Archive for ‘October, 2010’

The real Chilean miracle.

datePosted on 21:47, October 14th, 2010 by Pablo

The rescue of the 33 trapped miners in Chile is an epic feat. It is a testament to Chilean tenacity, discipline and ingenuity that the rescue operation was a sterling success. Bien hecho y felicitaciones, companeros!

There are some less covered aspects to the incident that are worth highlighting.

First, contrary to what US TV coverage may lead one to believe, the US did not spearhead the rescue efforts. A total of four US private contractors were sent to supervise the rescue bore drilling, and the derrick for that bore was US-made. There were also Canadian, Austrian and Kiwi experts on scene, but the majority of those involved in planning and carrying out the operation were Chilenos. Of course that should obviously be so: mining is the foundation of Chile’s export economy so it has a long history of expertise in that field. However, the accident itself has origins in policies that obviated any expertise. And in that regard it had a direct US connection: the Chicago School (as translated by Arnold Harberger) and the so-called “Washington Consensus.”

Under the market-driven edicts imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship and followed by the democratic Concertacion governments that ruled from 1990 until March of this year (the last two under Socialist presidents), the mining industry was deregulated and partially privatised. Although the Chilean state retains a majority interest in the largest copper mining ventures because copper is Chile’s hard income export earner (40 percent of the world’s copper comes from Chile), many smaller mining outfits proliferated under successive resource extraction plans developed by each of the democratic governments. That included allowing non-union workers into the mines and the proliferation of non-union “bargaining agents” at the shop level, all of which decreased worker input into the management of the deregulated and privatised mines (the larger state-owned mines are almost completely unionised). The mine in question is owned by one of these smaller private operators and has a long history of equipment failures, accidents, regulatory violations (such as the disarming of tunnel alarm systems) and maintenance problems. Plus, it was going broke (one of the ironies of the accident was that many of the rescued miners were about to be laid off due to the company’s financial difficulties). Thus the accident was a direct result of privatisation and deregulation leading to a lax workplace safety environment on the part of the mine’s owners.

Confronted by the mine owner’s inability to cope with the disaster the state-owned mining corporation, CODELCO, assumed control of the operation and brought its experts in. It was these people, effectively state employees, who directed, planned, staffed and executed the rescue (in fact, several of the six man rescue team were military personnel trained in advanced search and rescue operations). Or to put it very bluntly: it was the consequences of free market capitalism that caused the accident, and it was state capitalism that fixed it.

One thing that may not have been apparent to non-Spanish speaking viewers but which was quite clearly audible to those who do understand the language, was that several of the rescued miners, including the shift foreman who came out last as well as several of the rescuers sent underground to retrieve them, specifically said to Chilean president Sebastian Pinera that the accident was preventable and that measures must be taken to avoid a repetition of the event. Some of these remarks were quite pointed given that Pinera is of the centre-right and has benefited personally and professionally from Pinochet’s policies because he is the son of Pinochet’s Labour Minister and started his fortune by capitalising on the deregulation of the health insurance and private credit markets in the 1980s. To his benefit, president Pinera announced to the nation that he has ordered a review of the entire occupational safety framework, not just in mining but across the spectrum of economic activity, saying that it was clear that there was “gaps” and “failures” in the workplace protection of Chilean workers that needed tighter regulatory controls.  If he is true to his word and the review is genuine, that could result in a very positive outcome stemming from this near-tragedy.

As for Pinera’s role, he has acquitted himself very well. He monitored the operation from day 1 and did not just show up at the end to bask in the glory of the rescue. For a Righty, he came off as remarkably clued into the needs of his working class charges.  The same can be said for the Minsters for Health and Mining as well as the senior management team brought into supervise the rescue operation. From the erection of “Camp Hope” on the mining site (where relatives of the trapped miners held a vigil), to the flow of communication to the press and supply of necessities to the miners themselves, the pressed-into-service bosses performed admirably. And they all are public sector employees, even if the Ministers originated from the dark side of the political spectrum. Whatever the case, credit is deserved where it is due, and the president and the management team he sent to the rescue deserve gratitude and respect for their handling of the crisis.

One element of farce in the rescue was the arrival of Bolivian president Evo Morales on the scene. Morales was there because one of the rescued miners is a Bolivian. Morales promised him a house and a job if he returned home with him on the specially charted plane Morales arrived in. Trouble is, the miner left Bolivia at the age of 14 (he is now 24) to seek better economic fortune in Chile, has a Chilean partner and a network of friends, and for all outward appearances seems disinclined to return to his native country. So that left Morales to grandstand in his public speech in an effort to pressure the miner to return with him. To his credit, president Pinera noted that a medical evaluation would have to take place first, at which time the miner could make up his mind about what to do. Morales left a few hours later, alone.

There are of course many other sub-plots to this remarkable story of survival. But as someone who has lived and worked in Chile as a youth and adult, has several Chilean friends and who has written professionally on aspects of its political and economic development, it reminds me of how quietly and humbly efficient they are as a nation. They have suffered hardship and  disaster, both human and nature-made, yet they display a measure of stoicism, discipline and tenacity that is truly remarkable. The last 68 days has offered proof of that above and below ground. Viva Chile y sus mineros!

PC priorities

datePosted on 21:06, October 12th, 2010 by Lew

The media beat-up du jour is the non-story of Te Papa Tongarewa “barring” (or “banning”, “forbidding”, other such absolute terms) pregnant and menstruating women from entry due to the nature of some tāonga on display.

Except they’ve done no such thing. The “ban” isn’t actually a restriction at all — they’ve been clear that it’s a request, not an ironclad edict; and in any case, the exhibit isn’t open to the public, but to staff from other museums. It’s an invite-only behind-the-scenes tour. And the crucial point is that the tāonga in question have been given to Te Papa on condition that this advice is given to prospective viewers. Let me be crystal clear: nobody would be barred from attending on the grounds that they are pregnant or menstruating. If someone wanted to turn up and say “bollocks to all of that, me and my unborn child are going to see those taiaha!”, it’s been made clear that she would be permitted to do so. That might be inflammatory and offensive, like farting in church or wearing a bikini to a funeral, but nobody is forbidding it. And that’s as it should be: Te Papa is our place and nobody should be barred outright. If the condition required exclusion, then that would be fair enough on the part of the owners — who can reasonably impose whatever conditions they please — but quite explicitly not ok for Te Papa, who would be better to decline the opportunity outright to maintain its public mandate.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped everyone with a platform from winding up to rage against the imposition of archaic, alien superstitions upon their civil liberties. But almost without exception, the restriction-which-isn’t-really-a-restriction doesn’t apply to them, since — as far as I’m aware — none of those objecting are in fact museum staff who would be eligible for the tour. And amongst this vicarious umbrage there’s an awful lot of squawking about misogyny and imposition of cultural values, and much more uncritical repetition of the misleading language of “bans” and such. It goes as far as idiotic and lurid suggestions about personal searches using sniffer dogs, for crying out loud.

All this has manifested as a soft and rather opportunistic sort of anti-Māori racism, where Māori are the casualties of our sticking up for the rights of pregant and menstruating women. There’s a common implication that they are the oppressive stone-age patriarchy using whatever means they can to victimise our women; and “forcing” their rude barbarian culture into our civilised and noble times. This is understandable from the usual PC gone mad crowd who’ve suddenly — conveniently — found their inner feminist, but somewhat more disappointing from those who would often be described as the hand-wringing PC liberals, people who ought to know better that it is possible to reconcile conflicting cultural values of this sort in an amicable fashion via the standard tools of live-and-let-live liberalism. And while those same hand-wringing PC liberals do rail against the worst excesses of those illiberal institutions which make up mainstream NZ society — chief amongst them the Catholic church — the response to this case has generated anger out of all proportion. Te Papa had to make the decision: take the tāonga on with the advisory condition, or not at all. Perhaps those objecting to this policy would prefer that nothing of this sort ever go on display. There is a genuine cultural conflict here, but it can quite simply be resolved: those pregnant and menstruating women who believe their right to attend trumps the request to the contrary may do so then and there. Not only are they not prevented from doing so by those hosting the tours, they actually have the right to do so should they choose, and that right should be defended. Those who do not may do so at another time which is convenient to them. The tragedy is that for most of the liberals in this battle of PC priorities, women must be given categorical superiority over Māori. They are arguing for their own culture to be imposed across the board; the very illiberalism they claim to oppose.

There are (at least) two people who are making good sense on this matter: Andrew Geddis, whose liberal argument is very close to my own views, but much better formed; and Lynne Pope who, almost uniquely among the bullhorns sounding around this topic, is a Māori woman who’s actually been on the tour in question. Neither of them have lapsed into the myopic, reflexive Māori-bashing which is the most unbecoming aspect of this situation.

The lesson for New Zealand’s liberals is this: it isn’t necessary to trample on the cultural needs of Māori to accomodate the needs of women. Liberalism itself provides tools to reconcile these differences. They just need to be used.

Update 20101018: As usual, Scott Hamilton makes good sense on this topic.

L

The national discussion about racism occasioned by Paul Henry’s ill-considered remarks have given me pause for reflection on the nature of bigotry. Although I claim no professional competence in the field, I offer the following by way of discussion points on theme.

Bigotry is the visceral attribution of negative traits to groups and individuals based on innate features, or the attribution of individual traits to perceptions of collective behaviour.  Most often, it is opprobrium directed at people for who they are rather than what they do. Racism is just one form of bigotry, which covers ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender, sexual orientation, mental state, physical handicap and other physical or cultural characteristics. It also has an economic component, as evident in the animosity between rich and working class beyond their often antagonistic positions within production. It can work deductively, where traits collectively ascribed to particular groups are attributed to all individuals in that group (e.g. all Latinos are lazy or take siestas, or all Jews are Zionist money-grubbers). It also works inductively, where individual behaviour or attributes are assigned to a whole group (e.g., I was cheated by a Chinese person so all Chinese must be cheats. Or, Chris Carter is a troughing, entitlement-addicted vindictive gay MP so all other gay MPs are the same.  Or better yet, because some Muslims are terrorists, all Muslims are (potential) terrorists). Above all, it is an expression of irrational fear and distrust of “otherness” phrased as negative stereotyping that can or cannot be rooted in a sense of historical grievance or sense of superiority.

Vertical bigotry is located in social hierarchy.Often rooted in socioeconomic class status but generally based on the social dominance of some groups over others, it is the attribution of negative traits to groups located below or above a particular reference group in the social hierarchy. Although most often visible in dominant group contempt for subordinate group characteristics, it is also evident in the contempt of subordinate groups for their dominators. One example of the latter is the general resentment of some members of indigenous groups towards descendants of colonial occupiers, be these Spanish, English, German, French, Portuguese or Dutch, and the attribution by these indigenous actors of collective guilt and attitudes on the part of colonial descendants. On the other hand, and much more prevalent, is the attitude of contempt of dominant groups towards subordinate groups and the attribution of negative cultural traits  to them (e.g. laziness, backwardness, savagery, etc.). 

There is more to the picture of vertical dimension of bigotry, but the point is that it is a two-way street, however asymmetrical the flow of bigotry may be, between dominant and subordinate groups in society. This is as true for capitalist as it is for non-capitalist societies (for example, Burmese treatment of ethnic minorities today or Chinese treatment of non-Han before and after the transition to capitalism), although capitalism tends to reinforce the non-economic stratification of society and the vertical bigotry that comes with it. What is important to note is that, contrary to the claims by some that subordinate groups cannot be racist or bigoted because they are historical victims of oppression, my view is that both dominant  and subordinate groups are quite capable of bigotry. Blaming historical oppression for “reverse racism” is just an excuse for but not a negation of it. Being justifiably aggrieved does not justify being bigoted.

Horizontal bigotry, in contrast, is the negative stereotyping between economically or socially similar groups. As classic case is the traditional loathing of Jews amongst Catholic and Protestant elites in Europe and North America, in which relative economic status of Jews did and does not preclude the use of pejoratives by Christian elites to characterise Jewish culture and modes of social interaction. Another example would be the animosity felt towards Europeans (read: whites) by Asian elites in a variety of countries, even though Europeans have been instrumental in the rise of the Asian “dragons.” Although this Anglophobic loathing may have its origins in 19th and 20th century Western imperialism, it defies the current state of global economic and political affairs, which has seen a reversion of the historical model and the evening of the socio-economic, cultural and political playing field between East and West. And yet it persists: whites are loud, hairy, dirty, smelly, promiscuous drunkards with a penchant for fighting (it would be tempting to insert some wisecrack about Ozzies or Poms here but I shall desist).

This form of bigotry is not confined to elites. Consider the animosity between African-Americans and Latinos (particularly Mexicans and Cubans) in the US, or the mutual prejudices of Maori and Pacific Islanders in NZ. Although it may be the case that such horizontal bigotry is not a generalised sentiment in any of these populations, it should be recognised that it does in fact exist, and by the mere fact of its existence it reinforces and perpetuates the vertical dimension of bigotry that serves as a non-structural barrier to subordinate group advancement in society. And here again, it demonstrates that members of historically subordinate groups can and are often bigoted in their approaches to others, including members of other subordinate groups as well as the descendants of their common historical oppressors.

Less readers think otherwise, I am not saying that any one group is more prone to bigotry than others, although that may be a valid point of discussion. Nor am I attributing bigotry to the majority of any one group, although it is clear that in some instances whole populations are socialised with primordial hatred of targeted out-groups regardless of the historical record between them. Finally, I do not equate bigotry with good natured yet sharp comedic parody, self-deprecation or barbed humour. For me, bigotry involves malice and malice posing as “humour” is what Paul Henry was expressing  when he made his disparaging remarks about a number of people or groups (including Mexicans, as it turns out) during the course of  his tenure on Breakfast.

Which brings up a very thorny question. Could it not be that Mr. Henry’s remarks evidence his anxiety about the vertical dimension of  NZ  bigotry becoming a horizontal contest of bigoted equals?

In any event, what I have merely tried  to do here is clarify my thoughts on the subject in light of my observations and experience in the hope that it serves as food for thought for those who may interested in such things.

Unattributed paraphrasing as unspoken flattery?

datePosted on 12:47, October 10th, 2010 by Pablo

From time to time I read bloggers who complain that there work is stolen by MSM “repeaters” and repackaged under the repeaters’ by-line or in a story under their name. This form of plagarism is hard to prove conclusively because unless the repeater uses phrases word for word, s/he can claim that fortuitous intellectual coincidence rather than malice was involved.

Then I read Kerre Woodham’s column in today’s HoS. The tone is similar to the thrust of my post earlier in the week about the rise and fall of Paul Henry. That’s OK, as a number of people have taken the view that TVNZ management is as much if not more responsible than Mr. Henry for the debacle that his “insensitive remarks” has turned into.

But what are the chances that she and I would both use the phrase “bullet proof” in paragraphs specifically referring to the moment at the Qantas Media Awards when Henry decided he was invulnerable? Since her version appears five days after mine did, is it a wonderful coincidence and example of great minds thinking alike or an example of the type of repeating that other bloggers have complained about? In other words, is this Kerre’s “Noelle moment” or am I reading too much into it and being too possessive of a widely used argument and phraseology?. Readers can compare both essays and decide for themselves.

Either way, I guess I should be flattered–except that she gets paid to write things that I dole up for free.

Local Government Elections 2010

datePosted on 18:47, October 9th, 2010 by Lew

Just bullet points from me:

  • Len Brown by 60,000 votes over John Banks for Supercity Mayor. How about all those people who said his so-called outburst would be the death of him? Len Brown knows who his people are; he knows how to speak to them, and now he speaks for them. I can’t take any credit for the prediction, but this looks to me like the tale of differing personal narratives.
  • But the biggest surprise isn’t Brown’s win: it’s Annette Main narrowly beating Michael Laws’ sock-puppet and long-term deputy Dot McKinnon for the Whanganui mayoralty. McKinnon apparently didn’t stand for council, so she’s gone. Main is an utterly different politician from Laws and his lot; this represents a genuine change of direction. Laws will remain as a councillor, and his being forced to submit to the leadership of a woman he can’t control will be worth the price of admission on its own.
  • It pays to vote. Some results tweeted by Philip Lyth make this clear: election contests decided by 23, five and just three votes in Upper Hutt and Carterton. More crucially, for the Wellington mayoralty, Celia Wade-Brown is just 40 votes behind incumbent Kerry Prendergast, with about 900 specials still to count. Damn, that’s a lot of policy difference resting on very little. Stephen Judd tweets the following: “I’m totally serious: if Celia WB needs to lawyer up for a recount etc, I’ll donate.” I’ll bet he’s not alone, and if it’s this close after the specials are counted it’ll be a worthy cause.
  • On the other hand, Eric Crampton makes a reasonable case about why he doesn’t vote. It’s as good an argument as I’ve seen, but I still don’t really buy it.
  • Jim Anderton: I’ve got a lot of time for you, but honestly, you were well beaten by Bob Parker and there’s no use complaining about the earthquake and your inability to campaign. It’s churlish. Shut up, step down gracefully, and be remembered for your many good deeds rather than for being an inveterate whinger. Even Banksie is putting you to shame.
  • People, hope springing eternal, will be keen to call this a ‘swing to the left’ and similar; especially given wins by Brown and people like Main and Duynhoven, and Celia Wade-Brown’s strong performance. I don’t think there’s sufficient evidence to support such an argument at present; at the very least, translating local body election results into central political partisan loyalty is something of a fool’s errand.
  • Christine Prentice got predictably thrashed by Tim Shadbolt in Invercargill. But rumours I’ve heard from down that way suggest the point wasn’t ever to win, but that the candidacy was a profile-raising exercise to enable Prentice to mount a credible campaign to replace sitting National MP for Invercargill Eric Roy when he retires. I’m not sure how much credence to give these rumours; given Roy’s 7,000-ish margin and the milk boom Southland is currently enjoying they could probably stand a dairy cow with a blue rosette and win.
  • Andrew Williams failed to even win a ward seat in the North Shore, which is a testament to his powers of self-delusion in standing for the Supercity Mayor. More frightening, though, is the fact that Cameron Slater, who entered the race late as a joke (probably conceived during a boozy lunch with DPF and Cactus Kate) got more than a thousand votes.Yikes. Watch out for him in 2013.
  • Phil Quin remarked that local body politics is a de-facto retirement scheme for former (Labour) MPs: Harry Duynhoven has won in New Plymouth; Martin Gallagher in Hamilton; Paul Swain in Upper Hutt, and George Hawkins in South Auckland are among those he mentions. Duynhoven’s beaten rival for the mayoralty, Pauline Lockett, complained on Radio New Zealand that he had ‘name recognition’ on his side. I expect that has an awful lot to do with it.
  • Daljit Singh didn’t get elected to the Otara-Papatoetoe Local Board. Thank goodness for that.

That’s all I’ve got. All in all, a pretty big day capping a pretty fierce election.

L

Drawing Blood from a Stone.

datePosted on 19:59, October 8th, 2010 by Pablo

The government’s decision to file a civil suit against the “Waihopai 3” is vindictive and a gross waste of taxpayer dollars. Much like the Zaoui case, which could have been concluded years before it actually did at far less cost than the amount on the final bill, this is a classic example of a vexatious state litigation. Vexatious state litigation, to coin a phrase, is an instance when the state (exemplified here by the Crown) continues prosecutions, appeals or defenses long after legal defeat is obvious and, as in the case here, judicially administered. Even so, there are a few aspects of the case worth reviewing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post titled “Political Idealism Trumps the Law,” the Waihopai 3 expertly exploited the claim of right defense to defend their direct action against the eavesdropping station. Contrary to most direct action proponents, they did not admit their crimes and accept their due punishment, but instead used the claim of right defense to argue their innocence based on moral grounds. Among other things that defense states that even if mistaken in their motives, people who honestly believe that their acts will prevent a greater harm are exonerated of responsibility for the consequences of those acts. Thus, although I (and presumably the government) believe that they are mistaken in claiming that the Echelon station at Waihopai facilitates torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations, the important point is that Peter Murnane, Adrian Leason and Sam Land were found by a jury of their peers to be innocent because they sincerely believed that their actions were helping to prevent a greater harm. So long as the claim of right defense exists in the law and juries are willing to accept that defense as legitimate, then the verdict should stand and, in the absence of irregularities in the administration of the case, no appeals or civil lawsuits filed. In other words, that should be the end of the story.

If the government does not like the claim of right clause in the law, it can work to change it. But suing for civil damages to the tune of 1.2 million dollars, including the cost of pies, beer and savories for repair workers, smacks of imperial hubris. Moreover, the claim is unrecoverable even if the Crown were to win the lawsuit. Father Peter has no tangible assets, and since neither the Dominican Order or the Catholic Church were party to his actions, they cannot be made parties to the suit. As for Land and Leason, what is the Crown going to do–confiscate Land’s organic farm and repossess Leason’s house while garnishing his salary, thereby throwing their families onto the street (and dole)? Even if it did so, the amount recovered from the sale of the assets of all three men would not come close to paying the full bill. So what is the point if the full costs are not anywhere close to recoverable?

The Crown also has not thought through the consequences of its lawsuit. The GCSB refused to front up at the original trial in order to refute the defendant’s allegations. That pretty much left their claims uncontested, which was instrumental in the jury’s verdict. Is the GCSB now going to show up at a civil trial and be prepared to re-litigate the original claims under the claim of right defense? If not, then there is no case for damages because a verdict of innocence under the right of defense absolves defendants of financial liability stemming from their acts. To put it bluntly: a verdict of innocence under the claim of right defense means full absolution from liability. That is why the right of defense is such a dramatic line to take and so difficult to argue successfully, which is why most direct action militants do not even bother with it and opt to plead guilty and ask for judicial mercy citing mitigating factors. But in this case the right of defense was made and it prevailed. Unless the GCSB wants to testify as to the merits of the claim of right defense as well as to the extent of the damages incurred (which I believe have been exaggerated) then there is no case to be made. If there is no case to be made, the pursuing the lawsuit is a waste of time and public money.

If the government allows this civil suit to continue it will be another example of politicians and state bureaucrats playing loose with taxpayer money in order to prove a vengeful point regardless of the merits of the case. The suit is clearly designed to be a warning to others who would dare to use the claim of right defense for direct actions, and therefore not only a form of vexatious state litigation but also an act of official intimidation against those who would dare speak (their) truth to power. For a supposed liberal democracy, that is a bad look.

Hang ’em high

datePosted on 12:16, October 8th, 2010 by Lew

Labour Supercity candidate Daljit Singh, standing for election to the Otara-Papatoetoe Local Board, has been revealed as one of those charged with voting fraud-related offences. As Idiot/Savant says, it’s awful that this information didn’t come out earlier so that he could be punished electorally as well as judicially, but this is part of the price we pay for a robust justice system.

However, the fact that Singh has avoided his due scrutiny thus far (and, farcically, may yet be duly elected to the board) makes strict attention to his case all the more important, and places a heavier burden on those who are associated with him –and in particular on the Labour party whom he represents — to respond swiftly and decisively to divorce themselves from Singh and his alleged misdeeds. This must take cognisance of the fact that he has not yet been convicted of anything and it may be conditional and hypothetical, but if Labour have learned anything at all from the Taito Phillip Field scandal, it’s that a lesser test than ‘convicted in a criminal court’ must apply with regard to such matters.

In the interim Singh’s erstwhile allies must assess the evidence and base their response on judgements as to its veracity, but the moment his guilt is admitted or proven, they must be the first to call for his (figurative) hanging; because they stood to benefit from his fraud, they must condemn it all the more loudly. Singh and Labour’s enemies can be relied upon to do so; his allies must also. Andrew Little has initially done so, and this is heartening. IrishBill at The Standard, as an allied third party, has done likewise.

It is also perfectly legitimate to draw links between Singh and others’ alleged wrongdoing and Labour’s own fundamental standards and character, since candidates by definition represent the party. While one rotten apple does not (as many will certainly argue) imply a party of inveterate crooks, this latest incident on top of the Field affair, Labour’s steadfast support for Winston Peters through the Owen Glenn donation scandal, and continuing perverse behaviour by Chris Carter (I could list more examples) do certainly speak to crucial failures of judgement when it comes to the party’s selection and endorsement of both candidates and allies. If the rumoured pecadilloes of Richard Worth, the overt bigotry and criminal background of David Garrett, and the blundering damfoolishness of Melissa Lee (there are more examples here also) can be said to illustrate the character of the ACT and National parties (and I believe they can) then the same must surely hold true for Labour. Whatever speaks to character speaks to the heart and soul of a political movement, and by this standard Singh’s implication in voter fraud, if proven, will be a lifelong stain on the party which admitted and endorsed him.

And if anyone so much as breathes words like courageous corruption in apologia for Singh and whoever else, hoist them by the same rope. Democracy’s ends are only as good as the weakest part of its means.

L

The Rise and Fall of a TV Icon (updated).

datePosted on 15:10, October 6th, 2010 by Pablo

I am loathe to give more oxygen to the Paul Henry saga but think that I have a fair idea of the chain of events that led to his suspension and possible sacking. This is due to my personal familiarity with him as a result of my appearances on the Breakfast show. Let me explain.

When I first started showing up on TVNZ after 9-11, I dealt with Mike Hoskings (and Ali Mau) on Breakfast and either Paul Holmes or Linda Clark in the evening news interview shows. The two men have big egos but are smart, do their homework, and are mentally quick on their feet. Linda Clark and Ali Mau are all of those things without the ego. Although they swapped slots from time to time and I also have spoken at some length with Peter Williams on and off-camera, it was Hoskings who ran the bulk of the Breakfast interviews with me, especially during the early days of the 2003 Iraq invasion.

Some years later Hoskings left Breakfast and I began to be interviewed by Paul Henry. He was initially circumspect, always polite and although not as studied as his predecessor, he seemed well-prepared (in part because I tend to give producers some talking points on the subject the night before the show). His only flaw was his tendency to talk over and interrupt while editorialising about the subject rather than allowing the interviewee (me) greater reign for in-depth analysis. But that, perhaps, is the nature of Breakfast TV, which world-wide is the shallow end of the TV news pool.

Something happened, though, during the last 3 or 4 years, at a time when I moved abroad. Henry began to crack jokes, some of dubious taste, and these jokes found resonance amongst his viewers. The more positive feedback TVNZ received, the more he continued to play the role of provocateur rather than newsperson. As ratings went up the TVNZ brass gave him more rope on which to swing his shtick–a rope that he has now hung himself with. Serious interviews were gradually replaced by often funny and not-so-funny ad libs on stories presented in the half hourly news updates. By 2010 Breakfast was a bit of a morning circus, with the female co-hosts serving as straight props for Mr. Henry’s increasingly schoolboy antics.

As John Minto has pointed out, Henry is a serial offender. This year alone he has disparaged on air  people because of their appearance, mental condition, surname and ethnicity (at least twice). In each instance he targeted an innate trait rather than some aspect of the individual’s behaviour. And each time complaints to the BSA and TVNZ about his comments resulted in no more than verbal admonishments from his bosses. In fact, it is now clear that there was much of a wink and nod to these supposed warnings.

Then, at the Qantas Media Awards, he used the People’s Choice award presentation to read out a profanity laced purported letter from a disgruntled viewer which again, had misogynist and homophobic references in it. The mostly Pakeha elite audience roared with laughter. That is the moment when Paul Henry decided he was bullet proof.

His sense of invulnerability was not only driven by high approval ratings. Every Monday he was given the opportunity to interview his ideologically kindred Prime Minister. Every Monday the interview finished with some quick banter between two self-satisfied “smart guys” riding high in the polls. Although what they believed passed for quick-witted repartee was more often banal and insipid, the seeds were sown in their exchanges for the infamous remarks about the Governor General this past Monday.

In effect, although the ultimate cause of his own downfall, Mr. Henry was aided, abetted and facilitated along the way by an array of celebrities, executives, “news” outlets, politicians and hangers-on who are running for cover now that his true nature has been exposed. A large swathe of the general public also played a role in his rise, and in the particular tone he adopted as his confidence in his own celebrity grew. He therefore has reason to be aggrieved. After all, a few weeks ago he was on stage basking in the glow of popular acclamation for doing precisely the things for which he is now suspended and vilified.

I do not think that he should be sacked. A long suspension yes, but if Tony Veitch can be returned to the airwaves after his crimes, then an uncloseted bigot surely can seek redemption. The viewing audience will be the ultimate judge of that. Whatever his long-term future in TV, at a minimum a long time off air while chasten and make Henry think twice before uttering pejoratives or ridicule. The time out of the limelight may force him into the type of self-reflection that could, in fact, make him a better presenter. Or not.

What I find most personally ironic is that I was fired and my academic career ruined for writing an intemperate and unprofessional email to a student in which I accused the student of using “some sort of Western liberal guilt” to weasel out of an assignment due date. Although I was subsequently proven correct in my suspicions that the excuse was a ruse that did in fact prey on my supposed liberal sentiments, I was vilified as a racist and kicked to the curb by Auckland University. The email (for which I immediately apologised, long before any disciplinary proceedings began) was wrong, to be sure, but the outrage, public defamation and punishment far exceeded the offense (sorry for whinging about this by way of comparison, but as you can see it really sticks in my craw and I have not quite gotten over it given the grief it has caused my partner and I).

TVNZ, on the other hand, encouraged Mr. Henry’s behaviour in spite of repeated complaints about it, something that was confirmed by the spokeperson’s initial statement that he merely said what others were too afraid to say. TVNZ apparently never gave him a formal written warning, or even a serious verbal warning. To the contrary. Until things hit the fan it repeatedly defended and encouraged his boorish behaviour because it was deemed profitable for him to do so.

Thus, from my perspective, the Unite union (and other self-righteous johnny-come-latelies like Peter Dunne) is wrong in demanding Mr. Henry’s sacking even if his “crime” is egregious, and even if he is not a union member. The reason is that  the precedent his sacking would set is worse than his individual transgressions. Of course, he may have an individual contract with TVNZ whereby he serves at the whim and discretion of the management, in which case he is well and truly at their mercy–whatever his contract status, this is a particularly bad time to be an unorganised worker facing managerial scrutiny given the thrust of National’s labour reform bill.

As much as it pains me to say so given the circumstances of this case, I think that the union movement should stay out of the debate or use it as a means of reminding workers that collective membership is the best defense against individual victimisation by management no matter how famous the worker may be. After all, the employment issue here is about Henry’s job performance given his contractual obligations and the terms and conditions therein, something that should not be susceptible to public pressure or managerial attempts at corporate face-saving.

For the unions the issue should be one of contractual obligation and due process, nothing more. In that sense the union position should be akin to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defending the right of neo-Nazis to free speech. It is the principle of due process rather than the inadmissible act that is the defendable issue. Paul Henry may be a loud-mouthed, bigoted, overpaid ignorant talking head buffoon, but at the end of the day he is a wage slave living high at the mercy of his corporate bosses. It was the TVNZ paymasters, not Mr. Henry, who dictated the on-air environment in which he spoke. At any time they could have reigned him in, disciplined him or otherwise cut short his propensity to vent divisive, hateful, prejudiced or otherwise rude comments. But they did not. Instead, they encouraged and facilitated him.

Now that the public reaction is adverse, TVNZ will allow him to twist in the winds of opprobrium while his bosses figure out how to best ride out the storm. But as a Herald columnist aptly phrased it, the fault is not just with the monkey, but with the organ grinder, and it is there where the real source of blame for this debacle needs to be focused. In other words, if heads are going to roll, they should roll high rather than low.

Anchor me

datePosted on 08:46, October 5th, 2010 by Lew

Indian-born Hawkes Bay-resident overstayers Sital and Usha Ram are to be deported with or without their three children, who are New Zealand citizens aged eight and six. These are not ‘anchor babies’ in the US sense that that hate-term is employed; no attempt has been made by the Rams to mislead Immigration or to hide from the authorities, nor are they using their childrens’ citizenship status to thumb their noses at the powers that be. This is, for all intents and purposes, a model New Zealand family.

The children, as New Zealand citizens, have a “cardinal and absolute right of residence” according to a 2008 judicial ruling, which means they can on no account be deported. This is where they belong, it’s where they live, the only place in the world they can do so in full legality, since it is impossible to exchange their New Zealand citizenship for Indian citizenship until they turn 18 (and indeed, nobody can force them to do so).

As the article says, they face a terrible choice: return to India and condemn their children to a life of poverty, or return to India alone and leave their children behind. But it’s not really much of a choice: they can’t simply abandon their children in either sense. Fundamentally, the terrible choice is faced by the government, who must decide whether to tear a family quite literally apart, permanently. To demonstrate their loyalty both to their children and to their country and therefore to win this battle in the public view, the Rams need do nothing more than peacefully resist being separated from their children. Call the government’s bluff. Let Immigration enforcers tear apart mother and daughter, father and sons. Let them carry the parents bodily to the paddywagon, and from the paddywagon to the waiting aircraft. Let it be known that this is the government’s doing; their choice, not that of the parents. This is a chance to force the government to actually do the dirty work of eviction and deportation, to undertake the harsh deeds which their tough-on-everything rhetoric implies. And they should be forced to put their actions where their words are.

So my advice to Usha and Sital Ram is: invite John Campbell into your home. Let him and his camera crew be present at the time of the forcible separation; in your living room and at the airport, and let the whole world watch, and listen to the wailing. The narrative will be big bad Muldoonist Daddy State jack-boot dawn raids, breaking down doors and wrecking families in 2010 as in 1980, and the country will need to decide: is this who we are? Does this represent us and our aspirational, compassionate, multicultural society?

And, as Pablo suggests in his recent post about Paul Henry, it’s a question which needs to be answered.

Update: As usual it’s occurred to me that a poet has previously expressed my core argument in two lines:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
(Dylan Thomas)

L

Blog Link: In Defense of Cross-Border Raids.

datePosted on 23:13, October 4th, 2010 by Pablo

The latest Word from Afar column addresses the subject of cross border raids set against the notions of preventive war, preemptive war and hot pursuit as they relate to jus ad bellum (justification for war) and jus in bellum (laws of war) doctrine.

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