Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

4th May 2001 - Thrashing and Slashing

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister offered the following advice to the embattled Alliance MP Phillida Bunkle: "If you're in a hole, stop digging." It was sound advice - and perhaps the government ought to have revisited it itself this week.

Instead, the spin machine went onto high cycle as the government tried to blunt the impact of its cock-up over the Community Services Card. Facts and figures were dispatched to demonstrate that National, when in government, had repeatedly failed to raise the eligibility threshold for the card when it increased benefits to meet inflation.

That's hardly the point. We all know that the previous government did not regard the welfare of the poor as a direct priority. But the current one was ostensibly elected to represent the very people to whom it was unwilling to extend subsidised healthcare. That's the point.

It got worse when Health Minister Annette King suddenly pulled the idea of a dedicated health tax out of her butt. It's unclear exactly how a ring-fenced tax would help, unless it were so high as to fund universal coverage. And, having for 18 months having referred any talk of tax initiatives to Michael Cullen's Big Giant Tax Review, why start talking about one now?

Further misfortune came with the fact that last weekend saw the beginning of the round of National Party regional conferences. Jenny Shipley was able to stand up in front of her crowd and smugly declare that "I smell trouble - and I like it." Oh puh-lease ... but it must be said that offering comfort to perhaps the most useless Opposition leader in living memory certainly takes a particular sort of talent.

The final straw was Clark and Cullen's public chipping at Radio New Zealand's Al Morrison, who is probably the best political reporter in the country. Blaming the media for doing its job is simply an admission of failure.

The reason that the decision was made to not cough up the $14 million required to cover the 48,000 low-income earners who won't get a card became clear this week. The government is already $270 million over the $5.9 billion in new spending it allocated for its three-year term.

This represents only a quarter of a percent of the total budget, it leaves project surpluses basically unmolested and it has not happened through any particular mismanagement, beyond the failure to set up a sufficiently large slush fund.

And the government probably won't mind the public knowing that most of the additional expenditure has been on equipping and paying the armed forces - all the halfwits who wrote letters to the Herald on Anzac Day might want to consider that.

Even the fact that Cullen didn't tell his ministers about the over-run until after the ritual begging for money had been concluded doesn't add up to too much. For all that Bill English howled about deceit and deception, Finance ministers have been dampening expectations in such ways ever since we've had a Parliament.

What this does show is that fiscal rectitude commands a social price. Cullen will deliver a Budget containing the lowest level of public expenditure as a percentage of GDP since the late 1970s. He just shouldn't expect to be thanked for doing so.

Annette King was also in the news this week, promising speedy progress towards the classification of GHB in the wake of a 21-year-old student's overdose death at the weekend.

You know what I think about GHB as a party drug - but I'm under no illusion whatsoever that declaring it Class A, B or C will have any effect beyond making it less likely that anyone who has a problem will do theright thing and seek medical attention. It was nice to hear a few public health officials say much the same thing this week.

Anyway, we witnessed this week New Zealand's first Internet defamation case. And we were reminded of quite how badly the broadcast media in particular reports Internet issues. Radio seemed only able to grasp the bare fact that it was possible to defame someone on the Internet, which ought not be news to anyone who has paid attention over the past decade.

There were many more interesting elements to this case available to anyone prepared to carry out even a few minutes' research. Instead all we got was a succession of lawyers getting case-law stiffies on air.

And TV? Well, 3 National News managed to interview a so-called "Internet expert" about the case without pointing out that he had been identified in court as the man who had initiated the action in the first place. The reporter simply had no idea.

It could have been worse. Had she not spoken to me late in the day, the 3 News reporter would have gone to air with most of the key details of the case wrong. Her "Internet expert", oddly enough, hadn't been a great deal of help.

Of course, news reporters do make mistakes. Herald reporter Ric Oram made a big one, when he failed to check that a large picture accompanying a front-page story on a drug-dealing gang member was in fact a picture of the right man. It wasn't. It was a picture of a West Auckland community leader, who plausibly looked like a drug-dealing gang member.

Was this entirely Oram's fault, rather than an indictment of the Herald's editorial systems? Should reporters be solely responsible for photographs run by the paper as well as for what they write? The Court of Appeal seemed to think so this week, when it upheld the paper's right to sack its reporter. This is quite a scary precedent when you're in my line of work.

So anyway, the TVNZ Charter finally saw daylight this week, and the state broadcaster has a mission that extends beyond the former command: "make loads of money and fatten yourself up for a trade sale". But does the charter add up to much - and why, when TVNZ has been hiring new staff in anticipation of change, does it not apply until July next year?

I've no time right now to ponder that, unfortunately. But I'll have a wee look next week, when we'll, rather appropriately, be in the midst of bFM's legendary New Zealand Music Week which sits within NZ On Air's New Zealand Music Month. How lovely that will be - and look forward to those ring tones


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
  [ @ / @  ]                      
     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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