You look hilarious

My new passtime: Laughing at guys who queue uncomfortably outside lingerie shops while their friends/partner/relatives are inside. πŸ˜‰ If it bothers you so much, at least arrange to meet her/them somewhere else. Consider my L officially OL-ed.

Why Labour are also fuck-ups

So, seeing I’ve been strongly critical of national on women’s rights, let’s do a retrospective of similar areas where Labour fucked up on identity politics, political freedom and non-discrimination. I have the feeling this is going to make me temporarily popular with certain other Greens who share with me a deep distrust of Labour, and of course I’m sure the National Partisans will laugh it up at both what I believe and the fact that I’m absolutely going to town on Labour. Don’t worry, you’re still in the targets, too. πŸ˜‰

  • Pay Equity (for women): They essentially started the investigation into pay equity in the public service to make the problem go away until next term. Except that was stupid: Labour ran a healthy surplus for most of its terms in government, an ideal time to implement the increase in public sector wages that would be the simplest way to address direct pay equity issues. Not only that, but they knew they had a pretty good chance at being ousted coming up to their third bid for re-election, so if pay equity is as important as they’re implying, they should have put it on their list to fast-track before the election. Overall their reluctance to act on an issue even the most anti-feminist of women would appreciate in some sense has been inexcusable, and it made their criticism on this issue pretty hollow.
  • Seabed and Foreshore: Confiscating these was a disaster. Even if you accept they needed to be nationalised in some form rather than being claimed in settlement, the government should have at least let Maori have their day in court first and compensated Maori with something else in settlements if they did have a good claim. And even if nationalisation of some sort did go ahead, the seabed and foreshore should have been placed into the public domain (where everybody effectively owns it and has usage rights) rather than vested to the crown. (where we all just have to trust no government decides to do something incredibly dumb with it) Overall a fuck-up of massive proportions even if you didn’t want any seabed and foreshore claims going ahead. Not only that, but reversing this thing is part of the reason National doesn’t have to rely on the Greens to pass anything that Act don’t want to- both in the sense of the existence of the Maori Party, and in the sense of their willingness to form a coalition with National.
  • Marriage is still straight-only: And labour defended it as straight-only. I don’t see why we didn’t go whole-hog on this, civil unions lead that way eventually, and giving space to idiots like Gordon Copeland and Brian Tamaki only encourages them. Make them steam it out.
  • The bill of rights is still only paid lip service: The most ridiculous of bills are found consistent with the bill of rights that even a budding civil rights activist could see are not. If we’re going to maintain the idea that the bill of rights should limit the power of Parliament, let’s actually have at it. For one, we should be having judicial overrulings of implied restrictions of straight marriages for transwomen and transmen, and gay marriage. For another, Three Strikes should be disallowed if it passes. Labour made no move to tighten up our constitution here, and they deserve some of the blame for not doing enough every time National and its most extreme coalition partner rub it in their face with legislation with terrible civil liberties connotations.
  • No checks on Parliament’s power: As the academic and social elite of New Zealand, (as opposed to the financial and social elite, who they sit opposite to) Labour seems to think that Parliament knows best, and even the biggest partisan reformists are reluctant to act quickly and decisively on any constitutional reform. The lack of any meaningful review of laws leads to low-quality legislation as there is no disincentive to sloppy drafting, and only select committees save us from elected dictatorships as it is. More oversight of Parliament is necessary, and I don’t just mean opening the books to OIA requests. Unfortunately, the phrase “constutional reform” sets off monarchists even if it’s unrelated to a Republic, and Labour didn’t have the guts.
  • The EFA: While unlike many from the Right and Centre I don’t think law touched free speech with a ten-foot pole, and I supported the general motivations behind it, there were three big problems with this law.
    • Was not radical or tough enough: If Parliament was going to get tough on electoral laws, they should have gone whole-hog. Instead we have anonymous donations below a thousand dollars in a world where donating anything to a political party is an extraordinary act of partisanship for most. Donations through filter trusts may still evade pubic scrutiny of their real sources, and the loopholes in the EFA are generally still big enough to run a train through.
    • Poor drafting and implementation: Before I get to the political part, this law should probably have set every-year all-year caps at a more sensible rate on both party and issue campaigning. Beyond that, Labour left notification laws a muddle, and the procedure for dealing with them a farce, with even the minister responsible for the law being caught out on her opinions of what did or did not breach it very frequently.
    • Parliament should not regulate politics: If Labour had wanted to do this the proper way, rather than leave the Greens to negotiate a Citizen’s Jury into elecoral finance, they should have put all the relevant laws in the hands of a truly independent body with a similar structure and lobbied like any other interest group. That approach would have probably been a publicity boost, and if it left them with less cash in hand, it would be likely that experts would attempt to be equally hard on National’s large donors to equalise the playing field.
  • Gay adoption and provisions for other non-heteronormative families: This merited visiting in at least some manner after civil unions were passed.
  • Their list: While claiming to be a left party and generally supporting freedoms and championing the underprivileged, Labour betrays the strains of elitism that run through its more powerful tiers by retaining strict central control of their party list. One of the big, and legitimate, criticisms of MMP is that list candidates can be chosen entirely by backroom meeting in most parties. Righting it is as simple as adopting a postal ballot for your list and using it to encourage members to join. Labour should have joined the Greens in this long ago.
  • Prisons: Not only is Labour a staunch supporter of incubating more criminals with a policy of systematic over-incarceration and a justice policy based on vengeance rather than restoration of our community, but this is about the most likely aspect of their policy to get dramatically worse under Phil Goff.
  • Cannot really be called centre-left: Centre-left would imply that there are significant aspects of leftism remaining within the caucus and among senior party members. Labour has been a centre party and a staunch supporter of the flawed attempt at free-market capitalism that trade liberals have unleashed on the world since before MMP, and is remaining one after it. Only their focus on reducing unemployment and their staunch social liberals make them a positive force in parliament. (although that’s a pretty big “only”)
  • Environmentally kleptocratic: Despite their big promises of cleaning up New Zealand and moving towards sustainability, Labour put much more effort towards economic development and paid bare lip service to minimising global warming with their softball ETS that was hardly worth supporting.

Now, keep in mind that this is a very complete list in its strongest and most general form. Largely speaking, I think Labour is the third-best Party in Parliament and actually does more good than harm. I think that its policies for the middle class, its Keynesian streak, its financial (if not economic) management of the country, and its tax system are all very good “second bests”. Most of the MPs individually are good people who I have a lot of commonality with politically, they just have enough specifics wrong to drive me half-insane watching them failing so close to getting it right. Presumably even a pretty good government would generate a list at least have as long, and I think this last government has to be admitted as having managed okay on a fair amonut of issues by most of its critics.

But I have deep reservations on the current direction of the Labour Party, its priorities, its conduct, and its trustworthiness, and would not vote for it under any system where I had an ability to really choose another party. Labour has lost its hang of defending civil liberties, privacies, and its social liberals are mired beneath the free trade academics who think they can get a good deal for the country’s working class through imaginary infinite growth. It’s not gonna happen Labour, and you need to stop thinking that anything but a physically static economy can be branded with the word “sustainable”.mong

More philosophy: The Universal Right to Life

So, having been drawn into the topic of abortion lately by the comments, I want to wax philosophical1 about the antecedents to2 my beliefs about abortion.

One of the reasons I turned away from believing that abortion was largely wrong to seeing it as very difficult to understand (and eventually from there to believing that women are the best judges of whether they should have one or not) is the issue of the universal right to life. This may seem rather backwards to some people, as the right to life is a supporting argument to a pro-life position- but the reason it eventually led me to a pro-choice position was the problems with the universal right to life3 that make it a very extreme belief.

Firstly, the universal right to life is the most consistent justification for a pro-life point of view. It says simply that life itself grants the right to further life, and you only need DNA, enough size to have some sort of brain, and a pulse to have a right to life. As I said in the comments earlier, this has a number of implications: The first is, you better be one hell of an animal rights activist. Not only can someone who believes in a universal right to life that makes abortion immoral not eat meat, they have to be exactly as evangelical about vegetarianism as they do about their pro-life views. Also, you should probably move to somewhere they believe in reincarnation and sweep the street clear of insects if the right to life is to you, so sacred and universal, that you would never kill an animal.

Secondly, life implies violence4, and violence implies killing. Even if we don’t directly kill, business advantage takes food out of someone else’s mouth, we ignore poverty that leads to harm both here and overseas, we enable or directly wage wars, we stand back with our non-interventionist policies while other people oppress and murder each other, and that’s even ignoring all the times animals kill each other that we stand back and allow. If you believe in a universal right to life, you already have a lot of fires to put out.

So, many pro-life supporters don’t. There are two common restrictions on the right to life. The first is the personal restriction to killing: I believe in a right to life, so I will not kill. This is a functional position, but it prevents you from arguing for this standard for everyone else and thus imposing it by law, especially if you rely on others to kill for you- if you support war or soldiers, or lethal force in police action, or torture, or political assassination, or anything similar, even discounting the killing of animals involved in human life5. This really falls down when taken in context of other beliefs of the people who use it as an argument, because it’s so inconsistent with many pro-life values, it’s likely just a stand-in for the second idea.

The other idea sometimes comes bundled together with a personal restriction, a form that’s probably more viable than a personal restriction alone. In its most extreme form, it goes like this: Something about the human species makes us special, and anything concieved with our DNA has a right to life from conception. This is not usually an argument to the right to life from sentience or personhood, as these concepts are both very debatable in how early they apply to infants, fetuses, zygotes, etc… Neither is it an argument from human potential- this has its own problems. This restriction is usually about any human life being sacred, and it seems to have roots in an anthropocentric6 thought- it seems to be used as a justification that not only can humans not be killed, but that anything that prevents the proliferation of the human species is morally wrong. This sort of thought has always been problematic to me, and my opposition to it led to a lot of my current thoughts and beliefs- my criticism of “strong” catholicism, my Green beliefs about sustainable population, the view that the human race is just a particularly smart type of animal, and so on. This type of thought is fundamentally incompatible with modern life: it incites wistful denial of global warming7, it opposes birth control and sexual liberation, and it’s highly vulnerable to tribalism in its extreme form: “only people like me are really people!”
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Hey, at least we didn’t fuck things up last time

While I think they’re making things go disastrously wrong in terms of pay equity, I have a small amount of sympathy for National on Women’s Affairs. Not because they’re any good on women’s rights, (oh, they realise that they’re important, hence the $2 million funding increase for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs) but because Pansy Wong is at least correct when she says that National presided over a large catchup in the pay gap for women when they were last in Government.

But I don’t thing they can claim all the credit for that- their women’s policy at the time was essentially: “Okay, let’s outlaw blatant discrimination, then hope it gets better without looking at any of the tricky stuff.” And it did, because women were still moving towards becoming more professional, more educated, and businesses were moving towards taking advantage of that fact, and to their credit, the Equal Pay Act facilitated this process. But the transition towards a dual-gendered workface is now largely over; there is still improvement to be made stamping out pockets of gormless misogyny in say, the I.T. sector. But that doesn’t mean National can expect to cancel everything that’s going on in the MoW’sA, start doing things their way, and expect that to save them money and get better outcomes for women. Sometimes it’s actually more productive to maintain operational continuity.

Especially seeing the biggest thing on the horizon was that the government was going to try and lead the way by doing better about its own pay problems. Pansy Wong is going to look very embarrassed if one of the opposition MPs works out that they can just attack her on why the government doesn’t just pay women an equal amount itself if it’s so committed to pay equity.

I can tell National realise this is going to be important, I just don’t get how they think that sitting back and “not fucking things up” like they did after passing the EPA will be enough. That last twelve percent is full of tricky little problems, like unequal promotion and bonuses, relative over-qualification of women in any given position when compared with men’s qualifications, and business practices unfriendly to flexible work hours and parental leave. None of these have “fire and forget” fixes that National can use, and I get the impression they’re way over the heads in this.

And it’s all wasted time.

So, for those of you who don’t follow the news, we now have assurance that because the S59 amendment act is working properly, even our current government is willing to continue supporting it, and even they acknowledge the uselessness of the question.

This certainly brings up issues around our referendum process- for instance, there’s no requirement to state the question in a certain way, so often we have referenda where the desired answer from the groups that supported a referendum is actually “no” rather than “yes”, like the current referendum.

While I’m not a big supporter of referendums in the first place, (I think they’re usually either useless or they get used for majority groups to step all over the rights of minority groups) if we’re going to spend nine million dollars on a referendum, it might as well be a good one.

I think there are three good criteria to a referendum process we’re currently lacking in New Zealand:

  • It shouldn’t be harder to initiate a referendum than it is to win a political campaign. (Currently, it takes twice as many voters to initiate a referendum as it does for a list-only party to enter parliament)
  • It should be very clear what the status quo is.
  • There should be a very clear proposed change, rather than an ephemeral goal to be met. (Such as “hire more fire fighters” vs “allocate $2million to hire additional fire fighters”)
  • Referenda results need to either be bound directly into law or introduce legislation into the house of representatives to be useful. (Under the current system the results are mostly ignored)

There are already some good posts on other sites- Kiwipolitico comes to mind- that suggest viable alternatives. My personal favourite is the suggestion that groups actually have to submit a draft law, and then uses the purpose statement or explanatory note in the referendum question. Then you just need to figure out exactly what sort of majority you want to see before you consider the law implemented.

Correcting incorrect “corrections”

Bob McCoskrie of “Family Fist” fame has an opinion piece supporting the repeal of the amendment to Section 59 of the Crimes Act in the Dom Post today. It can be found online too. His piece is in response to a regular column piece by Linley Boniface, whose column is often apolitical but usually runs pretty centre-of-the-road politics when she does swim into the shark tank.

Before we get started, I of course advocate people vote YES in the upcoming referendum to be as clear as possible that they think the law is working and that violence against children is inappropriate. Now, let’s address Bob’s major points one by one, shall we?

Linley Boniface (A question smacking of deceit, June 8) is right on one thing. We should not be spending $10 million on a referendum on the anti-smacking law. But we are for two reasons.
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Second, the previous government failed to hold the referendum at the more economical time of a general election because it knew the issue would bring about its downfall. It did anyway.

The government did not have time to hold the referendum simultaneously with the election because the referendum’s supporters missed the deadline due to illegitimate signatures the first time they submitted their petition. Your own fault, Bob- people shouldn’t try to cheat petitions, especially given how often they’re simply ignored anyway. And in case you forgot, this wasn’t even a government Bill, and it would pass almost as overwhelmingly in the current parliament given the same parties have committed to supporting a law that works.

But Boniface needs correction on many other things. A total of 113 politicians did vote for the law – after being whipped to vote that way by Helen Clark and John Key. Phil Goff and Paula Bennett have now admitted they don’t agree with the law as stated.

I think avoiding the truth is bad, Bob. Both of these politicians support the law as it is.

The question “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in NZ?” was publicly notified for submissions in 2007 but there was no opposition from these groups at that time. They never believed that more than 300,000 voters would sign a petition demanding a say on this issue, the majority of whom signed the petition after the amendment was passed.

Nobody thought they needed to object to a question that described the position it supported as “good”, because it was so obviously biased. As it is the question cannot be reasonably interpretted as even opposing the current law no matter how you answer it, as smacking as part of “good parental correction” should by definition be inconsequential- and any inconsequential assualt against a child is explicitly protected under the amended version of the Crimes Act.

At least you didn’t try to defend the question as actually being a meaningful referendum on the Section 59 Amendment Act.

Bob goes to claim studies don’t show harm from light smacking as part of correction, however he seems to ignore studies that show any smacking at all is a risk factor for child abuse- most likely because of the problem of escalation. (a little smack can become a big smack or even a punch easily enough even without conscious intent) There is also the fact that there are many positive parenting strategies that avoid the need for any “corrective” violence at all- why bother smacking children when you can achieve the same results without having to bring violence, however small, into your home?

The law as it stands is confusing. In research done in March, respondents were asked whether the new law makes it always illegal for parents to give their children a light smack: 55 per cent said yes, 31 per cent said no, and 14 per cent didn’t know.

Even 71% of people having a definite opinion about a technicality like a single defense against assualt of children is pretty impressive Bob, even if 55% of the total were wrong.

Meanwhile, the rate of child abuse continues. Sue Bradford said her bill was never intended to solve the problem of child abuse. She was right.

No law change will be a magic bullet, but this law has already resulted in a conviction that probably wouldn’t have gone ahead and will probably result in a Dad that needed some help with his parenting getting it, without spending any time in jail. I’d say even that one result is great, even if this law hadn’t taken part in a sea change on our attitudes to parenting and assault against children.

The conservative media: Reactionaries

Part 2 in an ongoing series. This series examines trends that lead the New Zealand media, often conceived of as a liberal institution, towards a more conservative take on some of their stories.

Last time I talked about how the media sometimes resorts to “telling stories” because a comprehensive article often is too time-, space- or money-consuming. This time I want to talk about comments from advocacy groups on non-political news.

I’m sure we’ve all seen it- some poor granny is mugged at home, and after the news show us everything that’s relevant, to fill in a little bit of extra space or time, they do a spot with some crazy old man on a vengeance trip from the Sensible Sentencing Trust or Family First.

This reactionary gets as much time as the actual story to lobby unopposed for harsher penalties, freedom to murder taggers, or whatever they generally like, because of two things:

  • Impact: Most crimes don’t leave an impact that shows well on TV or in a newspaper, so bringing along some angry dodger to be outraged for them, without compromising the prosal neutrality of the article or TV piece is quite convenient.
  • Ease: It’s a quick, easy, cheap way to fill in space for your program or publication, especially as these groups make a point of being available for easy media comment.

Now, that’s great if you view selling newspapers or news advertising as your business. Unfortunately, some of us still want news that performs a social function, for example fair and rigorous political debate.

This torrent of exposure to radical social conservative lobby groups normalises their views. That is, it doesn’t necessarily convince people it wouldn’t otherwise, but because their views are shown unopposed so much, moderates don’t react as unfavourably to these groups as they might had the news sought comments from groups that oppose punitive justice systems, (or ones that support restorative justice systems) or groups that propose liberal social norms, family planning, safe sex, and marriage only when people are ready. Effectively, the newspapers and programs that run these stories with unopposed comments are systematically endorsing the views of those groups, but without having the courage to say so.

Now, I don’t contest that the news media has a right to publish content from a certain political perspective1. I’ll critique them when they’re stupid and that’s that. But trying to hide your bias is what makes it insidious, and doing reaction-checks with these reactionaries is a pervasive trend of hidden bias in our media that I’d love to see stopped.

1This is actually the reason I bag on the Herald. They’re like a reverse-Guardian. Speaking of which, where the hell do I have to move to get a left-wing paper in New Zealand?

John Key fails to manage sexual harassment

So, people elsewhere have covered the Worth saga pretty well covered. I think the Hand Mirror covered it pretty well from the perspective that I would have.

What I instead want to talk about is what this means for the Prime Minister, and a National Party that’s trying to be Not Quite Labourβ„’ and do things like actually worry about stuff that some women do, such as breast cancer.

The Prime Minister has managed this like crap. I think this is one of the things a lot of kiwis didn’t realise they would be getting when they voted for Not Quite Labourβ„’, as they talked the talk very well on some more mainstream women’s issues (read: issues that appeal to straight Pakeha women1) but couldn’t walk the walk. The contrast here couldn’t be clearer: our boring, sensible leader of the opposition is discrete, respects the privacy of the woman who made allegations, asks for evidence but doesn’t blame or pressure her, and trusts her and supports her without going in swinging as some sort of ill-conceived white knight without her permission. Gentlemen, (and other guys) this is a great example for what to do if a someone2 ever confides in you that they have been sexually harassed.

In contrast, when John Key was tapped discreetly on the shoulder by Phil Goff, he did not ensure he got to see the texts or emails or call logs, his “investigation” didn’t even ask Phil Goff for them. This suggests that it was not an investigation, and in fact he merely asked Worth for his side of the story and then covered for him when he denied it. A clue for potential Prime Ministers, employers, or leaders of any type: Sexual harassment is serious. Don’t leave it to be a matter of who said what- if there’s any documentation to be had, get it. Whether the allegation is real or a fake, SOMEONE is going to need counseling to deal with this at the end, so finding the facts is excellent.

John Key also initially said he would “out” the people alleging Dr. Worth sexually harassed them, until he eventually broke down under repeated questioning and admitted it might be appropriate to hear their evidence privately. This breaks another rule: Don’t go public unless you have to take public action, (such as a dismissal) and if you do have to, don’t share details, don’t name names you don’t have to. Whether or not there is substance to the allegation3, I think the person who made it deserves privacy in our culture where victims of sexual crimes are attacked more than perpetrators. People bringing allegations of sexual abuse deserve to be considered innocent of lying about it until they are proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt, and right now, the court of public opinion does not work on those rules.

I know it goes against the instincts of many men, but victims need to be able to choose just how much they can handle in bringing their allegations to bear. For some people it is shaming or even traumatising enough that it even happened in the first place, and they would collapse under public scrutiny. Sometimes not even making allegations at all can be the best road for recovery. As friends, bosses, leaders, family, whatever- we don’t have the right to make those choices for other people. It’s great to see that there are still people in parliament that get that.

The National Party seems to get that it needs to give in to things that are popular with women, but it still isn’t listening to women who are victims of sexual harassment on how to deal with that sort of situation, and still seems to be stuck in the era where you play defense for your mates until you can retire them safely to the back bench. This sort of thing can’t be shut up now fortunately, so it’s something they’re going to have to deal with, at least if they want to court the Women’s Day vote any longer.

While this affair hasn’t been a home run for the media, it’s been a dramatic improvement on past coverage of sexual harassment/abuse allegations, and I’d like to acknowledge that. There was actually an assumption that the victims had a right to privacy. I shouldn’t have to be happy about that, but I am, and that’s the way the world is right now. Let’s keep hoping for more: Hopefully our Prime Minister will pick up the steps as we force him to dance this issue4. Hopefully the media will continue to protect the rights of victims this way. Hopefully. πŸ™‚

1Obviously I’m not saying straight Pakeha women aren’t women too, just that they’re not the only women.
2Yes, sexual harassment happens to men, too. In fact, men are even more reluctant to report it than women, partially because of the perception that they should have liked it. Sexual harassment perpetrated against men has a lot of the same psychological baggage associated with it as rape perpetrated against men.
3In cases where there isn’t substance to an allegation of sexual harassment, counseling is a really good idea anyway. A counselor will help them deal with whatever issues caused the allegation- whether it was an unprovable case of sexual harassment, or a cry for attention, or a symptom of a larger psychological problem, mental health needs dealing to, not mocking and attacking in the style that the public usually brings for what they perceive as false allegations.
4Or we decide that we need a new leader who’s better at this sort of thing. (ie. not Bill English) Either’s fine with me, really.

Reaction: What isn’t wrong with hate crimes legislation

I picked up on an article in the online edition of the Times by John Cloud this morning on the extension of hate crimes legislation in the USA.

Firstly, let me agree with John Cloud on the critical point here: We can neither police what is in someone’s head, nor can we limit their ability to peacefully express their thoughts. This is what freedom of speech as a legislative principle is about. But hate crimes are not free speech, because they’re not speech. Punishing a hate crime more than an ordinary killing, assault, or harassment doesn’t risk punishing people for being wrong- rather, the angle of attack it’s most vulnerable to (and I don’t agree with this, I’m just being straightforward) is that it’s disproportionate punishment.

John claims that this additional strictness in sentencing is to punish someone for thinking bad things. I completely disagree: the extra punishment is because there are two crimes involved, not just one. The obvious crime is the physical or mental harm inflicted by the damage of the crime directly, and John correctly acknowledges that.

However, the less obvious crime is not that minority groups are outraged or encouraged to riot- no, those are reactions, not causes. The less obvious crime is that hate crimes are an act of domination. They tell people of other races, sexualities, or gender identities to shut up, take what they’re given, and to be very afraid that if they don’t comply with what a few violent and hateful individuals think, they will be harassed, hurt, or killed.

While these visions of kyriarchy might be protected inside someone’s head, or as words on paper, or even in a public speech, expressing them as violent crime aimed to intimidate and dominate the wider culture is indeed going further than a regular violent offense, and the harm that these acts of terrorism- and make no mistake, this is how hate crimes are intended to work, to terrify portions of the populace- need to be deterred with whatever extra muscle we can throw at them.

It’s also disingenuous to say that the only thing someone will care about with regard to hate crimes is the actual crime: I care about the motivation because that motivation spreads, and makes it more dangerous for me to be open about who I am, or for transgender people to transition, or for women to be out at night, or any number of other worries that come along with being who you are and doing what you want to. Hate crimes legislation is a strike back, it gives a little more courage, and tells everyone that the government is on your side a little.

John argues hate crimes legislation doesn’t need to extend to private land1 because hate crimes are already falling. I’m going to have to disagree with him that this is a good reason to abandon protective legislation: This law isn’t what’s going to end hate crimes altogether. The biggest reduction to hate crimes will come when everyone can actually understand and empathise with people of different sexualities, races, and gender identities, and I agree that hate crimes legislation, no matter how comprehensive and punitive, will make little difference. The point of hate crimes legislation is to act as a line in the sand, it starts as a symbol and hopefully gets people to think twice about making that leap from merely being wrong, which ought to never be a crime, to doing wrong- which often is. It gives courage to those of us worried about being a victim, and lets us act a little more closely to how free the average rich white guy can. πŸ˜‰

1I’ll do him the favour of assuming his opposition to the bill proposed is not on the basis of it extending hate crimes protections to include acts of violence based on gender identity or sexual orientation, because I find the idea of someone opposing that appalling. Who knows if that’s optimistic or not?

The conservative media: Telling Stories

This is going to be part one of an ongoing series about trends which lead our media in New Zealand (yes, I’m not just talking about newscorp and “Fox News” πŸ˜‰ ) towards a more conservative take on events than strictly unbiased reporting1 would demand.

Media bias is a funny thing to talk about: Ask two people about it, and one will tell you that the media’s all repeating conservative spin and that the Herald is the worst of them, actually spinning it for them half of the time, and the other will tell you that the liberal media is out to destroy New Zealand and that only that bastion of journalistic integrity, the Herald, is holding back the invading hordes.

I don’t mean to cudgel the diseased equine2 in quite that manner. Rather, what I want to talk about is trends in reporting that introduce bias. I understand that in theory, the media is a liberal institution. Their model, ideally, is to question everything, to open all lines of communication, and see that The Truth Will Out. I have some sympathy for the notion of liberal media in say, online reporting- scoop is a great example of how media can become a liberal institution, even if it reports in a way that is not biased. But budget cutbacks, the impoverishment and decay of print media, and gradual abandonment and migration of television for on-demand video (both in the form of set-tops like MySky and the upcoming Tivo, and in the form of internet distribution like TVNZ OnDemand, and various foreign sites on either side of the legality border) have aided conservative politics immensely in mainstream news reporting.

Firstly, there is the problem of traditional media that afflicts mainstream newspapers and news programs: Space. There are only so many pages people that are economical to print, or that readers want to sort trough to find stories of interest to them, and only so much time for television footage and presenter comments. To achieve an unbiased story, one needs to tell it from all sides, and in proportion to how well-respected those views are by portions of the community, especially those most qualified to comment. For all but the biggest stories, this means that an attempt at truly comprehensive reporting is abandoned, and maybe at best you get the two biggest competing viewpoints aired- in political terms this usually amounts to the usual dogfight between National and Labour, where hypocrisy is measured in kilostatements, evasiveness in megaunits, and attempted point scoring in words per minute- in other words, about the only time anything substantive gets discussed is when it’s leaked by only one party. The very act of limiting something to the largest views edges out progressive viewpoints, dragging the debate towards the centre, a battleground which favours conservatives because they are highly practiced at preaching to centrists without losing their base.

But sometimes, for minor stories, even cutting down to two viewpoints takes too much space, and the media reacts by going back to a conservative staple: Entrenched, unexplained narratives. We can see this all over political stories- bills get typified by soundbites that put them into a narrative. (“Anti-smacking” was by no means the first) Even personality stories get slotted into narratives: there’s a narrative for victims, (nobody can understand their loss, all alone, so tragic, let’s have a cry. That’s not empathic, news media, that’s giving up.) for “dubious” victims, (it was her fault she was raped, he happened to be a highly attractive rugby player.) for social responsibility, (look what cool things kids these days do!) for social irresponsibility, (look what those bloody kids these days do!) for practically everything. We live in a world where newspaper reporting could almost be written by mail merge, so pervasive are these narratives.

Now, I’ll admit, narratives aren’t always swallowed by the media audience- the line that civil unions were gay marriage dressed up in disguise never caught on, for instance. But the mere fact that we have to fight this spin because of lazy reporting irks- if news media wants so much to retain its audience, it could at least attempt a little rigour. Where do they get these narratives from? Well, that’s where the bias seeps in: People tell them. This means that the news is highly dependent on both the social circles of journalists, (and for journalists writing about positions of power, it’s entirely possible for them to get a little too friendly with the people they cover) and on the self-reporting bias: That is, people are more likely to talk to you if they think you’re less likely to listen to listen to what they say. Hence why half the letters section of any major publication is devoted to various degrees of insanity. πŸ˜‰

The problem with narratives goes beyond political bias, too: It’s lazy reporting and short-circuits the news media’s role as our social guardian against corruption. You can’t criticise the excesses of the government if you cry wolf at everything they do, nor if you cry sheep when they’re actually acting like wolves- both of which are trends that narratives enforce. It enforces a tendency to drop or minimise important facts that complicate and undermine the narrative- telling the story the way the story is supposed to go becomes important, rather than reporting what actually happened. This leads to our media tending towards a close-mindedness, and that’s a deadly quality in an institution whose job is always to question- almost as bad as the tendency to think you’re always right is for a politician.

1Note: I don’t claim that such a thing as “strictly unbiased reporting” can exist in all media of communication, or even in reporting at all. I’m merely pointing out factors that introduce a conservative bias, not whether a given piece of reporting/paper/show/website manages to be impartial.
2For those opposed to the usage of wild thesauri, I’m talking about beating dead horses.