Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

7th December 2001 - A Place of Humble Heroes

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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it has been quite a spell for turning on the radio in the morning and copping some news that makes you catch your breath. In this case, it's not terrorism or war, but the death of an individual. Sir Peter Blake, shot dead by pirates on the Amazon.

Top yachtsmen sometimes seem to be bland, smug or both; uninteresting apart from their proficiency. But Blake clearly had something more, as evidenced by the way he inherited the environmental advocacy role established by Jacques Cousteau. His passing is not only a shock, it's sad and too soon.

It rounds out a disturbing week: two little girls allegedly hacked to death by their stepfather; a hitchhiker murdered by a mystery man with one hand, and the appearance in court, on charges of sexual violation, of a bunch of school bullies who seem to have surrendered all moral sense. We might do well to all be nice to each other this week.

And the government, according to the Prime Minister, decided to be nice when it withdrew a proposed amendment to the Electoral Act that would have made it a criminal offence to publish a defamatory statement about a political candidate, within a month of polling day, that was intended to influence the vote.

Fifteen media organisations had signed a letter to Helen Clark outlining "defensive measures" they would have to undertake if the measure became law. These included banning live coverage of political meetings, refusing to broadcast live interviews or debates that might concern political issues, and warning talkback callers not to discuss politics.

The only trouble, as my brainy colleague Steven Price pointed out on Mediawatch two weeks ago, is that the law wouldn't have applied to any of those things - only to the printed word. Margaret Wilson had simply copied the old 1905 criminal libel law, written, of course, before the broadcast media existed. The world would have still been safe for talkback radio.

That omission was probably just a cock-up - but then, the whole thing has been a cock-up. Margaret Wilson really needs to get a grip, go away and get some Treaty claims settled.

Some elements of the media, on the other hand, might wish to in future see about defending civil rights as stoutly as they defend their own. The Herald, in particular, has lately been dismissive of concerns over surveillance powers, urged that the nastier details of war be kept from the public, and been horrified at consumer boycotts of GM food.

Speaking of which, the world's strictest GM food labelling scheme started today. Unfortunately, the Australians have managed to defer making it compulsory until next year, but it is still a good thing.

Regardless of whether it is dangerous or not - and there is no clear evidence that it is - people have a sovereign right to know what's in their food. If it means crappy processed food - bulked out with soy, sweetened with corn syrup - is less attractive on the shelves, that's a good result as far as I'm concerned.

Elsewhere, the news remains scary - even if it did take a grimly humorous turn when another misguided American bomb almost killed the man who had just been anointed to lead the new ruling council that will try and run Afghanistan.

This council is an emphatically better organisation to be in charge of the country than were the Taliban. There is a glimmer of hope that it might even turn into a democratic assembly.

Does that justify the American action, even if the alleged target himself remains elusive? Well, we know how many American soldiers have died on the way: three - one in a prison riot, two under "friendly fire". But it appears we will never know how many Afghani civilians have died, so our ability to gauge the worth of the transaction in lives is absent.

Wanna know something else we won't know? Exactly what George Bush Senior's role was in creating the environment in Afghanistan - and in setting up bin Laden's organisation. The first Bush presidency's papers would have been available next month, under freedom of information laws passed in American after Watergate.

But Bush Junior has passed an executive order locking them up again - for good. And the major American papers, for all their pomp and principle, have stood by and let him do it. They are killing their own democracy over there.

Further philosophical casualties of war appeared in Israel this week too. The suicide attacks there - aimed at young people - were hideous. But so is the Israeli government response: an exercise in shooting fish in a barrel that appears solely intended to humiliate and destabilise Yasser Arafat. Is that really what they want? Ah, but anything goes because, as the war criminal Sharon smugly declared this week, Israel is fighting "a war against terrorism". America's moral authority in trying to curb him is now pretty much nil.

Meanwhile, and much more mundanely, the Auckland City Council is gearing up to address one of those issues crucial to Auckland's future: how to stop people consuming alcohol in public places? Yes, C&R Now's deptuty mayor, David Hay, wants a total ban on drinking in public, "with the council able to make exceptions for law-abiding citizens in certain areas".

Yes, it's another thing the CitRats forgot to mention when they were campaigning. But those mythical families who want to wander round downtown Auckland in the middle of the night need protecting, right? It's just like closing Queen Street at nights. Whoops - what ever did happen to that?

Trouble is - yet again - it's not at all clear whether the council actually has the power to do it. Look, you sometimes see teenies staggering around town with too much booze on board - it's gross and it's sad - but does that justify a city-wide ban on having a glass of wine at a picnic in the park, or a beer after that social soccer match? And do you really want David Hay deciding whether you qualify as a "law-abiding citizen" in a "certain area"?

Speaking of activities out in the open, maximum respect is surely due to the New Zealand cricket team, which gave the all-conquering Aussies a real fright and - were it not for the repeated contributions of a blind, deaf umpire - might well have bagged 10 wickets instead of seven and got themselves a series win in Australia. Oh well ...

Now, a week ago, I took the rest of the day off and took the kids to the Harry Potter movie. It was rather good, if you weren't expecting too much. But what left me with my heart thumping - thumping! - was seeing the Lord of the Rings trailer on the big screen.

I don't think most of us realise how extraordinary it is that this thing even got made: New Line saw something in a director who had made only one major studio movie before: and that stiffed. They gave him 20 times more money than he'd ever had before to embark on a movie project that was without precedent.

Along the way, AOL Time Warner considered closing it all down, scuttling New Line and killing the movie. But it got made, and the advance press - including rave reviews this week in Variety and Entertainment - has been extraordinary.

When you consider that Shrek, now the biggest animated movie ever, was also directed by a New Zealander, Andrew Adamson, then you can only conclude that cultural heroes are amongst us. I interviewed Adamson recently, and discovered that, like Jackson, he is personable, humble and composed. So, by all accounts, was Sir Peter Blake. Is that the way all heroes should be? I don't know. But it is no bad thing that that's the nature of ours


Russell Brown                      

Hard News Additional will now be providing me with a dedicated URL for each week's broadcast. This week's (slips of the tongue and all) is here:

And, after all the conspiratorial mutterings from the Greens and others after the WTO round in Doha, here's a sensible and positive left-wing analysis from Mother Jones. Perhaps somebody could forward it to Rod Donald ;-)

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