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John Bishop's Communications Line - 23 Feb 2006

John Bishop's Communications Line - 23 Feb 2006

John Bishop's Communications Line

Issue number 26 of 23 February 2006

Cartoons, a virgin and the holocaust

People can take offence easily, but does that mean we can offend them? And how far does freedom of speech in protecting the right of people to be offensive just because they can be. So far the Muslims are incensed about the Danish cartoons, and the Catholics are cross about the bleeding Mary on C4 last night, but there is sympathy for David Irving, the so called holocaust denier. Even our PM doesn’t think that jail is justified for his “crimes”.

One thing that has been overlooked in all the fuss about the Danish cartoons about Mohammed is the quality of the cartoons themselves. Frankly, I didn’t think they were very funny, and as drawings they exhibited the limited talent of the artists. Editors have claimed the right to publish on freedom of speech grounds, which can be a disguise for exercising the right to offend people. Others have argued for non publication on the grounds that we ought to be sensitive to the feelings of others. That can be a limp excuse to protect our trade.

I take the view that while the right to publish is worth protecting, what is published ought to be worth publishing. It is not very clear what good has been done by being able to see a collection of Danish scribblings, but not much harm has resulted either. The Virgin Mary menstruating (or being displayed in a condom) may also offend, and it is not obvious to me how either publishing or suppressing these things does any one any good. The lesson is that actions in pursuit of a principle have consequences.

Truth and the teaming masses

Spotted on a T Shirt. Truth is not decided by a majority vote – Cardinal Rattzinger. He is right, but truth is not determined by a minority either. To submit meekly to the howls of the masses is ultimately to give into mob rule, but the tyranny of self proclaimed rulers is equally to be feared. Democracy is always a competition between the pursuit of the votes needed to get power and the uplifting of the human spirit to seek more than immediate gratification. The great leaders we remember were not those who debased themselves endlessly in the pursuit of power, but those who carried people with them towards loftier goals.

TV debases the viewers

Nowhere is the debasement of ideals more obvious than in the operation of our television service over the last twenty years or so. While I don’t share the views of Ian Johnstone’s aging venerables who are seeking a return to Close to Home and regional news shows, I do share their concerns that the viewers are being treated badly. It is not the commercial model that is at fault; and neither is the charter the solution. The fault lies in the way in which successive Ministers, boards and senior management of TVNZ have practised commercialism. Making a profit is not a sin, but the Americanisation of television in New Zealand has made the pursuit of ratings the only measure of success. That’s wrong. Here’s why.

In the mid 1980’s what the Americans call “high concept” became fashionable in news and current affairs. This was the transfer of the two key elements of Hollywood filmmaking into television. These concepts were simplicity and promotability. “High concept” was the reduction of an idea to its simplest form but it also had to be readily promotable, that is, easily understood and attractive to the audience. Perhaps the most famous example is the film producer who pitched an idea to a studio by saying only “Schwarzenegger and de Vito”. He got the money and made the movie Twins.(I suspect that Mr and Mrs Smith with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie was pitched on the same basis).

If you decide to treat viewers as blobs of protoplasm who need a shock wave of emotional electricity run through their febrile brains each night, the appropriate vehicle is a programme like Holmes which polarised, demonised, simplified, objectified, and pre-selected for us the good and the bad, the villain and the victim, the hero and the one to blame. Choice, rational discussion, and most importantly shades of grey are removed. Minister faces opposition counterpart in a political slugfest. It’s entertainment not information. It’s certainly not informative and the viewer is the passive observer, because the programme makers remove our capacity to make a decision. They encourage us simply to feel. The appeal of a politician or a brand or a product, service, or event then becomes based on our emotional response to it, not on what we think. Often we cannot think, because we haven’t been given a lot of facts or a diverse range of opinions; rather we have been encouraged to feel, based on our brief sighting of whatever it was that took place. That’s why the sight of Don Brash rather awkwardly getting into a racing car was one of the enduring images of the campaign. It encouraged us to believe that if the highly cerebral Dr Brash could not manage this simple task, how could he run the country. We never saw Helen in any situation likely to allow us to harbour such thoughts.

Consequently my solution to why is there so much rubbish on television, and why is there so little that intelligent people want to watch, is not to change the charter or re-introduce public service television. It is to get rid of the programme buyers, commissioners and programme makers who want to abuse my emotions for their commercial gain. Fire the managers who don’t have a demonstrable ethos of treating the viewers like intelligent human beings. Lord Reith, who used to run the BBC many years ago combined the need for ratings success with the desire for quality this way: find out what the public wants and give them something better. The people who gave us Holmes and made shows like 60 Minutes focus on the weepie of the week perverted that credo into find out what the public wants and give them something worse to cry about. Those are the people who should be eradicated from our television service ‘root and branch” as Oliver Cromwell once said of bishops in the Church of England.

Kerry beware; street politics in Wellington

Kerry beware. Blanket man for mayor was the sign hanging out at the rugby sevens in Wellington, but it didn’t come from a bunch of humourists playing on the name of one of Wellington’s best known street icons.. It was a clear political message from a disaffected businessman, concerned that the cozy cabal that has run the city for the past 15 years or so will try to continue the dynasty at the next local government elections.

Kerry is in her second term and according to the unpublicised agreement between her political group she is to hand on the political baton to Deputy Mayor Alick Shaw who had led the small (and now smaller) Labour faction into coalition with the moderate business faction Kerry now represents. Problem is that Kerry nearly lost the last election; a credible alternative would have seen her tossed out. Problem number two is that Alick came even closer to losing his seat, and is also not in the best of health. He may not be fit enough to claim the prize he has so patiently waited for. Problem number three is the risk that he runs and is defeated.

So how about this for a scenario? Look around for a credible, affable, true red Labour person with street cred and time on her hands. Why now, there’s Annette King, looking to ease herself out of Parliament but not necessarily of public life, and then there’s Marian Hobbs, now out of Cabinet, contemplating life on the back benches and always the prospect that after the next election it will be the opposition backbenches. Why bother? Why not hop into a vacant mayoral chair instead? Who’s going to beat either of those contenders? Shaw, Ian McKinnon, Jack Ruben? I don’t think so. (And if Marian were to leave Parliament for mayoral or other reasons, the very, very centrist Phillip Lewin, ex Foreign Affairs, lately of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce and now with Positively Wellington Business might just be thrust forward for the Labour nomination for Wellington Central).

No price? I’ll buy that!

Would you buy something without knowing the price of it? And more particularly is it legal for you to be sold something without the price being disclosed until after you’ve agreed to buy it? Apparently it is, for financial services at least.

Here’s the story. I got a letter from the ANZ Bank offering me an overdraft of $1000, and as an inducement the letter said the normal $20 application fee would be waived. I was to reply in the freepost envelope, and if I passed a credit check the overdraft was mine. The letter said “Once your overdraft has been approved, we’ll send you a letter of confirmation that includes the terms and conditions, fees and interest rate.” Why not tell me now, I said? Can they do this, I asked?

Being of a curious mind, I rang the Commerce Commission who advises that the offer is covered by the Credit Contracts Consumer Finance Act 2003. “The Act requires the creditor to provide "initial disclosure" to the debtor and that initial disclosure must contain key information including the annual interest rate and any credit fees payable under the contract. However, initial disclosure can be made up to 5 working days from the date that the contract is entered into - so there is no requirement under the CCCFA that that information be provided in the initial offer or even before the contract is entered into,” an advisor in the Commission’s Fair Trading Branch told me.

And there’s more. “The CCCFA does provide a cooling down period where a debtor has a short period of time to cancel a consumer credit contract. The period runs from when disclosure has been made, so if a debtor receives initial disclosure and decides they are not happy with the interest rate or fees as disclosed they can cancel the contract. However, the creditor may be able to charge fees for canceling a contract in this way.” Great! You could end up paying for something you didn’t solicit, didn’t know the cost of, and when you found out, you decided you didn’t want. Apparently that’s the law.

Upper Hutt Morphs

If you have ever thought of Upper Hutt as about the least exciting name for a city imaginable (and Lower Hutt is hardly any better), then how would you go for Trentham City. Colin Gibbs thinks it’s a good idea and has named his new shopping plaza in Upper City Trentham City Shopping Plaza. Never mind that Trentham City doesn’t exist. He wants it to. For the saga see

Humour in Business Awards

Entries are being invited for the inaugural awards for New Zealand, which aim to recognize the contribution humour makes to the lives of business owners, staff and customers. From the three categories of

  • the Nitwit Award for a sole operator,

  • the Silly Billies Award for up to 20 staff and

  • the Jest a Moment Award for over 20 staff

  • an overall winner will be selected. These are serious awards and are sponsored by Auckland’s Business to Business newspaper. You can get application forms from and more information and support from Pat Armistead, the joyologist at

    Measuring the value of PR to an organisation

    Always a topical issue. I am leading a workshop on this matter at the Conferenz Strategic Communications and PR Forum in Auckland in March. To view, see


    Communications Line deals with media, marketing, political and management issues. It's free to subscribers. Please feel free pass it on to friends and colleagues who may be interested.

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  • John Bishop is a speaker, writer, trainer and facilitator. He also practises public relations, writes speeches and works as an MC and as a social and political commentator.

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