Hard News by Russell Brown


I never met T P McLean, but I long admired him for his ability to bring style and grace to sports journalism, for his vision of why sport ("the study of the human being under stress") was a worthy topic for literary exercise, and for the fact that the old man just kept on writing for most of his 90 years.

Sir Terence passed away on Saturday night, just after the All Blacks had beaten back a lively challenge in their first match against the new Pacific Islanders side, but before Daniel Vettori played the one-day game of his career in helping New Zealand thrash the West Indies in the final of the NatWest series.

But that wouldn't have bothered him too much: as D J Cameron points out this morning, T P never much cared for cricket. Anyway, cheers to the memory of a great New Zealand journalist.

US News & World Report has got its hands on the hitherto classified annexes to the Taguba report on Abu Ghraib. It reads like Lord of the Flies. Newsweek reaffirms the view that most of the poor bloody Iraqis in the midst of it all were common criminals rather than terrorist suspects.

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong, who has begun to look like his paper's National Party correspondent - his last six columns have been about National and its various initiatives - makes this observation this morning about the policy debate within the party.

The disagreement is but one example of a wider problem confronting National as it moves beyond easy sloganeering and starts developing firm, detailed policy that not only works, but remains politically saleable and fiscally affordable.

So far, National has exploited highly populist issues in a broad-brush fashion which would do Winston Peters proud.

But listen to Dr Brash try to explain where National would build the extra prisons needed to house all the extra inmates denied parole, and you hear the disturbing sound of policy being made on the hoof.

Or to put it another way, the party still has to move on from policy announcements as a form of marketing - albeit a successful one - to policies that actually have practical merit.

This process may already be underway in terms of Maori and Treaty policy. There was not so much of Orewa aired at the party's conference over the weekend. Instead, the Business Roundtable's Rob McLeod was invited to deliver a speech that appeared to call for affirmative action employment policies for Maori (they'll be race-based then?), capacity-building and, er, closing the gaps. For all the palaver over the poorly-designed Community Employment Grants scheme, it would be hard for any serious government to move beyond the philosophy behind it - and to avoid the occasional funding whoopsie itself.

The interesting thing is how far recourse to populism seems to be drawing National into promising to monitor the lives of many New Zealanders. Its law and order policy relegates the existing parole system in favour of an uncosted, loosely-defined plan to closely monitor released prisoners, that we are asked to take on faith.

This weekend, various ideas were floated at the party's conference: including using court orders and the threat of benefit withdrawal to force parents to take classes to improve their parenting skills, and to deal with their own problems with anger, violence and substance abuse. The plan might also involve "parenting contracts" reminiscent of the Code of Family and Social Responsibility, which never made law under Jenny Shipley's government. It shapes up like not so much the nanny state as the wait-till-your-father-gets-home state.

Katherine Rich also made a speech which advanced the possibility of compulsory work for the dole, citing the (decidedly mixed) results of a similar policy in Australia, but veering away from the key issues of cost, the opposition of Treasury, distortion of the labour market and the extremely underwhelming performance of the work-for-the-dole project under the last National government.

Then Don Brash this morning came up with a very ropey statistic: that there are now eight times more people drawing benefits than there were 30 years ago. There are, of course a million more New Zealanders now than there were then, and, of course, you have to ignore the fact that a universal family benefit (not counted) has since been replaced by a system of targeted benefits (counted); that thousands of people who had been in institutions now live in the community on benefits, and that there was so much featherbedding and makework in the system that unemployment barely existed in 1974. Between 1982 and 1996 - the most relevant statistic I can find - the percentage of gross income composed of benefits rose from 4% to 5%.

On a related tip, the Columbia Journalism Review has a very interesting piece looking at when political journalists stop being passive conduits for political party spin and start saying that false statements are actually false. I wonder if blog culture - where all sides tend to be more willing to call a lie a lie, and prove it thus - has started to have a telling impact on the mainstream.

And I've got my own thread on Indymedia Aotearoa at the moment, in which Aaron sees my qualms about Michael Moore as evidence of my co-option into the "acceptable left". I don't mind the commentary, which is perfectly polite, but the idea that my "rehabilitation into the mainstream has become apparent with a number of comments made by him in regard to Michael Moore," is kind of silly. Aaron dismisses Moore's editing liberties in Bowling for Columbine:

Brown also refers us to some gun nut in the US whose deconstruction of ‘Bowling for Columbine’ merely shows it’s author up as someone who has no idea how documentaries get made. To explain; The gun nut has ‘discovered’ that Moore has deliberately spliced different parts of one of Charlton Heston’s Gun speeches together ‘to make him look worse’. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of how documentaries get made will know that you don’t break the narrative flow to stop and explain every edit in case it upsets someone. The only alternative to this ‘deliberate splicing’ is to replay the entire speech (which Moore has happily posted on his web site) and somehow I don’t think he would have won an Oscar if he had 15 minutes of Charlton Heston raving about gun rights in the middle of his documentary.

Actually, Moore spliced together two Heston speeches to deliberately create a misleading impression. Among other things, he also used a cut of the infamous Willie Horton ad bearing a caption that never appeared on the original, altering it only for the DVD release of the film. Intriguingly, Spinsanity, which has pursued Moore for a while over this sort of thing, has a detailed post on a very similar use of film-editing innuendo by the Bush campaign machine. It just can't be right for one side and wrong for the other. I'm fascinated by Moore - who gives a good account of himself in an interview in the latest Entertainment Weekly - but I think it's only rational to have reservations about the way he works.

Anyway, I'd really rather not carry the burden of being some proxy for sundry left-wing beliefs to which I'm supposed to subscribe (but in some key respects, don't). Aaron seems to regard anyone with whom he disagrees as necessarily having been co-opted by the system. I'll wish him the best with the struggle - and forgive him for being just a tiny bit patronising.