Saturday, December 16, 2017

Dominatrix vs dinosaur

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 15.)

Don Brash made two big mistakes recently.

The first was to think he could criticise a high-profile Radio New Zealand presenter on Facebook and get away with it. The second and much bigger mistake was to accept an invitation to explain himself on Kim Hill’s Saturday morning radio show.

Inevitably, Brash was savaged. It was as close as RNZ will ever get to blood sport as entertainment.

I gave up listening after 15 minutes. By that time Brash had been hanged and drawn and I didn’t care to stick around for the quartering. 

The metaphor is apt because being hanged, drawn and quartered was once the punishment for treason, and Brash had committed an act which was treasonous in the extreme: He had criticised Morning Report host Guyon Espiner for what Brash regarded as his excessive use of the Maori language.

Brash described Espiner’s flaunting of his fluency in te reo as “virtue signalling” – in other words, displaying one’s superior moral and cultural values.

For this offence against the spirit of biculturalism, the former National and ACT leader was summoned for a discipline session with Radio NZ’s resident dominatrix.

The result was entirely predictable. Hill was acerbic and sneering from the outset.

She didn’t bother to conceal her contempt for Brash and neither did she bother to maintain any pretence that this was a routine interview, conducted for the purpose of eliciting information or expanding public understanding of the issue.

It was a demolition job, pure and simple – utu, if you prefer – and I doubt that it was ever intended to be anything else. Its purpose was to expose Brash as a political and cultural dinosaur and to punish him for criticising Hill’s colleague.

Had it been a boxing bout, it would have been declared a mismatch and called off after the first round. Hill was in her natural milieu – home-ground advantage, you might say, in her familiar personal domain with an unseen crowd of adoring fans urging her on. 

Hill doesn’t hesitate to use her command of the medium to chew up and spit out anyone whose political views she doesn’t approve of. Brash didn’t stand a chance.

But being Brash, he was civil. He addressed Hill throughout by her first name, as if hoping they could be mates. He would have had more luck trying to pat the head of a komodo dragon.

What on earth made him go on Hill’s show in the first place? Vanity, perhaps, or the misguided hope that he could appeal to Hill’s better nature. Faint chance.

Of course there will be those who say Brash is a political and cultural dinosaur who deserved everything he got. But the last time I checked, you were allowed to criticise Radio New Zealand in a Facebook post without having to undergo a public disembowelment.

Here’s where we get down to the real issue. RNZ is a public institution.  It belongs to us.

The public who fund the organisation and pay its presenters' salaries are entitled to criticise it. But can we now expect that anyone who has the temerity to do so will be subjected to a mauling by RNZ’s in-house attack dog? Or is this treatment reserved for despised white conservative males such as Brash, to make an example of them and deter others from similar foolishness?

Either way, Hill’s dismemberment of Brash was a brazen abuse of the state broadcaster’s power and showed contemptuous disregard for RNZ’s charter obligation to be impartial and balanced.

This is nothing new, of course. The quaint notion that RNZ exists for all New Zealanders was quietly jettisoned years ago. Without any mandate, the state broadcaster has refashioned itself as a platform for the promotion of favoured causes.

You’re more likely to see an aardvark driving a tractor down The Terrace than to hear a conservative voice, or even a middle-of-the-road one, on smug groupthink fests such as RNZ’s current series of Smart Talk.

Brash has a perfectly valid point. Whatever the benefits of learning te reo, it is not the function of the state broadcaster to engage in social engineering projects for our collective betterment – for example, by encouraging us to refer to Auckland as Tamaki Makaurau and Christchurch as Otautahi, as now seems to be the practice of some RNZ reporters.

RNZ does many things very well and my quality of life would be greatly diminished without it, but no one will ever die wondering about the political leanings of many of its presenters and producers.

And clearly, no one should expect any restraint to be imposed on them by their bosses – in fact probably less so than ever under an indulgent Labour-led government. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A political high-wire act without safety harnesses

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, December 13.)

It’s always interesting to watch a new government bedding in, and never more so than when the Labour Party gets its hands on the levers of power after squirming with impatience on the opposition benches for several terms.

National regards itself as the natural party of government, which is perhaps understandable when it’s been in power for 47 of the past 68 years. National is also, generally speaking, the party of the status quo. It does what it needs to do to win elections and no more.

Labour, on the other hand, is a party of change. Whereas National in opposition bides its time, confident its chance will come again soon, Labour chafes with frustration at all the things that need fixing. By the time it finally gets a crack at the job, it’s jumping out of its skin.

History shows a clear pattern: long periods of stable but mostly unadventurous National government, punctuated by short, sometimes exhilarating bursts of ground-breaking reform under Labour.

People of a certain age will recall the speed with which Norman Kirk’s new government changed the political settings in 1972 – recognising communist China, withdrawing from the unpopular Vietnam War and adopting a forthright stance on apartheid and French nuclear testing.

Labour under David Lange in 1984 showed similar boldness, tackling the challenge of economic restructuring while simultaneously honouring Kirk’s legacy by taking an independent line in foreign affairs. But it was utterly chaotic and fatally divided ideologically.

Under Helen Clark, Labour took a more cautious and disciplined approach, probably realising that it needed to stay close to the political centre if it was to defy the hex that had seen previous Labour governments tossed out after one or two terms. And it worked: Clark became the most successful Labour leader since Peter Fraser in the 1940s.

Now we find ourselves once again watching a new Labour government – or at least a Labour-led one – grappling with the unfamiliar demands of power. And as in the 1980s, it’s a bit like watching a high-wire act performed without safety harnesses.

One crucial disadvantage for the new government is that it’s wearing L plates. Jacinda Ardern ran a remarkably assured election campaign but she is new to the demands of power and has a cabinet that is extremely light on ministerial experience.

Labour came to power with a highly ambitious – some would say reckless – 100-Day Plan that it seemed determined to fulfil even as neophyte ministers were still moving into their new offices, appointing key staff and getting to know the relevant officials.

I wonder whether it would have been wiser to take exactly the reverse approach: that is, do nothing for the first 100 days so while it caught its breath, took proper stock of things and got over the intoxication of finding itself back in power.

As it is, Labour pitched headlong into an unnecessary and avoidable spat with Australia over the Manus Island asylum seekers (who saw that coming?), and then fast-tracked a crowd-pleasing but suspiciously light-on-detail no-fees bonanza for first-year tertiary students that has been costed at $380 million for the first year alone.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins impatiently brushed aside Treasury concerns that the financial implications hadn’t been properly considered. Government officials didn’t get to determine political priorities, he haughtily pronounced.

Hmmm. Is this is a case of an over-eager reformist government putting its heart before its head in its haste to get things done? It wouldn’t be the first time.

On other policies, Labour is having to learn that there’s a world of difference between making promises on the campaign trail and having to deliver results in government. Supporters of Labour and the Greens will be disappointed by the spectacle of the government equivocating and even back-pedalling on a range of key issues, from the TPPA to Pike River, but they daren’t complain too vociferously because it would be letting the side down.

Similarly, fans of Winston Peters have been remarkably quiet about the convenient disappearance of New Zealand First’s pledge to abolish the Maori seats. But feelings of betrayal can only be suppressed for so long.

Speaking of Peters, there are bound to be bumps in the road ahead as policy tensions arise between the “progressive” Labour Party and its socially conservative coalition partner, New Zealand First.

We got a brief glimpse of this ideological divide when New Zealand First’s Shane Jones recently espoused a “work for the dole” policy that Ardern promptly tried to douse because it conflicted with Labour dogma.

To all those pressures, add a large and formidable National Party opposition, still seething because it believes it was shafted in post-election coalition negotiations that were controlled and manipulated by Peters.

We may never get to the bottom of what really happened in those talks, because Ardern doesn’t want to make the details public. This makes a mockery of Labour’s supposed commitment to openness and leaves her coalition government ineradicably tainted by the shonky circumstances in which it was formed. 

Saturday, December 2, 2017

A rampant culture of entitlement

(A slightly shorter version of this column was first published in The Dominion Post, December 1.)

A pervasive culture of entitlement and self-indulgence seems to have taken root in some of our public institutions.

At its most egregious, it can be seen in the case of Nigel Murray, the disgraced former Waikato District Health Board CEO who treated himself to $218,000 worth of unauthorised spending on personal travel and expenses.

By comparison, the extravagant restaurant bills totted up by Peter Biggs and Chris Whelan, respectively the chairman and former CEO of the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency (Wreda), are a mere bagatelle. But it’s only a matter of scale.

Inquiries by this paper under the Official Information Act flushed out the information that Biggs and Whelan had given their Wreda credit cards a thrashing at some of Wellington’s classiest restaurants.

Is this anyone else’s business? Too right it is, because Wreda is largely funded by Wellington ratepayers.

Biggs has since paid back $4673 – this, after Wellington mayor Justin Lester blew the whistle. Biggs’ restaurant bills included $875 for dinner with New Zealand’s London Trade Commissioner and his wife, a $585 dinner with Wellington City Council chief executive Kevin Lavery and a $318 dinner with Derek Fry, also from the city council.

No restaurants were named in the Dominion Post report, but I think we can safely assume we’re not talking about Burger King.

The fact that Biggs voluntarily repaid the money suggests that after talking to Lester, he had second thoughts about whether his spending was justified. But before his own taste for fine dining became public, he was unapologetic about Whelan’s expenses (which he had approved), and defended his former CEO’s right to bury his snout in the city’s poshest troughs.

According to Biggs, Whelan’s selfless hard yakka over the fine white linen table cloths at Logan Brown, Zibibbo and Shed 5 produced measurable results. It had helped attract a call centre and Singapore Airlines to Wellington and generated business for Westpac Stadium.

When asked whether Whelan really needed to put 36 Bluff oysters on his credit card at Shed 5 (cost: $216) in order to secure that new business, Biggs rather testily rebuked the reporter for taking a “cynical” view.

The spending could be looked at as a way of showcasing Wellington’s “vibrancy and sophistication, and also building collegiality”, he said. “It depends on whether you know how the real world works.” Hmmm.

Here we get to the heart of the issue. In the “real world” that Biggs inhabits (his background is in advertising), it has become accepted wisdom that lavish lunches and dinners are an indispensable part of doing business.

This suits the participants splendidly. They all fete each other and then justify it by insisting it’s generating business or “building collegiality”.

And because everyone does it and expects it, it becomes self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating. No one ever questions whether it’s necessary. Why spoil things?

Biggs gave the additional justification that Whelan’s job involved showcasing the Wellington region’s cuisine and wine. Well, of course. That’s all the excuse anyone needs to slurp some of New Zealand’s most expensive wine. “We’ll try the Martinborough Vineyard pinot noir next, waiter.” There’s $155 gone, right there.

But hang on a minute. Biggs’ explanation that it’s all about promoting Wellington unravels when you consider that an $1100 dinner for 10 at Zibibbo was for the boards of Wreda and its subsidiary agency, Creative HQ. After all, you hardly need to promote Wellington to people whose job is to, er, promote Wellington.

Presumably the dinner in this instance qualified as “building collegiality”. But to most people it just looks like an excuse to have a grand time at someone else’s expense.

In the light of Biggs’ previous comments, you also have to wonder what business he generated for Wellington by dining with Lavery and Fry. I mean, he surely didn’t need to convince them – council executives both – of Wellington’s “vibrancy and sophistication”.

Fry, incidentally, is now the interim chief executive of Wreda after Whelan stepped down earlier this year. In this role, Fry will be expected to curb the excesses of which he has previously himself been a beneficiary. It all looks decidedly clubby.

As for Lavery … well, some of us remember an era when town clerks cycled to work carrying a paper bag containing luncheon-sausage sandwiches and a granny smith apple. Now they’re called chief executives and, in Lavery’s case, pocket more than $400,000 a year. Can’t he afford to buy his own lunch?

Part of the problem is that Wreda is one of those agencies that inhabit the nebulous territory between the public and private sectors. And while Wreda has “rules” on how entertainment money is to be spent, they are loose enough to allow very liberal interpretation – which is exactly what seems to have happened on Biggs’ watch. We’re left with a clear impression of a culture where a sense of entitlement was rampant.  

The traditionally frugal public-sector ethos doesn’t stand a chance when it has to compete with the temptations presented by a corporate credit card. To put it another way, what CEO with pretensions of grandeur is going to choose a sandwich in the office over lunch at Logan Brown? After all, this is the real world we’re talking about.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Freedom of speech, Rachel Stewart-style

New Zealand Herald columnist Rachel Stewart is a true champion of free speech. Except, that is, when someone wants to say something she doesn’t like.

In her column this week she savaged an occasional Otago Daily Times columnist named Dave Witherow. Witherow is guilty of the unpardonable sin of being (like me) an ageing, conservative male. In the eyes of the left-leaning bigots who have acquired almost total control of the public conversation in New Zealand, this automatically disqualifies him from having a valid opinion on anything.

What specifically pushed Stewart’s buttons is that Witherow wrote a column criticising Maori Language Week – or as he put it, “media apologists the length and breadth of the land prostrating themselves before the holy altar of te reo”.

He was especially critical of Radio New Zealand. “For the last couple of years,” Witherow wrote, “RNZ has been ahead of the pack in obsequiousness. Everything indigenous is sacrosanct, and even formerly redoubtable interviewers now shrink from the slightest demur when boring bigots drone on about the mana of all things native.”

Witherow used provocative language, as he’s entitled to do, and duly copped a barrage of self-righteous condemnation.

One of the more frenzied responses came from someone named Glenn McConnell, who was described as a Stuff reporter. That word “reporter” used to mean someone who reported, but that was before journalism training was politicised and new entrants to the profession were inculcated with the view that their mission was to correct the world’s iniquities. Many of them struggle to string three coherent words together, but they can spot sexism and racism a mile off and never hesitate to pass judgment. So McConnell had no compunction in labelling Witherow as a racist and accusing him of “casual bigotry”.

Hmmm. I wonder who the real bigots are here, but we’ll come back to that.

McConnell condescendingly allowed that most racists don’t know they’re racist. Ah, but he knows a racist when he sees one. Such are the superior moral insights conferred by modern journalism training.

Meanwhile, on the news website The Spinoff, Madeleine Chapman (no, I hadn’t heard of her, either) indulged in her own casual bigotry. She apologised for having to condemn yet another “bad column” (sigh – it’s just so tiresome having to constantly correct all these knuckle-dragging reactionaries) but justified it by saying she hoped it would be “the last goodbye to a generation of old men standing on their media platforms, yelling at clouds”.

You almost have to admire the conceit underlying that statement. Chapman seems to think the irresistible force of her argument will shock people like Witherow into silence. Good luck with that, as they say.

Another Spinoff contributor, Danyl Mclauchlan, categorised Witherow as representative of a “mostly older, mostly Pakeha subset of the population” whom he said were routinely provoked into outrage by Maori Language Week. Mclauchlan sneeringly referred to “drunken uncles at summer barbecues, bores holding forth in work tea-rooms and columnists and cartoonists on provincial papers”, all perpetuating their own ignorant versions of New Zealand history.  

(If I can slightly digress here, you can’t help but note a striking consistency in both Spinoff pieces. In an era when the Left is vigilant to the point of obsession in condemning stereotypes and prejudice, the one form of discrimination that’s not just tolerated but encouraged is the disparaging of older white males. The epithet “male, pale and stale” now serves as a coded synonym for someone who is misogynistic, racist, homophobic and stubbornly resistant to everything that’s progressive and enlightened. It’s a caricature, used to dismiss the legitimacy of anything that older white men might say or any opinions they might hold. So much for the Left’s supposed embrace of diversity.)

Witherow’s column also attracted the inevitable admonishment from Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy, who unfortunately has emulated her immediate predecessor, Joris De Bres, by morphing into a tedious, finger-wagging prig.  But the most poisonous attack, and I use the word deliberately, came from Stewart.

Stewart has the gall to say she believes in free speech – “absolutely” – before going on to say she “struggles with what basically amounts to gratuitous hate speech”. But she can’t have it both ways.

What she really wants is to deny Witherow a right that she claims for herself – that of free speech. She goes a step further by attacking the Otago Daily Times for publishing his column and therefore, in her eyes, being complicit in hate speech.

That’s why I describe her attack as poisonous. In a breathtaking display of moral and intellectual conceit, Stewart wants us to accept that her opinion is legitimate and noble while that of Witherow is hateful and contemptible. But she can’t exercise her own right of free speech while simultaneously seeking to deny it to others. A democratic society is built on the contestability of ideas. The moment any set of ideas is outlawed, democracy is diminished. Enlightened leftists (that is, those who can genuinely lay claim to the honourable term “liberal”) realise that. Stewart either can’t, or doesn’t want to.

In any case, who defines “hate speech”? Stewart doesn’t explain, so I’ll attempt it for her. Hate speech, in the eyes of some on the Left (not everyone, by any means), can essentially be defined as any opinion that runs counter to identity politics. This is the ideology that seeks to polarise society by breaking it down into supposedly oppressed minority groups, all pursuing their own divisive agendas, and which assesses everything in Western civilisation – art, literature, history, politics, the media – in terms of class, race and gender.

Playing the “hate speech” card is one of a range of tactics now routinely employed to marginalise any opinion the Left doesn’t like. Others include dismissing any expression of conservative opinion as a “rant”, thus implying it’s the product of a deranged mind, or caricaturing even moderately right-of-centre opinion as extreme, as New Zealand writer Ben Mack did in a hysterical, pants-wetting Washington Post column describing New Zealand First as a “far right” party and its involvement in the coalition government as “terrifying”. (The headline read: How the far right is poisoning New Zealand. Notwithstanding my own detestation of Winston Peters and his role in the shonky formation of the new government, I didn’t recognise the country portrayed in that headline and I don’t know any New Zealander who would.)

“Denier” and “denialist” (which are used in the context of the climate change debate to imply that global warming sceptics are on a par with Jew-hating Holocaust deniers) are part of this repertoire of attack too, along with the terms “racist”, “sexist”, “homophobe” and “misogynist” – all of which are used to portray the person so labelled as either stupid, evil or both, and thus to shame or intimidate them into silence. The ultimate objective of this strategy is to redefine the boundaries of public discourse so as to exclude anything that doesn’t conform to the neo-Marxist agenda.

But here’s the thing. Stewart’s entitled to fume all she likes about hate speech, just as long as she doesn’t attempt to shut other people down. I’m not in the habit of attacking other columnists and wouldn’t be criticising her here if she hadn’t stepped over that line. (Incidentally, I don’t know of any conservative group that argues people like her should be silenced. It’s always those on the Left who seek to stifle opinions that upset them.)

Now, back to McConnell, the Stuff columnist who accuses Witherow of bigotry. But who are the real bigots in this debate? My Oxford dictionary defines a bigot as an obstinate and intolerant believer in a religion or political theory. If that accusation is going to be hurled at Witherow, then it should be thrown right back at some of those attacking him. People should never make the mistake of equating bigotry with conservatism. Some of the most resolutely closed minds I’ve encountered have belonged to diehard lefties.

Fortunately there are left-leaning commentators who see the danger of the route people like Stewart would take us down. They are prepared to defend Witherow’s right to an opinion, and the ODT’s right to publish it, even if they don’t agree with what he says. On Pundit, for example, Tim Watkin described Witherow’s column as insulting and narrow-minded (fair enough), but drew the line “when criticism becomes an attack on civil debate and free speech”. And in the Herald, veteran writer Gordon McLachlan chided Stewart for thinking her own opinion sacrosanct. She should accept, he wrote, that she was not in command of ultimate truths.

Amen to that, but I suspect Stewart is so wrapped up in her own conceit, and so lacking in critical self-awareness, that reasoned criticism will fly straight over her head.

This debate still has some way to run. It’s likely to be revived tomorrow when Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill interviews Don Brash, who endorsed Witherow’s column and posted a statement on Facebook saying he was “utterly sick” of hearing Te Reo Maori on RNZ. Brash identified Guyon Espiner of Morning Report as the worst offender and accused him of “virtue signalling”. (Good on Espiner for learning Maori, but he does give the impression that he enjoys showing off his fluency. And it’s hard to see the point of the increasingly frequent usage of Maori on Morning Report, unless it’s to make listeners feel that they’re not being good New Zealanders unless they learn it too. RNZ needs to understand that it’s not the function of the state broadcaster to inspire us to good works – we can go to church for that – or sign up to some idealistic vision of biculturalism.)

I can’t decide whether Brash is being foolhardy or courageous entering the lion’s den with Hill, since he has about as much chance of fair treatment as I have of being crowned Miss Universe. In my experience, the only time Hill interviews conservatives, it’s with the intention of trying to demolish them or make them look stupid. But good luck to him.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Our drive-by history

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, Nelson Mail and Taranaki Daily News, November 29.)

We New Zealanders are not very good at celebrating our unique and turbulent history.

This was brought home to me last week when, during a trip through Taranaki, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit an historic site with a connection to my family.

Te Ngutu o te Manu (“the beak of the bird”) was the scene of an attempt by colonial forces to seize a fortified South Taranaki pa occupied by the formidable Ngati Ruanui chief Titokowaru in 1868.

It didn’t go well for the colonials. A first attack was abandoned and four soldiers were killed in the second skirmish. But Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas MacDonnell, perhaps unwisely, persisted.

On the third attempt, MacDonnell and his 350 men were lured into a trap. Although outnumbered six to one, Titokowaru’s defenders, many of them concealed around the edge of a clearing in front of the pa, mowed the attackers down.

When the smoke cleared, 20 of the attacking force lay dead or dying. They included the colourful Prussian adventurer Major Gustavus Von Tempsky, the leader of an irregular force known as the Forest Rangers.

Among the wounded was my great-grandfather, John Flynn. Irish-born, he was not a regular soldier but a member of the Taranaki Volunteers. Shot through the left thigh, he was carried to safety by his comrades during an arduous seven-hour retreat through the dense bush, harried every step of the way by Titokowaru’s Hauhau warriors.

Flynn eventually made a full recovery and went on to spend many years driving the mail coach that ran between Hawera and New Plymouth. Paradoxically he got on well with local Maori and spoke the language.

Some might think it unwise to admit having a forebear who was, not to put too fine a point on it, part of a military force whose job was to enforce the seizure of Maori land, but I feel neither proud nor ashamed of my great-grandfather and refuse to judge him. He was acting according to the prevailing values and beliefs of his time, just as we are free to see the actions of that era through a different lens.

The battle site is marked by a memorial listing the names of the dead soldiers. There is no mention of the Maori casualties, confirming Winston Churchill’s famous statement that history is written by the victors.

Although in this case Ngati Ruanui won the battle, their story is invisible. The bigger war was ultimately won by the Crown, and part of the reward was to lay exclusive claim to the account of what happened.

But what struck me most was that you can drive past the site of the Te Ngutu o te Manu memorial and not know it exists. The stone cross stands in a large grassy clearing surrounded by native bush, concealed from the road.

There’s no sign at the entrance, nor at the nearby turnoff, and there’s nothing back on the main highway to indicate that you’re just five minutes’ drive away from a significant battleground. I found it only because I was given precise directions by a helpful woman at the Hawera information office. (For the record, it's not much more than a stone's throw from the Kapuni natural gas treatment plant.)

The same is true of another historic Taranaki site. For most motorists speeding along the Surf Highway between New Plymouth and Opunake, the AA road sign marking the turnoff to Mid Parihaka Rd would flash past in a blur. But it’s up this quiet country road that 1600 troops invaded the pacifist Maori settlement of Parihaka in 1881 and arrested community leaders Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi.

I have a family connection of sorts with Parihaka, too. My uncle, the left-wing historian Dick Scott, published The Parihaka Story in 1954 and followed it up with Ask That Mountain in 1975.

It’s fair to say that Dick brought the Parihaka affair to the attention of a Pakeha public that had previously known nothing about the Parihaka community’s campaign of non-violent resistance to European encroachment on Maori land.

The story is pretty well known now, but there are no signs directing travellers to the place where it unfolded. That may be the choice of today’s Parihaka residents, since it’s still a functioning community and they probably wouldn’t appreciate their rustic tranquility being disrupted by streams of cars.

Still, it strikes me as sad that we do so little to cultivate awareness of our own fascinating history. It wouldn’t happen in Australia, where Ned Kelly and the rebellious gold miners of the Eureka Stockade are feted in the public memory, and where the former convict settlement of Port Arthur, Tasmania, is a major tourist attraction.

It’s not just in Taranaki that historic sites are overlooked. I wonder how many people drive past the obelisk commemorating the Battle of Orakau, near Te Awamutu, without realising it’s where Rewi Maniapoto made his famously defiant last stand in the Waikato Wars. And who notices the memorial marking the scene of the Battle of Boulcott's Farm, in which six soldiers were killed and two more died later from their wounds, in the heart of what is now Lower Hutt?

Is this, I wonder, another manifestation of the so-called cultural cringe – the self-deprecating New Zealand conviction that nothing of interest has ever happened here? 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Most beautiful city? Not sure about that, but it suits me

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 17.)

I’ve been copping a bit of stick lately. Not because of anything I’ve said or done, or even how I look, but because of where I live.

Last month’s announcement that Masterton had been declared New Zealand’s Most Beautiful City was the cue for much chortling and guffawing at my expense.

I’ve lived contentedly in Masterton for nearly 15 years, but I concede it’s not a town that immediately springs to mind when you start thinking about beautiful places.

I received an email about the award from a friend in Nelson, a city so lovely that its residents can’t help but feel smug. In the subject line he simply wrote “Oh, please!”. There was a world of incredulity and ridicule in those two words.

Even locally, the decision was regarded with surprise and scepticism. “You have to be bloody joking,” one heretical Masterton resident wrote on the Wairarapa News website. Another wondered whether all the other cities in New Zealand had been blown up - proving at least that Masterton people have a self-deprecating sense of humour, along with their many other virtues.  

In the same awards, Greytown, just down the road, was declared New Zealand’s most beautiful small town. Now there was an award that people understood and agreed with.

Greytown is pretty and charming. It has become Wellington’s favourite weekend bolt-hole. If you’re from Kelburn or Wadestown, you’re just as likely to see your next-door neighbour in Greytown’s Main Street on a Saturday as you are at your corner dairy. Locals grizzle that they can’t find a car park because of all the out-of-town Porsches and Range-Rovers clogging the street.

But to me (and I hope I don’t offend my Greytown friends by saying this), Greytown is a bit Midsomer, if you get my drift. I don’t mean they keep killing each other there by gruesomely inventive means, as in the TV series, but it’s all rather fashionably homogeneous.

Masterton, on the other hand, is a Decile 1-10 town. Every socio-economic stratum is represented here, from wealthy old Wairarapa farming dynasties to multi-generational welfare-dependent families living in P houses with dead Ford Falcons on the front lawn.

It remains a no-nonsense provincial farming town. Drive in from the south and you run a gauntlet of agricultural equipment dealers, which clearly signals what drives the local economy. On weekends the sound of chainsaws can be deafening.

People think there’s a lot of crime here, but that’s largely a residual reputation from a past era. In any case, I no longer cringe when I see a headline about a drive-by shooting or a senseless act of vandalism in M-town.

In fact I now take a kind of perverse pride in such incidents, celebrating them as evidence of a community that represents humanity in all its rich and wondrous diversity. There’s more to life in Masterton than being able to find the perfect soy latte.

But back to that award. Part of the reason it occasioned such disbelief was that the phrase “Most Beautiful City” is a misnomer. For a start, Masterton’s technically not a city. You need 50,000 people for that, and we’re barely halfway there.

More to the point, the organisers weren’t using that word “beautiful” in the conventional sense. No one could claim that Masterton is richly endowed with scenic wonders, although it certainly makes the most of the assets it has. Even my Nelson friend admits to a fondness for Queen Elizabeth Park, where you can imagine the thwack of leather on willow even when there’s not a cricketer in sight.

This is the sort of thing the judges were getting at. They praised the town for its environmental and heritage conservation efforts, and for the strength of its “community engagement”. 

I know what they mean, even if the sneerers don’t. It’s a place where people pitch in when there’s something that needs doing.

Trouble is, word seems to be getting out. Last year, Masterton’s population grew faster than any other place in the Greater Wellington region, other than the capital itself.

It’s certainly not one of those provincial zombie towns that you read about. Visitor numbers keep increasing, new housing consents are double what they were in 2016 and local builders are going gangbusters.

Most of the new arrivals are from Wellington and Auckland. Whatever Masterton’s got, they seem to like it. 

But the town is changing to meet their requirements. There are now bars where you don’t have to drink Tui and we're about to get a classy boutique cinema. Traffic keeps building up and next thing you know, people will be demanding traffic lights.

I have grave reservations about these changes. Thank God for the Remutaka Hill, I say. It’s our only defence against the interlopers. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

It's the Friendly News with Dan the Smiling Weatherman

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, November 15).

Something’s not right here. I’m watching a 1 News item about Prince Charles being implicated in an international tax dodge, and the reporter is TVNZ’s own Chris Chang.

The story originated in Britain but Chang would have recorded his voiceover in TVNZ’s Auckland newsroom. It will have replaced a voice track supplied with the original item by the BBC. But why?

Are we really expected to believe that a journalist sitting in New Zealand, with no specialist knowledge of Prince Charles or his dodgy investments, is in a better position to tell us what’s going on than someone close to the action?

Of course he isn’t. But this deception is routinely practised by our state-owned television network. Almost nightly, TVNZ takes overseas news items and gets its own journalists to record a voiceover.

It’s dishonest, because it pretends TVNZ’s own staff have done the hard yards when in fact they’re piggy-backing on the work of correspondents overseas.

You could argue that it’s harmless, but it’s dishonest all the same – and entirely unnecessary. So why does TVNZ do it?

I suspect that it’s all about promoting TVNZ’s own journalists as “names” – celebrities, you might say – whom we are encouraged to regard as our personal friends. It’s just one example of the many ways in which TV news bulletins have been cheapened by gimmickry and the cult of personality.

Even in the digital age, when consumers of news have a veritable smorgasbord of options, the 6 o’clock news remains crucial in locking viewers in for the evening. 1 News remains the most-watched free-to-air programme, and TVNZ constantly tweaks it to ensure it retains our loyalty.

The debasement process was set in train decades ago when someone decided it would be a good idea to have two people, rather than one, reading the news.

The tandem male-female newsreading team is now such an entrenched practice that we no longer think of it as peculiar. But reading the news requires only one person, as radio and most respected overseas TV networks demonstrate. Two is pure gimmickry.

Let me remind you how this strange practice came about. In the late 1970s the newly launched TV2, desperate to establish a point of difference against the bigger and better-resourced TV One, pioneered a dual newsreading team consisting of John Hawkesby and Tom Bradley.

Even Hawkesby and Bradley seemed to recognise that it was all a bit silly, jokingly referring to themselves privately as the Bobbsey Twins, after the characters in a popular series of American children’s stories. But nearly 40 years down the track, this contrivance has become a permanent fixture.

Now let’s move from the merely irritating to the ingratiating. TVNZ newsreaders and reporters have clearly been instructed to encourage us to think of them not as detached, competent professionals doing a serious, important job, but as our chums.

It’s the Friendly News with Simon and Wendy, with Dan the Smiling Weatherman providing the warm-up act. This sense of easy familiarity is reinforced by the way the newsreaders address reporters when they appear live. Jessica Mutch is “Jess”; sports host Andrew Saville is “Sav”, and so on. They’re our pals.

We see it too when a reporter such as Paul Hobbs, one of TVNZ’s most favoured journalists, appears on screen. He often gives the impression that he’s less concerned with providing an authoritative report than with establishing a smiley empathy with viewers.

This approach can be traced back 20 years or so, to when an American consultant was brought in to retrain TVNZ’s journalists and newsreaders. His message, which TVNZ management heartily endorsed, was that viewers had to become more emotionally engaged with the news. They had to feel it on a more personal level.

Brian Edwards memorably called it the coochie-coo news. Some TVNZ journalists couldn’t bear it and quit rather than undergo what they called “potty training”.

What else bugs me about 1 News? Well, there’s the nagging suspicion that some reporters are hired for their looks rather than their ability. It helps to be young and attractive. Appearance seems to be valued over experience.

Then there are the ridiculously brief sound bites from interviewees – sometimes just three or four words. Is TVNZ worried that our attention span can’t cope with a complete sentence, or is it a way of making the news seem fast-paced and dynamic?

There’s also the ridiculous emphasis on reporting “live” from the scene of a story, even when the event being reported took place hours earlier and the “live” report adds nothing. It’s made worse when the reporter is not up to the challenge of speaking live to the camera, as is often the case.  

And don’t get me started about incorrect captions – indeed, often no captions at all, so that you’re left to guess the identity of the person on screen. Standard practice is not to identify the speaker the first time he or she appears. You have to wait for a second appearance before you learn who it is.

Again, why? Perhaps TVNZ thinks we’ll be so curious to discover who it is that we won’t be tempted to stray to a rival channel in the meantime. Who knows how the TVNZ corporate mind works?

My point is this: news is serious stuff. It deserves to be treated with respect, not gussied up with floss and tat better suited to a travelling circus.

In the 1920s, the BBC famously required its radio newsreaders to wear a dinner jacket, even though no one saw them. Over the top? Yes – but at least it showed that the BBC saw the reading of the day’s news as an occasion of some gravitas.

FOOTNOTE: Soon after my column appeared on the Manawatu Standard website, TVNZ supplied the following statement from Phil O'Sullivan, head of newsgathering. I reproduce it in the interests of fairness and balance.

"Mr du Fresne is perfectly entitled to his opinion on our news and we welcome his viewership but when he accuses 1 News of 'deception' and 'dishonesty', a response is called for.

"We frequently run international material from the BBC and the United States’ ABC network. When our Europe or US correspondents are not available, we will often pull together a story back here in New Zealand. Not all our affiliate material is suitable to run in New Zealand. The story may still be developing, it may be too long, too short or aimed too closely at an overseas domestic audience. Our aim is simply to tell a story that New Zealand viewers can relate to.

"Mr du Fresne is incorrect in stating as fact our reporter 'replaced a voice track supplied with the original item supplied by the BBC'. The reporter conducted his own research and reported the story using a range of affiliate material and sourcing. In no way did we deceive our audience and we believe they’d be smart enough to know if we did so.

"We agree 'news is serious stuff'. In the past year alone our team has reported from all over New Zealand and the world on stories as diverse as natural disasters to a general election. All of these stories have myriad challenges, not least keeping our staff safe while covering them.

"1 News is New Zealand’s most watched and most trusted TV news – we never take that position for granted."

I'm happy to accept Phil O'Sullivan's assurance that Chris Chang compiled the Prince Charles item, although I question the need to do so when the BBC could have been relied on to cover the matter thoroughly. I believe this reinforces my point about TVNZ wanting to put its own reporters forward. I have noted many occasions in recent months when TVNZ's own journalists have presented overseas news items for no obvious reason.

Incidentally, I notice that on the two nights since my column was published, 1 News appears to have changed its policy of not identifying people when they first appear on screen. Of course this could be entirely coincidental. Nonetheless it's welcome.