Hard News by Russell Brown

Her Indoors

Simon Dallow ought to be grateful to have been relieved of newsreading duties at TVNZ, because he is proving to be far more useful in the more challenging roles of making and fronting other television fare.

I confess, I struggle to catch Agenda, because the TV belongs to the children at 8.30am on a Saturday and I am too busy scoffing chocolate croissants at the breakfast table, but Dallow got an outing at a more viable time last night with One News Insights: Bring It On, which he voiced and, I presume, wrote.

The temptation would be to regard this doco as part of a pair with Hurricane Brash, but they are actually very different programmes. Hurricane Brash was a fly-on-the-wall effort to which the Clark government would never have agreed (and, indeed, to which National agreed only because it had bugger-all to lose), and which at times made Don Brash look doddery and his key advisors cynical and machiavellian.

Bring It On tracked Clark through the week of the hikoi, but at a more formal distance, and with liberal use of after-the-fact commentary from friend and foe. Where they converge is that each was a distinctly mixed blessing for its subject.

The programme had some notably successful elements, including the use of the taxi-driver cliché in a way that was actually quite informative, and the reprising of Clark's controversial comments in the context in which they appeared that week. It was at pains to display the Prime Minister as a ruthless hard-headed loner (in contrast to the way the earlier programme allowed Brash to look like a puppet at times) preoccupied with staying in power.

But it sidestepped the central contradiction in perceptions of Clark and her government. The two main external criticisms of this government are (a) that it is a bunch of ideologically-motivated nutters looking to socially engineer New Zealand in its own image, and (b) that it is a bunch of managers with no guiding principles. Are these two mutually exclusive? It would surely have been worth discussing.

David Lange was easily the best of the outside commentators, not because he was relatively sympathetic, but because he brought a genuinely useful and informed perspective to the role. On the other hand, if I had a dollar for every time Chris Trotter used the word "ruthless", I'd be out shopping right now: and he really does veer perilously close to misogyny when he talks about "the sisters". And was there not anyone else from National but Murray McCully? Frankly, if McCully told me my bum was on fire, I'd want to check the research first. And I think it's a bit rich for the man who architected National's dumping of its entire Treaty policy heritage of the 1990s to be crowing about poll-driven u-turns.

It was irksome that, having chosen to explore the opinion-polling question, the programme dutifully fell in with TVNZ's party line that its Colmar Brunton poll is the sole source of political truth (it even wheeled out Mark Sainsbury to say so). The fact is that while Colmar Brunton consistently has National miles ahead, NBR's Philips Fox poll has Labour in the lead. I'd have liked to have seen someone talk about why that might be so and what it means. (After all, NBR was man enough to ask the question itself in an interesting look at the poll variations, and another story in which the polling companies themselves were of no help at all in unravelling the issue.)

It might also have asked whether Clark isn't quite as controlled and hard-headed as she likes to seem. For all that she subsequently went out to the press claiming that the "haters and wreckers" comment and the quip about Shrek the sheep being better company than the marchers on the hikoi had all been part of a cunning plan (a view endorsed by several commentators), it just didn't look like that. They both functioned as counterproductive blurts, and not the first of such to be uttered by Clark as PM. It was telling that by the end of the week she was saying what she should have been saying at the beginning of it: that the hikoi was "peaceful democratic protest".

I think it's more likely that Cullen and the Maori MPs fronted the foreshore and seabed issue because (a) they had been working on it directly, and (b) they were likely to make a better job of it than Clark was - and not (as Richard Prebble proposed) that she cynically chose to send her junior officers over the top into a hail of fire.

Still, it was well-written and worth watching, and that has not always been the case in TVNZ's 8.30pm documentary slots. With TV3's recent 60 Minutes story on the historical horrors of Porirua Hospital and Sunday's follow-up and the nastiness and deceit at Cambridge High School (both of which I thought served as notice that foul things can be going on behind golden-weather narratives) perhaps current affairs TV is getting better lately.

Staying with the media, one or two readers have sought my opinion on the revamped Sunday Star Times. Well, pending a deeper consideration, there's certainly a lot of it - if not always enough to usefully fill it. I can cope with Mike Hosking's personality column (he seems to write cheery enough sentences) - but a wine column? That was desperate. And the new glossy British-type Sunday mag had a lot more style than content. I mean, a feature story on curly hair versus straight hair? They'd have been better to fill the pages with a free ad for a charity or something. And, of course, the SST, which is ever so keen to shelter our kids, chose to fill much of Page 3 with full-frontal, willy-waving nudity. What is up with that?

There might be one or two businesses a bit nervous about yesterday's bust of a family company that sells hydroponic kits for cannabis growing. Certainly, the key charges involve the cultivation, manufacture (including boiling their cabbage down into grass oil) and supply of pot, but they have also been charged with selling the equipment. There has been a delicate truce over this in recent years - and the Switched-On Gardener is respectable enough to be Warrior Brent Webb's personal match-day sponsor - so it'll be interesting to see whether better-behaved equipment vendors get leaned on too. The unintended consequences of cracking down on the supply of wardrobe grow-kits for pot-smokers is, of course, that it hands a chunk of the market back to real organised crime. There's always a consequence …)

The Reagan re-revisionism is emerging. Slate has Reagan's Osama Connection, and Democracy Now offers Ghost Wars: How Reagan Armed the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan.

Further confirmation that the Iraq torture scandal is about to lurch into something even worse in this Daily Telegraph story, which says that "new evidence that the physical abuse of detainees in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay was authorised at the top of the Bush administration" has been passed to a US TV network and will shortly be news. The Washington Post has published some of the memos it has in hand - redacting part of one for use in a pending investigative story.

Christiaan Briggs pointed me to a blog post from Baghdad by Dahr Jamail, headed It Has Begun ("And the news of more assassinations continues to roll in"), and a story by Jamail on the dubious loyalties of the local security forces.

And, just to finish on a cheerier note, the fans at Planet Rugby get stuck into the sorry Stephen Jones.