Sunday, April 30, 2023

An unexpected encounter in Money, Mississippi

I see Carolyn Bryant has died.

That name would mean nothing to most readers of this blog, but it resonated with me.

Carolyn Bryant was the woman 14-year-old Emmett Till was alleged to have propositioned or wolf-whistled (the accounts vary) in a country store in the tiny town of Money, Mississippi, in 1955. If it happened at all, it was an act of youthful bravado that cost him his life.

Till was black; Bryant was white. And one thing you soon learn if you read anything about the Jim Crow era in the American South is that black males making sexual advances to white women, either actual or merely alleged, was regarded as the ultimate challenge to white supremacy – one that often resulted in a lynching.

Carolyn Bryant

Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J W Milam subsequently abducted Till, tortured him and killed him before throwing him into the Tallahatchie River. Yes, that Tallahatchie River – the one Bobbie Gentry referred to in her song Ode to Billie Joe.

It was because of the Tallahatchie River that my wife and I stumbled by chance on Money in 2012. I was gathering information for my book A Road Tour of American Song Titles: From Mendocino to Memphis and wanted to see the Tallahatchie Bridge – the one Billie Joe Macalister threw something from in an enigmatic line from Gentry’s song.

The Tallahatchie Bridge

Money, which is a mere speck on the map in a sparsely populated part of the Mississippi Delta, was just down the road from the bridge. As we drove through, we noticed a sign beside the road indicating an historic place. The sign stood outside the remains of an abandoned two-storey building that had almost completely disappeared under a tangle of trees and vines.

The sign outside what remains of Bryant's grocery

This, it turned out, was the former Bryant’s grocery store, where Carolyn Bryant, then aged 21, was behind the counter when Till, who was staying with relatives while on holiday from Chicago, came in to buy candy. Bryant claimed he flirted with her and the rest, quite literally, is history.

The boy, who was known as Bobo, was taken by force from his great-uncle’s home in the early hours of the morning and driven to a barn where he was beaten and shot with a .45-calibre pistol. Then he was secured to a 34 kg gin fan – a heavy wheel used in the processing of cotton – and thrown into the river.

It was not only a brutal murder but a gratuitously sadistic one. In an element of perhaps unintended symbolism, Emmett Till was tied to the gin fan with barbed wire that had been wrapped around his neck.

Bryant and Milam were arrested within 24 hours of the boy’s body being pulled from the river – but if their apprehension was prompt, so was their acquittal. Despite Till’s great-uncle Moses Wright identifying them as the men who had abducted the boy, a jury of 12 white men took only 67 minutes to find them not guilty. It would have been even quicker had the jurors not taken a break for a refreshing drink of soda pop.

The gentlemen of the jury

The two defendants were never convicted, even after confessing to the crime in a paid magazine interview. Both eventually died in their 60s of natural causes. That’s the second thing you learn if you read anything about the Jim Crow era in the Deep South: convictions for race crimes were almost non-existent as long as prosecutions were carried out under state rather than federal jurisdiction.

It was while standing outside the ruins of Bryant’s store that my wife and I had one of those freakish encounters that sometimes happen when you’re travelling. A gleaming new Ford pickup truck pulled up and the driver introduced himself as Roy Boone, who told us he owned a farm about 40 miles away. Although more or less a local, he claimed never to have been to Money before and wanted to know whether the derelict building was the one the Bryants owned. When we confirmed that it was, he told us that he owned the land where Till was murdered, though he hadn’t known that when he bought the land years after the event.

There was a large patch of bare earth on the property that had previously been a blacksmith’s shop. “That was where they killed him,” Boone told us. He was also familiar with the moribund cotton gin where the killers got the fan; he drove past it every week. Then he revealed that he had once met Carolyn Bryant. In the 1990s, she came to the church where Boone taught Sunday School. “She was still a purty woman, even then,” he recalled.

Writing about this in my book, I noted that it was an eerie coincidence that Boone should have turned up at this deserted place on a quiet Sunday morning when we happened to be there.

We encountered the Emmett Till story again a few days later in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which is housed in the former Lorraine Motel – scene of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. One of the exhibits is devoted to Till’s murder, which became one of the defining events of the civil rights movement.  It includes a photo of the boy lying in a coffin that his mother insisted on being left uncovered so that people could see his brutally disfigured face.

Carolyn Bryant, who subsequently divorced her husband and remarried, died last week aged 88. The extent of her role in the torture and murder of Emmett Till remains unclear.  

My book is still available here.



Friday, April 21, 2023

We are no better than Putin's Russia or Xi's China

Someone using the name Jordan Heathcote has submitted provocative comments on my two most recent posts. I doubt that the name is genuine but I’ve published the comments because I welcome alternative perspectives and because I think there’s some truth in what the commenter says, although he (I assume it’s a "he") over-eggs the pudding somewhat – for example, by treating all journalists as liars. I worked in the media for more than half a century and can’t recall any instance when a colleague knowingly reported something untruthful. (Bias and distortion are another matter.)

Should I have published comments from someone I suspect is hiding behind a pseudonym? That question forces me to revisit the vexed question of anonymity. But it also raises a far bigger and more disturbing issue – namely, the climate of fear that obviously deters many people from exercising their democratic right to say what they think, using their own names.

I have said before that I greatly value comments on this blog. The comments section provides a platform for people who have something useful to say and perhaps only limited means of expressing themselves publicly. But last month, in a rush of puritanical fervour provoked by the Posie Parker affair, I declared I would no longer publish pseudonymous comments – my rationale being that anonymity endangers rather than protects freedom of expression. When people are too timid to assert their right to free speech, its power is diminished and it becomes more vulnerable to attack. At least that’s my reasoning.

But obviously not everyone got that memo, because anonymous comments have continued to come in and a substantial unpublished backlog has accumulated. Now Jordan Heathcote, whoever he/she is, forces me to reconsider the whole issue.

The most obvious problem is that I have no practicable way of verifying that commenters such as Jordan Heathcote are who they purport to be. Most newspapers require writers of letters to the editor to provide an address and phone number so they can be authenticated if necessary – a precaution not available to me.

But there are other arguments – far more compelling ones – in favour of allowing pseudonyms, some of which were covered in feedback from readers responding to last month's post and explaining why they felt unable to comment under their own names.

Some of their comments follow. It’s hard to read them without experiencing the chilling sensation that New Zealand is no longer the free and open society many of us assumed it to be.  

■ Someone using the pseudonym Lucia Maria said: “It is far easier for people to be brave when their income is protected. Those that are still working and have families to support and mortgages to pay will self-censor themselves out of the conversation if anonymity (even under a pseudonym) is removed as an outlet for their thoughts.”

■ “Anonymous” wrote: "I understand your view on names but I can’t provide mine. Unfortunately what you see in the media is endemic in corporations. The ability to hold alternative views on The Treaty, identity, climate change has been snubbed [perhaps he/she meant snuffed] out.

“I accept that you will consider me by my omission of a public response to be complicit in what is happening. But I need to protect my family’s wellbeing. Yes, an argument used by many over the years as they stood by and watched bad things happen. But like many I don’t have the luxury of putting it all at risk.

“We don’t need the jackboots of a physical oppressor, we have the modern equivalent. The Twitter mobs, the paid-by-government media and their self-selection of complicit 'reporters' and our politicians who are too scared like me to act. We have a society that enables the tyranny of the minority.”

■ Phil Blackwell, a frequent commenter who uses the nom-de-plume Tinman but is prepared to be identified, urged me to cut pseudonymous commenters some slack. He wrote: “The commenters here are largely intelligent, thoughtful and erudite (although often wrong) and I hope you give some leeway for those who need that anonymity.”

■ “Nicola” wrote that she and her husband supported the Free Speech Union, but her husband relied on the Wellington Beltway for his income, and economic reality demanded that they keep their views to themselves. If they wanted to join a public protest they would go somewhere they were unknown, such as Palmerston North. “It … feels like a copout but within the Beltway today, it is hellish for any NZer who isn’t at least as left as the Greens.” 

(Well might Nicola and her husband support the FSU; their moral quandary shows how desperately it’s needed.)

■ Trevor Hughes, who posts comments as Trev1, is another who defends anonymity. He wrote that disallowing pseudonyms risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. “As some posters have noted, without anonymity their free speech may put them at serious risk. Yet they may also have insights to share that are particularly illuminating.”

■ Tom Hunter mentioned a regular commenter on Kiwiblog who, using his own name, had criticised a government department. “Eventually this led someone to identify his partner, who worked in another government department, and threaten to out both of them as ‘far Right extremists’. He had no choice but to leave the forum, although it's suspected - judging from [his] writing and debating style - that he has returned with a [pseudo]nym.

Tom continued: “I get your point that people may have to put their careers on the line to stop this thing and that's what you're trying to force, but I don't think that's going to work when you've got people like those above who have to take care of their families and provide for them.”

There was further comment on Muriel Newman’s Breaking Views website, which also published my post.

■ Dee M wrote: “Many people are too scared to identify themselves for a variety of reasons, often connected to their employment. We have plenty of examples of people being hounded out of their jobs for expressing their unfashionable opinions openly. And look at Thomas Cranmer!” [Thomas Cranmer is the nom de plume of a senior lawyer who appears unwilling to admit authorship of his authoritative and influential articles, presumably for fear of professional repercussions.]

■ Chris Morris: “I agree with the general policy of standing by what you write, but there have been so many instances of people doxed and ‘punished’ that I am more than a little concerned at the practicalities of its application.”

■ Peter Ness: “I have to agree with Dee M and his comment re blogging anonymously. Many people stood up for free speech on the lawn of Parliament and were mandated out of their jobs, homes and livelihoods. If you’re Mike Hosking … you can say what you like, within reason, because it’s going to be a big call to fire him for what he says and watch your ratings sink like a stone. Very different if you’re a policeman or doctor, nurse etc. An anonymous voice, small and tiny is worth listening to (that’s courtesy of Horton hears a Who).”

■ Another anonymous commenter on Breaking Views said he stood to lose a 40-year career and his home if he spoke out. He went on: “Equity is where everyone has to have the same outcome no matter their circumstance. It seems you want everyone to speak out immediately no matter their circumstance. I didn’t think you pushed an equity barrow. Maybe you should focus more on equality of opportunity – giving everyone the chance to speak out in the way that is best for them. Do Aesop’s fables carry less weight because the original author is anonymous?”

The striking thing about all this is that if the commenters are to be believed, and I have no reason to doubt them, freedom of speech in New Zealand is far more precarious than most of us imagined. When people are afraid to speak their minds for fear of adverse consequences, we are effectively no better than Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China. You could be excused for wondering how long it will be before people start circulating New Zealand-style samizdats - the clandestine newsletters published by dissenters in the Soviet Union.

Things may not be so bad here that people risk arrest or imprisonment for speaking out, but the chilling effect is no less real. The threat of ostracism, career derailment or denunciation on social media can be almost as powerful as the fear of a knock on the door from the secret police in the middle of the night.

In fact in some ways it’s more insidious because it’s not declared or overt. Limitations on free speech are imposed not by statute or government edict, but by unwritten rules policed by vindictive zealots determined to make an example of anyone who challenges the dominant ideological consensus.

This is something new. Even during the prime ministership of Robert Muldoon, which is generally considered the high-water mark of authoritarian government in modern New Zealand history, people didn’t feel this intimidated. You have to go back to the Public Safety Conservation Act, which was used to criminalise pro-wharfie comment during the 1951 waterfront dispute, to find a more oppressively censorious political environment – and that legislation was invoked on that occasion in response to a singular and relatively short-lived event. This time it’s open-ended. There’s no fixed time frame beyond which we can assume free speech will be permitted to flourish again.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that I’ve reversed my decision to disallow anonymous comments on this blog. Comments such as those reproduced above have persuaded me that allowing people a voice is more important than taking the moral high ground on whether they identify themselves.

I still lament that many people hide behind pseudonyms for no better reason than they lack the courage to stand up for opinions they are legally entitled to hold. I also deplore the tendency for anonymity to result in commenters engaging in cheap shots and puerile slanging matches – a fate that has befallen other blogs (though not this one), and which wouldn’t happen if commenters had to be named. Accordingly, people who identify themselves are far more likely to get their comments published here. Opinions carry far more weight when there’s a name to them.

But what’s even more lamentable than people sheltering behind pseudonyms for reasons of timidity is that many commenters are genuinely fearful of repercussions if they identify themselves. Freedom of expression is not served by denying them a voice – and ultimately, freedom of expression must take precedence over secondary concerns.



Monday, April 17, 2023

The incredible disapppearing journalists

Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of journalists. To all intents and purposes, most have vanished from sight.

Some have gone quietly into retirement, but many are still active – just not in journalism. People whose bylines were once familiar to newspaper readers have effectively gone underground, along with the sub-editors who massaged their copy into shape. They have mostly been absorbed into the nebulous world of public relations, or comms as it’s now known in the trade.

The digital revolution inflicted huge damage on the print media, precipitating a hollowing out of newsrooms and an exodus of skill and experience into the comms business. According to the Sapere report commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, the number of journalists fell by 52 per cent between 2000 and 2018.

Some of these refugees were snapped up by the private sector, where there has been a proliferation of PR and government relations (for which read lobbying) consultancies, the latter of which have recently come under justified critical scrutiny. But I would guess that an even greater number migrated to the public sector.

As the mainstream media shrank, so the government comms racket expanded almost exponentially. In the vernacular, it was known as going over to the dark side.

The trend has become even more pronounced under Labour. RNZ reported this morning that the number of comms staff in the core public service has risen 50 percent since Labour took office in 2017. Figures provided to RNZ show that 532 comms people were employed in the year to June 2022, up 7.5 percent on the previous year.

It’s odds-on that people employed in comms work across the public and private sectors now far outnumber those in journalism. Even 14 years ago the then Commissioner of Police remarked to me, with what I thought was a hint of smugness, that he employed more trained journalists than most newspapers did. I had no reason to doubt him.

I’m sure this wasn’t unique to the police. It has become de rigueur for every organisation with a public profile, whether it’s the local district council, a charitable organisation, a sports body or a government department, to have a comms manager and a team – often a large team – of comms advisers.

Health Minister Ayesha Verrall recently revealed in response to Opposition questioning that Te Whatu Ora, the national health agency, employs 173 comms people and a further 26 contractors working in the same field. This would be outrageous at the best of times, but looks even worse when the health system is crumbling and desperately short of actual health professionals. It suggests seriously skewed priorities.

I’m reliably informed, meanwhile, that Wellington City Council employs 60 comms people across all its departments. If the effectiveness of an organisation’s comms staff can be gauged by its public image, you’d have to conclude that the comms people at both Te Whatu Ora and Wellington City Council are doing a spectacularly poor job.

Paradoxically, the expansion of comms departments hasn’t facilitated better communication with the public. Quite the reverse: many journalists will tell you that generally speaking, the ease of obtaining important information from government organisations tends to diminish as more comms people are employed.

When I started out in journalism in the late 60s, I could probably have counted on the fingers of my hands the number of fulltime PR people in Wellington. But what was previously a select and rather mysterious little club – mysterious because I could never quite figure out exactly what they did – now forms a powerful and steadily expanding tier in both the corporate and public sectors.

As an aside, not all my former colleagues made the transition into comms. A few re-invented themselves as academics and in the process, ended up a very long way from the world of plain English that journalism valued. I was amused recently to see that one former reporter of my acquaintance had become a university lecturer in marketing and acquired a PhD. According to his professional profile, his published research focuses on “market boundaries from a social practice perspective, approached from an abductive hermeneutic methodology and philosophical basis”. I would have loved to see him try to get that gibberish past a cranky, cardigan-wearing sub-editor.

But it’s comms, in all its varied permutations, that provided most of my old workmates with an escape route from a shrinking (some would say dying) industry. People who did useful and often admirable work as journalists now market themselves as content strategy advisers or communications and engagement leads, whatever that may mean.

I don’t entirely blame them. They have to make a buck, and they’re almost certainly earning a lot more than they did in their former career, though I bet they’re not having as much fun as they did when they worked in newsrooms.

I lament this enormous loss of skill and experience. You can see the results not only in the massive expansion of the comms sector, but more sadly in the greatly diminished quality of journalism.

The growth in the number of political press secretaries and media advisers, who wield more power than is healthy, is a striking manifestation of the trend.

Political press secretaries at the top level are more than mere functionaries. They are key influencers, practitioners of the dark arts: the equivalent of scheming courtiers in a royal palace. They often control the narrative when by rights it should be determined by the people who employ them.

I’ve seen it suggested recently that one reason Christopher Luxon isn’t getting more traction is that his media minders dictate the message when he would probably come across as more genuine and more spontaneous if he ignored their advice and trusted his own instincts. 

Back at the media coalface, a shrinking but honourable minority of working journalists remain committed to telling important stories and upholding traditional values of fairness and impartiality. They should be regarded as heroes. Others still do their best to ensure a wide range of opinions are published in letters to the editor columns.

Unfortunately such people are now outnumbered by university-educated social justice activists posing as journalists who consider it their mission to correct the thinking of their ignorant, bigoted or misguided readers. This would be marginally more tolerable if they were competent writers, but many are not. They write as if English is their second language. 

In the comms war, meanwhile, the balance of power has long since shifted from those trying to get information to those controlling it. They are unseen influencers whose role is invisible to everyone other than the people they work with. This has serious implications for democracy and transparency.

It must be acknowledged that there’s a legitimate and even vital role for comms people. Cyclone Gabrielle was a useful reminder of the importance of making accurate, up-to-date information available to the public.

But there are comms and there are comms. There’s a crucial difference between straight, unembroidered information – factual information that’s openly disclosed and which people can use – and political or corporate spin that’s used to make organisations look good, to promote vested interests or to bury potentially embarrassing issues of public importance. The type of comms, in other words, that seeks to exert influence on public affairs without disclosing who’s pulling the strings and why.

To finish, a couple of crucial questions: is the quality of government better as a result of all these unseen “strategic” comms advisers in government departments and agencies? Most people would almost certainly say no. Do the public get more and better quality information? Again, probably not. The thing to remember is that the comms business is ultimately about control – and nowhere more so than in the political realm.



Friday, April 14, 2023

Stuff's slow-motion suicide continues

A friend emailed me to ask what I thought of the announcement that the Dominion Post would henceforth be known simply as the Post.

I replied that what they choose to call the paper no longer matters, since it long ago ceased to bear any recognisable trace of its respected precursor titles. The name change simply confirms that Stuff’s owner, Sinead Boucher (and I’m guessing it would have been her decision, even if Dominion Post editor Caitlin Cherry announced it) has little knowledge of, and even less regard for, the heritage of the company she owns.

In fact when a company calls itself Stuff, a name that indicates profound disrespect for the nature of its business, any frivolous name will do.  

I added that I’ve given up caring about the fate of the paper(s) I spent a large part of my career working for, though I do feel for the few good people still employed there. Stuff has so thoroughly betrayed its journalistic legacy that I’m past caring whether the company even survives, which seems increasingly uncertain.

My friend wondered if Caitlin Cherry realised who her paper’s most loyal readers were. She then answered her own question: “Oldies like me. People who understand and appreciate history and are not consumed by 'presentism'" – a reference to the blind fixation whereby events and people from the past are judged according to the rigid and unforgiving ideological orthodoxy of the present.

Judged by the standards of this new form of hubris-driven bigotry, the word “Dominion” would be seen as having intolerable connotations of colonialism and subservience to an imperial power. That the newspaper was so named because it was launched on the day New Zealand attained Dominion status in 1907 is no saving grace. Stuff seems determined not only to disown but to erase its own heritage. 

It will have alienated still more of its diminishing number of readers with its latest lurch, and the irony is that much of this is being done to humour a demographic group that doesn’t buy newspapers anyway.

It remains to be seen whether the decline will be arrested by placing Stuff's main titles behind a paywall, as is rumoured to be pending. I doubt it. Stuff has left its move about 10 years too late, and in the meantime the quality of the product has deteriorated to the point where sensible people will decide they can do without it. The slow-motion suicide continues. 


Thursday, April 6, 2023

Guyon Espiner on booze

Guyon Espiner has written a critical book - a very critical book - about booze called The Drinking Game. It's about the place of alcohol in New Zealand society and it draws heavily on his own experiences.

There’s the big problem, right there. Espiner admits he was a problem drinker. The reader is bombarded with anecdotes about the times he drank to excess. There’s an almost boastful tone to some of these stories.

But most people who drink are not problem drinkers, as Espiner admits, and at the end of his book I was left wondering what the point was.

The Drinking Game purports to be a critical analysis, but a self-confessed problem drinker is no more capable of writing a balanced book about alcohol than a vegan is capable of writing a balanced book about the meat industry, or an atheist about the Catholic Church.

The entire book is coloured by Espiner’s own experiences, but they’re not typical. And because they’re not typical, you have to ask what relevance they have to people who are able to drink without getting blotto (which, at the risk of labouring a point, means most of the population).

His revelation that he has Type 1 diabetes, which finally provided the incentive he needed to give up drinking, makes him even more atypical. Yet he persists with the theme that his own experiences are somehow applicable to everyone.

Espiner has burrowed deeply into the academic literature, of which there’s no shortage. Almost all of it is hostile to alcohol (and to capitalism, I suspect), but ignores the ability of most people to drink without harming themselves or those around them. He relates cautionary tales about alcoholics, but again misses the point that alcoholics make up only a small minority of drinkers.

He lets himself down in places with sloppy research. He writes that Mac’s Brewery was founded in Dunedin (wrong; it was Nelson) and that Claytons was a zero-alcohol beer (it was non-alcoholic, but it wasn’t a beer). He even manages to place Bagram air force base in the wrong country despite having been there himself. Nit-picking readers might wonder what else he got wrong.

Like the finger-wagging academics he approvingly quotes, he rails against the supposedly malign influence of the booze barons and their hold over weak or venal politicians. If Espiner is to be believed, they wield an almost mystical power (an impression likely to be reinforced by the overwhelming vote in Parliament this week against Chloe Swarbrick's bill that would have banned alcohol sponsorship and advertising in sport). 

He also bewails the fact that alcohol has been “normalised”. But alcohol is normal, and has been for millennia, as Espiner acknowledges. He even grudgingly acknowledges alcohol’s benefits as an agent of social bonding and creativity: “Humans need to drink alcohol to be human,” he writes. Then he swiftly moves on, presumably because that bit doesn’t align with his overall theme.  

It’s possible to nod in agreement with some of Espiner’s points. Yes, New Zealand’s liquor laws did lurch from one extreme to another, to the point where many would agree there are now far too many outlets and licensing hours are ridiculously loose. Even people in the hospitality business say so.

But Espiner doesn’t give due credit to the early stages of that liberalisation process, which made social drinking immeasurably more civilised and inclusive than it used to be. He’s too young to remember the scungy, men-only public bars of the 1960s and 70s and the days when only the rich could afford to patronise the tiny number of restaurants that were permitted to serve wine.

Espiner can be an entertaining writer, though he tends to be rather too fascinated by himself. He’s also a capable journalist who has recently been lauded, justifiably, for his investigative work exposing the political lobbying racket. But there’s no more zealous crusader than the reformed sinner, and there’s an almost evangelical tone to his book that could be summarised as: “I gave up drinking! You should too!” But most people don’t need to.

Incidentally, the cover of Espiner's book carries a melodramatic plug ("This is real, it is raw, and it lays out the truth about booze") from his friend Patrick Gower, who made a documentary last year in which he too admitted a drinking problem. And you might wonder about the timing of a recent Morning Report item in which Corin Dann - who with his wife, Living Sober website manager Lotta Dann, is acknowledged in Espiner's book as a key source of advice and support - interviewed anti-alcohol activist Boyd Swinburn about the access to politicians enjoyed by liquor industry lobbyists, which Espiner had highlighted in his RNZ series. It all starts to look decidedly clubby. 

In the final analysis, The Drinking Game repackages a familiar message, albeit through a personal lens: liquor is too widely available, it’s too cheap, it’s advertised too much and politicians are incapable of resisting lobbying pressure from the industry. And of course booze is hazardous, at least for people who can’t control their intake.

We’ve heard all this before, ad nauseam. But Espiner isn’t entirely clear about what he thinks should be done about it, and in the end he gets us no closer to solving the old conundrum: should the majority of people who drink safely and responsibly be penalised because of the unfortunate things that happen to the minority who don’t?

(Disclosure: In a past life I was a wine writer, in which capacity I was provided with free wine for review purposes. I'm aware that in the eyes of some neo-wowsers in academia, that made me complicit in the liquor industry's attempt to enslave the population.)

 The Drinking Game, published by Allen and Unwin, $36.99.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Kiri Allan and her Claytons apology

Justice Minister Kiri Allan has made a public apology for comments made at an RNZ farewell function in honour of her fiancée, Mani Dunlop.

RNZ reports that Allan criticised RNZ’s treatment of Maori journalists and “urged the public broadcaster to have a look at its culture”. This came after Dunlop, a Maori, was passed over for the position of co-host on Morning Report - a job she had obviously pinned her hopes on. Allan's comments will inevitably be seen as a rebuke to RNZ for not promoting her partner.

She reportedly prefaced her remarks by saying she wasn’t speaking as a minister. In her apology yesterday she said she attended the function as Dunlop’s partner and was speaking on behalf of Dunlop’s family, but she accepted her comments could be interpreted as telling RNZ how to manage its affairs.

Oh, come on. Allan is a senior minister. She has been in Parliament since 2017. She knows the rules. She knows that her actions as a private individual and as a minister are not easily separated. In fact she admits there is no delineation in terms of public perception. That’s why there’s a cabinet manual advising ministers how to conduct themselves.

I think Allan understood perfectly well what she was doing, and moreover that she knows that what she said at the function can’t be unsaid by going through the motions of a ritual apology.

She would have known her words would register with RNZ, which has a crucial interest in maintaining good relations with the government. It may or may not be significant that RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson subsequently made a conciliatory statement liberally laced with te reo Maori. It looked ingratiating.

The matter was seen as serious enough for Chris Hipkins to weigh in with a statement accepting Allan’s apology but adding that it would have been better had she not accepted the opportunity to speak. It was the lightest of raps over the knuckles for an action that could be interpreted as ministerial interference in the affairs of an organisation that's supposed to be statutorily independent.

Allan's comments and subsequent Claytons retraction will have done nothing to ease public concerns about uncomfortably close relationships within the Wellington Beltway and their potential to compromise government integrity.

Neither will anyone be reassured by the fact that RNZ took several days to report the story. We can only conclude RNZ decided its interests were better served by keeping Allan’s interference quiet.





Tuesday, April 4, 2023

RNZ made the right decision

Mani Dunlop finished up last week after 12 years at RNZ.

The state broadcaster published a tribute to the Midday Report presenter but didn’t go into the circumstances of her departure.

For that, you had to read a report of Dunlop's last broadcast in the New Zealand Herald, in which she made it clear that she quit after being passed over for “the top job” – an obvious reference to the co-presenter’s chair on RNZ’s flagship programme, Morning Report. "When you don't get the top job," she's quoted as saying, "it's time to go elsewhere."

I speculated on this blog in December that Dunlop was a prime contender for the Morning Report position after Susie Ferguson quit mid-year. I acknowledged that Dunlop ticked a lot of boxes (capable, young-ish and Maori) but I also said it would be wrong to appoint her.

That’s because she’s the fiancée of a cabinet minister, Kiri Allan. Even if Dunlop bent over backwards to be fair and neutral as a presenter and interviewer, the programme’s credibility would be compromised by the public knowledge that she was the partner of a senior government politician, especially in an election year.

In the event, RNZ surprised everyone by making an appointment from outside the organisation: former TV journalist Ingrid Hipkiss. She’s expected to join Corin Dann on the show this month.

We don’t know whether Dunlop was passed over because of her relationship with Allan, but I think RNZ made the right decision. To appoint her would have been provocative, at the very least.

Suspicion of mainstream media bias is rampant enough already. Trust in RNZ, which as a publicly owned broadcaster has a special obligation to be even-handed, would have been further undermined.  

There was a hint of bitterness in Dunlop’s parting remarks to the Herald and a cryptic reference to haters. “To the haters, and there’s plenty of them, come on the journey,” Dunlop is quoted as saying. Who the supposed haters are wasn’t explained.  

Dunlop said she had no idea what she would do next and would be taking her time to decide.

Correction: The original version of this post said Dunlop made her comments in an interview with the New Zealand Herald. In fact she made them on air and was reported in the Herald. 

Monday, April 3, 2023

Most people just wish Shaneel Lal would shut up

I wonder if the woke-friendly executives at Kiwibank ran due diligence on Shaneel Lal before naming him their Young New Zealander of the Year.

If they had, they must have seen the stream of obscene invective he has unleashed on Twitter against anyone who isn’t on board with his polarising agenda.

“Go f**k yourself you stupid asshole” was a typical example – this in January last year in response to a tweeter who mildly rebuked him and his supporters for their aggression toward anyone who disagrees with them. Lal obligingly confirmed her point.

Perhaps Kiwibank did see it and decided to give him the award anyway. Nothing would surprise me.

By conferring the honour on him, the government-owned bank is presenting this divisive figure as a model to young New Zealanders. That’s the extent to which corporate New Zealand has been captured by identity politics cultists.

Lal is fond of the phrase “F**k you”. He has directed it at capitalists (all capitalists, by implication – so including Kiwibank), the New Zealand Herald, cis men and apparently anyone with a police officer in the family.

He seems incapable of civil dialogue. I think he’s seriously disturbed.

He has described the Herald as a “racist, homophobic, classist piece of shit”. That was in 2021, after the paper published something he didn’t like.

Bizarrely, the Herald has rewarded him for his abuse by publishing his almost incoherent columns, including one in which he whipped up hysteria against Posie Parker.

Call it corporate masochism – a phenomenon of wokery in which companies debase themselves by pandering to extremists who hate them. I wonder, did the Herald think before publishing Lal’s rant on the morning of Parker’s abandoned Albert Park rally? It was a call to arms that came close to incitement.

Lal says he doesn’t want to be tolerated or accepted. We are left to conclude that he's happier seeing himself as an oppressed outsider.

He says he doesn’t want to be hated either, yet he seems to revel in identifying himself as hated. It’s how he defines himself. If he were genuinely concerned about countering hate, he wouldn't be so busy stoking the fires of the culture wars.  

In any case, do people really hate him? I doubt that most New Zealanders give him a thought. They have more pressing things to worry about.

That must be Lal’s worst nightmare, because I suspect that what he wants above all else is attention. And the way to ensure that is by constantly and noisily playing the victim card. 

Lal is obsessed with his sexual identity and the special status he thinks that confers on him – an impression the media reinforce by acting as his promotion agents.

He seems to assume the world shares his fascination, but he’s wrong. Probably 99.9 percent of New Zealanders regard Lal’s sexuality as entirely his own business and are happy for him to live as he chooses.

They don’t hate him or want to do him harm. They just wish he’d shut up.