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John Bishop's Communications Line - July 2008

Communications Line Newsletter Number 66 of 10 July 2008

By John Bishop

Tony Veitch must be wondering what has hit him. The sporting weekend had gone well and then on Monday morning, whammo, in the DominionPost he's accused of hitting his former partner and then buying her silence, and by Wednesday afternoon he's standing down from two jobs and is on national TV apologising for "lashing out".

Suddenly the mouthy sportscaster with attitude is the story of the day and his private life and employability are being racked over. "Has he done enough?" asked Mark Sainsbury on Close Up last night. The story has everything: a high profile public person, a clear victim, and (seemingly) a clear villain, a secret deal exposed, enough violence to make it shocking, two public institutions (TVNZ and Radio Sport) under pressure amid uncertainty about how to preserve their reputations, plus a dramatic apology (even if it stopped short of confirming published reports and still leaves many questions unanswered), and a woman standing by her man. All that in two and half days. Almost leaves one wanting to say in the style of the 1950s radio dramas ..and tune in tomorrow for more revelations in the continuing drama of Tony faces life.

Although Veitch has apologised it is not clear what he has apologised for. Is it for "lashing out", as he described it? Or is it for kicking his former partner, breaking four vertebrae and putting her in a wheel chair, as the DominionPost has reported?

Was his apology craven and abject enough to satisfy the need for ritual public humiliation? John Tamihere and Michelle Boag on last night's Close Up thought so. Or did he need to show that what he had learned and what behaviours he had changed as a result, as Women Refuge's Heather Henare (also on Close Up) believed?

Will a couple of weeks off and then when things are calmer a gradual return to on air roles work for the public? Or has our trust and respect for him irrevocably diminished such that no broadcaster would want to take the risk of using him in prominent roles again?

The public's answer to those questions will carry a lot of weight in the judgment of the broadcasters that employ Mr Veitch as they consider whether he has a future with them. An early (and not necessarily reliable indicator) comes in the YahooXtra online poll. Mind you, it is a tough question - Should Tony Veitch be sacked over allegations of assault? With about fourteen nine thousand votes cast, it's 63% no over 32% yes. And there's a Tui billboard just out - Here's a hundred grand. Keep quiet about it. Yeah Right. And in a late development, Tony Veitch has now been suspended from Radio Sport, with TVNZ also expected to follow that course.


"It wasn't a lie", one of the characters in Madmen said in last Sunday's episode, "it was ineptitude with insufficient cover."


It's a fickle business; this reputation stuff. Jimmy Cowan is hung out to dry because he is arrested for disorderly conduct, but he stays in the All Black squad and even got a bit of game time in the test last Saturday. Is this because he is less of a role model than Tony Veitch? Or because his offences are not physical and are 'victimless'? Or is it because we have a shortage of good halfbacks? Or perhaps the public just copes better with drunks than thugs? He's facing criminal charges which Veitch is not, (not yet anyway) but he is still employed while Veitch's future looks doubtful. Arguably (charges or not) both have put their employers reputations and products but they are treated differently.

And what about the woman who went with the Lions? The puritans and those (like Michael Laws) whose audiences want quick, easy and repeatable verdicts were quick to label her a slapper - which carries the connotation that she got what she deserved. That also manages to excuse the conduct of the four who took their pleasure there, and to obscure the possible criminality involved.

Again criminality cannot be assumed, even if she were to lay a complaint. Nor would the investigation - and potentially a trial - be anything less than an ordeal for her. Just as the story was about to die away, enter PR Glenda Hughes who was putting about some documentation. The letter from the girl's lawyer (Jack Hodder of Chapman Tripp - no mucking about with legal riff raff here) to the rugby union inquiry in the UK turned up on TV One's News and then there's stories in the weekend papers, including the statement from Hughes herself, asking parents, in this position, would you advise your daughter to make a complaint?

That seems designed to take attention away from the argument about why she isn't laying a complaint, but it doesn't really address the issue of whether the sexual contact she seems to have had was consensual or not. She says it wasn't, but the players say it was. So she's battling for her reputation and credibility too.

It's a whole lot simpler with Jimmy Cowan. He looks like a nice lad from Southland who drinks too much, misbehaves and gets arrested. Not a great thing to do, but easy for anyone to form a view about. Just like Jesse Ryder. Silly boy. Got potential. Don't waste your talent. Sort it. It's much harder to take clear sides for or against the rugby girl or to understand the continuing silence from Veitch's former partner and victim, Kristin Dunne-Powell. But everyone has rights - including privacy.

Is there a credible National Cabinet?

About this time of the year in 1999, the Evening Post published a feature which set out the likely line up of a Labour Alliance government, with Helen Clark, Jim Anderton, Michael Cullen, and 17 other faces set against the jobs they would likely have in a Labour Alliance Cabinet. The line up looked solid, credible and competent. These were people who looked like they had the experience, the intelligence and the capacity to run the country.

In 2008, National with a much bigger lead in the polls than Labour had in 1999 would struggle to match that perception. This is partly because the public profile of the party is dominated by a few faces - Key and English with Power, Ryall and Brownlee also contributing. And it's also partly because of the relative inexperience of the class of 2005, at least in political and Parliamentary terms. Some of the senior spokespeople also carry question marks about their competence and their loyalty to the current leadership, making it hard for Key/English to delegate with confidence.

Of the top sixteen positions in National's lineup there are seven former Cabinet Ministers - Bill English, Nick Smith, Lockwood Smith, Maurice Williamson, Tony Ryall, David Carter and Murray McCully. Officially Nick Smith, Lockwood Smith, and Maurice Williamson are important and trusted members of the team, but what jobs would they get in a National government? Is Nick Smith going to be the climate change supremo, or will the real work by done in Treasury? Will Maurice Williamson be comfortable presiding over the spending of $1500 million of government funds on broadband contracts when, arguably, there is a belief that the private sector ought to do it on an unsubsidised basis?

It's easy enough to give out the big jobs: finance to English, trade to Groser, Education to Tolley, Welfare to Collins, Health to Ryall, Energy to Brownlee (or perhaps he becomes the Speaker), Justice and Corrections to Power, and Foreign Affairs to McCully. Finlayson becomes Attorney General and Carter gets Agriculture. But what about Maori Affairs - Tau Henare or Georgina te Heu Heu? Whoever gets it the other will be annoyed. If not either, then who? National is short of Maori MPs. There are also only two are in the top 13 (women are just 9 of 47 MPs in National). And there's a host of other minor but important jobs like labour, science, police, transport, ICT, and forestry to fill . Key has choices, but none of his newer MPs have firmly stamped their authority on these jobs. And all of this assumes that he doesn't have to make deals with coalition and support parties in order to govern.

Monolithic media

The dangers in the Fairfax Group's plan to set up regional centres to sub edit copy for the group's papers are less about the loss of jobs and loss of community knowledge and more about the exclusion of points of view from news coverage. The jobs concerns are legitimate and no doubt there will be fewer positions, but other issues should not be overlooked.

The country's newspapers are now owned by two chains - Fairfax and APN - which, together, control over 90% of daily newspaper sales. The three biggest papers, the NZ Herald, the DominionPost and The Press are effectively regional monopolies and there is very little competition on a geographical level. Newspapers used to share news stories through the NZPA system. Now the two chains have ended that practice and the exchange is much more limited.

Both Fairfax and APN are moving to a different news model - one which gathers material and transforms it in house and then seeks to use it in as many revenue generating ways as possible. The Business Day section in the Fairfax papers was the pioneer. Stories were written once but published in each of The Press, DominionPost and the Waikato Times. That lowered costs by ending duplication and also gave a more consistent product. It worked for business, so sport was next and now Fairfax will do it over a much greater range of subject areas. Stories produced within the group will be published within the group. The regional subbing teams are simply an expression of the commoditisation of news.

So where's the problem? I think there are two implications. One is that for organisations seeking to have their voice heard in a story, it will be necessary to be in at the start of the news cycle (or very soon afterwards) or your voice will be shut out of an entire cycle of newspaper production. And you'll also be shut out of the other outlets that Fairfax (or APN) supply and they include radio networks, websites and (for APN) TV3.

Secondly if your voice is not included in the stories, the cost and difficulty of getting your message across by other means is likely to be high. If your organisation is about farming and your messages aren't included in The Press, farmers from Nelson to the Waitaki River won't read you and you won't be in the other South Island Fairfax papers either.

This isn't about censorship, but it is about exclusion and it certainly puts a premium on the value of the communications media that can deliver an audience. One of the dangers of oligopolies is the costs they impose on the parties they purport to serve. The aggregation of print media is bad enough. Cross media ownership by the two major players compounds the effects of being in (or of being out of) the information flow on a particular issue.

Wars gets less coverage

Americans are seeing much less coverage of Iraq and even less of the Afghanistan situation on the TV news compared with 2007.

Coverage of Iraq has been "massively scaled back this year," the New York Times reports (22 June) quoting data compiled by Andrew Tyndall, a television consultant who monitors the three network evening newscasts. Almost halfway into 2008, the three newscasts have shown 181 weekday minutes of Iraq coverage, compared with 1,157 minutes for all of 2007. The " CBS Evening News" has devoted the fewest minutes to Iraq, 51, versus 55 minutes on ABC's "World News" and 74 minutes on "NBC Nightly News." (The average evening newscast is 22 minutes long.) CBS News no longer has even one full time correspondent in Iraq, although 150,000 United States troops are still there.

Lara Logan, the chief foreign correspondent for CBS News echoed the comments of other journalists when she said that many Americans seem uninterested in the wars now. Bringing up Baghdad at a dinner party "is like a conversation killer."

"Coverage of the war in Afghanistan has increased slightly this year, with 46 minutes of total coverage year-to-date compared with 83 minutes for all of 2007. No American television network has a full-time correspondent in Afghanistan, although CNN recently said it would open a bureau in Kabul.

Journalists at all three American television networks with evening newscasts expressed worries that their news organizations would withdraw from the Iraqi capital after the November presidential election. They spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to avoid offending their employers," the NYT reported.

The right praises Obama

In the US Presidential election race, Obama has a 44% to 38% lead over Sen. John McCain in the popular votes, but also leads by a substantial margin in a state by state Electoral College tally, a new Zogby Interactive poll shows.

And even the ultra conservative commentator Pat Buchanan reckons that Obama is doing the right things. He's catalogued Obama's three week sprint to the centre from (for Buchanan anyway) previous liberal left opinions, but concludes " .having secured the nomination, (Obama) is moving to convince the nation he is neither a black militant nor a radical, but a man of the center who will even listen to the right.

"Though infuriating to readers of The Huffington Post, this may save Barack. For in Middle America folks worry less about politicians adjusting positions than about True Believers willing to go over the cliff with flags flying - and taking us with them."

Campaign Finance - US style

In late June in the United States the Supreme Court struck down what was called the 'Millionaire's Amendment' to the federal election campaign laws. Under this amendment (part of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law) candidates who use their own money to finance their campaigns were allowed higher contribution and spending limits than normally applied. (They also had to disclose more information and their opponents were also allowed higher limits.) The Supreme Court is opposed to setting limits on contributions and spending.

The New York Times reported that "Justice Alito wrote that the legislative response was unconstitutional because it "imposes an unprecedented penalty on any candidate who robustly exercises" free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Rich candidates, Justice Alito said, must "choose between the First Amendment right to engage in unfettered political speech and subjection to discriminatory fund-raising limitations."

Now here's the really interesting bit. "Different candidates have different strengths," Justice Alito wrote. "Some are wealthy; others have wealthy supporters who are willing to make large contributions. Some are celebrities; others have the benefit of a well-known family name."

"Leveling electoral opportunities means making and implementing judgments about which strengths should be permitted to contribute to the outcome of an election," Justice Alito continued. "The Constitution confers upon voters, not Congress, the power to choose the members of the House of Representatives."

In New Zealand we are much less reluctant to choose which factors are allowed to influence an election, and money is one of the factors that the Electoral Finance Act is staunch about ensuring does not influence the outcome. In the USA the EFA would undoubtedly be struck down as unconstitutional.

Driving and Texting

International studies have cast doubt on the "I can text and drive", and the "I can talk and drive: schools of thought. The Economist cites a study by Virginia Tech for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that "found that 80% of crashes and 65% of near-crashes involved some form of distraction within three seconds of the crash. The most common distraction by far was using a mobile phone.

"When prosecuted for reckless driving, defendants often claim they are experienced multitaskers, and that using a phone while driving is child's play. But driving is itself the most complex multitasking activity most people ever undertake. Continuously, reliably and accurately, motorists must compute closing speeds, braking distances and proximity to other vehicles, all while monitoring speed limits, traffic signals, street signs and changes in road surface, while still keeping a wary eye open for pedestrians, animals and children. The last thing any motorist needs is yet another distraction.

Traffic researchers also refer to "change blindness" which occurs when people fail to notice sudden or gradual alterations in a complex scene.

Something similar, called "inattentional blindness", happens when motorists talk on a phone. Researchers at the University of Utah have used driving simulators to show that people can become so involved in conversation that they fail to see objects on the road.

Nor are hands-free phones the answer? "A Swedish study recently found that motorists' reaction times increased disproportionately when they were talking on the phone-regardless of whether they are using a handheld or hands-free phone. The only thing that counted was the complexity of the conversation,' the Economist reported.

Guide to Business Law

How to pick a firm, the law firm's pecking order and the changing nature of the market are all covered in this handy guide - published as supplement to the NBR recently. It's on my home page as a PDF

Wind Sceptic

"We need 4000MW of wind generation to get to the government's target of 95% of our generation coming from renewable sources. With only 320 MW of wind power at the moment, "that's quite a challenge," departing Genesis Chief Executive Murray Jackson said at a Wellington meeting. He's sceptical about the value of wind and is a critic of the government's emissions trading scheme. Jackson claims the dispatcher at Transpower "holds his breath whenever the wind slows down", (because the alternative in the very short term is thermal generation to keep the lights on). For more see

We can manage talent better

All organisations say their people are important, their greatest asset, what makes the difference between them and the 'other guy', but the reality is that most organisations don't foster talent very well - at least not according to a study by Sheffield. For more see

Random Stuff

According to a speaker I heard recently there are four things you need in life to get and stay healthy, and they are probably in this order: laughter, sex, vegetables and fish. And if you don't like, or can't get one of those, you can substitute rice. Well that's matter of opinion.

An encounter between a US TV personality and an exercise guru Nikki Haskell about a new exercise device called a Star Cruncher has brought out a new verb - to weird - as in ."So I took her in the bathroom and hooked her up," Haskell said. "But it's a small bathroom, and people were weirded out." (Levene Breaking News)


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