Cracker by Damian Christie

61

Breaking the Silence

Last night I was invited to moderate a panel for the launch of Shaun Hendy’s new book, ‘Silencing Science’.  Shaun is a scientist, a science communicator and Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, a Centre of Research Excellence hosted by the University of Auckland.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been increasingly working in the field of science communication – with the Science Media Centre I have been travelling around a wide range of science conferences, running an express media training programme.  It’s what I call ‘white hat’ media training, in that the aim isn’t teaching people to avoid questions in favour of talking points, but simply to help the scientists explain their science better to the general public.  And in the express programme, each participant gets just twenty minutes from start to finish, and ends up with a 90 second video, which are collected here.  

It’s been a wonderful time, from Antarctic science to entomology, nanotechnology to geography… so many great stories, fascinating research about things I’d never heard of.  It’s made me want to devote more of my time to getting the word out about scientific research in New Zealand, and science in general.  It’s also alerted me to some of the issues science communicators face, which is the basis of Shaun’s book.

The forces which lead to science being ‘silenced’ are both external and internal to the science community. From Government pressure on scientists not to scare the public by highlighting aftershock risks in Christchurch; attacks on public health scientists such as those outlined in the Dirty Politics leaks; commercial confidentiality; to pressure from the scientists themselves as well as their peers, not to rock the boat, speak outside of their immediate expertise, or risk criticism.

It’s nothing new.  The book 'Merchants of Doubt' (the author of which I interviewed on Public Address Radio a while ago now) shows the same playbook has been running from the tobacco interests of the 1950s through to the softdrink and oil companies of today. And I’m sure if freshwater ecologist Mike Joy had challenged the Muldoon Government he would’ve come off with much the same anti-intellectual response he received from John Key, comparing an academic’s opinion to that of a lawyer. Which possibly means even less the more we know about Mr Key’s lawyer.

What is new is the increase in reliance on commercial funding; the pressures Universities place on academics to publish; and the changing nature of the media, where scientists are most likely to find a platform.  Just this week we have heard about the axe hanging over RNZ’s “Our Changing World”, which has prompted the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman to lobby for the show’s continuation. 

Specialist science reporters are on the critically endangered list, meaning often the person entrusted with today’s climate change news is the same writing yesterday’s Bachelor article.  As a reporter, I’ve personally been handed a science story in the morning on a topic I know nothing about, with the expectation there will be a two minute piece on air at 6pm.  A piece which one hopes hasn’t made too many factual errors, or been unwittingly captured by the wrong interests, or tried to create balance in an issue where an overwhelming majority has found consensus (climate change, for instance).  I’ve always taken great pains to try and get things right – and I don’t think any reporters set out to be wrong – but you don’t know what you don’t know, and in science, that’s a lot.

'Silencing Science' considers what role our scientists should have in society.  Should they simply present the public and the politicians with the pros and cons, the available evidence, then step away from the decision making process? Or should they advocate a view, like Mike Joy, and use what they know together with a value judgement, and push back against those who stand in the way of good decision making?

I’ve often said, half-jokingly, that given some of the people we have run the country, I’d be quite happy being ruled by a benevolent wise council of elders. And over the past couple of years on this science communication journey, I’ve met a number of people who I think would qualify. 

[EDIT: A number of people have been talking about John Oliver's take on this issue from just last week, so here it is. Thanks Bob for the link]

23

IT'S ALIVE

For the past few years, actually, the whole decade I’ve been working in television, the narrative has been the same – traditional media is fucked.

 The story has taken different forms over the years.  There’s been seemingly continuous restructuring at organisations like TVNZ and the New Zealand Herald (“restructuring” must be the greatest euphemism there is in the media world).  We’ve had the death of serious current affairs show, the rise and fall of TVNZ 7, funding cuts, mergers and acquisitions… I’m not telling you anything new here.

 To survive in this landscape has made me increasingly feel like a cockroach in a nuclear winter.  I’ve seen people with far more talented and experienced than me throw in the towel, take early retirement, or move to Comms. Unable, or simply unwilling to adapt, as the sea of shit levels rise around them. 

 Today I wanted to tell you one positive story.  A few years ago I had an idea, which I kept working on, and eventually launched – a website called YOURS.net.nz (first “urs.net.nz”, you know, for kids, smh), and thanks to the new domain rules, now simply YOURS.nz.

 Well today sees the launch of YOURS TV.  Like the website, it’s a youth-focused show with user-generated content.  The trick being, our users are some of the most wonderful and incredibly talented students in the country.  Young film makers, reporters, camera operators, editors, graphics, animators – just wow.  I’ve just watched our final edit of the show before it gets sent to TVNZ On Demand for upload and release, and it’s great.  No, it’s no substitute for in-depth current affairs (although we have a few hard-hitting stories in the pipeline), but I’m really proud of the effort, and envious of the talent of those young people who have helped put it together.  For them, they get the opportunity to come up with their own stories (the editorial decisions are largely theirs), interview people they wouldn’t normally meet, and have it distributed via the biggest TV broadcaster in the country.  And I pay them.

 The show is on TVNZ On Demand.  No, there’s no traditional broadcast slot, and I’m quite happy with it that way.  I had a conversation recently with a journalism teacher, who when I spoke of the show being “on TVNZ” kept correcting me with “well.. it’s TVNZ On Demand”, as though that was something of which to be ashamed. That teacher, who supposedly knows something about new media, is the only one who should be ashamed, for reasons that are best summed up in this Facebook thread from one of the show’s contributors:

Best of all, we’re the only local TVNZOD-only show, which makes us something of a novelty, and means lots of support and special treatment from TVNZ.  I’ve had nothing but support from TVNZ ever since the 2 minute coffee meeting with Head of Content Jeff Latch, which basically went “Jeff, have a look at this video from my website contributors” – “It’s great – let me know what we can do to help.”

AUT have also come to the party with some funding, and we get  to use the fantastic studio facilities up there – our talent is a mix of high school and tertiary students – the very fact these ones have put their hand up puts them ahead of 99% of their peers in my books. 

And the whole thing is made possible with a Digital grant from New Zealand on Air.  Everyone gets paid for working on the show, which is really important to me - I remember even as a fairly well-established writer, the number of start-ups trying to get me to do stuff for free - one even said "we're not paying people until we make a profit".  I'm not going to be getting rich any time soon, but I’m a bit closer to my dream of being able to work full time doing things I really care about.  The media landscape might resemble the post-apocalyptic opening from Terminator 2, but scurrying amongst it today, I am a happy little cucaracha.

If you have anyone in your household who fits the audience (13-20ish), and particularly anyone who might have something creative to contribute, please get them to check out our first episode.  Even with all the hard-work and imperviousness to radiation, we won’t survive without an audience.  THANKS.

Absolute Genius: The New Paul Henry Show

For the past couple of years, as part of my teaching at AUT, I’ve given a lecture called “Writing for Television News”.  It was adapted a few years ago from notes from a lecture that I believe Mike McRoberts had given prior to that. Philip Sherry probably wrote the damn thing 40 years ago, and like whatever the non-racist name for Chinese Whispers is these days, it probably bears no resemblance to whatever it was when it started.

The point is, writing for television is quite different than writing for radio.  The former already has pictures, it doesn’t need them to be painted.  A combination of pictures and words can be used to say much more in a shorter space of time (I’m talking about news theory here, obviously television can also say very little for a great deal of time, as anyone who’s sat in front of a Kardashians marathon can attest). 

 A simple example of words and pictures combining: A voiceover reads “The Auckland Council is looking at selling a number of key assets”, while showing a picture of the Airport, the Museum and Motat.  In radio, you’d have to include the names of those assets to give the same meaning.  At a more basic level, I can introduce someone with the line “but not everyone agrees” and then cut to a statement from Dick Quax, who has a key (which is what we call the name and title that flashes up on screen when someone talks).  On the radio, you’d have to say “but not everyone agrees, including Auckland Councillor Dick Quax”.

Then there’s some things that will never work on radio. A dog on a skateboard. A death-defying extreme sport stunt. Highlights from Fashion Week. Things that listeners of RNZ are probably quite grateful for avoiding.

Where am I going with this?  Am I going to teach the broadcasting syllabus one blog post at a time?  No.  I’m pointing out that if you’re looking at starting a new breakfast TV show, making it also work for radio is no mean feat.  Which is exactly what Mediaworks is coming to grips with as it prepares to launch the new TV3 and Radio Live breakfast show with Paul Henry. 

I can’t say for sure that it was ever intended to begin when most such shows resume this year (about this week), but it’s definitely not now. An acquaintance at TV3 says it’s posing a few challenges (that’s a polite paraphrasing), and will be more like April or May.

Like most of you, I’m guessing, I’m not particularly excited to see or hear from Paul Henry.  His “I’m amazing” shtick is more tedious than offensive, although the marketing team at Mediaworks seem to be loving it so much that they’ve adopted it as a recruitment tool.  Although to be fair, when I think “tool”, Paul Henry does spring to mind.  In the past, I've defended at least his abilities - I’ve seen him do very good interviews, interesting journalism, marred by the occasional tosspot outburst.  That ratio has long since turned on its head.

But regardless of what Mediaworks or Paul Henry might think, this isn’t all about him.  A multi-platform breakfast show will employ dozens of people, and many of them will be good, hard-working people.  I know some of my former students will be among them.

So if it’s possible to tune out Henry, even for just a minute, I’ll be fascinated to see if, and how, a TV show that’s also a radio show will work.  There aren’t any great examples I can think of from overseas.  The closest thing we have here is when Radio Live plays the TV3 news at 6pm, and that’s a good example of how it doesn’t work: dramatic pictures not speaking for themselves, nameless interviews, invisible sports highlights and a vacuum where isobar maps should be.  At least (I’m told), on the new breakfast show(s), the news breaks will be split into separate radio news and TV news bulletins. 

It’s not hard to arrive at the opinion that rather than a brave step into a dynamic multi-platform environment, Mediaworks aren’t instead simply  giving up on Radio Live.  Marcus Lush hasn’t made any substantial inroads into Newstalk ZB’s breakfast audience, why not save his (by all accounts, considerable) salary and get two for the price of (by all accounts, a considerable) one with Paul Henry?  At the same time pare back the over-resourced late night Paul Henry Show into a more modest late news show (cheap presenter, no co-host, no special reporters), the bottom line looks better, the company looks more attractive to a potential buyer, etc.  

I can only think in the same situation, if TVNZ had decided to scrap its failing late night show, breakfast show and (if we had a radio arm) a breakfast radio show, the NZ Herald wouldn't have gone with a similar line as the one  attributed to (a very misinformed) Brian Edwards, that "MediaWorks was capitalising on Henry's late-night television success".  I presume "Crisis at State Television" would've been more the angle.  

As a journalism teacher and maker of television, I find any shift in the media landscape interesting, and a genuine effort to create a multiplatform show on a major network particularly so. I'm really curious.

 If it works, and I genuinely hope for those journalists employed there that it does, it might be time to rethink that lecture on writing for television.  Maybe I’ll invite a guest lecturer instead, some genius from the Paul Henry Show. No, not that one.

[EDIT: I tend to assume people know these things, but for the record, I work on a casual basis for TVNZ News & Current Affairs, and co-host Back Benches on Prime TV]

New Year, New Post.

I was a bit disappointed to realise, on December 30th, that 2014 would pass without me finishing a single book.   I picked up a copy of Steve Braunias’ election collection, Mad Men, but even its slender spine defied my belated efforts. 

Likewise, I’d barely written a word all year.  A few blog entries (I’ve never been prolific, for sure, but that’s a new low even for me), no magazine articles or columns or anything.  For some reason, unable to read or write.  Practically, if not literally, illiterate. 

December 31st being a traditional time for setting unrealistic expectations for the year ahead, I resolved to do more of both these things.  To write regularly, like I’m doing now, and to try and knock off a book each month or thereabouts. Though The Luminaries (still unread, on my bookshelf) might have to count as two or three of those. 

What went wrong in 2014, I ask on your behalf, like so many annoying politicians setting up their own questions (“Could we be doing better? Of course. Are we working to improve the economy? Yes. What sorts of things are we doing?”).  Yes what went wrong?  Well nothing really.  Our second child turned up in May, a little fella named Eddie who is an absolute joy, and what little time was left went to work, the rest of the family, and occasionally, sleep.  Rather than reading, I’d drift off in front of a comedy show, laptop thudding to the ground more often than not.  (Still works, other than the delete key. I've just learnt to never make mistakes…) 

Last year I subscribed to the New Yorker too. I’d get guilty looking at the pile of unread issues, but tried to at least dedicate my weekly flights to Wellington for Back Benches to reading them – in the past I would’ve worked my way through a book, but  I fucking love the New Yorker, and even if I only read 1 in 4 mags, the relatively cheap annual sub (about $120 I think?) is money well spent, and I couldn’t recommend it more. 

I’d meant to write a number of times during the election campaign.  But it was all so damned depressing – not the outcome per se, but the fact that most “normal” people I spoke to (ie those who don’t have Twitter accounts and get their news from the TV or an actual newspaper) weren’t particularly exercised by the Dirty Politics affair simply because they always thought politics and politicians were like that anyway.  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, there’s a reason why MPs are down there with journalists among the least trusted professions, but working alongside so many back bench MPs, I think I’ve generally had a more optimistic view of the people I’ve gotten to know. I say “generally” – I mean there have been some completely c**ts too. 

The other thing I’d meant to tell y’all is that my student media site, YOURS.net.nz, is launching a TV show, through TVNZ On Demand.   It will feature the best content submitted to YOURS.net.nz, as well as content commissioned from young people around NZ, a magazine show mix of news, reviews, interviews, arts, music, entertainment, social issues and so forth.  If you have young (13+) people in your house, let them know, and if they’re content creators, let me know!  We kick off in March (thanks NZ On Air, as well as TVNZ for backing me).   

If we do get off the ground on schedule, we’ll probably beat the new Paul Henry Breakfast TV and radio combo show being put together by Mediaworks – from what I understand it won’t see the light now until April or even later.   I’ve got some thoughts on this show, but rather than use all my ammo in this first post, I might try and save it for a bit more detailed consideration in the coming weeks. 

Don’t be surprised if comments aren’t enabled for my posts.  While I think there are some really good discussions on PAS, there’s also been some shitty ones, ones that have put me off contributing here, and I know have seen others leave in the past.  Just because we don’t call each other pinko commie twats like they do on other blogs, doesn’t mean it’s always a “safe space”, or even just a nice place to be.   If you really wanna talk about something, I’m on Twitter @damianchristie 

…Speaking of ‘safe space’, what’s crawled up Twitter’s arse and died in the past weeks?  Arguments over God-knows-what (even by Twitter’s usual standards), people locking up, leaving… What I find weird is that people – and I’ve done it here myself – attribute it to Twitter somehow.  Like it’s universal, when actually all of our accounts are a unique combination of people we’ve chosen to follow. And you only have to look at the trending hashtags to realise that most people aren’t arguing about safe spaces and mansplaining and privilege and marginalisation and so forth, they’re discussion how much they love One Direction and/or the cricket.  So how did I end up in this humourless, needlessly argumentative chamber? 

Sometimes I think Twitter would be better if you could just turn off the comments too. 

60

The Colorado Experiment

I went to Denver, Colorado last week.  It’s part of a project I can’t really talk about at the moment, but it’s fair to assume my visit – coinciding with the 420 Rally on 4/20 – had something to do with cannabis.

Coming home, into the midst of a nationwide debate over the status of legal highs, simply reinforced what I’d felt for a long time: that by refusing to even consider the legalisation of cannabis, we’ve ended up with something far worse.

I’m not much of a pot smoker, and nor were the crew I travelled with. Many of my friends are of course, and they thought it particularly unfair that I of all people would get to go to Colorado for what must be the biggest event on the worldwide cannabis calendar.

Possession of cannabis became legal in Colorado on 1 January 2014. The 420 Rally has long been a popular event in the state, but this, the first since legalisation, was always going to be huge.  And it was – tourists from both within and outside the US turned up in droves, hotel occupancy was up by 70%, and for the duration of our stay, most floors of our hotel had a pungent aroma.

There were dozens if not hundreds of events put on especially for the weekend. The 420 Rally in Denver’s Civic Park attracted tens of thousands on Saturday and Sunday, the search-for-the-best-buds Cannabis Cup was also a two-day affair, and live acts and DJs across the city were programmed to delight the smokers. Snoop Dogg played to a sold out crowd at the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre on the big night.

At the same time, oddly, if you were walking through Denver’s bar district late at night, around Larimer Square, you’d have absolutely no idea what was happening elsewhere.

Legalisation in Colorado does not mean ‘free for all’. There’s no smoking weed in public, no smoking in or outside of bars, and no smoking in your car. You’ve got to be 21 to buy it, there are limits to how much you can buy or possess (an ounce in most cases) and how many plants you can have (6). 

And it’s taxed. According to a lawyer I spoke to, who was largely responsible for pushing the proposition through, it was the Soccer Moms who helped it pass, with one condition: The first $40 million of revenue goes to school construction in the state. It’s estimated the tax on weed could raise $125 million in its first year. Of course, the ‘free-weed’ brigade still believe there should be no restrictions whatsoever on the blessed herb.

 At the same time, the state also runs a medicinal marijuana regime. You require some form of ailment treatable by marijuana – the poster I saw at the dispensary recommended a particular indica strain for “fungal infections”, so I’m guessing Athlete’s Foot would do the trick. Medical marijuana is not subject to the same tax as recreational marijuana – the price difference is enough to still make it worthwhile to find an affliction. I’m not saying there aren’t those legitimately benefitting, but I spoke to enough people with “back spasms [wink wink]” to have my doubts. The dispensary I visited said it was about 50/50 medicinal to recreational users, so either the system is being abused, or Denver is a very sick city.  Also, I don’t think it’s good for a person to pretend to be sick to get their fix – while the recreational buyers happily discussed their preferences, the medicinal lot demonstrated all the joy of a doctor’s waiting room.

 The grow operation we went to was a professionally run business. Quarantine procedures to prevent contamination of crops, clinical cleanliness, happy workers all fulfilling their part of the chain, from tending plants, trimming buds, drying, curing and packaging. At the attached dispensary, the larger-than-life shop assistant helped people choose from the plethora of strains and blends on offer.

 

I’ve never been much of a smoker because I don’t like some of the effects. I don’t particularly enjoy the pungent smoke (and the coughing fit it inspires), I feel slow, dumb, occasionally paranoid, my gums and mouth feel weird, I don’t return to normal until after having a good night’s sleep, and even the next morning I can feel a haze of stupidity hanging over me. That’s just me, and of course I realise that millions of people feel differently, and good on them. Just as I appreciate the aesthetics of a runny poached egg on toast, while retching at the taste, so I can understand why it is people like to smoke pot.

 

When in Rome, of course, and I was curious to know if the benefits of legalisation included a strain of cannabis I might enjoy. I wanted something that would make me giggle, reminiscent of my early experiences with the drug, probably when it was a lot less strong and/or 50% oregano thanks to the local skinheads we’d buy from.  I bought three different strains at the dispenser’s recommendation. Later that evening, tears were streaming down my face as I laughed uncontrollably. I still don’t think I’d make a habit of it, but it was fun for an evening.

 

I often think those most vocal about legalisation make the worst advertisement for cannabis, and the first day of the 420 Rally had aspects of that. In a state where it’s legal, would you choose to simply exercise your rights with friends at home, or don marijuana-motif tights, hoodie and cap, and smoke in public? There were definitely kids well under 21 there, getting blazed, their motivation draining before your eyes, and mothers smoking up while holding their babies. It was a bit gross. One boy told me he used marijuana to help with his schizophrenia. Another bombarded me with tales he was close with Obama, played with Van Halen and wrote the script for Anchor Man 4.

The next day, 4/20 was illustrative of the broader church of pot smokers, normal people rather than NORML people. 30,000 people packed the park to smoke their strains to the strains of Wyclef Jean and B.o.B among others, and the mood was festive. Smoking in public is illegal, but police were turning a blind eye, their presence a response to the 2013 rally, where rival gang violence saw two people shot. As far as I saw, there was no trouble this year. And the mass smoke-up at 4.20pm was something remarkable to observe.

“No trouble” seems to largely sum up Colorado’s cannabis experiment – a process being watched from within the US and around the world. I spoke to a State Trooper, and to the Department of Transportation. No rise in crime, no rise in cannabis-related traffic accidents (anecdotally at least – it’s still a little too early to tell from the stats). One person fell to his death apparently after consuming a pot cookie. Personally, I’m also not keen on the prospect of children mistaking cannabis-laced ‘gummie bears’ for their more benign counterparts, and I’m told there will be more regulation around the edible products. But for the most part, it’s been smooth sailing.

Back home, and we’re freaking out about people going cold turkey from whatever the hell it is in the synthetic cannabis they’ve been smoking. We’re still debating testing on animals and million-dollar safety regimes as politicians run around trying to score points for being tough on this bizarre Frankenstein’s Monster of an issue. The barons of synthesis are rich while people are in prison for growing a few plants.

I’m no pot smoker (although I’d prefer to avoid any workplace testing for the next 28 days or so), but to me the answer seems pretty obvious.