Friday, July 28, 2017

Catholicism and politics: a continuing story

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, July 26.)

Ever wondered why Britain has never had a Catholic prime minister?

Contrary to a popular misconception, there’s no constitutional barrier preventing it. So why hasn’t it happened?

The most likely explanation is that there remains a residual suspicion of Catholics that dates back to the bloody power struggles between Catholic and Protestant contenders for the throne several centuries ago. A gentleman named Guy Fawkes might have had something to do with it too.

Fears that Catholic politicians might secretly owe allegiance to Rome have never entirely been erased. Until 1829, Catholics weren’t even allowed to sit in the British parliament.

The closest Britain has come to getting a Catholic prime minister was Tony Blair, who regularly attended Mass with his Catholic wife when he was in No 10 Downing St, but waited until he had stood down before formalising his conversion.

Blair, who was nothing if not a shrewd calculator of political odds, knew that Catholicism would have been an impediment to his career. Besides, he wouldn’t have wanted to imperil the fragile Northern Ireland peace agreement by antagonising Protestants in the religiously divided province.

By comparison, we in New Zealand are relatively relaxed about Catholic politicians. We got our first Catholic premier, Frederick Weld, in 1864 and have had several Catholic prime ministers since then, including Labour hero Michael Joseph Savage, National’s Jim Bolger and of course Bill English.

This differentiates us not only from Britain but also America, which didn’t elect a Catholic president – John F Kennedy – until 1960. There hasn’t been another Catholic in the White House since then, despite Catholicism being the largest religious denomination in the US.

But while we in New Zealand might view lingering religious prejudices in other countries as rather quaint, there have been periods of religious tension in politics here too – especially in the early 20th century, when the Catholic Church in this country was led by bishops of Irish descent whose republican sympathies were at odds with staunchly pro-British governments.

Archbishop Francis Redwood and Dunedin’s Irish-born Bishop Patrick Moran were both outspoken supporters of Irish home rule – a cause energetically taken up by the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, which Moran founded.

The Irish issue famously caused political ructions when a priest named James Liston, later to become the long-serving and politically influential bishop of Auckland, was tried in 1922 on the rare charge of sedition. Liston had offended the government of William Massey, a Northern Ireland-born Protestant, by making a St Patrick’s Day speech in which he praised the IRA rebels behind the ill-fated Easter Rising of 1916. Ironically, he was acquitted by an all-Protestant jury.

Even relatively recently, Catholicism has been suspected of wielding too much influence behind the scenes. Anti-Catholic resentment surfaced during 1970s debates over abortion and state aid to Catholic schools. Opposition to liberalisation of the abortion laws was often dismissed as being driven entirely by Catholics, which wasn’t the case.

I remember once interviewing the late John Kennedy, then the redoubtable editor of the aforementioned Tablet, who told me there was a feeling in New Zealand that the Catholics had to be watched.

That didn’t stop Kennedy stirring things up by writing a controversial editorial in 1972 supporting the election of a Labour government – this at a time when New Zealand newspapers rarely took political sides, at least not openly.

Kennedy’s editorial probably served to reinforce suspicions that there was a Catholic bloc vote and that Catholic voters did as they were told. It certainly did no harm to Norman Kirk and the Labour Party. They swept into power, ending 12 years under National.

Again ironically, Kennedy later became a supporter and confidant of the autocratic National prime minister Robert Muldoon, whose social conservatism aligned closely with his own.

And so we come to the present day, and the New Zealand Catholic bishops’ 2017 election statement, which was distributed to Mass attendees recently.  

Dear me. What a wishy-washy, touchy-feely, hand-wringing document it is.

Under section headings such as “Fair Tax Structure”, “Affordable Housing” and “Caring for our planet” it largely parrots the position of the centre-Left parties.  But it conspicuously stops short of any rigorous critical analysis, preferring to take refuge in facile generalisations and cosy platitudes.

It doesn’t come straight out and urge Catholics to vote for Labour or the Greens, but it might as well. In fact I would have more respect for the Catholic bishops if it did. At least they would then be nailing their colours to the mast openly and unequivocally, rather than disguising their soft-Left leanings behind coded signals.

That the statement was issued at all is telling. If I were a practising Catholic, I wouldn’t be impressed by the presumption that I relied on the bishops for guidance on how to vote – least of all when they appear to take the lazy option of suggesting Big Government can solve all our problems.

Will the bishops’ statement do anything to restore the flagging moral authority of the Church? I doubt it. But then I don’t think it will revive fears about Catholic leaders exerting too much influence either. Those days are long gone. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The self-righteous rage of the Left

Hamburg last week was described as looking like a war zone after masked rioters ransacked shops, torched cars and built barricades which they then set alight.

The rioters were protesting against the G20 summit, although what noble purpose was served by looting shops, burning cars and making off with stolen ATM machines wasn’t clear.

Nonetheless we’re expected to believe that the protesters had more high-minded motives than the G20 leaders, whom the protesters insist are all irredeemably venal and corrupt. 

Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away, a violent mob stormed the Venezuelan parliament and attacked opposition MPs, some of whom suffered broken ribs and head injuries.

In both instances, the perpetrators were from the Left: in Hamburg, anarchists, communists and environmental activists; in Caracas, supporters of the socialist president Nicolas Maduro.

The Left has a problem here. Political violence in the past has often been associated with the far Right, but these days it’s the self-righteous rage of the Left that presents by far the greater threat to democracy.

It manifests itself not just in outright violence, but also in the howling down of any opinions that challenge leftist orthodoxy. Alarmingly, this intolerance of dissent has taken hold in universities, once regarded as bastions of free speech and critical thought.

This process has been hastened by the rise of identity politics, which aggrieved minority groups use as a platform for demanding special treatment, and by the fashionable dogma of post-modernism, which dismisses reason and truth as artificial constructs that serve the interests of ruling elites.

Post-modernism has the enormous advantage that it can’t be challenged on a rational basis, since it rejects reason and logic as tools of white privilege. Essentially, it seeks to pull the rug out from under all the accumulated knowledge and learning that forms the basis of Western civilisation.

Being a generally moderate society, New Zealand has yet to be exposed to the worst excesses of leftist fundamentalism, such as the incidents in Hamburg or Caracas. But that’s not to say it can’t happen here.

We see a milder form whenever activists try to block entry to a conference they disapprove of, or disrupt proceedings by shouting or waving placards. What they’re doing is interfering with other people’s right to say and hear things they don’t like.

We see it when they stage a march or a sit-down protest in the middle of the street. They are asserting that their inflated sense of grievance takes precedence over the right of other New Zealanders to go about their business.

We also see it when protesters throw mud or a rubber dildo at a politician they don’t agree with, as happened to Don Brash and Steven Joyce, or smear a lamington on his head (as in the case of former ACT MP John Boscawen).

For all the leftist hysteria about the Right, we never hear of conservative protesters resorting to such aggressive acts of intolerance. Invariably, it’s the angry Left.

We see it too in the use of language designed to demonise opponents and de-legitimise dissent. On a recent Facebook post, Maori activist Joe Trinder described the lobby group Hobson’s Pledge as a “hate group” – the far Left’s standard term of denunciation for any group that threatens to stand in the way of the identity politics agenda.

Hobson’s Pledge is the group founded by Brash to promote the concept of equality before the law, regardless of ethnicity. This is hardly a novel or dangerous idea; on the contrary, it’s in line with basic democratic principles.  

But it makes Brash the enemy of people like Trinder, who advocates special treatment for Maori. So he calls Hobson’s Pledge a “hate group”, thereby putting it on the same level as the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Party.

This is a gross and offensive distortion of what Hobson’s Pledge stands for, but that’s unlikely to worry Trinder. It also implies that Brash is some sort of reincarnated Joseph Goebbels, although there’s no evidence to indicate there’s a racist bone on his body.

Trinder’s Facebook post gave his followers licence to unleash a torrent of abusive obscenities against Brash. Some threatened violence; others called for Hobson’s Pledge billboards to be torn down. So much for free speech and diversity.


There’s room in the political system for both Trinder and Brash. The difference is that Brash doesn’t try to bully his opponents into silence, threaten them or subject them to vile personal abuse. So why do Trinder and his followers think it’s acceptable?

Friday, July 14, 2017

We gave young drinkers a chance to be treated as adults, and they blew it

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, July 12.)

I’m going to surprise myself in this column by reluctantly conceding that the legal age for the purchase of liquor should be returned to 20.

For decades, I have argued in favour of liberalised liquor laws. And for the most part, I believe I have been proved right.

Thanks to gradual liberalisation, most of the alcohol drunk in New Zealand today is consumed in vastly more civilised conditions than when I began patronising pubs.

The primitive six o’clock swill, which encouraged men to knock back as much beer as possible in the limited time available before pubs closed (and what awful beer it was), was then still a recent memory.

Even after pub hours were extended till 10pm in 1967, New Zealand’s drinking culture left a lot to be desired.

Sure, hotel owners upgraded their bars and women started going to pubs, which inevitably improved male behaviour. But perverse licensing laws encouraged the notorious “booze barns” of the 1970s: big pubs surrounded by acres of car parks. Small wonder that the road toll peaked during that decade.

Nonetheless, the 70s also brought some modest but significant improvements – notably the introduction of the BYO licence that enabled people to take their own wine and beer to restaurants. That was the beginning of the cafĂ© culture that we enjoy today.

Dining out had previously been something people did on special occasions in expensive licensed restaurants, but the BYO licence meant it gradually came to be regarded as a routine part of urban life.

With it, New Zealand’s drinking culture began to undergo a slow transformation. We were drinking in more congenial surroundings, in mixed company, and more often with food. All these were civilising influences.  

The pace of reform picked up throughout the 80s and 90s, although liquor law changes were often confused, anomalous and piecemeal, reflecting a timid parliament that still treated liquor issues as political banana-skin territory.

The vociferous anti-liquor lobby – a strange alliance between religiously motivated campaigners and activists driven by an ideological agenda – fought the changes every step of the way. But over time, the law inexorably moved in the direction of liberalisation.

Limitations on opening hours were effectively abolished and supermarkets won the right to sell wine – although initially not on Sundays, when they were ludicrously required to hide their wine shelves lest we be tempted.

On the issue of opening hours, I thought we lurched from one extreme to another. But I applauded the overall trend.

And just as the reformers had expected, the changes led to a marked improvement in our drinking culture.  If you treat people as adults capable of making their own intelligent decisions, they generally respond accordingly.

Contrary to the dire predictions of the wowser lobby, per capita consumption of alcohol declined from about 1975 onwards, with a particularly significant drop in the 1990s. What’s more, from 1985 onwards the road toll steadily fell.

So why, in 2017, is alcohol such an issue? TVNZ’s Sunday programme last week included an item – just the latest of many – showing young women almost literally legless from intoxication.

High-profile political aspirant Gareth Morgan wants the excise tax on alcohol increased and the liquor purchasing age lifted to 20. On talkback radio, callers overwhelmingly backed him.

The public mood appears to have swung back in favour of tighter controls. So where did it all go wrong?

There seems little doubt that the turning point came when Parliament voted in 1999 to lower the liquor purchasing age to 18. That was when per capita alcohol consumption started to rise again. It was also when the phrase “binge drinking” entered the nation’s vocabulary.

But let’s be clear. In this context, “binge drinking” means youth drinking. If we have a problem, that’s where it lies, and that’s where any law changes need to be directed.

A majority of parliamentarians believed in 1999 that young New Zealanders could be trusted to drink in a civilised fashion. I did too, but we were wrong.

They were given the opportunity to behave like adults, and they blew it. Spectacularly.

Young women, especially, have let us down. They seem to have adopted the view that equal rights mean the right to render yourself comatose in Courtenay Place – a perverse distortion of the “girls can do anything” mantra.

In this they were helped immeasurably by liquor industry entrepreneur Michael Erceg’s promotion of sweet, fizzy RTDs, which made alcohol palatable to a new market segment that didn’t care much for beer or wine.

My wife reckons we can’t blame young people and we shouldn’t expect 18-year-olds to behave like adults. My response is, why not? They expect to be treated like adults in every other respect. Besides, if 18-year-olds in European countries can handle their liquor, why can't young New Zealanders?

Perhaps they’ve led such protected, molly-coddled lives as children - protected from any behaviour deemed to be risky, even walking to school - that they run amok at their first taste of independence. Perhaps lollipops, rather than alcohol, would be commensurate with their level of maturity.

Whatever the reason, we’ve ended up in a very disheartening place. And if it takes a return to tougher laws to sort the problem out, then perhaps that’s what we must do. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The decline of the media and its implications for democracy

This is the complete version of an article I wrote earlier this year on the crisis in the news media, an edited version of which appeared in The Listener in May. Reproduced with the kind permission of Listener editor Pamela Stirling.

From Monday, May 1, the Marlborough Express ceased to exist as a daily newspaper. After 150 years of publication, 137 as a daily, it’s now published on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.

The paper’s editor, Nicola Coburn, put on a brave face in a statement last October pointing to likely changes. “We are proud to have been an integral part of this region for so long,” she said. “But now it is time to start securing our future.

“Let’s be clear the Express isn’t going anywhere. We are here to stay. We love this province and its people.

“But, equally, we cannot deny that the time has come to change. Digital audiences are growing rapidly, people are slowly moving away from print and advertising revenues are declining. At some point in the future we will not be able to sustain a daily newspaper.”

In a media world buffeted by unprecedented turbulence, the changes at the Fairfax Media-owned Blenheim paper (circulation 5600) were an infinitesimal blip.

But the reduction in the paper’s publishing days was symptomatic of a deep and possibly terminal malaise in the New Zealand print media, and pointed to the likelihood of a similar fate for other long-established provincial newspapers.

Already the Nelson Mail, another Fairfax-owned paper with a 150-year history, appears to be setting off down the same path. In a recent announcement that repeated almost word-for-word what Coburn had said six months before, editor Victoria Guild said the Mail too would be “exploring a potential new publishing model”.  Industry observers saw the announcement as the prelude to a downsizing similar to that undertaken by its stablemate in the neighbouring province.

No one can predict with any certainty whether even the bigger metropolitan papers will survive in print form, or for how long. It’s an industry that appears to be dying a slow death by a thousand cuts as readers stop buying papers and as advertisers, the industry’s main source of revenue, abandon the print media for digital platforms such as Facebook, Google and Trade Me.

The two dominant print media companies, Fairfax and NZME, argued before the Commerce Commission that they had a far better chance of surviving the crisis if they were allowed to merge into one. But some industry pessimists believed a merger – which the commission disallowed – would have merely postponed the inevitable demise of a once powerful and prosperous industry.

At best, they argued, it might have bought more time for the merged company to develop a new business model to replace one that is in tatters. But no one, not even the two media groups themselves, seemed to know what form that model might take, still less whether it would work.

THE FIGURES are stark. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of New Zealand newspaper readers declined from nearly 1.5 million to fewer than 900,000. The circulation of the country’s biggest paper, NZME’s New Zealand Herald, has been tracking steadily downwards for years, falling last year from 134,000 papers a day to 127,000.

At its peak in 1992, the Herald sold more than 250,000 copies daily. The most pronounced decline set in after 2005, when website readership began eating into newspaper sales.

The picture is much the same elsewhere. Sales of Fairfax’s Wellington Dominion Post were down more than 12% last year to 52,000 copies. When the paper was established through the merger of The Dominion and The Evening Post in 2002, its circulation was almost twice that.

The same company’s Christchurch daily, The Press, has fared slightly better, registering a 10% decline last year and now marginally outselling its Wellington stablemate. But like the Dominion Post, readership of its print version has halved since the 1990s.

Some provincial papers are bleeding even more profusely. NZME’s Daily Post (Rotorua) suffered a circulation drop last year of more than 15%. For Fairfax’s Manawatu Standard, the figure was over 13%.

And the carnage isn’t confined to dailies. Fairfax’s Sunday Star-Times also took a circulation hit of more than 13% in 2016, slipping to fewer than 88,000 copies (marginally below its NZME-owned competitor, the Herald on Sunday). Meanwhile the Sunday News, also published by Fairfax, looks to be on life support with sales of less than 20,000 (down 19 % in 2016).

But more damaging by far than the slump in circulation figures has been the flight by advertisers to the internet. And as newspaper sales declined, that flight accelerated as advertisers saw less reason to stick with a medium that appeared to be on the way out. The industry found itself trapped in a vicious downward spiral.

THE survival strategies of the two newspaper groups have followed a broadly similar pattern. Waves of editorial redundancies, imposed to cut costs (and in some cases, industry critics say, to dispense with older journalists who didn’t whole-heartedly embrace the digital revolution) have resulted in an enormous loss of institutional knowledge.

Some of the most capable and experienced of the redundant journalists have found lucrative work in corporate and government communications, further tilting a playing field that increasingly favours PR spin and information control over the public’s right to know.

The casualties of the job cuts have included sub-editors, the now-extinct class of senior journalists whose job was to keep errors out of the paper, and whose absence is reflected in increasingly frequent embarrassing mistakes that provide fuel for gleeful newspaper critics on social media.

In other attempts to control costs, editorial control has been centralised and a greater proportion of content is shared between papers, inevitably reducing each paper’s distinctive imprint and sense of local identity.

Some smaller papers that previously used their own on-site presses now print in other cities, sometimes several hours away. This saves money but forced the papers to bring forward their editorial deadlines, thus compromising their ability to report up-to-date news. It was another act of self-harm.

The editorial tone of newspapers has changed markedly too, although the situation varies from paper to paper. Generally speaking, there is less of what journalists call “hard” news and a lot more syndicated, lifestyle-oriented content – food, fashion, health, personal finances, entertainment and travel – and soft “human interest” stories. Pick up some daily papers and you could be excused for thinking you’re reading a women’s magazine.

Most noticeably there has been a dramatic reduction in what might be called journal-of-record coverage – the sometimes dull but often important news generated by courts, council meetings, parliamentary debates, select committee hearings and the like, which filled the inside pages of newspapers in the pre-digital era. 

In its place, news websites now highlight clickbait – titillating headlines designed to lure the casual browser. A typical selection of clickbait headlines from the Stuff and New Zealand Herald websites recently included “Five Beauty Tips from Adele”, “Matt McLean [a TVNZ weather presenter] drops C-bomb” and “What Men Think While Waiting at the Altar”.

CRUCIALLY (some say fatally), both Fairfax and NZME embraced a “digital-first” strategy that prioritised online content over the companies’ printed newspapers, to the detriment of the latter. Critics say the digital-first policy merely served to give readers even less reason to buy newspapers.

Making online content available free of charge compounded the problem. Wellington lawyer Hugh Rennie QC, a close observer of the newspaper industry for several decades and a founder of The National Business Review, argues that New Zealand’s big two media companies got it badly wrong.

Rennie recently told the NBR: “[Newspaper publishers] are now busy basically tearing their print media apart by putting the content on the internet immediately, so that you read it on one or other of their websites and you open up the paper next day and there’s the article you’ve already read.

“It’s a business model that makes no sense at all – I mean, it’d be like a baker giving away free bread today so you can buy stale bread tomorrow.”

Newspaper managers often argue that the shift to digital was consumer-led – that readers now prefer to get their news online and publishers had no option but to respond. But there’s a counter-argument that by running down their newspapers in favour of digital platforms, publishers gave readers little option but to go online in search of the news of the day, simply because papers no longer provided the coverage they were accustomed to.

Both companies have persisted with the digital-first approach even when it has demonstrably failed to deliver the desired financial benefits. Fairfax still derives 85% of its income from old-fashioned print newspapers, even in their hollowed-out state. For NZME the figure is 60% – lower than for Fairfax because NZME also generates income from its substantial radio holdings. 

Both companies gambled that when they put editorial content online, advertisers would follow. They didn’t. Even now, Fairfax and NZME earn only 12% of their revenue from digital sources.  

It rankles with the two companies that digital advertising is largely hoovered up by Facebook and Google, which is also where many online readers now get their news. The two global internet giants are portrayed as parasites, feeding off content generated by news companies while creating none themselves. One commentator has described them as the modern equivalent of 19th century American railway barons in the way they ruthlessly exercise market dominance.

But the print media crisis is not unique to New Zealand, and neither are New Zealand newspaper companies unique in seeming powerless to deal with it.

Former New Zealand journalist Robin Bromby points out in his recent book Newspapers: A Century of Decline that the digital revolution has been catastrophic for the print media everywhere. No one – yet – has come up with an answer.

American newspapers are still waiting for their websites to turn a profit, even as their print sales continue to plummet. Even Britain’s Daily Mail, generally acknowledged as a world leader in the online market, still makes nearly seven times more money from its print edition than from its website.

Bromby, who began his journalism career in Wellington but for several decades has worked in Sydney, mostly for Rupert Murdoch’s down-under flagship The Australian, describes digital disruption of the newspaper industry as the media equivalent of a hospital superbug.

Like Rennie, he argues that newspaper owners have made things worse for themselves by favouring digital content over their print products. “The problem now is that however much newspaper companies may have come to regret their initial decisions on digital strategy, there is no easy way to unscramble the omelette.”

This probably explains, Bromby says, why many newspaper managers are “publicly so bullish about the digital side: they cannot afford to admit it has not turned out as they hoped”.

IT WAS against this gloomy backdrop that the trade union E Tu, which represents most of the relatively small number of New Zealand journalists who still belong to a union, sponsored a recent conference on the news media in the Grand Hall of Parliament. Its title, Journalism Still Matters, recalled a similar event – Journalism Matters – held at the same venue nearly 10 years earlier. 

On that occasion, the news media were yet to feel the full destructive impact of the digital revolution. Much of the discussion then revolved around union anger over cost-cutting and redundancies as newspaper owners began responding to the looming threat from the internet.

This time the tone was markedly different. There was a sense that the industry was fighting for its life and that all conference participants – industry executives and unionised journalists alike – had a common interest in coming up with strategies for its survival.

Industry participants were refreshingly candid about the challenges facing the print media, and about errors of judgment made in the past.

New Zealand Herald editor Shayne Currie acknowledged that “we made some big mistakes 20 years ago. We made a big mistake when we made content available free. But there’s no going back.”

Rick Neville – then an executive with APN, as NZME was previously known, and now editorial adviser to the Newspaper Publishers Association – argued unsuccessfully for a paywall when he was at the Herald, but agrees that “that horse has bolted”.

In fact, after initial hesitation, both NZME and Fairfax developed plans to charge readers for online access, which would have at least partly offset the loss of advertising revenue, but neither put them into practice. The two companies became locked in a mutually destructive game of chicken, each fearing that whichever company was first to introduce a paywall would lose readers to its rival.  

Paywall proposals are now off the table – an acknowledgement that it’s too late to act, because online readers have come to expect their news free. Fairfax group executive editor Sinead Boucher told the conference that her company’s modelling showed a paywall would generate so little income as to be ineffectual. “Optimistically, we might make $1 million a year but risk losing readers.”

The consensus at the conference was that paywalls could still work where a media company offered exclusive or specialised content, as in the case of the National Business Review or a titan like The New York Times, but that readers would refuse to pay for everyday “commodity news” that was widely available.

Boucher outlined the industry crisis in stark and blunt terms, saying the traditional business model was fundamentally broken. Fairfax papers were still profitable – “at the moment” – but Facebook and Google were eating into the company’s income and new sources of revenue had to be found to sustain present operations.

“We have 550 journalists around New Zealand,” she said. “Regional journalists are most at risk if we can’t find a sustainable model.” The Marlborough Express, Boucher added, would not be the last to be forced to make adjustments.

Boucher said print subscribers now made up only a small minority of Fairfax readers. Nonetheless, she said it was the loss of advertising, rather than print readers, that had done the serious damage.

Papers are now being padded out with “house ads” – unpaid advertising promoting the publisher’s own products. Paid advertising has dried up to the point where Boucher said “we can’t make our papers any thinner. If we made them any smaller they would blow away.”

She also pointed to a demographic issue underlying the industry’s problems. Newspaper subscribers in the provinces, she said, were typically aged in their late 60s. The generation of New Zealanders for whom reading the daily paper is a lifelong habit is slowly dying.  

At other end of the age scale, millennials have never acquired the newspaper habit because they can get the news on their phones and tablets. Worse than that, they are accustomed to reading it free of charge and can’t, or won’t, be persuaded to pay for the privilege.

YET SOME local newspapers – including Masterton’s Wairarapa Times-Age, bought from NZME last year by its general manager – appear to be thriving. The Times-Age (circulation 5500) is reportedly making money and has hired several new reporters since the change of ownership.

Rennie has pointed out that the West Coast, despite being one of the country’s most economically deprived regions, still sustains three daily papers that emphasise local news. Similarly, Neville told the conference that lively community papers had secured a strong foothold in places like Devonport and Waiheke Island.

Why do some independent papers appear to succeed where those owned by the big companies often struggle? Neville suggests one factor is that independently owned papers aren’t burdened with a share of the costly overheads that come with being part of a national group.

On the downside, as Boucher pointed out, such papers can be more vulnerable to attempts by local advertisers to influence editorial content. “There’s much more protection in a larger group.” But she acknowledged that the owner-operator model can succeed where larger companies can’t, and she wished independent proprietors luck.

Some challenges facing the print media are only indirectly related to the digital revolution. Several conference participants expressed disquiet and frustration at the increasing control exerted over access to information of public importance by organisations such as government departments, city councils, the police, district health boards, big companies and sporting bodies.

Taking advantage of understaffed newsrooms and the ready availability of hired PR guns, some of these organisations have assembled large teams of well-paid communications staff whose job is largely about controlling the flow of information to the public and putting a positive spin on whatever material is released.

It’s the age-old battle between spin and journalism, but the advantage seems to have shifted to what journalists call “the dark side”, with worrying implications for participatory democracy and the right to know.

Another consequence of the crisis in the news media was highlighted by James Hollings, senior lecturer and programme leader at Massey University's journalism school. Hollings says journalism schools are finding it harder to attract students because parents are telling their children there’s no future in the profession.

BUT THE PICTURE is not entirely bleak. Industry leaders at the conference seemed sincerely committed to quality journalism, and Currie says more people are reading, watching or listening to the news than ever before.

The problem is how to make money from them. Good journalism, after all, doesn’t come cheap.

Newspapers are still uncovering important stories, but Currie points out that website users aren’t necessarily interested in them. As an example, he told of an exclusive story by Herald investigative reporter David Fisher corroborating information about the SAS in the controversial Nicky Hager-Jon Stephenson book Hit & Run when the political controversy over the book was at its peak.

The story was placed at the top of the paper’s website for several hours, but online readers were far more interested in a story about British pop diva Adele, who was performing in Auckland at the time.

On a more encouraging note, the digital revolution has created opportunities for new entrants to the industry. Small, innovative, online-only media players – “digital newsrooms” – are attracting a growing audience. They include the pioneering Scoop, The Spinoff and Newsroom – the latter established by former news executives of NZME and MediaWorks.

A potentially significant recent arrival on the scene is the Tauranga-based online platform Newsie. A digital echo of the old New Zealand Press Association, it publishes news contributed by local and community papers from around the country and shows signs of developing into the online equivalent of a national newspaper.  

New entrants to the industry are experimenting with a variety of funding models. Corporate sponsorship, subscriptions, crowdfunding and philanthropy, as well as the traditional advertising, are all in the mix. Digital papers overseas, such as the not-for-profit Texas Tribune, are showing it can be done.

As Paul Murphy of the Australian media union the MEAA pointed out, digital start-ups aren’t burdened with the “legacy” cost of having to print and distribute newspapers. “There are great opportunities for new entrants.”

Corporate sponsorship is a new and unexpected development. Business journalist Bernard Hickey, editor of Newsroom’s subscription-only service Pro Newsroom, explained that business leaders valued New Zealand’s transparency and corruption-free reputation and were worried that it might be damaged by a weakened media. Newsroom’s sponsors include digital infrastructure company Chorus and Holden.

“Many people in the business community understand the need to hold people to account,” Hickey said. “They see that things are not being covered [by the media] and they worry that people will get away with stuff without a watchdog.”

There’s also evidence of a new spirit of collaboration emerging. Newsie uses a co-operative model and there’s more sharing of editorial content by major players too, notably through a partnership between Fairfax, NZME and Radio New Zealand. “It makes sense in a small market like New Zealand,” says Currie.

Media organisations are thinking about ways to avoid wasteful duplication in the coverage of routine “commodity news”. Six organisations reporting the same road death or court case is a luxury the industry can no longer afford.

Media commentator Gavin Ellis, a former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, suggested a model in which Radio New Zealand could provide a core news service, with other providers all contributing additional content. It would be a case of back to the future, going some way toward replicating the successful New Zealand Press Association model that was wound up in 2011 by the Australian interests that controlled the industry.

Paul Thompson, chief executive of Radio New Zealand, agreed Ellis’s idea had merit. “If there’s a useful role we can play, we would be part of it.”

There was even discussion about whether the state should help fund the news media – a proposal Neville said would once have been flatly ruled out by newspaper owners. But times had changed, he said. “It’s about protecting democracy.”

Whether politicians care about the future of journalism or would be interested in underwriting the media is another matter. All parties in Parliament were invited to speak at the conference, but only three – Labour, the Greens and United Future – were represented.

In any case, former TV current affairs producer Richard Harman, speaking from experience, was sceptical about the state taking a role. He had never had to jump through so many hoops as when he sought NZ on Air funding, he said. “If you take the state’s money you have to dance to the state’s tune.”

TWO STATEMENTS kept recurring throughout the day, and together they neatly delineated the industry’s predicament. One was that the old model is broken and there’s no going back, no matter how loud the lamentation for a past when newspapers were sustained with “rivers of gold” from advertising.

The other is that there’s no silver bullet – no clear formula that will ensure the news media’s survival in the digital era.

A third, quietly persistent theme was that there’s much more at stake than company profits and journalists’ jobs. At the heart of the debate over the future of the news media is the recognition that good journalism is vital to an informed society, which in turn is a fundamental pre-requisite for effective participatory democracy.

Some commentators shrug their shoulders and argue that the decline of the print media is just another example of creative destruction – the constant cycle by which old ways of doing things are overtaken by innovation and new technologies. Just as the cassette tape and the typewriter have been rendered obsolete, so newspapers have also reached the end of their natural lifespan – or so the argument goes.

Even some journalists find this process exhilarating. Something better will emerge from it all, the optimists insist. But in the meantime, something of inestimable value may have been lost. As Joni Mitchell famously sang in Big Yellow Taxi, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.


FOOTNOTE: As foreshadowed in this article, Fairfax's Nelson Mail announced last month that it would no longer publish on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

An arrogant young man spitting the dummy, or was there more to it than that?

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 30.)

Two things you never stop learning as a journalist is that there are usually two sides to a story and that things are often not quite what they seem. I was reminded of this by the media feeding frenzy over Clutha-Southland MP Todd Barclay.

On the surface, it looked straightforward enough. Here was a cocky young MP, a political careerist ordained by the party’s high priests and priestesses as an up-and-comer, brought down in a steaming heap of ordure – and committing the unpardonable sin of splattering his leader in the process.

As I watched the story unfold I couldn’t help but think we’d been here before. Then the name came to me: Aaron Gilmore.

Gilmore, you may recall, was the National MP with an over-developed sense of entitlement who had a career-ending confrontation in 2013 with a Hanmer Springs hotel waiter who refused his demand for more drinks.

In one of those delicious “don’t you realise who I am?” moments, Gilmore reportedly threatened to have the waiter sacked.  As things turned out, it was Gilmore’s career that was terminated.

Barclay seemed at first glance to have something in common with the hapless Gilmore, namely a large dollop of hubris. His downfall had all the ingredients of a modern morality play, which is how most of the media played it.

It was several days before Fairfax political editor Tracy Watkins and Jane Clifton in the Listener weighed in with more nuanced accounts of the affair.

Reading Watkins’ article last Saturday, it was obvious that Barclay had a lot of National MPs, including one or two heavy hitters, on his side. He wasn’t hung out to dry, as he undoubtedly would have been if he was regarded as not worth the time of day.

You could also see how the mess had happened. Stolid, phlegmatic Bill English had been succeeded after 18 years as electorate MP by an apparently brash young upstart who, although born in Dipton and raised in Gore, bore the imprint of a man whose preferred habitats were hedonistic Queenstown and power-obsessed Wellington.

Factor in an electorate stalwart who had been running English’s Gore office for more than a decade, and who apparently had her own way of doing things, and you had a situation ripe for friction. With English away in Wellington much of the time due to his leadership obligations, she was often left to run the show and was very likely a centre of power in her own right. Small wonder that things turned ugly.

To anyone reading Watkins’ and Clifton’s accounts, it clearly wasn’t a simple case of an arrogant young man spitting the dummy because he couldn’t have his own way. It was far more complicated than that.

Barclay’s big mistake, of course, was to secretly record office conversations, presumably with the aim of uncovering disloyalty. In any circumstances it would have been underhand. Unfortunately it was also illegal.

And what made matters immeasurably worse was that his boss was drawn into the imbroglio and then seriously messed things up by not being straight with the media. Fatal.

Even so, you have to wonder how much impact all this had on the public. The press gallery got very excited, as it always does when it sniffs blood, but you sensed that people out in Voter Land wondered what all the fuss was about. It didn’t help that much of the media coverage was confused and confusing.

There’s one more point to be made about the Barclay affair. As with Gilmore, National had a problem with a young man who exhibited a surfeit of self-confidence.

The Nats seem to attract such princelings from time to time. It might be a slight exaggeration to say that they exude a born-to-rule aura, but it’s not altogether far from the truth.

I suspect it’s worse in cases where they are elected on the party list and don’t have an electorate to keep them grounded, and worse still when National has been in power for two or three terms and they assume this is the natural order of things. 

In the Wairarapa, where I live, we have a slightly different issue. Our National MP, Alastair Scott, doesn’t have a reputation for arrogance, but he does give the impression that he thinks all he needs to do to win re-election is turn up at public events and smile for the camera.

This has been noted in the electorate and it wouldn’t surprise me if he gets a bit of a fright in September.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Is Sky TV's golden era coming to an end?

(A slightly abbreviated version of this column was first published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail on June 28.)

I’m feeling very on-trend at the moment, to use a fashionable expression.

I recently watched series one of the TV drama Twin Peaks for the first time. It originally screened on American television in 1990.

Okay, so it took me a while to get around to seeing it. Geoffrey Palmer was prime minister when it was made and Mikhail Gorbachev was in charge of the Soviet Union. But hey, you can’t rush into these things.

I now feel I’ve eliminated an embarrassing deficit in my cultural education, because Twin Peaks is one of those programmes that everyone who professes to be even vaguely hip has seen so many times that they can mouth the script in sync with the actors.

It’s commonly described as a cult series, which is usually a polite way of saying that a handful of arty critics raved but it was a commercial flop.

In fact series one was a ratings success. According to Wikipedia, it’s commonly ranked – in America, anyway – as one of the 50 greatest TV dramas of all time. It was only when the producers tried to stretch an already thin plot into a second series that it failed.

Twin Peaks is ostensibly a murder mystery, but to use that description is like saying Moby-Dick is a story about a fishing trip. The programme’s appeal hinges not on its storyline but on deliciously quirky characters and surreal situations.

For the 50-minute running time of each episode, you basically enter an alternative universe – the fictional logging town of Twin Peaks in Washington State – where almost everyone is seriously weird and nothing makes much sense.

The hunt for a sex killer soon becomes almost incidental as the series veers into a soap opera-style exploration of the convoluted lives and relationships of the town’s inhabitants. For all that, it’s strangely – you might almost say hypnotically – riveting.

Alas for the producers, quirky characters and surreal situations can get you only so far. By series two the weaknesses in the meandering plot were becoming all too obvious. I gave it away after just two episodes.

I see that a third series recently premiered in the United States, 27 years after the first. It includes several of the original cast members. One critic described it as “weird and creepy and slow”. So… not much has changed, then.

Why am I writing about Twin Peaks? Simply because the fact that I was able to watch it on demand, streaming it on my “smart” TV nearly three decades after it was first screened, illustrates the revolutionary changes in our TV viewing patterns.

Historically, television viewing in New Zealand can be roughly divided into three phases.

For the first 15 years, from 1960-1975, we watched one state-owned channel. Television then was a great social unifier, because everyone watched the same programmes – Peyton Place, Bonanza, Coronation Street, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Studio One, Star Trek – and talked about them the next day.   

Even when a second channel was introduced, it was still state-owned. There was more choice but the diet remained essentially the same.

It wasn’t until broadcasting was deregulated by the Labour government in 1989 that a private competitor, TV3, entered the market. But the real game-changer was the arrival of pay television with the launch in 1990 of Sky TV.

Sky TV was a perfect example of what is now known as a disrupter, using technology and a new business model to lure viewers away from the traditional free-to-air channels.

Its arrival heralded the end of television as an agent of social cohesion, because viewers were now presented with a wide range of viewing options. The days when virtually the entire population watched the same programmes were gone.

Crucial to Sky’s strategy was the acquisition of monopoly rights to screen major sporting events – a licence to print money in a sports-mad country. In this Sky was spectacularly successful, enabling it to become a dominant player in television – this, despite the company making virtually no contribution to the production of domestic programmes other than live sport.

Sky’s control of sport signalled the death of the egalitarian ethos by which all New Zealanders could share in the triumphs and disappointments of the country’s major teams.

There were now two New Zealands – the one that paid to watch the All Blacks or the Black Caps on Sky, and the rest.  People without Sky no longer feel the same engagement with national teams because they don’t get to see them play. I could trip over Sam Cane or Ryan Crotty in the street tomorrow and not recognise them.

But perhaps Sky’s golden run is coming to an end, because an even more potent disrupter has entered the market. I watched Twin Peaks on Lightbox and immediately before that I enjoyed Fargo – the TV series, not the movie – on Netflix.

I can stream television programmes using these services at whatever time of day I like and there are no commercial interruptions. Streaming elevates freedom of choice to a whole new level, and suddenly Sky TV is looking very much like yesterday’s technology. How very sad.

Sky still controls major sport, of course, and showed its arrogance and greed on Saturday night by broadcasting a commercial when we should have heard the British national anthem before the Eden Park rugby test.

I will dance on Sky’s grave, metaphorically speaking, if and when it loses its stranglehold.  It would be poetic justice if it was brought down by the same process of technological disruption that enabled it to thrive in the first place.

FOOTNOTE: Alert readers will notice an error in this column. I was wrong about Sky playing a commercial over the "British national anthem" before Saturday night's rugby test. A moment's thought would have told me they couldn't play God Save the Queen with Irishmen in the Lions side. Several commenters on Stuff certainly let me know about my mistake. I've left it in as a lesson to myself to be more careful in future.


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.