I’m on the wrong side of 70. This means there are a lot of things about contemporary New Zealand life and manners that I don’t understand.
For one thing, I don’t know what catfishing is. At least, I didn’t until I looked it up online this morning. It turns out that catfishing is what happens when a person assumes someone else’s identity online and uses it to deceive people. It appears to be one of those terms that have crossed over from [anti]social media to mainstream platforms.
NZME – the company that publishes the New Zealand Herald and provides news to a chain of provincial titles – assumes that I, and all its other readers, know what catfishing is, since it used the term in a news story this morning without explaining the meaning. NZME even used it as the key word in the headline: “Teacher’s catfishing ruse”.
Of course there comes a point when every neologism is absorbed into popular usage and no longer needs any explanation, but I don’t think that time has arrived in this case. “Catfishing” is in the Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries, but that says nothing about the word’s uptake. Prestidigitation and toponymy are in the dictionaries too, but you don’t hear the words in everyday conversation. If I’m derided as a dinosaur because I’m not familiar with catfishing, I’ll wear it.
My guess is that the reporter who wrote the story is of a generation that’s familiar with Twitter-era jargon and didn’t think any clarification was necessary. This is a safe assumption because there seem to be very few working reporters left over the age of 40. Any trained journalist older than that is likely to be working as a strategic communications adviser in a government department.
Something else I don’t understand, notwithstanding that last fact, is why there’s no longer anyone in the newsroom whose job it is to throw badly written, incomplete or factually erroneous stories back at reporters and demand they fix them.
There used to be such people; they were called sub-editors, or “subs”. But subs were pensioned off years ago in the belief that reporters could check their own stories. How that was supposed to work was never clear, because how can anyone be expected to correct a mistake if they don’t realise they’ve made it in the first place?
In any case, there could be no place in 21st century newsrooms for cantankerous, old-school subs like the one at the Dominion who once bellowed, in a voice loud enough to be heard in Petone, that he would stand me on the subs’ desk and kick my f***ing arse if I hadn’t learned how to spell “accommodation” by the following day.
If a sub tried that today he or she (there were some pretty tough women on subs’ desks) would be fired for bullying and I’d be on leave with post-traumatic stress disorder (I was 18 at the time). But I’ll tell you what: I never again spelled accommodation with only one “m”.
In the case of the catfishing story, it could also have been pointed out to the reporter that AFL stands for Australian Football League, not Australian Federal League. Many of NZME’s readers would know this and spot the error immediately.
Does it matter? Well, yes, because readers seeing that the reporter got this tiny thing wrong are entitled to wonder what else he might have stuffed up. Credibility is everything.
In fact there’s a bigger problem here, because the news media must now come to terms with the awkward reality that “consumers of content” (to use a vile, dehumanising media term for readers, viewers and listeners) are often far more knowledgeable than most journalists, and snort with derision at the obvious errors and solecisms that confront them every day.
But all this is by way of a preamble to my main topic. The NZME story reported that a female teacher had “catfished” two women colleagues by pretending to be a man, striking up relationships with them on dating platforms and persuading them to send her naked or semi-naked pictures of themselves. She used the photograph of an Aussie Rules football star – hence the reference to the AFL.
The big question here (the one I sat down to write about before being diverted by catfishing) is this: why do so many people get themselves into these humiliating and totally avoidable situations? It seems self-evident that sending compromising pictures of yourself to someone you’ve never met, and can’t be sure even exists, is freighted with risk.
The answer can only be that it fulfils a need in people who are either narcissistic, exhibitionist or desperately in need of approval – possibly even a combination of all three. Sadly, [anti] social media provides fertile ground for predatory men seeking to exploit the vulnerable.
I started out by saying there are things about contemporary New Zealand life and manners that I don’t understand. This is one of them. The astonishing thing is that people continue to share intimate photos despite knowing the downsides (after all, countless cases have been reported), and then seem surprised as well as traumatised by the outcome.
This morning we also read about a woman, identified only as “Hazel”, who allowed her former partner to film them having sex together. After the relationship had broken up, the spiteful ex-partner placed the sex video on a global porn website.
It’s hard to imagine a more despicable or vindictive act – but in this case it has potentially far-reaching public consequences, because a District Court judge has overruled ACC’s decision to reject the woman’s claim for compensation. That could result in a flood of claims from others who have similarly had their trust betrayed. RNZ suggests they could run into the hundreds.
ACC made its decision on strictly legal grounds. It held that the harm the woman suffered wasn’t recognised under the relevant legislation.
The novel aspect of the claim is that Hazel’s lawyers argued in court – and the judge apparently accepted – that her consent to the video was voided when it was put online without her permission. It therefore became a case of sexual abuse.
It’s worth mentioning that she brought a civil case against her ex-partner and was awarded reparation, but it wasn’t paid – at least, not in full. It seems the public, through ACC, is now left carrying the can for her unwise choice of partner.
I can see this case provoking serious anger and resentment from the thousands of people who have struggled in vain, or had to jump through endless hoops, to get ACC cover for what they believed were legitimate claims arising from real physical injuries.
Such people would be justified in taking the view that what happened to Hazel, while deplorable, was not an accident in the customary sense. She agreed to the video and only later retracted her consent in the light of what was subsequently done with it. In other words, she had control – or to use a fashionable term, “agency” – over her actions. To put it another way, and to use a popular euphemism often used to excuse folly, she made a “bad choice”.
I hope ACC appeals the judge’s decision. Compensation for sexual abuse wasn’t on the radar of the scheme’s architects in the 1970s but now accounts for thousands of claims annually, and eligibility will be widened further if the decision stands.
In the meantime, the case should serve as an object lesson to all those women who think it’s a good idea to pander to the voyeurism of dodgy males. But that may be too much to hope for.
Useless information: Since posting this, I've learned that the term "catfish" comes from a reality TV series (so-called) of that name about online dating. The origin of the metaphor is explained on Wikipedia but hardly seems worth repeating here.