To borrow from The Sprout for a moment

One of these things is not like the other…

  • Racist
  • Dishonest
  • Stupid
  • Shrill

When Lee is described as any of the first three it is a comment on her behaviour. When people say “shrill” of someone they are simply attacking their gender: they are saying “she sounds like a woman” and semaphoring “that is unacceptable”. Apparently they think MPs shouldn’t sound like women.

Over the last few weeks and days more and more lefties are using “shrill” to describe Lee in blogs posts and comments. What do you mean? Would it be an adjective you would use about a male candidate? Why is it negative? And, more importantly, why is a bad thing to sound like a woman?

P.S. You could consider whether writing “looks slitty eyed” would be acceptable in place of “sounds shrill”

Kissing babies

datePosted on 10:59, May 15th, 2009 by Lew

… or in this case, trying to brainwash them. Ali Ikram’s Political Week in Review includes a clip of John Key at a rally against the Waterview decision telling a wee kid in a stylish National-Blue jersey with ACT-Yellow shoulder pads:

Your favourite colour is blue, ok? Not red. Those people, they’re cold and desperate.

Now, he’s clearly hamming it up for the camera crew and present adults, but this is nasty, divisive stuff. Leave the kids out of it, at least until they’re old enough to know that you can’t always believe what strange men tell you.

This isn’t quite as outrageous as those parents who took their hapless kids along to protest in favour of violence against children, but it’s more evidence against the moderate, inclusive Brand Key.

(Thanks to D for the tipoff.)


It ain’t news

datePosted on 07:20, May 15th, 2009 by Anita

Late last year I wrote to the Police asking them for the current status of the recommendations of the Bazley Report (the report of the Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct). Several months later, after much to-ing and fro-ing and the involvement of the Ombudsmen, I have some documents, some redacted documents, and an out of date status report. I’ve probably got more paperwork about their non-answers, denials, forgetting and delays than I do in answers.

I still don’t know the current status of the implementation of the recommendations, I do know that the out of date status report says they’re still slipping and not making progress at the rate they’d committed to. I also know that if you redact a report, repaginate it but release it with the original table of contents and index it’s really annoying.

So, if Guyon Espiner, Tracey Watkins, TV3 or Rob Hosking would like to run big high profile stories saying it’s a “whitewash” or a “cover up” I’m totally open to that! Plus if any right wing blogs would like  to weigh in and show that it’s all part of a massive conspiracy run by the Labour government that would be grand too.

But seriously, it just ain’t news.

Rational responses to trauma

datePosted on 22:56, May 14th, 2009 by Lew

The Sharks Sex Saga continues. Tania Boyd, the victim’s former workmate says the victim bragged about “bedding” players, and goes on:

It was definitely consensual, absolutely.
She is saying she is still traumatised etcetera, well she wasn’t for five days, or four days at least, after that affair.
I can’t work out what’s happened. Does it take five days for it to sink in?

Tania Boyd, having not been there, can’t know whether consent was given – only if Clare – the victim – implied (to her, after the fact) that consent was given. She can’t know the truth of the situation since the victim may well have implied to her that there was consent when there wasn’t. The question of consent is a complicated one, as well – Clare might well have agreed to some sort of sexual contact, but at each escalation consent needed to be renewed, and according to her it wasn’t. There’s a good discussion of this involving our Anita at The Hand Mirror.

Ms Boyd has begged the question of consent by assuming that a woman having been raped by a lot of powerful, famous men would act in a way which someone who hadn’t had such an experience would consider rational – that is, by immediately calling a halt, or immediately reporting the events, or whatever. But trauma, especially sexual trauma, especially when it involves power imbalance, is a complicated thing, and it does screwy things to one’s sense of reason. Incidents like this can have many responses which might seem rational to the traumatised person at the time but utterly irrational to others. Bragging about the event could be seen as a form of post-purchase rationalisation; that is, Clare may have thought it started off as a good experience and perhaps even initiated it, and tried to mask the fact that it turned nasty (to herself as much as anyone) by bragging about the event. This could also be seen as a call for attention; an invitation to workmates, friends or family to offer support. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing.

As to the second statement, if Clare genuinely is traumatised now, then it follows that she was traumatised in the initial four days, it just wasn’t apparent to Tania Boyd, which isn’t really surprising at all given that her response was not one of support but of disgust. Not that that wasn’t a reasonable response – I have no idea how close these people were or what the nature of the workplace was, and bragging about one’s sexual exploits is pretty polarising.

As to the third statement, the answer to Ms Boyd’s question is – yes, these things do take time to sink in. According to a family member with extensive professional experience in this field, the median period of time between incidence and reporting of rape is eighteen and three-quarter years; viewed in this light four days seems very rapid indeed.

This story is being deployed without qualification in apologia for the men in this incident, whereas articles advocating Clare’s perspective are strongly hedged so as to make clear that the facts of the case haven’t really been established. The headline goes beyond euphemistically describing the events as `group sex’ and calls it a `romp’, for goodness’ sakes.


Mutual exploitation

datePosted on 13:42, May 14th, 2009 by Lew


Teenager objects to school uniform policy is hardly news – unless the teenager is as photogenic as young Sheridan Marris, whose green streaks have landed her on the front page of today’s Rodney Times and Stuff’s splash image.

It works – this non-story is (as of the time of writing) on Stuff’s `Most Viewed’ list, along with stories such as “League’s group sex romps to continue”; “Man finds wife and mate on porn DVD” and “Babysitter sentenced for sex with boy”. Sheridan now has excellent publicity for her petition to have the rules at Rodney College changed, while her image has been employed to the same effect as those headlines. That’s how the mutual exploitation model of the media works; but is the payoff worth it?

Update 19:15: On the Stuff front page, the headshot of `world’s hottest woman’ Olivia Wilde is now positioned right next to the similarly-composed headshot of 13 year-old Marris.



How well did the media do on the Napier siege?

datePosted on 23:59, May 12th, 2009 by Lew

Ethical Martini asked the question on Sunday. Out of largely professional interest I watched, read and listened to the coverage on the two main TV newses, National Radio, Stuff, the Herald online and their various dead-tree editions from Thursday to Monday so perhaps I’m too close to it, but I’ve been pondering the question since, unsure how to answer because it comes down to one’s assumptions about what the media is supposed to do in such a case. That’s a tricky question.

If it’s supposed to maximise value for its shareholders, then it sure as hell did that, with garish wall-to-wall coverage and plenty of breathless speculation, really hitting the spectacle out of the park in such a way as to ensure that the name of Jan Molenaar will long be remembered as shorthand for `paranoid survivalist with guns, dope and death-wish’; our own little Ruby Ridge (but without all that annoying moral/ethical/legal equivocation).

If it’s supposed to perform a civil defence or public order function, keeping those in immediate need of information informed for the purpose of ensuring their safety, security, peace of mind, etc, then I would have thought they did a pretty decent job – from Wellington, I thought I had a pretty clear picture of what was going on, despite not ever having been to the place in question or in such a situation. Comments from those in the local area, however, are mixed on this count – and those who know Napier express some frustration at the constant mangling of street names, landmarks, etc.

If it’s supposed to be keeping the wider public informed on a matter of national significance, then I think the media did an exceptional job of keeping everyone engaged and updated with massive amounts of information, although with the proviso that much of that information was speculative at best.

If it’s supposed to act as a communication medium from authority to gunman in the sense of megaphone diplomacy, then I think it failed miserably. Although this was largely down to police command not using it in such a way, the media also framed coverage of Molenaar in the third person and spoke to his family members in othering ways, hardly making it possible to reach out to him. I think the first broadcast message I heard which addressed him directly was on Friday night.

If it’s supposed to act as a balm for a shocked nation, then I think it did a pretty good job of that as well, bolstering public confidence in the Police by portraying them as calm and disciplined rather than vengeful and reactive, and local businesses, charities, schools, Civil Defence and local government as united in solidarity, working well together for the public good, as we might hope they would in what I hope it isn’t too churlish to term `a proper emergency’.

If it’s supposed to tell us who to cheer for and who to boo at, once again it did a cracking job. You know you’re dealing with a real villain when all the people who can’t go home for their own safety are classified as `victims’ and even the people who make cups of tea for them are `heroes’.

If it’s supposed to stimulate and inform public debate on the wider political and social issues which are germane to the case – drug law, gun law, alienation, the role of the coercive arm of the state in private affairs, police doctrine and posture, the complexities of entrenched tactical operations – then it gets a bit more complicated.

On the one hand, I’m inclined to think it did an execrable job. If I may cram a whole lot of mixed metaphors in here: the lobby groups, armchair experts and those with an axe to grind on such matters have played the media like a fiddle, and the media has tuned itself up and rosined the bow to allow it. We’re going to get an awful lot of heat and precious little light. Instantly we have people calling for more guns, less guns, more guns but only for some people, guns to be licensed like cars rather than owners being licensed, the absurd notion I heard on NatRad this morning that all privately-owned firearms should be stored at a central, secure facility and be checked out and back in again. The battle of the slogans is well underway – `if you’ve nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear’ counterposed against `when you outlaw guns, only the outlaws have guns’, for a start. And then there’s the debate about marijuana, with the frankly idiotic counterfactual that if the police didn’t prosecute minor drug crime then they wouldn’t have been in this sorry mess at all – possibly true, but only until something else brought the red mist down on Jan Molenaar.

On the other hand, the free flow of information around this case – the fact that every idiot on Your Views and talkback radio gets to listen to the so-called experts and decide what to think – should mean in principle that we have the basis for a good fact-based debate. Is not free expression via the media, with everyone putting their arguments up to be judged in a market of information, the most efficient means of determining which views have merit and which are bogus? If not, by what other means should we determine the relative merits of conflicting views and arguments?

I’m still no closer to an overall answer to the question Martin posed. I think it’s pollyanna-ish to say that the coverage did what it needed to do because everyone got a say, we all got our little reality TV fix and all the experts got a chance to climb up on their hind legs and argue the world to rights, but I think it’s curmudgeonly to decry the whole affair as a lurid farce.

What do you reckon?


Sacrificing families for political gains

datePosted on 16:42, May 12th, 2009 by Anita

The section 59 debate, for the first time in a long time, lifted the lid on the New Zealand “family”. What we found was a fight waiting to happen: the core of the debate was not smacking, it was the nature and role of the family. How should we balance the competing interests of the family, its individual members, the community that surrounds it, and the state which we rely on to intervene when necessary and butt out the rest of the time?

How the 2008-2010 government would address that gulf fascinated me. It seems so intractable, yet addressing it is so necessary. National have chosen Christine Rankin, they have chosen to make the Families Commission incapable of progressing this.

It’s not Rankin’s support of the pro-smacking referendum, it’s not her links to the conservative Christian lobby, nor her links to the crime and punishment lobby, the anti-transparency brigade, or the right wing political donors. It’s her track record of divisiveness, or polarising issues and debates.

By choosing Rankin National may have discharged their debts or paid back their supporters, but in the process they’ve sacrificed progress, safety, and growth for our families.

[Ari and Julie have both written good pieces on Rankin’s unsuitability for the role separate from her divisiveness]

Although I have enjoyed participating in this weblog collective, I was unprepared to deal with the inability of many commentators to construct a proper argument in the debates about posts. By “inability to construct a proper argument” I do not mean those that  resort to ad hominems and vulgarity (whom we have thankfully excised via moderation). Nor do I refer to those who substitute opinion for fact and make statements or claims on subjects that they clearly know little about.  Instead, I am referring to those otherwise thoughtful commentators who misuse concepts and terms when making their arguments. I refer not to those who deliberately do so to be polemical or provocative, but to those who inadvertently do so. The main problem for the latter is the inability to distinguish between conceptual transfer and conceptual stretching.

Conceptual transfer refers to the process by which a concept or term is taken from its original context and applied to a new situation without appreciable loss of definition or meaning. Conceptual stretching refers to  the distortion of the original concept in order to apply it to a different situation or context. The first is a legitimate argumentative exercise; the second is intellectually dishonest or (most often) lazy.

Let me offer some examples. “Socialism” is a 19th century concept that refers to an economy in which the direct producers of wealth in a society appropriate the common surplus generated by their labours and distribute it according to egalitarian principles rooted in commonly accepted notions of need. Decisions on distribution take into account the need to reproduce the economic form via savings and reinvestment, so current individual allocations are balanced against the common interest in future allocations. This concept can be taken out of its 19th century context and applied, without loss of definition, to 1970s Israeli Kibbutzim, Spanish agricultural cooperatives in the 1990s or post 2002 Argentine worker-owned factories. In all of these instances, the concept was transfered to the new situation without distorting its initial meaning; in each instance workers make democratic allocation decisions about the surpluses they generate. On the other hand, calling the Obama administration’s fiscal stimulus package or progressive tax policy “socialist,” or referring to Labour’s macreconomic policies as “socialism,” betrays either profound ignorance of the concept or bad intent on the part of those who make such claims. In the latter cases, the concept has been so badly stretched so has to render it meaningless other than as some type of pejorative.

Take another example: “fascism.” Fascism was a particular inter-war political phenomena. It emerged in response to the Great Depression among the so-called “weak links” of the imperialist chain, former great powers or empires that were being eclipsed by emerging powers. Fascism was characterised by an industrial state capitalist economic project directed by a one party mobilizational authoritarian regime dominated by a charismatic leadership that used inclusionary state corporatist vehicles for mass participation in grand nationalist projects that included the military reassertion of empire. In all cases fascism was a “passive revolution” in that it sought to stave off perceived Marxist-Leninist advances in the countries in which it emerged. European fascism had three variants: Austro-Germanic, in which the core constituency of the national socialist regimes was the lower bourgeoisie; the Italian version, in which the core constituency was the urban working class (Mussolini’s black shirts); and the Spanish version, which grouped monarchists, the agrarian oligarchy and rural peasantry against the urban middle and working classes. In the first two variants, efforts to re-assert their imperial status ended in military defeat. In the Spanish version, the self-recognized inability to re-assert imperial dominance allowed the Franco regime to survive until 1972. As for the Japanese, their version of fascism was an amalgam that had the most cross-class bases of support for monarchism, militarism and imperialism, but without the party mobilizational apparatus used by the European variants.

The point of this extended discussion of the concept of “fascism” is that it was a political form specific to a particular historical moment in the early 20th century, one that can not be replicated simply because the material and political conditions of existence are no longer those that gave it life. The closest parallel to fascism–Latin American populism of the 1940s and 1950s–emulated some but not all of the political features of European fascism and did not have the same economic base. All other recent forms of authoritarianism evidence differences far to great to even remotely call them “fascist.” And yet people do, repeatedly. General Pincohet’s regime in Chile was and is still said to be “fascist” even though his political project was demobilizational and his economic project neoliberal. Commodore Frank Bainarama is called a fascist because he led a coup and rules by fiat in Fiji. Mugabe is a fascist because, well, he is.  What is true is that all of these individuals were and are authoritarians, as are many others, civilian and military alike. But that does not make them “fascist.” To label them as such is to undercut any argument for their removal.

In extending the term “fascist” to other forms of authoritarianism that do not share its structural or political features, the term has been stretched to the point of insignificance. It is now just an insult without intellectual justification. It is, in other words, argumentatively useless.

There are plenty of other concepts that come to mind when the issue of conceptual stretching arises. “Hegemony” and “imperialist” are oft-abused, stretched and distorted concepts. “Nazi” (as in German national socialist) is another popularly distorted term. The list is long, and it appears all to often in the writing/commentary on this blog. I would simply ask that people do their conceptual stretching elsewhere–DPF’s blog is a good start.

Even astute writers can fall prey to conceptual stretching. In his otherwise insightful post on Agenda Setting below, my colleague Lew refers to the likelihood of “a more militaristic, less community-based approaching to policing–in international relations terms, a more strongly realist law enforcement posture” in the aftermath of the Napier shootings and siege. The trouble with his invocation of realism is two-fold: as an international relations theory, realism maintains that the international environment is a Hobbesian state of nature in which anarchy abounds. Absent a Leviathan such as those that exist within nation-states, international actors seek to accumulate and use power in order to a) achieve security and b) pursue national interests. Power in such a view is not simply military might, but includes economic resources, diplomatic influence, moral or ethical leadership–the particular mix of what goes into the notion of “power” is complex and variable, as well as contingent on the objectives being pursued or defended. Power is not exclusively “militaristic” nor is it necessarily anti-community–the formation of alliances and use of supranational organisations for conflict resolution is part and parcel of the realist approach.

Lew’s use of realism to describe a likely police response is doubly flawed because it has been stretched to describe a particularly military approach to law enforcement within a liberal democracy. In other words, both the context and the approach are completely different to those in which realism is applied to international relations.

This is not meant to cast aspersions on Lew. To the contrary, I admire his work and appreciate his insights. Instead, this post is an attempt to point out this very common argumentative flaw among otherwise thoughtful readers and commentators, so that we can avoid repeating them in future debates. In the mean time I shall ponder whether to write about another pet peeve: the inability of people to establish a “chain of causality” between independent, intervening and dependent variables when making their case.

Weldon: not very reassuring

datePosted on 12:23, May 10th, 2009 by Lew

Perhaps sadly, the highlight of my week is sometimes Mediawatch on Radio NZ National, due largely to interviews by Colin Peacock such as this one about Media Biz 09 (on which I blogged here), and the one with Mark Weldon which aired this morning (interview starts at 06:40).

In it, NZX CEO Mark Weldon doesn’t so much defend the stock exchange’s acquisition of rural publisher Countrywide Publications as attack those who dare to query the conflicts of interest which arise from the acquisition. Rather than accepting that there are perceived conflicts of interest from the fact that the NZX makes a lot of revenue from argicultural market data, and that Fonterra chairman Henry van der Heyden is a director of the NZX board (among other issues), he responds by alleging a conspiracy:

“I think that’s completely bonkers. That’s the second time today I’ve heard that actually, so someone’s doing a reasonably good job of getting that around, and I’ve got a reasonable idea who it is.”

In almost the next breath, he accuses those raising questions of van der Heyden’s conflict of being wide-eyed and credulous:

That’s just nonsense. I think it’s just typical conspiracy theorist tall-poppy crap.

… before going on to emphasise how CPL is a good down-home NZ company, and that the NZX is holding its Christmas party at their HQ in Feilding this year, as if that’s relevant. This echoes his tone in response to similar questions by Fran O’Sullivan. It gets worse: he then resorts to indignant sarcasm when answering the sort of questions which any credible journalist would rightly be criticised for not asking:

Peacock: Have assurances been sought or given to Farmer’s Weekly and other publications, Dairy Exporter, that they will be entirely free to carry on reporting and publishing as they have been in the past?
Weldon: No, I myself actually am going to write all the articles for these farmer’s weeklies, because I’m an expert in all of this stuff.

Essentially he’s trying to argue that the NZX and the people who lead it are above reproach, beyond being held to accountability by the media, and should simply be allowed to get on with their business without having to answer pesky questions like this. He seems to completely misunderstand what the media is for by arguing that businesses – and especially regulators – should not need to be held accountable by them. Not a very reassuring position for someone who now is part of the media to take. Even less reassuring, as picked up by Peacock from O’Sullivan’s article linked above, is his attitude toward commentator Alan Robb, whose work is published in CPL titles and who has been publicly critical of the decision:

There is, I have to say, a fair degree of disappointment from myself and internally that we’ve got this person Alan Robb whom we now pay who apparently has issues with presuming what our level of integrity about editorial is.

Subtext: “Why are we sponsoring criticism of our decisions?”, and perhaps an answer to the question of who Weldon thinks was “putting about” the idea that conflicts of interest exist, as if it takes a rocket scientist to see that they do. Not very reassuring at all.

The stupid thing is that Weldon gets it. He understands the media ecology well enough to know why the CPL publications must be, and must be seen to be scrupulously independent from the NZX, van der Heyden and anyone else. Carrying on in response to Peacock’s ongoing questions:

We have no interest whatsoever in writing for Farmer’s Weekly or Dairy Exporter. What we do have an interest in is ensuring that the most information can be distributed the most broadly, because that’s how everyone is better off and that’s ultimately how markets work … It would be absolutely stupid on a monetary and financial level for us to prevent anything like [criticism of Fonterra, etc] because all it would do would be immediately undermine the brand which undermines the value of the franchise. There is no economic alignment whatsoever in changing the approach that is currently taken. The second thing is, readers are incredibly astute, we’re very aware that the media will look at this with a reasonable amount of cynicism and anything that we did try and do like that would be picked up in a second and would become a story in and of itself, as I can tell, and even my brain can figure out from this interview that that’s sort of what’s on the mind. So it would be incredibly stupid for us to do that because it would be seen for what it is.

Quite some self-awareness, all of a sudden; he’s dead right on both counts, and it would undermine the credibility of the NZX as well. CPL is a small fish in this ecology. So why, instead of trying to make out that the NZX should be above reproach and assumed to be doing things right and properly – in the same way that those responsible for the current financial crisis were assumed to be infallible and benign – would Mark Weldon not have welcomed the media scrutiny on the basis that he, the others at the top, NZX and CPL had nothing to hide and were quite prepared to be subjected to the full gaze of the press? Such a response would have resulted in people saying “this Weldon chap understands the role of the media in the economy, and his company can therefore probably be trusted to own some of them”.

I suppose there’s one good thing come from it. By protesting too much at the fairly gentle going-over the acquisition has received to date, Mark Weldon has ensured that the watchful eyes of people like O’Sullivan, Peacock and others (perhaps including the Commerce Commission) will not stray far.


Agenda setting

datePosted on 14:43, May 8th, 2009 by Lew

While I don’t intend to post on the substance of what has become known as the Napier siege, this sort of event happens rarely and has profound consequences for NZ’s political-media agenda. Maxwell McCombs’ view (based on a study of the 1968 US Presidential campaign) was that it wasn’t so much that the media tell you what to think as what to think about. Currently there’s only one game in town. How might stakeholders respond?

Under the radar: With wall-to-wall coverage (good commentary on its ghastly nature at Ethical Martini), now is the ideal time to sneak out news which must be released but which the releaser doesn’t want to receive wide coverage. Good comms managers will be instructing their minions to air all their dirty laundry this afternoon, before the black hole that is this weekend, and while the media agencies’ resources are stretched. Watch the Scoop wires; there might be some interesting releases.

Police image rehabilitation: Not that it’s intentional, and certainly not to imply that it’s somehow a beneficial thing to lose an officer in the line of duty, but this event and its coverage is manna from heaven for a police force beleaguered by public image problems and allegations of incompetence and corruption. From the facts which are available, it seems the police are 100% in the right here – they arrived unarmed and without intention to provoke any sort of conflict on a mundane policing matter and were met with deadly force. All their dealings with gunman, media and the public have been calm, patient and disciplined. If they succeed in their stated objective of ending this situation without further loss of life (including the life of Jan Molenaar) then they will rightly enjoy a huge resurgence of public sympathy.

Crime and punishment lobby: This looks to be a case which doesn’t tick too many hang’em-flog’em boxes, in that it’s a drug crime but (apparently) not a high-level drug crime; there is no gang involvement; committed by a middle-aged white man in a nice middle-class suburb. It may be difficult to turn this into an iconic crime case, although there are some ready angles: gun control for instance. That won’t stop the usual suspects from trying to make political capital of it – some commenters around the ‘sphere already are.

The future of NZ policing: This will undoubtedly have enormous implications for police doctrine and practice. It seems likely that, at a minimum, it will result in the Police Association calling for police to be better-armed and equipped, at least when conducting any sort of invasive operation. It will probably provide a basis for a more militaristic, less community-based approach to policing – in international relations terms, a more strongly realist law enforcement posture.

(Update 19:20: Stuff’s opinion poll has been updated to ask “Do you think all police should be armed?”, surprisingly not overwhelmingly in the affirmative (screenshot). Smart opportunistic stuff by the Fairfax Digital editors, in contrast to the Herald, who’re still asking for predictions on the Rugby League. Comments on the article are a fairly predictable mix of outrage, condolence, disbelief and armchair expertise.)

Whatever the case, we’re in for interesting times. I hope, as the police do, that the situation is resolved quickly, cleanly and without bloodshed.

There are plenty more possible issues in play here – feel free to discuss them in comments. But I won’t allow this to descend into ideological arguments about the specifics of the case, so please don’t try.


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