Hard News by Russell Brown

Spinning of yarns

The Sunday Star Times quietly retreated yet further from its SIS story yesterday, with a page four story noting that "Peter" - the man who claimed to have bugged iwi computers while masquerading as a maintenance man - had been "challenged to explain anomalies uncovered by the paper's investigation."

The story, as it was originally published - a tale of widespread off-the-books surveillance of law-abiding Maori individuals and organisations, with the possible collusion of the government - is basically gone. Editor Cate Brett granted in an interview with Linda Clark this morning that the sources may have "given us half-truths" in the course of an elaborate web of claims about dirty tricks.

That said, there may well be a cracker of a yarn lurking in the details of what really did happen - who are these people anyway?

Brett begged some sympathy for reporters who were "not well-equipped" to deal with such sophisticated spinning of yarns. But Anthonny Hubbard and Nicky Hager may yet earn sympathy on a different count. Since the week after the story broke, there has been a rumour that both journalists, beginning to have doubts, requested that their bylines be withdrawn from the story. Management, with an eye on the Sunday competition, declined. I don't know if it's true, but it now seems worth mentioning.

Poor old Dick Hubbard has apologised for signing the last-minute anti-Civil Union Bill letter and admitted that he was influenced by the ropey statistics it contained. GABA takes up the story:

Following a vigorous discussion about the source, validity and accuracy of the statistics quoted in the letter, Mr Hubbard said that he was very concerned when he heard the statistics that were presented in the draft letter and therefore was prepared to sign the letter. He explained this by saying that, “I took them to be accurate and given that my concern for the young children of our city is deep, I found the statistics alarming”. GABA’s Johnny Givins pointed out to the Mayor that the statistics date from the 1980’s, are from the UK court records, refer to single parent families, make no reference to gay parents and contradict a vast set of international research on gay families.

In other words, it was the same sort of selective, out-of-context half-truth put forward throughout the debate by Maxim and its less salubrious fellow pressure groups. Alan Duff is, of course, a lost cause to any argument on the facts, but it would be nice if Ralph Norris and Mick Brown were to 'fess up and admit that they didn't do their homework before they signed the letter. The funny thing is that most of the men who signed the letter also signed on behalf of their wives. How wonderfully 1950s …

As I expected, I got a bit of email about Friday's comments on speedway at Western Springs, including from my local Member of Parliament:

I would have a little more sympathy for your high-minded argument about the speedway and what we now know about the damage that noise does if I could find anyone at all in the music business who was prepared to help me and ACC to campaign to cut noise levels at concerts, pubs and every other live, amplified, music gig. It's a bit like being against GE and smoking and driving a SUV. Low-pitched, episodic noise, apparently, does little long-term damage. Many young musicians and their fans are destroying the capacity to enjoy music when they are 40!

I sympathise with people who object to the Speedway but they did buy or rent knowing it had been there for 75 years. And it is a real interest and family thing for lots of people, many of them also in Western Springs/Grey Lynn.

Mark Graham took a different view on the council's possibly meaningless vote in support of the speedway:

Fuck them. They're happy to support it because it's not in their backyard. Almost everyone supporting it lives elsewhere. Let's park a racing car revving at 85 decibels outside each councillor's house at 6pm on every Saturday night through summer and see how long they take to call noise control.

Most emails, however, were less sympathetic to residents. Grant said:

This issue is first and foremost about gentrification of the inner Western Suburbs and the desire to enforce middle-class values on the working class. I'll bet there was no worry about the noise when Grey Lynn was a predominantly working class Polynesian suburb.

Yes, perhaps the working class Polynesian residents loved the speedway. Or perhaps they were just less able to access the system do something about it. Mike Mapperson was in no doubt about the issue:

City Council insinuated the 85db limit into the City Plan, either because no-one thought of the consequences for Speedway (negligence) or because they foresaw the effect on Speedway (conspiracy). Either way it is not up to Speedway organisers to put things right it is up to Auckland City.

It is true, as everyone says, that the speedway has been there much longer than any of the residents: if people didn't know what they were buying, then they ought to have known. I don't think that means they have no rights at all.

The current dispute has been going on for 12 years. Noise limits were agreed eight years ago. But it seems that serious attempts to comply with the agreement only began in the last few weeks and, with only seven cars per race - as opposed to 15-20 - the noise at the boundary just crept under the 85db limit.

Why did it take so long? Another email came from Chris Slane:

One member of a speedway pit-crew told me the noise limit was reasonable. Just adding some more muffler was not a problem. (They have a lower limit at the Bayfield track.)

So what is the promoter really doing here - rarking it up mightily for the publicity?

Well, there has certainly been plenty of that. The promoter, Dave Stewart, is of the opinion that residents will just have to stick it.

"But I do think from a nearby residents' point of view that whatever noise they are going to get it is going to be loud ... It's not going to make their lives any different if the speedway runs at 85 or 87."

Yes it will, actually: the decibel scale is logarithmic. The choice of 85db as the threshold at the Western Springs stadium fenceline, onto which houses back, is not accidental. It's a fairly common benchmark in workplace health and safety regulations. It's regarded as the point at which hearing loss becomes an issue, and is often set as the benchmark for eight hours' work in a noisy environment - but if the continuous sound pressure rises to 88db, the maximum permitted exposure under, say, Victorian state law, falls to only four hours. Some jurisdictions require earmuffs to be made available at 85db. You can't have a normal conversation at 85db. At the 85db limit, the speedway is not trivial noise, and at 3db more, it is quite serious noise.

I don't want the speedway to stop. It is a grand tradition, and thousands of Aucklanders have grown up loving it. But I'm not comfortable with the almost universal willingness to vilify residents who can't even open a window on summer Saturday nights lest the sound of angry giant bees drowns out their conversations or bedtime stories. After Close Up @ 7's astonishing decision to broadcast the names of petitioners, some residents, including those who are elderly, have received the inevitable death threats. They are not serious threats, but how would you feel?

There is a public good in the speedway continuing. There is also a public good in ratepayers not being subjected to noxious levels of noise. It is much better to move forward with that in mind and try and do something about it - even if it means both the council and the promoters spending money - than to vilify nearby residents as moaning ninnies and do nothing.

And finally: shopping on Saturday morning at St Lukes. First shop: 'Last Christmas' by Wham! is piping through the speakers. Next shop: 'Last Christmas' by Wham! is piping through the speakers. Into K-Mart … you guessed it. By the time I venture over the road to Dick Smith's, where 'Last Christmas' is playing again, I have the distinct feeling that I am being stalked by George Michael. The assistant at Dick Smith's says there is a CD of Christmas classics "that a lot of retailers use." I hereby offer to give favourable consideration to opening my wallet in any store that doesn't …