Hard News by Russell Brown


The Daily Embarrassment

It's a measure of the New Zealand Herald's petty and spiteful state that it relegates the appointment of Don McKinnon to the place in the Order of New Zealand made vacant by the passing of the Maori Queen to page four of today's paper -- and leads with a story headed New Year award for Labour's big donor.

Mt Roskill-raised expatriate Owen Glenn donated $200,000 to the Labour Party in 2004 and $300,000 the year following. He has made no subsequent donation to the party, but is said to support many New Zealand charities and, of course, made a crucial $7.5 million donation to the Auckland university school of business, where a building bears his name.

It took no investigative skill to report Glenn's donations. They have never been a secret -- he has discussed them freely ever since they were made. We know, because party president Mike Williams shared the knowledge two and a half years ago, that they were made after Glenn met Helen Clark at a tourism industry dinner.

In June 2005, the same month that Glenn's donations were reported by the Herald, Fran O'Sullivan wrote this column, in which she speculated on the identity of big expatriate political donors, and on what kind of return they might expect for their investment -- not in gongs, but in policy changes that would deliver them a direct financial benefit.

O'Sullivan wrote that the high-profile National Party billboard campaign, which had been running all year, was "rumoured to be carrying a London price-tag":

The story goes that a particular overseas resident Kiwi wanted to ensure his funds were tagged in a singular direction - to make an impact - the goal being to create a National brand to distinguish Don Brash from the more popular Helen Clark.

The "concerned" New Zealanders who are funding DigiPoll surveys over the nuclear policy are also understood to have behind-the-scenes backing from a US-connected individual who wants to see the Washington relationship restored.

Party presidents and corporate bagmen will mouth the usual cliches that major election donations come untagged or are made purely "for the good of the country" or to ensure a "healthy democratic debate".

But the way in which political funding is often disguised by a raft of trust structures - or anonymous donations - enables key influencers to make their contribution to democracy without fear of news media molestation.

She reeled off a list of names -- Gibbs, Myers, Fay, Richwhite and others -- but the only confirmed donor named was Owen Glenn. That remains the case. If there was any "molesting" to be done, it clearly wasn't going to be the Herald doing it.

Glenn's honour is, of course, a story, and it's competently reported by Bernard Orsman. Audrey Young's reporting on the Electoral Finance Bill was similarly professional. But the editors' decision to make it the lead from the honours list (you have to go four pages back to find any other reporting on the honours), with the obvious, if wholly unsupported, inference that Glenn got his gong as some delayed payback for his donations to Labour, sums up the Herald's year.

The EFA bug has taken its toll on other parts of the paper; notably the Weekend Herald's opinion page, which has become almost unreadable. John Roughan, a columnist I've long respected, got lost in his own tangled argument that private money, the more the better, was a positive boon to democracy. And O'Sullivan's column now reads like a wingnut blog, with all the bitter, conspiratorial muttering and graceless prose that implies.

Case in point: her predictions for 2008. She starts with a couple of punts made more in hope than judgement: "Helen Clark is rolled," and "New Zealand explodes in wave of civil disobedience," over the EFA. And then there's this:

3. Climate change science consensus breaks

More prominent scientists will dispute the extent of the man-made global warming scenario. Four hundred scientists, many of them current and former participants in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have already criticised claims by the panel and former US Vice-President Al Gore.

A minority report issued by the Senate environment and public works committee lists the scientists by name, country and academic/institutional affiliation and features their words, biographies and weblinks to their peer-reviewed studies and original source materials gathered in 2007.

In New Zealand, rational scientists will still be demonised by Government and some business organisations.

This is pure wingnut talking point: Google will find pages and pages of almost identical claims on American websites. But perhaps a newspaper with pretensions to quality should try harder than that.

Let me help: the "report" comes from the office of Republican Senator James Inhofe, who is, by the standards of a developed nation, crazy.

Inhofe has declared that "I don’t believe there is a single issue we deal with in government that hasn’t been dealt with in the Scriptures," which ought to be the place of first recourse for matters ranging from foreign policy to homosexuality. He has stated that the "spiritual door" for the 9/11 attacks was opened by God because the US government was insufficiently supportive of Israel. Inhofe is also freakishly paranoid. He has repeatedly stated his belief that global warming is a "hoax".

Nonetheless, you might have assumed that the 400 "prominent scientists" heralded in Inhofe's report had relevant expertise, or at least they were all actually scientists (or to put it another way, that O'Sullivan has actually read the list she is recommending to her readers).

Regrettably, neither is the case. The list includes TV weathermen and economists (Update: and three TV gardeners!) as well as people who are scientists but have no relevant expertise, and notorious credential-inflaters like Timothy Ball.

The report deceives in various other ways. In support of the idea that the tide is turning, the official release cites "Paleoclimatologist Dr. Tim Patterson, professor in the department of Earth Sciences at Carleton University in Ottawa, recently converted from a believer in man-made climate change to a skeptic." I suppose reasonable people could differ on the meaning of "recently", but Patterson has been publicly lining up with climate sceptic groups since at least 2002.

You might also want to be careful of claims that people on the list have been part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In most cases, that means they have been expert reviewers. Which still sounds pretty flash. Until you realise that anyone can be an expert reviewer. You just have to ask for a copy of a draft report.

Okay, so -- surely all these people have made some common declaration on climate change, or at least confirmed to Inhofe's office that their view is what he says it is? Well, no. It's a clippings list, compiled by his staff from news reports that could conceivably be taken as indicating global warming denial on the part of the subject. Inevitably, it includes people who actually regard anthropogenic climate change as a fact.

On the other hand, here's a useful, and rather long, list of organisations that explicitly endorse the following conclusions:

1) the climate is undergoing a pronounced warming trend beyond the range of natural variability;

2) the major cause of most of the observed warming is rising levels of the greenhouse gas CO2;

3) the rise in CO2 is the result of burning fossil fuels;

4) if CO2 continues to rise over the next century, the warming will continue; and

5) a climate change of the projected magnitude over this time frame represents potential danger to human welfare and the environment.

The list includes the scientific academies of 19 countries, including the US, Britain, Japan and New Zealand, a slew of US government agencies, the World Petroleum Council, and dozens of multinational corporations. You could also add our own Meteorological Service and National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

None of these organisations, are, apparently, "rational".

Of course we should question and revisit scientific conclusions. It's what scientists do all the time. But we should also be able to smell bullshit when it is served up, and O'Sullivan doesn't appear to have made even the most modest effort to do that. She has a long and admirable record in journalism, but columns like her last one are an embarrassment not only to herself, but to her paper.

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