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Upton-on-line Diaspora Edition - 8th February 2005


Diaspora Edition
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8th February 2005

In this edition

A 100% New Zealand content issue in which upton-on-line dissects an issue of The New Zealand Herald , wonders what attempts to redesign the New Zealand flag will mean for the nation’s coat-of-arms and commends a recent report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment on the sustainability of intensive farming.

Coastal views and desert views

Two weeks’ re-immersion in New Zealand culture after four years away is a risky way to take the pulse of the nation’s intellectual life - particularly late in January when a good fraction of the nation’s talent is still at the beach, mentally if not physically. Conversely, it is a matchless way of coming swiftly face to face with the peerless physical environment which forms the physical and mental backdrop to life-in-New-Zealand. At Omaha, Ohope and Tarawera, upton-on-line observed New Zealanders walking unselfconsciously through film sets strewn with siliceous sands and opaline water and lit by a preternaturally penetrating light.

There was a time when New Zealand’s baleful economic performance led people to observe grimly that however pristine the scenery, “you can’t eat the view”. Ever resourceful New Zealanders appear to have overcome this challenge. The recent economic high tide has deposited a spectacular array of coastal dream homes (they could never be described as batches) from which languid owners literally eat the view. In this new dream world, permanent balance of payments deficits and ever mounting indebtedness have been shown to be mere phantasms. New Zealand is a place where lifestyle knows no limits.

In which case it must be heaven on earth? Well, yes and no, because another pesky proverb comes to mind – that persons do not live by bread alone. And, upton-on-line would venture, neither can they live by views alone. While physical public space is often overwhelmingly inspirational, the space for public discourse is a disfigured ghetto. Here, views of the mental variety lie cast up amidst a wreckage of headlines and advertising. The daily print media has created its own desert in the heart of paradise.


In someone else’s issue

With time hanging heavy on the endless return flight to Europe, upton-on-line decided to idle away an hour or so getting a sense of the dimensions of the biggest desert of them all, the New Zealand Herald. Compared with the Kalahari which is the Waikato Times (upton-on-line's former local paper), the Herald is the Sahara of them all. Singling out this behemoth may seem just too easy. After all, there are plenty of other targets both at home and abroad. But it’s the paper they hand round before takeoff and it does in its very title proclaim itself a national organ. Before overcome by sleep and boredom, upton-on-line made a few calculations about section A of the edition of Saturday 29th January.

There were 28 pages with a layout that could accommodate seven columns each of 54 cms. That means a surface area running to 10,584 potential column centimetres. The actual column centimetres of non-advertising material came to roughly 2,950 – roughly, because there are limits to what you can do with a pocket ruler. But of course that doesn’t mean 2,950 column centimetres of ‘news’ because it includes photos (some of them very large and colourful), headlines and decorative material. It also includes a large number of boxes in which dot pointed factoids relieve the vacant reader of the need to enter the prose. But let’s not be churlish, factoids still require some level of reading ability. So a conservative estimate would be that photos and headlines gobbled only around 25% of the non-advertising space.

So all up, upton-on-line came up with a grand total of 2205 column centimetres of print in which something call news or opinion might be located. With spurious precision that amounts to 20.8% of the surface area of the publication. So what? After all, the New York Times threads scintillating articles through the interstices of acres of advertising space without causing any more irritation than that caused by the ubiquitous “continued on page…” direction. The standard of journalism – and the level of substance – holds readers immune from the advertising assault levelled at them page by page.

No such force field seems to protect the Herald’s prose. In fact the subject matter and the style of its presentation leave the boundary blurred. The particular issue upton-on-line grappled with coincided with the announcement of the NZ Bravery Awards. No-one could quibble with the fulsome treatment accorded to each of the 26 recipients. But the rest of the material wallowed in an eclectic mix of gossip, celebrities, politics and health.

Take your pick from this jaded assortment: the ten reasons Andrew Mehrtens loves Christchurch, how teen sex boggles the mind (courtesy of Reuters), “Up Close and Personal with David Tua” (a boxer for diasporans of pacific disposition) and an article about Rocket the cat who inspired a $1 million donation to the RSPCA. Can’t choose? Well there was quite an interesting article about how compressed pumice blocks could be a really useful future building material. Upton-on-line chose the pumice ahead of the cat.


Siding with the people

But this is all just padding. The Herald’s real strategy is to present its own readers as the focus of the paper. It is a simple strategy – if readers can wake each morning to see themselves reflected back in print, how could they ever abscond? It would be like arguing with the person in the mirror. The result is a heavy emphasis on what either randomly chosen or self-selecting readers have to say – in nano-bitelets. Nine standard letters to the editor (limited by the paper to 200 words) were shored up by sixteen “brevities” – one line barbs, most of them nasty.

Then there is ‘Weekend Herald Jury’, a box insert in which “a panel of 12 readers … give their verdict every week on the thorny questions of the day.” The week’s thorny issue? Was Don Brash “being heartless by suggesting teenage mothers give up their babies for adoption rather than go on a benefit?” Note the question: not whether his proposal made sense or was workable but rather whether Dr Brash was heartless. Why not ask whether he was foolhardy, daring or absent-minded? Twelve one-line views on an irrelevant question - a sure way to side with the people.

The same approach was wheeled out again on the other ‘big issue’ chosen by the Herald for its weekend issue – changing the New Zealand flag. The entire coverage of the issue was devoted to public opinion on the issue. Now this was probably more defensible since the mood of public opinion is the only determinant of what will happen to the flag. But it lends itself perfectly to the Herald’s strategy – a high profile issue on which virtually no effort has to be expended on analysis. The newspaper can afford to spray reader opinions around profusely – the perfect conduit for a readership it must never offend if its advertising revenue is to flourish.

So the front page led with news of a “voluntary on-line survey” (organised by the Herald of course) in which the idle and opinionated (2518 of them) had proffered their verdicts. And then page four carried popularity ratings for 15 flag designs plus 30-40 word unattributed remonstrations from 41 of the respondents. It was the perfect issue – and the perfect treatment – for a large, advertising-led daily that needs a continuum of low-level, harmless controversy designed to engage enable readers to see their views and their prejudices laid out in a largely judgement-free zone.

The sole honourable despatch in the edition upton-on-line wrestled with was John Armstrong’s column – also on the Brash speech but shot through with the sort of scepticism and insight that good journalism always brings to the case. Along with Colin James and a few others, there are a handful of 1000 word contributions each week that resonate with a different quality of public discourse. But they’re barely visible amidst the dross.


Does it matter?

Upton-on-line can hear a deafening chorus of liberally-minded friends asking why any of this matters. Who cares? The market decides: if you don’t like it, don’t read it; the age of self-important publishers and egotistical editors deciding what we should read and the views we should hold is over; quality off-shore analysis has never been more accessible with on-line editions a click away; and so on.

It is certainly true that access to overseas media is (at least electronically) easier than ever – and never more necessary. Although the Herald has a separate section optimistically entitled ‘World’ it peters out after a couple of pages of wire stories and pieces culled from the Independent or the Observer. If the Herald is anything to go by, New Zealanders are living in a truly insulated world. Television can provide images but analysis seems to be almost wholly lacking. The National Business Review will never be a mass suburban read. Under the Herald’s formula, it makes no sense to poll readers on whether China is being beastly to Taiwan or whether Mr Sharon has been heartless in respect of Palestinian rights in building his wall. People in these flash points aren’t ‘our people’ and hence don’t need to be polled; and ‘our people’ are deemed uninterested in learning about the issues.

So does it matter? Upton-on-line thinks it does. Because the evolution of an enterprise like New Zealand – a real work-in-progress if we’re talking about constitutional and legal development – will be significantly influenced by the quality of public discourse. And that has, traditionally, been provided in part by the fourth estate. If the daily print media cannot sustain a well-informed and thoughtful coverage of the subterranean debates driving the sources of progress and conflict in our society, those debates will simply be cruder and shallower.

The print media is a significant influence, for good or bad, on the political and social ecology of the nation. It projects into a public space that no-one can avoid. And the quality of that public space will inevitably affect the quality of the nation and its institutions.

Upton-on-line is informed that a not insignificant source of pressure on coastal property prices has come from diasporans deciding to secure a slice of paradise while continuing their commercial and professional odysseys far over the horizon. It would be such a shame if intellectual desertification made all that real estate uninhabitable. Where in London or New York is the wealthy diasporan with the means to launch a serious national daily? It would probably never break even. But there are (just) enough good journalists in New Zealand to write it were it established. And it might just shake the Herald and others from their somnolence. It would be a far more powerful act of nation-building than endowing a sports stadium or a university chair. Are there any starters?


Waving the flag

Once again the New Zealand flag is up for grabs and all manner of political and commercial groups are no doubt positioning themselves to respond whichever way the debate goes. Picking through the rafts of one-line reactions reported in the NZ news media, upton-on-line detects at least three currents. Here they are:

(1) The colonial cringe argument: here is yet another vestige of a vanished imperial world that should be swept into the national trash can. Supporters of this view are part of the ‘plucky independent nation’ school who have been busily reinventing New Zealand ab initio for the last 25 years. These supporters of a ‘Baltic’ solution for New Zealand should logically get rid of another vestige from the past – the country’s name. What business have we labelling ourselves after a part of the Netherlands? (This problem takes on a more acute form in France: when asked his nationality, upton-on-line often finds his poorly accented “Néo-zélandais” is mis-heard as “Néerlandais”. It is inconceivable to the French that someone from almost another planet could be attempting to mangle their language so contemptibly.)

(2) The marketing argument: why can’t we have something distinctive rather than a hard to distinguish variant of the Australian flag? To this are added all the colonial cringe arguments about the dowdiness of an imperial appendage and the need to be slick and sharp in a crowded international marketplace. For this group the potency of the silver fern and all those sporting associations is definitive.

(3) The if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it argument. This tends to be the refuge of conservatives who haven’t thought out their position and are grasping for an argument. Because these people are not pushing a barrow or suffering an identity crisis they tend not to be promoting their viewpoint unless stung into action – usually too late.

Upton-on-line tends to the third camp because the first two seem unconvincing. Insisting that the nation needs to be reclaimed from history and re-created anew presupposes the sort of singular defining event like civil wars that throw up much more serious propositions like constitutions and other national institutions. The marketing case seems equally wrong. Flags tend to be there for the long haul; they are also an element of national identity that, one assumes, you don’t easily extract from a competition or a focus group.

But many will still have the nagging feeling that a Union Jack in the corner (and it is only the corner) is an anachronism. One answer is that it’s part of our history and we can’t unmake it. If symbolism is the problem, should we be subtly changing the flag to introduce an element that represents the other signatory to the Treaty? Dynastic heraldry in European culture has a long history of succeeding generations mixing all sorts of motifs in the evolving quarterings of family shields. New Zealand’s own coat-of arms has the feeling of this with the Maori and European standard bearers looking at one another across a shield.

The Ministry of Culture & heritage describes the coat of arms’ shield in these terms:

The first quarter of the shield depicts fours stars as representative of the Southern Cross, then three ships symbolising the importance of New Zealand’s sea trade; in the second quarter is a fleece representing the farming industry. The wheat sheaf in the third quarter represents the agricultural industry (quite how that differs from the farming industry u-o-l is not entirely clear) whilst the crossed hammers in the fourth quarter represent the mining industry.

The supporters on either side of the shield consist of a Maori Chieftain holding a taiaha (a Maori war weapon) and a European woman holding the New Zealand Ensign. Surmounting the Arms is the St Edward’s Crown which was used in the Coronation ceremony of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The Crown symbolises the fact that Her Majesty is Queen of New Zealand under the New Zealand Royal Titles Act 1953.”

If it is more accurate symbolism we are after, perhaps the Union Jack in the top left hand corner of the flag might be halved to enable the inclusion of a suitable reference to the other treaty partner while respecting the historical and emotional continuity of the flag.

Upton-on-line suspects more radical motives are probably afoot. Supporters of the marketing argument will probably defeat change to the country’s name on the grounds that it would be hard one to make it stick and cause confusion in restaurants. (That said, Zaire, Zimbabwe and Myanmar provide hope that it can be done). But the colonial cringe supporters clearly see a republic in their sights and the flag is just one more visual obstruction to be removed. In which case we will also have to change the coat-of-arms.

Removing the crown will be the easy bit. If we are to be contemporary and distinct we’ll have to update the industries symbolised there. On this score, supporters of the marketing argument will be in their element. Should a cow replace the sheep? Should three wide-bodied jets (Airbus or Boeing?) take over from the current sailing ships three? Do we choose tourism, film-making or software to replace the mining symbol? Must these symbols be permanent or should they be changed every five years to reflect evolving export prowess? There is more than enough here to keep polling agencies and design studios in work for years to come.


Growing for good

That is the title of another important publication from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (October 2004 and available at Growing for good is subtitled “Intensive farming, sustainability and New Zealand’s environment” and is the first high-level survey with a nationwide focus on the environmental impact of farming that brings together trends and issues that have long been the subject of debate at the level of Regional and District Councils.

It is too long a report to summarise and its sober, careful tone means it is unlikely to create controversy. Its value in part rests in bringing together through the lens of sustainability a large amount of information on industry trends, trends in the use of key resources, economic drivers (both domestic and global) and the key pressure points. Not surprisingly, intensification based on increased inputs such as fertiliser receive significant attention.

Farming is much more productive than it was twenty years ago. Then, the environmental challenge was soil and habitat destruction caused by the (subsidised) breaking in of (increasingly marginal) low productivity land. Today, the challenge is principally to water quality caused by large increases in fertiliser application and heavier stocking rates leading to more pervasive microbial contamination from livestock faeces and sedimentation. Related to the intensification of land use is pressure on the quantity of water available, particularly in drier regions like Canterbury.

The report’s summary of risks is as follows:

“There are clearly major risks to New Zealand’s waters and these are likely to become more critical if current trends persist. The farming sector is likely to face rising public pressure to adequately address the trends. Many New Zealanders rely on secure sources of uncontaminated water for drinking, and they value waterways maintained in a healthy condition. Water is vital to many community functions, and other important economic sectors, such as tourism, rely on high quality water to meet New Zealand’s ‘clean and green’ reputation.

“Other looming risks for farming, which are likely to become more serious if current trends continue, include:

  • the potential loss of access to lucrative overseas markets if trade becomes restricted on the basis of production methods, including environmental impacts

  • a growing dependence on fossil-fuel based fertilisers even though these inputs are likely to become much more expensive in the future

  • ongoing loss of biodiversity and the essential ecosystem services provided to farming.”
  • Some of the most interesting material in the report is on the barriers to change even when robust evidence of environmental degradation is present. But often that is missing. Monitoring is patchy. Despite the overwhelming economic importance of farming to the New Zealand economy – and its impact on the environment – it is clear that far more regulatory attention has been lavished on highly visible point sources (i.e. factories and industrial sites) than on large scale diffuse impacts from a green-looking activity.

    The PCE’s ‘proposals for action’ as they are called are deceptively modest. There is a heavy emphasis on information, research and communication. As such they are easy to agree with but hard to do well. Some careful follow-up five years hence will be needed to check that this careful, unflamboyant report has not been quietly shelved.


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