, but this is what we’ve come to.

3. Ultimately, it all comes down to democracy and respect for the will of the people. For six years New Zealand had a government the media approved of. Voters emphatically signalled on October 14 that they wanted a change, but the priestly media caste is tone-deaf to the public mood and can’t bring itself to accept the decision. The petulant media campaign of resistance against the coalition government is, above all, a massive gesture of contempt for the voters. Or should I say the deplorables?

Friday, December 1, 2023

What's behind the media’s low-key treatment of the mosque shootings inquest?

Has anyone else been struck by the extraordinarily low-key media coverage of the inquest into the Christchurch mosque massacres?

Day after day, major news outlets have, at best, played down the proceedings. At worst they have ignored the inquest altogether. The coverage has been so conspicuously subdued that I can only conclude it’s deliberate.

RNZ is an honourable exception, but even there the coverage has been relatively light. Television has reported the inquest only spasmodically and you have to search the Stuff and NZME websites for any reference to it.

This is perplexing. March 15, 2019 was one of the most traumatic days in New Zealand history – arguably more so than previous tragedies such as Pike River, Mt Erebus or the Wahine sinking, because it was the result of a deliberate act. Only the Aramoana massacre of 1990, in which 13 people were shot dead compared with the 51 in Christchurch, comes close.

It follows that the nation has a vital interest in knowing not just how and why the mosque killings happened and whether they could have been avoided, but also in establishing whether the response by police and emergency services was adequate.

A royal commission of inquiry in 2020 dealt with those first questions, but it falls to the inquest under deputy chief coroner Brigitte Windley to investigate the latter issue.

What has emerged in evidence so far is not encouraging. Witnesses have told of confused, chaotic, slapdash and even heartless responses to the shootings; of indecision, communication breakdowns and rigid adherence to health and safety rules that meant medical help for the surviving victims was delayed.

Until yesterday, perhaps the most disheartening revelations were that paramedics didn’t enter the Deans Avenue mosque until 30 minutes after the killer had left and that surviving victims were abandoned altogether for 10 minutes after reports came through of the second outbreak of shootings and police left the scene to rush to Linwood.

Now it has emerged that distraught relatives of the victims at Deans Avenue were told to leave the scene and even threatened with arrest when they wanted to comfort the wounded. An American police expert on terror attacks told of “heartbreaking” witness statements and gave his opinion that people who were already inside the mosque should have been allowed to stay unless they were interfering. Another overseas counter-terrorism expert said there was no excuse for leaving the shooting victims alone.

No doubt the inquest has also been told, or will be told, of acts of heroism and compassion by first responders, including the two courageous and quick-thinking police officers who apprehended the killer. It’s likely too that the coroner, in her findings, will make the point that this was an unprecedented event and that confusion and errors of judgment were probably inevitable.

That Brenton Tarrant was arrested only 19 minutes after the shooting began, and before he could continue his murderous rampage at Ashburton, was remarkable. Failings by police and ambulance staff should never be allowed to overshadow or diminish that fact.

But at the same time, the public is entitled to know where the system failed and how it might be improved. That’s what makes the news media’s apparent lack of interest so puzzling.

In past eras, an event such as the Christchurch inquest would have been given saturation coverage. Reporters would have been present throughout and filed blow-by-blow accounts of every witness statement.

That this hasn’t happened is partly an inevitable result of the hollowing-out of newsrooms and the shrinkage of newspaper space. But the level of coverage also reflects editorial priorities.

Not so very long ago, news editors would have regarded the inquest as an essential “running” story – one that automatically commanded daily prominence. Now it has to compete for space with such essential news as why you should avoid French and Italian wines on aircraft and the $100 million wedding of a woman even Stuff admits no one has heard of.

Clearly reporters are present at the inquest for at least some of the time, and equally clearly the stories emerging from the inquest are a compelling matter of public interest.  Yet far from being highlighted in news columns and bulletins, those stories are given surprisingly subdued treatment. Why?

For once, I’m not suggesting there’s any ideological or political factor involved. More likely it’s a simple matter of editorial judgment, in which case I think it’s badly flawed.

I can’t help wondering whether the national memory of March 15, 2019 is considered so painful that media decision-makers decided we should be spared any unnecessary reminders. Or are the shootings regarded as a stain on the nation’s reputation that has now been made worse by the shame and embarrassment of an inept response, and therefore something to be reported grudgingly and reluctantly – if at all?

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The media's war on the new government

We are in an extraordinary situation where the mainstream media are openly at war with an elected government. This has never happened before in my lifetime, and to my knowledge never in New Zealand history.

Having adopted a nauseatingly sycophantic approach to the former government, consistently ignoring issues that showed it in a bad light and subjecting it to only the gentlest scrutiny while mercilessly savaging the opposition, the media are now in full-on attack mode.

The level of hostility toward the Luxon-led government is striking. All pretence of balance and neutrality has been abandoned.

The message is clear. The mainstream media are sulking because they think the voters elected the wrong government. They are angry and indignant that despite all their efforts, New Zealand swung right on October 14.

They are wilfully tone-deaf to the public mood because they think they know better. It means nothing to them that the voters had had enough of Labour’s ideological excesses. At best, the high priests of the media (or should I say high priestesses, since the worst offenders are female) are indifferent to democracy; at worst, they resent it because it gives power to the hoi-polloi – the deplorables, to use Hillary Clinton’s word.

In effect, the media are functioning as the opposition. A shattered and demoralised Labour Party has disappeared to lick its wounds, so the press gallery has loyally stepped into the vacuum.

War was declared on the day the coalition’s ministers were sworn in. The tone of the media coverage over the ensuing three days has been relentlessly carping, petty, quarrelsome and negative. We are seeing ministers baited and goaded in a way that never happened under Labour.

The sheer aggression is likely to rattle Luxon and his National ministers, none of whom have previously shown much spine in standing up for themselves against media hit-jobs. They will need to harden up fast.

David Seymour will cope far better and Winston Peters, of course, will revel in the combat. Peters is a graduate of the Robert Muldoon School of Media Relations and a lightning rod for the media's antagonism.

Government ministers and MPs must understand that they don’t need to ingratiate themselves with their press gallery tormentors. They should remind themselves that having been elected, they have a moral legitimacy the media can never enjoy. No one voted for the members of the press gallery and they are accountable to no one.

They are not even well-liked. I suspect that an opinion poll taken today would show that respect for the media has slumped to a new low, which would be quite some achievement. If their purpose is to hasten the mainstream media's descent into irrelevance and ultimate oblivion, they are going about it in exactly the right way.


Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The left-wing media needed a line of attack, and they found one

The left-wing media pack wasted no time identifying the new government’s weakest point.

Seething over an election result that they didn’t like, they have searched for a convenient line of attack and found one in the proposed repeal of Labour’s extremist smokefree legislation.

This has been a running story for the past two days. The media have collectively decided to frame the government’s proposal as an attack on the poor to benefit the rich. Even the BBC picked up on it.

National obligingly played into their hands when Nicola Willis acknowledged on Newshub Nation that money saved by scrapping the laws, and therefore restoring $1 billion worth of government revenue from tobacco sales, will go toward tax cuts that National previously hoped to fund with a tax on wealthy overseas home buyers – a plan vetoed by New Zealand First.

It will have been a sharp lesson for the inexperienced and possibly over-confident new Minister of Finance. Never give the media pack an opening.

Predictably conspicuous by its absence from the media furore is any consideration of the flaws in Labour’s legislative package, which would cut the number of tobacco outlets from 6000 to 600, ban sales to anyone born after 2008 and cut the amount of nicotine allowed in tobacco.

Retailers breaching the law would face fines of up to $150,000 and a lifetime ban. Regardless of your personal attitude toward tobacco, which I regard as a pernicious addiction, it’s a piece of legislation that uses the pretext of good intentions to justify authoritarian overkill. As C S Lewis wrote, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”

Who decides which corner dairies will be allowed to sell cigarettes and which won’t, and on what basis? What will be the impact on local communities if store owners, deprived of vital revenue from tobacco sales, go out of business? What are the risks of even more ram raids, given that tobacco will become an even more precious commodity? And how did Labour propose to counter the black market, doubtless controlled by gangs, that would inevitably flourish?

Obviously these are minor technicalities that must not be allowed to intrude on the dreamy idealistic vision of a tobacco-free New Zealand. Neither should they get in the way of the media’s determination to portray the new government as unfeeling and regressive.

Monday, November 27, 2023

A few random thoughts post-election

■ My friend and former boss Robin Bromby, long domiciled in Australia but still a keen observer of New Zealand affairs, makes an interesting point in an email.

He asks, “When has a Wellington MP led his party to an election win? The last Wellington area MP to become PM after an election was Walter Nash in 1957. But the job now seems to be taken mainly by Aucklanders.”

Robin’s right, of course. Auckland dominance of politics used to be a point of controversy; now it seems to be accepted as the natural order of things. Jim Bolger was the last elected PM not from Auckland.

Chris Hipkins is from the Hutt, but he wasn’t elected as prime minister. Bill English – Wellington-based, though originally from Southland – is another who became prime minister as a result of his predecessor’s resignation. The same was true of Jenny Shipley, another South Islander.

Metropolitan dominance continues in the newly formed government. Shane Reti (Whangarei) and Louise Upston (Taupo) are the only senior ministers from outside Auckland and Wellington. The days of political heavy hitters from the provinces such as Norm Kirk and Keith Holyoake are long gone.

■ On Morning Report this morning, RNZ deputy political editor Craig McCulloch described the new coalition government as “a much more right-wing government than New Zealand has seen for some time”.

It was a revealing choice of terminology. Technically it’s accurate – but who can recall RNZ political reporters (or any mainstream media journalists for that matter) referring to the former government as "left-wing", still less noting that it was arguably the most left-wing in the country’s history? 

In recent years the media have tended to favour the polite term “centre-right” for the National Party. Perhaps the inclusion of ACT and New Zealand First in the coalition means journalists will now feel justified in using “right-wing”, which carries unmistakeable connotations of disapproval. But why wasn’t the same labelling criterion applied to Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party? Is it, to paraphrase George Orwell, a case of left-wing good, right-wing bad?

To his credit, though, McCulloch made a point of highlighting the fact that seven of the 20 ministers in the new cabinet are of Maori descent – more than under Jacinda Ardern.

■ Later on the same show, Corin Dann interviewed James Shaw about the Green Party’s opposition to the proposed lifting of the ban on oil and gas exploration. The questioning could be described as friendly, gentle and polite. Shaw was allowed to speak virtually uninterrupted, as should be the case if you accept that the primary purpose of an interview is for the subject to get his or her points across.

That was followed by Ingrid Hipkiss interviewing oil and gas industry spokesman John Carnegie on the same issue. The tone was markedly different: more interruptions and generally more interrogative. Of course that may simply mean Hipkiss has a different interviewing style, but the contrast was noticeable.

Next up was the new prime minister, and this time Corin Dann adopted a much more adversarial approach than with Shaw – not hostile, exactly, but certainly a lot more aggressive, and with frequent interruptions. At times, especially on the subject of tobacco sales to minors, it was hard to avoid the impression that the rather excitable Dann was pushing a line of questioning driven by personal feelings.

At what point does an interview cross the line between being searching but neutral and one where personal opinion seems to get in the way? There’s no definitive answer to that question, but it’s worth recalling that Geoff Robinson spent nearly 40 years as host of Morning Report and never found it necessary to adopt a hectoring approach. He was never less than calm and polite and no one ever had a clue what his own feelings were. Were his listeners any less informed? I don’t think so.

More to the point, however: was Jacinda Ardern, in her regular appearances on Morning Report, subjected to the same robust treatment as Luxon this morning? I don’t recall it happening, but no doubt that’s my faulty memory.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Kim Hill's exit interview

Kim Hill signed off yesterday. Her legion of fans will be bereft.

I am not one of them. Hill is ferociously intelligent and can be an incisive interviewer. The problem is that she used her skills very selectively – purring with approval for people she liked, but occasionally eviscerating those she didn’t. Don Brash comes to mind.

Hill has a long memory. During the last segment of her final show, my name came up. (I didn’t hear this; a friend told me.)

The following is from RNZ’s account of Hill's exit interview with her colleague Bryan Crump:

"Her punchy and penetrating interviewing style has not been without critics, she says.

"The British writer Tony Parsons, who hung up on Kim during an interview before saying 'You've got your head up your arse' [I think that should have been after saying 'You've got your head up your arse'] and New Zealand journalist Karl du Fresne, who once called her [a] 'dominatrix', come to mind.

"'[du Fresne] hated me because I hadn't given a very nice interview with [former Australian prime minister] John Howard and also I say 'filum' [an Irish pronunciation of 'film'] ... Because he criticised me saying 'filum', I've never been able to stop in case he thinks he's won. So I do it all the time now.'"

I’m sure she didn’t mean to be taken literally when she said I hated her. Just for the record, I don’t hate anyone. But I think it says something about Hill that she still remembers something I wrote 13 years ago. I’ll take that as a back-handed compliment.

For what it's worth, my column about that 2010 Howard interview is here.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

There's no reason why this government shouldn't go the distance

Notwithstanding everything pessimistic that I’ve said over the past few weeks, I rather like the look of this new government.

At first glance, there are some extremely encouraging policy commitments (enough for my wife and me to punch the air several times while watching the news last night) and some promising ministerial appointments.

It’s especially pleasing to see ACT’s Nicole McKee in cabinet and Karen Chhour with a significant responsibility (children and family violence), albeit outside cabinet. Andrew Hoggard, too, should bring some useful real-world experience and insight to agriculture, although his responsibilities are narrow.

The solution to the deputy prime minister conundrum was, as Peter Dunne put it, elegant. David Seymour will be able to spend the first 18 months getting to grips with his ministerial priorities and Winston Peters, the Great Tuatara of New Zealand politics, will be able to wind down in the latter half of the triennium, perhaps with a view to retirement. (Ha! We shall see.)

The three parties have found enough in common to agree on a way forward. It’s reasonable to conclude that between them, ACT and New Zealand First have stiffened National’s spine and given Christopher Luxon’s party the moral courage it previously lacked to confront pernicious ideological issues.

The crucial thing now is for the three coalition partners to set egos aside and focus relentlessly on the imperative that brought them together: namely, the urgent need to undo the damage of the past six years. If they can do that - and I realise I'm eating my own words saying this - there’s no reason why this government shouldn’t go the distance.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

You call that a walk?


The Te Araroa website calls it “the walk of a lifetime”: Cape Reinga to Bluff, 3026 kilometres.

“Walk”? Don’t believe it. Walking is something you do to buy a bottle of milk from the corner dairy. But judging by Tim Pankhurst’s book Every Effing Inch, Te Araroa – “New Zealand’s Trail” – is a challenging, arduous trek that tests stamina and resilience to the limit. At times it can be life endangering.

It must test relationships too, but in this case the three protagonists were, miraculously, still on civil terms at the end.

Tim is a former colleague of mine. He and his wife Sue, with their good friend Kerry Prendergast, a former mayor of Wellington, completed Te Araroa in stages over two summers.

Tim, Sue and Kerry are all of pension age. True to the title, they covered every inch of the route. If they couldn’t complete a section because of snow or flooded rivers, they returned later and had a second crack.

I asked Tim a few days ago whether it was worth it. “Hell yes,” he replied. “The privations and strains on old bodies fade but the experiences and sense of achievement remain vivid.”

Tim records some of the vital statistics at the end of the book. Days on the trail: 141. Longest day: 13 hours. Longest distance in a day: 42km. Toenails lost: 7. Bones fractured: 4. Weight lost: 18kg (combined). Nightmares: frequent. He could have added falls: innumerable.

In places, they were pushed to the limit of their endurance and nerve. The Richmond Range, southeast of Nelson, was clearly an ordeal that bordered on traumatic. Yet one of the striking things about Every Effing Inch, for me, was that for every gut-busting climb, vertiginous descent and every breath-taking alpine or coastal vista, of which there were plenty, there also seemed to be periods of tedious slog through country that had little to commend it in terms of scenic value. In places, the three adventurers also had to share busy roads with fast-moving traffic that gave them little space.

Wherever possible, they treated themselves to luxury accommodation. Kerry’s husband Rex was often waiting patiently at the end of the day’s tramp to drive them to warm beds and hot showers. But on 38 nights in more remote places, they had no option but to stay in back-country huts, the standard of which varied wildly.

This served as a salutary reminder of why tramping has never appealed to me. The physical demands are manageable, but you have no control over the people you might end up sharing a hut with. My greatest dread, always, was the prospect of being confined with bores, but it seems that boors – noisy, selfish oafs who booze and play loud music when others are trying to sleep – are a greater hazard.

The journalist in Tim emerges when he augments his account by regaling the reader with sometimes dry background information about the places they pass through. These diversions can get in the way of the main narrative, but he also enriches the story with sketches of interesting and significant characters who pop up along the way.

The mere fact that he wrote the book at all – that he had the energy and commitment to record in detail each day’s experiences and observations – commands respect.

Similarly, it’s impossible to read Every Effing Inch and not be awed by the efforts of another journalist, Geoff Chapple, whose idea it was to create a walking route that ran the length of the country – not to mention the many thousands of nameless intrepid trailblazers, dating back to pre-European times, who created the network of tracks that made it possible.

Hang on - did I just say "walking" route?

Every Effing Inch is available from the Underground Bookstore for $40.


Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Memo to RNZ: the country has moved on

I wonder, does RNZ realise that the government changed five weeks ago? Its editorial judgment suggests not.

The story that led its bulletins this morning – in other words, the news item that RNZ’s editors considered the most significant of the day – revealed that new National Party MP Cameron Brewer had made an election night speech in which he celebrated the return of the “stale, pale male”. Someone had recorded the speech and leaked it.

RNZ reports that Brewer, who was elected in the Upper Harbour (Auckland) electorate, could be heard declaring himself “a glass ceiling breaker” to laughs from the crowd.

“I’ll be the first male MP for Upper Harbour," he said to cheers. “Stale, pale males are back!”

The tone of the story, by deputy political editor Craig McCulloch, was implicitly judgmental. It presented Brewer’s comments against a backdrop of “scrutiny” – mostly by the media – of a lack of diversity in the National caucus, where 70 percent of MPs are men and 80 percent are Pakeha.

The 8am version of RNZ’s story even implied that Brewer was crowing at having displaced the Sri Lankan-born former MP, Labour’s Vanushi Walters. It introduced a racial element into the story that wasn’t substantiated.

That was reinforced by a headline on RNZ’s website: “New National MP Cameron Brewer celebrated victory for ‘stale, pale males’ after defeat of Sri-Lankan-born rival”. But there was nothing in the story to suggest that Walters’ ethnicity was anything other than coincidental.

At worst, this was a harmless but politically ill-judged remark at a private function by an inexperienced new MP hardly anyone has heard of. He was speaking amid the euphoria of an election victory, probably after having a few celebratory drinks.

Brewer explained it to RNZ as a poor attempt at humour. He would hardly be the first novice politician to be embarrassed in the cold light of day by an injudicious comment made in a moment of heightened emotion.

Let’s take him at his word and accept that his statement was intended humorously. But even if it wasn’t, it was surely neither surprising nor outrageous that a conservative male MP should welcome a change in a political environment where the now-ousted dominant caste and its media cheerleaders often gave the impression they regarded maleness as toxic.

Yes, this was a legitimate news story – but the lead story on the state broadcaster’s morning bulletins? Really? The purpose, clearly, was to portray National as a party of unreconstructed white male triumphalists. (My personal view, for what it’s worth, is that National does have a surfeit of brash, privileged young men in its caucus – but that’s for the party to sort out if it thinks they are an electoral liability. Ultimately, the voters will determine whether these are the sort of people they want to be represented by.)

The question posed at the start of this post shouldn’t be misinterpreted as suggesting RNZ should kowtow to the new government. That would be a betrayal of journalistic principles. No one wants a return to the era of Robert Muldoon, when the media were browbeaten and intimidated.

Rather, the point of the question was that the election result signalled an emphatic change in the mood of the country. For six years, wokeness ruled largely unchallenged. The media generally reflected the ethos of the governing elite. A story such as the hit job on Brewer would barely have raised an eyebrow.

But the election result was a rather big clue that the public had had enough and wanted something different. It’s no longer business as usual. RNZ needs to realise that and catch up.

All mainstream media ideally should strive to reflect the society they serve, but state-owned media especially. Stories that pander to the prejudices of the bullying metropolitan Left strike a jarring note now that the country has moved on.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Never heard of the puteketeke? Me neither

Has there ever been a more absurd and contrived hullabaloo than the one over New Zealand’s so-called Bird of the Century?

The tiresome attention-seeker John Oliver – a man who manages to irritate in the same way yappy small dogs do – must have been rubbing his hands with delight at the way the New Zealand media obligingly lapped up his hijacking of Forest and Bird’s competition.

The line was spun that Oliver was making a point about American interference in foreign elections. Bullshit. He was doing what he has habitually done: making fun of a country he obviously regards as quaintly eccentric. What could be a more perfect symbol of New Zealand’s weirdness than the puteketeke, a reclusive native bird that engages in bizarre mating dances and eats its own feathers then vomits them up?

Even if there was a serious point behind Oliver’s prank, which I don’t believe for a moment, it was totally lost in the ensuing media fever. “Look, an overseas celebrity is paying attention to us!” It’s a ploy that never fails to excite gullible New Zealand media. And why not? It beats the hard yards of real journalism.

Most New Zealanders – i.e. those not employed in newsrooms – would have been left scratching their heads in puzzlement and asking what all the fuss was about. Most had never heard of the puteketeke and wondered whether it even existed.  

Had the bird been referred to by its common name, the crested grebe, some would have recognised it. As it was, many wondered whether the puteketeke was a hoax – a non-existent species created so that Oliver could have a laugh at New Zealand’s expense, which was the real purpose of the exercise.

They might also have quite reasonably asked why, in 2023, we were being asked to name the bird of the century. There are 77 years still to go.

Forest and Bird will doubtless argue that its competition served the purpose of promoting awareness of vulnerable bird species. We certainly now know what a puteketeke is. But by buying into Oliver’s stunt, the media were complicit in an exercise designed to mock our odd little country on the edge of the planet.

That’s okay though, because it gave the team on TVNZ’s Breakfast show an excuse to wet themselves with excitement when the entirely predictable winner was announced. God help us all.



Friday, November 17, 2023

Those coalition talks: so far, so bad

The coalition talks are playing out just as might have been predicted. Or to put it another way: so far, so bad.

Right from the outset the omens didn’t look good when it was revealed that Winston Peters hadn’t responded to David Seymour’s attempts to make contact. Did anyone really believe that Peters refused to answer a text from the ACT leader because he thought it might be a scam?

Even in the unlikely event that the explanation was true, what did it say about Peters’ commitment to the coalition-forming process that he couldn’t be bothered checking? Or that his staff hadn’t ensured he had Seymour’s number stored in his phone the moment it became clear the three party leaders would need to talk to each other?

A more plausible explanation for this failure to communicate (to borrow a famous line from Cool Hand Luke) was that Peters was just being Peters: putting Seymour in his place and letting him know who was boss. In other words, indulging in gamesmanship – as you do when your name is Winston Raymond Peters. This was entirely in line with Peters’ character and history.

For his part, Seymour was paying the price for his many dismissive comments, dating back years, about Peters and NZ First. They included his description of Peters as “the least trustworthy person in New Zealand politics”.

If the ACT leader has a politically problematical flaw, it’s his propensity to say what he thinks without regard for the possible consequences. Under MMP, you never know who you’re going to end up having to pretend you’re friendly with – and no one holds a grudge like Peters.

The NZ First leader doesn’t have the same power in these talks as he did in 2017. As Pattrick Smellie pointed out on BusinessDesk shortly after the election, he’s no longer the kingmaker. Having to work with the centre-right fundamentally changed Peters’ negotiating position from his usual dance (as Smellie put it) between National and Labour, playing one side off against the other. But that didn’t stop him from playing hard to get or deny him the chance to throw a few spanners into the works.

And so we then had the pantomime of Peters staying in Auckland this week when everyone expected him in Wellington for further coalition talks. This time it was on the pretext that a mysterious VIP visitor from the Pacific leaders’ forum was passing through Auckland and wanted to see him – a person so important, apparently, that his visit necessitated a further delay in negotiations on the formation of a government.

If true, that again says something about Peters’ priorities. Alternatively, it was more gamesmanship.

The latter is far more likely. Certainly, Peters’ no-show has been portrayed in the media as a deliberate snub and, in Tova O’Brien’s words (yes, I’m quoting Tova O’Brien) a humiliating display of political brinkmanship aimed squarely at Christopher Luxon, who was forced to spend the day cooling his heels before flying back to Auckland.

On top of all this we are now told, by Matthew Hooton in today’s Herald, that the coalition talks were almost stillborn because of Luxon’s assumption that he would be calling all the shots. According to Hooton, the prime minister-elect went into the talks with little regard for what the other parties might want.

“Act, NZ First and National insiders say Luxon is a talker rather than a listener,” Hooton wrote. “He never asked how Act or NZ First thought negotiations should proceed, or what they wanted from them.”

This is not a clever approach when you’re dealing with someone as touchy as Peters or as seriously ambitious for his party as Seymour. Even allowing for Hooton’s obvious animosity toward Luxon, his column, even if only half accurate, gives no cause for optimism about the solidity of the putative new government’s foundations.

Observing this masquerade, it’s hard not to be reminded of the old joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee. As in the coalition talks, the bits just don’t fit together.

We have three parties with different cultures, different ideologies and different priorities. And no matter how desperately Luxon and Seymour try to sound positive, it stretches credulity to think the parties can overcome their fundamental compatibility issues and form a “strong, stable government”.

Simply repeating that phrase ad nauseam, as Luxon does, doesn’t magically make it happen. Short of the return of Labour and the Greens, this ragtag and bobtail arrangement is arguably the worst possible election outcome.

We’re supposed to believe that the advent of MMP ushered in a glorious new era of compromise and consensus. MMP’s bright-eyed promoters – predominantly leftists frustrated by New Zealanders’ annoying habit of electing centre-right governments – told us so. In fact MMP, because it yokes together parties with conflicting objectives, is too often a formula for political paralysis and inertia that leaves all players vaguely dissatisfied.

The first-past-the-post system it replaced was, by common consent, flawed. But it had the singular advantage that the electors knew what they were voting for and that whatever government was elected was free to push ahead with its agenda unhindered by minor parties.

Contrast that with a situation where all bets are off once the election result is declared and no one knows which policies and promises are going to survive the secretive coalition talks. At worst, this renders the entire business of election campaigns meaningless.

Arguably even worse, in terms of respect for democratic values, is the spectacle of a minor party (NZ First won only 6 per cent of the party vote) again wielding wholly disproportionate power and even dictating the course of negotiations.

Should we then revert to the FPTP system? Not necessarily. The past three years stand as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a government is given absolute power. In my lifetime, no government – not even that of Robert Muldoon – has done more damage than that of Jacinda Ardern.

But we should remind ourselves that New Zealand was competently governed for much of its history by parties elected under the FPTP system – certainly no less competently, and arguably with a lot more stability, than since 1996.

FPTP had the virtues of clarity, certainty and finality. Who would say that about the current opaque post-election manoeuvrings? And given the history of one of the personalities involved, who could have much confidence that whatever hotchpotch government emerges will go the distance?

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

A richly deserved honour

I’m sure all readers of this blog will join me in extending hearty congratulations to Professor Mohan Dutta (above) of our own Massey University, who has been announced as the 2023 winner of the Gerald M Phillips Award for Distinguished Applied Communication Scholarship.

The award is sponsored by the Washington DC-based National Communication Association and named after a former professor of speech communications at Penn State University. It honours scholars responsible for authoring “bodies of published research and creative scholarship in applied communication”.

There could surely be no more richly deserving recipient than Prof Dutta, whose official title is Dean’s Chair Professor of Communication and Director of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) at Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University.

Followers of this blog, being familiar with Prof Dutta’s winningly pellucid and succinct rhetoric, will agree that he boldly cuts through the dense, obfuscatory jargon that characterises most scholarly discourse and has a set a standard for all other academics to aspire to.

Doubtless the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised, whose cause Prof Dutta tirelessly champions, will rejoice at this tribute and will be there in spirit with him at Saturday’s award ceremony in the exclusive waterfront resort of National Harbor, Maryland. The freedom fighters of Hamas will presumably be delighted too, having recently been applauded by Dutta for their "powerful exemplar of decolonising resistance".

The latest award is only the latest of many showered on him. We should all take vicarious pride in the fact that this humble scholar from a New Zealand university with lowly agrarian origins is feted on the global mortarboard circuit – a fact attested to by a recent lecture he delivered at Colorado State University, entitled “Decolonisation as organising radical democracies: Centering health, resisting climate colonialism, securing food systems, and resisting hate”.

It’s not surprising that Massey acknowledges Prof Dutta’s international standing by publicising his many achievements on its website. It is surely entitled to bathe in his reflected glory.

In my misguided past I have written on this website that “award-winning” are the two most meaningless words in the English language. In the light of this latest announcement I now realise that was mean-spirited and churlish, and accordingly apologise for my misjudgement.

Friday, November 10, 2023

My experience of censorship and what it tells us about the new culture of journalism

The Free Speech Union held its annual general meeting last weekend in Christchurch. I was part of a panel that discussed free speech and the media. The following were my introductory remarks, which refer to incidents previously covered on this blog. 

Two years ago I was invited to write a regular opinion column for the National Business Review, a paper for which I had once worked in the distant past. A contract was signed and I duly submitted my first column.

It was also my last. The co-editors of NBR disagreed with a couple of points I had made and wanted to delete two crucial paragraphs. I refused, the column never appeared, and the contract was torn up.

My column, ironically enough, was essentially about the culture wars and their chilling impact on public debate. In it I said, among other things, that a truly honest debate about race relations in New Zealand would acknowledge that while Maori had suffered damaging long-term consequences from colonisation, they had also benefited from the abolition of slavery, tribal warfare and cannibalism.

I also said that an honest debate would acknowledge that race relations in New Zealand had mostly been harmonious and respectful. 

One of the two co-editors proposed to delete those two paragraphs. I was told by email: “We want to avoid a hostile response for no real gain”. Now there’s editorial courage for you.

In fact it turned out that the real problem was that he disagreed with what I had said. It was his opinion that cannibalism, slavery and tribal warfare would have ended anyway regardless of colonisation, and he disputed my opinion that race relations had been mostly harmonious – this from a Scottish expatriate who had lived in New Zealand only a relatively short time, so had limited experience on which to base his opinion.

I invite you to consider the irony of my being contracted to write an opinion column, presumably because it was felt I had something worthwhile to say, and then being censored because my opinion was one the editor didn’t share.

In a past life as an editorial executive with a metropolitan daily newspaper, I spent more than 10 years dealing almost daily with columnists of every conceivable political stripe. In all that time, no column was censored because the paper disapproved of what was said. All that concerned us was that the columns shouldn’t be defamatory or factually incorrect.

It seems that on NBR, two other factors must be considered: the column must be one the editors agree with, and it mustn’t risk offending anyone.

My second example of censorship occurred last year. Some of you will be familiar with NZ Politics Daily, which is a collection of political news stories and opinion columns compiled by the respected political scientist Bryce Edwards and distributed every day by email. It’s an influential guide to what’s happening in politics.

A senior political journalist, a member of the parliamentary press gallery, objected to the fact that NZ Politics Daily sometimes included pieces that I had written and surreptitiously emailed Bryce Edwards urging him not to publish them.

This journalist described me as a racist and a misogynist. He concluded with the line: “I think your readers would do well not to be served up this trash.”

This was another first for me. It’s hardly unusual for journalists to disagree with each other or engage in bitchy personal rivalry, but to call for someone to be cancelled because you don’t approve of what they write crosses a very perilous threshold.

This journalist’s sneaky, would-be hatchet job – which Edwards rightly rebuffed – reinforced my suspicion that some journalists are more than merely ignorant of the importance of free speech in a liberal democracy. They are actively hostile to it.

To return to the NBR episode, I should say here that I absolutely defend the right of newspaper owners to decide what they will or will not publish. They must be free to say what they want, within the law, and even to suppress material they don’t like. That is part of the package of rights known as freedom of the press. But they must accept that it comes with a proviso.

Media owners need to understand their vital role in a liberal democracy as enablers of robust public debate. They also need to accept that if they abandon that role by taking it upon themselves to dictate and restrict the opinions the public is allowed to read and hear, they risk relinquishing whatever credibility and public respect they enjoy.

I’ve written two published works about press freedom in New Zealand, one in 1994 and another in 2005. When I wrote those, any threat to press freedom was seen principally as likely to come from the state.

But here we are in 2023, and press freedom is being steadily undermined from within, by people who seem not to value the traditions of openness and free speech that give the media their legitimacy and moral authority. They have repudiated a tradition of balance and fairness that has existed for the best part of one hundred years, and in the process they have fatally compromised their own standing. I don’t think anyone saw this coming.

The key problem here, as I see it, is that the media have abandoned their traditional role of trying to reflect society as it is. Instead they have positioned themselves as advocates for the sort of society they think we should be. This almost inevitably requires the exclusion of opinions that stand in the way of that vision.

Public opinion has become largely irrelevant. The media have set themselves above and apart from the communities they purport to serve, and in the process they have severed the vital connection that gives them their legitimacy. They have so compromised themselves that I think their future must be in doubt. Thank you.

The centrepiece of the Free Speech Union meeting was the keynote address by the distinguished British jurist and historian Lord Jonathan Sumption, which can be read here. It was a masterful and compelling summary of the attacks being made on freedom of speech and the reasons why they must be opposed.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Remembering Fred Tulett

Fred Tulett, a former Southland Times editor who died on Monday, has been described as “old school”. It was an apt description and one that should be regarded as a compliment.

Fred, who died in his Central Otago home aged 77, edited the Invercargill daily for 15 years until his retirement in 2013. He led the paper with great verve and ensured it was a force in the region at a time when the provincial press was generally in decline. 

Before that he was chief reporter of The Dominion, which was when I worked with him.

He was a tough, savvy, quick-thinking newsman with the voice, appearance and manner of a regimental sergeant-major. I probably wouldn’t agree with Stuff CEO Sinead Boucher on many things, but her description of Fred as a warhorse of the newspaper industry was spot on.

She also said he was a representative of a past era in New Zealand journalism. That could have been interpreted in two ways, one of them not complimentary, but it too was true. We didn’t realise it then, but it was a golden era.

As chief reporter of the Dom, Fred could be brusque but had a reputation for backing his staff. Two former Dom reporters who contacted me yesterday commented on his staunch defence of them when they were under attack. Fred didn’t lose many battles.

He was noted for his collaboration with the late David Hellaby on a series of investigative stories that exposed a white-collar crime ring – the so-called Gang of 20 – that was centred on a dodgy company called Registered Securities Ltd. Several of the principals ended up in jail.

But the episode I remember when I think of Fred is the sensational exclusive story he wrote for the Dominion Sunday Times – the Dom’s stablemate – about the affair that caused the collapse of David Lange’s marriage.

Fred just happened to be in the office tidying up his desk on a quiet Saturday in 1989 when the phone rang. The call was from an angry and resentful Naomi Lange, who wanted to expose her husband’s relationship with his speechwriter, Margaret Pope. Lange, who had only recently stood down as prime minister, had announced two days earlier that the marriage was over but hadn’t indicated why.

Cool and quick-thinking as ever, Fred’s first reaction – counter-intuitively – was to ask Naomi to hang up so he could call her back. We had the Langes’ home number in our files and he wanted to be sure it wasn’t a hoax call.

In Lange’s own words in his autobiography, Naomi “poured out her anger about me and Margaret” in her interview with Fred. Naturally his story was all over the front page and dominated the national conversation for days. It seriously damaged Lange’s reputation.

I remember thinking it was extraordinarily lucky that Fred was at his desk when the call came in. The only reporter in the office at the time was timid and inexperienced and might well have hung up in fright, but Fred was a born newsman and knew exactly what to do.


Accessibility and transparency are two different things

There was a time in living memory when New Zealand politicians rarely spoke to the media. Press conferences were unusual events. Prime ministers and members of Cabinet would occasionally grant interviews to individual reporters but felt no general obligation to communicate information or opinions to the public at large.

Prior to the advent of television and the inquisitorial approach taken by impertinent interviewers such as Brian Edwards and Simon Walker (both of whom were from Britain, where journalists were accustomed to holding politicians accountable), the media’s relationship with those in power was respectful and even deferential.

Consider the striking contrast with the situation today, when not only is the prime ministerial press conference an established ritual, but journalists consider it their right to intercept politicians whenever the opportunity arises – most obviously on “the tiles” at Parliament, named after the strategically located area where the press gallery pack lies in wait.

Politicians have never been more accessible, which in theory should be welcomed as a triumph for accountability. But are the public necessarily any better informed? Politicians give the appearance of being more open than they used to be, but in reality they are often simply a lot more skilled at saying nothing. They are coached by teams of media advisers to stick carefully to agreed lines that typically conceal more than they reveal.

I was reminded of this while listening to Nathan Rarere interview Nicola Willis on RNZ’s First Up. It was an exercise in futility. Rarere wanted to know what was going on in National’s coalition talks with ACT and NZ First, but Willis batted away his questions with well-rehearsed and entirely predictable lines. We heard the familiar “strong and stable government” mantra twice, followed by a recitation of familiar objectives from the National manifesto. The interview added nothing to what we already knew – or perhaps that should be what we didn’t know. In which case, what was the point? I wonder whether politicians ever consider the novel notion that, like Mister Ed, they should only speak when they have something to say.  

This is not to suggest that politicians retreat behind a wall. There’s always the possibility that a clever question will catch them off-guard and provoke a revealing response or an unexpected morsel of information. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves that accessibility equates with transparency. As with so much in politics, the media standup is often mere political theatre, conducted more for drama and entertainment than enlightenment.

As a recent RNZ interview with veteran political journalist Richard Harman reminded us, useful information is far more likely to be ferreted out by the old-fashioned means of cultivating good contacts – digging beneath the surface – than by the showy but often pointless ritual of the press gallery scrum. For the current generation of political reporters, however, cultivating contacts, like covering select committee meetings and debates in the House, may seem too much like hard work. Far easier to point a camera or microphone at someone and ask fatuous questions that elicit meaningless replies.



Tuesday, November 7, 2023

The Christchurch mosques inquest: what we know so far

The inquest into the Christchurch mosque massacres has unexpectedly become a source of national shame and embarrassment.

A procession of witnesses has appeared before deputy chief coroner Brigitte Windley with evidence of a confused and chaotic response from police and ambulance services. New Zealand has no reason to feel guilty about the atrocity itself, which was the act of a lone outsider, but the failings of the first responders have come as a shock.

Perhaps the most damning revelation so far is that paramedics took half an hour to enter the Al Noor mosque, apparently because it was St John’s ambulance policy not to enter unsafe scenes.

Several police witnesses told of calling for ambulances, to no avail. One member of the armed offenders squad ran out onto Deans Avenue several times to see why no ambulances were coming. He could see them parked up the road, presumably waiting for the all-clear.

When bystanders asked why no ambulances had arrived, the police officer told them to put the wounded into private cars and rush them to hospital. Think about that: amateurs had to be asked to save lives when skilled professionals were standing by, only a stone’s throw away.

The inquest heard that a wounded survivor, Zekeriya Tuyan, was on his phone to emergency services for half an hour before medical help arrived. Tuyan himself died weeks later.

Eventually a St John’s paramedic entered the mosque knowing he was acting contrary to instructions. “There were human beings inside that needed help,” Dean Brown told the inquest.

Was this an example of the precautionary principle that appears to have taken hold of the bureaucratic mind? The precautionary principle holds that all risk must be mitigated by appropriate safeguards – even, it seems, in emergencies where insistence on following the officially prescribed procedure can be the difference between life and death.

Thank God there are still situations where human initiative, courage and compassion kick in and the rulebook is set aside. Dean Brown was a shining example and so were the helicopter pilots who defied a bureaucratic edict by risking their lives rescuing survivors from Whakaari-White Island – another tragedy that showed by-the-book New Zealand officialdom in a very poor light.

Almost as shockingly, the dead, the dying and the wounded in Christchurch were abandoned altogether for 10 minutes after the police left Al Noor to respond to reports of the second massacre at the Linwood mosque. An AOS member told the survivors that help was on the way, which he assumed to be true. It’s impossible to imagine how they must have felt: dozens dead, others dying, and they were left alone with not even a reassuring voice to comfort them.  

These were the most startling revelations of the inquest so far, but there have been others.  

They included the disclosure that an inexperienced police call-taker who took a 111 call giving advance information about the shootings, from an email sent to Parliament by the perpetrator Brenton Tarrant, treated it as only priority 2. The inquest was told the call-taker may have been influenced by a suggestion from the caller, a parliamentary staff member, that the email was from a nutter.

That call obviously came too late to prevent the slaughter at Al Noor, but it might have given the police time to get to the Linwood mosque before Tarrant struck a second time. A police dispatcher seemed to think so, and that things might have turned out differently if the call had been categorised as priority 1. It will fall to the coroner to decide whether that was a missed chance.

Astonishingly, the police inspector in charge of national communications centres at the time defended the categorisation of the call as priority 2 because it was “general” in nature. In fact it wasn’t; Tarrant’s email was detailed and precise, even identifying the three mosques that he intended terrorising (the third was in Ashburton).

Of course it’s easy to be wise after the event. There was no precedent in New Zealand for the Christchurch mosque massacres. The Royal Commission of Inquiry in 2020 established that they couldn’t have been anticipated. Events unfolded with bewildering speed and police couldn’t be sure at first whether Tarrant had accomplices who might still be at the scene.

Human error in such circumstances is hardly surprising. Only those present at the carnage and its immediate aftermath could know how traumatic and confused it was.

That said, police and emergency services are supposed to be prepared for unexpected and extreme events. That’s the nature of their job. Evidence given at the inquest points to shortcomings, such as a known communication problem between police and St John’s, that were recognised and could have been obviated. The frustration of some witnesses was obvious.

On the upside, we shouldn’t forget that Tarrant was arrested only 19 minutes after the shooting started by two courageous and quick-thinking country cops who happened to be in Christchurch for a training day. Their actions, which thwarted Tarrant’s intention to attack the Ashburton mosque, served as a reminder that for all the benefits of thorough planning and training, there’s sometimes no substitute for intuitive, decisive, on-the-spot action.

But in other respects the response appears to have been almost scandalously shambolic, which may shake New Zealanders’ confidence in the people we rely on to protect human life. Only two weeks into the inquest and with another four to go, it’s already obvious that Windley will have a lot to chew on.

Update (6.15pm): In News First's report of the inquest tonight, the acting paramedic in charge at the scene said police were concerned about the possibility there was an IED (improvised explosive device) at the mosque. He appeared to acknowledge that waiting for the scene to be made safe could have cost lives, but he disputed that the ambulances were "simply stopped" a block from the mosque. He said they were treating victims there. 

Monday, November 6, 2023

For once I'd love to be proved wrong

I wrote this the day before the election, explaining my decision not to cast a party vote:

"I see no good whatsoever coming from this election and don’t want to feel responsible in any way for the outcome – which, however the voting plays out, will almost inevitably perpetuate the paralysing malaise gripping the country and condemn us to further decline."

And this:

"New Zealand feels buggered, not to put too fine a point on it, and I have no confidence that whatever wretched, compromised hybrid government rises from the post-election swamp after tomorrow will have the will, the ability or the moral fibre to fix it."

It gives me no pleasure to say I see no reason so far to revise my gloomy prognosis, though for once I'd love to be proved wrong.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Whakaari-White Island: the bureaucrats are untouchable

WorkSafe NZ hasn’t exactly emerged covered in glory after its four-month court action over the Whakaari-White Island disaster of 2019. In fact quite the reverse.

In the District Court at Auckland yesterday, Judge Evangelos Thomas found Whakaari Management Ltd (WML) guilty on one health and safety charge.

This was after Worksafe’s case against six other defendants had collapsed, leaving its big prosecution push “hanging by a thread”, in the words of 1News.

Six defendants had earlier pleaded guilty to the charges against them, leaving WML – the holding company of the Buttle brothers, who own the island – the sole remaining defendant.

GNS Science, the Inflite tourism group, White Island Tours and three helicopter tour operators pleaded guilty. Judge Thomas dismissed charges against Tauranga Tourism Services, ID Tours and the three Buttle brothers as individuals.

The dismissal of those charges indicates WorkSafe’s case was not well-founded and raises the possibility that some of the other parties might have got off too had they put up a fight. But infinitely more damning than that was the judge’s scathing criticism – largely ignored by the media, other than by Newshub – of the government agency itself.

In what veteran Newshub reporter Adam Hollingworth described as a “huge serve” to WorkSafe, Thomas noted that the agency had given WML a tick of approval in an adventure activity audit.

That audit, the judge said, did not cover White Island Tours’ processes for assessing the risk of an eruption while tourists were on the island. He described this as “an astonishing failure”.

Not surprisingly, WorkSafe didn’t want to be interviewed. Quelle surprise.

The judge’s comment followed an independent review in 2021 which found that WorkSafe “fell short of good practice in its regulation of activities on Whakaari White Island over the 2014-19 period” and called for improvements in WorkSafe's management of adventure activities. It was the gentlest of raps across the knuckles.

All this serves to reinforce the view that WorkSafe should itself have been in the dock for its abject failure to foresee the potentially catastrophic consequences of an eruption on New Zealand’s most active volcano, which tourist parties visited as if it were some sort of theme park. The eruption on December 9 2019 killed 22 people and injured 25 others.

High-profile Christchurch lawyer Nigel Hampton KC said in a 2020 interview that it could be argued WorkSafe bore some responsibility for what happened on Whakaari. He drew a comparison with the former Department of Labour, which brought charges at Pike River despite having failed in its own duty as the regulator responsible for mining safety.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the French would say.

WorkSafe surely has an obligation to explain why it left itself off the hook. At the very least it should apologise to the victims and their families for its dereliction in failing to act on a very obvious risk to public safety. But no one’s holding their breath. The bureaucrats are untouchable.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

A peculiar trip down Memory Lane

Something curious popped up in my comments box recently.

It came from someone who chose to remain anonymous (now there’s a surprise) and asked, in a phony tone of mateyness, “I wonder if Karl remembers his writings on Yugoslavia and the Serbs".

This nameless troll went on to quote at length from a column I wrote in April 1999 that was subsequently the subject of a complaint to the Press Council, as it was then called. He (and I'm guessing it was a male) seemed to think I would be stung by the reference to it.

As a matter of fact I do remember the column and, perhaps contrary to my commenter’s assumption, am happy to revisit it. I suppose I should take it as a perverse compliment that it’s still weighing on some unfortunate soul’s mind after all this time.

The column was published in the Evening Post and the Nelson Mail and recorded my feelings about the civil war then raging in the Balkans.

In it, I pleaded guilty, “probably for the first time in my life,” to a feeling of antagonism toward a specific race – namely, the people of Serbia.

“I don’t take pride in this,” I wrote, “but neither do I apologise for it. Humanity demands that we are repelled by the vile acts carried out in recent years in the name of Serbian nationalism.”

I noted that since the death of the communist dictator Tito and the breakup of the old Yugoslavia, “the Serbs have embarked on one barbaric series of atrocities after another, reactivating ethnic feuds that go back centuries. They are a disgrace to 20th century civilisation.”

I reminded my readers that the Serbs had given us the chilling phrase "ethnic cleansing" and I referred to then-recent events in Kosovo, where people were butchered, raped and driven from their homes “in systematic depredations that spring direct from the Dark Ages”.

Readers of this blog may recall some of the other appalling events of that era, notably the Bosnian Serb army’s four-year siege of Sarajevo (nearly 14,000 killed, 40 percent of them civilians) and the massacre at Srebrenica, in which Serbian soldiers slaughtered more than 8000 defenceless Muslim boys and men. Some of the perpetrators – Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic – were eventually convicted of war crimes.

My column was a tirade against the hideous excesses of militant ethno-nationalism, but a reader of the Nelson Mail complained to the Press Council that it was offensive and racist. “By most normal criteria – objectivity, fairness, balance, accuracy – the piece falls abysmally below acceptable standards and represents a breach of the Race Relations Act,” the complainant wrote.

She held that the column was deeply offensive not only to Serbians but to anyone who was affronted by racism. The Mail’s editor, David Mitchell, rejected the complaint and wrote a robust and eloquent defence in which he pointed out that my column didn’t condone racism but in fact condemned it “in very strong terms”.

I followed up that column with another in which I partially (but only partially) repented. I can’t find a copy of that second column, but in it I acknowledged there were good people of Serbian ethnicity and apologised for having smeared them by association with the barbaric acts carried out in the name of Serbian nationalism. I particularly remember a phone call from a polite but reproachful woman of Serbian descent who persuaded me that I’d overstated my case.

The woman who had complained about my column regarded my partial retraction as inadequate and declined to withdraw her complaint, as was her right. She wanted an acknowledgment from the Mail that my column “fell below acceptable standards” – a concession the principled David Mitchell, to his great credit, wasn’t prepared to make.

It then fell to the Press Council, chaired by the retired High Court judge Sir John Jeffries, to adjudicate on the complaint. It was not upheld. In a decision which he wrote himself, Jeffries (who died in 2019) had this to say:

“There can be no question but that Mr du Fresne expressed his views in both columns in the strongest and most forceful terms. He used rhetoric and passion to convey to his readers his unqualified repugnance of the present Serbian government, its people and its leader Slobodan Milosevic. Part of the rhetoric was to charge himself with racism and to plead guilty. Is Mr du Fresne by using that device, and others, to attract attention and support for his views in truth indulging in racial hatred and impliedly agitating against Serbs everywhere?

“Selecting some sentences and phrases from the April column and branding those parts as fomenting racial hatred that calls for disapprobation by the Press Council does not provide the answer. The Council believes it should go past the rhetorical devices and strategies to shock and awaken people to the brutality of what is happening in this year, in the Balkans, and instead go to the substance of the column.

“The first piece is not for racial hatred, it is against it. It is not for violence, but against it. The central point of the second column is that recourse should not be had to history to explain but that the violence should be halted right now. The political message of the piece is that Nato bombing be supported for the sole purpose of stopping the killing of thousands of Kosovars and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. When ethnic cleansing is the issue, some columnists choose not to express themselves by detached analysis using language of cold objectivity but prefer to startle and shock.

“To accuse oneself of racism and to plead guilty is in truth a device for demonstrating how evil racism is because it is able to infiltrate and contaminate the columnist against his own better judgment. The illustration had sacrificial overtones.

“This was not writing of an irresponsible, reckless or promiscuous nature. It was a powerfully expressed argument laced with emotion and passion. The Council in the name of objectivity, balance and judgment should not interfere with the freedom to write and publish such material. This is highly emotive writing but it does not call for disapprobation by the Council.”

So there we are. I'm left to scratch my head in wonderment that some tragically obsessed individual has dredged up this episode nearly a quarter-century later.

It’s an example of what’s called offence archaeology: the popular woke practice of unearthing statements or actions from the distant past in the hope of embarrassing or discrediting someone. But what’s the point? Here’s a tip for my anonymous commenter: offence archaeology works only if it causes harm, and if I thought that publishing his comment was likely to hurt me or damage my reputation, I would have simply deleted it. Instead, here I am giving him the oxygen he presumably craved, for the good reason that I have nothing to be ashamed of.

I will even give him the satisfaction of quoting from his closing paragraph, in which he resorted to a childish personal insult (which I won't dignify by repeating), called me a bigot and an “admitted racist” and concluded: “You should have been reported and prosecuted under the New Zealand Race Relations Act.”

Sorry, but it’s a bit late for that now, as attractive as the idea might be to the Human Rights Commission. But I hope he feels better for having got it off his chest.

For what it's worth, the Press Council decision can be read here.