Hard News by Russell Brown

Going nuclear?

I wouldn't put too much stock in Rodney Hide's apparent speedy withdrawal of his claims of historical classroom bullying against associate education minister David Benson Pope. I'd say the whole idea was to extract denials on multiple allegations in the House from the minister - so that if one of the alleged victims does come forward to claim anything in public, the Opposition can merrily kick around the idea that Benson Pope has misled Parliament.

It's worth noting that the principal of Bayfield High, where Benson Pope formerly taught, was keen to come on Morning Report today and affirm that there was no record of any such allegation, nor any memory amongst teachers who were there at the same time as Benson Pope. He told the Herald the allegations were "preposterous".

But at least Hide himself was prepared to come on the radio and talk today - unlike his co-accuser, National's Judith Collins.

[BTW, Labour list candidate Charles Chauvel also claims Collins, who worked at his law firm, is a key source for a number of allegedly inaccurate NBR stories about him, mostly relating to travel expenses in his role at the NZ Lotteries Commission. Although Chavel has circulated a lengthy statement rebutting the NBR stories, the paper insists that its stories are based on OIA requests and are sound. NBR also denies that Collins was a source, although Chauvel is emphatic that she was and notes her role in earlier stories on the same topic.]

There's a strategy here to attack the government on character (much as the Tories did in the recent election in Britain) and in it, ambiguity is the Opposition's friend. The Clark-Doone story has enough off a whiff of it for the Opposition to keep gnawing even after the public has lost interest. Likewise, no evidence for the lurid stories about what supposedly really happened with Dover Samuels has actually emerged (or is likely to, I suspect), but yet they linger.

Labour-blogger Jordan Carter has an angry post in which he notes that "those who are in glass houses really shouldn't throw stones." In the comments following, Tim Barclay declares that "it is all on and I look forward to it with relish. Get your missiles ready, the right is going nuclear."

Good grief. Is this the sort of election campaign we're going to have?

At last, some non-anecdotal data on the police 111 system - and it's bad. Bad enough for the government to put up $45 million in fix-it spending at the same time it released the report. But reading the report, it seems to identify so many design flaws in the 10 year-old system that you have to wonder: did it ever work?

Although there is some understaffing in the call centres, money does not appear to be the problem so much as systems and governance: the technology is apparently world-class. Its deployment is not. Was it Doone's delayed revenge? Still, no excuse: Labour has had five years to pick it up and only did so when the chorus got too loud.

In the Herald, Audrey Young explains why the government won't be seeking the head of the current commissioner.

Several readers emailed to agree about the One News coverage of the foot and mouth scare on Tuesday evening. Representatively, Jeremy Seed said "they really give me the shits trying to beat up something and in the process beating up staff who are doing their jobs and from what we can gather, doing them well."

Tim Selwyn begged to differ, claiming my "ridiculous" post said "TV One should never ever question MAF or other government authorities", which it didn't. It was the misinformation I objected to. Selwyn was more measured in a follow-up, although he intones that "people say he [ie: me] crossed over to the dark side many years ago." Yes, all Jedi are my enemies and must die. (I should say that I actually think Owen Poland is one of the better TV news correspondents, but that rushed report was a terrible clanger.)

Selwyn also enquires "Is it too much to ask that MAF inform the farmers concerned first rather than the media?"

Actually, yes it damn well is. In the circumstances, I can't think of a more hideously ill-advised strategy than holding the story back from the media and our trading partners while you call around advising individual farmers. It only takes one island farmer calling his cousin, or a Queen Street cocky whispering something to his mates and you have a total meltdown. Jeez Tim, don't ever go into communications …

Anyway, the situation over MAF personally contacting farmers on Waiheke as a matter of extreme urgency is now clearer. Farmers were contacted in the hours the followed - but, as the Herald editorial yesterday noted, not all of them:

Speed and transparency have been the keys to this success. No time was wasted getting diplomats on the job, and briefings in Wellington have delivered regular updates. This is exactly the right approach. Potentially ruinous scenarios, such as that on Waiheke, gather potency if attempts are made to keep them under wraps. Rumour and speculation replace fact, and soon flash around the world.

Although this scare was quickly identified as a probable hoax, that could never temper the on-the-ground response on Waiheke. The risk must be treated as real until it can be discounted. It was necessary, for example, to impose an immediate ban on the movement of livestock and associated risk material from the island.

If there has been a blemish in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry strategy, it concerns the notification of Waiheke farmers. Advice to this group, which should have been an integral part of the reaction, seems not to have happened in many cases. Yesterday morning the ministry said only 18 of Waiheke's 39 farmers had been contacted.

This, it seems, was not for want of trying. But some Queen St cockies - small-scale farmers who live off the island - proved hard to locate. This is unsatisfactory, given the potential damage of foot and mouth, the rapidity with which it can spread and the alarm that spreads throughout a farming community. Perhaps the ministry requires a database that enables it to contact all farmers, big or small, in such circumstances.

The editorial also sees off Don Brash's unfortunate suggestion that the threat should have been kept secret. The distraction was clearly not entirely unwelcome for Helen Clark, but I find the idea of the government springing a Wag the Dog strategy when the stakes are so high very hard to credit.

My mate Chris has a good new blog called Synthetic Thoughts , about geeky media content and management stuff. And sometimes Wimbledon FC, for his sins. He's currently talking about the fascinating backstage.bbc.co.uk project, in which the broadcaster is deliberately letting outside developers mess with its online stuff. There are prototypes here.

SciAm Perspectives is furious about some stories on Slate this week pleading the case for "Intelligent Design". I have to agree: using Big Science Words does not make it science.

New report: life is shit in Iraq. And then lots of people die.

Some music stuff: warmest congratulations to Fat Freddy's Drop for debuting in the local album charts at No1, Shihad for making No.2 and Scribe for going platinum in Australia.

A small gripe: why is 'Emptied Out', the final and best song on Goldenhorse's new album Out of the Moon so short? 2.17? WTF? It's such a lighters-in-the-air anthem that I actually have to play it three times in succession to get my kicks. Seriously.

And the very best of luck to The Checks, who are at the airport as I write, on their way to Britain to play the NME Tour and seek their fortunes. I've arranged for the band's singer, Ed Knowles to blog the three-week tour exclusively for Public Address, so you can look forward to that.

And, finally for your Friday: The Daily Show on cable news TV on blogs. Heh.