Hard News by Russell Brown


Of the things that warmed my heart this past weekend, none was toastier than the sight of Daniel Vettori making his maiden test century in front of a home crowd in Hamilton.

He still displays the odd goony-bird flourish, but the shots he played on the way to 137 not out on Saturday had purpose and authority. Many of them were orthodox, a few were pleasingly unusual: twice, he managed to scramble around deliveries pitched outside his off stump and crack them through mid-on for four. It was good to watch.

We waited until he'd made his ton before we went out to a barbecue that proved to be top value. There were a few expats back for Christmas; in some ways more receptive to and interested in New Zealand's virtues than full-time residents. They were quite interested in the housing boom.

On Sunday morning, we all went along to see The Return of the King. I'll refrain from reviewing it - everyone else has - save to say that I liked it a lot. Apart from this one from the Taipei Times, which takes issue with the treatment of the story, most of the bad reviews seem to focus on what are really problems with Tolkein's source text.

I read the trilogy years ago, and have no wish to do so again, especially after reading the odd passage out loud to the kids and finding it not unlike jogging through porridge. I find the Harry Potter books hard going too: good yarns with onerous sentences, I guess. I was inclined to go with The Guardian reviewer's verdict:

With enormous energy and a passionately exacting eye for detail, Jackson has made the regressive-romantic legend live again. He has given the Tolkien myth a turbo-charged rush into the 21st century. It's tripe. But he's made it mind-blowing tripe.

Anyway, the Herald has a poll showing growing - but still limited - public support for Ahmed Zaoui. And Steven Price had an excellent comment on Mediawatch showing just how far that paper has moved since it started out describing Zaoui as "a terrorist on the run with links to sinister organisations". In handing out stern editorial lectures to the SIS, the Herald ought to have noted its own role in peddling unfounded sensation.

Still, I'm not inclined to bash the Herald. It still seems the most substantial of the big papers (even when it's pinching "exclusives" from The Independent), and the Weekend Herald's Review & World section has been consistently the best few pages of newsprint in the country.

There's clearly no doubt that war in Iraq was the year's big story. I frequently wonder how history will see this. The summary jettisoning of the original basis for war - the unconventional weapons that it appears do not exist - is startling enough now. How will it look in a couple of decades?

We do not, after all, always get a proper picture of these matters at the time they are unfolding. There's a useful reminder here of what was officially said and done while Saddam was committing the worst of his atrocities, and of who was unsuccessfully raising the alarm at the time: those pesky lefties and liberals.

It would be foolish to deny that Iraqis are well rid of their despot, and that his capture has changed things. But there has been remarkably little Western coverage to reflect the tone of what's coming out in weblogs. Did we really wage war and sacrifice lives so we could arrest children in their classrooms because they had been seen on protest marches? Raed noted the official high school kidnappings and said: "Too many things happening the last couple of days, it looks that the capture of Saddam started something."

Riverbend has more on the story, plus buying gas on the black market, the new coalition-approved militias, and the general weirdness where she lives:

These last few days have been truly frightening. The air in Baghdad feels charged in a way that scares me. Everyone can feel the tension and it has been a strain on the nerves. It's not so much what's been going on in the streets- riots, shootings, bombings and raids- but it's the possibility of what may lie ahead. We've been keeping the kids home from school, and my cousin's wife learned that many parents were doing the same- especially the parents who need to drive their kids to school.

We've been avoiding discussing the possibilities of this last week's developmentsā€¦ the rioting and violence. We don't often talk about the possibility of civil war because conferring about it somehow makes it more of a reality. When we do talk about it, it's usually done in hushed tones with an overhanging air of consternation. Is it possible? Will it happen?

New Zealander Gordon Sloan, blogging from Baghdad, has more hairy tales, including an encounter with a psycho:

This place is mad. There is every type of psycho, and urban myths are real. Yesterday we attracted another stalker. Chatting pro-Saddam shit he followed us to the hotel, convinced the staff we were friends then came to talk to us about how Americans should have their heads cut off and drowned in the river and that Saddam was good and never did a bad thing. It's quite hard to tell gun-packing psychos to piss off without hurting their feelings then getting killed.

Editor & Publisher's Greg Mitchell looks at the latest document linking Saddam to al Qaeda - given the credulous treatment by the Sunday Telegraph and hailed as conclusive proof by the usual cheerleaders. Conclusion? Bogus: impossible to square with known facts about Mohammad Atta's movements and handily provided to the Telegraph's reporter by a "senior member" of the Iraqi Governing Council. The reporter admitted to Newsweek that he had no way of verifying the document, but wrote the story anyway.

The number of Americans who believe - absent all evidence - that Saddam was "personally involved" in the September 11 attacks is rising again - up from 43% in the last Gallup poll to 53% this month. At what point do people become culpable for their own gullibility?

If truth is a currency, then there have been many counterfeit notes this year. The thing is, I don't dismiss the idea that more powerful nations might eventually be called on to relieve a sovereign nation of tyranny, or to cut off a genuine threat to mass security. But the way this war has been developed and prosecuted - all the shifting rationales, ideological blindness, lies and refusals to truly account for human cost - ought to disturb anyone.

Anyway, this is my last blog before Christmas, but they'll turn up periodically through to the end of January. There won't be so many posts to the mailing list.

It's been an extraordinary year for Public Address, and I'm grateful to everyone involved, including you, the readers. Please accept my annual blanket apology for not replying to an email you might have sent. Sometimes I just get communication fatigue.

But enough of that for now. The bad world is a pleasingly long distance away, and it's summer in New Zealand. The thwack of leather on willow, boogie boards at the beach, a cold beer out on the deck. I truly love it.