Friday, September 12, 2014

Politics isn't all dirt, even if it sometimes looks that way

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 10.)
Don’t despair. Things are not as bad as they seem. At least that’s the optimistic message I’ve taken from all the unedifying political argy-bargy of the past few weeks.
It’s easy to think the worst, mind you. First, there was the YouTube video of Christchurch students moronically chanting “F… John Key”. That was a low in New Zealand politics, but it took only a couple of weeks to be surpassed in loathsomeness by a “song” – I use that word in the loosest possible sense – in which a semi-literate swamp-dweller snarled that he wanted to kill John Key and f … his daughter.

How the group that made it avoided prosecution is a mystery, especially when the Electoral Commission had previously huffed and puffed mightily over a clever and essentially harmless musical video called Planet Key.
One was a sophisticated, legitimate piece of political satire, the other a primitive, malevolent rant (the creator of which subsequently claimed, in a display of mock ingenuousness that would have fooled no one, that he was merely trying to encourage young people to vote).

Then there was Nicky Hager’s book  Dirty Politics, which – at the risk of sounding melodramatic – was like shining a torch into a dark political backroom, the existence of which was previously unknown,  and seeing rats scurrying around trying to escape the light.

Democracy depends on accountability, but the people whose machinations Hager exposed were neither elected nor accountable. Democracy also depends on transparency, but their attempts to subvert the political process relied on concealment. We are better off now that they are out in the open.
Much the same can be said about Judith Collins’ resignation as minister of justice, which had a cleansing effect. Collins denies the claims against her and deserves a chance to clear her name, but the trail of allegations against her meant she had become tainted goods. She had to go.

What about Hager himself, then? Yes, he performed a public service by exposing what needed to be exposed. But he remains open to the accusation that he is himself, ironically, part of the dirty politics that he professes to despise.
He is not an impartial journalist sifting objectively through all the evidence and weighing all the facts. He is a highly partisan, agenda-driven campaigner who used stolen emails and apparently made no attempt either to corroborate his material or allow the people he accused to respond, as a journalist would.

It’s surely significant that even after all the furore of the past few weeks, public support for Key and his government, as measured by the opinion polls, appears to have barely moved.
That suggests the public, after weighing everything up, has largely discounted Hager’s claims. They will have noted the strategic timing of the book launch and possibly regard Dirty Politics as itself a bit dirty, notwithstanding all the claims about the purity of the author’s motives.

That’s one of the great things about an informed, open democracy. It has a remarkable way of enabling people to see past the smoke, flames and noise and eventually find their way to the right conclusion.
I always remember Mike Moore’s philosophical response when the Labour government of which he was briefly the leader was thrown out of office in 1990. “The people are always right,” he said.

He was saying that in a democracy, you can’t argue with the result of a free and fair election. But what he said was also correct in a broader sense: an informed electorate is capable of making wise decisions.
That’s one of the reasons I remain hopeful. But there’s another factor too.

It’s agreed by everyone that this has been an unusually vicious election campaign. But the important thing is that the worst of the nastiness is on the fringes of politics, among noisy and highly partisan activists on either side.
In the middle, where most New Zealanders dwell, life goes on. Politics isn’t everything. They tune out most of the unpleasantness.

Another thing that gives me heart is that when the firestorm over Dirty Politics was at its height, I watched rival politicians debating on television. On one programme, Education Minister Hekia Parata was in the studio with Labour’s Chris Hipkins. On another, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was up against her Labour counterpart, Jacinda Ardern.
The striking thing about both these exchanges was that they were intelligent, respectful and civilised. It was good to be reminded that where it counts most, New Zealand politics isn’t so dire and soiled after all.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The baneful influence of social media

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 5.)
EVERYONE agrees this has been the ugliest, most vicious election campaign period in memory.
The previous benchmark was set in 1975, when the Citizens for Rowling campaign foolishly lit Robert Muldoon’s fuse. But the past few weeks have been even more ill-tempered than Muldoon at his most belligerent.

What’s different this time?  Well, there’s Kim Dotcom, for starters. The big German’s motive for entering politics was wholly negative: he wants to get rid of John Key. It may be the first time in New Zealand history that a party has been founded on the basis of a personal grudge.
Dotcom likes to play the amiable prankster, but the “F--- John Key” video was an attempt to legitimise mindless abuse as a political tactic – something not seen here before.

Then of course there was the cleverly timed launch of Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics – a limpet mine attached to the hull of National’s supposedly unsinkable dreadnought.
But underlying all this is a bigger incendiary influence: the role of social media.

Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere have played a large hand in dictating the tone of this election. Cameron Slater’s Whale Oil is just the tip of a large and dirty iceberg.
Much of the political commentary in online forums, both on the Left and Right, is extraordinarily toxic and abusive.

Mercifully, much of it fails to penetrate the mainstream. And to their credit, most politicians try to stay above it.
But among activists on both sides of politics, overheated online forums have created an atmosphere of rage and bigotry that has reshaped political dialogue. You can sense this baneful influence filtering through into media coverage, which is more intense and aggressive than ever before.

How could this happen in a country with a deserved reputation for being civilised, liberal and tolerant?
A couple of factors come to mind. The first is that the Internet enables instantaneous comment. Someone feeling a rush of anger can be on Facebook or Twitter within seconds.

In a previous era, if you wanted to comment on politics, you wrote a letter to the paper. That allowed time for sober reflection – a cooling-down period.  
Then there’s the fact that in online forums, the person you’re attacking is unseen. You’ve probably never met. In such circumstances it’s all too easy to demonise your imagined enemies.

Online, you’re safely distanced from those you’re attacking and feel less compunction about putting the boot in. I’ve succumbed to this depersonalising effect myself and know how easily it can happen.
And politics has become intensely tribal. Each political blog, whether it’s Whale Oil on the Right or The Daily Blog on the Left, has its own tribe. They are united in hatred against the other tribe. There are even factions within tribes that hate each other.

Any member of the Left-wing tribe foolhardy enough to stray into the Right-wing tribe’s territory, or vice-versa, will be eviscerated.
How did we arrive at this point? At the risk of being ridiculed for romanticising the past, I believe it has come about partly as a result of the decline of the traditional news media.

The old-style newspaper was a “broad church”, presenting a wide range of information and comment from which readers were able to form their own conclusions. But the digital revolution has given politically minded people an alternative.
They now tend to gravitate to the online forum that represents their tribe. They show no interest in hearing what the other side thinks, still less considering whether an opposing view might have some merit.

The newspaper was also the traditional forum for political debate via its correspondence columns. Good newspapers took the trouble to ensure a broad spectrum of opinion was published, and still do.  
Crucially, letters were subject to an editing process which filtered out abusive and defamatory comment. And just as important, anonymity was prohibited. The price of being able to comment publically was that you had to identify yourself. No such constraints apply online, where anonymity emboldens cowards.

Champions of the Internet applaud the fact that public comment is no longer controlled by gatekeepers in the mainstream media, and they’re right, up to a point. But the gatekeepers were a civilising influence whose absence from social media we may come to regret.

Friday, August 29, 2014

I wrote a book about wine, so I must be a drunk; or at least a paid shill for the liquor czars

I’ve been meaning to revisit the subject of my column in last week’s Dominion Post, which was reproduced here. It was about Nigel Latta’s TV documentary on alcohol and it prompted a prickly response from him on his Facebook page.
Latta accused me of resorting to name-calling and said I ignored the science that shows the harm done by alcohol. Obviously he felt I should have showed more deference towards the worthy professors he interviewed on the programme, whose statements he appeared to accept without question (in marked contrast to the open scepticism he displayed with the one liquor industry representative who appeared).

Actually, I’ve never denied that alcohol causes harm. It would be pointless to try. All I have done, consistently, is point out that the majority of New Zealand drinkers consume alcohol responsibly and without doing themselves or those around them any harm, and that they would be unfairly penalised if the anti-liquor crusaders, with their demands for swingeing restrictions, got their way.
We didn’t hear from, or about, these responsible drinkers. You never do from people like professors Doug Sellman and Sally Casswell. That was the main point of my column – one that Latta didn’t answer.

As for science – well, it’s all about which statistics you choose to cite. The academics who appeared in Latta’s programme are highly selective about which statistics they present. They highlight dodgy figures that purport to show how many of us are “problem” drinkers and studiously ignore all the evidence that shows consumption is declining and that, in any case, New Zealanders are moderate drinkers by world standards. None of this was mentioned in Latta’s relentlessly alarmist documentary.
Ultimately, the case against alcohol as articulated by Sellman, Casswell and Co. has more to do with ideology than science. They use their taxpayer-funded posts in academia to push for laws that would restrict the freedom and choices of the mugs who pay their salaries.

I was going to put this response on Latta’s Facebook page, but when I saw the tone of the comments from his legion of doting supporters, I realised I’d be wasting my time (he got 3,302 “likes”). So I made do with a brief statement pointing out that when someone puts himself forward in prime time on a publicly owned television channel, and takes highly contestable positions on contentious issues, he becomes fair game for criticism.
It’s possible this is a new experience for Latta, since his parenting programmes were very popular. (My own wife and daughter were fans.) But he’d better get used to it.

I also pointed out that $750,000 of taxpayers’ money had been spent on the current series of six programmes made by Latta. There’s a very important question to be asked here: is it right that public money is used to fund a series of highly politicised documentaries on controversial social issues, and even more provocatively to screen them immediately before an election?  
It’s not the subject matter of the programmes that I object to, nor even the fact that they put forward views I heartily disagree with. What’s intolerable is that publicly funded “factual” programmes are so relentlessly partisan, with no attempt at balance. (I admit I saw only two of them, on alcohol and inequality, but both adopted simplistic, partisan positions on complex, politically sensitive issues. People who have seen other programmes in the series came to much the same conclusion.)

Before I leave this subject, I feel compelled to refer to some of the comments made on Facebook by Latta’s fans. I think they show the futility of trying to engage in any sort of useful dialogue.
● Someone wrote that if the Dominion Post endorsed my column then perhaps it was time the paper reviewed its editorial policy. What you have here, then, is lamentable ignorance combined with intolerance of dissent  – a lethal mix. (A New Zealand Party voter, perhaps?) That got 111 “likes”.

● Another commenter said that if I had to spend one weekend in an emergency ward, I’d soon change my tune. (There were several comments along similar lines.) This is a glorious non-sequitur. So because some people behave foolishly or badly when they drink, as they unquestionably do (and probably would even if alcohol was made harder to get), the rest of us must be penalised?
● Someone else said I’m a global warming denier – ergo, a heretic. Gasp. What a shame they no longer burn people at the stake. (For the record, I’ve never “denied” global warming; I’m in no position to. But I am a sceptic, because people who know a lot more about climate science than I do keep coming up with good reasons to be sceptical.)

● Someone triumphantly pounced on the fact that several years ago I wrote a book about wine. Ah, a smoking gun! Clearly, I’m just another shill for the unscrupulous booze barons Latta talked about. (Inconvenient fact: hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders drink wine regularly without ending up in police cells or emergency wards. Who’d have thought?)
● In response to this highly incriminating disclosure, someone else wrote: “Haha awesome, Karl is a drunk then. That’s why he didn’t like the programme.” And later, from another commenter: “Forgive him, he was probably rotten drunk when he wrote it.” Latta must be proud to have such sophisticated followers. (For the record again, I have four adult children. They have never seen me drunk.)

● It was pointed out that the academics on Latta’s programme all said they liked a drink themselves. I noted the same thing – they seemed to make a point of it. This is part of the cloak of piety they drape around themselves. It not only presents them as ordinary pleasure-loving Kiwis, but also demonstrates how grave the problem must be if they’re prepared to deny themselves the wicked pleasure of a cheap bottle of chardonnay from Pak ’n’ Save just to save the rest of us. It’s a variation of the old line from the parent or schoolteacher about to administer corporal punishment: “This hurts me as much it hurts you.”
There was much more in similar vein, but I didn’t go any further. Reading comments on Facebook takes through you a cycle of emotions from depression to hilarity to despair. Nigel’s welcome to them.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

If National loses, it knows where the blame lies

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 27.)

Are you disgusted by what’s going on in politics? I am. We all should be.
Everything about the Dirty Politics affair is reprehensible. Let’s start with Cameron Slater.

I fully understood the angry reaction to his headline “Feral dies in Greymouth, did world a favour” after a West Coast man was killed in a car that was allegedly trying to escape the police.
Slater wasn’t to know that the dead man’s family had already lost three other sons in accidents, including one in the Pike River explosion. But anyone with a modicum of sensitivity would have realised a family would be grieving. A cruel and gratuitous taunt wasn’t going to help.

Someone was supposedly so offended that they hacked into Slater’s emails. At least that’s the explanation put forward for the leaked material on which author Nicky Hager based his book Dirty Politics. So you could say it was poetic justice that the “feral” post has caused such discomfort for the government. (Less so for Slater himself, I suspect; I think part of him relishes the notoriety.)
Only thing is, I’m not sure I buy the explanation about how Hager came into possession of the emails, any more than I bought his claim years ago that several National Party sources independently and simultaneously supplied him with a wodge of emails relating to Don Brash’s meetings with the Exclusive Brethren.

National Party people, leaking to a known left-wing crusader at the expense of their own party? It seemed highly improbable then and it still seems improbable now.
What makes me suspicious is that whoever hacked Slater’s emails subsequently began drip-feeding them on Twitter in a carefully phased operation obviously calculated to cause maximum political damage. As TV3 political editor Patrick Gower pointed out, that required a high degree of political and media savvy.

Suspicion has fallen on Kim Dotcom (hardly surprising, given that he boasted at the weekend about hacking the German chancellor’s credit rating), but both Dotcom and Hager strenuously deny his involvement.
Whoever’s responsible, it began to look less like the work of someone who had spontaneously attacked Slater’s email account out of anger at the “feral” headline, and more like an example of the political “black ops” that Hager supposedly despises.

Hager’s role in the affair has largely escaped critical scrutiny. He has been a trenchant critic of clandestine surveillance of private communications in the past – indeed, wrote a book about it. Yet here he is, using stolen emails to write a book whose publication is timed to derail a party he obviously opposes.
He apparently made no effort to corroborate his information, as a responsible journalist would do, yet he insists on calling himself a journalist because it conveys the erroneous impression that he’s even-handed and has no political agenda.

In my opinion Hager’s double standard – one rule for intelligence agencies, another for him – is contemptible. Yet the media have largely allowed him to claim the moral high ground.
Ah yes, the media. To be fair, the press could hardly ignore Hager’s book. Reporters would have been remiss if they hadn’t asked hard questions of John Key, as Radio New Zealand’s Guyon Espiner did on Morning Report. Key has rarely, if ever, sounded less comfortable.

But sometimes the media get so excited that the chase itself becomes the story. Even Fairfax political reporter Andrea Vance wondered on television at the weekend whether, in their frenzied pursuit of the Dirty Politics story, journalists had done the public a disservice by largely ignoring other important election issues.
What we don’t know (or didn’t at the time of writing) is whether the media firestorm has swung support away from the government or had any impact on the undecided voter. Many people quickly lose interest in what they regard as Beltway issues and tune out.

Finally, what about the government’s performance? That brings me back to the D-word.
As irritating as Hager’s sanctimony is, we are left with the disgusting reality that he has exposed government involvement in sleazy smear campaigns and machinations of a type that Richard Nixon would have approved. The political process, which has historically been remarkably clean in New Zealand, has been tainted.

Almost as objectionable was the prime minister’s dissembling and evasiveness as he tried unconvincingly, day after day, to defend his indefensible justice minister, whom he should have sacked at the outset, and his bland pretence that despite the billowing clouds of smoke, there was no fire.
Key is partly right when he says the election has been stolen from us, but he needs only to look over his shoulder to see the people responsible.

The irony is that two weeks ago, he had this election virtually in the bag. If National loses, it will have only its own hubris to blame.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Planet Tiso (continued)

Today I revisited Giovanni Tiso's series of  tweets last week about Jane Clifton's Listener column on Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics. Here are some of the words he used: "turgid", "shit", "supercilious", "cynical".

Clifton is a hugely experienced and well-informed observer of New Zealand politics. She's also astute, even-handed, eloquent and funny, which explains why tens of thousands of Listener readers turn to her every week to make sense of events that would otherwise leave them scratching their heads. I thought her column on the Dirty Politics furore was one of her best. But such judgments are subjective and Tiso is entitled to disagree, even if his language is intemperate.

Could his manic attack on Clifton (I counted 35 tweets over a short period, which sounds dangerously close to obsessional) be upheld as fair comment, then? Well, perhaps it could have been, except for a couple of things.

One is that he implies she's a sociopath. Tiso quotes a line from her column - "They are both advancing a political cause" (a reference to Hager and Cameron Slater) - and then adds: "And if you think that, you're a sociopath". I've read this several times and don't see how it can be construed as meaning anything other than that Clifton is a sociopath, which my dictionary defines as "someone affected by any of various personality disorders characterised by asocial or antisocial behaviour".

Okay, you could argue that in the Wild West of the twittersphere, even insults like "sociopath" are acceptable. I'm sure Tiso didn't mean it literally; he was indulging in hyperbole for rhetorical impact.

But hang on. What happened when I took a poke at Tiso in this blog, using a similar rhetorical device against him? (I said he shouldn't be allowed out in public without a minder, and suggested someone should adjust his medication.) He howled that I was being cruel - "vile" was his exact word - because he had a daughter with an intellectual disability, which he claimed (wrongly) I was aware of. Then he had the gall to whimper about people being unpleasant and indulging in ad hominem arguments.  Well, hello.

Let's get this straight then: it's okay for Tiso to call a respected columnist a sociopath because he doesn't like her take on the Dirty Politics affair, but it's mean and horrid to suggest that he might be a bit doolally himself. That's taking unfair advantage.

There's a term in boxing for people who love to throw punches but crumple when anyone hits back. They're called crystal chins. Tiso is a crystal chin.

But here's the other thing about him. It obviously eats him up that people like Clifton are allowed to express opinions that don't conform with his. The same zealous intolerance drove his successful campaign to have two RadioLive hosts taken off the air because they asked questions Tiso didn't like.

He was pleased with himself over that one. What could be more satisfying to a Marxist than having weak-kneed capitalists capitulate at the expense of free speech?

Perhaps he thought  he could pull it off again, because he was clearly pushing on Twitter at the weekend for the Listener - one of my sources of income as a freelance journalist - to punish me for hurting his feelings. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that I'm a free agent, and that this blog  has nothing to do with the work I do for the Listener

Keep it up, Gio. If you carry on like this I really will wonder whether you've got some sort of personality disorder.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Rules of engagement

It's surely a sign of Giovanni Tiso's overweening self-regard that he assumes I remember every detail of his interview by Kim Hill earlier this year, in which reference was apparently made to his intellectually disabled daughter (see his comment in response to Planet Tiso on Friday). As it happens, I don't remember that detail - or much else from the interview, for that matter. Tiso's just not that interesting. I simply recall thinking that he sounded surprisingly normal. 

For the record, then, my comment about Tiso's medication had nothing whatsoever to do with his daughter. I feel very sorry for anyone with a disabled child. I'm not insensitive to mental disability or illness, as I think I've demonstrated in newspaper columns here and here. But if Tiso thinks he can dish out bile with impunity while  somehow being protected against retaliation because of his unfortunate personal circumstances, he's dreaming.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Nigel, meet Te Radar. I hope you get along.

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 22.)
Nigel Latta is one of those phenomena that happen when you’re not looking. One day, no one had heard of him; the next, it seemed you couldn’t turn on your TV set without seeing him.
His quirky method of presentation – walking backwards, making exaggerated gestures and pulling funny faces for the camera – obviously appealed to viewers. His shows on parenting not only rated well but spun off into live performances and national tours.

The clinical psychologist became a certified celebrity. Now he’s been further transmogrified into what is loosely termed a guru – no longer just an authority on parenting, but an oracle on the great issues of our time.
His latest series (curiously timed to coincide with the election campaign, as was Bryan Bruce’s overwrought 2011 documentary Inside Child Poverty) examines hot-button concerns such as inequality, education and alcohol.

I made a point of watching the programme about alcohol because it’s an issue on which New Zealanders have historically been subjected to misinformation and dishonest propaganda from both sides.
Was Latta going to present a clear-eyed, non-partisan perspective? The publicity blurb for the series led us to expect he would, promising that he would “sort fact from spin”.

In the event, he did nothing of the sort. The show turned out to be a wearily predictable litany of neo-wowser laments from the usual academic finger-waggers.
Professor Doug Sellman? Check. Professor Sally Casswell? Check. Professor Jennie Connor? Check. Dr Paul Quigley? Check. (Dr Quigley works in the emergency department at Wellington Hospital, which gives him an aura of coalface cred – but it also means that he sees the very worst side of alcohol abuse, so may not be the most objective judge.)

As the po-faced professors droned, the picture became ever gloomier. There’s no such thing as a safe level of consumption, we were told (that was Connor). Supermarkets are the country’s biggest drug dealers (Sellman). Alcohol is a neurotoxin that prevents us thinking logically. (I think that was Connor again; perhaps they edited out the important proviso that this happens only if you drink too much.)
And of course Latta parroted the hoary old canard that we’re at the mercy of shadowy liquor czars – foreign ones at that – who have our venal politicians in their pockets.

It was disappointing to see Sir Geoffrey Palmer buying into this doom-laden nonsense, but Palmer is a man whose earnest desire to do the right thing has taken him to some strange places. Perhaps he’s feeling guilty about having presided over the liberalisation of the liquor laws (which he no doubt thought was the right thing to do then) in 1989.
Between interview sequences, we were shown familiar stock footage of drunk teenagers in places like Courtenay Place, the implication being that they represent the typical New Zealand drinker. Latta seemed appalled that some kids had to pass liquor outlets on their way to school, as if such places emanated some sort of lethal miasma.

We met a woman who has terminal cancer at 32. She had been a drinker and now wished someone had told her that alcohol could cause cancer. Who wouldn’t feel sorry for her? But to imply that her cancer must have been caused by drinking was disgraceful, even cruel.
If everyone who drank got cancer, most of us would have been dead years ago. It would have been more valid to talk to women in their 80s who have been moderate drinkers all their lives and remain healthy and mentally alert.

Latta claimed to have invited liquor industry interests to take part, but they declined. They should have accepted, because refusal made it look as if they had something to be ashamed of.
But perhaps they sensed the cards would be stacked against them. The one industry person who agreed to talk to Latta, a hapless spokeswoman for the industry-funded Tomorrow Project, was subjected to an aggressively sceptical line of questioning that was completely at variance with his sycophantic acceptance of the Sellman-Casswell-Connor propaganda.

Throughout the programme, I had a nagging feeling that something was missing. Then it came to me.
We had heard nothing from the hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who enjoy alcohol in moderation, without any adverse effect on their health or their family life.

These ordinary, responsible New Zealanders had no voice. Latta framed the issue as a struggle between noble anti-liquor crusaders and wicked booze barons, with no one in between.
He overlooked the fact that New Zealand alcohol consumption has declined over the past 30 years and that it’s moderate by world standards (less, for example, than Germany, Australia, Britain and the Netherlands).

Neither did he mention that drink-drive convictions are in steady decline. These are inconvenient statistics. Nothing must be allowed to detract from the message that we’re a nation of helpless drunks.
The lack of balance was so egregiously blatant that I had to pour myself a stiff drink to calm down. But at least it meant I was mentally prepared when I watched Latta’s subsequent programme on inequality, which turned out to be equally selective and melodramatic in its approach.

I’ve now decided a little Latta goes a very long way. I hope he and Te Radar get along, because I’ve filed them both under Overexposed Hosts Who Get On My Nerves.