Saturday, June 17, 2017

New Zealand's accountability deficit

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 16.)

When did you last hear of a judge resigning because honour demanded it, or to atone for a catastrophic error?

The most recent example I can think of is former District Court judge Robert Hesketh, who did the honourable thing by quitting in 1997 after pleading guilty to charges arising from fraudulent expense claims.

His fellow judge Martin Beattie faced similar charges but chose to fight them and was acquitted.

Beattie claimed $10,000 worth of expenses for hotel accommodation when in fact he had stayed in his own home. A jury appeared to accept Beattie’s defence that he thought he was entitled to claim the expenses and had never been told otherwise.

I believe the court of public opinion reached its own verdict, and it wasn’t the one the jury arrived at.

Beattie subsequently paid the money back, which seemed an acknowledgement that he wasn’t entitled to it in the first place, but he refused to resign despite being asked to do so by then Justice Minister Doug Graham. 

He was subsequently moved from frontline court duties, taking up an appointment as the Accident Compensation Appeal Authority. But he retained his status, and presumably his judge’s salary too.

Move on now to 2011 and the tragic murder of Christie Marceau. All murders are tragic but this one especially so, because it was committed by a man who was out on bail when clearly he represented a threat to the 18-year-old North Shore woman.

The police knew Christie was at risk from Akshay Chand and so, apparently, did Judge Barbara Morris, who had twice ruled that he should be kept behind bars for an earlier attack on her.

But then Chand came before Judge David McNaughton. He wrote a letter to the judge saying he was remorseful and wanted to apologise. He later told police that his sole purpose in writing the letter was to get bail so he could murder Marcie.

The ruse worked. The judge bailed Chand to live in a house just 300 metres from his intended victim – this, despite Christie’s own plea that he be kept behind bars.

Thirty-two days later Christie was dead – stabbed repeatedly in a frenzied attack by Chand, who was subsequently found not guilty on the grounds of insanity.  

Clearly, judges are human and prone to error. We can't expect them to have  the wisdom of Solomon. But some mistakes have such profoundly catastrophic consequences that the public is entitled to expect an act of atonement.

In the Christie Marceau case, a contributory factor was the apparent failure to include on Chand’s court file a record of Judge Morris’s earlier decisions to refuse bail and her cautionary comments about Chand’s mental state. Even so, there was ample evidence to justify him being kept in custody.

Once the enormity of Judge McNaughton’s mistake became obvious, it would have been fitting for him to step down. Some of us might wonder how he managed to sleep at night, let alone continue to sit on the Bench. But he did.

If it’s true that Judge Morris’s notes were never included on Chand’s court file, I also wonder whether the clerk responsible for the oversight ever faced any consequences – which brings me to the point of this column.

From top to bottom, New Zealand seems to suffer from an accountability deficit – a stubborn unwillingness by people in positions of public responsibility to fall on their swords when they are found to have behaved either badly or incompetently.

We’ve been reminded of McNaughton’s terrible mistake this week because an inquest is finally being conducted into Christie Marceau’s death. But there have been plenty of other examples.

In this column several weeks ago I referred to the e-coli outbreak caused by contaminated tap water in Havelock North. No heads rolled, despite 5000 people getting sick.

Pike River? The same. The collapse of the CTV building in Christchurch? Ditto.

The builders of leaky homes have largely escaped punishment and no one seems to carry the can when supposedly state-of-the-art, earthquake-resistant buildings are rendered uninhabitable while much older buildings are undamaged.

Only this week it was revealed that the Ministry of Social Development spent nearly $300,000 of our money in legal costs on what was clearly a butt-covering exercise after a woman killed herself following an accusation of benefit fraud which was found to be unsubstantiated.

One thing we do very well in this country, besides rugby, is evasion of responsibility. We get reports and inquiries, hollow apologies and hand-wringing ... and then it's back to business as usual.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The politicisation of food

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, June 14.)

It seems nothing is safe from the scourge of identity politics.

If you haven’t heard of identity politics, it’s the fashionable ideology that breaks society down into minority groups which identify themselves according to their point of difference, whether it be based on culture, ethnicity, disability, sexual preference or whatever.  Often these groups define themselves not only as different, but as disadvantaged and even oppressed

It’s from identity politics that we get the notion of cultural appropriation – the dogma that each culture retains exclusive rights of ownership over its own traditions, and that anyone else who tries to imitate or borrow them is guilty of theft.

This is surely one of the more spectacularly wrong-headed manifestations of political correctness.

It provides perfect fuel for displays of liberal white middle-class guilt. An example was the woman who protested at the inclusion, in last year’s Christchurch Christmas parade, of a float with a “culturally insensitive” Native American theme.

I wrote a column at the time pointing out that if we carried the idea of cultural appropriation to its extreme, we probably wouldn’t celebrate Christmas at all. Because virtually everything we associate with Christmas – the music, the food, the decorations, even Father Christmas himself – is borrowed from other cultures.

It doesn’t seem to matter that supposed acts of “cultural appropriation” are often a mark of respect or admiration for the culture that’s supposedly being stolen. What seems to be considered intolerable is the thought that someone might make money from it.

As with many other fashionable political causes, whether it’s global warming or anti-liquor hysteria, the underlying theme is often hostility to capitalism.

But when people start talking about this thing called cultural appropriation, they’re wading into very muddy water. Because virtually everything we do – the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the music we listen to, the books we read – involves cultural appropriation, often on a large scale. This is truer than ever in a globalised world where cultural boundaries are becoming irretrievably blurred.

As the American novelist Lionel Shriver recently wrote: “Cultures blend and overlap and can’t be fenced.”

Who decides when it’s not acceptable to emulate aspects of another culture? This seems to depend on whoever decides to feel aggrieved.

Nothing illustrates the inconsistencies and contradictions in this debate better than food, which has become –perhaps inevitably – the latest ideological battleground in the culture wars.

A recent BBC radio documentary questioned whether it was acceptable for people to cook food from another culture. It went on to ask whether it was okay to profit from such food, or to tamper with recipes so that the dishes were no longer wholly authentic. The implication seemed to be that this was all, in varying degrees, cultural appropriation.

But even the most unexciting food has been culturally appropriated somewhere along the line. Porridge, for example, came from the Scots.

If the enforcers of culinary correctness had their way, presumably the dozens of New Zealand fish and chip shops owned by Greeks and Yugoslavs – and now increasingly by Asians – would be outlawed, since fish and chips are a traditional English dish. Chips, come to that, are a French invention. See how crazy it could get?

A black American chef and food writer on the BBC programme acknowledged that “cultural diffusion” was a natural and healthy process in a multicultural society. He probably had to say that, since he wouldn't have got far as a professional chef without cooking a lot of exotic (i.e. non-American) dishes. So when does it become “appropriation”, which he clearly regarded as repugnant?

Alas, he never really explained. Appropriation, he said, was about “asserting power and control”. He seemed to be saying that cultural borrowing was okay up to the point where white people made money from it, but his reasoning was vague and woolly.  

I suppose, for argument’s sake, you could understand him resenting the fact that a big corporation such as KFC profits from fried chicken, a dish once associated with poor blacks, but he didn’t explain how black Americans were disadvantaged by it. That’s surely the test.

And if a middle-class white celebrity chef such as Jamie Oliver or Rick Stein devotes a TV series or book to the food of another country and puts his own spin on the recipes, so what? It creates a wider awareness of that cuisine and thereby opens up opportunities for more authentic cooks. That’s got to be a win-win.

Ultimately the key point is this: civilisation is built on cultural appropriation.  Every society absorbs influences from other cultures, often cherry-picking the best of what’s on offer. 

This process cuts both ways, because disadvantaged societies learn from more advanced ones. It’s not all about exploitation.

Those who seek to outlaw what they arbitrarily define as cultural appropriation would condemn us to a monochromatic, one-dimensional world in which we would all want to kill ourselves out of sheer boredom – and one in which New Zealanders would be reduced to eating tinned spaghetti on toast, since it’s one of the very few dishes we can call our own.

On second thoughts, scratch that. Spaghetti’s Italian. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

So now it's the job of the police to enforce monopoly business interests

One of the most extraordinary pieces of New Zealand legislation enacted in my lifetime was the Major Events Management Act 2007 – a bullying, control-freak statute passed to oblige powerful commercial sport sponsors. You could almost describe it as fascist in the way it uses the power of the state to crush any impertinent gnat who threatens to upset the cosy collusion between government and big business.

The Act sets out, in nit-picking detail, the hoops that organisers of designated major sports events – such as the current Lions tour – must jump through to ensure the precious interests of sponsors are protected. Among other things it enables the creation of “clean zones” where anything resembling non-approved advertising must be wiped from the public’s field of vision for the duration of the event. Anyone who contaminates a clean zone – which includes transport routes to and from venues – risks a criminal conviction and a fine of up to $150,000. The Act also outlaws “ambush marketing” – the term used for attempts by non-approved companies to muscle in on the event.   

The laws are policed by “enforcement officers” (even the language has a vaguely fascist tone) who are empowered to execute search warrants and issue “cease and desist” orders.

The Act was passed in preparation for the Rugby World Cup in 2011 and has always struck me as a case of massive – you might say oppressive – overkill. At best, it sits very uneasily with the right of free speech. But it’s consistent with the gradual process by which wealthy broadcasters and corporate interests have stolen sport from its rightful owners, the people.

Why am I bringing up this subject? Because today’s Dominion Post reports that the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, working in concert with the police, has seized goods from people allegedly selling unauthorised merchandise before Lions matches in Christchurch and Dunedin. Since when, you might wonder, has it been the function of the New Zealand police to enforce the monopoly interests of big corporations? Since the politicians passed the Major Events Management Act, that’s when. But that doesn’t make it right.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

I wrote this 11 years ago, and it's pretty much all still true

In a very distant past life I played bass guitar in the house band at Wellington’s fabled Majestic Cabaret. One of the two resident singers there was the gorgeous Marise McDonald. (The other was Alan Galbraith, later to become a record producer of note and now a maker of hand-crafted “cigar box” guitars.) Marise’s younger brother Nick was a journalist in Masterton to whom I devoted the following tribute in 2006, when I was providing occasional commentaries on Radio NZ’s Mediawatch. I dug it out a few days ago after Marise mentioned to me that she hadn’t heard it. Reading it again after all this time, it occurred to me that apart from the references to Palestinian elections and Don Brash’s speech to the Orewa Rotary Club, it’s all still true and relevant today. In fact if there’s going to be a revival of the newspaper industry, it could well start at the local level.

I recently attended the funeral of a journalist whose name would be unfamiliar to most of this programme’s listeners. He was Nick McDonald, managing editor of a community paper called the Wairarapa News, who died suddenly aged only 51.

His funeral took place in the Masterton Town Hall, and it was full. Journalists may rate poorly in public opinion surveys, but here was one who obviously enjoyed the respect and affection of his fellow citizens.

I had never met Nick but I attended his funeral because I admired a whimsical column he wrote called Take It Easy – a column that I thought deserved a bigger audience. On occasions I emailed him to say how much I had enjoyed his latest piece, and I always received a courteous reply.

But there were lots of things I didn’t know about Nick until I heard the tributes at his funeral service. I learned from these that he came to journalism relatively late in life after a few false starts in other careers. I learned that he started out by acquiring an old printing press and producing a news sheet for local rugby fans. That got him a part-time job writing feature stories for the Wairarapa Times-Age and eventually he became a full-time reporter, rising to become deputy chief reporter of that paper before taking over as editor of the Wairarapa News, a weekly paper that goes into virtually every home in the region.

I also learned that he had become a bit of an identity through his calls to a local talkback station, where he assumed the persona of a hard-case bucolic character named Larry and soon acquired a cult following.

He was obviously a man who made a deep impact on his local community, both as a personality and as a journalist.

Why am I telling you this? Because Nick McDonald represented a breed of journalists who deserve more recognition than they get. I refer to those who toil in the unglamorous field of community and suburban newspapers – those papers that turn up free in your letterbox every week.

For many young reporters, a stint on a community paper is a stepping stone to bigger things – a rite of passage that has to be endured before they have enough experience to step up to a bigger paper. But Nick appeared to have found his niche in community papers and seemed content doing what he was doing – reporting the generally unexciting community news of a provincial town, while providing himself with an outlet for his writing skills through his column. He was clearly capable of bigger things, but as far as I can tell he had no aspirations to wider fame. 

There is a temptation to regard journalists like Nick as being well down the food chain in the journalistic eco-system. They’re not national names and they don’t break sensational stories that destabilise governments. But no journalists are closer to their communities or their readers. And as much as we focus on the big national and international stories of the day, local news is often the news that impacts most directly on the reader. The local cinema that’s being restored; the street that’s being closed to traffic for a day to accommodate a bike race; the couple around the corner who’ve just celebrated their golden wedding; the heroic effort of the local rugby team against a vastly superior visiting side – no stories are closer to the daily lives of people in a small community.

It’s in the community paper that people read about people they know and institutions that they are intimately familiar with.

It’s these stories, in fact, that help create a sense of community. The early European settlers recognised this, which is why newspapers were often among the first businesses to be set up in newly established towns.

If anything, the role of the community journalist has taken on new importance as mainstream news outlets have withdrawn from the field of local news. Television has almost abandoned the local story, and under-resourced radio stations make only a token stab at local bulletins. Even daily newspapers no longer have the space or resources to cover the minutiae of community life that once filled their pages.

That leaves the field to the community paper – and here’s an interesting thing. While many daily newspapers struggle to maintain readers in the face of consumer indifference and aggressive competition from other news outlets, circulation figures show that most community papers have posted healthy gains in recent years.

What does this tell us? I think it confirms that for many people, news about an increase in local swimming pool fees, or an outbreak of vandalism in the local park, is at least as relevant to their daily lives as Orewa 3 or the Palestinian elections. I know of many people who don’t bother to pick up a daily paper or watch the TV news, but who will always skim through the community paper.

Pat Booth, arguably New Zealand’s most distinguished journalist, chose to spend the last few years of his career on suburban papers. He points out that in our bigger cities, some of these papers now engage in quite sharp, aggressive reporting on important local issues – and the politician who ignores them does so at his or her peril, given that they reach hundreds of thousands of readers.

Yet as Pat points out, it’s still the local paper that people will go to if they’ve lost their dog, or want to save a notable tree that the council has decreed must come down.

There’s no glamour in reporting these stories, but someone has to do it. And the job demands a particular type of journalist.

It has to be someone who doesn’t feel it’s demeaning to report what some would consider to be parish-pump news. To some extent it requires a suspension of ego, since the journalist must accept that he or she is never to be going to be famous and still less rich. And it helps if the journalist actually belongs to the community he or she is reporting and understands its concerns and interests.

Nick McDonald seems to have been that sort of person. By all accounts he was an everyman who loved his family, who enjoyed a beer and a punt on the horses, but who retained a sharp and perceptive eye for everything that was going on around him.

And here’s something else that I think is significant about Nick. He had no formal training in journalism, but learned by doing it. That was once the norm in the news media, before we became obsessed with tertiary courses and qualifications.

I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that such courses be dismantled and the qualifications abolished. But the question should be asked: was Nick poorer as a journalist for having no formal qualifications? Unquestionably I think the answer must be no. He reminded us that there is, in fact, no great mystique in journalism that can be learned only in lecture rooms. That’s a relatively recent misconception.

An inquiring mind, a degree of tenacity, a facility with words and a commitment to report honestly and impartially – these are some of the key attributes of a good journalist. Some journalists never acquire them, no matter what courses they complete, and some possess them naturally. Nick McDonald was clearly in the latter category, and I believe it’s essential that the news media always keeps the door open for roughies like him.

And I don’t use that word “roughies” in a pejorative sense, but in the horse racing sense – to indicate someone who’s a bit of an outsider. I’d like to think that Nick, as a keen student of the turf, would take that as a compliment.

Monday, June 5, 2017

"Most trusted" - except, perhaps, by many of their own people

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 2.)

I recently wrote a column in this space about the St John Ambulance organisation. It was prompted by a Consumer survey of emergency survival kits which rated the one marketed by St John as the worst of those tested. Ironically, it didn’t include a first aid kit.

I wondered how an organisation with St John’s proud history and reputation could have exposed itself to such public embarrassment, and I attempted to answer my own question by speculating that it had been corporatised – and in the process, become disconnected from its roots.

I pointed out that it wouldn’t be the only worthy organisation to have succumbed to the ruinous cult of managerialism, with all the attendant trappings of bloated hierarchical structures, marketing and PR flannel, expense accounts and flatulent corporate jargon.

The column prompted a mixed reaction – one predictable, the other unexpected.  I’ll deal with the predictable one first.

Andrew Boyd, St John’s central region general manager, wrote a defensive letter to the paper pointing out, among other things, that a St John first aid kit was available as an extra to the $200 “Emergency Grab Kit”.

This seemed to confirm the suggestion by a disgruntled St John veteran – one of many who contacted me – that the omission of a first aid kit, thus requiring that it be purchased separately, was a calculated commercial decision.

“Profit first!” as one commenter on the Stuff website put it. “St John are more interested in growing the wealth of the organisation.”

As someone else pointed out, the fact that St John sold first aid kits separately was no excuse for not including one in its emergency kit. This person also said you’d assume the kit would include emergency rations and water – but the bright sparks in the St John marketing department apparently didn’t think of that.

Boyd’s letter went on to say that “All St John products are regularly clinically assessed”. Not very rigorously, obviously, or the emergency kit wouldn’t have got such a shellacking from Consumer.

In fact Boyd went on to reveal the kit had been removed from sale while it was “re-evaluated”. What’s that, if not an admission that it was a crock?

But there’s a much bigger issue here, which brings me to the unexpected reaction.

My column uncorked a bottle of disenchantment, cynicism and distrust among the frontline rank and file who represent, for most New Zealanders, the public face of St John. One insider said I had described the organisation “to a T”.

Both in online comments and emails to me directly, St John volunteers expressed dismay at the way the organisation has changed: at the proliferation of middle managers and the layers of sclerotic bureaucracy that get in the way of good people trying to do something they love for the good of the community. These are all hallmarks of corporatisation.

Even more striking was a very real fear that internal critics of the organisation would face repercussions if they were identified. “St John is very touchy about bad publicity,” said one.

That’s another defining characteristic of corporatisation: an obsession with public image and a desperate desire to prevent negative messages getting out. Journalists dealing with corporate communications flunkies see this every day.

Boyd pointed out in his letter that St John was recently voted New Zealand’s Most Trusted Charity in a Reader’s Digest survey, but this didn’t impress one St John stalwart. “He appears to be basking in the ‘most trusted’ reputation when this is actually provided by those of us who work at the coalface – the people who work in the community who the public see and relate to,” this long-serving volunteer wrote in an email.

I received many other comments in a similar vein. One commenter on Stuff said St John had become top-heavy and added: “The petty attitude towards the coalface staff is what gets me. Management think they ARE St John.”

Either the St John hierarchy doesn’t know about this underbelly of discontent, or chooses to ignore it. Either way, something’s wrong.

Is it unfair to single St John out for criticism? Perhaps. Several people named other not-for-profit organisations that have been transformed by corporatisation, and not in a good way. One commenter suggested the problem lies partly with the demands imposed by charities legislation.

Perhaps St John just had the misfortune to come to public attention because of a spectacularly incompetent marketing exercise. But clearly its bosses have some repair work to do. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

The crisis in the print media - and what's at stake

My apologies to anyone who followed a link here expecting to see my Listener article on the crisis in the print media. After posting it, I realised I might be depriving the Listener of revenue from anyone wanting to read it behind their paywall. And since they paid for me to write the story, that wouldn't be fair, so I've taken it down.  You can see from this that I'm still getting to grips with the digital environment ...

The totalitarianism that taints public debate

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, May 31.)

Free speech is a cornerstone of democracy, but we can never take it for granted. On polarising issues, its limits are constantly tested.

Dr Lance O’Sullivan got up on stage at a Kaitaia screening of the controversial anti-vaccination documentary Vaxxed last week and told the audience that their attendance would cause babies to die.

O’Sullivan is a much admired doctor in Northland – he was New Zealander of the Year in 2014 – and an impassioned champion of vaccination programmes.

The makers of Vaxxed claim the vaccine that immunises children against measles, mumps and rubella can cause autism – a theory discredited by medical authorities. O’Sullivan wanted the audience to know that he has held dying children who would have survived had they been immunised.

He subsequently explained to John Campbell of Radio New Zealand that he was worried that immunisation rates in Northland were declining because of erroneous anti-vaccine propaganda – hence his decision to speak at the screening of Vaxxed.

When I first heard a radio report about the Kaitaia incident, I wondered whether O’Sullivan had stepped out of line. The report seemed to suggest that he wanted to prevent people seeing the film.

That would have been an unacceptable intrusion on freedom of expression. Section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act rightly protects the right to free speech, “including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form”.

The moment we start suppressing opinions, no matter how overwhelming the arguments against them may seem, we are on a slippery slope. The true test of free speech is our willingness to uphold the right of people to say things that we don’t like.

As the American political activist Noam Chomsky put it:“If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.” It's possibly the only thing Chomsky ever said that I agree with.

But when I watched a video of O’Sullivan speaking from the stage at Kaitaia, he didn’t appear to be making any attempt to stop people watching the film. He just wanted the audience to know that he believed Vaxxed was based on fraudulent misinformation. In other words he was asserting his own right to free speech.

He reportedly performed a haka, which seemed gratuitously confrontational, but otherwise he seemed calm and respectful. His statement to the audience that their presence would cause babies to die may have been a theatrical exaggeration, but you could see where he was coming from.

Unfortunately, O’Sullivan later spoiled it all by saying, in an interview with the Stuff website, that health professionals who reportedly attended the screening should be sacked.

This time he did step over the line. It’s not for O’Sullivan to decide what opinions other health professionals should hold, or be exposed to.

At this point, his legitimate espousal of the pro-immunisation viewpoint transmuted into an authoritarian insistence that anyone who didn’t fall into line with the officially “correct” view should be punished.

This is bullying. It produces the type of cowed, conformist groupthink that we see at its most extreme in places like North Korea.

In any case, who knows what motives other health professionals might have had for attending the screening? It could be argued that it’s their duty to acquaint themselves with false propaganda so that they are then in a better position to counter it when advising patients. “Know your enemy,” the saying goes. 

But the key point is this: liberal democracies are based on a contest of ideas, and we can have that contest only if competing ideas are publically weighed and debated. People can usually be trusted, when presented with the evidence, to figure out which argument is the correct one.

Stifling free speech by suggesting people should be sacked for deviating from the approved view is a denial of democracy and intellectual freedom. Unfortunately, however, it’s typical of the ideological totalitarianism that increasingly taints public debate – the more so since social media platforms made it easy to gang up on dissenters and intimidate them into silence.

We see this manifested in all sorts of ways. Climate change doubters are constantly shouted down on the spurious basis that “the science is settled” (it’s not). In Australia, family-owned brewery Coopers was recently subjected to an angry boycott simply because it sponsors the Bible Society, which opposes gay marriage.

Intolerance of dissent takes a variety of forms, but the ultimate aim is always the same: to silence the dissenters. I saw another example last week when Wellington’s Dominion Post published an article by former MP Gordon Copeland, a devout Christian and pro-lifer, urging that the principle of informed consent should be applied when a woman is considering an abortion - hardly a radical proposition when, as Copeland pointed out, informed consent has been entrenched in medical practice since the Cartwright inquiry of the 1980s.

It was a thoughtful, sympathetic and carefully argued piece that acknowledged the complexity of the abortion issue. But a letter in response, from an abortion rights activist, attacked Copeland’s article as a “paternalistic and sexist rant”. He had committed the ideological offence, as a male, of writing about abortion, which some feminists consider none of men’s business.

Whatever anyone thought about Copeland’s argument, there was no way his article could be described as a rant, which my dictionary defines as an angry tirade.

But the enforcers of ideological orthodoxy have little respect for semantic precision. If you want to disparage an opinion you don’t like, you label it a rant. We can add this to the repertoire of tactics used to deter anyone foolish enough to exercise their right of free expression. 

FOOTNOTE: This column was written before a hysterical row broke out in Australia over tennis legend Margaret Court's public opposition to same-sex marriage. Court's personal opinion, which she was perfectly entitled to express in a free society, was seen as so threatening to the prevailing ideology that people wanted her name removed from Melbourne's Margaret Court Arena. What next, I wonder - public book burnings?  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Accountability: frequently talked about, rarely practised

(First published in The Dominion Post, May 19.)

I’VE BEEN scratching my head trying to recall the number of times when someone in a position of responsibility in New Zealand fell on their sword in atonement for things that went badly wrong.

Conservation Minister Denis Marshall did it after the Cave Creek viewing platform collapse in 1995 and Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson stepped down in 2012 over Pike River – in both cases, after commissions of inquiry released highly critical reports.

Those two aside, I struggle to remember any minister, department head or company boss taking the rap for tragedies or adverse events that involved human failure.

Accountability, the long-established principle that someone should be seen to take responsibility for serious mistakes, is frequently talked about but rarely practised. 

When an inquiry panel released its report last week into the Havelock North water contamination scandal that caused 5000 people to get sick and was implicated in three deaths, Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule was quick to absolve himself of any fault. “I didn’t personally cause this contamination,” he said, and of course that’s true. But it’s not the point.

Yule doesn’t seem to grasp that someone in charge has to carry the can, if only symbolically. People expect it. It’s the price that has to be paid for keeping the system honest.

If no one ends up accepting personal responsibility and incurring a penalty, there’s little incentive to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s why, in the Westminster parliamentary system, ministers bear ultimate responsibility for their departments and are expected to resign if their subordinates fail seriously in their duty.

This applies even though the minister may have had no idea that things were going pear-shaped. The rationale behind the principle is that it puts pressure on ministers to ensure everyone’s doing their job properly.

That creates a culture of rigour and discipline that filters down through the system and keeps everyone on their toes.

At least that’s the theory, and the same principle applies in local government – which is why a lot of people in Havelock North, including the man interviewed on television who spent weeks in hospital and lost 11 kg as a result of bacterial infection, expected heads to roll following the e-coli outbreak. Faint hope, I’m afraid.

For Yule, the timing was unfortunate. My impression is that he has been a very good mayor, which is why voters have repeatedly returned him to office since he was first elected in 2001. But his attempt to distance himself from responsibility for the water contamination is unlikely to win him votes when he stands for National in the Tukituki electorate later this year.

To be fair, he’s not the only high-profile figure anxious to absolve himself of blame for things that have gone wrong on his watch. Former Ministry of Transport head Martin Matthews must have been squirming as the media revealed acutely embarrassing details of the audacious $725,000 fraud perpetrated by his ex-employee Joanne Harrison.

Judging by what’s been reported, there were multiple signs that Harrison was ripping off the ministry. Short of wearing a flashing neon sign saying “I am a crook”, she could hardly have been more brazen.

Yet far from having his career prospects damaged by the scandal, Matthews was rewarded with a promotion to the position of Auditor-General – a job in which he’s required to make sure no one misuses taxpayers’ money.

The irony is exquisite. Please, no one tell John Oliver, the irritatingly smug US-based TV host who loves nothing more than poking fun at quaint little New Zealand.

It’s not only in the public sector that bosses manage to evade responsibility for shocking failures. No one took the blame or paid a penalty for the tragic collapse of the CTV building in the 2011 Canterbury earthquake, despite damning evidence of professional dereliction.

Ditto the 2010 disaster at Pike River, where the families of the 29 dead miners still cry out for justice. Again there was clear evidence of multiple failures at multiple levels, but only token penalties were imposed.

Why does it seem so hard to establish culpability for catastrophic mistakes? One possible explanation is that as bureaucracies grow bigger and more amorphous, lines of accountability become blurred and blame becomes harder to sheet home.

Management structures sometimes seem designed to protect and insulate people. Responsibility gets diffused and the smoking gun, if there is one, is buried so deep that official inquiries never seem able to find it.

And in the meantime, public confidence in “the system” continues to be steadily eroded. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Was the wrong person on trial?

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, May 17.)

I can’t help wondering whether the wrong person was on trial in the Whanganui District Court last week.

The name on the charge sheet was that of Kerry James “Chester” Borrows, who was tried on a charge of careless driving causing injury. But it seems to me there were other charges that could equally have been brought as a result of an incident that occurred during an anti-TPP protest in March last year – only not against Borrows.

For example, there’s a charge of disorderly behaviour and another of obstructing a public way.

I’m not a lawyer, but it’s surely not too much of a stretch to argue that a person deliberately stopping someone else going about their lawful business is acting contrary to public order, which is how my dictionary defines disorderly behaviour.

As for an alternative charge of obstructing a public way, anyone watching the TV news last week, and seeing exactly what happened in Whanganui on March 22 2016, could form their own conclusions.

Borrows, the National MP for Whanganui, was driving out the entrance of a motor inn with cabinet minister Paula Bennett in the front passenger seat. Several protesters were standing by the gate holding placards.

The TV camera showed two women stepping out into the path of the approaching car with the apparent intention of forcing it to stop. At least two police officers were standing by, but did nothing to intervene.

The car was moving very slowly. There was some dispute in court as to whether it actually stopped at one point, but it was certainly moving when it came into contact with the two women.

A police witness estimated the car’s speed as 1kmh – far slower than walking speed. Borrows testified that he feathered his brakes, as he was trained to do in similar situations during his 24 years as a police officer.

In any event, the protesters had ample time to get out of the way. They chose not to.

Let me repeat: they chose not to. They seemed to think their opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership gave them the moral right to prevent two elected public officials going about their lawful business.

Predictably enough, the vehicle nosed into them. One of the women rather theatrically testified that she thought: “Oh my god, you’re going under, girl.” At this point the police on the scene were roused from their torpor and belatedly moved the women out of the way

It looked to me as if the protesters were playing a game of chicken. Even if they weren’t exactly willing the car to hit them, they seemed to be at least daring it to happen.

That impression was reinforced when one of them, having been pulled clear, shrieked in the direction of the TV crew: “Did anyone get that on camera?”

You could be excused for wondering whether she had set the situation up for exactly that purpose. The idea of public protests, after all, is to get noticed – and what better way to attract public attention than by being hit by a car driven by a government MP and carrying a high-profile minister?

You can imagine the posts on social media that would have followed: “Frail elderly woman mowed down in callous act of Tory brutality.”

Borrows testified that the reason he didn’t come to a complete halt was that a male protester at the scene had earlier made threats against Bennett on Facebook. To be precise, the protester had written: “See you shortly, bitch”, which surely tells you something about the calibre of some anti-TPP protesters.

He had also a posted a picture of a dildo with Bennett’s name on it. Borrows testified that he thought it was a wooden dildo which, if thrown at Bennett – as had happened to her fellow minister Steven Joyce at Waitangi only weeks before – could have done damage.

In acquitting Borrows, the judge cited the dildo threat as an extenuating factor. She accepted that he had valid reason to be concerned about Bennett’s comfort, if not safety.

So Borrows got off.  But why was he prosecuted in the first place? I’ve seen it suggested that the police proceeded with the charge against him for fear that they might otherwise be seen as going soft on a former cop – hardly a compelling reason.

And why did the police take no action against the protesters, whose injuries (they were both treated for soft tissue damage) were the direct result of their own provocative and arguably unlawful behaviour? If a case could be made against Borrows for careless driving, they should surely have also been charged for their own contributory role.

Come to that, why did the officers on the scene not step in earlier to prevent the pantomime? Have they been disciplined or reprimanded?

In the end, the outcome was the right one. But it should never have come to that point, and Borrows can hardly be blamed for sounding bitter about his former colleagues in uniform.   

Monday, May 8, 2017

St John and the cult of managerialism

(First published in The Dominion Post, May 5.)

I thought it significant that in Consumer’s recent comparison of emergency survival kits on the market, the one that scored worst by far was marketed by the St John Ambulance organisation.

Its “Emergency Grab Kit” got a scathing “fail” from Consumer, with a score of 38% – far below any of the six other kits tested. How humiliating for an organisation that traces its history back to the 12th century, when the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem looked after sick and injured pilgrims to the Holy Land.  

What was almost comically ironic was that the St John emergency kit didn’t even include a first-aid kit – this from an organisation that’s synonymous with emergency medical assistance – or food rations. And to make matters worse, the pack wasn’t cheap ($200 compared with one at $85 and another that costs $139).

In a sense, it’s a betrayal. People buying an emergency kit bearing the name of St John are entitled to expect that it will set the standard for all others. In fact it appears the reverse was true.

You have to ask: how could an organisation with St John’s proud record end up in such a state?

Let me hazard a guess. It’s been corporatised.

What typically happens is this. Organisations like St John start out as voluntary. They are run on the smell of an oily rag by enthusiastic, committed amateurs whose only reward is the satisfaction that comes from doing good for the community.

No doubt that’s still true at the grassroots level. But what happens as such organisations grow is that they reach a point where enthusiastic amateurism no longer cuts it at the top level. They evolve into bureaucracies.

They adopt all the trappings of the private sector. They acquire a flash office in Wellington and they hire professional managers, public relations consultants, fundraisers, marketers, website designers, health and safety trainers and HR advisers.  They also recruit university-educated careerists whose lack of life experience doesn’t stop them from wanting to re-invent the wheel.

In other words they get corporatised. With this come expense accounts, corporate credit cards, business-class travel and company cars. Along the way, the purity of purpose that originally motivated them tends to get diluted.

They also get contaminated by the deathly cult of managerialism, with its key performance indicators, meetings, values statements, general control freakery, risk avoidance, more meetings, arse-covering, preposterous jargon, more meetings and bitchy office politics.

Of course an organisation as large and complex as St John requires an appropriate management structure. The danger is that as these organisations grow bigger and more unwieldy, they became so pre-occupied with the minutiae of management that they lose sight of their core functions. Management becomes an end in itself.

If they are partly funded by the state, as many are, things get more complicated, because government bureaucrats create hoops for them to jump through. So they hire more people to ensure compliance with the government’s requirements – which might include, for instance, paying someone to come up with Maori names for everything they do, even though no one ever uses them.

Under the headline Vision and Values on the St John website, for example, you see things like: “We Make It Better – Whakawerohia. We find solutions – step up, own it, do it.”

There it is, right there: management psycho-babble that means whatever you want it to mean.

All this, needless to say, gobbles up money that might otherwise be used for whatever purpose the organisation nominally exists for.

In the meantime, the faithful and tireless people at the grassroots go on doing what they have always done. But the corporate head office grows gradually more distant and disconnected from its original ethos, and the people at the grassroots feel powerless to influence decisions and policy.

I’m not saying this has happened at St John, but it has certainly happened to other organisations in the not-for-profit sector – for example the IHC, a $280 million-a-year behemoth whose head office sometimes gives the impression of being unaccountable to faithful, long-serving members.

Some would say New Zealand Rugby has gone down a similar path, moving ever further from the game’s muddy amateur roots.

Is the same true of St John? I admit I can’t be sure, but the fact that the organisation couldn’t put together a basic emergency kit – or worse still, perhaps couldn’t be bothered – suggests it may have lost sight of what most of us assumed it existed for. 

Perhaps Jack London was right

(This is a slightly longer version of a column first published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, May 3.)

Willie Nelson turned 84 a few days ago. Remarkably, he’s still performing.

That he’s even alive after an often turbulent and reckless life is an achievement in itself, and one that sets him apart in a business not commonly associated with feats of longevity.

Nelson is unusual in that he was something of a late starter. He initially won recognition as a songwriter and was well into his 40s before anyone took notice of him as a singer and guitar player.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for long incubation periods, because musicians tend to follow the reverse pattern.

Jimi Hendrix would be 74 if he were still alive today. Jim Morrison of the Doors would be 73, John Lennon would be 76 and Elvis Presley 82. But of course they all peaked early and died relatively young.

I sometimes wonder how they would have turned out had they lived longer.

I suspect they wouldn’t have aged well. In fact clear signs of decline had already appeared in the latter three, and even Hendrix seemed to have lost his way musically when he died at 27. His most creative years already seemed behind him.

Perhaps he would have become another Miles Davis, who revolutionised jazz trumpet in the same way that Hendrix did the electric guitar, and who went on exploring new musical paths for decades. We’ll never know.

Lennon never scaled the same heights as a solo artist that he had achieved with the Beatles, and Morrison – grossly overrated even in his prime, if you ask me – didn’t seem to have much gas left in his tank when he took himself off to Paris in 1971, where he died of a heroin overdose.

As for Presley … well, what can you say? He was still only 42 when he died, but he was bloated musically as well as physically and the hits had stopped coming.

If you wanted to be cynical, you’d say all four probably did their image a favour by dying young. Because the evidence suggests that most pop and rock stars enjoy a few glorious years of peak creativity – sometimes described as their “imperial phase” – after which they go into decline.

“Intensity and longevity are natural enemies,” the American novelist Jack London is supposed to have said, and there’s ample evidence that he was right, at least when his aphorism is applied to music.

Steve Winwood was hailed as a genius in his youth. He was barely 17 when he wrote and sang Gimme Some Lovin’ for the Spencer Davis Group, and even then he had enjoyed a string of earlier hits. But he hasn’t done anything notable for decades.

Jimmy Webb wrote some deservedly enduring and richly evocative songs (Up, Up and Away, By the Time I Get To Phoenix, Wichita Lineman, MacArthur Park – in the late 60s and early 70s, but who can name anything of significance that he’s done since?

Neil Diamond? Stevie Wonder? Elton John? My case rests. And of course we can only speculate on what Buddy Holly and Sam Cooke might have achieved had they not died young, but perhaps they too had already peaked. 

Neil Young confronted the transience of rock stardom in his 1979 song Hey Hey, My My, with its famous line: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”. At the time, Young wasn’t sure how much longer his career would last. The rise of punk threatened to displace ageing folk-rockers like him, and he was deeply affected by the death of Presley two years earlier. 

The irony was that Hey Hey, My My and the album it was taken from, Rust Never Sleeps, revitalised Young’s career. Today he’s one of the few survivors of 1960s rock who still commands respect for continuing to push himself in new directions.

A few others manage to keep the flame burning. Bruce Springsteen still seems to have genuine fire in his belly, more than 40 years after his first hit. David Bowie was exploring new territory up to the very end. Bob Dylan still seems to find fresh things to say, and fresh ways to say them (his latest album consisted of standards from the American Songbook). Even Brian Wilson, the unstable genius behind the Beach Boys, is enjoying a long Indian summer and still seems motivated to create.

On the other hand there are those who virtually become self-parodies. It may be heresy to say this, but Eric Clapton these days just seems to go through the motions.

He’s still idolised, but no one daubs “Clapton is God” on London walls anymore. The incandescent talent that he displayed with the Yardbirds and Cream in the late 1960s, when he seemed to discover guitar notes that no one had ever heard before, soon faded.

Then there are the Rolling Stones, similarly still trading on their past glory – which, to be fair, is all their fans want.

No one goes to a Stones concert expecting to hear interesting new material. The band haven’t had a major hit since the 1980s and on their most recent album, Blue and Lonesome, regressed to their early 1960s roots by recording songs by black bluesmen including Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf Burnett and Jimmy Reed.

The Beatles had a slightly longer imperial phase than most, starting in 1963 and peaking in 1967 with the Sgt Pepper album. Their musical evolution over those four years – with guidance from their inspirational producer, George Martin – was astonishing, but by the time of their double White Album in 1968 you could sense that their best was behind them.

They were sounding less like a cohesive unit than four individuals pursuing their own projects. Most notably, the extraordinary chemistry that had made Lennon and Paul McCartney the most successful songwriting team of the rock and roll era had evaporated.

When the band released their Abbey Road album in 1969, it didn’t consist of songs so much as fragments of songs, few of which sounded as if they had been fully developed. That’s probably because Lennon and McCartney depended on each other for ideas and inspiration, and would turn to each other when they got stuck. But by Abbey Road, the two were pulling in different directions (there’s a continuing debate as to whether Yoko Ono was to blame for this) and the magic had gone.

But back to those rock stars whose imperial phases ended abruptly in death. “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse” was a famous line from the 1949 movie Knock on Any Door. The words are often wrongly attributed to James Dean, no doubt because they're strangely apt in his case.

Dean died in a high-speed car smash at the age of 24, after just three movies. A death wish? Who knows? He was, by all accounts, a troubled man. But certainly he got out at his peak, and in doing so ensured his memory would forever remain fabled.

Dean was eternally preserved as his fans wanted to remember him – a bit like Hendrix, Morrison and the rest.  But what a price to pay for immortality. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

The mayhem predicted by breathless forecasters never happened

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 21.)

An expat friend emailed me from Brisbane last week. He had read about Cyclone Cook hitting New Zealand and wondered whether, after all the scary warnings, it had turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax.

I had to confirm that his impression was correct. Sure, trees were brought down, some houses were evacuated, farms were flooded and there were road closures, power outages and a few landslides.

The impact on those affected shouldn’t be understated. But there was nothing like the mayhem that breathless weather forecasters (and I mean almost literally breathless, in some instances) had warned us to brace ourselves for.

MetService should be conducting a rigorous self-appraisal this week, because it greatly overplayed its hand. In doing so, it put its credibility at risk. Some of the official predictions came perilously close to scaremongering.

We were told there was a real risk the intensity of the storm would match that of April 1968, when the Wahine foundered at the entrance to Wellington Harbour with the loss of 51 lives. But the conditions then were dissimilar in one vital respect.

It’s true that in 1968 a tropical cyclone, Giselle, passed down the country, just as happened with Cyclone Cook. The crucial difference was that it collided head-on over Cook Strait with a powerful front heading in the other direction.

It wasn’t Giselle on its own that caused catastrophe, but the violent clash of two opposing weather systems.  Meteorologists must know this, so why create the misleading impression that Cyclone Cook on its own was capable of replicating Wahine conditions? It was wrong and it was irresponsible.

This isn’t to say MetService was wrong to issue warnings. Clearly it would have been negligent not to advise the public to be prepared for an extreme weather event. There would have been hell to pay if Cyclone Cook had arrived without prior notice.

What’s at issue is the sensationalist tone of the warnings. One over-excited forecaster pronounced that it would be a “national event” – no ifs, buts or maybes – and said not many people would be spared.

This wasn’t a media beat-up. These were the exact words of professional meteorologists.

In fact the impact turned out to be largely localised, and not necessarily in the places predicted. Some of the predicted consequences, such as damaging storm surges and coastal inundation, appear not to have eventuated – or if they did, had little impact.

The Auckland Harbour Bridge stayed open and the Cook Strait ferries continued running, contradicting expert predictions.

What’s also troubling is that the meteorologists showed no inclination to moderate their forecasts even when it became apparent that they might have over-egged the pudding. They seemed to be enjoying their moment in the spotlight.

When Cyclone Cook deviated from its expected path, one forecaster pronounced that Auckland had “very luckily” been spared, but that the worst was still to come. Well, we’re still waiting.

The Central Plateau and the Wairarapa were supposed to cop it, but neither region did. I live in the Wairarapa and all that happened was that we got a night of moderately heavy rain from an unusual direction.

Once the cyclone had passed over the country and drifted off to wherever it is that ex-cyclones go, MetService went into damage control mode. By that time it was getting some stick on social media; one joker posted a photo on Facebook showing a plastic chair overturned by the wind on someone’s back lawn as an example of the devastation wreaked.

A MetService spokesman, defending the forecasters, explained that tropical cyclones were “fickle beasts which are hard to pin down”.Fair enough; we can all accept that forecasting is an inexact science. But if cyclones are unpredictable, why so much certainty before the event?

In fact I wonder if the whole business of meteorology and forecasting is becoming a bit overheated, if you’ll excuse the pun. Fears of global warming (real or otherwise), 24-hour weather channels, celebrity weather presenters and constant warnings of extreme climatic events (hardly a week passes without one) all feed into this phenomenon. But violent weather events have always been with us.

What should concern MetService is that its credibility took a hit last week, not so much because of the accuracy of its forecasts but due to the hyped-up, anxiety-inducing tone of its warnings.

It added to a deepening public scepticism toward “experts”. People take note when weather forecasters give them a bum steer, just as they take note when supposedly state-of-the-art, earthquake-proof buildings – designed by experts – have to be abandoned after a moderate shake while decades-old structures are undamaged.

People notice, too, that there’s a striking absence of accountability for the harm done when experts get things wrong. But that’s a subject for another day. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

I thought the name rang a bell ...

Well, well. In 2010 I wrote this:

When the schoolyard bully is a principal

Today I saw this:

Kawakawa School principal shared hard-core pornographic images with his staff

As an old friend is in the habit of saying: interesting, eh? And I see Witana's good mate Pat Newman is sticking by him.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Free speech on campus: has the wheel turned full circle?

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, April 5.)

Remember the 60s? That was the decade when middle-class baby-boomers rose up in defiance of their elders.

Nothing was sacred. Traditional morality was scorned and conventional political values overturned as the protest generation stormed the barricades of conformity.

Censorship became a hot-button issue as the conservative establishment fought in vain to hold the line against a tsunami of liberalism in films, literature, television and music. 

At the heart of this cultural revolution were students, vigorously pushing back the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in terms of both behaviour and speech.

University campuses served as incubators for much of the social and political liberalism that was to transform New Zealand society. The same was true overseas, where student radicalism flourished from California’s Berkeley to France’s Sorbonne.

How ironic, then, that many universities overseas have become repressive environments where political debate is shut down and anyone daring to challenge ideological orthodoxy is intimidated into silence.

At Cardiff University in 2015, students tried to ban Germaine Greer – a stroppy feminist heroine of an earlier generation – from giving a lecture.

Her crime? She had offended transgender people by suggesting a man couldn’t become a woman simply by having surgery. For expressing this “offensive” opinion, she was branded as transphobic.

Being Germaine Greer, she went ahead with her speech regardless – and infuriated her critics even more by saying “I don’t believe a woman is a man without a cock”. Police officers and security guards were on hand to ensure her safety.

More recently, Berkeley University – the same Berkeley that was a hotbed of student rebellion in the 1960s – cancelled a planned speech by the provocative gay libertarian Milo Yiannopoulos after thousands of students gathered to protest and black-clad “anti-fascist” activists threatened violence.

Closer to home, three students from the Queensland University of Technology were sued for “racial hatred” after posting online comments objecting to their exclusion from an “indigenous only” computer lab.

One of the students had posted: “QUT stopping segregation with segregation?” Another had asked: “I wonder where the white supremacist computer lab is.” That was as racist as it got.

For this they were sued for $250,000. Fortunately a federal judge put a stop to the nonsense when he ruled there was no case to answer.

The university’s indigenous administrative officer, who brought the court action, linked the students to America’s Ku Klux Klan (now there’s a truly defamatory statement) and said she couldn’t understand why they hadn’t been suspended or disciplined.

In Britain, meanwhile, universities have created “safe spaces” where students are protected from hearing opinions that might offend them, and the National Union of Students has a “No Platform” policy which prevents “racist or fascist” organisations from speaking at any student function.

Who defines racist and fascist? The NUS, presumably.

Another recent development in the United States is the advent of “trigger warnings”, where lecturers are required to advise students in advance of any material they might find upsetting. How fragile we’ve become.

As far as I know, we have had no direct parallels with the above cases in New Zealand. But we have come perilously close.

Last month a group calling itself the Auckland University European Students Association was forced to disband after an outbreak of moral panic over its recruitment stand at Orientation Week. Someone alleged the group’s slogan, “Our honour is our pride and our loyalty”, was similar to that of the Nazi SS.

I have no idea whether the group’s members were white supremacists or whether, as a spokesman said, they merely wanted to promote European culture. If it’s the latter, then they were no different from any number of organisations wishing to celebrate their ethnic or cultural heritage. 

But we never really had a chance to find out, because the association claimed it had to disband following abuse and threats of violence.

If that’s true, you have to wonder who poses the greater threat – a small group of young men with a fondness for Celtic imagery which some people found a bit creepy, or the self-appointed enforcers of cultural correctness who intimidated them into folding their tent and melting away into the night?

What’s going on here? Is this really what the student radicals of the 1960s wanted? Did the bold liberalism of that era take a wrong turning somewhere, eventually spawning a generation frightened of, and hostile to, ideological diversity? 

Or was the 60s revolution a bit of a fraud all along, the real “liberal” agenda being to replace one form of bigotry and conformity with another?

Part of the problem is that an overwhelmingly left-leaning academic establishment (one leading American academic calls it an “intellectual monoculture”) has promoted a type of groupthink that is intolerant of dissent.

The irony, of course, is that today’s speech police are the direct ideological descendants of those 1960s radicals. Only now they are in control, and seeking to impose a type of censorship that’s just as prudish and po-faced as anything from that supposedly oppressive era. 

FOOTNOTE: This was written before, and without prior knowledge of, Professor Paul Moon's open letter, signed by the likes of Bob Jones and Geoffrey Palmer,  expressing concern at intolerance of free speech on university campuses. 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Let truth and falsehood grapple

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 31.)

I know what you’re all thinking. Lord, spare us any more comment on the SAS-Afghanistan controversy. But please bear with me here.

Yes, I think there should be an inquiry. But I have to hold my nose as I write that, because I don’t trust Nicky Hager. There are a number of reasons for this.

He insists on calling himself a journalist, but all the journalists I’ve worked with made it their business, before bursting into print with damaging allegations against anyone, to seek a response from the person or persons accused.

This is called balance, and although it has become unfashionable in certain quarters it remains a fundamental principle of fair journalism.

Hager doesn’t bother with balance. He and co-author Jon Stephenson didn’t approach the Defence Force for its side of the story before publishing Hit & Run.

This is consistent with Hager’s previous modus operandi. I don’t think he gave Cameron Slater a chance to respond to the claims made in Dirty Politics either, or Don Brash when he published The Hollow Men.

He likes to get in first with a king hit. It’s much harder for someone to fight back when they’re sprawled on the canvas with the wind temporarily knocked out of them.

Hager would probably argue that the reason he doesn’t approach the subjects of his books is that it would give them an opportunity to obstruct publication, possibly with legal action.

But newspapers take that risk every time they run a potentially damaging story about someone. It doesn’t stop them seeking comment from the people or organisation they’re about to take a whack at.

Certainly there’s a danger that the aggrieved party will seek an injunction against publication, but I believe there are other reasons Hager why doesn’t give his subjects a right of reply.

The first is that his story would be undermined if there turns out to be a compelling counter-narrative. Better not to take the chance.

Another is that by publishing before his subjects have a chance to respond, and getting saturation media coverage (as he routinely does), he establishes a huge psychological advantage. His victims are immediately in the position of having to come from behind.

Is Hager’s tactic of launching his books just in time to make the TV news, thus allowing no time for journalists to seek contradictory comment (and this after tantalising the media with high expectations of a scandal), part of this strategy?

Very likely, although it should be pointed out that early evening is the standard time for book launches. In any case, you could say it’s just clever marketing. Perhaps there’s a bit of shrewd capitalist lurking in the crusading left-wing author.

My other reason for not trusting Hager is that he has an agenda. I’m suspicious of people with agendas, because they tend to frame their narratives to align with those agendas.

To put it another way, there’s a danger that the agenda, rather than the facts, will dictate the narrative, and that any facts that don’t conform to the agenda will be ignored.

In Hager’s case, the agenda can’t be neatly summarised, but it’s there. It can be broadly categorised as an antipathy toward, and distrust of, “the establishment”, capitalism and authority in general.

He seems convinced that those in power are constantly plotting to deceive and mislead the people. That theme runs through all his work. I’m not sure that such a pessimistic mindset leads to reliable conclusions.

So given that I don’t trust Hager, why do I think there should be an inquiry? Well, partly because I don’t much trust the Defence Force either.

I suspect they resent outside scrutiny. This may explain why they seem so bad at dealing with it. The military is an insular institution, not accustomed to having to explain itself to others. And like virtually all bureaucracies, its natural instinct when under attack is self-protection.

Besides, the NZDF has previous form. Several years ago, disgracefully, it tried hard to discredit Hager’s co-author Stephenson – a journalist for whom I have some respect – and ended up paying him a settlement in order to avoid a $500,000 defamation action.

In this latest case the NZDF came suspiciously late to the party with a story that was intended to shoot Hager down in flames, but which succeeded only in muddying the waters and creating more doubt and confusion in the public mind.

The only way to clear this mess up now is with an open and independent inquiry that would clarify matters once and for all. To quote the poet John Milton: “Let truth and falsehood grapple; whoever knew truth put to the worse, in a fair and open encounter?”