Saturday, September 9, 2017

Why journalistic objectivity is vital in a democracy

(First published in The Dominion Post, September 8.)

What a civilised election campaign this has been – so far, anyway. And what a contrast with the firestorms of 2014, when Nicky Hager and Kim Dotcom did their best to skew the election result.

To their credit, the voters paid no attention to the noisy distractions. They took the phone off the hook.

Eric Crampton, chief economist at free-market think tank the New Zealand Initiative (and a Canadian), wrote in a recent essay that New Zealand is the world’s last sane place, and he could be right.

Admittedly Crampton was mainly talking about economic factors and freedom from heavy-handed state intervention in people’s lives, but his description could equally be applied to the way we generally conduct our political affairs.

I remember watching a television debate in 1973 between the Labour and National leaders, Norm Kirk and Jack Marshall. It was such a relaxed and cordial encounter that I half expected the moderator – I think it was Ian Johnstone – to produce a flagon of DB and pour them a beer.

Monday night’s debate between Bill English and Jacinda Ardern wasn’t quite that cosy, but it was a mutually respectful contest between two basically decent people who want the best for their country.

Even the studio audience seemed admirably even-handed. We should be proud to live in such a mature democracy.

Sure, the campaign has had its moments of high drama. And elections are always polarising, the more so when you factor in the angry buzzing on social media, which amplifies ideological differences.

Besides, New Zealand politics hasn’t always been so good-tempered. The 1984 campaign, when Robert Muldoon was fighting for his political life, comes to mind. With Muldoon, there was always an undercurrent of menace – a feeling that you never knew quite what he was capable of, if pushed.

But back to that 1973 television debate. I had been living in Australia at the time and was struck by the contrast between our style of politics and that of our neighbours across the Ditch.

Everything about Australian politics was, and still is, more extreme and combative. Their conservatives are more reactionary, their radical lefties more doctrinaire, their factional powerbrokers more ruthless and their mavericks more unhinged.

Even when Australia’s not in election mode, its politics are far more febrile and polarised than ours. Right now the country is on the point of combusting over same-sex marriage, with the gay rights lobby using all manner of spurious arguments to torpedo a government proposal that would – heaven forbid – give voters a say on the issue.

It doesn’t help that the Australian news media are highly politicised, with the major Fairfax papers and the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation actively taking a left-leaning line while the Murdoch-owned Australian adopts a conservative position. People who complain of media bias here don’t know the half of it.

The danger to democracy of journalists taking sides is amply illustrated by a recent article in which the editor of the leftist Guardian Australia, Lenore Taylor, made it clear she wouldn’t be giving editorial space to opponents of same-sex marriage because … well, because she didn’t agree with them.

Here, laid bare, is the logical consequence of the insidious notion that the principle of “objectivity” in journalism is a myth and therefore can be disregarded.

Objectivity means, among other things, an obligation to be even-handed in the presentation of news. This concept has underpinned mainstream journalism for decades, but journalism textbooks and tutors now teach that “balance” gets in the way of truth-telling and serves the interests of the rich and powerful.

The result is that many journalists (who tend, by instinct, to have leftist sympathies) now feel they have licence to ignore anything that doesn’t align with their own views.

Objectivity serves as a vital check against abuse of media power, because the moment journalists take it on themselves to decide which opinions are fit for public consumption, democracy is in trouble.

New Zealand isn’t immune from this trend, as is obvious from the increasingly common usage by journalists of loaded words such as “sexist”, “racist” and “misogynist” to dismiss views they don’t approve of. But it’s not happening on the same scale, and certainly nowhere near as brazenly, as in Australia, where the media are up to their armpits in partisan politics.

The implications, if the principle of objectivity is abandoned, don’t need to be spelled out. Democracy depends on people casting an informed vote, and once news organisations start withholding information they don’t like, the liberal democracy model that we’re now seeing in action is at risk. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The steady creep of intolerance and bigotry

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, September 6.)

While the nation’s attention has been occupied by political drama and the election campaign, other things – serious things – have been going on almost unnoticed.

Last week, students at Auckland University voted to “disaffiliate” – “expel” would be a more honest word – a students’ anti-abortion group, ProLife Auckland. You don’t have to be opposed to abortion (as I am) to find this attack on free speech ominous.

A spokeswoman for Auckland Students for Choice, a women’s rights group that pushed for a referendum on the issue, said the pro-lifers were “an embarrassment”.

Clearly, groups that campaign to save unborn children are ideologically unfashionable, so must be discouraged by all means possible.

Overseas this phenomenon is known as “no platforming” – denying a voice to people you disagree with. This is rampant on university campuses in Britain and the United States and it’s lamentable that the practice has shown up here.

But it was probably inevitable, given that universities throughout the western world have been ideologically captured and no longer bother to maintain the pretence that they promote freedom of speech and robust intellectual debate. Yet democracy is built around the contestability of ideas, as the current election campaign reminds us.

The pro-life student group was accused of “propagating harmful misinformation”. If this phrase has an uncomfortably familiar ring, it may be because it’s similar to the language used by totalitarian regimes to silence dissidents before packing them off to re-education (read “punishment”) camps.

Ironically, if anyone could be accused of propagating misinformation, it was those campaigning to banish the pro-life group.The debate was misleadingly framed as being about misogyny – a word now used to marginalise anyone who dares to express a view that’s at odds with feminist orthodoxy. But wanting to save unborn children isn’t remotely synonymous with hatred of women. Only a seriously warped ideology could equate the two.

The students’ decision means that while the pro-lifers will theoretically still be able to organise on campus, the referendum result – 1600 in favour of “disaffiliation”, 1000 against – tilts the playing field heavily against them by denying them access to funding and resources available to other activist groups through the Auckland University Students’ Association.

But what matters more is the symbolism of the decision, and the message it sends. By expelling the group, the association has signalled its willingness to shut out voices that are deemed ideologically unacceptable.

It is a chilling example of the steady creep of intolerance and bigotry through the institutions of higher learning. I can do no better than quote a recent speech in which John Etchemendy, a former provost (the equivalent of our vice-chancellor) of California’s illustrious Stanford University, referred to an “intellectual monoculture” taking hold in American universities.

Etchemendy said he had observed a growing intolerance in universities – not intolerance along racial, ethnic or gender lines, but “a kind of political intolerance, a political one-sidedness, that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for”.

This, he said, was reflected in demands to “disinvite” speakers and outlaw groups whose views were considered offensive. The result, according to Etchemendy, was an intellectual blindness which led to anyone with opposing views being written off as “evil or ignorant or stupid”.

He might have added “embarrassing”, the contemptuous term used by the young feminist zealot interviewed on the Stuff website about the Auckland pro-lifers.

Being young, she is consumed by idealism. She will probably have been influenced by politically correct teachers and lecturers. It may not have occurred to her that once a society makes it permissible to suppress views that some people don’t like, the genie is out of the bottle and the power to silence unfashionable opinions can be turned against anyone, depending on whichever ideology happens to be prevalent at the time.

But the Auckland student referendum isn’t the only unsettling thing to have happened in recent weeks. Last month the Charities Registration Board announced that it refused to recognise the conservative lobby group Family First as a charity, which means donations to the organisation would not be tax deductible.

The board made this decision on the basis that Family First “did not advance exclusively charitable purposes”.  This was essentially a re-affirmation of a decision it had made previously, but which it was forced to reconsider following a court ruling.

To be fair, Family First is primarily a lobby group. But hang on a minute: so are the Child Poverty Action Group and Greenpeace, both of which enjoy charitable status.

The same could be said of Oxfam New Zealand, which has morphed into a political activist organisation but still qualifies as a charity because it cleverly combines its activism with what you might call old-fashioned charitable work.

One rule for groups promoting “progressive” causes, but another for organisations that take a socially conservative position? That’s how it looks to me. What we are witnessing, I believe is the gradual squeezing out of conservative voices as that monoculture steadily extends its reach.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

My brother's last months weren't easy, but now he's where he would have wanted to be

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 25.)

My beloved older brother Justin died a year ago today. We buried his ashes last Saturday in the Waipukurau Cemetery.

It was a simple but moving ceremony – a fitting final act in an exemplary life that touched many people.

It was a therapeutic occasion too, because it helped erase memories of the last months of Justin’s life. These were not easy.

He and his family had been on a roller-coaster for months: in and out of Wellington Hospital, subjected to endless tests and scans and in constant, acute pain whose source proved hard to identify.

Surgeons eventually removed an infection of his prostate and at the same time took out a section of cancerous bowel that had been found by chance.

For a short time the prognosis looked good. We thought the cause of Justin’s suffering had been found and dealt with.

But the pain continued, accompanied by a debilitating weight loss that suggested there was something else going on that the doctors hadn’t found. 

Justin never showed a trace of self-pity, but there were times when he did get frustrated. He was an optimist by nature, and grateful for the care he was given, but toward the end his faith in the system was eroded. A bewildering number of surgeons and doctors came and went. The messages he was getting were conflicting and confusing.

Justin suspected his illness was related to a treatment called brachytherapy, which he had received privately four years earlier for prostate cancer. When eventually he got to see one of the specialists who had administered the brachytherapy, he was assured his sickness was unrelated. But the doubt lingered.

Eventually he was diagnosed with high-grade urothelial cancer. This was revealed to him out of the blue one morning when he was re-admitted to Wellington Hospital in acute pain.

The diagnosis had been made on June 27 but he wasn’t told until July 30. The doctor who broke the news to him did so almost casually, assuming he already knew.

Whether the time lag reduced his life prospects, I don’t know, but logic tells me it must have. It seemed that a vital window of opportunity had been lost.

A major operation was scheduled. Surgery to remove Justin’s bladder, prostate and urethra was expected to take eight hours. It was made clear this was a life-threatening procedure in his weakened state, but it was a risk he and the family were prepared to take. 

We all gathered, hoping for the best but prepared for the worst. Then, early on the morning of the scheduled surgery, Justin was told the operation wouldn’t proceed because there was no intensive care bed available for him when he came out.

It was a crushing blow. I think Justin gave up all hope that morning. He no longer trusted the doctors to tell him the truth. He just wanted to go home.

In the emotion of the moment, we wondered whether the doctors had been stringing us along – that perhaps the lack of a recovery bed was a convenient excuse for not going ahead with an operation that had little prospect of success in the first place.

Maybe they thought they were being kind letting Justin think the operation might save him, when in fact it would have been less cruel to tell him what seemed the obvious truth: “There’s nothing more we can do – you’re dying.”

By coincidence, the day before the operation was scheduled, we bumped into a respected senior medical specialist whom I happened to know. When we explained why we were at the hospital and what we had been told would happen to Justin the following morning, he gave us a knowing look and made a comment that I didn’t quite understand.

It was only later that we realised he had been trying to suggest, without actually saying so, that perhaps his colleagues weren’t being entirely honest with my brother.

So Justin went home to die, and now he’s at rest in the town where he spent his formative years before he moved to Wellington, to a career in broadcasting that was to make him a much-loved presence in Wellington households over several decades.

He’s buried in the same plot as his older brother Martin. Our parents lie next to them and another older brother, Peter, who drowned in 1958, is only a couple of metres away.

I can think of far worse places to spend eternity. The cemetery is on an elevated site sloping gently to the west, with a pleasing outlook toward Pukeora Hill and the Ruahine Range beyond. Justin’s widow, Judy, and the rest of his family are satisfied it’s where he would have wanted to be.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Looks like we've got ourselves an election campaign

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, August 23.)

It’s hard to recall a more dramatic – you might even say enthralling – election campaign. And there’s still a month to go.

Last time around, there was the noise and smoke surrounding Kim Dotcom and Nicky Hager. But that was manufactured drama, and voters were unmoved. This election is different. The drama is real.

A former British prime minister, Harold Wilson, famously said that a week was a long time in politics. That may have been true in the 1960s, but time frames have been greatly compressed.

Media scrutiny of politics and monitoring by pollsters is now so merciless and unrelenting that the landscape can be transformed in hours.

Politicians have lost the ability to control events. Developments wash over them almost faster than they can react. Politics has turned manic.

Less than a month ago the election looked drearily predictable: a contest between two major parties led by worthy but unexciting middle-aged men.

National seemed to be cruising on auto-pilot toward a comfortable majority over Labour, so interest centred on what was happening on the political fringes.

Would Winston Peters end up in the driver’s seat again? Would the Greens finally get their feet under the Cabinet table? Would voters in Ohariu jettison the long-serving Peter Dunne? (He’s now taken that decision out of their hands.) Was the Maori Party in trouble? Would Gareth Morgan’s out-of-left-field initiative resonate with voters?

If there was going to be drama, it would come after the election when the political horse-trading started. Or so it seemed.

Then Andrew Little quit as Labour leader, his hand forced by dire opinion polls.

It was a huge risk. History suggests that changing leaders when an election is imminent is suicidal. It looks desperate.

But Jacinda Ardern’s bloodless accession to the Labour leadership had a galvanising effect that few people could have anticipated. Ardern’s relative lack of exposure to high-level politics could have been a handicap, but turned out to be an asset.

Critics could rightly point out that she didn’t have a lot to show for her years in politics and had never really been tested under pressure, but this also meant she came to the job untainted. And it seemed that the public was prepared to give her a go.

Her performance has been hard to fault. She’s relaxed and smiley, so people naturally warm to her. But she’s also composed and articulate when answering journalists’ questions, and she hits that sweet spot between confidence and arrogance.

She appeared to deal firmly with Labour MP Chris Hipkins over his ill-advised involvement in an Australian domestic political issue (is there a hint of Helen Clark steel under that sunny exterior?), and the outburst from Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who pompously said she couldn’t trust a New Zealand Labour government, will have done Ardern no harm at all.

In fact quite the contrary, since New Zealanders have had enough of Australian bullying and condescension.

Ardern’s succession also had the important effect of re-energising the Labour Party and restoring morale. But perhaps most important of all, she’s new, and there’s a sense that voters are ready for a fresh face.

In one respect, she has history on her side. If there’s a recurring pattern in New Zealand politics, it’s that National governments serve three terms before voters decide that the party is looking tired and complacent and it’s time to give someone else a shot.

It happened to the National governments of 1949-1957, 1975-1984 and 1990-1999. The exception was the Holyoake administration of the 1960s, which won four terms. Going by that precedent, National’s time is up.

Is Ardern up to the job of prime minister? We don’t know.

That’s something Labour is inviting the country to take a punt on. But given the international mood for political change, and an apparent willingness to leap into the unknown (Donald Trump, Brexit, Emmanuel Macron), voters may be willing to risk it.

The point is, National suddenly looks wobbly. Labour has come up with little that’s new in terms of policy, yet it has risen in the polls to the point where it’s looking like a serious contender, and Ardern is level-pegging with Bill English in the preferred prime minister stakes.

National has started scattering election lollies, which always looks a bit panicky, and some of its friends have turned against it. When centre-right commentator Matthew Hooton attacks National for being lazy and complacent, you know it’s in trouble.

We have a genuine election campaign on our hands. It’s striking evidence of the potential for a mere change of face to change the political dynamic.

And now Dunne, a key government support partner, has gone, which will give National even more reason to feel uneasy. You have to wonder, what next?

In the meantime, of course, there’s been even greater drama in the Greens. They have been damaged not only by Metiria Turei’s spectacular fall from grace, but also by vicious internal recriminations that revealed an ugly side of the party that the public hadn’t seen before.

I almost feel sorry for them. It’s not long since North and South magazine devoted its cover to a glossy, Vanity Fair-style photo featuring some of the party’s most attractive young candidates. It looked like a fashion shoot. No party has ever assembled a more photogenic slate.

The magazine’s website promoted the issue with the line: “The Greens as you’ve never seen them before”. With Turei’s undignified exit and the subsequent blood-letting, that line acquired a whole new meaning.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Apologise and retract? Not bloody likely

Several weeks ago I wrote a newspaper column that was republished on this blog under the heading The self-righteous rage of the Left. I referred to anti-G20 riots in Hamburg and a violent pro-government mob that attacked opposition MPs in Venezuela and I asked why, when political violence had so often been associated in the past with the extreme Right, it was now commonly perpetrated by the Left.

I didn’t just use overseas examples. I pointed out that in New Zealand, although we rarely experience overt political violence, it’s the Left that assumes a moral right to disrupt events that they don’t approve of or to howl down opinions they don’t like. Occasional direct assaults on politicians (thankfully rarely harmful) are also invariably perpetrated by leftists.

Since I wrote that column there’s been a furore over a couple of protest marches by white supremacists and other far-Right agitators in the United States. In one shocking incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, one of these angry white misfits struck out at counter-protesters by driving his car at them, killing a woman and injuring others.

Perhaps predictably, someone on Facebook has now challenged me to retract what I wrote about acts of intolerance by the angry Left, and to apologise. Presumably he reasons that the incident in Charlottesville negated everything I said. But there is nothing to retract and still less to apologise for. What I wrote stands. In fact you could even say my point has been reinforced.

First, and most obvious, what happened in Charlottesville doesn’t alter the fact that here in New Zealand, it’s the angry Left, not those on the conservative side of politics, that repeatedly asserts the right to stage protests which interfere with other people’s right to say or hear things that the Left disagrees with.

Second, whatever you might think about the people in Charlottesville who marched in protest against the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate hero Robert E Lee, they have a right of free speech. And no matter how much we might disapprove of their beliefs, they are as entitled to exercise that right as the Left is. The moment free speech is circumscribed by limitations on what sort of speech is permissible, it ceases to exist.

In any case, obnoxious opinions aren’t defeated or magically made to vanish by trying to force them underground. What’s far more likely, as we saw in Charlottesville, is that those who hold them will strike back in defiance.  

So here’s a novel suggestion. Let the morons march. Allow them the same right to protest that the Left insists on, but ignore them. Pay them no attention. Deny them the oxygen of media exposure.

Staging large, boisterous counter-protests plays into their hands. First, it fuels their martyrdom complex. It encourages their perception of themselves as a heroic minority defending traditional white American values against degenerate liberalism.

And of course journalists and camera crews turn up, expecting a stoush. The tension gets ramped up, people start shouting taunts and insults at each other and before long they’re brawling. It’s all over the TV news bulletins that night and the white supremacists have got more exposure than they probably dreamed of.

Imagine how things might play out if these sad, pathetic Neanderthals were left to parade down empty streets watched only by a handful of cops and a stray dog or two. But the Left is incapable of restraining its own overwhelming self-righteousness. By insisting on confrontation, it becomes part of the problem.

In fact it seems clear that in the second of the recent violent American protests, in Boston, most of the trouble was caused by the Left. It was the supposedly liberal counter-protesters who screamed abuse, burned Confederate flags (a gratuitously provocative act), menaced marchers, threw things and assaulted cops. And for what reason? The organisers had promoted the event as a Free Speech Rally. They had distanced themselves from the neo-Nazis and white supremacists of Charlottesville.  But the Left was so pumped-up with rage that what should have been a peaceful event turned into a riot. You have to ask, who was the bigger threat here?

So in answer to the person on Facebook who thinks I should retract and apologise because of what happened in Charlottesville (the Left loves nothing more than intimidating people into giving craven apologies), I say: no chance. Not only was the Charlottesville incident an isolated occurrence, but it wouldn’t have happened at all if the Left hadn’t felt compelled to put on a big display of virtuous opposition.


In fact I’d go further and say that while I loathe and detest the cave-dwellers of the ultra-Right, there’s something almost fascistic in the overwhelming shows of force that the American Left seems determined to muster against what is generally puny and pathetic opposition.   

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Greens pay the price for one woman's hubris

(Published in The Dominion Post, August 11.)

This was going to be a Turei-free column. Honest. But how can anyone ignore what has been arguably the most tumultuous fortnight in politics since 1984?

My colleague Tom Scott had a cartoon in Wednesday’s paper in which a priest asked a boy: “What has Metiria Turei’s admission of benefit fraud and the Green Party’s subsequent meltdown taught us?”

The boy’s answer: “Never admit to making a mistake even 25 years later.”

That’s a legitimate interpretation of what happened, but my take on it is slightly different.

I think most people are prepared to forgive politicians for things they did when they were a lot younger and prone to bad judgments. But I don’t think it was Turei’s admission of benefit fraud that turned people against her.

What repelled many people was the air of sanctimony that accompanied her confession, as if she had done something noble and virtuous.

People noted that she made this declaration a few weeks out from the election. She said she did it to start a conversation about welfare, but it looked like a calculated play for votes: a dog-whistle. Turei may have been hoping to tap into that same tranche of disenchanted young non-voters that came out behind Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the United States.

The tactic seemed to work, initially at least. The Left was desperate for a hero – remember, this was before Jacinda Ardern stepped up – and Turei seemed to fit the part. For a few days she bathed in the warm glow of the Left’s adulation.

But then things started to fall apart. A backlash started to build, one that was spontaneous and broad-based rather than orchestrated by Turei’s political foes. You could see it building on social media, on talkback radio and in letters to the editor.

By the time Turei was summoned to an interview with WINZ investigators, she was looking decidedly less cocky. She had also changed her tune. From being airily non-committal at first about whether she would repay the taxpayers’ money she had illegally pocketed, it was now: “I’m very clear that I will certainly be repaying any over-payment.”

But things were to get messier yet. Turei didn’t seem to grasp that lifting the lid on something from her past would only encourage reporters to go digging around for other things that might be interesting.

Once that happened, she ceased to be in control of where things were going. That should be Media 101 for politicians.

Sure enough, other facts began to emerge: first a wrong address on the electoral roll and then the rather inconvenient fact that the father of her child was listed as living at the same property – a bad look when she had claimed the DPB. It even turned out her mother had been one of her flatmates while she was defrauding Work and Income by not revealing income from other people in the house.

The cumulative effect was that Turei was soon looking less like a heroic crusader and more like someone who had sneakily gamed the system for her own benefit.

The public was entitled to wonder what else might be in her past. But more crucially, it was entitled to form a judgment about her character.

Then came what seemed a climactic meltdown, when two respected senior Green MPs decided they could no longer, in conscience, share the same party ticket with her.

That exposed a nasty side of the Greens that the public hadn’t previously glimpsed. The recriminations were vicious until co-leader James Shaw pulled back from a vow to expel the two.

Shaw said he changed his mind after getting some sleep. I suspect the truth is that he realised how bad it looked for the Greens – who want everyone to think of them as a kind, gentle party that eschews bitchy politics – to be indulging in vengeful Stalinist bloodletting.

But by then it was too late. The damage was done.

And now Turei herself has gone, amid a nauseating display of self-pity and self-justification. “I wish I hadn’t had to do this,” she whimpered to a sympathetic John Campbell.

Well, she started it, and she should suck it up.


There’s irony on a Shakespearean scale in the fact that just when the Greens had high hopes of finally getting their feet under the cabinet table, the party has been brought crashing down by one woman’s hubris. But it’s great for the clean-nosed Ardern, who is now reaping a bountiful harvest of disenchanted Green voters. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Shakespeare would have loved it

Greens co-leader James Shaw on Q&A yesterday was saying he was shocked at the hatred for the poor that had been exposed since Metiria Turei went public about her benefit fraud. What bullshit. Turei is still being characterised by her admirers as courageous and virtuous. That’s bullshit too. She made a calculated and cynical political decision and it backfired spectacularly. While she was gazing down the track at a shimmering city of votes floating like a tantalising mirage in the distance, a 100-tonne locomotive was bearing down on her from behind.

Some people will consider Turei sainted no matter what she does, but I know Green voters who are repelled by her behaviour and likely to shift their support to Labour, especially now that it’s been re-energised by an appealing Jacinda Ardern.

If Turei has any humility, which I rather doubt, she will have learned a hard political lesson: that once you lift the lid on something from your past, you’re inviting the media to start digging into other things that you would prefer to remained buried. At that point you completely lose control of the agenda and just have to cop whatever comes at you. Shakespeare would have loved it.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

There he goes again

I know Philip Matthews of the Christchurch Press is a capable journalist because I’ve read some good stories by him. So why does he write silly, admiring pieces about rock musicians’ drug habits?

In his latest effort, about a documentary film on the New Zealand band Head Like A Hole, Matthews seems enthralled by the fact that two of the band members were heroin users.

It’s not the first time Matthews has displayed this vicarious fascination with drug use. He did it several years ago in a review of the book Gutter Black, in which he wrote with undisguised awe about the role drugs played in the Auckland band Hello Sailor.

We know drugs are part of rock culture. We also know about the huge damage they’ve done and the talented lives that have been prematurely curtailed or derailed by them. Matthews himself writes that drugs were a “soul destroying” factor in the breakup of Head Like A Hole and left casualties, as they invariably do. 

Acknowledging that drugs were part of the band's story is one thing. Being thrilled by the destructive junkie lifestyle, as Matthews seems to be, is quite another. Whether intentionally or not, it has the effect of romanticising and glamorising something that's neither romantic nor glamorous. Isn't it time he grew out of this adolescent phase?

Monday, July 31, 2017

Key opens up to Australian interlocutor

An interesting interview with John Key by ABC current affairs presenter Tom Switzer on the Australian state broadcaster’s Radio National:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sundayextra/2017-07-30/8749862

Freed from the constraint of having to weigh the political consequences of everything he says, Key is relaxed and expansive. He talks about his decision to quit (“It’s better to go when they want you to stay than to stay when they want you to go”), the National government’s response to the global financial crisis, the Christchurch earthquakes, housing and immigration, the flag, knights and dames, same-sex marriage, Helen Clark and the ponytail incident (“I did some dumb things,” he concedes).

Key remarks at the end that the New Zealand media will probably be miffed that he gave what is probably his most complete post-retirement interview to an Australian, and he may well be right. I’ve never been a fan of Key but I felt I understood him better after this interview than I did before. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

"Progress" has become a matter of what's possible

(First published in The Dominion Post, July 28.)

Some people fret about the threat posed to humanity by climate change. I fret about the threat posed to humanity by technology.

A couple of weeks ago, I used my smartphone to get directions to a motel that I’d booked in Auckland. I only wanted to know how to get there from Queen Street, but of course my phone interpreted the request literally.

Within moments it had mapped out a route all the way from my home in Masterton. It had plotted every turn along the way, precisely calculated the distance (602.2 km), estimated the travel time (7 hours and 25 minutes) and advised me how to avoid the Manawatu Gorge road closure.

This is very impressive. It’s also a bit scary. When a tiny, cheap phone packs more power than the computer that enabled men to land on the moon, I wonder what the limits might be – or indeed, whether there are any limits at all.

Am I a Luddite? I don’t think so. I depend on technology for my livelihood. But that doesn’t stop me worrying about its potential for bad as well as good.

By good, I mean stuff like having instant access to information and services on a scale and at a speed never before envisioned.

By bad I mean stuff like the Dark Web, the epidemic of internet porn, the exploitation of social media by terrorist groups, the rampant hijacking of personal privacy by digital giants such as Facebook, the rich opportunities created for online fraudsters via scams, hacking and ransomware attacks, the venom spread by malicious Internet trolls and the victimisation of vulnerable kids by text bullies.

And that’s just what we know about. Even more disconcerting is the stuff that hasn’t come to pass yet.

I worry about a world in which we’re at the mercy of algorithms which most of us don’t understand. I worry about a world in which we’re given no choice but to join the technological revolution, whether we want to or not. We are all sucked into its vortex.

Humanity, at least in the developed world, has surrendered its fate to technology whose power is advancing at such speed that it threatens to far outstrip our ability to control it or ensure it’s used wisely.

The digital revolution has placed enormous power in the hands of people who are beyond the reach of outdated accountability mechanisms – people for whom technological advance is often an end in itself, to be pursued with little regard for its effect on society. “Progress” has become a matter of what’s possible rather than what’s good.

At the most everyday level, the digital revolution has adversely affected how we relate to each other. In a park during the school holidays, everywhere I looked I saw young mums whose attention wasn’t on their kids but on their phones.

What, I wondered, could have been on their “devices” that was more important than spending quality time with their kids?

And don’t get me started on the business sector, which has eagerly embraced digital technology as a means of placing barriers between companies and the customers they supposedly serve.

The digital revolution has spawned a new language too. When I read articles about technology and its latest applications, I recognise most of the words, yet the meaning is indecipherable. They might as well be written in Sanskrit.

Does this matter? After all, doctors, scientists and lawyers communicate in their own exclusive jargon. But the difference is that digital technology reaches into virtually every corner of our lives, and will do so increasingly. We need to be able understand it, because how can we control what we don’t understand?

Most of all, I fret at the thought of what might still be coming. In a recent BBC radio documentary, computer scientists talked excitedly about the next great leap forward. It’s called quantum computing and it promises to take us to places we don’t even know about.

You could picture the gleam in these technicians’ eyes as they talked about potential “killer” applications. But they didn’t yet know what purposes quantum computing might be used for. It didn’t seem to matter that the problems it might solve are ones that haven’t yet been thought of.

There’s also talk of something called “the singularity” – the point at which computers will be capable of continual self-improvement; of designing and building machines far cleverer than us.

All this greatly excites the bright-eyed evangelists for the digital revolution, but it scares the hell out of me. 

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.