Saturday, July 29, 2023

My response to Professor Mohan Dutta

I see I’m now designated as a voice of the Far Right. That description comes from Massey University professor Mohan Dutta, so carries a spurious air of authority.

I supposed I should be alarmed, but I’m not, for two reasons. One is that academia has so recklessly squandered its credibility that we should pay no more heed to the opinion of a professor of “communication” – least of all an imported zealot from the far Left – than to that of the local barber.

The other is that I’m no longer sure what the Far Right is. The term was once reserved for outfits like the Ku Klux Klan and Britain’s National Front, neither of which was active, still less influential, here.

Far Right groups have never secured a political foothold in phlegmatic New Zealand. That remains true despite feverish scaremongering from conspiracy theorists at the Disinformation Project and their media cheerleaders (RNZ’s Susie Ferguson’s dishonest Undercurrent podcast being the latest example). If conspiracy theories are flourishing and paranoia is rampant, then ironically it’s largely due to the efforts of the people who purport to be protecting us from it.

If the same alarmists are to be believed, the term “far Right” now extends to organisations such as Speak Up for Women (which promotes the supposedly radical view that the definition of woman is “adult human female”), the anti-mandate group Voices for Freedom and the farmers’ lobby Groundswell. None of these organisations could be categorised as extremist. Rather, they could be said to have sprung up in response to extremism. They are legitimate pressure groups whose policies and actions should be seen (and would have been, in less hysterical times) as part of the healthy and normal contest of ideas that sustains a mature, liberal democracy.

In the media, the term “far Right” is used equally loosely. Marginally right-of-centre parties such as National are tolerated (although barely) just as long as they humour the media by pusillanimously falling into line with the latest woke diktats. Any genuine conservative, however, risks being demonised as far Right – the more so if they are foolish enough to identify as Christian.

The international media routinely pin the same label on any government whose “populist” policies offend the neo-Marxist Left, the word “populist” now being treated as synonymous with “far Right”. This poses a credibility problem for the media as more and more European voters turn to parties that reject left-wing policies on hot-button issues such as climate change and immigration. Are we to believe that much of Europe has mysteriously succumbed to an extremist right-wing bacillus, or are those voters simply making an informed and rational choice?

But back to Mohan Dutta (whose attack on me, incidentally, is published under the official imprint of Massey University – the same government institution that cancelled Don Brash).

I don’t dispute Dutta’s entitlement to a right of reply after I took a whack at him. Neither do I dispute his right to call me a member of the far Right, even though the term has been rendered virtually meaningless. But I suspect he’ll have more trouble substantiating his characterisation of me than I will my characterisation of him as a neo-Marxist. In fact I invite him to debate me face-to-face to determine which is the more accurate.

I’ll even give him some helpful tips. One is to make sure of his facts. Dutta says I wrote my “hit piece” for Sean Plunket's The Platform. Wrong. That might be where his bitter and disaffected informant (whom I take to be Ben McKay of Australian Associated Press) saw it, but I don’t write for The Platform. The article was written for my blog, as all my pieces are, and republished with permission. I suspect that in Dutta's fevered imagination, Sean Plunket and I are part of the same far-Right conspiracy. In fact The Platform exists only because of the need for a conservative outlet to counter the overwhelming ideological imbalance in the established media.

Dutta goes on to associate me with an “organised” far-Right attack on the “communications and media studies pedagogy” and links to a series of articles which he seems to think prove his point. But nearly all his reference points are from the US and therefore irrelevant. Citing a Washington Post article by a leftist US academic railing against “the US-Infowars-Bannon-Trump-DeSantis-Tucker-Carlson hate machinery” doesn’t get us anywhere. I recognise these names, but that’s all. What little I know about these people, I dislike. (The exception is Trump, about whom I know a lot – in fact more than I want – and whom I detest.)

Elsewhere, Dutta accuses me of “parroting the US-based white supremacist agenda” – this, after saying in his first line that he had never previously heard of me. That being the case, on what basis does Dutta accuse me of pushing a white supremacist agenda? The claim would be defamatory if anyone took it seriously, but the blog post he objects to made no mention of race. In fact I challenge him to find anything I’ve written, in more than five decades as a journalist and columnist, that could remotely be construed as taking a white supremacist line.

No doubt it suits Dutta to resort lazily to overheated American polemics, to frame my post as part of a global far-Right conspiracy and to accuse me of “replicating American far-Right talking points”. Perhaps it’s the only way he can make sense of it in his conspiracy-obsessed world. He seems confused about which country he’s in. But it would be helpful if he could stick to talking about New Zealand, since that’s where we are.

New Zealand is not the US and for the record, I’m not part of an organised anything. I’m a lone blogger in a provincial town and I own all my own opinions – right or wrong, good or bad, fatuous or inspired. I don’t have the backing of a substantial, taxpayer-funded academic institution and the only political organisation I have any association with is the Free Speech Union, which would defend Dutta’s rights as vigorously as it would mine.

Moreover I’m not on social media and wouldn’t have a clue how to access the supposedly toxic rhetoric spouted by the noisy American extremists Dutta refers to. That’s assuming I’m interested in the first place, which I’m not. Other than the FSU, I have no links with anyone. I’m the original Mr Clean.

Oh, and another thing. Dutta objected to my criticism of his impenetrable writing style, then proceeded to prove my point with passages like this: “The white supremacist hegemony of the far-right sees the organising for justice from the margins as threatening to the status quo. Its conspiracy web therefore communicatively inverts materiality, inverting historic processes of racist marginalisation on their head to portray voices advocating for social justice as the elites occupying power.” He goes on to say that I’m “drawing from misinformation-based discursive frames weaved [sic] by the alt Right”.

Comically, he suggests it’s my job as a journalist to translate this obscurantist crap, to which I say: bullshit. It shouldn’t need translating; the onus is on him to express himself clearly. Clarity of language denotes clarity of thinking, and the reverse – which applies in his case – is equally true.

To be fair, Dutta is occasionally unambiguous. There’s no misunderstanding him when he refers to the culture wars being “a far-right mobilisation of white supremacist cultural nationalism … in continuity with the racist colonial infrastructure of Aotearoa”. It was helpful of him to provide this tiny sample of the toxic ideological gruel presumably served up to gullible communication and media studies students at Massey.

And he did touch on another important point: “Accountability to the taxpayer is one of the key resources in the mobilisation of the far-right. Designating themselves as gatekeepers, as representatives and advocates of the voices of the tax payer, far-right individuals and organisations launch their attacks on academic freedom by claiming that the research and teaching on questions of social justice are a waste of taxpayer money.” Note how Dutta invokes academic freedom while conveniently avoiding the even more fundamental principle of accountability for the spending of public money. He would presumably prefer this to be left to the academics, free from critical outside scrutiny. But insistence on accountability to the taxpayer can hardly be dismissed as a fetish of the extreme Right. It’s a fundamental mechanism without which democratic government ceases to function.

Anyway, I encourage all followers of this blog to read Dutta’s article. Some of it may be incomprehensible, but they’ll decipher enough to decide whether it confirms everything I said in my original post.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

The Family First advertisement you didn't see

Too hot to handle: the Family First ad that six papers refused to publish.

Last Wednesday, Family First launched a campaign of resistance against the pernicious spread of gender identity ideology. The “What is a Woman?” campaign invites people to sign a petition that defines a woman as an adult human female – a proposition so self-evident that the necessity of affirming it would have been considered laughable only a few years ago.

Family First’s campaign was to be kicked off on Wednesday morning with full-page advertisements in six daily papers: The New Zealand Herald, the Bay of Plenty Times, The Post, the Christchurch Press, the Otago Daily Times and the Southland Times. The ads were prepared, submitted and accepted for publication. But then something very peculiar happened.

After receiving chatty emails confirming that the ads were set to run in all six papers, Family First was told at 8.30 on Tuesday night that the ad had been pulled from the New Zealand Herald and the Bay of Plenty Times – both NZME titles – pending “reconsideration”.

The ad had been supplied to NZME on June 27, nearly a month earlier. By refusing to publish it, NZME not only reneged on its earlier acceptance but effectively sabotaged the launch of a carefully prepared campaign by leaving it till the last minute to disclose that the ad been pulled.

That was followed on Wednesday – the day the ad was supposed to appear – by an email from Stuff baldly stating that the ad wouldn’t be published in The Post or The Press either. The reason given was that “the campaign doesn’t align with the values of Stuff due to the sensitive nature of the content”.

The decision was made on Tuesday but Stuff didn’t have the courtesy to notify Family First until after midday on the day the ad was due to appear. Or perhaps it was courage rather than courtesy that Stuff lacked, because advising Family First after the event meant it was too late to argue.

In what was either a nauseating display of phony empathy or an appeal for forgiveness after an appalling act of bad faith, Stuff’s group sales manager signed off the email with the words “Thanks for understanding”. It would have been less insulting to say nothing.

That left the Otago Daily Times, which is nominally independent but on this occasion cravenly decided to play it safe by going with the crowd. The ODT advised Family First – again, on the day the ad was supposed to run – that its chief executive had decided to follow the lead of the two big media companies. “Sorry for the late notice”, the email said. In fact, since it was sent at 6.34 on Wednesday morning, it was no notice at all.

Both NZME and the ODT subsequently offered to run the ad on Friday – an offer understandably declined by Family First because it was too late to coincide with the campaign launch. Apparently nothing more has been heard from Stuff.

To summarise the story so far, New Zealand’s three major newspaper publishers refused an ad that asked the dangerously provocative question “What is a woman?” and invited readers to go to the Family First website, where they could sign a petition urging that the definition of a woman as an adult human female be written into law and public policies. (You can find it here.)

In other words, media organisations colluded in the suppression of a legitimate contribution to debate on a matter of compelling public interest. The rest of the media, meanwhile, obligingly helped to conceal the scandal by ignoring the Family First press statement that exposed it.

Was it a conspiracy, or just a cockup? An email released by Family First indicates the Herald panicked when it heard that the ODT “got grief” for running the ad, although it hadn’t even seen the light of day. According to this account, “Stuff got wind of it and pulled it as well”. The ODT then followed suit so the industry could be seen as presenting a united front. 

All this is alarming enough, but what makes it more disturbing is that the ODT staff member indicated that the pulling of the ad was an editorial decision. If that’s true, then the editors who made the call abrogated their responsibility to enable free and open debate of political issues. 

Newspaper advertising departments might be forgiven for getting cold feet over a possible backlash from the publication of an advertisement – even one as demonstrably inoffensive as the Family First ad – on a controversial issue, but that doesn’t appear to have been the case here. They accepted the ad.

In any case, editorial executives are bound by other imperatives. They may have acted legally, but they have a professional and ethical obligation to allow people the same right of free speech that they assert for themselves every day of their working lives.

That didn’t happen in this instance, and there can be only two possible explanations. One is timidity, which is bad enough. The other is that the ad was cancelled because the media decision-makers didn’t like what it stood for, which is even more reprehensible. Stuff’s weasel words – “the campaign doesn’t align with the values of Stuff” – clearly point to the latter explanation.

Small wonder that an increasing number of New Zealanders feel unable to trust the media, or that conspiracy theories flourish. When a legitimate ad from a legitimate pressure group is blocked at the 11th hour without a valid explanation, people are bound to wonder what else is being censored.


Thursday, July 20, 2023

Who are the real conspiracy theorists, and who represents the real threat to democracy?

Today's Morning Report devoted seven minutes to a promotional plug for a new RNZ podcast called Undercurrent, which promises to expose rampant mis- and disinformation that we are told threatens to contaminate the coming election.

In the news story that introduced the plug, we were informed that Greens co-leader James Shaw was assaulted by a “conspiracy theorist” in 2019.  

That’s interesting. I’d never heard Shaw’s assailant, Paul Harris, described in that way before. RNZ’s own story about Harris’s sentencing said he had wanted to talk to Shaw about the Greens’ stance on abortion – a subject that was evidently on his mind because his wife had just had a miscarriage. That impression was reinforced by his lawyer’s comments in court, and again when Harris interrupted the judge’s sentencing remarks with an interjection about the number of babies being aborted every day.

But it apparently suited RNZ to portray Shaw’s attacker as a conspiracy theorist – a far more sweeping description that implied Harris was influenced by sinister malefactors in social media. That served the purpose of suggesting extremist online platforms were implicated in the assault on Shaw when there was nothing in media coverage to suggest that was the case. 

I suspect RNZ decided to pin the damning label of “conspiracy theorist” on Harris because of his involvement in an unrelated incident connected with the anti-mandate occupation in the grounds of Parliament last year, for which he was convicted of disorderly behaviour. But to conflate his assault on Shaw with online conspiracy theories bordered on dishonesty, which does nothing to encourage confidence in the integrity of the podcast Morning Report was promoting.

The item then neatly segued into an ominous-sounding but unsubstantiated claim from Shaw that his ministerial colleagues are now scared to go out in public for fear of being abused or accosted.

You can see what’s going on here. An assault on a senior politician is attributed to undefined conspiracy theories, for which no evidence is presented. These same nefarious conspiracy theories are then blamed for deterring politicians from going about their business in public – an assertion that we’re expected to believe simply because Shaw said it, although I’ve seen nothing to indicate that it’s true.

The implication is that democracy is imperilled. But wait: Undercurrent will save the day by exposing the shadowy far-Right forces that are manipulating public opinion for their own malignant ends and scaring the hell out of our elected representatives. The podcast is compiled and presented by Susie Ferguson, so we can be assured of its absolute objectivity and dogged pursuit of the truth. In fact we can be doubly confident, since Kate Hannah of the unimpeachably reliable Disinformation Project is involved too. (You can see the two of them stoking each other’s paranoia on the Undercurrent website.)  

Ferguson provided a clue to the ideological tone of the series this morning when she cited the Posie Parker incident in Auckland as an example of supposedly extreme beliefs. It was clear that in Ferguson’s eyes, Parker, whom she described as an anti-trans rights activist, was the problem - not the violent mob that succeeded (with police help) in denying her the right to speak.

The Morning Report item continued with the deliberately muddied voice of someone from an outfit called Fight Against Conspiracy Theories (FACT) Aotearoa revealing some of the offensive content circulating in what Ferguson called the murkier recesses of social media.

That merely tells us there are some seriously disturbed people lurking in cyberspace, which we probably knew already. Anyone who goes hunting for them is bound to find them, just as you might uncover a few unspeakably vile creatures by trawling through a sewage pond.

But knowing these people exist doesn’t tell us how much, if any, traction their views get among the wider public. I’m guessing hardly any at all, since most New Zealanders have more useful and important things to do with their lives than spend their days diving down creepy internet rabbit holes.

In fact it’s likely that by constantly drawing public attention to the supposed threat posed by far-Right platforms such as Telegram, the Disinformation Project is perversely giving them far wider exposure than they might otherwise get and creating the impression that they wield more influence than they do. An own goal, in other words.

In any case, who are the real conspiracy theorists? The label can just as accurately be applied to people like Hannah and her equally tiresome sidekick Sanjana Hattotuwa (who also predictably popped up on Morning Report) as to the people they purport to be protecting us from. They’re all swimming in the same toxic cesspool. The two sides of the disinformation debate feed off each other, ramping up divisive rhetoric that’s alien to most New Zealanders. In the meantime ordinary people just get on with their lives, oblivious to all the shadowy intrigue.

Why we should place our trust in outfits such as the Disinformation Project, which consistently refuses to disclose the source(s) of its funding, or FACT Aotearoa, whose website reveals nothing about the people behind it, isn't clear. (Click on the comically mislabelled “About Us” button on the FACT website and you’ll find not one identifiable individual.)

Why should we believe organisations that are just as shadowy as the people they claim to be guarding us from? If they truly championed the values of an open, democratic society, as they profess to do, they should have nothing to hide.  

Transparency is a core democratic principle. If they genuinely believe in what they’re doing, why can’t they be up-front about who they are and where they get their money? And please spare us the self-serving cant about not wanting to expose themselves to attack by far-Right vigilantes, which was presumably the reason the gutless FACT spokesman had his voice disguised this morning. For all the hysterical fear-mongering, New Zealand is still an open society where people with all shades of political opinion assert their right to free speech every day with no fear of retribution.

Perhaps more to the point, who poses the bigger threat to democracy in New Zealand: outfits like the Disinformation Project and FACT Aotearoa, or the subterranean agitators they claim to be protecting us against?  To answer that question, you have to ask where the real power resides.

The Disinformation Project has the ear of government. Its advice is accepted uncritically in the corridors of power. The mainstream media have similarly been captured. The result is that the authoritarian strictures of the DP go uncontested. It is largely left to Hannah and a coterie of censorious neo-Marxist academics to decide what constitutes “disinformation” – which could be anything that challenges the far-Left consensus of the ruling elite – and therefore supposedly presents a threat to social cohesion.

By way of contrast the extreme far Right, which we are supposed to regard as the real threat, exists in the shadows and on the margins. It wields no power and its existence would probably pass largely unnoticed if it were not, paradoxically, given disproportionate exposure by the anti-conspiracy theory conspiracy theorists (for that’s what they are).


Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Meanwhile, down a blind alley ...

That worked out well, didn’t it?

Just six months ago, Stuff announced the appointment of Caitlin Cherry as editor of what was then The Dominion Post.

Both she and her new employer made rapturous noises. “We’re thrilled to have Caitlin leading our newsroom in the capital,” cooed Stuff’s Joanna Norris at the time. “She is a fierce advocate for the city and as a lifelong Wellingtonian, she is inherently aware of all that is newsworthy in the city and region.”

Not mentioned, unsurprisingly, was that Cherry was taking on the job with no previous experience in newspaper journalism. None.

Cherry, meanwhile, said she was looking forward to “working with the team to ask the big questions, look at the best solutions, and talk to those people who are doing all they can to make life better for the community.”

Now she’s gone – just like that. But you had to read the New Zealand Herald, Stuff’s main competitor, to find out. A leaked internal email ended up in the hands of Shayne Currie, the Herald’s editor-at-large and media columnist (and many years ago a young and very savvy chief reporter of the old Evening Post, from which today’s Post got its name).

No surprises there. These days the Herald is often the first to break Wellington stories, which is itself a telling measure of the steady decline of a newspaper publisher that once, in the heyday of the Dominion and Evening Post, owned the city.

Why is Cherry going? That wasn’t clear from the email to staff in which Bernadette Courtney, Stuff’s newsrooms editor-in-chief, lavished praise on the now ex-editor, saying she had made a “huge impact” and been a “champion for Wellington”.

Cherry’s energy, news judgment and passion for journalism would be missed, Courtney said. In that case, what happened to make her quit?

All Courtney’s email said was that Cherry was moving on to “take on her next challenge”. It’s perhaps another measure of Stuff’s decline that the company apparently expects its journalists to fall for this obfuscatory corporate flim-flam, which comes straight from the HR Manager's Handbook of Euphemistic Cliches.

As Currie commented in his story, Cherry’s departure appears to be linked to other changes in Stuff’s editorial leadership team. Her resignation was foreshadowed in a Newsroom story two weeks ago which speculated that the capable Tracy Watkin, editor of the Sunday Star-Times, would take on responsibility for the editorship of the Post (confirmed today) as well as Stuff’s press gallery team. The rationale for this rumoured transfer of control wasn’t apparent.

That story also mentioned that some high-profile Stuff journalists would be quitting, starting with #MeToo crusader Alison Mau, in what appears to be yet another downsizing.

All this follows a series of changes that included the rebranding of the former Dominion Post, the creation of an unorthodox partial paywall for three of Stuff’s dailies and the announcement last month of a new corporate leadership group with the company’s owner, Sinead Boucher, in the new position of executive chair and publisher.

Under the revamped structure, Laura Maxwell (ex NZME) will replace Boucher as CEO and three newly appointed managing directors will look after various segments of the business. Boucher presented this makeover as preparation for “the next big disruptive force of the digital era – the advent of new generative AI technologies”.

Trying to make sense of what’s going on behind the scenes at Stuff, to say nothing of the constantly changing job titles, is a bit like trying to track shifts in power and influence behind the walls of the Vatican or the Kremlin.

If there’s a consistent, coherent strategy, it’s well concealed. There’s a random, ad hoc look to it which suggests Stuff is making it up as it goes. Suffice to say that Stuff makes Chris Hipkins’ government look like a model of stability.

One of the most dismaying aspects of the upheavals, from a journalist's point of view, is the torrent of flatulent PR jargon that accompanies the company’s every move. If you accept the theory that corporate hype expands in inverse proportion to performance, the outlook is not promising.

One of the worst offenders is Norris, who becomes managing director of Staff Masthead Publishing. In a statement accompanying the recent restructuring, Norris gushed: “Our mastheads are totally focused on our subscribers and delivering beautifully told journalism from across the country in print and digital channels. Drawing on our 160-year history of journalism, we are reinvigorating and growing the portfolio of iconic journalism brands which are embedded in communities across New Zealand.”

This is the type of empty, self-congratulating puffery you expect from ad agencies. A former journalist like Norris should know better. The bullshit detector she was equipped with during her time as a reporter has clearly been disabled.

Besides, what Norris said borders on flagrant dishonesty. Stuff has shown little respect for the "iconic journalism brands" she refers to, most of which have been gutted.  

Nadia Tolich, managing director of Stuff Digital, wasn’t far behind Norris. “I’m looking forward to reaching New Zealanders at scale, serving up lively, bold and entertaining content that stokes the interest of the nation and builds on our position as the number 1 digital site in NZ. That unrivalled reach, combined with the hyper-local power of Neighbourly and connection with nearly a million members across the motu is an exciting proposition,” Tolich was quoted as saying.

Oh, please. Give us a break. 

The sad thing is that there are still good people at Stuff. They will be looking around their increasingly deserted newsrooms and wondering whose job will go next. They could also be excused for wondering who’s going to magically produce the "lively, bold and entertaining content" that Stuff keeps promising to deliver in the wonderland of the future.

They have been let down at every turn by bosses who adopted a perverse business model. That Stuff prioritised digital at the expense of the traditional print product, and in the process destroyed much of the value in its mastheads, could perhaps be forgiven as monumentally bad judgment. What was not excusable was that the company alienated and antagonised its most loyal readers by haranguing them and bombarding them with a relentless barrage of woke propaganda. 

It effectively declared war on some lifelong subscribers by declaring them pariahs and refusing to publish any more of their letters. It was a novel way of building customer loyalty and it had the inevitable result. Making enemies of your readers - holding yourself up as morally superior and more enlightened - is no way to win hearts.

The Otago Daily Times and the Herald both serve as evidence that daily newspapers can survive and flourish in the digital era. Stuff, on the other hand, has blundered down a blind alley.

And so the agony continues. Cherry is leaving a paper whose steady downward trajectory sadly parallels that of the city it purports to serve. Both the paper and the city have lost their way. Each may have been a factor in the other’s decline, leading to a gradual ebbing of public morale and confidence.

The Post is still capable of breaking gutsy stories, as it proved with Monday’s front-page exposé by Tom Hunt of mayor Tory Whanau’s entitled behaviour at a Wellington restaurant. It was gutsy because the Dominion Post had unashamedly promoted Whanau’s mayoral aspirations last year (remember all those free publicity shots?) and vigorously supported her radical Green agenda, even to the extent of haranguing readers week after week with tedious pro-cycling propaganda under the “Mode Shift” banner.

Perhaps Monday’s story slipped through while the editor was distracted by other things, in which case it sent the reassuring message that a journalistic heart still beats somewhere within Stuff.

Unfortunately the paper then sought to redeem itself with Wellington’s noisy woke minority by publishing a strident opinion piece in which Whanau’s close friend, sometime Green Party publicist David Cormack, indignantly defended her.

Readers were left to conclude that publication of the Monday exposé was a momentary lapse of editorial judgment and that normal service had resumed. This is not to say there was no defence to be mounted on Whanau’s behalf; merely that it looked less than wholly convincing – and certainly not impartial – coming from a man who I understand sometimes accompanies her to events.

All this may sound cruel to Cherry, but it’s not meant to be. I think she made a mistake in taking on a job that was beyond her. (I recognise this situation; I've been there myself.) But the bigger mistake was made by Stuff in appointing her in the first place when she lacked the appropriate credentials. She now appears to have been made to pay for Stuff's misjudgement, which may explain the glowing tribute paid to her on her departure.

Cherry can’t be held responsible for the Post’s decline; for that, the blame rests with the Stuff leadership and with Cherry’s predecessors in the editor’s chair - notably Anna Fifield, who disastrously allowed the paper to be captured by a journalistic model that didn’t reflect the values and expectations of its readers.