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Communications Line of 19 June 2008

Communications Line

By John Bishop
Issue Number 65 of 19 June 2008

Duty and reputation are absolutely vital parts of the social cement that keeps society together and makes civility possible. But what happens when public officials don’t do their duty or the reputation of important public bodies get eroded. What are ordinary citizens to do? This issue links Winston Peters, the rugby union, the police and Maryanne Thompson.

When people fail to do their duty?

Start with Winston Peters. His party overspends by $158,000. Ordered to repay the money to Parliamentary Services he donates the money to charity instead, in the apparent belief that this discharges the debt. (That cannot be right, can it?) But here’s the problem. If the debt is owned to the Crown - as the public widely believes and as common sense tells us - who will enforce it? There is not a lot of bodies putting their hands up. We can’t rely on the political parties – National can’t and Labour won’t. They both need him politically or think that they might need him. The Speaker isn’t doing anything, and as the Speaker is the head of the Parliamentary Services Commission, it isn’t taking any initiative either. It’s not a police matter. No one has complained, and in any event, it’s not theft (is it?) Which leaves the Auditor General and he doesn’t seem to be doing anything either.

Once again this shows the vulnerability of citizens to the willingness (or otherwise) of our public guardians to act in the public interest. Why should I as a citizen have to take action against Mr Peters to recover the money which is owned to the Crown? Isn’t that what we have public bodies for? To protect our rights and to be our guardians? But what happens when those people charged with protecting the citizenry don’t do their duty or don’t do it right.

A second example: the former head of the SSC Michael Wintringham over Mary Anne Thompson. He was quoted in today’s paper as saying he didn’t pass on to his successor concerns about the authenticity of her claim to have a doctorate from the LSE. If the matter had been fully investigated at the time she might not have got the job at the Department of Labour, and events there would have taken an altogether different course.

Third example: the police cordon at Navtej Singh’s liquor store. The police followed procedure, but arguably didn’t act as many in the public would have expected them to do. That is take a risk to save a life. Yes, there will be an internal inquiry, but it’s too late for Mr Singh, and an internal inquiry requires us to have faith in the guardians to investigate themselves. It used to be ok to do that: we believed and trusted the police. Now we are less certain, leading people like Michelle Boag and Dr Brian Edwards, hardly dangerous subversives, to question and doubt the police’s actions.

On The Panel on Jim Mora’s show yesterday she called for “some sort of clean out, or inquiry or some measure” because “ a lot of people have become concerned about the motivation and practices of some police. Enormous resources were focused on “the roads, checking Warrants of Fitness and not indicating properly, but serious violent crime goes unanswered.”

Brain Edwards added that the “cops tend to be in denial” and referred to a Close Up programme after the Manurewa liquor store shooting where the police had put up someone whom he said was “completely inarticulate and incomprehensible.”

He said it was a common technique by those in authority when under pressure to “put up someone who can’t answer the questions” so that later their answers could be disavowed.

The Police Association’s Greg O’Connor also appeared on the Close Up programme and Dr Edwards said of him that if “every time you appear your position is that the police can do no wrong, then you are going to lose credibility.”

Michelle Boag said “people will lose more confidence in the police and that was “extremely bad for society.” Edwards asked about the role of the Commissioner of Police, Howard Broad. He’s been “invisible though this whole thing.”

The common thread in all these incidents is a neglect or failure to act, which arguably has resulted in harm or turmoil that could have been avoided. I can’t explain the lapses, and perhaps they are all disconnected, but I do see a pattern of consequences: ordinary people have been left worse off or had their interests harmed directly or indirectly.

English language of politics

Bill English is talking a new language; not the dry rationality of economics or the attack dog language of partisanship (although those will still be used). He’s learned ‘audience relations speak’: talking to crowds as they would talk among themselves, talking as if he were one of them.

At a Wellington Chamber of Commerce lunch today he started with “one of the differences between political parties is their understanding of business.” He cited risk – “many people have their life savings in their businesses, but this government has become less and less familiar with the concept of risk.” He moved to reward: “I look forward to a country where profit is not a dirty word” (Later this became linked to private involvement in infrastructure) And then the kicker: “if we change the government you’ll hear more of the language of enterprise and not the language of bureau-babble.”

It’s not policy; its better than policy which requires rational agreement. This is emotional connection; ‘I am one of you, I understand you and am with you’. In the Q & A session on how to stop the drift to Australia he used an emotional connection. The question was redefined into “what will make a difference to a 24 year old with a degree in accounting, or an HT licence or a chef’s certificate. The answer was “leadership that shows them that having them here matters. A lot of our policies are about hauling government back. No country got more vibrant and exciting by making its government bigger. We have to make more space for their (the 24 year olds’) choices.”

This is not to say that National’s policies are right or wrong. It is to say that Bill English has learned to communicate in a more powerful and a more emotional way than before. And like John Key, who has got the self mocking story technique off pat, Bill began today by remarking that he was pleased to be speaking to the Chamber before John Key (who is on the events calendar for August) because by contrast, he would prove what an impressive dynamic and successive political leader John Key was. (Laughter)

Rugby Union wakes up

It was only a small item, and the DomPost story started with the words “from the strange but true file”. The piece published on 12 June recorded the Rugby Union’s “surprise” at the negative public reaction to Graham Henry’s reappointment as coach, and quoted the union’s chief executive Steve Tew as saying that rugby headquarters had never expected “the widespread disapproval." We didn’t take into account how people would react to Graham’s appointment, Mr Tew was reported as saying. Hello – where have these people been?

Mr Tew went on, “we now understand there is a middle ground of New Zealand that are at best apathetic and at worst upset about the appointment.” You got that right, Steve, and it isn’t just about the appointment. (Not all of us wanted Deans) At least some of the disaffection comes from our gradual realisation that the game isn’t about the spectators and supporters any more. Sometimes it isn’t even about the players, or the contests with “old enemies”. It’s now about lots of other things like TV ratings, sponsorships, player contracts. Money, money and more money.

And whoever owns the game, there is just a profound feeling that it isn’t the ordinary people any more. Unaccountable, unhearing and blind people who wouldn’t take responsibility for their own role in the World Cup failure reappointed their principal architect of that failure. That’s one reason why people don’t like Graham. It’s not personal (not for me anyway). But he is the symbol of a system that took the game away from its base, didn’t deliver the one thing the fan base wanted, and then ran and hid from the consequences. The best thing about Tew’s comments is that the Rugby Union may have finally got the message that they need to earn back our trust and respect.

That Lange book

Michael Bassett’s book “Working with David” has got some excitable people excited and largely for the wrong reasons. A typical response to Bassett’s account of life in the fourth Labour government was in Wellington’s Capital Times where the reviewer, one Aaron Watson, reckoned it was pro ACT propaganda and should count against either ACT’s or National election expenses under the Electoral Finance Act.

Bassett’s retelling the story of 1984-90 raises all the old controversies with some new twists about Lange’s drinking, his health and the influence of Margaret Pope – “ the speechwriter” is his consistent term of denigration. The book is a long read, and I haven’t finished it yet, but as with the conference on the Labour Government that Victoria University hosted in 2004, the protagonists are fighting the battles with the same fervour today as they did at the time.

Bassett portrays Lange as two people in a government of two halves – 1984- 87 where ”you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between me and Roger” according to Lange in 1986, and 1987-90, where Lange was a sick, sad, alcoholic who had lost his way and was hearing poison from “that woman” according to Bassett in 2008.

“Lange was at his best selling decisions, but when he sought to push Roger aside, he had nothing to replace him with,” he says of Lange in 1988 after Lange had overturned the Douglas flat tax plan that he and the rest of Cabinet had supported and announced in 1987, “only a pause and a cuppa tea.”

If we wish to praise or condemn David Lange, then we have to make an important decision. Are we referring to the Lange that trumpeted the changes of Rogernomics and helped make them possible? Or the Lange that halted those changes and brought about the fall of his government? Either can be argued, but not both.

Labour was soundly thrashed at the 1990 election, but were there any circumstances in which it might have won? “If Lange’s health had been better, if the Lange/Douglas relationship had been better, if the investment climate (post the 1989 crash) had been better, Labour would have had a fighting chance,” says Bassett.

T shirt headlines

A hot new trend in the USA is to wear T shirts with actual headlines from CNN stories.

The CNN store now sells T shirts with quotes and headlines taken from actual stories on the CNN video news pages. The top seller so far? “Obama Makes History” launched after his victory speech a couple of weeks ago.

“It was a moment that people wanted to celebrate,” said Andy Mitchell, the vice president of interactive marketing for CNN, (as reported by the New York Times) .

“The store pages for’s T-shirts have recorded more than one million page views, suggesting a lot of curiosity. But chuckling at a headline T-shirt and actually paying for one are two different things.”

A CNN spokeswoman said more than a thousand shirts had been sold so far. Apart from the Obama moment, “1 in 3 workers hung over at office.” was very popular. You can also get….

My personal favourite is “8 shaken pandas adjust to new home.”

The idea of T-shirts as a buzz marketing tool came from the Barbarian Group, an interactive advertising shop. All video headlines in the home page get a T-shirt icon and headlines judged inappropriate are removed.

There’s already an imitator., is offering fake headlines in the style of the National Enquirer and the Onion: “Grizzly victim: ‘He’s eating my brain!’ ” and “Book slamming Bush puzzles White House”

For major events Americans now say “that’s so big I’d wear a CNN T shirt to it”.

TVNZ slapped over ex wife’s beating claims

A recent decision from the Broadcasting Standards Authority is a warning to television news and current affairs programmes about their practice of publicising personal disputes.

In June last year, Close Up ran a story about a Gisborne soccer player, Scott Hales. His ex wife said he was a wife-beater and a racist who had failed to declare violence convictions when he entered New Zealand. She said he had assaulted her several times, a claim supported by her father, a former policeman, and backed by a Family Violence Report on an incident at their house.

She also said he made racist remarks about “Pakis” and wanted to move to another part of Gisborne where fewer Maoris lived. Her claim that he had lied on his immigration application was supported by then immigration boss Maryanne Thompson who said Mr Hales should have declared the convictions, and had not – a statement she later admitted was inaccurate.

At the time Mr Hales would not talk to the programme but denied the allegations through his lawyer. "We are now in the most extraordinary position where people who allege domestic violence or abuse of any sort can simply go on television and name the alleged offender, have him filmed, and have their comments, which are untested in law, broadcast to the nation," Mr Hales said in his complaint.

The authority found TVNZ had breached standards of accuracy and fairness and ruled that there was insufficient independent evidence sought to corroborate the allegations made by his ex wife.

And that leaves news and current affairs programmes with a problem. Personally I loath this sort of prying, prurient, personal revenge, nosey parker story, but there are wider issues for journalism. Does a story which points the finger at someone’s behaviour have to meet the same standard of evidence as a court would require? That will be a difficult hurdle in many instances, particularly when the media is investigating people more powerful than Mr Hales or institutions that can afford a battery of lawyers.

If a party about whom allegations are being made refuses to respond, does that mean the story cannot be broadcast? That used to be the case many years ago, but the approach was changed to giving parties under attack reasonable opportunities to comment. And what happens if a broadcaster gets corroboration from a reputable party – the head of the immigration service in this instance – but that party makes a mistake. Does the broadcaster take all the blame when the checks it makes with the appropriate public body turn out to be unreliable?

It’s all in the language

Use of the term “the war on terror” is out of favour in official Washington because it suggests to Muslims that the West is engaged in a “war on Islam.”

Charles Allen, a senior intelligence official at the Department of Homeland Security, said the term creates “animus” in Islamic countries “It has nothing to do with political correctness,” Allen said in remarks reported by the Financial Times, repeated by the conservative newswire NewsMax.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said “war on terror” is the “dumbest term you could use” and has urged Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, not to employ the phrase.

Hadley’s spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the White House understood that “the use of the word ‘Islamic’ before the word ‘terrorist’ can be heard by Muslims … as lacking nuance, which may incorrectly suggest that all Muslims are terrorists or that we are at war with Islam.”

Other reports disclose that new U.S. government directives instruct individuals in the counter-terrorism and diplomatic communities not to use “jihadist,” “mujahideen,” “Islamo-fascism,” “al-Qaida movement” and several other terms because they convey an undesired message to the Muslim world.

Brief Takes

The latest poll in US Presidential race (Reuters/Zogby today) has Democrat Barack Obama leading Republican John McCain by five percent. Obama is holding a big early edge with the crucial swing voting blocs of independents and women. Overall Obama leads McCain by 47 percent to 42 percent - down on his eight point lead in May.

Eighteen million votes: $212 million. Some 1,926 delegates: $109,823 each. Blowing the biggest head start in presidential history: priceless. From anointed to also-ran, Hillary Clinton spent more money to lose a primary election than any candidate in Democratic Party history.

On the mixture of religion and politics, such a toxic mix in the USA, remember Thomas Jefferson. “Say nothing of my religion,” said Jefferson. “It’s known to my God and myself alone.”

"A lot of people like to fool you and say that you're not smart if you never went to college, but common sense rules over everything. That's what I learned from selling crack (cocaine)" Snoop Dogg quoted in Levine Breaking News 8 June 2008

Disappear the most?

Comparing fat reduction techniques - injections versus diet the preview for a TVNZ programme asked …..which technique will disappear the most…TV ONE 12 June at 6.26pm. Who writes this stuff? And who doesn’t check it?


John Bishop is a commentator, professional speaker, communications consultant, writer and trainer who publishes a free electronic newsletter on media, marketing and management matters. This can be found at Feedback to

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