We Are What We Read

Having largely cut corporate media from my information diet (more on the food analogy below), I’ve had time to read more books. Recently: for review, at Scoop Review of Books, Barbara Brookes’ epic A History of Women in New Zealand, Paul Moon’s Ka Ngaro Te Reo: Māori language under siege in the 19th Century (plus Why English? Confronting the Hydra, a rather depressing collection about the global dominance of English); in The Listener, Susan Faludi’s memoir about her parent, In the Darkroom; and, a few months ago, some first novels for The New York Times. I’m working on reading, and hopefully writing about, The Struggle for Māori Fishing Rights, by Brian Bargh (Huia), and I just got my hands on Vincent O’Malley’s The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000 (Bridget Williams Books).

bwb8126_the-great-war-for-new-zealand_lrVincent foreshadowed this book in his 2014 collection Beyond the Imperial Frontier: The contest for colonial New Zealand, in which he had a chapter on the Waikato wars that included some of his new research. (My review is here. Yeah, sorry for all the self-linking, but if I don’t do it, no one will.) I don’t remember hearing a whole lot about that book back then (I might have missed it), but this new one seems to be attracting a lot more attention. Thankfully.

There’s definitely a growing momentum for more (any? some?) recognition of the wars fought on this land, particularly since 2014, which was when we really got to see clearly how much media and government attention was lavished on foreign wars (well, mostly the Gallipoli battle) compared with those fought here. It was 100 years since the former, and 150 years since several major battles of the latter. (I researched and wrote about that pretty extensively back then.)

Not for review (by me!), I’m up to volume two of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six (yes six) volume memoir, My Struggle. I can’t really explain why (so far) I love this book (does it count as “a book”?) But I’m thinking about it. Meanwhile, am a bit stuck at around the one-third mark in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Actually, there are quite a few books I’m stuck in the middle of… And, no, I have never been able to finish Infinite Jest.

But still moving along is another epic on the state of the bloody media, in the form of a collection titled Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand, put out by Freerange Press (who do some very cool stuff). Which brings me to the media and food.

We Are What We Eat, uh Read

We need to start treating the “news” more like we (try to) treat food: Eat healthy, stay away from junk. It’s up to us to get these people to stop pumping out sugary crap (aka clickbait etc. etc.) by not “consuming” it. I haven’t taken this so far as to come up with particular news diet fads (what would be the news equivalent of Atkins, or mediterranean, or high-protein, or low fat diets?). But we all know crap when we see/taste it, and I suspect we all know we should be avoiding it.

I’m actually not a food dieter, so it took a bit of trial end error to work out how to change my news eating habits. My findings: Start out with a fast of at least a day and up to a week. That means no mainstream corporate news/junk food at all. Not even headlines. I predict not only will you feel less depressed and annoyed, you will actually be better informed. (I know, it sounds counterintuitive, but don’t forget, you won’t be under the misapprehension that the most important issue facing humanity/Aotearoa NZ society is All Black sex.) After the fasting period, slowly introduce the healthy stuff – longform, serious, non-clickbait content that has some substance to it, and books. And, yes, if you relapse and find yourself clicking on that sugary shit, you must atone by consuming something serious. And, yes, you should feel guilty, as guilty as if you’d scarfed down a giant bottle of fizzy drink. (If you fall off the wagon, another quick fast should get you back on track.)

I think you’ll find that almost nothing of what our for-profit media are pumping out is stuff you need to know. Which brings me to a premature conclusion from having not quite finished Don’t Dream It’s Over: People, it already is over. Time to put them out of their misery, because as with sugar, they’re doing us way more harm than good.


Our History: Pukehinahina, War, 150 Years

Today was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gate Pa/Pukehinahina. It was an unexpected and unprecedented rout by the Māori, whose intricate pa withstood a daylong bombardment and whose warriors then repelled a British assault party.

The commemorations today were remarkable — indescribable really. The extent to which we prefer to remember foreign wars than those fought here bugs the hell out of me. I did some research for a Werewolf article on that very issue, titled Lest We Remember, and found that while about $25 million in government money is being spent commemorating and memorialising foreign wars, particularly WW I and its centennary, about $250,000 has gone toward the 150th anniversaries of the wars that led to the land confiscations that led to … you know … And here we are in Tauranga Moana, where I live, 150 years later — to the very year — seeing legislation about to be introduced to give effect to Treaty of Waitangi settlements aimed at righting the wrongs that have their origins in these very battles. Kinda relevant to our lives, society, future, identity, wouldn’t you think? Oh well. ANZAC stuff got wall-to-wall coverage — “NZ Wars”, not so much, though local media has made a pretty decent effort. (I was on RNZ on this issue, btw…Kim Hill’s show to be precise.)

These are some good links with great photos:

The official Battle of Gate Pa site
Tauranga Libraries’ great kete
Looking Down the Barrel of History (about Te Ranga) from VUW History Dept
The Battle of Gate Pa FB page



Adventures in Stockphotoland

For a while now, I’ve been noticing and collecting stock photos that are used to “illustrate” the news, and thinking about what the invasion by Stockphotoland means for journalism. It turns out to be a bit of a rabbit hole kind of issue … The more you think about it, the weirder it gets, the harder it is to find clarity. So while waiting for a few govt departments to get back to me with info for a completely different story I’ve been trying to write, I put together a blog post cum think piece on the question, that went up at The Hand Mirror, where it was titled “Pregnant and Headless”, then (slightly rewritten and added to) at Werewolf as “Airbrushing the News”.

I thought I remembered discussions from Back In The Day about the importance of trying to represent the community in which a newspaper lives via the people, stories, voices it covers. Images are so powerful in this regard, and file or stock images that act as a kind of key word for a story even more so, since they represent that story. Which is why the use of stock images is so insidious. It’s not just that they don’t come close to representing the community in which our news media lives, but that they far too often actively reinforce stereotypes: understandable since most of the stock is from the U.S. And as Angela Phillips wrote in the Guardian (there’s a link to her piece in the Werewolf article), the choice of image primarily reflects how the person choosing the picture sees the world.

I’m still thinking about this issue; I know it’s hard being a photo editor, but I’m coming to the conclusion that only news photos should accompany news stories (or relevant file pix, of course, that directly relate).

(Uh, I’ll leave this short post stock-image free.)

More Writing: Joe Harawira; Women’s Rights; Books

I first saw Joe Harawira speaking last year at the CTU-Iwi leaders hui in Tauranga. He seemed such a quiet, unassuming man, but the story of his struggle, along with fellow former Whakatane timber mill industry workers (SWAP, or Sawmill Workers Against Poisons), was quite mind blowing. It took them decades to win recognition for their claim that their exposure to PCP (pentachlorophenol) in the timber mills was causing some pretty severe health problems. In addition, that the poison-laced waste used as landfill (often around marae) was an environmental problem.

12305714041500807562choochus_Wolf_Head_Howl_1.svg.medI kept meaning to contact Joe — since I live not too far from Whakatane, in the Bay of Plenty — and catch up on where he and the former mill workers were at, how the clean-up was going and were their health issues being resolved, something I finally did this March. He came to my place, managing to drive himself here despite having an arm that doesn’t work too well — one of the many health problems he himself has developed. (He’s 67 now.)

And, yes, he is a quiet, unassuming man. (I asked him about that: he said, well, if he’d seen me “30 years ago, probably 20 years of those 30 years, I would probably cut your neck off out there. We were shocking, but after thinking about it now, we needed to go down that track.”) We talked for an hour and a half or so, and I wrote up a wee piece for Werewolf.co.nz, Toxins in the Timber Mills. The full story of Joe and SWAP has been told elsewhere, including in a documentary called The Green Chain that was shown on Māori TV in 2011. (There’s a link to that in the Werewolf piece.)

In the wake of the Pike River mining disaster, and the calls that followed for more oversight and better regulation, it struck me while listening to Joe that his story had a lot in common with other community-level struggles I’ve heard about over the past year or so — like the Waihi residents battling plans to mine under their town; and the iwi challenging the Port of Tauranga’s expansion plans, to mention just two.  They share that sense of being powerless in the face of business interests, who usually also win over public sentiment by talking about how many jobs their project will create. (Sometimes that’s true; sometimes it’s not. But the ‘economic growth’ at any cost has been widely seen as contributing to what happened at Pike River.) It’s nigh on impossible, for example, to conclusively prove links between things like chemical exposure and health problems (think agent orange or dioxin in Taranaki), and when you’re a group of blue-collar workers — well, good luck with that. Similarly, in all the RMA hearings over mining, the local groups are up against well-resourced companies with experts on tap and reports that a lay person can barely make head nor tail of. True, the residents are supposed to have moderately well-resourced local government looking out for their interests, but ask the Waihi residents what they think about that. Whoa! A lot of them actually see the council as the biggest problem,  not the mining company.

Among other things, the RMA is supposed to even the playing field a little bit. But most everyone has bought into that “there’s too much red tape” and “decisions take too long” narrative, hence the current legislation that’s designed to speed up some of the decision making. Sounds innocent enough, but unless a lot more effort is put into actually listening to and acting on the concerns of the people on the ground, there are surely more costly clean-ups in our future (be they health or environmental).

Other Recent Stuff

I had a much more in-depth piece in the Werewolf before (27 February 2013) about Policing Pregnancy, (I’m convinced the official and unofficial surveillance of pregnancy is a human rights issue that should be on more people’s radars) and some more book reviews up at The New York Times in February. Also, at The Hand Mirror, UN ‘Family’ Resolution Raises Concern, (20 March 2013) looks at a proposed UN Human Rights Council Resolution on “Protection of the Family”, and the potential  impact it could have not just on reproductive health and rights, but on those of LGBTI people; while in  ‘Careless Driving Causing Death’, (4 March 2013) I report on a case before the courts in Wellington in which a husband has been charged with careless driving causing death after a relatively minor accident that apparently led to the death of his wife’s 31-week fetus. A heart-breaking case in every possible way!

Bye Bye BOP Times

My last BOP Times column was on Saturday, and I’m rather wondering if I broke the record for shortest-ever newspaper columnist gig. (I started in July.) The reason given was cost cutting, though I know the paper is revamping both its content and its format — going tabloid, uh, compact, in March next year — so who knows. I put a lot into the columns (all of them are listed here) and learned a whole heckuva lot doing all the research, talking to lots of people. It was actually pretty cool getting to know the BOP just that little bit better. In fact, I’ve got lots of good stuff stored up that I didn’t get to use that I’ll likely put into pieces for Werewolf and elsewhere. But, meantime, summer (!!) and finishing up other writing projects, seeing The Book through publication and plotting and scheming the wee campaign roadshow, which I’ll be posting more about over the next couple of months. (All you pro-choicers out there, please stay tuned!)



Free Trade Is Never Free

The Trans Pacific Partnership trade talks are going on in Auckland this week, and there’s a lot at stake. Unfortunately, because the talks are being held behind closed doors, the public debate sort of bounces around on the edges, informed as best it can by leaks, discussions with negotiators and the so-called stakeholders. Not a good way to plot the future of the country, which is what these talks are all about. This isn’t trade as we tend to think of it – selling butter to the British and hamburger meat to the Americans. As (PDF) I wrote in my BOP Times column, these talks range across pretty much every part of the economy.

Werewolf has devoted its entire November issue (No. 36) to the talks. My focus there was on what 12305714041500807562choochus_Wolf_Head_Howl_1.svg.medmost commentators see as the holy grail for New Zealand in all of this: opening up the U.S. market to our dairy exports. Given that we can’t produce enough dairy for all the demand that’s out there now, where’s all the milk going to come from to supply this fabulous new market opportunity? Think: cows! And polluted waterways. Gordon Campbell wrote the lead article, Into the Cave of Dreams, and also investigated the risk to our money-saving drug buying agency Pharmac.

Professor Jane Kelsey at Auckland University has spearheaded a lot of the pushback over the TPP and gathers all the info at a site called It’s Our Future. She came under attack recently in the New Zealand Herald, but Campbell pretty quickly dispatched the criticism.

New Werewolf

Issue 35 of the online newsmagazine Werewolf is up with lots of good stuff, including Gordon Campbell’s lead looking at problems a lot of people face finding a primary healthcare provider in their area. It’s titled “When Local GPs Are a Closed Book.” Gordon also investigates the conditions workers face in the NZ movie industry in “Acting Under Orders“.

There’s some satirical relief from Lyndon Hood, too, writing about Planet Key, or Planetki.

I have a couple of articles in this issue: “When Teaching Becomes Preaching“, looking at the latest round in the religion-in-schools debate; and “A Broader Union“, which follows up an iwi-CTU hui held in Tauranga in September, and looks at whether Māori can exercise some of their increasing economic muscle in favour of workers.