Hard News by Russell Brown


Standing up and calling bullshit

Finlay Macdonald had a lash at "the national pastime of taking offence" in his Star Times column on Sunday. And at the "pious, bullying scolds" in the news media and the "purse-lipped professional offence-takers" and "bleating pantywaists" who stoke "our corrosively tedious propensity for being prissily 'outraged'" with their "complacent, infantile offence-taking", and are simply making "platitudinous announcements to justify their own existence". And who, by the way, "ought to grow up".

Crikey. Don't get off your bike now.

Among the cases Finlay notes is that of ACC minister Nick Smith, whose unfortunate crack about how if he had a terminal disease he'd off himself for the sake of his family's future income was headlines for about 24 hours. Well, yeah: senior politicians do have to be careful about what they say to journalists in a formal setting – ask Helen Clark – and Smith's crack was ill-advised. He apologised.

But much of the column focuses on the Auckland Grammar boys who took some stupid pictures of themselves worshipping a swastika during a school trip to the Auckland War Memorial Museum, then published the pictures on a Facebook page:

I'm just grateful Facebook and phone cameras weren't around when I was an unevolved collection of pimples and hormones in a Grammar uniform. If some of our exploits or conversations had been captured for posterity and digitally disseminated we'd still be trying to talk our way out of it. But by the same token, I don't think the society we lived in was as prone to perceiving grievous moral injury every time someone did something fatuous.

Well, actually, when Finlay and I were at school, policemen were bringing criminal charges against Germaine Greer for saying "bullshit" in public, and Carmen was hauled before the Parliamentary privileges committee for supposing that the odd MP might be homosexual. Of all the faux golden-weather memories of New Zealand's past, the idea of us as a garden of free speech is among the less convincing. Perhaps we were simply offended by different things.

There can be little doubt that the reaction to the Grammar boys' stunt was fuelled by the news media's treatment of it as a running story. First, the Lincoln students' idiotic party, then (oh, well, actually, months ago) this. But that's how the news works: one story is a curiosity: two is a trend.

Equally, it's likely that the response was amplified by the fact that these were Grammar boys. Their school has long touted its own prowess at training young men for leadership, and its old boys have been known to display a raging sense of entitlement. So the flap was greater than it might have been had the students come from a less prominent school.

Did it warrant the lead and a live cross on TV news? Of course it didn't. But what actually happened to the boys – they were required to come and apologise to people who were genuinely offended by their actions on a school trip – doesn't really seem excessive. It was a restorative action.

I'm not sure that beyond that, anyone was baying for blood. Indeed, the response appears to have been more sympathetic than that accorded to the farmers' sons at Lincoln.

Finlay moves on:

In Britain a column in the Daily Mail by Jan Moir was vilified for suggesting that gay Boyzone singer Stephen Gately's death may have had more to do with a sleazy celebrity lifestyle than natural causes. Instead of being dismissed as the muckraking of a reactionary media trout in a right-wing rag, her silly column became a rallying point for outraged anti-homophobes and every other self-appointed guardian of allowable thought.

Um, yeah, so shut up and keep it to yourselves, you self-appointed guardians of allowable thought -- or I'll report you to the irony police.

Certainly, if one were to get exercised about every mean-spirited rant in the Daily Mail, one wouldn't have much time for anything else. It would be like taking to the barricades every time Michael Laws said something stupid and offensive. But, clearly, Moir's column hit a nerve: it eventually triggered 22,000 complaints to Britain's Press Complaints Commission – more than the total number of complaints the PCC has fielded in the past five years.

It wasn't just that Moir saw fit to defame a popular performer the day before his family was to bury him; and it wasn't just the smug tone of her writing. It was that Moir conjured her own facts. As difficult as it might be for Daily Mail columnists to believe, it is as possible for a gay man to die of natural causes (in Gately's case, a pulmonary odema caused by an underlying heart condition) as anyone else. And yet Moir saw fit to overrule the coroner, speculate on no more foundation than her own prejudice and accuse Gately's family of lying about his "sleazy" death. It really was a repulsive piece of writing.

And any thought of sympathy for Moir's fate at the hands of pitchfork-wielding Twitter users can safely be cancelled in light of her dreadful "apology", and the Mail's continued attempts to suggest there is something more to Gately's death than the coroner has said.

Sometimes, you do have to stand up and call bullshit: and when tens of thousands of people stand up and call bullshit at the same time, it's going to make a bit of a noise. That should hardly mean they don't have a right to do so.

On the other hand, there's the latest flap in Britain: comedian Jimmy Carr told an audience this joke: "Say what you like about these servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we're going to have a fucking good Paralympic team in 2012."

Given that Carr had recently visited two military rehab centres – and not for the first time – it's a reasonable guess that the source of his joke was the soldiers themselves. To the extent that my own experience of disability in the family qualifies me to comment, it doesn't seem like a bad joke to me.

So I don't think Finlay's all wrong: the systematic solicitation of outrage from rent-a-quotes – check out this ill-informed blast from Bob McCoskrie after a 13 year-old got a letter from her medical practice about the Gardasil vaccine, and in particular the last line – is lazy journalism, and lamentably common.

But the freedom to give offence is linked to the freedom to express offence. We are the richer for the fact that Anke Richter wrote this eloquent post for Public Address in response to the Lincoln idiocy. The likelihood that sections of the news media will over-egg it the way they over-egg everything else shouldn't mean we can't stand up and call bullshit sometimes.


PS: This week's Media7 looks at children's media -- and children's TV in particular. I'll be joined by Under the Mountain director Jonathan King, Waikato University associate professor of Screen and Media Studies Geoff Lealand, TVNZ 6 and 7 programmer Juliet Jensen, and Luke Nola, the creator of Let's Get Inventin'.

If you'd like to join us us for tomorrow's recording, we'll need you at TVNZ from 5pm (and certainly before 5.30) and have you away by 7pm. Hit Reply and let me know if you'd like to come along.

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