Posts Tagged ‘Commerce Commission’

Resisting the decline

datePosted on 17:19, March 3rd, 2010 by Lew

This is art, can you believe it?After some reflection and consideration of the pretty well-made arguments against my last post on Sensing Murder, I now have a bit more understanding of and sympathy for the position of those who are so infuriated and offended (thanks, Tony, Keir, Andrew and others). While I still think the difference between psychics and other sorts of entertainers is one of degree rather than kind, I accept that it’s a pretty big difference of degree, and that matters.

I wonder if there’s a correlation between those who object most strenuously to shows like Sensing Murder and those who generally bemoan the falling standards of entertainment and current affairs, and particularly the rise and proliferation of reality TV formats, and the consequent “realitisation”, if I may coin the term, of other genres. I’m thinking, here, of shows like Lost, which started out basically as a fictional version of Survivor; and 24, which is basically a video game in serialised form; the talking-head rent-a-quote instant-experts which predominate in news and current affairs programming; and the reality-esque coverage of media heroes and antiheroes like Clayton Weatherston and David Bain.

I reckon there would be, and I reckon that no small portion of the reason people hate on Sensing Murder so much is because it represents the most egregious example of this trend toward manufactured verité — in entertainment, in real life, and in how real life is presented to us. In this, it’s just another example of “resisting the decline” of society, which happens to an extent every generation.

I should hasten to add that I think it’s important that the decline be resisted — but by the same token I think it’s important that the reasons for resisting it be clearly stated and understood. But here’s another thing: while there is undeniably a great deal of dreck in the reality TV ouvre, and a significant amount of bland mediocrity, has the move genuinely brought nothing of value? The most venerated examples of the reality genre — Survivor for one; Idol and so on for another — have given zillions of people a great deal of pleasure, and now form a pretty central part of our* culture. I have a particularly soft spot for Survivor since it’s essentially just a big ball o’ political, social and psychological theory implemented in a handy ritualised narrative form.

In case you think I’m a trendy hipster libertine, I do personally disdain a huge amount of pop-culture — but not to the extent that I wish its absence on others who are into that sort of thing. That’s where I draw the line with Sensing Murder: let those who have been duped of money or faith complain to the small claims tribunal, or Fair Go, or the Advertising Standards Board, or the Commerce Commission. Let those who dislike the programme turn it off, and voice their disapproval to TVNZ and the show’s producers. Let those who object to public money being spent on it, and to the Police becoming involved in it make their objections known strongly, but let it all be done in the knowledge that some folk want it anyway and are willing to pay for it, even if it is all faked (and, deep down, they know it).

Last generation’s trash is this generation’s treasure; and vice versa. So it has ever been. This is part of what it is to live in a liberal society. Is it not?


* Permit me this generalisation, since I don’t want to write, nor (I am sure) do you want to read, yet another awkward definition of the “self” in this context.

Drifting toward a surveillance culture

datePosted on 10:27, July 9th, 2009 by Lew

As a propaganda geek, I’m concerned (some might say paranoid) about surveillance and its growing use as a means of social control, or as a tool to gather information used to justify and enact other social control mechanisms. Surveillance is the flipside of propaganda, and propaganda systems of social control can’t function properly without the feedback which surveillance provides; effectively, without surveillance, the controller is blind. This encompasses both the hard kind (cameras, enforced ID checking, enhanced search and detention rights) and the soft kind (data mining and data matching, consumer profiling, and so on). For this reason I don’t have a Facebook account, or a Fly Buys card, and I don’t use my gmail account for anything much other than website registrations as a spamtrap; and everything into or out of my webserver in Texas is encrypted. Although since they decided that registration wasn’t mandatory I do have a Snapper card (I wrote about potential surveillance problems with Snapper a bit over a year ago). I feed it with cash. Note: I’m not paranoid about hiding my identity; I’m paranoid about what other information might be matched to it and how an interested party might use that information to target me for use as part of their agenda.

Anyway. Surveillance is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, as people trade off privacy against security, but the problem is that the trade-off is implicitly framed as a matter of who you choose to trust – the ‘crims’ (those with something to hide and therefore something to fear), or those who maintain that security (and who necessarily have greater powers to put that information to use).

I’m working on a project at present which involves reviewing a great deal of media coverage about antisocial behaviour in Western Australia, and surveillance appears widely regarded as the key to cracking the (apparently endemic) problems they have over there. These include:

  • Cameras in streets, cameras in parking lots, cameras on nightclub doors; cameras above dance floors, cameras everywhere, in many cases mandated by liquor licensing regulators
  • Rights for police and other authorities to access footage in real time
  • Fingerprint scanners on club doors
  • The requirement to ‘sign in’ to clubs by giving over your ID as a condition of entry
  • Systems by which one club can (must? not sure about this) immediately share its patron database with other clubs in the area, so if a patron is ejected from one club they are barred from them all
  • Powers for police and licensing regulators to ban ‘problem patrons’ from every single licensed premise in the state for a period of up to five years, without them having been found guilty of any offence

ID cards have worked well in Europe beforeFrankly, it’d be enough to put me off going to the pub. The culture there has become so accepting of surveillance that this is generally unquestioned by those in authority, and the electorate demands nothing more of its representatives. Perhaps even worse is the UK, whose national ID card scheme was the subject of an excellent but unsuccessful counter-propaganda campaign.

While we have some surveillance cameras (most notably in Queen Street and central Christchurch) and a reliance on RFIDs (in passports, for instance), and we have a police culture of aggressive surveillance and with strong authoritarian tendencies, things aren’t so bad in New Zealand. So it is with some dismay that I read yesterday’s op-ed by Chapman Tripp solicitors Simon Peart and Richard May on the NZ Herald website which warns of the alarming powers of surveillance and social control which could be exercised by regulatory bodies including the Commerce Commission, the Reserve Bank (!) and MAF under the newly (and quietly)-introduced Search and Surveillance Bill. They really are quite alarming – the right to covertly surveil ordinary citizens in their own homes, the extention of enforcement powers normally the preserve of the police to other regulatory bodies, the right to infiltrate and surveil computer networks and to secure premises against their legitimate owners, and, frighteningly, the nullification of legal privilege in some communications. Read the article. Read the bill if you can spare the time (it’s 196 exhausting and obfuscatory pages).

As I said, this comes down to trust. The problem is that, even though I generally trust governments, I don’t trust their regulatory and social control agencies which are not subject to electoral veto. That’s the problem with this bill – it seeks to remove the matters of surveillance and investigation from the political sphere where it belongs and create a new surveillance culture norm in NZ.

Edit: I have somehow missed the Gordon Campbell’s excellent piece on the same topic. Read that, too.


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.