Hard News by Russell Brown

Unglamorous

I got around to the service station about 7am on Sunday, to pick up some copies of the Herald on Sunday, to discuss a couple of hours later on Mediawatch. And my response on seeing it was is that it?

The "souvenir first edition" of APN's new Sunday paper looked surprisingly drab; it had the whiff of suburban newspaper about it. Indeed, Gordon Dryden reported to me later that the consensus at a luncheon he attended in Howick that day was ""Howick and Pakuranga Times in drag". Ouch.

Reg Birchfield, one of our Mediawatch guests, suspected some printing problems. There were roller-marks on several sections, and the whole thing generally looked under-inked - and not much like the bright, bold dummy pages they've been using in the promotions.

The story choice was underwhelming too. They chose to go with the Act stalker scandal for the lead, because one of their reporters had actually seen the "tearful" Act MP just after she had been "pursued" by Roger Kerr through the grounds of Parliament in June. It was an understandable decision, but the story didn't add enough to the midweek reporting.

The best part of it was the photo from the Act party conference on page 10, in which Kerr beams adoringly at Coddington as she heads up to make a speech (looking like she would much rather be somewhere else) and Rodney Hide grimly eyeballs the camera. It was just about good enough to go on the front page - especially if you were to do something a bit cheeky and superimpose a ring around the beamer's head for readers who don't know what the executive director of the Business Roundtable looks like. (Speaking which, check out Fran O'Sullivan's take-no-prisoners take on the issue: check out that flying Miss Piggy-style drop-kick to a sensitive part of MediaCow! Hiii-ya!!)

They could have run a picture of Peter Jackson's manor much larger on page three (although it might have looked crappy even then, such are the apparent production issues) and replaced Suzanne Chetwin's cheery hello to readers with the Minister for Auckland issues' handbagging of John Banks; perhaps alongside the bizarre story of Banks' claim to be 45 years old. Two stories on the front page wasn't enough.

I think management also has to do Chetwin a favour and give her a few more right-hand pages at the front of the book. There's plenty of time yet to be bollocksing up the flow of the paper with ads; right now you're trying to make a winning impression, aren't you? The ban by New Zealand Herald journalists on working for the new paper would also seem to be hurting, although that predicament is of APN management's own making.

I hope the Herald on Sunday can lift its game: the tabloid format is a winner and parts of it (the View section, for instance) seem quite strong. There are (as ever these days) new columnists on offer. Coddington's column is the sort of hectoring dirge I feared it would be, but Damian Christie was nice and dry and I have a feeling Matt McCarten will evolve into a political commentator of some note. But the best debutante was actually dear-old Wendyl Nissen, whose description of a typical ladies' long lunch ("One of the great tragedies of evolution is that a pissed woman can still send text messages") was funny and convincing. If she can manage to avoid writing the same column every week, she might become a bit of a phenomenon.

Elsewhere on Sunday, Judith Baragwanath continues to embarrass proper journalists by writing better than most of us. I'd never heard of Ginger Gibbs, but I felt like I knew him all too well by the time I'd read Judith's profile in the Star Times' Sunday magazine.

But the best weekend paper was, oddly enough, the Weekend Herald. Its polling on attitudes to civil unions and gay marriage has advanced the issue much in the way that its poll-driven 'What's eating Pakeha?' feature did in the wake of the Orewa speech. At the height of a moral panic about the Civil Union Bill, a clear majority of those polled supported the aim of the legislation, with only 39% opposed. The numbers were roughly reversed on the issue of fully-fledged gay marriage, suggesting the government has read the public mood quite well.

But it wasn't so much the numbers that were cheering as what ordinary folks had to say about love and choice. That was nice. Good personal piece on being committed, in love and not actually married, by Chris Barton.

A story by Ruth Berry suggests the accompanying Relationships (Statutory References) Bill - about which, in its present form, even some strong CUB supporters have a few qualms - could be in for some reworking before it's passed. I'd say it's a certainty. And I wouldn't actually be surprised if the Civil Union Bill was delivered first and the Relationships Bill was held back until it was right. The enabling bill doesn't need to be passed until before the first civil unions are celebrated, and that's not till mid-next year.

Good piece on Faith in the White House in the New York Times. The (ahem) documentary is premised on the idea that Bush is God's personal helmsman. It's brought to the world by these loonies (other great titles: The Evidence for Heaven and Bible Code II: The Future and Beyond, plus exclusive Bible Code decoding software for Windows), with the assistance of people not entirely unconnected with the Bush campaign.

At the same time, there's Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (bitchin' soundtrack!).

More fire from Riverbend in Baghdad Burning:

A week ago, four men were caught by Iraqi security in the area of A'adhamiya in Baghdad. No one covered this on television or on the internet, as far as I know- we heard it from a friend involved in the whole thing. The four men were caught trying to set up some explosives in a residential area by some of the residents themselves. One of the four men got away, one of them was killed on the spot and two were detained and interrogated. They turned out to be a part of Badir's Brigade (Faylaq Badir), the militia belonging to the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Should the culprits never have been caught, and should the explosives have gone off, would Zarqawi have been blamed? Of course.

I'm very relieved the Italian hostages have been set free... and I hope the other innocent people are also freed. Thousands of Iraqis are being abducted and some are killed, while others are returned... but it is distressing to see so many foreigners being abducted. It's like having a guest attacked in your own home by the neighbour's pit bull- you feel a sense of responsibility even though you know there was no way you could have prevented it.

I wasn't very sympathetic though, when that Islamic group came down from London to negotiate releasing Kenneth Bigley. I do hope he is returned alive, but where are all these Islamic groups while Falluja, Samarra, Sadir City and other places are being bombed? Why are they so concerned with a single British citizen when hundreds of Iraqis are dying by the month? Why is it 'terrorism' when foreigners set off bombs in London or Washington or New York and it's a 'liberation' or 'operation' when foreigners bomb whole cities in Iraq? Are we that much less important?

In the company of other key members of the liberal media elite I watched the US presidential debate on Thursday. Kerry won modestly in the game-show way these things are totted up; but much more so in being able to get himself 90 relatively unmediated minutes in front of American voters.

You realise how much perceptions of the two men are smothered in clich├ęs, spin and talking points. Kerry had reached the point where it was entirely unclear why this vacillating wimp had achieved the Democratic nomination. But in the debate, with just the two men on stage, he looked much more presidential than the President did.

Speaking of which, a new blog called How Bush Did has an uncharitable and highly watchable digest of the worst five minutes of Bush's debate. (Better-connected mirror here.)

Fox News took it badly. So badly that its political correspondent (Republican sycophant Carl Cameron) just made stuff up. An archive of the withdrawn Cameron "story" is here. Also, if the Republican campaign now says that Bush never used the words "mission accomplished", then that's apparently good enough for Cameron. It does puzzle me that these people can actually call themselves journalists.

And finally, Nippert reaches out to Cohen. I cried.

PS: Our new advertiser, Little Brother, has kindly made available a nice (see above right) t-shirt for giveaway. I'll send it to the person who writes me the best email feedback this week.