Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown
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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ...
well, we're at war. In theory, at least. A small, unspecified number of our SAS troops are at the disposal of the United States of America in whatever activities it should undertake in Afghanistan.
We don't know if they'll be used. We don't know what they'll do. We don't know when. We don't know where the line has been drawn on what they won't do, although you'd have to hope somebody has a line in mind.
Waking up the first morning to find bombing in progress was a little bit of a shock, but I was struck by how few mornings it was before war faded back into the rest of the news.
On one level, you can't begrudge the Americans the right to hit back. What happened was too awful to go unanswered. The Taliban are religious sadists; bin Laden an Arab fascist. Neither of them excite sympathy. Some Afghanis positively welcome an attack on their so-called government.
And, to give the Bush administration its due, this isn't some blind, cynical act like Clinton's missile attack on the Sudan in 1997. The real lunatics in the American cabinet, the ones who wanted to bomb Iran, Iraq and Syria too, have not won out.
Yet probably 200 people have died in a few days; four of them UN workers employed to clear land mines - of which Afghanistan has 10 per cent of the world's total. Many more innocents are likely to starve as winter comes in. The power bloc now in official favour - the Northern Alliance - is little more than a bunch of warlords who have themselves killed tens of thousands of Afghani people.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is boiling and people are dying in street protests. Americans are confined to their homes in Indonesia and - psychologically at least - in the USA. Bin Laden, gloating over the fear he has generated, has promised more attacks. The promise itself is enough, really.
Just to mess things up a little more, there has been a criminal attack with anthrax spores at a newspaper office in Florida; one dead. It doesn't appear to be connected with al Qaeda. Indeed, the last person to be arrested with anthrax matter in the US was an American white supremacist, in 1998. He had previously been convicted of ordering a bubonic plague virus through the mail.
Nothing about it is funny. Well, perhaps one thing: The rather extraordinary profile of Bert from Sesame Street. I could explain it, but a picture's worth a thousand words, and the picture's at http://www.mediawatch.co.nz.
If I'm sad about the international scene, I find myself getting angry about our domestic response. A pair of prize editorials in Tuesday's Herald summed it up. The first, headed 'Terrorist's menace must be eliminated', appears to claim that innocent people slaughtered by accident are somehow less dead than those killed on purpose.
But mostly, it is shot through with what the Herald has these days instead of nationalism: a massive, massive cringe. Why can't we be more like the Australians? Isn't it awful that Tony Blair thanked Australia and Canada but not New Zealand?
"Whatever military assistance the New Zealand Government claims to have offered the allies, it seems to have gone unnoticed," the paper bitched, without suggesting what we might do to get "noticed". And anyway, "The Allies"? What war are we in here?
The shorter editorial, below, was again full of shame and horror that Tony Blair hadn't personally thanked us, and looked longingly across the Tasman, where the major party leaders "seem to be trying to outdo each other with plans to strengthen Australia's armed forces and national security."
We, on the other hand, have ignored this "illustration of the world's unpredictability" and decided not to spend hundreds of millions of dollars maintaining a token fleet of 17 ageing Skyhawks. Owning the mightiest arsenal in the history of the world didn't save America. And now we see a campaign being fought with bombs and missiles that cost a million US dollars each. The value of our disbanded Skyhawk fleet probably goes up each night in ordinance.
The editorial concluded that "now more than ever the Government must re-evaluate its defence policy and spending priorities". You'd never guess that defence spending has actually risen. Did the Herald unleash its infinite editorial justice in the years when National was actually cutting defence budgets? Curiously, no.
What concerns me is the sheer lack of thoughtfulness in the leading opinions of our major papers. Readers deserve measure, context and, where possible, wisdom. They're currently getting something else altogether. And I don't like this talk of "uncertain times". It's too cheap, too imprecise, too easily lent to a climate of fear.
The author of the Herald's vigorous populism of the past two years - which has been more often a good thing than a bad one - isn't behind those pieces. Indeed, erstwhile editor Stephen Davis hardly wrote any editorials at all. He is off, according to the paper's own story, on "a well-earned break" before officially finishing up in December.
The Sunday Star Times had a different story - that Davis resigned after an internal investigation that followed a formal complaint about sexual harassment of a staff member and interviews with several other women on the Herald staff.
There has been gossip about this kind of thing for a good two years and the paper could and should have drawn a line and been open about what did or didn't happen. It is, after all, the paper of naming names and "what they don't want you to know". But the company unfortunately appears to have opted for complete denial. It really isn't good enough.
And farewell, also, Jenny Shipley. After a poorly-timed trip to Europe, a disastrous performance on return and a truly hideous poll on Monday night, she resigned as leader of the National Party. Unlike Helen Clark, who once had a visiting from a hanging committee and sent them packing, she could not face down the rebels in her caucus and she topped herself before they could do it. I can't say I'm sorry; students of Hard News will have gathered that I never rated her. Bill English is both smarter and more centrist in his political instincts, and thus better for the country. I thought his call to leave behind the slash-and-burn years was significant and welcome, if perhaps a tad rich for a former Treasury employee.
Yet it's hard not wonder if the manner of English's succession - its time chosen by the woman he was seeking to roll - might not bode ill for his prospects. Prospective Prime Ministers must demonstrate initiative and effectiveness and he didn't get the chance. It would not entirely surprise me if that were to signal his fate.
It's almost a cliché to compare Clark to Muldoon. Might I be the first to propose Bill English as National's Bill Rowling?
Anyway, it rained in the places that needed rain this week, it shone in Auckland yesterday and it blew in Wellington somewhat inevitably. Business confidence is down along with everyone else's, but export receipts are absolutely booming. Primary produce is terribly unfashionable, but it sure pays the bills in the regions.
See you at the Mad Professor tonight, then. At least he's had the nerve to fly here - unlike American DJ Mark Farina. For goodness sake, fly Air Garuda or something if you're that worried. At the same time - and I think this is indicative of the zeitgeist across the Tasman - the Australian rugby league team has apparently decided the entire Northern Hemisphere is too dangerous to visit and called off its UK tour.
But, with summer beckoning here in the South, it seems not just safer here but sweeter. The Brain Drain is, apparently, running in reverse. See you at the beach, then
G'bye!Russell Brown firstname.lastname@example.org
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