Saturday, December 30, 2023

A grotesque irony in the honours list

I have just sent the following letter to the Wairarapa Times-Age. It will be interesting to see whether they publish it.

I would like to point out a sad and grotesque irony in the New Year Honours list.

Professor Frank Bloomfield of Auckland University has been made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to neonatology.

Dr Simon Snook of Carterton has been awarded the same honour for services to reproductive health, which is a polite way of saying he has been honoured for promoting abortion.

In other words, one recipient is on the honours list for saving babies’ lives. The other is on the list for terminating them.

I know which of the two men I believe has done more to earn the honour and respect of his fellow New Zealanders.

Footnote: To its great credit, the Times-Age published my letter on January 2. If it had been Stuff, I doubt it would have stood a chance.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The gentle whirring of ebikes on the Timber Trail

A typical scene on the Timber Trail. (Photo: Barnaby Maass)

If you look up the acronym oobs, you’ll see that it stands for out-of-band signalling, a term likely to be familiar only to technology geeks.

I use it to refer to something quite different. Oobs is my abbreviation for oldies on bikes – a rapidly proliferating demographic cohort of affluent superannuitants who have discovered, or rediscovered, the joys of cycling.

I often see groups of oobs riding past my place on the outskirts of Masterton in their high-vis jackets. Many of them have seized on battery-powered bikes as an incentive to get back on a bike for the first time in decades – and who can blame them? It’s healthy, pleasurable and virtuous, enabling people to enjoy the scenery and fresh air without burning fossil fuels or raising a sweat.

Though I say battery-powered, you still have to pedal, but the battery does much of the work. The harder you pedal, the more the battery supplements your efforts.

The best systems flatten hills – or so I’m told. I’ve never ridden an ebike myself, but I have two friends who bought an expensive battery-powered French tandem several years ago and have covered much of the country on it. It’s very heavy, but the batteries (they carry two) enable them to cover vast distances at surprising speed and in relative comfort.

I encountered the oobs phenomenon close-up last week when my grandsons and I rode the 85 km Timber Trail, a mountain-bike route through Pureora Forest in the central North Island.

In the course of the two-day ride I became accustomed to being overtaken by grey-haired riders on ebikes, sitting in a quaintly upright posture (they put me in mind of Miss Gulch in The Wizard of Oz) and pedalling as sedately as if they were on a Sunday morning excursion on Oriental Parade. All I heard was the gentle whirring of electric motors as they passed.

There were dozens of riders on the trail and in terms of age they were a wide mix, from teenagers (my grandsons) to at least one octogenarian. A variety of accents testified to the fact that many were from overseas, although there were plenty of New Zealanders doing the ride too.

We arrived at our overnight accommodation at the Timber Trail Lodge, the halfway mark on the trail, to see a couple of dozen bikes hooked up to chargers. We were the only guests not riding ebikes, though we had seen plenty of riders – mostly younger ones – who were doing it the old-fashioned way, like us.

We shared our dinner table that night with a middle-aged couple from Colorado and the 80-year-old from Dunedin. We didn’t see any young riders at the lodge, so they must have overnighted elsewhere. There are several accommodation options on the trail, including campsites, although none of the younger riders we saw were carrying camping gear. Presumably it had been dropped off for them by a shuttle service.

The Timber Trail (I bridle against that American word “trail”, but have to accept it’s now in common usage) is part of a comprehensive and rapidly proliferating network of bike trails that have been developed around the country in response to the booming popularity of multi-day recreational cycling. The best-known remains the Central Otago Rail Trail.

A sophisticated support infrastructure has developed around these trails, providing transport, accommodation and bike hire. Timber Trail Shuttles took us from their base at Ongarue, north of Taumarunui, to the start of the trail at Pureora and then dropped our overnight bags at the lodge, which is one of the few points on the trail accessible by road. The next morning the shuttle picked up our bags again and took them to the finish.

At the Timber Trail Lodge we were provided with very comfortable accommodation, hot showers and an excellent dinner. The young staff are friendly and helpful and there’s a licensed bar and a roomy lounge with an open fire and a spacious deck overlooking the bush. They even sent us off the next morning with a tasty packed lunch. To someone whose previous experience of multi-day MTB rides mostly involved carting all my own gear and pitching a tent at the end of the day, this was sheer luxury.

The trail itself is superb. Pureora Forest is a magnificent stand of largely unspoiled native bush that stretches almost all the way to Lake Taupo from northeast of Taumarunui. It first sprang into public consciousness in the 1970s, when environmentalists protesting against logging proposals camped on platforms in the treetops. The Muldoon government sensibly responded by giving the forest protected status.

Mountain bike trails are rated from one (easy) to six (extreme). The Timber Trail is classified as 2-3, but that doesn’t mean it’s a pushover. The track is wide and relatively smooth for much of the way and doesn’t require technical riding skill, but the first part involves a steady and at times steep climb to the highest point (971 metres) on the flanks of Mt Pureora. You need to be reasonably fit, although battery assistance doubtless helps.

You also need to be reasonably well prepared. You wouldn’t want a mechanical failure, a serious accident or a medical misadventure, because it’s a remote area and cellphone access is almost non-existent.  Shuttle operators recommend personal locator beacons in case of emergency and have them available for hire at a reasonable cost.

Day two is relatively cruisy, being almost all downhill and mainly following the routes of bush tramways that were built to haul logs out. For riders unsure of their fitness, the 40km ride from the midway point at Piropiro to the finish would be a great introduction to the trail, although they would miss seeing the most spectacular, untouched tracts of forest.

Apart from the bush itself, highlights include several impressive suspension bridges, three of them more than 100 metres long, spanning deep gorges. There are numerous stopping points with views of bush-clad hills appearing to stretch into infinity and in one spot, a glimpse through the haze of distant Lake Taupo.

One of several impressive suspension bridges. (Photo: Gabriel Maass)

On the latter part of the trail, as you get closer to civilisation, points of interest change from natural and purely scenic as evidence of human intervention, such as remnants of old logging settlements and milling activity, becomes more conspicuous.  DOC has made a good job of providing information panels.

DOC has also made sure the trail is well-marked, and here’s a tip: if you don’t see the distinctive trail symbol every few minutes, you’ve probably taken a wrong turning. We did, and wasted a frustrating 40 minutes getting back on course. (My fault for making an assumption that a subsidiary track would take us back to the main one. It didn’t.)

Pureora is noted for its native bird life, but we saw and heard disappointingly few birds. Kaka could be heard in the treetops at the start of the ride but after that, the bush was mostly silent. I was hoping to see or hear karearea (the native falcon), kokako or whio, but no such luck.

One last thought. In 2014 I rode the Heaphy Track and concluded at the finish that as good as it was, you needed to walk it to appreciate it fully. I felt much the same about the Timber Trail (which is part of the Te Araroa Trail from North Cape to Bluff, so you can expect to see walkers as well as cyclists). On a bike, you’re focused for much of the time on riding. I couldn’t help thinking that the Timber Trail invites the more immersive, contemplative experience that only walking can truly provide.

You can read about the Timber Trail here.

Footnote: In case anyone gets the wrong idea, this trip was not what journalists call a freebie. My grandsons and I paid our own way.


Monday, December 18, 2023

Peter Bush: one of the greatest of a great generation

The great Peter Bush, one of the last survivors of a generation of outstanding New Zealand press photographers, has died aged 93. I wrote the following article for The Listener in 2011 to mark the opening of a touring exhibition of "Bushy's" rugby pictures.

“Bushy, you’re one of us.”

The man to whom this tribute is addressed has a tanned, weather-beaten face and a silver beard. He has dressed up for this special occasion in a smart dark suit. His eyes are gleaming with delight and he is beaming from ear to ear. His name is Peter George Bush, and the accolade he has just received, from former All Black captain and coach Sir Brian Lochore, is an indication of his rarefied status among sports photographers – an acknowledgment that for this man, the no-go zone that the All Blacks have traditionally erected around themselves didn’t apply.

The occasion is the launching of Hard on the Heels, an exhibition of 100 rugby photographs taken by Bush in the 60 years since he covered his first test match (New Zealand v Australia at Eden Park) for the New Zealand Herald in 1949. The venue is Masterton’s Aratoi gallery – an appropriate location, given Bush’s obvious preference for old-style heartland rugby over the modern professional game.

Selected by curator Rod McLeod from thousands of photos (or “images”, as Bush reluctantly calls them, deferring to the terminology favoured in gallery circles), the mostly black-and-white pictures capture the essence of the sport that, for many New Zealanders, still helps define the national character. 

In a career that still hasn’t completely run its course, Bush has achieved the rare, if not unique, distinction of becoming better known than many of the players whose pictures he took. He has photographed them in the white-hot cauldrons of Loftus Versfeld and Cardiff Arms, in steamy, sweaty changing rooms and at home on their farms. Along the way a mutual respect developed between Bush and his subjects. As Lochore explains, the All Blacks allowed Bush access to their inner sanctums because they were confident he wouldn’t betray their trust.

The opening night is more than just a celebration of Bush’s photographs. It’s suffused with the golden glow of rugby nostalgia. Speakers talk fondly of an era when test matches were played in daylight, muddy grounds rendered players virtually unrecognisable (unheard of with today’s impeccably prepared playing surfaces) and referees weren’t second-guessed by video replays.

Bob Francis, a former Masterton mayor and ex-international referee who was instrumental in having the exhibition launched in the Wairarapa town, identifies the 1963 and 1967 overseas tours, led by Wilson Whineray and Lochore respectively, as two of the greatest in the history of the game. In a gentle dig at the pampered stars of the professional game, he notes that in Whineray’s and Lochore’s time, the All Blacks would arrive home after a long tour and get straight back into club rugby the week after.

Lochore himself takes a good-natured poke at the modern game. “On tour we had a manager and a coach. No doctor, no physio, no mentor, no trainer. Now there are at least 12 guys as padding.” Players looked after their own gear and jerseys would be hung out to dry on heaters in hotel corridors. “You knew where the All Blacks were,” Lochore wryly remarks.

Bush, he recalls, was one of a tight team of journalists who accompanied the All Blacks on tour. “We had Bushy, Alex Veysey, Terry McLean [rugby writers] and Morrie Hill [the official photographer]. These guys were part of our team. Bushy was one of the very few who got into our dressing room. We trusted him.” Bush, now 79 but still looking lean and fit, is the last survivor of that group.

Lochore and Francis are not the only rugby luminaries to speak in Bush’s honour at the opening. Sir Colin Meads is there too, regaling the crowd with war stories from an era when there were no instant TV replays to incriminate on-the-field enforcers who, to use a famous All Black maxim, made a point of getting their retaliation in first.

In fact Meads gets so carried away with an anecdote about his French nemesis, Benoit Dauga, that he forgets what he’s there for. MC Keith Quinn has to grab the Te Kuiti rugby knight as he strides off and pull him back to the podium to declare the exhibition open. (For the record, Dauga left the paddock in 1968 with a broken nose, a black eye and minus one tooth after Meads took revenge on the Frenchman for opening up the back of his head in a ruck. It was only later that he discovered Dauga wasn’t the perpetrator.)

A classic Peter Bush rugby pic from the days when mud was king. Good luck identifying the players ...

Of Bush’s photographs, exhibition organiser Mark Roach observes that they record more than just rugby. “There’s an element of social history in them.”

Take the crowd shot Bush took at Athletic Park in 1956 when the All Blacks played the Springboks. There’s not a female in sight. Nearly all the men are wearing hats and gabardine overcoats and many are smoking. In the background, attached to the scoreboard, is a big advertising hoarding: “Time for a Capstan” (a popular cigarette brand of that era).

Roach also notes an edgy quality to some of Bush’s pictures that takes them out of the realm of conventional sports photographs. One striking example is his photo of a young All Black side, led by Ian Kirkpatrick with a remarkably boyish-looking Joe Karam behind him, waiting to take the field in Northern Ireland in 1972 – the height of the “Troubles” – while a British Army sharpshooter stands by with an automatic rifle at the ready.

Another is Bush’s photo of a solitary Keith Murdoch, the All Black prop famously banished from that same tour after an altercation with a Welsh hotel security guard, walking along a Bristol railway platform before catching a plane home. (Murdoch subsequently disembarked in Australia and melted into the Outback, thus cementing his almost mythic place in rugby history.) Bush points out that in the picture, Murdoch is wearing his official team blazer with the silver fern removed. “Some say he unpicked it on the train.”

It was the last known photo of Murdoch and Bush says that in some ways he wished he’d never taken it. Like others on that tour, he remains deeply affected by what many felt was the unfair treatment of a player whom the British rugby establishment wanted to make an example of. On the excellent DVD documentary that accompanies the exhibition, Bush studies his photo of Murdoch intensely as if looking for something. Then he puts it down and starts to say something, but is overcome by emotion and leaves the room.

An entertaining raconteur as well as a great photographer, Bush tells guests at the exhibition opening about his first visit to the Meads’ King Country farm in 1967. Colin and his brother Stan, also an All Black, were drafting sheep in the yards. “I was nervous because I had no appointment. I thought they might tell me to bugger off.” Instead, Meads got Bush to pitch in and help. Later they all sat down to lunch prepared by Meads’ wife Verna.

That was the day Bush photographed Meads toiling up a steep hillside with a strainer post under each arm, thus creating a piece of Kiwi iconography. Bush was impressed by the hard physicality of the Meads brothers’ farm life. “They had a mental and physical hardness on and off the farm. What a waste of energy it would have been to take these men to a gym,” he says – a gentle dig at the gym-fit players of the modern era.

Mind you, Meads wasn’t always so friendly. On the DVD documentary, Bush tells interviewer Quinn about the time he overstepped the mark at a 1964 test match between the All Blacks and Australia. Bush went onto the field at half time and got a picture of the New Zealand captain John Graham giving his under-performing side a tongue-lashing. As this was happening, the customary plate of orange pieces was handed around the players and Bush cheekily helped himself to one – at which point the “ominous shadow” of Meads loomed over him. “I don’t remember seeing you pushing in the scrum, Bushy”, Meads growled. Bush – not a man to be easily intimidated – recalls slinking away to the sideline.

He makes no secret of his admiration for the hard men of rugby. Some of the toughest games he ever photographed, he says, were trials matches in which players competed for the right to wear the black jersey. “For the chosen it meant glory. For the others it was back to the desk or the farm. There was no quarter given.”

Particular players he admired? Apart from the aforementioned, Buck Shelford was one. “What a player – he epitomised the supreme athlete who gave everything. The Greeks would have cast him in stone.” And Jonah Lomu. Bush recalls Lomu visiting an old people’s home and making a point of kissing every old lady in the room. “Forget about his prowess on the field; he was equal to it off the field.”

Bush’s admiration for the players of the game is matched by his contempt for the occasional small-mindedness and vindictiveness of rugby officialdom. He recalls with disgust that two women accompanying the British Lions – one a player’s wife – were turned away from a rugby function in Southland because it was men-only.

Some of Bush’s pictures came at a cost. One example is the shot he took of Meads exchanging jerseys with the formidable Springbok prop Andy Macdonald under the stand at Lancaster Park (which Bush still calls Lancaster Park, with blithe disregard for sponsors’ naming rights) in 1965. Access to the changing rooms was ferociously controlled – “not even a fox terrier could have got past the guardian on the gate” – but somehow Bush slipped through amid the big Springbok forwards, hidden by the bulk of Lofty Nel.

But it was an era of officious men in rugby union blazers who didn’t take kindly to being thwarted. “That photo had me barred by the Canterbury union from 1965 through till 1971. They couldn’t keep me off the field but they barred me from everything else.”

Still, he’s particularly proud of that photo and you sense that Bush regarded the disapprobation of small-minded provincial rugby officials as a price worth paying.

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 PÅ«rehuroa 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.