Friday, January 26, 2024

My little spat with Philip Matthews

The news and comment website Newsroom published an article yesterday in which Philip Matthews reviewed a new and slightly revised edition of Michael King's celebrated Penguin History of New Zealand. (Matthews is a Christchurch-based Stuff journalist who occasionally contributes to Newsroom.)

The review was entitled History is a culture war and looked at how well King's book - now The Penguin History of Aotearoa New Zealand - had stood up in a time of rapidly shifting cultural and ideological attitudes. Matthews devoted part of his piece to the use of the name Aotearoa and commented that several "right-wing culture figures" - he named Peter Williams,  Michael Bassett and me - had "enlisted King as support for their argument that New Zealand should not become Aotearoa".

This would be all very well, except that I've never said New Zealand shouldn’t become Aotearoa and don't recall ever citing King in that context. My position,  stated several times over the years, is that I'm open to a name change just as long as it's supported by a referendum - in other words, democratically mandated, rather than imposed by a political/media/academic elite.

When I emailed Matthews requesting a correction, he tried to defend himself by citing an article I had written for The Spectator Australia in which I noted that Aotearoa was a name of "dubious authenticity". When I pointed out that this fell a long way short of opposing its adoption, Matthews astonishingly responded by saying my position made it hard to argue that I supported a name change. So now, apparently, it wasn't just a case of me being accused of opposing a name change (although I hadn't); I had apparently flunked the ideological test by failing to support it.

Except that even this wasn't correct, because I've written on this blog that "there are good arguments for adopting Aotearoa".

At about this point, Matthews lost interest in the argument and suggested I sort it out with Newsroom - a cowardly cop-out,  since the mistake was his, not Newsroom's. They had quite reasonably assumed that a senior journalist would take care to get his facts right.

I did take it up with Newsroom,  and to their great credit they immediately amended the article and added a footnote saying the original version had not accurately reflected my opinion. Though the correction didn't quite capture my position (it said I would accept a name change if the public voted for it, but implied I would do so grudgingly), I appreciated co-editor Tim Murphy's prompt remedial action.

Why am I recounting this?  Partly because some people will have seen Matthews' piece in its original form and been left with the wrong impression; but also to illustrate the danger of ideologically motivated journalists letting their prejudices get in the way of accuracy.  Personal antipathy may have played a part, since Matthews and I have a history. I think it suited him to characterise me, along with Peter Williams and Michael Bassett,  as a stubborn old white supremacist.  He's a capable journalist and I suspect in this instance,  he was more than simply careless.  

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

The John Campbell question

Once again, state-owned TVNZ has obligingly provided a platform from which its best-known (and no doubt highest-paid) journalist, John Campbell, can flail the government.

This is extraordinary and unprecedented. The government’s most potent communications medium has been hijacked by one of its employees and co-opted in a highly personal political mission.

Campbell’s anti-government agitation is more than simply provocative. It can only be seen as a direct challenge to the government and a gesture of contempt to all the deplorables who voted for change because they didn’t like where we were going under Labour.

Campbell clearly decided on October 14 that New Zealand had made a grievous mistake in electing a centre-right government and set himself the task of leading the Resistance.

Someone in authority should have told him then that this was not his function as a journalist. If he refused to accept that, he should have been told to pack his bags.

That this didn’t happen tells us that TVNZ is happy for its Chief Correspondent, aka the nation’s Hand-Wringer-in-Chief, to continue his crusade.  Now we’re in the unfortunate situation where someone in government may be tempted to strike back, because no government is likely to tolerate a situation where one of its own employees is so feverishly working to undermine it.

Journalism is in a potentially perilous situation here. Battles between the state and the media rarely turn out well.

The danger of vindictive politicians punishing troublesome journalists hardly needs to be pointed out. But Campbell has put us in this invidious position by brazenly abusing his power and thus inviting retribution. A combative politician like Winston Peters, whose early role model was media-baiter Robert Muldoon, would need little encouragement to retaliate.

The finely balanced relationship between journalists and the government, whereby politicians accept the inconvenience of a critical press as the price of an open democracy, is at risk of being destabilised when one side is seen as wilfully defying the established norms – which is what Campbell has been doing with his series of assaults on a government that’s ideologically not to his liking. 

The danger for the government is that unless it acts to deter egregiously partisan journalism from its own media outlets, Campbell and others like him – including some in RNZ – will feel emboldened to continue.  

As a product of the corporate world, Luxon will be familiar with the management maxim that “What you accept, you approve”. Well, it applies here.  As long as Campbell and others like him feel empowered to attack the government with impunity, National and its coalition partners can expect to endure a prolonged and self-inflicted form of Chinese water torture.

Lest this article be misinterpreted, I’m not presenting an argument for more pro-government journalism. That phrase is a contradiction in terms, because it is not the function of journalists to support governments.

Neither am I rushing to the defence of this government because I support it. I didn’t vote for it and I have little confidence in it, but the government was legitimately elected and it deserves a fair shake. It's impossible not to be struck by the sharp contrast between media attitudes toward the previous government and this one.

Rather, I’m appealing for a return to traditional journalistic values of impartiality and balance, the decline of which can be blamed for steadily diminishing public trust in the media. Contrary to what budding journalists are taught in universities (of which Campbell is a product), journalism is not activism.

Campbell’s attacks on the government – and in a broader sense, the sustained offensive from the media at large since last year’s election – place National and its coalition partners in difficult territory. Convention says the government shouldn’t interfere in the editorial decisions of its media outlets. Any such intervention would be portrayed as an intolerable attack on freedom of the press.

There would be uproar from the media and their academic fellow-travellers. Those with long memories would recall the bad old days of the 1960s, when the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation was firmly under government control.

Fear of such a backlash is what Campbell and his bosses will be counting on to prevent the government from acting, but there comes a point when Campbell’s moralistic crusade becomes so brazen and arrogant that it can’t be ignored.

The question then becomes, what would be an appropriate response? In different circumstances, a stern word in private with TVNZ management might have done the job. But Campbell’s adversarial attitude to the government is so public and so obvious that a low-key strategic retreat is not possible. We’ve moved beyond that point. In any case, TVNZ is complicit in his misconduct.

Besides, this is an open democracy and the conduct of government affairs shouldn’t be carried out via covert, Yes, Minister-type manoeuvrings. If action is to be taken, it should be done in such a way that we can all see it.

That points to the nuclear option: a brutal, decisive and very public sacking on the basis that Campbell has betrayed the fundamental duty of impartiality that the public is entitled to expect of journalists in a state-owned media organisation.

If the TVNZ directors objected – as they would presumably feel bound to do, given that they have at least tacitly condoned Campbell’s activism – then they should be encouraged to go too.

In those circumstances, the government would need to be cleaner than clean in its appointment of a new board. Nothing would destroy its credibility more surely than the recruitment of political favourites and brown-nosers.

All this must sound odd, coming from someone who has written two books about the importance of media freedom (the only ones, to my knowledge, that examined the issue in a New Zealand context). The suggestion that a journalist should be fired because of his political views goes against the grain. 

But media freedom cuts both ways. Journalists must be able to report vigorously and fearlessly on matters of public interest. Generally speaking, in New Zealand the law allows them to do so.

But if the media are to retain the trust of the public, they must demonstrate that they can be relied on to report on issues of public interest in a fair, balanced and non-partisan way. Once the media betray that trust, they put their protected status at risk.

It goes without saying that Campbell is as entitled as anyone to say what he thinks about the government. The crucial difference, in his case, is that his personal opinion is seen as carrying the weight of a major state media organisation which is supposed to be apolitical.

He would be in a very different position if he worked for a privately owned media outfit, but employment by a state-owned organisation imposes a special obligation of impartiality. TVNZ is owned by the people, whose allegiances and sympathies cover the entire political spectrum. It takes a special type of hubris to assume that being the Chief Correspondent (whatever that title means) for such an organisation entitles him to impose his own narrow political biases on his audience.

Mention abuse of media power and people tend to think of press barons such as Rupert Murdoch, but Campbell is guilty of abuse in a more subtle form. In fact it could be argued that Murdoch is a more honest abuser of power because he doesn’t seek to disguise his actions behind an ostentatious fa├žade of morality and compassion.

Campbell presents himself as the conscience of the nation, but by positioning himself as the implacable opponent of a democratically elected government, he’s effectively spitting in the faces of the majority of his fellow New Zealanders who voted for it.  He clearly regards himself as above them and above democracy.

He appears to interpret media freedom as giving him licence to wage a divisive and potentially disruptive political campaign, with the backing of a powerful state institution, against a government that he doesn’t think deserved to be elected. It needs to be made clear to him and TVNZ that his position is offensive and untenable, even in a liberal democracy. If that means sacking him, so be it.


Wednesday, January 17, 2024

The striking outpouring of media empathy for Golriz Ghahraman

Rarely has the media’s all-pervasive pro-Left bias been demonstrated more emphatically than in the outpouring of empathy for Golriz Ghahraman.

In the past 24 hours, the tone of media commentary on the scandal surrounding the former Green MP has shifted with striking uniformity. The focus has conveniently been diverted from the wrongness of her actions – there’s barely a mention of that – to the supposedly cruel nature of a political culture that, we are told, placed her under acute stress.

Ghahraman says she cited her mental health problems not as an excuse but as an explanation. In fact she doesn’t need to use stress as an excuse, because her legion of media sympathisers have obligingly done it for her.

The Greens have copped flak for not front-footing the issue of Ghahraman’s shoplifting, but in reality the controversy has been something of a PR triumph, thanks to the media’s eagerness to justify her conduct. Who needs spin doctors when the commentators are already on board?

The excuse-makers, apologists and hand-wringers are out in force. Ghahraman’s conduct has been explained as the almost inevitable consequence of an oppressive, racist system that’s dominated by white males and seeks to destroy capable but vulnerable women.

For an example, check out Madeleine Chapman’s column at The Spinoff, headlined The dramatic exodus of brown women from Parliament is no surprise. The implication is that Kiri Allan and Elizabeth Kerekere were victims of the same syndrome, although the article makes no attempt to substantiate that claim.

I’ll wager, though, that if an opinion poll were taken today, it would find that women are just as offended as men by Ghahraman’s behaviour and by the media’s eagerness to absolve her of blame. Certainly she won’t get much sympathy from a struggling working mother on the minimum wage who wonders how she’s going to pay the supermarket bill but never thinks of resorting to dishonesty.

For what it’s worth, my own inclination, initially at least, was to feel some sympathy for Ghahraman. That feeling has now almost completely evaporated. I’ve concluded she doesn’t need my sympathy when she has virtually the entire media in her corner.

You have to look very hard in the welter of comment to find any mention of the irony that a woman whose parliamentary salary puts her in the top 1 per cent of income earners resorted to theft. And not theft of everyday essentials, but of high-end fashion items marketed to the elite. It all looks decidedly at odds with the political creed of an MP who has positioned herself as a champion of the poor.

It didn’t help that when the scandal broke, Ghahraman was on holiday overseas; exactly where, we haven’t been told. What has emerged is a picture of privilege and entitlement that sits very awkwardly with Green Party ideology.

Nowhere in all the commentary have I seen reference to the fact that countless thousands of New Zealanders deal with mental stress without feeling tempted to steal. As David Farrar put it, “Trying to excuse what happened as being due to stress from the job is insulting to all the people who are also very stressed but don’t shoplift”.

Nowhere is there any mention that shoplifting is a massive drain on the economy. Research in 2017 put the cost at $1.2 billion a year, and you can bet it’s a lot higher now.

Nowhere does any commentator consider the danger that if Ghahraman is allowed to use mental health as an excuse for theft, anyone else feeling under stress will now consider themselves entitled to steal.

Having a bad morning? Go and pinch something. If a high-profile politician can use stress as an excuse, then so can you.


Wednesday, January 3, 2024

The Crewe murders revisited

No criminal case in New Zealand history has been more thoroughly worked over than the Crewe murders. The killing of Jeannette and Harvey Crewe (above) in their Pukekawa farmhouse in 1970 has been the subject of multiple trials, appeals, inquiries (including a royal commission), books, documentaries, countless newspaper and magazine articles and even a feature film. Could there be anything left to say?

Well, yes. Nothing startlingly new, necessarily – but The Crewe Murders: Inside New Zealand’s Most Infamous Cold Case, is still a gripping read.

The book, by journalists Kirsty Johnston and James Hollings, presents no compelling fresh theories and uncovers little in the way of previously unreported evidence – not surprisingly, given the degree to which the crime has been scrutinised over more than half a century. Crucially, the authors reach no conclusions about who was guilty of the murders, for which Arthur Allan Thomas served nine years in prison before being granted a royal pardon. But it’s a significant piece of work for all that, simply for the painstaking way Johnston and Hollings have reconstructed the crime and attempted to sift known facts from speculation, theory, rumour and scandalously flawed (and even faked) evidence.

Arthur Allan Thomas

The passage of time and the deaths of almost all the protagonists (Thomas himself being an exception – he’s still alive at 86) have taken much of the heat out of the Thomas controversy and enabled the authors to take what one hopes is a clearer, more detached perspective than was possible when it was a cause celebre. Nonetheless, the powerful and inescapable impression left by the book is that in its determination to protect itself and preserve the stability of “the system” (the authors’ term), the New Zealand establishment closed ranks.  A gruesome double murder had been committed, leaving a baby orphaned, and a perpetrator needed to be found even if it meant constructing a palpably flawed case and ignoring its multiple failings and contradictions.

As the arguments against Thomas’s conviction became ever more compelling, police, judges, Crown lawyers and even prosecution witnesses resorted to increasingly desperate and shameful measures to cover shortcomings in the way the case was investigated and prosecuted. Cronyism and conflicts of interest repeatedly got in the way. Vital information was withheld from the defence or suppressed outright, police blatantly courted jurors and when serious questions arose about dodgy police exhibits, they were conveniently dumped at a tip and buried forever.

The government eventually so lacked confidence in the integrity and ability of the legal and judicial fraternity that it went to Australia to find a judge who could be trusted to head a royal commission of inquiry. The commission’s report came as a bombshell, describing Thomas’s conviction on the basis of false evidence as “an unspeakable outrage” – a phrase that deserves to be ranked alongside Justice Peter Mahon’s “orchestrated litany of lies” in respect of Air New Zealand’s evidence at the Mt Erebus inquiry.

Detective Inspector Bruce Hutton outside the Crewe farmhouse.

All this came on top of an incompetent police investigation and multiple glaring inconsistencies and far-fetched scenarios in the evidence. It’s now accepted that Detective Inspector Bruce Hutton, who headed the murder inquiry, planted the cartridge case that helped convict Thomas. The royal commission said so. (Not only was Hutton never prosecuted, but then police commissioner Mike Bush paid tribute to him as a man of “integrity beyond reproach” at his funeral in 2013.)

In the end, it wasn’t the institutions that society trusts to uphold the law – the courts and the police – who ensured that justice was done in the Crewe case, but the media and a dogged group of citizen activists. Oh, and a couple of politicians: Robert Muldoon and his young justice minister Jim McLay, who made the courageous decision to issue Thomas with a pardon.

Decades later, all this makes sobering – no, make that chilling – reading. But The Crewe Murders can also be appreciated as an absorbing piece of social history. Pukekawa emerges as a feral sort of place – a New Zealand Ozarks with a history of Gothic murders where dark, clannish feuds, rivalries and suspicions simmered. (As an aside, I once visited Pukekawa in the late 1970s without knowing where I was. I was covering an international motor rally for The Listener and pulled in at an isolated service station to buy petrol and cigarettes. I spoke briefly to two surly men and got the distinct impression outsiders weren’t welcome. I came away with an inexplicably creepy feeling that I’ve experienced only two or three times in my life. It was only when I saw a sign a couple of hundred metres down the road that I realised where I was.)

Ultimately the book doesn’t get us any further, insofar as it doesn’t identify the killer(s) or even speculate on who it might have been, though you sense the authors were hoping they might break the case open, as any investigative journalist would. Notwithstanding his pardon, Thomas still can’t be definitively ruled out. (Hutton may have genuinely believed him to be guilty; what was unforgiveable was the fabrication of evidence against him.)

At the end of the book, I was left with one nagging thought. Harvey Crewe was a big man and his wife wasn’t slightly built. A dead body is an extremely awkward, cumbersome thing, not easily manhandled, yet someone managed to shift the two bodies from the Crewe farmhouse, wrap them in blankets, manoeuvre them into a vehicle, take them to the banks of the Waikato River and dump them in the water. It struck me that all this was highly unlikely to be accomplished unobserved by someone acting alone, yet the book is silent on this intriguing aspect of the case. Perhaps, after all, there’s yet another book still to be written …  

The Crewe Murders is published by Massey University Press and sells for $45.


Monday, January 1, 2024

An epic display of dummy-spitting

As a believer in free speech, I would never question John Campbell’s right to unburden himself of a long, whiny lament about where New Zealand is going under the new government.

I do object, however, when it’s published on the website of a taxpayer-owned broadcaster, TVNZ, which has an ethical obligation to observe editorial balance and political neutrality.

If you wanted proof that brazenly activist journalism is not only accepted but encouraged, even by state-owned media, there it is, right there. Clearly, TVNZ is untroubled by the fact that the man it calls its Chief Correspondent adopts an unashamedly political posture and sets himself up as an outspoken adversary of a democratically elected government.  It’s a measure of his ego that he can take such a provocatively defiant stance and expect to get away with it.

And it’s not as if this was the first such column. In an epic display of dummy-spitting, Campbell has grizzled repeatedly about the election outcome – here, here and here. I’m surprised he hasn’t demanded we vote again and keep doing it until we get the right result.

That he doesn’t like the new government is not so much the issue here. That’s his right as a citizen. What’s offensive is that he misuses his position as a high-profile journalist – one who has spent a large part of his career in the state-owned broadcasting system, with all the power and privilege that confers – by petulantly and very publicly railing against a government that his fellow New Zealanders voted for. The Labour Party may be beaten and demoralised, but that’s okay because Campbell has set himself up as the de facto Opposition.

It possibly doesn’t occur to Campbell – nor to TVNZ, obviously – that his political partisanship seriously compromises his journalistic credibility among the many New Zealanders who voted Labour out and welcomed the policy U-turns that he finds so egregious. What chance do New Zealanders have of hearing politically neutral comment from the state-owned TV network’s Chief Correspondent? What chance of a straight, unbiased account of any contentious issue about which Campbell holds strong opinions? The answer, it seems, is zero. That being the case, shouldn’t it matter to TVNZ that viewers who object to Campbell’s posturing are likely to switch off or turn away whenever his face comes on screen?

Nearly three months on from the election, Campbell still appears unable to accept that the country voted emphatically for change. I suspect that like many journalists, six ecstatic years under Labour misled him into thinking that a radical left-wing government was now the natural order of things. He exemplifies the elitist metropolitan commentariat which, for those six years, so dominated media discourse that dissenting opinion was all but smothered. 

Nowhere in his anguished lamentation does Campbell acknowledge that the government he objects to was legitimately elected by ordinary people exercising their one chance in every three years to influence public policy. Perhaps he avoided mentioning this because he’s too polite to come right out and say his fellow New Zealanders are thickos, racists and reactionaries, although the implication is clear enough.

The falsity of his carefully crafted image as a Man of the People has thus been laid bare. He displays nothing but contempt for the government and, by extension, for the people who elected it. He has made a career out of oozing empathy, but his goodwill toward his fellow New Zealanders stops short of accepting their right to vote for a government he doesn’t approve of.

Having said all that, let’s give Campbell his due. He writes very well, albeit a bit too emotively. He is achingly sincere. You can feel his pain. I think he genuinely cares about his fellow New Zealanders. The thing is, so too, no doubt, do Christopher Luxon, David Seymour and – who knows? – perhaps even Winston Peters. That presumably is why they entered politics.

The mistake Campbell makes, as is frequently the case with the sanctimonious Left, is that he thinks he has a monopoly on virtue and compassion.

On a broader note, the government has a problem. It owns two powerful media organisations, TVNZ and RNZ, that are essentially hostile to it and will function as centres of resistance to its policies. Democratically speaking, this is intolerable. The obvious solution is for the government to send a signal by sacking the TVNZ and RNZ boards, but the question then becomes: would it replace them with strong, competent, independent directors, or would it succumb to the temptation to install political toadies? I wish I could be confident of the answer.

To finish on a personal note, I hesitated for a long time before writing this because my wife and I were good friends of John Campbell’s parents. They are (or were, in the case of his late father) lovely people. The two degrees of separation that characterises New Zealand society sometimes makes things awkward, but there it is.