Friday, June 30, 2023

"Sir" James Wallace and the Streisand Effect

It’s hard to imagine much being said in defence of James Wallace, the 85-year-old rich-lister and philanthropist who sexually assaulted three younger men in his Epsom mansion and then tried to use his money and connections to keep the scandal quiet.

A charitable view is that he was a pathetic old man, desperate to protect his exalted social position. A more sinister reading is that he considered himself above the law and had the hubris to think he could beat it. 

Trying to pervert the course of justice is unquestionably the more serious of Wallace's crimes and by far the more contemptible. In the end he was rightly exposed, as were the low-life accomplices (two of whom were given immunity in return for their co-operation with the police) who accepted his tainted money in return for their help in a series of bizarre plans to protect him.

That Wallace (he's still "Sir" James, but not for much longer) was able for five years to keep his name secret was itself scandalous. Confidence in the judicial system is undermined when the rich can use avenues not open to ordinary New Zealanders in order to avert justice, or in this case to forestall it. It’s also damaging to social cohesion, because it creates the perception that there’s a privileged class that can use its wealth and power to escape consequences that would be unavoidable for those without money and influence.

It’s said that the mills of God grind slowly – but in the meantime, public trust in the integrity of the system is eroded, rumour, uncertainty and speculation flourish, and suspicion falls on innocent people. 

Justice was finally done this week when the Supreme Court confirmed a decision by the Court of Appeal against allowing name suppression to continue. Whether New Zealand's highest court will remove five art works lent to it by Wallace in his role as a patron of the arts isn’t clear. The Supreme Court is only one of many institutions that find themselves embarrassed and compromised by their association with a man who now stands exposed as egregiously corrupt.

It’s interesting to speculate on what might have happened had Wallace pleaded guilty at the outset to the sexual assault charges against him and endured the shame of having his name published. There would have been a period of public disgrace following which the episode, along with his name, would very likely have been forgotten.

Prominent figures have come back after worse scandals; the entertainment world is full of them, to say nothing of Bill Clinton. Bear in mind that most New Zealanders had probably never heard of Wallace until this week; his name was well-known only in the top strata of society and in arty circles. But by going to extraordinary lengths to avoid fair and proper penalties for his actions, Wallace brought on himself intense media scrutiny (both Stuff and NZME, to their great credit, fought the suppression orders) and as a result must now endure far greater notoriety than would otherwise have come his way. Paradoxically, his attempt to keep his identity secret has had precisely the reverse result. This is a variant of the Streisand Effect.

The Supreme Court decision shows just how far Wallace was prepared to go – and who he was prepared to take down with him – in his determination to protect himself.

What has not been widely reported is that there was a second applicant for suppression in the case before the court. It was the McLean’s Mansion Charitable Trust Board (MMCTB), which is restoring an historic, earthquake-damaged Christchurch home – reputedly New Zealand’s biggest wooden house – with the intention of using it as an arts centre.

The court’s judgment reveals that in 2022, Wallace became chairman of the trust and undertook funding responsibility for the project. According to The Press, he paid off a $2.6 million loan and underwrote the entire project, which is expected to cost $10 million.

The MMCTB had submitted in the Court of Appeal that if suppression on Wallace’s name was lifted, the trust would suffer undue hardship as a result of being damaged by association – an argument repeated in the Supreme Court. According to the trust, the publication of Wallace’s name and the exposure of its relationship with him would hamper fundraising at a critical stage of the project and potentially deprive Christchurch of a public asset. The implication was that the entire project was at risk.

But the Court of Appeal pointed out that Wallace’s association with the trust began well after his convictions, and at a time when he knew that publication of his name was a very real prospect. To suppress his name in order to protect the trust, the court reasoned, would fundamentally distort the principle of open justice.

In a telling phrase, the court said the trust’s case had been advanced to give Wallace “an alternative pathway” to suppression. It pointed out that any hardship faced by the trust arose as a result of Wallace’s enhanced involvement in its affairs since his convictions, which the trust was aware of.

That seems a polite way of saying that having run out of other options, Wallace drew the trust into the sordid affair in the hope it would provide a smokescreen for him. And the trust, possibly desperate for funds, allowed him to do it. As a result the reputation of a worthy civic project may now also have been besmirched, much as it feared. (I note that The Press quoted a former trust chairman as saying he didn’t know of Wallace’s convictions at the time the trust decided to accept his money and hand control to him, but the Court of Appeal decision said otherwise.)

Of course, Wallace could argue that he involved himself in the trust for perfectly honourable reasons. Cynical observers, however, bearing in mind his previous conduct, could hardly be blamed for thinking his motive was devious.

In the final event, the three Supreme Court judges who heard the application for further appeals weren’t buying any of it. The only issue, they said, was whether a miscarriage of justice would occur if the appeals for continued suppression were not heard, and they were satisfied that criterion was not met.

It took a long time to get here, but better late than never. The irony is that having spent at least five years and probably millions in legal fees trying to save his reputation, Wallace has succeeded only in blackening it beyond redemption. Whether he ends up taking the McLean’s Mansion Charitable Trust down with him remains to be seen.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Licence to indoctrinate

There's a simple step that would ease the financial crisis in the universities while at the same time saving millions and going a long way toward neutralising a key source of the divisive culture wars.

All that’s necessary is to abolish every department of communications and media studies. These seem to exist for no purpose other than to promote neo-Marxist theories about oppressive power structures, racism, misogyny, white supremacy, social justice (to say nothing of its recent offshoot, “climate justice”) and decolonisation.

Communications and media studies faculties are infested by zealots and activists, many of them espousing ideas that are inimical to liberal democratic values such as free speech. They are entitled to hold those views, but not to use their taxpayer-funded academic sinecures to promote them.

More to the point, the courses these departments teach confer qualifications that have no practical application other than to propagate ideologies that only a tiny minority of New Zealanders agree with. Why should taxpayers support them?

Unlike such disciplines as the sciences, law, medicine, languages, economics, accounting and history, communications and media studies courses are not rooted in any discernible need. They grew out of academia’s insatiable appetite for new areas to colonise and the concomitant growth of an affluent, soft middle-class that provided endless fodder for useless, highly politicised degree courses.

In the process, universities have grown fat and now need to shed some weight. Tough.

It was no accident that the emergence of these courses coincided with the long march through the institutions by which radical academics, hostile to democratic capitalism, have sought for several decades to subvert the established social and economic order. Communications and media studies provided an ideal incubator for their agenda because no empirical foundation was necessary. Academicians were free to make it up as they went along because what they taught was based almost entirely on theory.

One ruinous consequence is that the training of journalists has been subjected to academic capture. Not all journalism courses are taught by universities, but the threshold for entry to the profession has been progressively raised to the point where a degree, if not mandatory, is at least highly desirable. That brings budding journalists into the orbit of lecturers who are, in many cases, proselytisers for the neo-Marxist far Left.

There is little about the theory and principles of journalism that can’t be taught in a six-month Polytechnic course. The rest comes with experience. Generations learned it by doing, and served their readers (sorry, “consumers of content”) well. But following the American model, journalism has succumbed to the phenomenon known as credentialism, whereby career opportunities increasingly depend on academic qualifications. 

To make matters worse, many of the people who teach journalism have little or no practical experience, and for those who do it’s often so far in the past as to be irrelevant. They have transmogrified into academics. (There are exceptions, of course, but I won't embarrass them by naming them.)

The result is that journalism courses are now heavily freighted with ideological content. Though they're often only semi-literate, graduates have a dangerously inflated notion of their purpose as journalists. They have been taught to think of themselves not as conveyors of information but as agents of political and social change. In line with this approach, traditional notions of fairness, balance and impartiality have been jettisoned. The concept of objectivity is derided as outdated and unattainable, freeing journalists to put their own spin on stories.

It should surprise no one that journalists as an occupational group lean to the left. In my experience, that has long been the case. What has changed is that many now identify themselves as being “extreme left”, which raises some intriguing questions: were they on the extreme Left before they became journalists, in which case was that why they chose it as a career? Did they see journalism as a means by which they could promote their political ideas? Were they encouraged in that belief by the way journalism has been politicised? Or did they start out apolitical but adopt an overtly political approach as a result of what they learned as journalism students?

The other crucial generational change is that whereas journalists of an earlier era were taught to put their feelings and opinions aside (and were sharply pulled into line if they didn’t), many younger journalists now see themselves as having licence to write stories that are openly slanted to favour causes they support and to ignore or denigrate those they oppose. And why shouldn’t they? After all, their academic qualifications confer an illusion of authority and credibility.

It’s no coincidence that the steady decline in public trust of the news media parallels journalism’s contamination by the woke theory now prevalent in university faculties. It follows that journalism would suffer not at all if training was divorced from its academic setting. But why stop there? The only people wailing in distress if every communications and media studies department in the country was shut down would be the handsomely remunerated proselytisers whose licence to indoctrinate at the public expense was curtailed.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Guest post: Why I have left the Labour Party

By Perce Harpham

(As founder of the Progeni software company, Perce Harpham, now 91, was a pioneer of the New Zealand computer industry. He is also a former Green Party candidate.)

After some 16 years of loyal support I have left the Labour Party because it has left me. I am so ashamed at how “my” party is destroying our legal system and democracy that I wish to be completely dissociated from it.

It would be nice to be able to avoid “The tyranny of the majority” but this means the abandonment of democracy and replacing it with a “tyranny of the minorities”. Over the last few decades Maori have become the dominant minority - overarching the “rich pricks”, the farmers, the unions, the Pasifika citizens and many other minorities.

Possibly without long-term planning the Maori hierarchy have now got themselves into legal structures and positions of authority which one would have expected to occur only if we were conquered by an external agency. In either case it is known as a coup d’etat. And the Labour Party caucus are hell-bent on completing the takeover even though it is clear that many Maori (witness Winston Peters and David Seymour) do not wish to revert to the 1830s.

In 2024 I will have lived half the time since the Treaty was signed and I can see a pattern of misrepresentation which has degraded its meaning and corrupted political parties. It is widely recognised that large donations to political parties are made to secure influence and that this corrupts the system. No amount of money will guarantee a single seat. But the Maori hierarchy can virtually guarantee the outcome for the block of Maori seats.

The seats were established in 1868 and were meant to last only five years but the power of the block, even then, meant that the seats continued. This power and the bond between the Labour Party and the Ratana Church has meant the continuation and increase in the number of the seats which again were meant to be disestablished when MMP came into being. The current Labour caucus seems to me to have sold its soul to the Maori hierarchy in order to gain or retain power.

The Labour caucus is not acting in the interests of all citizens, but instead in the self-interest of the Maori hierarchy. It is the latter who are setting the scene for the transfer of wealth and governance to them. The benefits are likely to accrue to only a few. This is not democracy.

It is interesting to note that the Pasifika people come from the Pacific Islands just as the Maori did long ago. Away back they must have common ancestors. And the Pasifika population here is about half the Maori population by number. On average our Pasifika citizens must be less well-off than their Maori brethren but, per capita, they have only half the Maori number in prison. Possibly the reason for them being better citizens is that they have not identified with the overwhelming propaganda and numerous falsehoods claiming that Maori have been deprived and treated shamefully since the Treaty was signed in 1840. The legal privileges and benefits that Maori now have, and want, are at the expense of all non-Maori.

I have two grandchildren of Maori descent who know their iwi affiliations, four of Maori descent who don’t know their iwi and two who probably don’t have any Maori ancestry. I also have four great-grandchildren, two of whom will learn their ancestry and two who have no Maori ancestry. Under Labour’s new laws they will have radically different legal entitlements in the future of our country. Some of my descendants may be entitled to exercise veto powers in the control of almost all of our country’s water assets (Three Waters legislation) or over almost all town planning decisions (RMA replacement legislation). Clearly some will have no such powers due to their non-Maori heritage.

The most recent example to become public is that, even without the unimpeachable veto rights now being put in place, we saw iwi block progress then back-flip on the Dome Valley rubbish dump issue - changing their influential position blocking the new dump for Auckland in return for a settlement of millions of dollars and substantial land when the dump is filled. The back-flip decision has reportedly been made by iwi elite without a hui for their members. This is how water resource and other decisions will be made in this country in future thanks to Labour’s new laws.

The Labour Party’s constitution (see requires that it will act in accordance with “The same basic human rights, protected by the State, [which] apply to all people regardless of race, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religious faith, political belief or disability.” It is clear that the Labour caucus is not acting in accordance with its own constitution.

The race-based policies which have been, and are, being made into law are unsanctioned by members of the Labour Party or any electoral mandate. Further, by transferring governmental and sovereign powers to an ethnic group, caucus members are all in breach of their parliamentary oath to bear true allegiance to the Crown. And do any of them really believe that Queen Victoria entered into a partnership agreement with 500 Maori chiefs on the other side of the world? Or that the said chiefs thought they were in partnership with one another when they had jointly killed some 30 percent of the Maori population in the 35 years since they first got muskets?

The Labour Caucus seem to uniformly agree that these new policies are mandated by the Treaty, yet the government will not publish the Crown Law advice they claim says this. When one considers Nania Mahuta’s duplicitous behaviour in trying to entrench the Three Waters legislation and the breaching of democratic processes in forming the legislation (tens of thousands denied a voice in select committee hearings), then the picture becomes very sinister.

We are also told that in a generic sense “co-governance” does not have to be interpreted as a threat. But with the particulars of the actual new legislation there is such a threat that even the Chief Justice has felt compelled to speak out about the need for more careful drafting and has indicated the certainty of strife to come with overwhelming burdens for the courts in trying to determine what the laws mean. As in “Alice in Wonderland” , via the Te Mana o te Wai statements, they appear to mean whatever the Maori hierarchy choose them to mean at different times and in different circumstances.

The laws and regulations are now increasingly in a mixture of Te Reo and English with no formal definitions of many words. Moreover, in a supposedly secular country, they require cognisance of Maori spirituality! The requirement to observe Tikanga is a recipe for endless confusion because it is not defined for even one iwi and there are about 150 of them.

There are now 25 MPs (20 percent) of MPs who identify as Maori. This is above the 16 percent of the populace who identify as Maori. That should be co-governance enough. But only if all elected members believe in a democratic future - which clearly the majority, if not all, of the Labour caucus do not. Labour’s racist and tribal co-governance model must be ended in favour of the Treaty obligation to provide one law for all.

For more specific detail and what needs to be done get my free book at book3circ.pdf

Friday, June 23, 2023

Red rags and bulls: what happened when a leftist VUW academic came to Masterton

I saw both sides of the culture wars last night, and it wasn’t pretty. Both were repugnant and both were inimical, albeit in different ways, to the free, open and civil exchange of ideas and opinions.

The occasion was the monthly meeting of the Masterton branch of the NZ Institute of International Affairs. This is typically a sedate event involving a guest speaker, often from academia. The attendees are predominantly older people – retired public servants and the like – with an interest in (as the organisation’s name suggests) foreign affairs, New Zealand’s relationship with the wider world and politics in general.

Last night’s meeting turned out to be anything but decorous. The guest speaker was Dr Michael Daubs, a senior lecturer in media and communication at Victoria University of Wellington. (The job title might give you a clue about what’s to follow.) His address was titled The Truth About Disinformation. It was a red rag in a room that turned out to include quite a few bulls.

Advance publicity for the event quoted Daubs as saying that the anti-lockdown protests of 2022, climate change denialism and international conspiracy theories were examples of disinformation that could generate discord, create distrust in government and undermine social cohesion. He promised to discuss underlying factors such as misogyny, racism, hyper-nationalism and anti-intellectualism.

These are highly contentious issues, as the evening was to show. The tone was set when the MC read an abusive email sent by someone who had apparently seen publicity for the meeting in the local community paper. Other dissenters (Hillary Clinton might have called them deplorables) had obviously been alerted too. There was a big turnout – I estimated about 60-70 people – and among them were people not normally seen at NZIIA meetings.

Nonetheless the event proceeded relatively smoothly. At the start there was an aggressive interjection from the back of the room from a man demanding to know what Daubs got his doctorate in (it was media studies). Later another man shouted “who’s paying you?” before noisily exiting the room. (“I got a free dinner,” Daubs answered.) Otherwise the audience was relatively quiet and attentive, although restive murmurs from time to time suggested not everyone was in blissful accord with what Daubs was saying.

It was only at the end that the event went pear-shaped. As he reached the end of his talk, Daubs was drowned out by angry interjections from the floor. The MC briefly restored order and asked for questions, quite reasonably requesting that they be put politely.

Faint chance. An elderly man put his hand up and was duly handed the microphone, but without saying a word he passed it to anti-vax agitator and Three Waters campaigner John Ansell, who was sitting close by. Ansell had had his hand up too, but the MC ignored him in favour of someone he presumably thought less likely to cause trouble. The handover of the mike was the equivalent of a dummy pass, clearly planned in advance and slickly executed.

Ansell wasn’t interested in asking questions. On taking the mike, he got to his feet and launched into what can only be described as a rant – a word greatly devalued by overuse, but applicable in this case. I couldn’t tell you exactly what he was saying because he was drowned out when the room erupted in a noisy shouting match, Ansell’s supporters competing with those who had come to hear Daubs and resented the disruption.

Ansell proceeded to stride around the room, shouting into the mike but remaining mostly inaudible due to the hubbub around him. As an elderly stalwart of the NZIIA tried ineffectually to escort him off the premises, up on the rostrum one of Ansell’s allies – I think the same guy who handed him the mike – was jabbing an accusing finger in Daubs’ face and shouting that he was a communist.

All the while, the commotion continued. At one point I heard the MC announce, somewhat superfluously, that the meeting was ended, while around him the shouting match raged unabated. It would be fair to say the Masterton branch of the impeccably proper and dignified NZIIA had never experienced anything quite like it. Neither had the venue, a Masterton funeral parlour.  It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so dispiriting.

Eventually things quietened down, order was restored and the antagonists departed, leaving NZIIA regulars to marvel at what they had just observed.

Let’s turn now to what Daubs actually said.

I thought his talk was both laughable and contemptible. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid example of the leftist elite’s contempt for any opinions other than its own and its determination to demonise the expression of legitimate dissent.

Daubs, who is American (yes, another imported propagandist in a tertiary education sector that’s infested with them), used last year’s anti-lockdown protests as evidence that sinister players are using the Internet to spread disinformation that threatens to undermine social cohesion.

He showed a series of slides illustrating what he clearly regarded as dangerous beliefs underpinning the protests. Yes, some of them were eccentric, cranky and probably wrong. But New Zealand is – or was, last time I looked – a free society. People are allowed to express cranky ideas provided they don’t harm anyone. It’s called freedom of expression.

In a free society, you’re allowed to get things wrong. In a free society, people can assess ideas for themselves and decide which ones make sense and which don’t. But that freedom is exactly what alarms the woke elite. Freedom to make up your own mind is dangerous. The far-Left elite, of which Daubs is an exemplar, don’t trust people to make their own decisions. They claim a monopoly on “factually correct information” and would prefer that the proles take their cue from the academic priesthood.

Anyway, how sinister were the lockdown protests, really? Daubs showed a photo of a banner on a motorway overbridge that read “NZ media shameful”. He showed us messages circulated within the protest camp advertising yoga, massage and Hare Krishna food.

He displayed these images as if they represented compelling evidence of dark, anti-social forces at work. Really? So yoga, massage, vegetarian food and people complaining about media bias are evidence of far-Right agitprop? That was the laughable bit.

Daubs went on to accuse protesters of using “emotional language” in a media statement – clearly an unconscionable act of defiance against those in authority. And what did the press statement say? That the protesters were the victims of an oppressive government. It was routine and unexceptionable, using similar language to thousands of other press statements down through the years.

Another slide showed a message from protest organisers urging the freedom campers outside Parliament to avoid violence, respect the law, stay sober, respect people and “be sensible”. This seemed to defeat Daubs’ own argument that the protest was the work of far-Right extremists intent on stirring up trouble. It made me wonder just who the real conspiracy theorists are. Is it the far-Right, or are the real conspiracy theorists people like Daubs and the shadowy Disinformation Project, which feverishly promotes moral panic over phantasms of its own creation?

If the latter is true, what’s their objective? Is it ultimately to stifle ideas and ideologies that they disapprove of?

Just as laughably, Daubs singled out another post on social media which he said had the potential to undermine confidence in the government. Gasp! Never mind that protest movements since time immemorial have had the object of making people question what their leaders were doing. Since when did Left-wing academics take it upon themselves to defend governments against legitimate protest activity? It’s a striking example of how radically the ideological ground has shifted since the advent of wokedom.

The tone of Daubs’ talk – and this is the bit I found contemptible – was smug, pompous, bigoted and condescending. We were invited to mock anti-5G protesters wearing aluminium foil hats (as I say, cranky but harmless) and misspellings ("awesum") by anti-Covid activists on social media. The implication was that the dull-witted, gullible and uneducated classes were at risk of falling for neo-Nazi and Far Right conspiracies and it was the job of people like him to save them from themselves.

He talked about “the truth” and “false stories”. He used these terms as if their meaning is settled. But who defines what’s true and what’s false? Why, people like Daubs, of course.

Under the pretence of protecting us, he and others of his ilk want to control what we can say, and by extension what we think. The purpose is to extinguish all and any opinion that stands in the way of their radical, transformational agenda.

Daubs engages in alarmism about neo-Nazis and far-Right extremists, but perhaps the most striking thing about his talk was the implicit endorsement of a totalitarian society in which no one can say anything that’s even mildly inconvenient for those in power.  It’s interesting to speculate on how different his talk might have been had a centre-Right government, rather than a left-wing one, been in power during the Covid lockdown.

He outlined a number of possible strategies for countering conspiracy theories but stopped short of advocating any specific action. Nonetheless, a logical inference was that he thinks the state should have the power to suppress the expression of ideas that the ruling elite regards as dangerous. That points to oppressive hate speech laws, which are officially off the table for now but would very likely be revived if a Labour-Greens-Maori Party government comes to power in October.

I had some questions to put to Daubs. Unfortunately, by hijacking the event, John Ansell prevented me from doing so. I’ve had a bit to do with John over the years. He’s a very clever, witty man, but he needs to control his rage. Shouting your opponents down is unlikely to win over the non-aligned; it just gets people’s backs up. That’s why I say that I saw the worst extremes of the culture wars last night. John and Daubs should be locked in a small room together.

Had I been able to, however, I would have asked Daubs the following:

■ He and the Disinformation Project (which consistently refuses to reveal who funds it) operate from the premise that there is a threat to society from the far-Right. But isn’t it possible that a researcher could approach the subject from the exact opposite direction – in other words, from the starting point that dangerous ideas are being disseminated by the far Left – and argue their case just as persuasively? To put it another way, aren’t the disinformation researchers’ conclusions predetermined by their starting premise? (My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the far greater threat comes from the far Left because it’s embedded in all the institutions of power, including academia and the media. The so-called far-Right, on the other hand, is marginalised and relatively insignificant.)

■ Daubs talks about disinformation undermining social cohesion, but isn’t the Disinformation Project and its supporters – Daubs included – guilty of exactly the same thing? Aren’t they promoting polarisation and fragmentation by constantly turning up the heat in the culture wars? In other words, isn’t Daubs part of the problem he purports to deplore? (My argument would be that most New Zealanders are not attracted to extreme points of view. They would be largely oblivious to extremist ideologies if outfits like the Disinformation Project didn’t keep hyping them up. By amplifying the supposed threat from the so-called alt-Right, the Disinformation Project perversely gives it more oxygen. To put it another way, they’re all swimming in the same toxic pool. The commotion that followed Daubs' talk neatly illustrated my point: extremists on both sides rarking each other up.)

Finally, I would have asked Daubs how he reconciles his condemnation of the riot outside Parliament with his rapturous endorsement of the mob violence that forced Posie Parker to abandon her speaking engagement in Auckland three months ago.

On Sunday, March 25, the day Speak Up for Women announced they’d cancelled a Wellington event that Posie Parker was going to address because of what had happened to her in Auckland the day before, Daubs triumphantly tweeted: “Well, my Sunday afternoon just opened up. Well done, Tamaki friends!”

I would have been interested in hearing what made mob violence OK and even laudable when it was used against an anti-trans activist, but not when it involved anti-vax protesters at Parliament.  Or is Daubs, as I suspect, just another rank and shallow hypocrite who switches his position to suit his ideological prejudices?

Footnote: The flyer for the NZIIA meeting described Daubs as a senior lecturer in media communications at VUW, but he appears to have moved on. According to his LinkedIn profile, he's now a senior policy adviser at InternetNZ. 


Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Setting the record straight

Cameron Slater’s BFD website sends out a daily roundup of political news and comment called Ten @ Ten. It includes some excellent material from a diverse range of sources, local and international.

Sometimes it draws attention to things that I’ve written. I take it as a compliment that Cameron uses my stuff and I’m grateful to him for taking it to a wider audience.

However, over the past couple of days a strange thing has happened. Ten @ Ten has linked to two of my blog posts, but on both occasions inserted a wordy preamble that purported to summarise what I was saying.

The first time this happened, which was yesterday, Ten @ Ten attributed to me a whole lot of things I hadn’t said, some of which I don’t agree with.

When I challenged Cameron, he explained that he was using something called Smart Brevity to produce summaries of the content he was linking to. He said he was experimenting with AI.

I have no idea what Smart Brevity is, but can state with total confidence on the basis of what I’ve seen this week that it’s an utter crock.

Despite me expressing my reservations to Cameron yesterday, Ten @ Ten today provided another “summary”, presumably generated by AI, of something I had written. It was a total fabrication, as anyone who clicked on the link to my blog would have realised.

Worse, it seriously misrepresented what I think and aligned me with people whose opinions I heartily disagree with on issues such as media regulation and increased public funding for broadcasting.

Cameron has apologised and explained that he was distracted, which I accept. I don’t believe for a moment that there was any intention to mislead or deceive. However I feel it necessary to set the record straight here for the benefit of anyone scratching their head over Ten @ Ten’s bizarrely inaccurate “summaries” of my views and wondering whether I’ve taken leave of my senses.

I suspect Cameron is one of those people who’s fascinated by digital technology and likes exploring its potential. I, on the other hand, am deeply suspicious of it – a suspicion reinforced by what’s happened over the past two days. Cameron is free to play around with AI to his heart’s content, just as long as I’m not part of his experiment.


Monday, June 19, 2023

On hatchet jobs and offence archaeology

I read something by Andrea Vance at the weekend. Why? Good question. I think I read Vance to assure myself that I’m not missing anything by not reading her. Figure that out if you can.

Actually, that’s not entirely fair, because she has done some good work. I remember a column of hers from 2021 in which she gave the government a robust and deserved serve for being obsessively secretive.

Regrettably her piece yesterday, which purported to be an analysis of electorates to watch in the 2023 general election, was marred by the familiar Stuff slant. This is now so embedded that you barely notice it.  

Referring to the Maungakiekie seat, Vance wrote that Labour candidate Priyanca Radhakrishnan had name recognition as a minister (oh yes, everyone’s heard of her), while National’s Greg Fleming had “attracted headlines for only the wrong reasons”.

To see what those reasons were, we had to go to another Vance story from April in which she recited a list of National contenders who had made dicks of themselves.

Her chief target then was Taieri candidate Stephen Jack, who revealed himself as an unreconstructed 1970s Neanderthal when he posted a video on Facebook that included the line, “I like my Covid like I like my women – 19 and easy to spread”. Even an after-dinner speaker at a rugby club prizegiving would baulk at that.

Vance then listed others who had similarly distinguished themselves, including Sam Uffindell, Jami-Lee Ross, Andrew Falloon, Hamish Walker and Jake Bezzant.

Fair enough: National does have a serious problem with candidate selection. I was reminded of that when I saw Uffindell standing behind Luxon at a policy announcement on the TV news a few nights ago. Uffindell seems such an unappealing candidate that if I were a National strategist, I’d go to inordinate lengths – possibly even drugging his drink or breaking his legs – to keep him out of the public view. That permanently blank face makes me wonder whether he even has a pulse. He’s a reminder of all that’s wrong with National’s random idiot generator, to use Vance’s witty phrase (credit where credit’s due). But how did Fleming make the list of shame?

For that we had to go back nearly 20 years to when he was chief executive of the Maxim Institute. Yes, you read that correctly: 20 years.

There’s a term for this tactic; it’s called offence archaeology. It involves trawling back through printed and online records – even going back decades, as in this case – in the hope of digging up a statement or event that might be used to smear a political enemy. It’s a tactic that's used almost exclusively against the Right, as on this occasion.

Vance’s story linked to a recent hatchet job on Fleming by Newshub’s Jenna Lynch – yes, that paragon of journalistic excellence – which recalled that while with the Maxim Institute in 2004, he issued a statement opposing the Civil Unions Bill. In it, he said civil unions were same-sex marriage in all but name and suggested the government might as well go the whole hog and formally recognise relations based on polygamy and incest.

Characteristically, Newshub presented the story in the most prejudicial manner possible, using the headline: National candidate Greg Fleming compared civil unions to polygamy and incest – thus neatly ignoring that his statement plainly wasn't meant to be taken literally. Lesson: never give the woke media an excuse to present a flippant or ironic statement as if it were intended seriously. If they can twist it to make you look bad, be sure they will. 

This was hardly surprising, of course, given Lynch's record. But then, like the other half in a tag wrestling team, Vance took up the attack. 

Vance clearly regarded Fleming’s 2004 press release as being on a par, in terms of offensiveness, with sending a pornographic image to a teenager (Falloon), assaulting a boy with a bed-leg (Uffindell) or having sex with staff members (Ross).

She called Fleming’s statement homophobic, a routinely overused word that means hatred or fear of homosexuals. But to oppose civil unions didn’t imply hatred of gays and lesbians. It was a rational and predictable response from a moral conservative to a Bill that profoundly changed the legal status of same-sex relationships, which many Christians regarded as wrong.

Oh, but I forgot: you’re no longer allowed to be a moral conservative, and to be Christian is even riskier. Christians are equated with sexual abuse, patriarchy and fundamentalism; think Gloriavale.

So Fleming’s statement on behalf of a legitimate conservative lobby group is disinterred nearly 20 years later and now results in him being equated with sleazebags and morons like Ross and Jack.

Sorry, make that ultra-conservative lobby group, which is how Vance described both Fleming and the Maxim Institute. I suspect that in the eyes of some press gallery journalists, pretty much anyone to the right of Luxon is ultra-conservative and therefore beyond the pale.

Funny how we never hear the term ultra-Left; presumably, only conservative people are capable of taking scary, extreme positions. (Wellington city councillor Tamatha Paul, who’s standing for the Greens in Wellington Central, got a mention in Vance’s story, but there was nothing to indicate that many Wellingtonians view her as a dangerous zealot. She’s on the right side, after all.)

Perhaps the saddest part about all this is that Fleming has responded exactly as we have come to expect from spineless National politicians when they find themselves in the gun from scalp-hunting journalists. He has given his tormentors the satisfaction of resiling from his statement in 2004 and assuring them he would never say the same thing now.  He’s taking his cue, of course, from his leader, who seems desperate to reassure the media that he won’t interfere with the right to kill unborn babies, regardless of what he might have thought about abortion when he entered Parliament.

It’s worth noting here that not content with impugning Fleming’s credentials, Vance also used her story about potential swing seats to take a snide swipe at former long-serving Nelson MP Nick Smith. “National insiders used to talk about ‘the Nick Smith Effect’ whereby locals stubbornly continue to vote for an incumbent for reasons that seem unfathomable to outsiders,” she sighed exasperatedly.

Those pathetic, benighted voters in Nelson! How could they be so stupid? Why didn’t they ask Vance for her advice about who to vote for? How could the locals possibly know what’s best for them?

She conveniently didn’t mention that the people of Nelson liked Smith enough to elect him as mayor last year with a stonking majority of more than 9000 votes. Here, writ large, is the lethal combination of intellectual arrogance, bigotry and elitism that continues to eat away at the credibility of political journalism.


Friday, June 16, 2023

What's wrong with NZ journalism: No. 227 in a series

Christopher Luxon suggests New Zealand needs more babies, and a hysterical TVNZ reporter – possibly fresh from binge-watching The Handmaid’s Tale – draws a parallel with Nazi eugenics.

National announces that it will reintroduce prescription fees, and it’s immediately interpreted as an attack on women and linked with Luxon’s personal position on abortion.

A microphone picks up a comment from Luxon about New Zealand being wet, whiny and inward-looking, and it becomes the political furore-du-jour.

A journalist discovers that the National leader arranged for the use of a taxpayer-funded Tesla, which he’s entitled to do, and he’s attacked as a hypocrite because his party opposed government subsidies for buyers of e-cars.

See what’s going on here? They’re all variants of “Gotcha!” journalism, the purpose of which is to make the target look bad, stupid or both. The odd thing is that the person in the media cross-hairs is invariably the National leader, just as it was under the hapless Judith Collins.

It should go without saying that all politicians are fair game. Having put themselves forward for office and persuaded us to vote for them (or at least for their party, since under MMP most politicians are not directly answerable to the electors), they invite our critical scrutiny. Exposing chicanery, inconsistency and double-talk in politics is a legitimate – indeed, essential – journalistic function. No party should be spared.

And it’s not as if Luxon and National are alone in feeling the heat. Labour too has been under pressure for all sorts of reasons: cabinet ministers failing to sort out obvious conflicts of interest or correct misstatements to the House, another abandoning ship, the health and education sectors in turmoil, crime rampant, living costs out of control, the economy in recession, farmers in rebellious mood … .

The media have publicised these issues, as they must if they expect to hold onto their steadily diminishing public respect and trust. Labour is the party in power, after all, and its actions and policies affect everyone. These are real issues that have an impact on the country’s wellbeing, not only now but far into the future.

For that reason, government is where media scrutiny should be most intense. National, by comparison, can only present itself as a government-in-waiting, a role in which its statements have no real bearing on people’s lives, at least for now.

That’s not to say National’s feet shouldn’t be held to the fire if its policies and promises don’t stack up. Yet something seems seriously out of whack in the way political reporters repeatedly attempt to stir up controversy over National Party flubs and gaffes that are essentially inconsequential. Artificially confected issues are taking priority over real ones to the point where you could be excused for wondering whether the media regard it as their duty to divert attention from the government’s failings.

Certainly, I don’t see Chris Hipkins or Grant Robertson being subjected to the same aggressive examination as Luxon, other than by Mike Hosking in his Tuesday morning interviews with the PM. The “Gotcha!” game seems to be played almost exclusively at the expense of right-of-centre politicians.

However I can confirm that it’s having an effect, if not the intended one. It’s made me feel some sympathy for Luxon when previously I regarded him and many of his shadow cabinet ministers with disdain.

Let’s take the above examples one by one.

Answering questions about immigration settings at a public meeting in Christchurch, Luxon said: “Immigration's always got to be linked to our economic agenda and our economic agenda says we need people.

“I mean, here's the deal: essentially New Zealand stopped replacing itself in 2016.

“I encourage all of you to go out there, have more babies if you wish, that would be helpful.”

Cue splenetic fury from media who bizarrely saw it as pointing to a scenario in which women are made to stay home and breed. Margaret Atwood (author of The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian story in which a patriarchal regime forces women to produce children) has a lot to answer for.

Cushla Norman of TVNZ appeared to lapse into a momentary state of delirium when she asked National’s deputy leader Nicola Willis whether Luxon was aware of Lebensborn, Nazi Germany’s policy of creating racially pure Aryans. The only possible excuse for Norman’s question, which was grossly offensive if intended seriously, was that she was briefly unhinged by outrage.

Luxon subsequently tried to pass off his comment as tongue-in-cheek, but he needn’t have. It’s a fact that the birth rate has fallen to below replacement level, meaning that if present trends continue New Zealand may not have enough workers to support an ageing population – a serious problem now afflicting Japan.

Increased immigration is one way around the problem; increasing the birth rate is another. Luxon was entitled to raise it as an issue that we should start thinking about. But the media, fixated as they are with gender politics, immediately saw it as a threat to women’s autonomy – ignoring the fact that Luxon raised it merely as a possibility, and in any case couldn’t make it happen even if he wanted to.

He and Willis then erred by trying to explain the comment away as a joke, which was one step short of apologising. By doing so they risked creating the impression that the outcry over Luxon’s comment, irrational though it was, might have been valid.

Luxon and Willis need to understand that trying to ingratiate themselves with aggressive, sanctimonious journalists gets them nowhere. They would earn more public respect if they learned to stand up for themselves in the face of fatuous media hectoring.

■ The reaction to National’s prescription fees policy was similarly infected by identity politics fever. The promise to reverse Labour’s axing of fees will affect all prescriptions, but was widely framed in the media as an attack on women’s access to contraception.

Newshub headlined its story Election 2023: National to make women pay fee for contraception prescription if elected. The first line of Amelia Wade’s story read “The National Party says it will reintroduce the fee for contraception prescriptions if it wins the election”, thus creating the impression – I suspect deliberately – that National had specifically targeted contraception.

In fact Newshub could just as legitimately have angled its story on the policy’s impact on injured rugby players having to pay for anti-inflammatories or people needing cold and flu remedies, because they’ll be affected too. By presenting the policy as anti-women, Newshub turned the announcement into a scare story about the danger for women of voting National.

Luxon probably didn’t realise it at the time, but he became a marked man when, in 2021, he said he was pro-life and regarded abortion as tantamount to murder. It’s a moral position he was entitled to take, but it meant that every statement he makes about women’s issues is bound to be skewed by reporters who view opposition to abortion as tantamount to misogyny.

■ That brings us to the “wet and whiny” episode, when a 1News microphone caught Luxon making apparently disparaging remarks about New Zealanders.

Fair cop, you might say – except that it was another “Gotcha!” moment which, in the context of the other recent “Gotcha!” moments, looked suspiciously like part of a media gang-up.

Remember, again, that National is not in power. Luxon’s careless off-the-cuff comments don’t have any real consequences. Yet the media seem obsessed with catching him out, just as they were with Judith Collins during her ill-fated and inept spell as National leader.

Even Luxon’s explanation – that he wasn’t talking about New Zealanders so much as the demoralising effects of the Labour government (although he didn’t make that as clear as he might have) – was spun in a way that made it look feeble and unconvincing.

Here’s a suggestion for the National leader: don’t back-pedal and don’t look like you’re constantly apologising and retreating. Own what you say.

Luxon could have turned the “wet and whiny” controversy to his advantage by doubling down and lamenting the country’s low morale under Labour. The media would have lashed themselves into a frenzy, but many voters would have nodded their heads in agreement. At the very least, they might have respected Luxon for being up-front. A bit of bluntness would be refreshing. As it is, he too often seems cowed in the face of media attacks and ends up resorting to bland, hollow corporate-speak.

■ And so to the non-issue of the taxpayer-funded Tesla, which Luxon reportedly asked for – as he was entitled to do as Opposition leader – before changing his mind. NZ Herald deputy political editor Thomas Coughlan, who broke the story, framed it as hypocrisy, given that National had slammed Labour’s policy of subsidising wealthy Tesla buyers through the clean-car discount.

This is what’s known as false equivalence. There is no contradiction between Luxon asking to use a government-provided Tesla while also objecting to taxpayers’ money being spent to help the Remuera and Thorndon elites acquire them on the cheap. After all, the Opposition leader is entitled to a state-funded, “self-drive” (as opposed to chauffeur-driven) car, and it makes no difference whether it’s a Tesla, a Ford or whatever. Taxpayers would pick up the tab regardless. Even Herald political editor Clare Trevett acknowledged on RNZ this morning that the car is a legitimate perk of office.

Coughlan reported, incidentally, that “horrified staff” talked Luxon out of getting a Tesla, indicating that his advisers were intimidated by the possibility of adverse media coverage. There’s part of the problem, right there; I suspect he’s poorly served by excessively risk-averse minders. 

Footnote: “Gotcha!” journalism isn’t confined to national politics. There was another egregious example last week – again in the Herald – when Wellington city councillor Nicola Young was falsely and absurdly accused of racism.

During a council discussion about a proposed Chinese garden on the Wellington waterfront, Young referred to it as the “Uyghurs’ Park”. It was obvious, from the way she immediately corrected herself, that it was tongue-in-cheek, but you had to wade two-thirds of the way through reporter Melissa Nightingale’s overwrought story to see what Young was getting at.

She was alluding to the source of funding for the garden, which is reportedly coming from Wellington’s sister cities in inland China rather than the local Chinese community, as originally proposed. But former Green Party councillor David Lee, who is Chinese, emailed councillors challenging them to “call out” what he called an "offensive soundbite". Somehow Lee managed to interpret Young’s words as showing “total contempt for the Chinese community”. Really?

Predictably, Young’s fellow councillor Tamatha Paul – never slow to stir the identity politics pot – and race relations commissioner Meng Foon joined with gusto in condemning Young, although neither took the trouble to explain just how her comment could be construed as racist. Certainly, many Herald readers would have been left scratching their heads.

I know Young and suspect her main failing, an inexcusable one, is that she’s a conservative on a council still dominated – in terms of noise, if not numbers – by far-Left activists. The attack on her bore all the hallmarks of a political hit job in which the Herald and its reporter obligingly colluded.

In the meantime, Wellington continues to slide ever deeper into a hole. Retailers are abandoning the CBD because crime and antisocial behaviour have become intolerable. Last year, the city recorded the largest fall in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s rankings of the world’s most liveable cities – from fourth to 50th. But the capital’s benighted and betrayed citizens can rest assured that councillors like Paul are tirelessly championing their best interests.

Wellington is dying, and even its woke-friendly daily paper The Post – whose precursor titles celebrated the city as “Absolutely Positively Wellington” and the “coolest little capital” – can't ignore the evidence of its terminal condition.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

In memory of H Westfold

Wellington readers of this blog may recognise the name H Westfold. Hector, to give him his full name, was a well-known writer of letters; or to be more specific, letters to the papers.

He died in Wellington Hospital on June 3, aged 87, and was buried last Saturday at Makara Cemetery.

I first met Hector in the 1990s. I was then assistant editor of the Evening Post and my duties included editing letters to the editor, a well-read section of the paper that sometimes ran over two broadsheet pages.

I can’t recall whether it was my idea or that of Sue Carty, the editor, but we thought it would be interesting to put on an afternoon tea for a select handful of people whose letters we regularly published and whose names were therefore familiar to readers. It was partly a gesture of thanks for their contribution to the paper but I admit we were curious – or at least I was – to meet them face to face.

They were, as might be imagined, a varied and idiosyncratic lot. Most were emphatically of a leftist disposition, although Hector Westfold was positioned firmly at the other end of the political spectrum. Unsurprisingly, most were men; older men. A notable exception was the engaging Shirley Smith, widow of Dr Bill Sutch.

My memory is unreliable but I recall that the other guests included Don Borrie, Jack Ruben, Bryan Pepperell, R O (Rene) Hare, A P (Arthur) Quinn. Tom Shanahan and Brian Connolly may have been there too. 

Don Borrie was a motorbike- riding Anglican vicar from Titahi Bay who chaired the North Korean Friendship Society; the crusading right-wing weekly NZ Truth would have called him (and very likely did) a red reverend. Jack Ruben and Bryan Pepperell were trenchant critics of the Wellington City Council, both of whom (possibly goaded into action by an editorial that I wrote criticising them as armchair critics) successfully stood for the council themselves. Rene Hare and Arthur Quinn, diehard socialists from the Hutt, were leading lights in the Waiwhetu Peace Group and staunchly anti-American. Tom Shanahan, a retired trombonist for the NZSO, was a man with a strong moral conscience. Brian Connolly's pet subject, if my memory serves me correctly, was the right of appeal to the Privy Council.

All were intelligent, intellectually active people with firm opinions and the ability to write a pithy letter, which is why they so frequently made it into print. All, sadly, are now dead, including Jack Ruben, whose death notice appeared only a couple of weeks ago.

It would be fair to say it wasn’t a riotous afternoon tea. I suspect most of the attendees were themselves there out of curiosity and they circled each other warily. Letter-writing is a solitary activity, so it should have been no surprise that they were not (Shirley Smith aside) a very gregarious lot.

Anyway, that was when I first met Hector Westfold. In fact it was the only time we met face to face. I probably wouldn’t have recognised him if I’d passed him in the street, yet I knew him well. I wouldn’t say we were friends, but he phoned me often over a period of more than 25 years and often wrote me long letters.

I don’t feel uniquely privileged by this, because he did the same to other people. Hector was a bachelor who lived alone in a Wellington City Council flat. In our many conversations I never got the impression he was lonely, but I think he did value human contact.

Plenty of people knew of him by name only. It would be fair to say that Hector became a Wellington identity on the strength of his inflammatory letters. That was confirmed when a co-worker of my wife, on being told last week that we were going to the funeral of a man named Hector, gasped: “Not Hector Westfold!” It turned out that she and a friend had once been so enraged by something Hector wrote to a paper that they jointly wrote an angry letter in response.

Hector would have been delighted. He loved to rark up those he regarded as his ideological enemies.

He was not an easy man to like. Hector was deliberately, gratuitously provocative in his opinions and wilfully at odds with a world that he considered unholy and decadent. Curmudgeon is the word that comes to mind. He stubbornly adhered to old-fashioned values and standards, to the point of reprimanding any younger person with the impertinence to address him by his first name. It was Mister Westfold.

His letters – both the private ones and those that he submitted to newspapers – revealed recurring themes. He was a staunch monarchist and a strict traditionalist who despised liberalism in all its manifestations. He was fiercely intolerant of feminism and strident in his denunciation of lesbians, or “dykes” as he insisted on calling them (assuming, I suspect mistakenly, that the term would cause maximum offence). It would have been easy to dismiss him as a textbook misogynist, yet there were some women he spoke of respectfully and admiringly.

He reserved an especially intense detestation for Catholicism, which he saw as corrupt and Satanical. He rarely sent me a letter that didn’t include derisive references to papists and popery. He did this knowing I had been raised a Catholic and obviously intending to taunt me. It didn’t matter how many times I told him I had renounced religion; the jibes about popery kept coming. Hector couldn’t help himself.

He could be unpleasant. More than once I hung up on him or binned his letters – always hand-written and running to several pages – in disgust.

How his entrenched attitudes took root was never clear. The youngest of seven kids, Hector grew up in Taranaki; I can’t recall whether it was Stratford or Inglewood. He talked little about his childhood, though he was proud of his origins and used the email moniker “taranakiboy”. As far as I know, he spent most of his adult life in Wellington, where he worked for what was then called the Consumers Institute (now Consumer NZ).

He was a devout Christian and a regular worshipper at the Reformed Church in Brooklyn, whose congregation adopted him and gave him a warm and musically rousing farewell. How Hector reconciled his Christian beliefs with his often offensive denunciations of people he disapproved of was never clear to me.

I certainly don’t think for a moment that his fellow worshippers shared his extreme views. They simply accepted him as an imperfect human being. In a kind and thoughtful eulogy, a senior member of the congregation acknowledged that Hector “sometimes went too far”. That was putting it as gently as anyone could.

He was an intelligent and educated man, but not always well informed. His sources of information were often narrow, the more so as he got older and withdrew from engagement with the wider world.

In the end, he made it easy for papers to reject his letters. They were obviously judged too excoriating by editors whose commitment to freedom of expression seems insufficiently robust to withstand the incursions of cancel culture.

Hector regarded non-publication as a vindication of his belief that the world had changed for the worse, and I couldn’t entirely disagree. His fault was that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tone down his unfashionable opinions to render them acceptable to a new generation of editors with little tolerance for ideological non-conformists.

Postscript, June 15: After I wrote this obit I stumbled across the following interview with Hector by my former colleague Joseph Romanos. It captured him well.

The Wellingtonian interview: Hector Westfold |

I particularly like the fact that tone of the interview is non-judgmental, which wouldn't happen today. If such an interview was published at all in 2023, which is highly unlikely, it would be done in such a way as to present the subject as a pariah.

Monday, June 12, 2023

RNZ's non-exposé of the year

It’s hard to imagine a more spectacularly pointless exercise than RNZ’s “investigation” of the language used by National leader Christopher Luxon.

Pointless, that is, unless the objective was to discredit Luxon by presenting him as a reciter of repetitive, predictable and boring election-year rhetoric – or worse, as an unscrupulous dog-whistler trying to exploit public anxieties.

In fact, RNZ’s research findings confirm that Luxon is doing what all opposition leaders do and have always done: namely, zeroing in on areas where the government is perceived as vulnerable. Quelle surprise!

RNZ journalists Farah Hancock and Guyon Espiner trawled through 28 hours of interviews from between July 2022 and May 2023. In a report misleadingly headlined What hours of interviews reveal about the obsessions of our political leaders (misleading because it's almost solely concerned with only one party leader), they breathlessly inform us that Luxon used the word “tax” 233 times – about three times as often as Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins over the same period.

Conclusion: Luxon thinks talking about tax might be to National’s advantage while Labour leaders tend to avoid the subject because it’s not in their interests to draw attention to it. Astonishing!

But wait, there’s more. Luxon said “spending” 179 times – nearly five times more than his opponents. He used the word “crisis” 91 times whereas Ardern used it only 11 times as prime minister and Hipkins hasn’t mentioned it at all.  

Luxon also referred to the cost of living 86 times and on 49 occasions described it as a “cost of living crisis”. A key theme, Hancock and Espiner concluded, is “Luxon’s relentless use of words associated with basic economics”. Shame! 

Presumably we're supposed to be surprised - perhaps even shocked - that the leader of the opposition is hammering issues that polls reveal to be uppermost in the minds of voters. 

Hang on – it gets worse. Luxon brought up words like “health”, "hospitals”, “education” and “teacher” far more often than Ardern or Hipkins. Who’d have thought? What gives Luxon the right to emphasise policy areas where he thinks the government’s record is weak? Off with his head!

In another “Eureka!” moment, RNZ’s incisive investigative journalists noted that the National leader was happier talking about farming than Ardern or Hipkins, who used the word only eight times between them (to Luxon's 114). Hancock and Espiner described it as “startling” that the Labour leaders avoided talking about farmers and farming. But startling to whom? Of course Ardern and Hipkins don’t want to talk about farming, and with very good reason. Why risk drawing attention to the fact that farmers, who generate most of this country’s wealth, regard the government as hostile?

RNZ doesn’t explain why it decided to embark on the complicated and unprecedented (its own word) exercise of analysing more than 200 interviews and breaking its findings down into multiple charts likely to be of interest only to political obsessives. More important, neither does it explain why Luxon appears to have been chosen as the focus of the investigation rather than Ardern and Hipkins, who - as the people in power - are the politicians whose actions and statements call for closest critical scrutiny.

Of course RNZ can (and probably will) argue that this was a legitimate journalistic project aimed at analysing political rhetoric in a totally neutral and objective way without seeking to influence how we think about our political leaders.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it’s likely to be seen. Rather, it will be widely perceived as a heavy-handed and unsubtle hit job on Luxon.

That impression is reinforced by the opinions of the “experts” RNZ invited to comment on the findings. Josie Pagani, who has historically been associated with Labour, rather disdainfully dismissed Luxon’s apparent preoccupations as “National’s classic hits”.

Pagani pointed out that Luxon rarely used terms like “inequality” or “working-class”. But someone who has made a career of following politics, as Pagani has, would know that those words are not part of the vocabulary of the National Party. Almost by definition, anyone who uses them is likely to be on the left of politics. No blinding insights there, then.

RNZ also went to media trainer Janet Wilson, who has worked for the National Party but couldn’t, judging by her newspaper columns, be described as a National supporter. She took a swipe at Luxon for using corporate jargon such as “outcomes” and “going forward”. But given that these terms are routinely used by public servants, academics and politicians of all shades, it seemed a carping criticism. Yes, Luxon does speak the bloodless language of the Koru Club, but voters are likely to have noted that for themselves.

Question: was RNZ unable to find a single “expert” who was prepared to point out the obvious – namely, that Luxon is doing what all politicians do, which is highlight opponents’ weaknesses and by so doing, present themselves as offering a better alternative?

Whether intentionally or not, the story was presented in such a way as make Luxon look bad. The implication seemed to be that he was seeking to manipulate public opinion by the repeated use of key phrases (RNZ used the emotive term “carpet-bombing”, which is loaded with negative connotations), as if this was somehow underhand and improper. In fact it’s just politics as normal. They all do it.

Regular readers of this blog will know I'm no admirer of Luxon,  but he's entitled to expect fairer treatment than this, especially from a publicly funded broadcaster. 

On a day when RNZ’s reputation is, by its own admission, damaged by the revelation that stories on the Russian invasion of Ukraine were tampered with, apparently by a rogue employee, the Hancock-Espiner project was an additional hit to its credibility that was entirely self-inflicted. If there were an award for Non-Exposé of the Year, RNZ would have it in the bag.




Friday, June 9, 2023

Three thoughts for today

■ If Michael Wood deliberately sat on his shareholding in Auckland Airport despite knowing it represented a flagrant conflict of interest, he was guilty of ministerial impropriety bordering on corruption.

If, on the other hand, he simply didn’t get around to selling his shares despite being constantly reminded that he should, presumably because he was preoccupied with other things, he was guilty of inexcusable procrastination, rank incompetence and shockingly bad judgment. This should automatically render him unfit for any ministerial portfolio.

So he is either dodgy, hopelessly disorganised, or perhaps both. Either way, the case for Wood’s dismissal is overwhelming. Chris Hipkins is playing for time because he’s running out of cabinet ministers, but Wood’s situation is hopeless. You can hear the Death March playing.

We have been here before. The hazard for Labour governments is that they come to power bursting with zeal and ambition after years of frustration on the opposition benches, then burn out spectacularly when their ability falls woefully short of their aspirations.

It happened in 1975 and it seems to be repeating itself now. A notable exception, as Matthew Hooton reminds us today, was the Clark-Cullen government of 1999-2008, but the Ardern-Hipkins regime has reverted to type. Incompetence and indiscipline are a fatal combination. 

Michael Johnston and James Kierstead have written a piece for the NZ Initiative highlighting the precarious future of universities. They suggest a crucial part of the problem is that universities have abrogated their defining purpose – namely, to serve as incubators of ideas and nurturers of free thought and inquiry. This traditional function becomes impossible, they point out, when academics and students are scared to say what they think.

Johnston and Kierstead know what they’re talking about, having both experienced the chilling effects of the all-pervasive cancel culture that prevails in universities.

Their article also refers to the financial crisis that has forced several universities to consider laying off staff. Perhaps a useful starting point for embattled university administrations would be to focus on academics who use their privileged positions to promote polarising identity politics agendas for which they have no mandate.   

This blog yesterday identified one such figure, Massey University’s Professor Mohan Dutta. A trawl through Dutta’s online activism and his involvement in the activist organisation CARE – or to give it its clumsy full name, the Centre for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation – revealed a web of far-Left connections, much of it appearing to operate under Massey’s aegis. (CARE’s 2023 Activist-in-Residence was indigenous rights advocate Tina Ngata, whose on-campus events at Massey last month bore the clear stamp of approval from the university – in striking contrast to vice-chancellor Jan Thomas’s hysterical 2018 ban on Don Brash.)

Dutta is hardly unique in using his academic status to pursue an ideological agenda. If university administrations wanted to save money and simultaneously regain lost credibility, they could strip back to basics by demanding a more rigorous level of accountability from academic staff and giving notice to those who treat their position as a licence to indoctrinate. Those who don’t comply should be shown the door.

That might have the additional benefit of breaking the repressive ideological stranglehold that Johnston and Kierstead allude to and creating an academic environment in which people again feel able to speak freely.

■ I had an exchange of emails yesterday with a fellow retired journalist who lamented the tendency for reporters to embellish their stories with personal opinion, something that was firmly discouraged in our time.

I offered two possible explanations. One was the adoption of bylines – the practice of putting the reporter’s name on the top of the story, often accompanied by their photograph.

Until the 1970s, bylines were used only sparingly, usually to indicate that the reporter was a “name” or had done an exceptional job. Sports writers often got them, as did some political reporters whose knowledge and expertise were acknowledged.

Now bylines are used automatically, even on the most routine news items. The inevitable consequence is that the reporter’s ego is inflated even if he or she has done only a ho-hum job. From there, it doesn’t take a huge leap for the reporter to think his or her opinion must count for something.

Another possible explanation for the intrusion of comment into what should be “straight” news stories, unembroidered by the reporter’s personal views, is that a high proportion of journalists in the 21st century have university degrees, which was rare a couple of generations ago.

Human nature being what it is, journalists who hold degrees may think themselves wiser than their readers, and therefore empowered to give us the benefit of their insight.

When I began in journalism, there was a prejudice against the hiring of university graduates for exactly that reason; they were suspected of being "above themselves”. It seemed an inverted form of intellectual snobbery, but I now sometimes wonder whether there might have been something in it.

Of course, not having been to university myself, I would say that.