Tuesday, August 31, 2010

No violin unscraped

Like Brian Edwards, my heart sank when I saw the front-
page lead in today’s New Zealand Herald: there’s only
one term for this kind of journalism and it’s ‘cheap shot.’
For the record, under the tear-jerking banner headline
STRIKERS’ HELPLESS VICTIMS, the Herald chose to angle
its report of the strike by Auckland radiography and
hospital laboratory workers this way:

The parents of a baby girl are devastated after being
told long-awaited surgery to help her to eat without
a tube has been postponed because of hospital strikes.

Seventeen-month-old Rebecca Jones has cerebral
palsy and was to have two surgical procedures this
Thursday to ease constant pain and sickness, and
help her take solid food.

What I am about to say has nothing to do with this little
girl’s particular situation. Who among us would not feel
the parents’ distress and identify with it? But by the
Herald’s own account, the strike has forced the
cancellation of 500 operations and among them there
would undoubtedly be other cases of personal distress.
This case, involving a little girl in pain, was clearly
singled out for the front-page story in order to make the
point that the strikers are real shits who should feel
guilty as hell. Note, however, that all the cancelled
operations were for elective surgery (a fact buried deep
down in the story); in other words, many patients were
waiting for operations before this strike came along and
many would still be waiting if it hadn’t happened at all.

Not only does the Herald bias its report against the
workers from the outset, it makes no attempt, as
Edwards correctly notes, to explain, analyse or even
report in any substantive way the reason for the strike
and the case made for it by the workers involved. This is
all too common in reports of industrial action. In one of
my Nine to Noon media comments last year I criticized
the Herald for angling its coverage of a strike by airline
cabin staff on (of course) the disruption to flights and
travel plans. The implication of this kind of reporting is
that workers in public-service industries should never
strike, because it will always be inconvenient or
upsetting for someone. Perhaps the Herald would be
kind enough to advise them of a suitable time, if indeed it
can bring itself to perceive that sometimes the breakdown
of wage negotiations leaves workers with no other option.

I think we can safely say that the radiographers and lab
workers would not have taken this action lightly. To
suggest otherwise, as everything about the Herald's
story suggests—indeed, screams—is to imply that they're
a pack of heartless bastards, when in fact they spend
their days taking care of more people's health than the
entire editorial staff of the Herald ever do.

The Herald is by no means the only offender in this
regard, though, and I repeat, as I said on air today, that
it's still a paper that publishes a great deal of excellent
journalism—which makes it doubly disappointing that
it should resort to violin-scraping on the front page.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Another good column by Tapu Misa in today’s New Zealand
, this one about the danger of re-victimizing victims
of crime by trying to give them, as Chief Justice Sian Elias is
quoted as saying, a ‘sense of ownership of the criminal
justice processes.’ I won’t re-rehearse the arguments—you
can read them here—but will say again that Misa is one of
the best columnists currently writing in New Zealand. In my
closing media comment for the year on Nine to Noon last
December, in fact, I named her columnist of the year. She is
no great stylist in the sense of being a flashy user of words
—a metaphor in a Misa column is quite an event—but has a
terrifically well-ordered mind that enables her to drive to
the heart of any issue, however complex, and write about it
in a simple, direct, sensible, human way. This is an ability
not given, alas, to many columnists, most of whom, not
having enough to say, or not knowing how to sustain what
they say over the length of a column, soon lapse into tired
rhetorical postures or, worse, anecdotal ramblings. To draw
on all that you know about something and write coherently
and interestingly about it for 500 words or more is not as
easy as it may sound, and certainly not if you have to do it
every week without fail. Tom Scott once said to me that
anyone can write one brilliant column in three—the trick is
faking the other two. I spent eight years trying to cultivate
that trick myself, when I followed Tom as the Listener’s
political columnist, and by the end I’d been wrung dry.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Shit hits land

This caught my eye in the Listener’s cover story (by the
redoubtable Rebecca Macfie) about the damage being
done to our old friend ‘the environment’ by the
dairying boom: ‘Dairying wouldn’t stand up to any
analysis of the total costs.’—Canterbury sheep farmer
Brian Deans. Good point. The total costs. The usual
measures of growth and productivity take no account
of what economists, with a delicate elegance, call
externalities. When building a highway, for instance,
air and noise pollution are externalities that rarely
figure in calculations of the highway’s economic
worth (though the money spent on fixing the damage
done is counted as a plus when the ‘growth’ sum is
done). Similarly, until recent times, and not even
properly now, what happened to cowshit was of no
concern to the farmers pasturing and milking cows.
Finally, one might say, the shit is hitting the land. For
the first time in the agri-industrial age attention is
being paid on a national scale to precisely where this
shit goes and what it does when it gets there. That
explains why (you’ve noticed, haven’t you) words
like ‘effluent’ and ‘run-off’ are appearing more and
more in the public prints. Incredibly, there are still no
serious laws in place for penalizing farmers who let
cows wander into streams or just let the manure wash
into the nearest river; something called the Clean
Streams Accord is entirely voluntary (though moral
pressure to sign up to it is growing). Intriguingly, I
note from Macfie’s article that Environment
Canterbury is experimenting with ‘restorative justice’
programs whereby farmers found to have offended,
effluent-wise, have to front up and apologize to the
public. Such people clearly need to get their shit
together but not take it on the road.

I find that, without ever setting out to, I return in blog
after blog to what’s going on in the nation’s paddocks.
The fact is, as Macfie astutely says, ‘For all the
knowledge-wave conferences and high-tech industry
taskforces, we’re more dependent than ever on our
ability to turn cheap grass into cheap milk, to suck the
water out of it using cheap electricity, and to flog it off
around the world.’ Whatever the issues are for China
or Europe or the United States, this debate is central
for New Zealand. Get your gumboots on and join it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Take the bus

Details of credit card expenses released this
week show state sector bosses have racked
up almost $30,000 on taxi fares. Only a few
took trains, and only on overseas trips.
None claimed for a bus trip... Other than
airport shuttle buses, there were no claims
for public transport in New Zealand.
[Dominion Post 7.8.10]

I’ll tell you what, it’ll be a great day when a chief
executive or any other executive, state-sector or
private-sector, takes the bus anywhere, let alone
catches a train. Let alone walks. Or bikes! (We can
dream, can’t we?) Okay, I’ll let them off the bikes,
but just to imagine a departmental head getting on
a bus to go, say, from a meeting in one part of town
to a meeting in another is to recognize how deeply
embarrassing and demeaning they would find it.
And that, in turn, tells us how so much more
important than the rest of us they think they are,
and how they regard their time as more valuable
than ours. Sure, we all take a cab now and again,
but always? Every single time?

This also gives the lie to all the fine talk about the
nation reducing its carbon footprint. Our MPs are
no better; to go by car and/or plane is absolutely
automatic with them. As for the private sector, just
look at the car sections and supplements of business
papers and magazines: they are thick with the latest
high-speed luxury models. Whatever debate about
'the environment' is taking place in the real world, it
has completely failed to enter the pampered,
cosseted and resource-greedy world of the business

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The ex-files

Time was, in the vast vault that houses my hard-copy filing
system, I used to have files labelled AGRICULTURE,
ECONOMY, ENVIRONMENT etc. What a simple childlike
world that was. With every passing day it becomes harder
to separate material out into such neat, discrete categories.
I hold a clipping about the Emissions Trading Scheme in
my hand: in what manila folder should it be filed for future
reference? ENVIRONMENT? Well, yes; but also ECONOMY;
leaches into everything else now. As indeed it should,
whatever challenges it presents for the finicky filer. This
breaking down of clear sharp categories is a necessary
stage in the shift of our consciousness away from world as
fractionated and finite and towards world as contextual
and interdependent. The philosophers have been saying
this, like, forever; but politics is a terrible laggard.

I think the first dawning in my own consciousness of this
truth was the 1970s ‘environmental’ slogan that you can’t
throw anything away on this planet: there is no ‘away.’
Forty years later it is dawning on all of us, however
reluctant we may be to acknowledge it, that everything,
from cowshit to plastic bags, from BP to TV, from plankton
to post-modernism, is consequential and interconnected.
Once you know this, and live accordingly, you will either
(a) never know peace again or (b) go out and join the
nearest revolution.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Long ago and Faraway

I would be sorry to see Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books
sanitized, as reported here. Her publishers propose to
‘update’ her books to make the language in them less
old-fashioned—so it’s out with all those jollys (jolly good,
jolly rotten) for a start, and apparently even ‘mother and
father’ will become ‘mum and dad.’ Nor can ‘dirty tinker’
be allowed to survive. Well, okay; of course there was
racism and classism, subtle and not so subtle, in Blyton’s
writing, and attitudes taken by Julian, George, Dick and
Anne (and probably Timmy for that matter) that now
seem insufferably priggish; but where does this stop? Do
we remove the antisemitism from T S Eliot’s poems?
Rewrite Moby-Dick so that Captain Ahab saves the whale
instead of harpooning it? Books, like anything made by
human ingenuity, are of their time and speak to the
future beyond it—warts and all. No one would dare do this
with authors of adult classics, so it’s hard not to see the
tinkering with Blyton as an over-concern with the
supposed sensitivities of children—who, I suspect, are
much more robustly capable of coping with historical
distinctions than Blyton’s publishers think. Even as a child
in the 1950s myself, devouring Blyton by the shelf-load, I
could tell that she was already becoming out of date. But
she worked her magic then, and survives now, as Lucy
Mangan writes in this perceptive piece, ‘because she
serves perfectly the purely narrative appetite of a child that
precedes more sophisticated tastes—and which must be
stimulated and satisfied if those tastes are ever to develop.’

Speaking for myself, Blyton’s Enchanted Wood was central
to the forming of my imagination in childhood. It is one of
the pebble-beds over which the mind’s stream still flows. I
shall always be grateful to Blyton for this (and for her other
masterpiece, The Secret of Killimooin). Down below, how
deeply colonizing it was: that wood, those glades, not this
bush. Up above, in the cloudlands passing over the top of
the Faraway Tree, I floated free from all earthly geography.