Dollar dollar bill y’all

Tonight’s Native Affairs debate between Pita Sharples and Don Brash is now up on their website, and it is must-watch television for a few reasons. The first and most immediately evident is Julian Wilcox’s quality as an interviewer and moderator — this was not a structured debate, with time allotted and mechanical switches between speakers, nor preset, pre-scripted questions. It was a free-flowing affair, with Wilcox acting as both interviewer and moderator; and throughout the two speakers were respectful, genuine, and both had ample opportunity to get their points across. It was superbly done. (Hone Harawira, in a later discussion, twice jokingly invited Wilcox to stand for Te Mana, but for mine he’s too valuable in the media.)

Another reason it was remarkable was because of Don Brash’s bizarre, out-of-touch equation of sentimental or cultural attachment to natural features — maunga, awa, moana and so on — with “animism”. It’s a perverse position to take, given the deep connection New Zealanders — both Māori and Pākehā — have to their landscape, about which I’ve written before. Imagine, if you will, a series of billboards featuring Aoraki Mt Cook, the Waitemata Harbour or Rangitoto, the Waikato or the Whanganui, Wakatipu, Taupo, or my own ‘home’ mountain of Taranaki — with the legend “Brash thinks this is just a lot of water”, or “Brash thinks this is just a rock”. If ACT were politically relevant, it might be worth doing.

Cash Rules Everything Around Me
C.R.E.A.M, get the money
Dollar dollar bill y’all
— Wu-Tang Clan

Like the gangstas of Staten Island legend, this sense that only what’s literal and material matters, that when push comes to shove, money trumps everything is integral to the faux-rational actor model to which ACT subscribes, and this leads into the major thing which made this interview important:

(Image snapped by Michael John Oliver, via twitter, thanks!)

And a brief transcript:

Brash: “Pita, I put …”
Sharples: “No, you didn’t.”
Brash: …”Apirana ta…Ngata on …”
Sharples: “The country put that on. Let’s be clear about that.”
Brash: “I made the decision. I made the decision, as governor. And I put him on that because I think he’s one of the greatest ever New Zealanders.”

Don Brash, the archetypal white rich guy, brought along a fifty dollar note — a note that many poor Māori voters rarely even see — to a debate that was substantively about the reasons why Māori are politically, socially, and economically deprived.

To appeal to Sir Apirana Ngata in a newspaper advertisement — as Brash did this weekend — is merely crass. To bring that actual visage in as a prop in an argument to dismantle the Aotearoa that Ngata and others had worked to build — that, as Sharples said, Ngata was criticised for being a “radical” by rich white guys like Don Brash — and seeking to imprint his divisive and offensive policies with Ngata’s mana is offensive to the man’s memory. To seek to take personal credit for Ngata’s mana being properly recognised — “I made the decision” — is obscene. To play a statesman’s memory like a chip on a weak hand at the last-chance saloon is no sort of respect. It is the ultimate “I’m not racist” gambit — “look, some of my best banknotes have Maaris on”. I wonder if he would treat the memory of Sir Edmund Hillary or Kate Sheppard in this way. Distancing himself from John Ansell’s misogyny by saying “hey, I put a broad on the $10” would be a thing to see. He had a decent crack at “I’m not racist, my wife’s from Singapore” back in the day.

Don Brash, during his brief run in politics, accumulated a series of bad images — “poor optics” as the lingo goes. Walking the plank, struggling to climb into the racing car, scooping mud out of his mouth at Waitangi, and so on. This image — of Brash big-noting to Māoridom, if you’ll excuse the phrase; showing them who’s got the Benjamins, or the Apis — should be one of the enduring memories of the campaign. Brash probably thinks it’s a smart symbolic play, but it calls to mind a bunch of things he doesn’t want to call to peoples’ minds — his own wealth, the extent to which he’s economically out of touch with those he claims to want to represent, and perhaps most of all an almost unspeakably flawed sense of political and historical reverence, which places him out of touch at a deeper level; a level of shared sentiment and aspiration, of common culture and values.

In television, the rule is: don’t tell, show. No matter how often he tells Aotearoa that he shares our views and aspirations, we won’t believe it unless he shows us. Since storming the lofty heights of the ACT party Brash is busily telling us that what we stand for what he stands for, despite 98.3% of the evidence contradicting that assertion. And now he’s showing us exactly the same.


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

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.

Farewell to Vapidness–and hello to insipidness.

When I was in NZ in February-March, after a year away from the country, I was alarmed by the deterioration of what passed for news in the MSM. This was a continuation of a long-term trend that I have called the “Australianisation” of NZ news coverage, something that Lew and I talked about when we had lunch during my time in Wellington. But the gross decline over the last year was what disturbed me. Whereas the front pages of the major newspapers and lead segments of the major TV and radio news shows used to contain world and national stories of real import, by the time I arrived back in country in early 2010 even those were occupied by celebrity news, scandal and other so-called “human interest” rubbish that catered to the most purient, salacious aspects of public interest. There is war, famine, corruption, epidemics, natural disasters, corporate sleaze, international intrigue and host of other pressing news on any given day, but what is served up in the NZ media is pablum in which wardrobe malfunctions compete with drunken/drugged socialite antics and sex tapes for headlines. I blame Rupert Murdoch for the lot of it, because like PT Barnum and the Roman Emperors, he realised that by catering to the basest of human instincts and desires, media empires can be built. All you have to do is provide a carnival that diverts mass attention from the realities surrounding them, add a few creature conforts via sweepstakes and sponsor tie-ins and prizes, and voila!–you have both bread and cricuses for the masses. Worse yet, this media approach is something that very conveniently dovetails with the interests of political and corporate elites who would prefer to pursue their interests unencumbered by press or public scrutiny.

Which is why I do not lament the demise of the Sunrise program. Not withstanding the fact that all  “Australianised” morning shows are much puffery with little substance, that particular example was strinkingly moronic. Forget the tired use of yet another blond female to handle the  “soft” stories. Forget the organ grinder monkey act that passed for weather reporting. Forget the blokey rugby/cricket dude and or leggy former netballer who read sports. All of that is par for the course and shared by the risible Breakfast show as well.

No, what set Sunrise apart was the sheer rubbish that it passed off as stories, the sheer inanity of the commentary, and, with few exceptions, the sheer ignorance of the presenters of anything other than their own personae. For Pete sake, they even had a dog as a regular on the show, in an apparent effort to a) appeal to animal lovers; or b) appear more friendly/approchable/likeable. Crikey, it was bad.

Mind you, Breakfast is hardly better. But at least it first segment still contains some real news taken from sources other than its own radio affliliate (although in-house reporting has been cut back dramatically while reliance on newsfeeds from the BBC, CBS, ABC has increased, so perhaps the Mediaworks approach will eventually become the standard at TVNZ). But after 7:20 AM or so, save for the top and bottom of the hour news bulletins, the show deteriorates markedly, and after 8AM it might as well be called Sesame Street for adults. What I find particularly offensive with both of the morning shows on TV is that the content gets dumber as the morning progresses, and judging from the adverts, that is because the producers apparently believe that housewives are the main audience after 8AM, and housewives do not think much when watching a television show. Go figure.

The proof that vapidity has seeped deeply into the public consciousness is provided by the response to the announcement that Sunrise was cancelled. With very few exceptions, be it on talkback radio, newspaper reader comments, blogs or Facebook, most of the reaction pro and con is about the talking heads/presenters and their perceived “chemistry” or lack thereof when compared with the buffoon/giggles act playing over at the competitor during the same time slot.  Barely a word is mentioned about the lack of real substance in the show, or of the sheer idiocy that it passed off as news on a daily basis. Heck, if they needed that brick in human guise known as Rick Giles to increase their ratings, then it is clear that the writing was on the wall.

I fail to understand why a news content-driven morning TV show cannot succeed in NZ. There are successful news radio shows at that time of day, and while the presenter(s) is/are often a  media personality as well, their status is made by their being able to discuss news and current events in something approaching a rational and informed manner (I exclude Michael Laws and Leighton Smith from this category, although neither of them can touch John Banks when it comes to on-air hubris combined with ignorance). So why cannot that happen on TV? Could it be that the TV-watching public are, uh, less intellectually endowed than the radio-listening public? Cannot one be both?

At first it seemed like TV3 might decide to get serious and provide a real alternative to the morning carnival side show at TVNZ. But noooooooo. Sunrise is to be replaced with reruns of Magnum PI, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond and Campbell Live (which has gone from hard-hitting to ethically questionable rabble rousing and scandal mongering).  @#$% Me!

The goods news is that, having departed the Land of the Vacuous and Insipid Morning Shows, I do not have to watch this fare. The bad news is that in my current location there is more real news to choose from on radio and TV, but beyond that the situation is not much better. Heck, if you think “American Idol” is bad, then take a look at “Asian Idol” (or any number of other reality show rip-offs).

Best then, that I read a book or a “real” newspaper while having my morning tea.