Hard News by Russell Brown


If you haven't discovered the address of Jonathan Marshall and David Herkt's "tabloid" website - essentially a staging post for their creepy stalking project on Mike Hosking - I'm not going to tell you.

The power to publish is the great joy of the Internet - it costs almost nothing to reach the world. But you still need the mainstream media to market your stuff, and the dodgy duo have certainly got that part of the deal right.

There are three items on the site: some fuzzy and frankly, lame, pictures of Bronwyn Fitzpatrick gardening in a sarong; a claim that several MPs who voted against prostitution law reform are keen brothel-goers, a story in which there is substantial public interest, or would be if the authors had done any real work on it; and the Hosking stuff.

Most of the mainstream media attention has focused on a picture of one of the Hoskings' twin daughters through a car window. Given that the Appeal Court is about to hear a challenge to an earlier decision that New Idea has the right to print pictures of the twins over their parents' objections, that would seem a little silly. But, in truth, the child is unlikely to be identified through that picture alone.

Of vastly more concern is the material from an email - apparently printed out, discarded and retrieved by Marshall from Mike Hosking's rubbish - outlining some requests from the children's mother regarding the conditions of the children's care when they are with Mike.

If this document was in any part of a Family Court process, then Marshall and Herkt are in contempt and should have action taken against them. The proceedings of the Family Court - an arena which deals with strong and normally private emotions - are confidential for good reason.

Even if the email is not covered, you would have hoped that Marshall and Herkt might have had the plain decency to stay the hell out of somebody else's parent-child relationship. There is no public interest in this, no potential for good in its exposure, no place for us in other people's families.

Marshall reminds me of nothing so much as one of the teenage hackers I have occasionally had to speak to as a computer columnist; lacking both the maturity and moral sense to accord himself responsibility for his own actions, seeing himself as the victim. God knows how Herkt explains it to himself.

And yet, as Michael Laws pointed out on Holmes last night, the mainstream media is complicit. It has suited TVNZ in particular to make its presenters not just celebrities but part of the family, when the fulfilment of their duties actually demands neither. Is it any wonder that some members of the public subsequently fancy themselves to have a right to intrude?

Some people, indeed, take the view that anyone who gets up in front of a camera wants to be celebrity and thus must surrender their privacy and get what they deserve. But I hate the idea that it is impossible to do some jobs in my profession without becoming public property, and I have enormous respect for John Campbell's consistent effort to avoid selling up his family life - or having it taken without permission - by the celebrity press.

Hosking, it must be said, has hardly gone about whoring himself and his family on the covers of women's magazines. He has in fact done very little to invite the level of intrusion he has suffered.

That's not to say that his sudden change of lifestyle isn't the stuff of good gossip. I used to see Hosking every Friday, back when he was The Squarest Man in the World, and the transformation into Cool Mike was pretty remarkable. I've talked about it, you've talked about it. That's fine, and, within reason, fit for print.

But would you like somebody trading in clandestine pictures of your infant children?

The Hoskings' attempt to prevent the publication of the New Idea pictures was always doomed - a public place is a public place, after all. But I can't help but feel that the line on the New Idea case from many of my media colleagues - including one who has been indignant about being photographed himself in the past - has been heavy on the media's rights and rather light on its responsibilities.

We in the media need people to be celebrities, just like we need them to screw up, and to win things, or we'd have empty pages and dead air. We depend quite often on the vulnerability of individuals.

Anyway, I'm not agin the culture of celebrity at all. Good luck to the A-listers who get flown to Queenstown for charity events. Although I'd rather they didn't come back with gushy puff-pieces like the one Cameron Bennett delivered on the 50k of Coronet for Sunday. I was flown down for that event a couple of years ago - "relationship building" with a computer company, you understand - and I had a brilliant time. Food, wine, skiing, the works. All laid on.

But by the end of the trip I was having some serious reservations as to what it was really about. Sure, they came up with a cheque for $140,000 for research into childhood illnesses. But the overall budget for the event - hundreds of people flown in and put up, BMWs for the celebrities - would have been perhaps 20 times that. Vastly more money went on corporate branding than on saving sick children.

It was by no means all bad. The kids themselves were great, and their bond with some of the visiting ski racers was genuine.

But it seemed that some people involved with the event were too busy congratulating themselves on doing-it-for-the-kids to notice that the kids might have been quite troubled by repeatedly being wheeled out to tell well-liquored audiences how terribly bloody ill they were.

On the last morning, one of the children, a boy of about 10, clearly couldn't take it any more - he went to pieces on stage. But still they tried to push him up to the microphone. It was awful. I had to wonder whether the sick kids were a good cause, or simply a good pretext.

If the author of yesterday's New Zealand Herald editorial in response to the Health select committee's report on its Inquiry into the public health strategies related to cannabis use and the most appropriate legal status (PDF document) actually bothered to read the report, it certainly doesn't show.

"It is known," thunders the editorial, that cannabis is "a gateway drug - a stopover on the road to the likes of heroin and cocaine." Actually, according to the committee's report, it isn't "known" at all and, on the evidence, isn't true. The report notes that in the Netherlands, which has long applied a tolerant approach to pot, hard drug use is lower that that in the US, Italy, Britain, etc. "This was a stated aim of the Dutch government's policy of separating the cannabis market for hard drugs," the report says.

The sad thing is that, at a time when kids are going to tinny houses for pot and coming away with P, that forceful separation is something we should be seriously considering. But lord forbid that the real world should intrude on the Herald's glorious, unfounded, irrational certainties. You will learn nothing from reading the editorial - but the report is really worth studying.

While nasty stovetop methamphetamine operations in Auckland continue to turn out God-knows-what for sale to kids, it almost seems unfair that a couple of chaps in Napier face a serious lag for building their own very professional facility for the manufacture of ecstasy and speed.

Yet Reuben Martin breached the trust placed in him as a schoolteacher to obtain chemicals, and the fact that he and his buddy had spent nearly $50,000 on set-up indicates they weren't just going to be knocking out a few pills for their friends. Big prison sentences are what you get on the big jobs.

I was somewhat amused by the prosecutor's comment, though: "He said the drug, which was popular in the dance, nightclub and rage scene, acted on the central nervous system. It affected sight, hearing, smell and touch, 'allegedly enhancing insight and enlightenment'." The rage scene? Isn't there enough anger already?