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.