Saturday, December 30, 2023

A grotesque irony in the honours list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The gentle whirring of ebikes on the Timber Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read about the Timber Trail here.

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


Monday, December 18, 2023

Peter Bush: one of the greatest of a great generation

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

“Bushy, you’re one of us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

A massive gesture of contempt for the voters

It’s said that great minds think alike. Unfortunately the same is true, by definition, of conformist minds.

As an example, take the political news headlines of November 29. They were strikingly similar. Almost without exception, the mainstream media pounced on the new government’s decision to axe Labour’s ambitious (but possibly unworkable) plan to make New Zealand smokefree.

Not only did the major media outlets agree, as if by consensus, on what should be played up as the big story of the day. Even the wording of the headlines was often virtually identical.

And so we got Health experts furious over government’s plan to scrap smokefree measures (Newshub): Government’s smokefree law repeal ‘a massive step back’ – health orgs (1 News); Disbelief as a smokefree generation slips away (The Detail, RNZ); Top Pasifika doctor Collin Tukuitonga slams plans to repeal smokefree laws – says most vulnerable will suffer (NZ Herald); Government defending the indefensible in scrapping smokefree efforts – health leader (RNZ); Experts warn health system will bear burden of government abandoning smokefree regulations (Newshub again).

There was also a predictable anxiety attack over what the rest of the world might think. Smoking laws: what international media is [sic] saying about NZ’s scrapping (the Herald); Smokefree laws: what the world is saying about NZ’s ‘shock reversal’ (1 News); What the world’s media says [sic] about new government’s plan to scrap smokefree laws (Newshub). In other words some overseas media disapproved, therefore the governing coalition must have got it hideously wrong. How embarrassing for New Zealand; how shameful.

True, the BBC, Time magazine and America’s National Public Radio all took the line that the new government was foolishly (or callously) snuffing out progressive laws that had been passed by Jacinda Ardern’s enlightened administration - laws that were seen as a blueprint for the rest of the world, or so the journalists pronounced. How could anyone take such a retrograde step? That was the dominant tone of the overseas coverage. To be fair, though, the overseas stories were nuanced, balanced and contextualised in a way that was generally lacking locally. New Zealanders reading them would have been considerably better informed than by their own domestic media.

The following day, November 30, brought an even more striking example of media groupthink. A selection of headlines: Luxon honeymoon rained on by Peters and cigarettes (Toby Manhire, The Spinoff); Winston Peters killed Christopher Luxon’s honeymoon with anti-media antics (Jenna Lynch, Newshub); Christopher Luxon tries to get his plan and honeymoon back on track without Winston Peters butting in (Claire Trevett, the Herald); Winston Peters making it look like Chris Luxon has lost control (Tova O’Brien, Stuff); Winston Peters’ bad behaviour overshadowing Christopher Luxon, David Seymour (Audrey Young, the Herald); Christopher Luxon refuses to pull Winston Peters into line over anti-media comments, laughs it off (Jenna Lynch again, taking a second swipe).

This time two themes were competing for the excitable journalists’ attention. One was that Peters was hijacking Luxon’s moment in the spotlight; the other was that the deputy prime minister was defaming the media with false claims that they had been bribed by the previous government’s $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund, and Luxon was doing nothing to rein him in. Why wasn’t the PM defending the media, or at least telling Peters to pull his horns in? (As if ...)

How do we know Peters’ statements about the media were false? Because Jenna Lynch told us so, more than once. She didn’t explain how they were false; they just were. We were supposed to take her word for it.

The NZ media now automatically insert that word “false” in every story about Peters’ accusations about the PIJF, just as the US media inserted the word “false” in every story about Donald Trump complaining the 2020 presidential election had been stolen. (We can now be reasonably confident those claims were false after several courts ruled they were. But that wasn’t the case when the US media, almost without exception, began using the word. They took upon themselves the right to assert it as an established fact.)

A previous generation of journalists, both here and in the US, would have said the claims were alleged to be false or had been condemned as false. They would have explained who was alleging they were false and why, then left the public to make up its own mind. The court of public opinion was the ultimate arbiter.

Not anymore. The media decide what’s false and what can be regarded as credible. As with Lynch, we’re expected to take their word for it.

The claims about the PIJF may indeed be false, as was the case with Trump. But the media have taken a dangerous leap into new territory by acting as if contentious issues are definitively settled when in the public mind they may not be. In effect, they have assumed a mantle of omniscience.

Climate change is another case where the mainstream media have decreed there’s no room for dispute and that, accordingly, no contrary views will be given space or air time. I’ve been a journalist for 55 years and I can’t recall any previous issue on which the media arrogantly asserted the right to shut down all public debate on the basis that an issue was “settled”. But this is the new normal.

It’s an attitude that flows from the emergence of a new priestly caste of university-educated journalists who reject the idea of objectivity, contemptuously dismissing it as “bothsidesism”. Former generations of journalists were trained to present both sides of a story, but to the priestly journalistic caste now in control, this risks giving an aura of legitimacy to opinions and ideas they fear and despise. They have therefore taken upon themselves the right to determine what the public can safely be allowed to read or hear, and thus to proscribe modern heresies such as climate change scepticism or Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy.

Journalists seem to think that simply by baldly asserting that statements they disagree with are false, they will convince the public. Certainly some of the public, such as RNZ’s steadily diminishing number of rusted-on devotees, will need little persuading. However it’s more likely the media will simply get a lot of people’s backs up. What many journalists don’t grasp is that most of the public no longer trust them and wonder, quite reasonably, why they should believe them – a state of affairs made worse by the media’s rush to sign up to the Ardern government’s Public Interest Journalism Fund, which brings us back to Peters’ claims of bribery.

Was it “bribery” to accept government money in return for a commitment to a highly politicised interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi, as Peters says? At worst, his use of the word could be described as hyperbole. But the indignant chorus of howls from the media can’t disguise the fact that by taking the money, they laid themselves open to the accusation that the government had bought their support. 

Even if some media outlets convinced themselves they were behaving honourably, the mere acceptance of government money created a very damaging public perception. I don’t think media bosses gave sufficient thought to the harm that would be done to their credibility, especially in a febrile political climate highly charged by divisive identity politics and dissent over such issues as the vaccine mandate. And their image wasn’t helped by the perception that the media were giving Ardern’s government a conspicuously easy ride.

That the PIJF was at heart a propaganda exercise (I called it the Pravda Project) is not in any doubt. Raewyn Rasch, who ran the fund on behalf of NZ on Air – and who, for the fund’s duration, became one of the most powerful figures in the New Zealand media – admitted as much on RNZ’s Mediawatch. In an interview with Colin Peacock after the first funding round in 2021, she said NZ on Air wanted to encourage conversations about the Treaty, but those conversations had to “come from an understanding of what the Treaty is about”. And who decided what the correct “understanding” was? Why, Rasch and NZ on Air, that's who.

Rasch argued that this didn’t preclude anyone from taking a critical view of Treaty issues – but if you’re dictating how the Treaty is to be interpreted, and therefore limiting the parameters of the “conversation”, to use Rasch’s cute term, you’re choking off the scope for legitimate debate and automatically excluding most, if not all, dissenting opinion.

Some of what Rasch said in that interview was nonsensical and contradictory. She said the fund didn’t dictate how applicants should cover Treaty issues, but then almost immediately and quite unabashedly told of a PIJF-funded documentary about the South Island Alpine Fault that fell short of the fund’s expectations because it included no Maori input. Rasch’s team “went back and had a chat” – how chilling those words can sound – with the documentary makers, as a result of which they then “engaged” with Ngai Tahu. Even Peacock, an apologist for the Pravda Project, seemed surprised that a documentary about seismology had to pay homage to NZ on Air’s idea of the Treaty principles. But oh, yes: “Te Tiriti comes into everything,” Rasch declared. So there you are.

Now, back to that remarkable media consensus on the story of the day. On November 29, it was the scrapping of Labour’s idealistic but impractical anti-smoking legislation; on November 30, the focus was on Peters’ attacks on the media, and the implied weakness of Luxon for not silencing him.

The election of any new government almost invariably precipitates an avalanche of news – this one more so than most because it brought together three parties which, despite often incompatible ideologies, agreed on an ambitious programme of change.

There were 49 items on the 100-day plan announced by the government on November 29. The media latched onto one – the smokefree reversal – and almost ignored the other 48. Why? 

The same uniformity was notable the following day in the coverage of Peters’ bribery claims - a story of importance primarily to self-absorbed, hyper-sensitive journalists. 

I wonder, do parliamentary press gallery reporters confer among themselves to decide which subjects to cover and what line to take? The homogenous tone of the coverage suggests so, but I doubt it. Conspiracy is too strong a word, implying some sort of secret agreement. However it surely says something that so many journalists come away from an announcement and all spin it the same way. If that doesn’t suggest groupthink, I don’t know what does.

Fortunately there remain a few thoughtful, independently minded press gallery journalists who don’t hunt with the pack and who develop their own angles. I won’t put them in a difficult position by naming them.

All this took place against a backdrop of wall-to-wall weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth over the election of a government that the priestly media caste doesn’t approve of. I can’t recall any new government being confronted with such intense, naked hostility from people whom the public expect to be fair, neutral and balanced. 

State-owned media are some of the worst offenders. Throughout last week, RNZ’s Morning Report featured a daily parade of the aggrieved and disaffected: renters, unionists, public transport lobbyists, climate activists, teachers, academics, health and disability advocates, Treaty crusaders and environmentalists, all beating their breasts in despair – egged on by sympathetic interviewers – at the depredations wrought by a government of barbarians. As Richard Prebble perceptively wrote in a column, “power and privilege are never surrendered voluntarily”.

TVNZ is no better, giving more air time to politicians the electorate rejected than to ones who were elected – and often needling the latter and trying to trap them with “Gotcha!” questions. The state TV network also makes space on its website for whiny opinion pieces by the nation’s Hand-Wringer in Chief, John Campbell. Make no mistake, the media will ensure that the coalition parties are punished for their electoral success.

Note too the deafening media silence over incendiary statements from Maori politicians – among them, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer’s allegations of “systemic genocide” and “state-sponsored terrorism”, which bordered on unhinged, and Willie Jackson’s threats of “war” and civil unrest “five times worse” than the 1981 Springbok tour, which were tantamount to an incitement to violence.

These intemperate verbal eruptions pass unremarked by the media high priests, as did the circus at the swearing-in of MPs yesterday when the Maori Party wilfully made a mockery of parliamentary procedure. Those same Maori MPs would not take it well – and neither should they – if visitors to a marae refused to honour protocol and tradition. Why do they not show the same respect for the institution to which they have been elected? And why do media commentators appear united in their determination not to denounce the debasement of the House of Representatives that sits at the heart of New Zealand’s system of government? 

All this follows six years during which the mainstream media gave a free pass to probably the most extremist government in New Zealand history. Time and again under Ardern, dodgy law changes went unreported and issues that reflected badly on the government were either treated as invisible or played down until exposure by online platforms made them impossible to ignore. Now journalists have suddenly and miraculously rediscovered the critical scrutiny mechanism that inexplicably lay dormant for two terms under Labour.

To finish, three points:

1. I didn’t vote for this government (I didn’t cast a party vote at all) so can’t be considered blindly loyal to any of the parties in the coalition. I did, however, welcome the ousting of the former government and believe that its successors, who were legitimately elected under the system the country voted for in 1993, are entitled to a fair shake.

2. Where are the boards of directors and CEOs of media organisations? Directors are rightly reluctant to interfere in editorial decisions, but the unprecedented media animosity toward an elected government is unhealthy for the body politic. Hubristic presenters and political journalists are out of control and intoxicated by their own imagined power. It has reached a point where more senior figures need to step in for the sake of democracy, to say nothing of their sagging corporate reputations. This is especially true of the state-owned media companies TVNZ and RNZ. If those boards allow things to continue as they are, they should be shown the door on the assumption they are hostile to the government that employs them. (The boards are politically appointed, of course, and we can't discount the possibility that at least some directors were chosen because they were on board with Labour's agenda.) I never imagined myself advocating boardroom intervention in newsroom decisions, still less political appointments to media organisations, but this is what we’ve come to.

3. Ultimately, it all comes down to democracy and respect for the will of the people. For six years New Zealand had a government the media approved of. Voters emphatically signalled on October 14 that they wanted a change, but the priestly media caste is tone-deaf to the public mood and can’t bring itself to accept the decision. The petulant media campaign of resistance against the coalition government is, above all, a massive gesture of contempt for the voters. Or should I say the deplorables?

Friday, December 1, 2023

What's behind the media’s low-key treatment of the mosque shootings inquest?

Has anyone else been struck by the extraordinarily low-key media coverage of the inquest into the Christchurch mosque massacres?

Day after day, major news outlets have, at best, played down the proceedings. At worst they have ignored the inquest altogether. The coverage has been so conspicuously subdued that I can only conclude it’s deliberate.

RNZ is an honourable exception, but even there the coverage has been relatively light. Television has reported the inquest only spasmodically and you have to search the Stuff and NZME websites for any reference to it.

This is perplexing. March 15, 2019 was one of the most traumatic days in New Zealand history – arguably more so than previous tragedies such as Pike River, Mt Erebus or the Wahine sinking, because it was the result of a deliberate act. Only the Aramoana massacre of 1990, in which 13 people were shot dead compared with the 51 in Christchurch, comes close.

It follows that the nation has a vital interest in knowing not just how and why the mosque killings happened and whether they could have been avoided, but also in establishing whether the response by police and emergency services was adequate.

A royal commission of inquiry in 2020 dealt with those first questions, but it falls to the inquest under deputy chief coroner Brigitte Windley to investigate the latter issue.

What has emerged in evidence so far is not encouraging. Witnesses have told of confused, chaotic, slapdash and even heartless responses to the shootings; of indecision, communication breakdowns and rigid adherence to health and safety rules that meant medical help for the surviving victims was delayed.

Until yesterday, perhaps the most disheartening revelations were that paramedics didn’t enter the Deans Avenue mosque until 30 minutes after the killer had left and that surviving victims were abandoned altogether for 10 minutes after reports came through of the second outbreak of shootings and police left the scene to rush to Linwood.

Now it has emerged that distraught relatives of the victims at Deans Avenue were told to leave the scene and even threatened with arrest when they wanted to comfort the wounded. An American police expert on terror attacks told of “heartbreaking” witness statements and gave his opinion that people who were already inside the mosque should have been allowed to stay unless they were interfering. Another overseas counter-terrorism expert said there was no excuse for leaving the shooting victims alone.

No doubt the inquest has also been told, or will be told, of acts of heroism and compassion by first responders, including the two courageous and quick-thinking police officers who apprehended the killer. It’s likely too that the coroner, in her findings, will make the point that this was an unprecedented event and that confusion and errors of judgment were probably inevitable.

That Brenton Tarrant was arrested only 19 minutes after the shooting began, and before he could continue his murderous rampage at Ashburton, was remarkable. Failings by police and ambulance staff should never be allowed to overshadow or diminish that fact.

But at the same time, the public is entitled to know where the system failed and how it might be improved. That’s what makes the news media’s apparent lack of interest so puzzling.

In past eras, an event such as the Christchurch inquest would have been given saturation coverage. Reporters would have been present throughout and filed blow-by-blow accounts of every witness statement.

That this hasn’t happened is partly an inevitable result of the hollowing-out of newsrooms and the shrinkage of newspaper space. But the level of coverage also reflects editorial priorities.

Not so very long ago, news editors would have regarded the inquest as an essential “running” story – one that automatically commanded daily prominence. Now it has to compete for space with such essential news as why you should avoid French and Italian wines on aircraft and the $100 million wedding of a woman even Stuff admits no one has heard of.

Clearly reporters are present at the inquest for at least some of the time, and equally clearly the stories emerging from the inquest are a compelling matter of public interest.  Yet far from being highlighted in news columns and bulletins, those stories are given surprisingly subdued treatment. Why?

For once, I’m not suggesting there’s any ideological or political factor involved. More likely it’s a simple matter of editorial judgment, in which case I think it’s badly flawed.

I can’t help wondering whether the national memory of March 15, 2019 is considered so painful that media decision-makers decided we should be spared any unnecessary reminders. Or are the shootings regarded as a stain on the nation’s reputation that has now been made worse by the shame and embarrassment of an inept response, and therefore something to be reported grudgingly and reluctantly – if at all?