Hard News by Russell Brown

Cracking Lion Reds on the back of the seat

Helen Clark was leaning forward "smiling and appeared to be enjoying the ride" as she whizzed through South Canterbury last year, according to a police officer's evidence given in an interview aired during the dangerous driving trial on Friday. Crikey. Was she cracking open Lion Reds on the back of the seat as well?

Constable Simon Vincent, a defendant in the case, made his vivid observations of the Prime Minister's backseat driving ("I can't recall her being engrossed in any paperwork") via the rear view mirror of the car he was driving in front of the Prime Minister's car at high speed. I trust he spent at least some of his time watching, y'know, the road.

The interview has inevitably been seized on as evidence that Clark was at least complicit in any dangerous driving, but the problem there is the same one that precludes the public-opinion appeal that might have been seized on by a raffish bloke politician in her place: it just seems so … unlikely. Would the popular and competent one have been knowingly placing herself and the public in mortal danger because she fancied a bit of a late-afternoon blat on the wide, straight roads of South Canterbury? If she did, it would certainly illuminate a whole new side to her character.

Anyway, Graham Reid has all the lowdown on this stuff, as usual.

And … I feel a Tui billboard coming on: Auckland property developer David Henderson, who is facing charges of attempting to procure cocaine as part of the celebrity drug bust, told police that he was taking cocaine to help him lose weight. So not because it made him feel clever and important, enhanced his social life and the chicks liked it? Because it was fun and he could afford it? No, it's a $300 a gram diet pill. Honest. (Actually, come to think of it, I don't think I ever met anyone who really took diet pills to lose weight …)

I finally got around yesterday to watching Outlawing Indecency, a documentary originally made for French TV about the moral backlash in the US. The film's tone of restrained incredulity is one of its charms.

Watching it, I went from being amused - among other things, by the Louisiana state legislators who thought six months' jail was an appropriate penalty for the proposed offence of, um, wearing low-cut jeans (and you might want to slap a chador on that hair of yours while you're at it …) - to actually quite alarmed and angry, as it closed with the story of the state of Michigan, whose prosecutors enthusiastically pursue age of consent violations. Some of the teenagers who get their medicine - a third-degree sexual crime felony and 25-year listing on the state sex offender registry - suffer humiliation, emotional distress and rejection by employers. They're the lucky ones. The film ends with the story of an 18 year-old boy who killed himself.

The prosecutor who brought the case explained that he was just applying the law, and cast aspersions on the boy's character. I wanted to throttle him and all the other dead-eyed conservative Republican activists and officials who parade smugly through the documentary. I think these people are different from the moral thugs who are intimidating girls into covering up if they want to go to university in Basra only as a matter of degree.

The hypocrisy such moral thuggery generates can be seen amply in the fact that Republican House leader Tom De Lay gets a 100% pass on "moral" issues from the smut cops of the Parents Television Council - despite being the most dishonest and corrupt congressman in a generation. And even more so in the story of Jim West, the mayor of Spokane: a staunch Republican conservative; vocally anti-gay, anti-abortion, whatever was expedient. Turns out he's gay. Well, so what.

But it looks a whole lot like he's been dishing out city jobs to his rent boys; or, in the words of the federal warrant, there is evidence that he “knowingly and willingly engaged in a scheme to entice others to engage in sexual activity with him through offers and grants of city of Spokane jobs, internships or appointments.” He's also accused of molesting boys as a Boy Scout leader. (Since the Lewinsky business in 1997, more than 20 Republicans have been caught up in high-profile sex scandals; prominent Dems, including Clinton, have totalled three scandals.)

The film screened on SBS in Australia, but I wouldn't fancy its chances here. There are tolerably lively torrents for it here and here, so try your luck if you're interested.

I mentioned Basra: Steven Vincent, the American journalist murdered in Iraq last week - apparently by the local police, who he had accused of corruption - kept a blog, and the Guardian has taken some fascinating excerpts. This one on the descending position of women in the new Iraq:

Adding hypocrisy to chauvinism, the religious parties take the opposite tack in public, policing female behaviour with vigour. Yesterday, a 22-year-old psych grad from Basra University told me how, as they enter the campus each day, female students have to pass religious militiamen "hired" by the administration for "protection". They examine each woman's hijab - no showing of hair, ladies - and the length of their abiyas, staring into their faces for signs of makeup. Anyone failing the Islamic dignity test is sent home. I asked how this made her feel. She grimaced and curled her fingers into two trembling talons. "It burns inside. We are not free to dress or act as we like. The religious parties have banned music, social interaction, relaxation. I am depressed all the time."

This is what Basra has become in the aftermath of the elections. These are the unwritten, unlegislated and unchallengeable "social" and "religious" norms that have an iron grip on the city. Yet back home, you hardly find a public discussion or even acknowledgement of these shackles on human behaviour - the right is too busy congratulating itself on the progress of Iraqi democracy and the left is obsessed with multicultural relativism and discrediting Bush.

And this one:

Not for the first time, I felt I was living in a Graham Greene novel, this about about a US soldier - call it The Naive American - who finds what works so well in Power Point presentations has unpredictable results when applied to realities of Iraq. Or is that the story of our whole attempt to liberate this nation?

On a completely different, and much happier, note, the Food Show was pretty good on Friday; and about 25% bigger than last year. I saw no new products that really blew me away, but Mac's Sassy Red best bitter, the 180 Degrees Florentines and the Pacific Harvest Karengo & Tamarillo chutney (a chutney with seaweed!) were all good. There were lots of show specials - another good thing. I contrived two visits to the Clearview Estate stand because I just wanted to taste their Reserve chardonnay - my favourite chardonnay in the world - twice. I totally coveted the Broady's outdoor wood-fired ovens.

The cookware on offer was pretty average (if any reader could offer me a large Circulon skillet at wholesale, do get in touch) and there were a few notable no-shows, including 42 Below. And the crowd was interesting - from texting teenage girls to pensioner couples, and not nearly as white and middle class as you might expect. I guess a regard for good food and drink transcends demographic boundaries.

And, finally, a clever and nicely-done new lefty website: KeepLeftNZ, presented by (it says here) the Beatles plus Yoko. Their anonymity FAQ is interesting.