Following my recent post on charter schools and the Canterbury education restructure I received an email from Alwyn Poole, principal of the private Mt Hobson Middle School, disagreeing with my assessment. The ensuing discussion was good, so I’ve posted it here with Alwyn’s agreement. (Below the fold).
Tag Archives: Canterbury earthquake
Public education: of the community, by the community, for the community
They say that the first question people from Christchurch ask each other when they meet is “what school did you go to?” I’m not from Christchurch, and I hated school — high school especially.* I’m not a teacher, though for three (long) years I did teach — mostly in public schools, albeit in another country. I liked teaching no better than I liked being a student, but both experiences demonstrated to me how integral public schooling is to a society, and to the individual communities that make it up.
The principal of Christchurch Boys’ High School, Trevor McIntyre articulated the importance of schools to communities in Christchurch on Nine to Noon (starts about 36 minutes in):
You talk about a community, a community has a heart. You’ve got rural communities which are clearly defined, but in a city like Christchurch you’ve got suburbs. And traditionally those suburbs have contained a heart, and typically the heart was a general store, a post office, a hall, a church and a school. And if you look around the city, the general stores are gone, to supermarkets. The post offices are gone. The halls have gone because they’re too expensive to maintain and now we’ve got bigger and better facilities. The churches, if they were still there, have been damaged in the earthquake and are probably not going to be retained. The last vestige of a community centre is a school.
On the face of it, this is why the government’s slash-and-burn approach to Christchurch’s schools is destructive: because it further damages communities that have already suffered considerable harm from two years of earthquakes and a global financial crisis. The fact that the government’s education restructure in Christchurch is proceeding in tandem with the government’s roll-out of its charter schools policy makes it worse.
Public education is of the community, by the community, for the community. Public schools are run by boards of trustees — members of a community, elected by their peers. Zoning ensures the right of those living in a community to attend their community’s schools. Teachers usually commit to a school and a community, often across generations. For all their differences in socio-economic background, culture, ethnicity and so on, New Zealand children share the right to a high-quality education in the same classrooms as each other; not only learning the same curriculum, but learning it together — with each other and from each other. There are exceptions like the Grammar Zone phenomenon, but by and large this generalisation is true. Beyond education, this socialisation is crucial to building the tight-knit, diverse communities that we all think New Zealand is made up of — and I’d argue that this effect of universal public education is more important to the nation’s wellbeing than a curriculum increasingly tuned to producing effective workers for the neoliberal economy.
Charter schools, by design, will tend not to produce this community socialisation effect. They will likely not be run, staffed by, and attended by the members of the communities in which they exist, and will certainly not be ubiquitous within those communities. Due to their special character and possible discretion in granting admissions, pupils at these schools will tend to be demographically and culturally — and maybe ideologically — streamed, and will be similarly taught. As such, charter schools will tend to fragment communities rather than unite them, producing silos of different levels of education, different norms of behaviour and belief, within a society that is already stratified, and is becoming more so.
This is unfortunate, but their niche status and diversity is not the worst thing about them — vive la difference, to an extent at least. The worst thing is the fact that they are to be funded by New Zealand communities but not accountable to those communities; they will not be a positive-sum addition to the diversity of New Zealand’s society and its education system, but a zero-sum substitution. Funding for charter schools will contend with funding for public schools, and the growth of charter schools in a community will constrain the growth of public schools operating there. Even this in itself would not be a terrible problem if it were a level playing field, but charter schools will not be subject to the same requirements as public schools are. They will not be required to teach the same curriculum, to accept all applicants from their communities, to employ qualified and registered teachers, and will be exempt from other measures of accountability.
This is a breach of the social contract under which schools operate. If you take a community’s money to run your school in place of a public school, you inherit the obligations that such a public school would bear — obligations to teach the children of those communities well, to teach them together, and to teach them to the community’s standards. Charter schools fail at all three. They may teach well, but they may not, as they are not required to teach to the curriculum or employ properly-qualified teachers. If they exercise control over who they accept, they cannot legitimately be said to be teaching their community. And as they are not required to be run by members of their community, again, if they end up teaching to their community’s standards it is by good fortune rather than good design. That they will be able to take money out of community schools without being bound to deliver education to the community’s standards is an obvious breach of these obligations, and the sort of violation that is crystal-clear to the proponents of charter schools in other areas: they are perfectly happy to impose all manner of onerous and punitive constraints upon struggling solo mothers on the grounds that we are “funding their lifestyle”, but are disappointingly unwilling to accept the same when it applies to their own enterprises.
There are two other destructive aspects to this policy: first, it is a legislative end-run around one of the strongest remaining functional union movements we have, the teacher’s unions who, contrary to the propaganda, have played a crucial role in maintaining the high quality and low cost of our education system. The government has figured that it can’t bust them, so it’ll just bypass them.
Second, this is large-scale social engineering, an experiment being conducted on the damaged communities and struggling people of Christchurch who, resilient although they might be, need to retain and rebuild what remains of their communities, rather than have them redefined and renovated from afar and by private interests with private motivations. It’s an experiment that places at risk a generation of students and teachers, and the communities they form. It is an experiment being conducted on people who, the government seems to think, are vulnerable and still too busy trying to put their lives back together to organise a meaningful resistance. I guess we’ll see about that.
Quite apart from the hypocrisy of this government, which was swept to power by backlash against the Clark government’s “social engineering” policies, this sort of experimentation is unethical. The government owes Christchurch better than to treat it as a petrie dish. They’ve suffered enough; let the clipboard-bearing wonks poke and measure them no longer. The government’s responsibility is to support Christchurch and to assist it in rebuilding its communities, and to this end the government has a responsibility to fund and support public schools that are of, by and for those communities, around which people can rally. Special character schools are well and good for what they are, and if people want to teach in their own ways and to their own standards, let them do so — but let them pay for their privilege themselves. No funding without accountability.
* I hated it, and for the most part it hated me, but I should say I met most of my dearest friends there — including my wife. Again: community.
Just one semi-randomly chosen article, on the Otago Daily Times website, but here are some numbers from it:
A. Don Brash denying allegations or refusing to comment: 4
B. Don Brash distancing himself from views of senior ACT people (incl former): 4
C. Mentions of Don Brash’s failed 2005 campaign: 3
D. Don Brash making an open statement of his position (incl the ad): 2
E. Don Brash attacked by ministers in the government of which ACT is a part: 2
F. Don Brash attacking ministers in the government of which ACT is a part: 1
That, right there, is a party leader under fire.
A is a problem because it shows Brash as weak and evasive.
B is a problem because the fact is that these people are or were his party and its brand — they are what people think they know about ACT. If it turns out they don’t actually speak for ACT, something has to fill that vacuum. This is also indecisive, and because of the nature of the views he is backing away from, weak.
C is a problem because it reminds everyone that they got rid of him six years ago, and why.
D is a problem because Brash hasn’t filled the vacuum caused by B.
E and F are problems because they threaten the integrity of John Key’s National government during an election campaign framed by narratives of unity: the Stadium Of Four Million narrative of the Rugby World Cup, and the Spirit Of The Blitz narrative mandated by the Canterbury earthquakes.
For my money, it’s the last one which is most likely to sink ACT. If Brash doesn’t pull his head in sharpish, Key will be justified in cutting it off. And I reckon he would, sharpish. He’s not called the Smiling Assassin because of his gentle nature and tolerance toward poor performers. And even if Key doesn’t, Brash is up against some powerful stuff in those unity narratives. Nobody wants to back a splitter at a time when Aotearoa is supposed to be thinking and feeling and hoping as one.
The Reluctant Ringnut
Since the 5.1 magnitude aftershock on the evening of March 20, various Ringnuts — that is, people who take Ken Ring’s moonie earthquake “predictions” seriously — have been saying things along the lines of “SEE ITS TRUE HE TOLD YOU AND YOU DIDN’T LISTEN!” Their ranks include people who really should know better, who’re revealing that when faced with a bit of smoke and a couple of mirrors they’re as credulous as the next rube.
Such as Brian Edwards, who asks “So – was Ken Ring right or wrong?”, and after arraying a series of banal and rigourless equivocations, attempts to turn scepticism on its head by appealing to the old charlatan’s fallback: cosmic uncertainty, man. We don’t really know anything, so everything’s as good as everything else, man.
The trouble is that Brian’s banal and rigourless equivocations — I’ll not repeat them here — are of a piece with those issued by Ken Ring, and that’s the whole point. Brian tries to have a lazy bob each way on the question of whether Ring is right or wrong. Ring has a bob in each of a dozen different ways, from earthquakes of unspecified magnitude across a very wide area, or possibly a weather event of unspecified nature, occurring in a very broad span of time; or possibly nothing at all. The predictive uselessness these banal and rigourless equivocations have been very thoroughly thrashed out in the past month — notably by David Winter, Alison Campbell [edit to add: and Grant Jacobs]. The punchline is that it would have been a shock if his “prediction”, such as it was, had not “come true”.
What separates the Ringnuts (both the reluctant, who claim the mantle of scepticism, and the True Believers) from the rest of us is the realisation that, given the nature of Ring’s “predictions” it is impossible to answer Brian’s question, “Was Ken Ring right or wrong?”. Ken Ring doesn’t give us a testable prediction, so we can’t even get to the point of assessing its rightness or wrongness. Ken Ring is neither right nor wrong. He doesn’t even get to the point of being wrong, since he hasn’t said anything meaningful.
Given all of this, being wrong would be a considerable improvement for Ken Ring.
Put it out of its misery
After defending New Zealand’s broadcast news media in recent weeks, and bemoaning the lack of funding for public service broadcasting in particular, TVNZ has tonight hit rock-bottom. The so-called national broadcaster has been comprehensively shamed by TV3, and in the battle for news credibility it has capitulated having barely fired a shot.
John Campbell announced the Sendai Earthquake live on Campbell Live, and TV3 interrupted its broadcast of the high-rating Glee with micro-bulletins (leading the ad breaks) not long afterwards, and eventually ditched the show altogether to show live coverage from Japan’s English-language NHK network. TV One, in contrast, let MasterChef play to the end before switching to NHK. The digital-only channel TVNZ7 was also broadcasting coverage from NHK.
Both commercial channels continued to play ads, but other than that, did a pretty good job of balancing raw foreign coverage, context provided by their local presenters, and important updates for New Zealanders (tsunami alert status, etc.). And then, after broadcasting quake coverage for about an hour, One switched back to its regular programming, showing “Pineapple Dance Studios”, a reality TV show about “the larger-than-life exploits” of the dancers at said London studio. TVNZ’s other channel, TV2, was broadcasting American Idol. At some point (I haven’t been watching it) TVNZ 7 switched back to its regular programming: a book show of some sort. TV3, apparently without a second thought, cancelled the rest of its scheduled programming, and continues to carry the NHK feed, interspersed with relevant original content, including reports from New Zealand expats in Japan.
The contrast could not be more stark: while both One and TV3 remain general-purpose TV channels with a bolt-on news component, TV3 thinks of itself as and actually behaves like a bona fide news outlet, while for all its big talk TVNZ has revealed itself to be just another vehicle for empty escapism. TV3 demonstrated considerably better newscasting chops than TVNZ during the Canterbury earthquake of 22 February, but the comparison was unfair because TVNZ’s live broadcast infrastructure was more or less destroyed in the earthquake, so they had considerably less capacity to respond, for reasons outside their control. It is true that, given the volume of disaster coverage we have had recently, there is a need for an escapist bolt-hole — not least, for the traumatised survivors of the Canterbury earthquakes. But that’s what TV2 and American Idol are for. Make no mistake: given our current disaster awareness, the relatively strong links between New Zealand and Japan — including the presence of Japanese USAR teams still in Christchurch — that country’s broad and deep experience of coping with events such as these, and the fact that the tsunami waves are predicted to submerge entire islands in the Pacific, including, presumably some of our protectorates — this is of legitimate news interest to New Zealanders. It is apparently the largest earthquake recorded in Japan in the past century, and one of the ten largest earthquakes ever recorded. By any meaningful metric it is an important news story worthy of our attention.
At the heart of my defence of public service broadcasting lately has been the argument that public service broadcaster raise the bar of competition, forcing commercial broadcasters to sharpen their game. To quote myself (from a comment on Red Alert the other day):
The British broadcast media are very good indeed, and the main reason for this is the BBC. Yes, the BBC itself makes up a lot of the broadcast media environment there, but more importantly, it forces commercial competitors to compete with something other than lowest-common-denominator mass-market ratings. The same dynamic exists in the two other major media markets with strong and well-provisioned PSBs: Canada and Australia, where the CBC and ABC respectively set an enormously high standard for commercial competitors to meet. This is one of the major roles of public service broadcasting, especially in news: to set a high bar for competition.
If you want to solve the problems within New Zealandâ€™s media environment, if you want to raise the bar: make the commercial media outlets compete with something that hasnâ€™t been gutted and hamstrung. Fund TVNZ and Radio NZ properly, give it freedom to hire and retain the best people, buy the best content, and generally do what it does, and let the others work to match them. Everyone wins.
To give just one tiny example of how this might have worked: TV3 may have reconsidered its decision to air advertisements for fast food and outboard motors between shots of buildings and fleeing vehicles being swept away by ten metre waves, if there had been a viable ad-free newscast in competition with it. To give another: perhaps, if there was some competition prepared to put up the NHK feed overnight for those whose family members and friends are in Japan, TV3 might not have cut to Sports Tonight after Nightline had aired. But there wasn’t any competition. When governments underfund public service broadcasters or hamstring them by imposing the contradictory roles of a public service mandate and the need to return a profit to the consolidated fund, both roles are weakened. We get the worst of both worlds: as taxpayers, we pay public money to fund public service broadcasting, provision of which is undermined by the channel’s need to remain obedient to market imperatives, and in exchange for putting up with ads we end up with a pale imitation of a commercial broadcaster as well. One News — and to an even greater extent TVNZ 7 — supposedly a dedicated ‘factual content’ channel — disgraced themselves and failed New Zealanders tonight. The tagline “New Zealand’s news. Anywhere. Anytime” should perhaps be revised to “Anywhere. Anytime. Except when there’s third-rate reality programming to air instead.”
TVNZ, by waving the white flag tonight, has demonstrated that it’s all but worthless as a public service broadcaster. The market is doing its job for it. If the government isn’t going to fund it well enough to turn it into a proper public service broadcaster, they might as well sell it, if they can find anyone who’ll pay anything for it. If they can’t, perhaps they can just take it out behind the shed and put it out of its misery.
The three cities of Christchurch
As local context and in contrast to my recent posts on the media response to the Christchurch earthquake, you must read this arresting report from Christchurch resident Peter Hyde. It is long, but the following facts are crucial:
There are THREE cities in Christchurch right now, not one.
RESCUE CITY is inside the four main avenues, and it is cordoned off. That means almost all our knowledge of it comes from media, and man is it a honey-pot for them!
It’s given us understandably-incessant tales and images of injury, tragedy, loss, broken iconic buildings, heroism, sacrifice, leadership and gratifying international response. It’s extremely television-friendly.
My quake experience started there, but actually almost nobody lives in Rescue City. The resources and attention which are seemingly being poured into it right now are NOT addressing the most urgent post-quake needs of the population of Christchurch.
SHOWER CITY is any part of Christchurch where you can take a hot shower, because you have electricity and running water and mostly-working sewer lines. By latest estimates, that’s about 65% of the city — much of it out west.
In that part of Christchurch, weary and stressed people are getting on with life — though some may be wondering if they still have a job. And a few of them with energy and time to spare are wondering if they can do more to help the rest of the city.
The media naturally lives in Shower City, and they talk almost exclusively to the business leaders and the Rescue City leadership who also inhabit it.
REFUGEE CITY is the rest of Christchurch — mainly the eastern suburbs, though there are pockets elsewhere. It includes perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 people, though a more-mobile chunk of them may have self-evacuated by now.
Only half of those who remain in Refugee City have power, and almost NONE have running water. Many have been living on their own resources, and their neighbours’, for over a week now.
That means that batteries have run down, gas (if they had any to start with) has run out, other supplies are low or gone. Roads are often very bad – and a lot of those from the poorer suburbs have no transport anyway.
Their houses may or may not be intact. Their streets may be clear, broken, or full of silt. Or sewage. There are no showers. Or ways to wash clothes. Or to wash dishes. Or to heat the “must boil” water that is available — assuming they can make it to the nearest water truck, day after day. No refrigeration. No working toilets, and precious few portaloos. No face masks to defend against the blown silt.
They have no internet either, and usually no phones. And their radio batteries are dead or dying. The papers — if you can get one — are rapidly dated, and usually far too general in their coverage. It really doesn’t help someone without a car in Aranui to know that Fisher and Paykel are providing free laundries in Kaiapoi!
All the above means the locals have few resources, little information, and no “voice” either. It’s remarkably hard to call talkback radio – or your local politician — or emergency services — when your landline is out and your cellphone battery is dead. Or when it maybe has JUST enough charge to stay on hold for 5 minutes – but not 20! – when calling the sole government helpline.
The media flies over, drives past and dips into Refugee City, usually at the main welfare or water points. But they don’t cover it that much. From my observations, the officials – those who are making decisions about the relief effort – seem to do likewise.
IN THESE POWERLESS SUBURBS, THE OFFICIAL RESPONSE IS FAR FROM ENOUGH. Especially in terms of the fundamentals.
It continues at considerable length, and I urge you to read it all, particularly the bit which tells you what you can do to make a difference.
Edit: There is another similarly grim comment from Puddleglum at The Standard:
Iâ€™ve spent the last few days shovelling silt in the east of Christchurch. My nephew who had helped dig a friend out of his house in Bexley on Saturday has been over more of the eastern suburbs. Basically, it gets exponentially worse the further east from the central city you go.
These people are already angry, stressed, dismissive of the reactions of most authorities and doggedly trying to do it themselves â€“ yet, as the poster notes, they had the fewest resources to begin with. Itâ€™s heartbreaking. Bitter jokes punctuate emotionally strained comments about â€˜you just have to go onâ€™, â€˜what else can you do?â€™, â€˜THEY wonâ€™t helpâ€™. They did really appreciate the volunteer â€˜diggersâ€™, though.
I’m on deadline and short on time, but my initial response is as follows.
The response is not blind to class or social station. Of course it’s not; as early as last Wednesday I was seeing tweets from people in what is now Shower City saying “we’re doing it hard, but those poor areas down the line haven’t got anything”. This is a feature of disaster responses everywhere. Of course, those suburbs hardest-hit are those suburbs hardest-hit. But what’s really problematic is intersectionality: live in a hard-hit suburb and you’re poor? Tough for you.
I suspect the problem is not so much exploitation as it is ignorance, both wilful and otherwise; by both officials and others. Referring back to the discussions of exploitation on my previous posts, it might be that the residents of Refugee City would welcome a horde of snooping cameras, as long as they could be assured that the footage they captured would stimulate a greater and better-targeted response.
The media has a responsibility to tell this story, as much as it does to relay the uplifting narratives of solidarity and community resilience from Rescue and Shower Cities. A week on from the event, it should not fall to an insomniac resident of Refugee City who is fortunate enough to have the electricity, technical means, personal wherewithal and social networks to tell this story as if it is some sort of revelation. That is the job of the professionals. We should already know all of this.
In their meagre defence, I have heard some media outlets asking questions such as these. A reporter (from TV3) asked Bob Parker yesterday, after the fanfare resulting from the discovery of the time capsule, whether it was good enough that Aranui still didn’t have toilets. (His reply was not good enough — that the response had been very good overall — and the journalist did not push him.) They toured Aranui yesterday, talking with the residents and broadcasting their concerns — lack of facilities, lack of attention, breakdown of the rule of law. Breakdown of the rule of law. People fleeing their homes because, at twilight, groups of people roam around casing houses for burglary.
The media must report this, and in some cases it has: but ultimately it is for the government to undertake a response which mitigates against this inequitably-distributed misery. And a government who is reportedly considering policy changes which will weigh heavily upon lower-income New Zealanders would be well-advised to look after those citizens’ response.
As they say: the whole world’s watching.
(Thanks to Emma Hart for bringing this to my attention.)
What the media is for
There has been a lot of coverage about the coverage of the second Canterbury earthquake, and this is another post on that general topic. However rather than deal with the specifics — already superbly examined by Mediawatch (45 minute audio) and others — this is a comment on the purpose and functions of media in a society such as ours. It should be read in light of my previous post on the topic.
A commenter on Tim’s piece at Pundit makes the following objections about the media coverage of the most recent Canterbury earthquake:
I always thought the media collected news, let those involved explain the significance and do their best to give complete and balanced coverage.
It is not the media’s job to carry on carrying on “to show support.”
Media should be getting out the information to those affected and to the general public. Not manipulate us with their constructs of “courage” and “tenacity” but provide the important facts.
It is common, but this is just the sort of idealised notion of the media’s role which I referred to earlier in that comment thread when I said:
So the trend I’ve observed, here and in other discussions on the topic, is that a few of those who don’t really understand the media or its social role, or who have idealised notions of that role, or who are amateur ‘MSM’ critics with an ideological beef, just hate it all the more for doing more of what it does. On the other hand, those who work in or with the media, or have a broad understanding of its wider functions down here in the real world pretty much agree — with a few notable exceptions, like Steven Price — that there’s some sort of social purpose being served by all this additional coverage, even if it’s imperfect; and at least have some respect — if not awe — for the magnitude of the undertaking.
Haters gonna hate, I suppose.
The media’s job is not “just the facts, ma’am”. The media’s job is right there in the name: to mediate events for a society which, by and large, will never experience them firsthand but which nevertheless relies on a strong baseline of common experience. Most New Zealanders’ main exposure to the Canterbury earthquakes will be via the media. So their job is not simply to report the facts of a situation, but its essential truth, or — as usually happens — the various truths. It is incumbent upon the media to present more than a dessicated, dispassionate view of the Canterbury quake, for it is not a dessicated, dispassionate situation for those involved. As a matter of fairness to Cantabrians, if the events they cover speak to narratives of courage and tenacity, or loss or anguish or triumph or solidarity or whatever, then the media has a responsibility to convey those narratives more or less faithfully. And as a matter of national cohesion they need to convey a sense of the magnitude and intensity of it all to the rest of the nation. This is the rough-cut of history, after all, and history is neither dessicated nor dispassionate. So that’s a very open-ended task; incorporating also the functions Bruce mentions. These are non-exclusive.
There are other roles, also. Not least among the media’s other functions down here in the real world is to attract and hold audiences (without which they cannot survive), and to strengthen their newsmaking reputations (without which they cannot retain any credibility). In the case of disaster coverage, the former is almost totally subservient to the latter, since the cost of producing wall-to-wall coverage in trying conditions far outweighs the advertising return from doing so — especially since much of the resulting coverage has been shorn of commercials or aired in place of other, much more lucrative programming. But this is a rare example of a genuine crisis, an opportunity for the news media to put their worst-case-scenario plans into action These are (some of) the self-interested aspects of media conduct, and many of the media’s critics like to pretend (or wish) these imperatives don’t (or didn’t) exist; that the job of the media is simply to be altruistic without consideration of the cost, and without an eye to the benefits they might draw from their coverage. But all major media outlets in this country operate along essentially commercial lines (even those which are not commercially funded, such as Radio NZ, are benchmarked on ratings in ways similar to how commercial media are), so these imperatives apply almost as much to the ‘public service’ broadcasters as to those owned by foreign venture capital firms whose sole interest is shareholder returns.
I mention this because, right or wrong, it is a crucial link in the chain: without some sort of return accruing to media outlets (whether directly financial, or in terms of strengthening their brand, or the profile of their top people, or whatever) they won’t — can’t — dedicate resources to covering an event. As long as media outlets’ performance generally rests on attracting and retaining eyeballs and earholes, media outlets will engage in the sorts of behaviours which tend to maximise their attractiveness to those eyeballs and earholes. (I’d argue that even in the case of public service broadcasters like Radio NZ, this isn’t a bad state of affairs, since a medium not accountable to an audience basically enjoys impunity, and impunity is bad wherever it exists.)
Among the most crucial roles is the ‘fourth estate’ function of holding power to account. Without more than half of the country’s best journalists in Christchurch this past week, this most crucial democratic function would be severely atrophied. While the crisis response capacities of the media are stretched, those of wider civil society are far more so. It is crucial that the quality of the social response, and especially the elite response of the government, civil defence, police, emergency services and the military is adequately scrutinised. Wall-to-wall coverage makes it worthwhile for Mediaworks and Fairfax and TVNZ and APN and RNZ and TRN to give those journalists a reason to be there. Without that strong presence, those whose job it is to coordinate the response and recovery — during a state of national emergency, which gives them the legal authority to do very nearly anything they like, as long as it can be argued to serve the response — would be working with considerably less scrutiny than they are. Impunity, in other words. And that’s no good for anyone. There have been few, or perhaps even no ‘gotchas’ revealed so far. Absent strong media scrutiny this would give rise to suspicions that failures were being hidden. Because the scrutiny has been there — including the constant and often distasteful badgering for an updated death toll — it rather suggests a competent and transparently-run response. That’s something which is good for everyone.
The television will be revolutionised
Tim Watkin has written a great think-piece on Pundit about the “birth of a new news” in New Zealand. He asks a lot of good questions about the imperatives and tensions inherent in this (and I hate the term) new paradigm:
Rather than a journalist doing the thinking for the viewers and the carefully condensed report presented, the thinking (and feeling) is done live in front of you, and sometimes is exposed as shallow or headline-driven. It’s real, for better or worse. As Paul Holmes puts it, ‘the curtain is pulled back’. But is the loss of thinking time worth the gain? Are we better informed if we see behind the scenes?
Quantity can become the enemy of quality. Mistakes are made when resources are stretched so far, whether they come in the form of spelling mistakes, tactless phrases, offensive unedited pictures or whatever.
When you have to talk and keep talking and talk some more while the next guest is being moved into position or some pictures are being edited or a dropped phone line re-established, you’re bound to say something off-key and earn ire from your audience. But those skills are being learnt under fire as I write, perhaps making for better journalists down the track, trained in the heat of battle.
I’d be interested to see the comment thread toss these pros and cons around. What do you think of the coverage? Of this trend to such extensive news-telling? What’s stood out? Are you better served? What’s worked, what hasn’t?
While this sort of coverage has been well entrenched in more mature mass-media markets for some years, it is indeed new to New Zealand. The extent of coverage we saw of the Pike River tragedy (and the valuable scrutiny of government and corporate conduct which that entailed) would probably not have occurred without the spur provided by the September 4 earthquake, which forced our local newsmakers to deploy in ways they’d never deployed before, and to consider how they might respond to a greater event.
I’ve been deeply immersed in the earthquake coverage since it happened. Probably too deeply, and it is too early for me to address any of Tim’s questions in any depth. I urge you to go and discuss them at Pundit. But Tim’s next paragraph provides the kernel of my tentative answers: he tangata, he tangata, he tangata:
In TVNZ’s control room this morning decisions large and small were being made in an instant by people who were typing in text for on-screen banners, talking on the phone to journalists about to go to air, receiving updates from the newsroom, and listening to live interviews â€“ all at the same time. Hey, as I’ve learnt in the past year, that’s what producers do. It’s important to understand the complexity of the environment, however, when you’re judging the coverage from the comfort of your armchair.
It is people. All those snap decisions are the reason it’s crucial that serious news organisations continue to employ the smartest and most dedicated people they can find, because when the chips are really down and there’s nobody to direct traffic, news needs to fall back on the instincts, judgement, professionalism and initiative of newsmakers, from the most junior interns to the best-known household names.
For all the howlers (“live bodies” is one I heard this morning; there are dozens more) the overall response by the New Zealand media has been extremely strong, and in addition to broadcasting the facts and context of this event, has served a greater purpose: to make New Zealand and the world care about Christchurch. That’s support that disasters in countries without a robust media infrastructure don’t normally draw: contrast the response with quakes, floods and so on in Pakistan, Brazil, Iran, China, and elsewhere. Individualised human experience — such as that of Ann Voss, interviewed live on TV3 after nine hours trapped in her office, having already farewelled her children — embedded in broader context become emblematic of the event; they provide distant, detached viewers a handle by which to grasp the enormity of the disaster. That’s valuable; not only for those glued to their screens, but for those whose lives and deaths have been laid rudely bare before the cameras. And how much more so for the uprisings in the Middle East, where wall-to-wall coverage, especially on Al Jazeera, has been instrumental in generating worldwide solidarity and sympathy with those who seek to overthrow their oppressors?
For this reason I have little agreement with those who complain of media exploitation — for two examples, see Steven Price and Jonathan Green — although their arguments are understandable. I think most Christchurchers (and West Coasters, Queenslanders, Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans) would consider a small measure of fleeting, mostly inadvertent exploitation is a reasonable price to pay for their stories being told to the world in ways which make the world shed tears for them, get angry on their behalf, and reach into their pockets to help. The news production model is mutual exploitation, after all.
A bigger question is: when will it end? At what point will the newsmaking apparatus have outlasted its usefulness, and be doing better service by covering personality politics, celebrity scandal and sporting achievements? Another question I can’t really answer. But I think we can trust the judgement of those people whose decision it is to make.
‘Efficient’ pricing and social cohesion in disaster recovery
In my view, one of the more shameful episodes in the Canterbury earthquake was the call by some for retailers to implement so-called ‘efficient’ pricing of crucial goods such as water. Among these was University of Canterbury economist Eric Crampton, whose article on the topic was even printed in the papers. Read his blog post In defense of price gouging. I often agree with Eric, but on this topic I just don’t.
I’m no big-city economist, and I seem to have misplaced the argument I wrote on the topic at the time, but essentially the problem is: if nothing is done, the resource just runs out and people who need it can’t get it. Absent some mechanism (rationing, gouging, &c) the criterion for access to the resource is speed and/or ruthlessness — the person who goes down to the supermarket & fills their ute with bottled water wins; everyone else has to rely on other means, such as asking their neighbours or others for help. I see efficient pricing as simply a means to shift the the criterion for access from ‘speed+ruthlessness’ to ‘accessible wealth+ruthlessness’. Those neither speedy nor wealthy (that is, almost everyone) will have to fall back on those same social structures of cooperation and goodwill to get their water in either case, and I don’t accept that privileging those with cash on hand is much of an improvement over privileging those who can get through the gate quickest.
However there is a non-economic factor to consider: in times of disaster, social cohesion is crucial. To large extent it operates on the notion that both the mighty and the humble are brought low; that we’re all in this together, and when the chips are down, Jack’s as good as his master. A resource allocation mechanism which punctures these illusions so as to damage social cohesion, such as by turning the poor against the rich, must deliver an enormous efficiency benefit in order to offset the harm it causes by sapping the goodwill upon which disaster recovery thrives. At a time when the foremost objective should be to promote social cohesion, ‘efficient’ pricing is an ugly imposition of individualism on the collective spirit.
Anyway, the point of this post wasn’t to relitigate that, or to criticise Eric, so much as to say that — by contrast — reports of price-gouging in post-flood Queensland have drawn a firm response from officials. Fair Trading Minister Peter Lawlor warned retailers of the possible strategic consequences of gouging:
“I think traders who attempt to profit from the misery of others during the floods should keep in mind that people have long memories. Even if there’s no official complaint, any quick returns they seek to make will be of little value to the business in the longer term.” [he said]. Mr Lawlor says if there is evidence they are breaking the law, they will be prosecuted.
More robust still was the statement from Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale, the same who warned looters that they would be used as flood markers if caught:
Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale says the city will remember businesses that try to take advantage of the disaster. “I know I’m not supposed to say [this] – but the health inspectors are on their way and the building inspectors are on their way after we finish this to see if we can help those businesses – [but] like hell,” he said.
This suggests a vigilante streak and willingness to bring the coercive force of the state to bear for social, rather than strictly regulatory reasons, and this is not usually a beneficial trait in a civic leader. However I think in cases like this there is some justification for such a stance. Pisasale’s position is a manifestation of the ‘Queensland culture’ called upon by Premier Anna Bligh in her speeches, and which may now be her political legacy. If it all came to pass, perhaps a disgruntled gouger might take legal action against Pisasale or his agencies for harrassment; but this would be an uphill battle, because Pisasale enjoys the protection of being right in the eyes of his society. After all; the only thing most Aussie battlers hate more than a government bureaucrat is a disaster profiteer. He is on firm ground as a representative of his people, because his representation rings true. His commitment is to the cohesion of his society. He is doing what crisis leaders do; efficiency be damned.