Thursday, July 31, 2008

Contact capture

Further to comments I made on Kathryn Ryan’s Radio New
Zealand National program this week, I was impressed by a
letter to the editor of the New Zealand Herald by John
Copping, of Botany Downs, published on July 25. Regarding
the absurd amount of media attention being paid to
whether or not Winston Peters knew about certain
donations to his party, Copping summed up my view pretty
much when he wrote: “What a small-minded, mean country
we are. For days the media and Parliament have been in a
frenzy about a two-bit politician. Meanwhile, 200 freezing
works employees lose their livelihoods in Christchurch…
No one seems to worry why these hardworking men and
women have been dumped, why the meat industry is in dire
straits, or why sheep numbers are dwindling alarmingly.”

This is one example of what I was referring to when I said
the media should be putting their energies into other kinds
of story. Another would be Simon Upton’s Dominion Post
column of July 29 in which he deplored the Government’s
lack of leadership on improving water quality. Major issues
like these do get covered by the media but to nowhere near
the extent of the kind of coverage allotted to whether or not
Winston Peters received donation A or knew about trust B.
Sure, it’s a matter of some interest, but not that much
interest. Though I wouldn’t go so far as Peters himself in
calling the saturation coverage a “media ego-explosion,”
I think Kathryn has a point in suggesting that some media
would love to “get” Peters, and this seems to them the best
shot they’ve had at doing it.

But the likeliest explanation for the amount of coverage the
story has had is simply what I’d call contact capture: stories
out of Auckland and Wellington, arising from well-trodden
beats in political and business circles, are generally likely to
get more airtime and page space than stories requiring
research and investigation in, say, the meatworks industry
or the nation’s river system. A related factor is resource
depletion—shrinking newsrooms, less experienced
reporters, inability or disinclination to venture outside the
comfortable grooves of your usual contacts, soundbite-
suppliers and go-to-guys.

Given these factors, it’s amazing how well our media do in
chasing stories. I’m frequently impressed by the work done
by journalists on papers like the New Zealand Herald and
the Sunday Star-Times; and TVNZ and TV3 have some good
reporters in the field. I just wish they—or should I say their
editors—would devote as much energy to stories of genuine
consequence for this country as they have to this latest
Peters pantomime. Enough already.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Survival of the fitted

Thank you to all those who have sent in advice about
how to fold a fitted sheet without having three kinds
of breakdown. I should have known there'd be
websites—even videos, I'm told. Some of the
instructions sound alarming, though, requiring strange
physical contortions. It all depends, I suppose, on just
how much sheet one is prepared to put up with.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Happy days

I have never seen television news presenters and reporters
so happy and comfortable as when they’re covering the
weather—the weather as news, I mean. All strain flies from
their faces; here is news pure and simple, with no hidden
political agendas, no freighted comments or compromises.
Not so many worries about absolute accuracy either. They
don’t have to be concerned about balance or pleasing this
constituency or that: all they have to do is repeat inane
incantatory phrases like “weather bomb!” and “wintry
blast!” (which, by the way, is always “creeping” up or down
the country—why creep? do blasts creep? I don’t think so.
But moving right along), while crossing live to each other
in a positive fever of meteorological anticipation. Here’s
reporter A, all oilskins and storm-plastered hair, on a
windswept beachfront with waves crashing across the road;
there’s reporter B in beanie and anorak shouting heroically
at us from some rugged clifftop or riverbank. This, surely,
is TV news heaven; from their point of view, it beats the
pants off politicians’ press conferences anyway. I can see a
future where network news, if it still exists at all, finally
acknowledges where its heart lies and reverses the current
pattern by putting the weather first and the rest of the news
later. Naturally, in the absence of genuine storms, it may be
necessary to talk up lesser events for the sake of dynamic
headlines. Your average downpour will become a “rain
bomb,” a sunny spell a “summery blast.” Duncan Garner
will analyze the polls for what people think the weather is
going to be, while Guyon Espiner monitors the temperature
in Parliament. As for what we used to call news, forget it.
Weather has everything the perfect bulletin needs: dramatic
actuality, thrilling audio, reporters in chunky stormwear,
conflict, grief, destruction and terrific entertainment value.
Beachfront to armchair, clifftop to couch, it meets deep
viewer needs. This was all foreseen by Don DeLillo in his
great 1984 novel White Noise, in which a character, seeing
a weather report on TV, has a meteorological epiphany.
“I realized weather was something I’d been looking for all
my life,” he says. “It brought me a sense of peace and
security I’d never experienced.” Later, he teaches
meteorology, and people come from miles around to hear
him. “I saw something in their eyes. A hunger, a compelling
need.” Don, you are so right. Everyone should read White
. It’s a Don bomb.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Morality check

A couple of responses to my burqa blog. Deborah says that
writing her doctoral thesis on multiculturalism she rejected
moral relativism and argued that some things are just
morally wrong—and burqa-wearing is one of them,
"because it is so closely linked to the subjugation of
women." Good call. Truth-seeker, for his part, has no
objection to the robes and head-dresses worn by Muslim
women but draws the line at covering the face entirely.
Seeing two women in downtown Auckland wearing full
burqa with only a slit for the eyes bothered him so much,
he says, that he thought hard about it and concluded that
it threatens the function of individual accountability
necessary in a nation of responsible citizens who obey
laws. "If you hide your face from me," he writes, "you are
rejecting that responsibility to be open and accountable
for your actions."

Sheet happens

Many household chores are deeply satisfying but folding
a fitted sheet in order to put it away is not one of them.
Ideally, a linen drawer or cupboard will contain neat piles
of sheets and pillowslips, all folded into squares or—if
needs must—rectangles. But a fitted sheet, being edged
with elastic, does not lend itself to this kind of order.
There is simply no way in the world that one can fold it
into a neat square, or indeed into anything other than a
crumpled mess. I don't like to think of the distress this
must cause in many a well-run home. Yes, I know there
are schools of thought about holding the sheet by the
corner seams and folding it that way but in my experience
such endeavours invariably end in ruin and rage—even
when teams of two make the attempt. The world awaits
the inventor who can crack this one. Fitted sheets are fine
on the bed but an aesthetic offence in the cupboard.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Eyes only

The decision of a French court to deny citizenship to a
Muslim woman who insists on wearing a burqa at all
times in public—refusing to remove it even to be
photographed for a passport—raises delicate issues of
personal freedom and cultural values. On the one hand,
there is the argument that an individual in a free state is
entitled to wear what they like, provided it does no harm
to others. If a burqa is unacceptable, why not, for instance,
ban bikie gear or tongue studs? You could get into some
very tricky territory over where to draw the line. On the
other hand, if a nation has any cultural values worth
defending at all, presumably it is entitled to assert them.
A fully masked face is not the norm in Western countries
like France and New Zealand—just as certain Western
customs are not the norm in Islamic countries. In Saudi
Arabia, for instance, Westerners must change their ways
to suit the locals by not drinking alcohol in public and by
not wearing revealing clothing. If it’s all right for Islamic
countries to insist on others doing it their way, shouldn’t
it be all right for Western countries to do the same on
their own turf?

Then you get into the even thornier territory of religious
belief; but the French court made no allowance for that,
because the French believe strongly in a secular state and a
“secular arena” common to all citizens in which religion has
no power. The French, of course, have already gone further
than most nations and banned religious clothing like
headscarves from state schools and public buildings. I think
New Zealanders would be uneasy about going too far down
that road, because there’s a strong liberal live-and-let-live
strain in our culture; but we too might draw the line at
women serving us in shops, say, or teaching school in full-
length burqas with only their eyes showing.

For my own part, I might be more inclined to defend the
freedom of religious belief, and therefore disagree with the
French court, if I didn’t regard Islam as essentially a male-
supremacist religion. So I side with the French feminists
who say that such a religion shouldn’t be allowed to have its
way willy-nilly in the secular arena. If there’s a line to be
drawn, it’s not so much against items of clothing or forms
of belief as such but against anything conducive to the
subjugation, silencing and social sidelining of women.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The fire this time

I have just read The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm again.
Ostensibly a book about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes it is
actually a profound meditation on the nature of biography
and of journalism. I think it was one of Malcolm's other
books, perhaps The Journalist and the Murderer, that
began with the lapidary line "All journalists betray the
people they write about"; The Silent Woman goes further,
concluding, more or less, that no journalist or biographer
can hope to get anywhere near the "truth" about a person
or an event—so wholesale error can be added to betrayal
as the sine qua non of such work. It's no accident,
Malcolm says, that journalists call what they do "stories",
and that a fundamental rule is to tell a story and stick to
it. She goes on: “The narratives of those of
mythology and folklore, derive their power from their firm,
undeviating sympathies and antipathies. Cinderella must
remain good and the stepsisters bad. SECOND STEPSISTER
is not a good story.”

We see this pattern played out over and over in the news,
especially when a celebrity falls from our grace and favour.
Regardless, often, of the actual verifiable facts of a case, it
almost seems necessary that celebrity A or B must be cast in
a particular role that satisfies our need for all the usual
components of a good story—conflict, challenge, secrecy,
honour, risk, redemption etc. In that sense they perform the
parts once assigned to the great figures of myth and legend.
This is why we have them. Celebrities, I mean. And also, of
course, because they're a source of rich raw material for
that other deep human need: gossip.

Eventually, every major news story about a celebrity's
shame or disgrace burns itself out for lack of oxygen; it
consumes itself in its own fire. Sifted over and over, all the
known facts are reduced to a fine ash of speculation, and
there's no narrative spectacle in that. But how we love the
flames when they leap, we mass media consumers. We are
all arsonists now.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Working on it

Klyuchevsky says that a people become a nation by passing
through some great common danger, which remains
afterwards as a collective national memory. Perhaps this
explains why countries such as New Zealand, and probably
Australia, are not yet truly nations. Gallipoli is the nearest
we have come to a "great common danger," and it was
several thousand miles away, on someone else's soil.

‘There’s all of Greece in here, all of the Greek pain’—so says
a character in a Kapka Kassabova novel, referring to
someone’s poetry. So what, if anything, is the New Zealand

"New Zealand," says James Ritchie, "has to get an overall
collective memory, not just the nice things, the sweet songs.
Things like child abuse and Maori rapes have to be included
in the national consciousness..."

Well, we're working on it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Outsource for the goose

A news report syndicated by Britain’s Telegraph Group
makes the persuasive case that globalization has “passed
its high-water mark,” mainly because the soaring cost of
transportation will make long-distance trade prohibitively
expensive. The report quotes an outfit called CIBC World
Markets as saying that the “Asian outsourcing game is
over,” and goes so far as to predict that the “pendulum
will now swing back from China to America.” For instance,
“North Carolina’s furniture industry is coming back from
the dead as factories close in China.”

It may be a little premature to write China off like that,
but I have no doubt that, as the consequences of peak oil
hit home (literally), trade and commerce will relocalize.
We may well see the reappearance of suburban groceries,
butcheries and bakeries as the giant shopping malls fall
derelict for want of motorized custom; and cottage
industries springing up too. There will always be global
trade of one sort or another, of course, but the future
clearly favours any enterprise not wholly dependent on
trucking stuff great distances. New Zealand’s declining
clothing industry, for instance, could take fresh heart
from this.

On the other hand, New Zealand’s own export industries
will be hard hit, so it cuts both ways. Firms like Fonterra
are already anticipating the trend by setting up factories
of their own in other countries.

Monday, July 7, 2008


The Australian media are buzzing about the Garnaut
report. The what? As far as I'm aware, there has not
been ONE PEEP about this in the New Zealand media,
which confirms yet again how deeply colonized our
mentality still is. Stuff is going on across the Tasman
of great relevance to us but we still take our cues from
Europe and America. Professor Ross Garnaut and his
team have produced a major draft report on climate
change and how it will affect Australia, yet on this side
of the Tasman, unless you went out of your way to
find out, you wouldn't know about it. Garnaut calls for
an emissions trading scheme by 2010, from which, in
his view, agriculture and forestry should be exempt for
the time being. Sound familiar? Check the net.

A dig too far

Like several commentators I have to say that the Labour
Government is going too far in trying to demolish John
Key’s personal credibility. I agree with John Armstrong
of the New Zealand Herald when he concludes that the
Prime Minister's attack on Key last week may have done
more damage to her credibility than his. It smacks of
unsavoury politics, digging for dirt like this.

I can understand how Helen Clark must feel: more than
any politician in living memory she has suffered, and had
to survive, a series of vicious personal attacks and nasty
innuendoes. Even her husband has been dragged through
the mire. As a female Prime Minister she has had to bear
the brunt of a powerful undertow of sexism and
anti-feminism that, while it may be nowhere near so bad
as it was when she started out in politics in the 1970s, is
still very much there in the minds of men. So she may well
have thought, fair’s fair, no holds barred etc. But two
wrongs don’t make a right, and her best strategy—not to
say the decent human thing—would be to keep herself and
her government well out of that kind of politics.

Even leaving aside the morality of it, it just looks plain
desperate. Coupled with a recent tendency to arrogance,
into which both Clark and Michael Cullen have lapsed at
times, such tactics demean a government with a proud
record of social-democratic progress. It owes itself and its
potential voters a clean hard-fought campaign based on
policies, not personalities.

Sunday, July 6, 2008


19-8, the final score in last night's rugby test between
the All Blacks and the Springboks, is an evocative
scoreline for me. It takes me back to July 31, 1956,
when as a nine-year-old boy I was among the crowd
at Solway Showgrounds, Masterton, to see the touring
Springboks play Wairarapa-Bush. It was a Tuesday,
but schools had been let out for the afternoon, such
was the importance of the occasion. Local excitement
was intense, and pride all the greater when we held the
visitors to a comparatively respectable 19-8 win (they
had been beating other provincial sides by much wider
margins). Naturally I identified with their captain,
Denis Ackerman (as I did, much more intensely, with
the English cricketer Denis Compton). On the South
Africans' long tour of New Zealand we had grown used
to names such as Muller, Strydom and van Vollenhoven.
There were no blacks in the team. It wasn't an issue. No
one gave it a thought. It was 1956, perhaps the very peak
of postwar prosperity, prejudice and conformism; the
last year, pre-Suez, when the writ of the fading British
Empire still ran unchallenged in the Wairarapa and the
Witwatersrand. The total number of unemployed in the
country was five. Child abuse was unrecognized. Not the
slightest inkling of apartheid clouded the day.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Whale lore

Another day, another whale stranding. Doggedly, we keep
pushing them back out to sea, but don't we understand?
To them, we are the stranded ones. They see us on the shore
and draw near, wanting to help us return to the sea whence
we came, millennia ago. When will we get the message?

Only connect

News report #1: Between 2002 and 2007, retirement village
operator Ryman Healthcare was the fastest value creator of
New Zealand’s 15 largest companies on the sharemarket. In
that period it returned its shareholders an average of 49
percent a year on their investments and created wealth of
just over $1 billion.

News report #2: The head of HealthCare Providers NZ,
the organization that represents most rest home and
retirement village owners, including Ryman, said a survey
they'd done recently had found that the average pay for
caregivers is $13.15 an hour.

Could these two facts possibly be connected?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Roads to nowhere

Good to hear a Morning Report item about the effect of
soaring petrol prices on people who live in places like
Upper Hutt and commute to Wellington. The couple in
question had already got rid of one gas-guzzling car, were
rationing the use of the other and contemplating moving
into Wellington altogether. I did a similar piece for the
Listener last year when I went to Whitby—a postwar
suburb north of Wellington whose very existence is
predicated on unhampered private vehicle use—and asked
locals how they’d cope with peak oil. More and more in the
media now, one sees stories about people cutting back on
car use and adapting their lives accordingly. Yet billions of
dollars are still being lavished on major road development
on the assumption, or perhaps just the hope, that traffic
will go on expanding exponentially. It’s like building
swimming pools as a tsunami approaches.

And still there are those who can’t get their heads around it.
The Dominion Post ran a letter from a woman complaining
that she’d tried to do the right thing and catch a train but
wound up being 40 minutes late for an appointment and
thanks very much but next time I’ll take the car. Diddums.
Just because public transport is not instantly available at
every second of the day like your car is, you don’t throw
your toys out of the cot if it doesn’t perform perfectly to
your satisfaction first time. You push for better services,
you keep using public transport to help the demand grow,
and it will inevitably improve. You might even get to like it.