Cracker by Damian Christie

53

Stoned in Charge

Like Russell, I will be attending the Drug Foundation's 2013 International Drug Policy Symposium - "Through the Maze: Cannabis and Health", not least of all because I'm MCing the three-day event.  It begins on Wednesday, if this is the first you're hearing about it and really need to be there, I suggest you click the link above and get yourself sorted.

In August I travelled to Queensland for a conference all about drugs and traffic safety, partly as research for a documentary, but also so I could write this groovy little piece for the Drug Foundation's magazine "Substance Matters".  Have a read.

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Driving high

Cannabis and cars don’t mix. We know pot causes impairment, but just how much, and is it even that dangerous? Damian Christie looks at one of the emerging issues around cannabis harm.

“I drive better when I’ve been drinking” is not something you hear these days. Whether it’s down to personal experience, years of watching the horrific results of drunk driving on the news or the millions spent on a variety of advertising campaigns, the message – for most of us – has sunk in. Drink, Drive, Bloody Idiot, Ghost Chips etc.

Despite the obvious logic – things that make our brain go funny don’t improve our driving – there seems to be something stopping people who regularly use cannabis from reaching the same conclusion. It’d be easy to attribute the disconnect straight back to their drug of choice, but the reality is more complex, as is how best to detect and deal with those who continue to drive under the influence. The answer to those questions is a source of debate not just in New Zealand but around the world, where even the experts disagree on some fundamentals.

Not surprisingly, in New Zealand, more people drive under the influence of cannabis than any other illegal drug. What is surprising, though, is that more people report driving while impaired by cannabis than over the limit for alcohol. The data isn’t perfect but would suggest at least one in five New Zealand drivers has driven under the influence of cannabis – within three hours of smoking – in the past year. Two-thirds of cannabis users report drug driving in the past year, and most rate it as far less dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol.

Among younger people, the problem is even greater – a Canadian study found 40 percent of people aged 15–24 had driven stoned – double the rate who said they’d driven under the influence of alcohol. More worryingly, they’d done it not just once, but on average 10 times in the past year – far higher than the same figure for alcohol.

The rhetoric around driving stoned will be familiar to many: “It makes me a safer driver.” “I drive slower when I’m stoned.” “I’m more careful.” Is it true? In a word: no. But exactly how dangerous is it? And if we were to set some sort of limit in the same way as we do with drink driving, how stoned is too stoned to drive?

There is no doubt cannabis impairs driving ability, says Dr Barry K Logan, “within limits”. Based at Philadelphia’s NMS Labs, Dr Logan is one of the world’s foremost experts in drug-impaired driving, although he says most cannabis users’ chosen level of impairment is not particularly high.

“A user-preferred dose produces a level of impairment equivalent to a moderate level of alcohol consumption, 0.04 percent to 0.05 percent [blood alcohol concentration or BAC] for about 2–4 hours. And then after that, the evidence is people pretty much return to the baseline.”

It’s worth noting New Zealand’s blood alcohol concentration for drink driving is – rather controversially – set even higher, at 0.08 percent. The upshot is most moderate cannabis users don’t get higher than the level we already deem acceptable for alcohol.

“People don’t enjoy it,” says Dr Logan, “there’s a certain level of cannabis use in periodic users where it’s not really fun any more, it’s almost self-regulating.”

Which is not to say it’s ‘safe’ – blood taken from Canadian drivers involved in fatal accidents shows drivers who test positive for cannabis are five times more likely to die than sober drivers. This is slightly lower than those found with alcohol in their system. But – and it’s a big but – when cannabis is combined with alcohol, the risk of a fatal accident jumps to 40 times more likely than a sober driver. And that risk is present even just with moderate levels of cannabis and blood alcohol under the drink-driving limit.

For regular smokers, the news is worse. A new study shows that chronic, heavy users of cannabis are not, as one might think, less impaired due to higher tolerance but in fact may be constantly impaired – even for some weeks after ceasing altogether.

So if driving under the influence of cannabis, with or without alcohol, always presents some level of danger and sometimes a very high one, the question is, how best to police it? Current enforcement differs from country to country, state to state.

In states where cannabis possession is illegal, it’s easy to impose a zero-tolerance approach. Having cannabis in your system might not necessarily mean you’re a danger on the roads, but it does show you were up to no good.

But for some experts working in this field, mixing drug enforcement with traffic safety is not the way to go, confusing two distinct purposes and creating a law people don’t respect. And in states where cannabis is legal for medical or recreational use – which is a growing number – another approach must be found. The options include requiring proof of impairment or setting a ‘per se’ limit. Like the system for drink driving, this establishes a defined limit of THC in the blood, over which a driver is considered legally impaired, regardless of whether they can stand on one leg or not.

Despite cannabis remaining illegal in New Zealand, rather than a zero-tolerance approach, our law does require proof of impairment – once alcohol is ruled out through roadside screening, drivers suspected of being impaired by drugs are subjected to a standardised field sobriety test (SFST).

To the untrained observer, the SFST might seem something like guesswork, but when performed by a trained officer, it’s surprisingly effective. Developed in the 1970s, before the advent of alcohol breathalyser technology, the SFST was originally used to detect drunk drivers but is now routinely used to test for drugs. Amy Porath-Waller from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse has been studying the test and whether it’s fit for this new-found purpose. By comparing thousands of roadside SFST evaluations with the subsequent blood samples given, Porath-Waller says the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’.

“What our results are showing is that you are able to predict, from these four different classes of drugs we studied, the officer is able to detect if they’re impaired and the type of drug responsible for that impairment.”

In general, each of the common classes of drugs leaves its own ‘fingerprint’ under the SFST. So, for instance, cannabis-impaired drivers will have more difficulty with the ‘standing on one leg’ test than the ‘walk and turn’ test, where an alcohol-impaired driver would struggle with both. Similarly, the test for nystagmus (involuntary twitching of the eye) will pick up those affected by depressants but not cannabis.

If there’s an issue with the SFST, it’s the degree of training required and the time it takes to administer each test. For those enforcing the law, it doesn’t provide the ‘anywhere, any time’ sort of disincentive that people now associate with random roadside testing for alcohol.

New Zealand’s head of road policing, Superintendent Carey Griffiths, says, while drink driving remains the priority, next year will see further attention given to drug-impaired driver testing, including the best approach to take.

“My preference based on what I’ve seen and know so far is a saliva-based testing regime similar to what’s conducted in many of the Australian jurisdictions, because there is an element of general deterrence to that.”

Saliva testing might be quicker than a full SFST test but can still take up to eight minutes to administer, meaning it’s impractical to use the driftnet approach of alcohol checkpoints. The single-use disposable test kits aren’t cheap either, and overseas experience has shown widespread random testing isn’t particularly effective.

In 2009, Victorian Police randomly tested nearly 28,000 motorists and found just 300 tested positive for drugs – around 1 percent. Canadian research also shows that, despite having a high rate of drug-impaired driving, in 2011, just 1.4 percent of total impaired convictions were for drugs. On those numbers, an average driver could drive under the influence of drugs 16,500 times – or every day for 45 years – before being charged.

In Australian states such as Victoria and Queensland, they’ve moved away from random testing towards an intelligence-based approach, pinpointing neighbourhoods and locations where drug use is more likely. Queensland’s zero-tolerance legislation only requires the presence of cannabis – there’s no need for impairment. If New Zealand were to head in this direction, we’d need to legislate to remove impairment from the offence.

The other option, says Superintendent Griffiths, is to consider a per se limit.

“It would be possible to get a panel together to determine an impairment level under which you’re at a legal zero, so you’re not dealing with residual effects. And you can set impairment levels for different drugs and their analogues, so that’s a way around it.”

Much time and effort has gone in to studying the level of impairment caused by ingesting different quantities of illegal and legal drugs and trying to establish an equivalent to the 0.05 percent BAC level. On paper, it seems a sensible approach, and it’s been adopted in Washington and Colorado, where cannabis has recently been legalised.

“A per se limit for cannabis is particularly problematic,” says Dr Logan, who points out there’s a big difference between testing in a lab and real-world enforcement. The time between someone being stopped by Police and giving a blood sample can easily be two hours. The active element of THC in cannabis metabolises, at least initially, much faster than alcohol and other drugs. This means a driver who was over the limit when they were caught may be well under by the time they give blood.

The method Dr Logan prefers – regardless of whether cannabis is illegal – is very close to what we currently have in

New Zealand: proof of impairment followed by proof of cannabis in the driver’s system, whatever the level.

“It’s really going to have to come back to good investigative Police work, and if you get some objective evidence that the person is under the influence of the drug then you base the prosecution on that. You say on the one hand the observations show the person was impaired, and you have a chemical test saying cannabis was in their system, and the court can decide if one is related to the other.”

Rather than blood tests, Dr Logan prefers an evidential oral fluid sample, as it can be collected roadside, usually within 15 minutes of driving.

One further advantage the impairment approach has over setting per se limits is the complexity around people using more than one drug at a time, known as polydrug use. As mentioned, alcohol and cannabis combine with a potentially lethal effect, even at levels where individually they would be acceptable under a per se regime. Add other drugs to the mix, in endless possible combinations, and it could become a legislative and judicial mess, whereas impairment is impairment, regardless of the cause.

This approach might not offer much in the way of a general deterrent, however, and Superintendent Griffiths says, while New Zealand’s drink-drive policy has an impact on the whole range of drinkers, the current drug policy is only dealing with people “at the top end of the curve”.

“I think until we deal with behaviours across the board – and that’s where a lot of the advertising is targeted at the moment – until we get into that space in an enforcement sense, I think we’ll just keep chipping away at the problem long term without making massive gains.”

Research currently being done by the Ministry of Transport with ESR looking at blood taken from drivers in fatal crashes should shed some light on New Zealand’s particular problem. At present, if a driver tests positive for alcohol, no further tests are required, making it difficult to get a firm grasp on the prevalence of poly-drug use. The research should give a clearer idea of the risks, although Superintendent Griffiths says, even then, we should approach with caution.

“I call it the sausages argument. You get five drivers who’ve crashed, and they’ve got sausages in the boot of the car. It doesn’t mean the sausages have caused the crash. People who consume large amounts of cannabis may also exhibit other incivilities, which can include [unsafe] driving behaviours; it might be that the type of person who crashes is the type of person who has cannabis in their system. I’m very careful not to mix correlation with causation.”

110

Lundy and Me.

Some years ago, probably close to a decade now, I was working as a producer on Sunday. Somehow, a story ended up on my desk – the story that Mark Lundy was innocent.

The evidence was compelling. Almost nothing in the Crown case added up, especially as presented by Mark Lundy’s answer to Joe Karam – although perhaps that’s an unfair comparison to make about the quietly personable Geoff Levick – who's spent far too many hours delving through the minutiae of what did or didn’t happen that night in Palmerston North.

There is so much that doesn’t make sense about the police case, it’s actually scary it was not only put forward, but found compelling enough by a jury to find Mark Lundy guilty. For several weeks, months even, I read everything I could about every questionable aspect of the Lundy case, tracking down some of the most qualified experts I could find in New Zealand and overseas, engaging their services to re-examine scientific evidence, while applying my own mind to the non-specialist areas of dispute.

The drive to Palmerston North and back, for instance. The police could never replicate it in the time Lundy was supposed to have made, let alone leaving Petone at rush-hour. And why you’d be trying to break a land-speed record on your way back from committing a homicide defies even basic logic.

At the Lundy house, there’s odd things happening too. Both Christine and daughter Amber are apparently in bed asleep at 7pm, even though that’s never remotely the case for Christine, and the light’s on outside, and the computer doesn’t appear to be shut down until much later. The only conclusion the police can offer is that Lundy had tampered with the computer.

There’s an eyewitness though. It’s dark, but she sees a man who she identifies as Lundy, dressed in a blonde wig, running down the road where he’s obviously stashed his car. Ever better luck, she’s a psychic, and uses her powers to draw a picture of the murder weapon. Case closed.

You can go through the elements of the case one by one, and pull them to bits. We did. The story was looking good. We used the OIA to get full disclosure from ESR and other agencies including police notes and so forth, provided it all to our experts, and waited.

Problem was, every person we furnished with the information, every scientific opinion we sought, from a forensic pathologist to an expert in immunohistochemistry said they agreed with the findings presented by the prosecution. (We didn’t ask about the stomach contents evidence, and I agree it seems pretty weak).

I’m sure there are experts who’ll disagree. My point is, we didn’t find them, and with no real way forward the momentum petered out. We could’ve done a story on those proclaiming Lundy’s innocence – as Mike White did (and a very good job he did too) for North & South, but all the experts we had on tape said otherwise. I didn’t feel comfortable telling one side of the story and ignoring the others we’d interviewed, and “Mark Lundy may or may not be guilty, although our experts say he is, which is probably why he’s in jail” wasn’t the strong lead my boss was looking for.

I also wasn’t 100% convinced by Geoff Levick. He was a smart, genuine guy, but it seemed to me he’d spent so long looking for inconsistencies with every aspect of the case - we had a great conversation about paint flecks from a variety of tools -  that he’d started to see patterns where there was none. I can’t recall the precise details, but this is close enough to illustrate what I mean: Someone had anonymously posted in a newspaper clipping. There was a number written on the clipping, which corresponded closely to a license plate of a car which was registered to an address, just down the road (but completely unrelated) from the address of a business that had a connection to another possible suspect. To Geoff, that was something. He couldn't say what, but something.

Every journalist has probably experienced that moment – the moment when you realise the person you’re talking to isn’t quite making any sense at all, but you smile and nod, and try and turn the conversation back to more solid ground. And in Geoff’s case, most of what he said made perfect sense – the real shame for Mark Lundy was Geoff Levick wasn’t there for his first defence

Not long after I let the story go – I moved on to another show – I was out with a camera operator who’d been there at the funeral, who’d filmed Mark Lundy and claimed there were no tears behind those hysterical sobs. He’d sat through much of the trial, and had clearly spent a bit of time mulling over the same issues I’d been dealing with. He said one sentence to me that saw everything click into place.  “I reckon he just did it later.”

If it wasn’t for Margaret Dance, the psychic witness, maybe the police wouldn’t have had enough to convict Mark Lundy. But they wouldn’t have needed to construct the questionable timeline and evidence that came after – the stomach contents, the miraculous trip, the early bed-time, the lights on, the computer hacking and so forth. Mark Lundy might have slept with the prostitute – establishing something of an alibi – then driven in the wee small hours at a cautious pace to Palmerston North, where his wife and child had gone to bed at their normal time, after having shut the computer down and turned the lights off, as you do. They would have been fast asleep when they were killed in their beds, and Lundy, on those facts, could have been back by sunrise.

I’m not surprised at the decision by the Privy Council. Whatever happened that night, I’m just not convinced Mark Lundy did it the way the prosecution would have us believe. But not guilty is not innocent, and at the moment he’s neither – he’s accused of murder and awaiting retrial. But so was Bain when he and Karam emerged from court to a hero’s welcome from the waiting media. Here’s a few of my favourite questions [I transcribed them here at the time] courtesy of our supposed top broadcasters on that heartwarming occasion:

“No jersey David?

Are you guys going to live together?

Which one’s the tidy one?

Who’s going to do the cooking?

You don’t like prison food?"

Stunning. Let the circus begin.

14

We Haz Talent?

I probably don’t need to read anything more about Lorde, ever.

Not for any negative reason – I still haven’t listened to the whole EP, let alone the new album, pretty much only ‘Royals’ so I don't have much of a musical opinion either way – it’s just, to quote an old Irish God of Rock, “there’s been a lot of talk about this song, maybe, maybe too much talk.” 

With a flurry of recent articles, the good, the bad and the downright bizarre, I find myself in the position of knowing more about Lorde than I do about my own long-standing musical heroes.  I have no idea how many books Lennon & McCartney have read – Lorde had read 1000 by the time she was 12.  What did Ian Curtis’ dad do? Fuck knows, but Lorde’s dad’s an engineer.

I reiterate: I say this without any ill-feeling. In fact, having read the Sunday magazine piece by the prodigal singer herself, I’m pretty damn impressed by what I see. It would seem that Simon Sweetman’s “I’m sure she doesn’t even know what she wants” could be the least accurate sentence ever written in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Which is not to say that what Lorde wants right now will be what she always wants, and that’s as it should be for a 16 year old – or anyone of any age really. When I was 16 I wanted to be a lawyer. Then I was. Turned out it was nothing like Jimmy Smits had lead me to believe. I’m much happier now. And it seems Lorde is pretty happy right now, for now, and that’s a good thing.

ANYWAY. Having just added 250 words to the sum of Lorde-related writing, no more. Because I have other talented 16 year old musicians to write about.  I have no idea how many books they’ve read either, or what their parents do, but it in no way detracted from my being washed away on a wave of awesomeness.

On Saturday night I went to the Smokefreerockquest national finals. I’ve never been before, which considering it’s been going 25 years, is a bit like when you meet that guy everyone always says you “must know” because you’ve got a million friends in common. Smokefreerockquest is a bit like that.

But this year I’ve been working with SFRQ on a music video competition as part of my student media site Yours.net.nz.  The idea was that bands would upload their songs, and young film makers would find a tune they liked and run off and make a video for it. And it worked – sort of – but we’re all happy and will make it bigger and better next year.

The winner, a Year 13 Auckland Grammar student by the name of John Bu, created an enchanting work for a song by North Shore act Ludo, all in his spare time, after school – although I’m reliably informed his teacher didn’t see him for a few days (oops). When creativity meets skill like this, I’m equal parts proud, impressed, and scared of my impending redundancy. Click on these, they work:

But back to the night.  Eight bands, and two solo acts, whittled down from hundreds. Winning a regional champs isn’t enough to guarantee you a spot at the finals, and it must be tough for the organisers to narrow it down to single figures. You only have to look at a great band that didn’t make the nationals – Nelson’s Paper City – to see how tough the competition is. [This was also an entry to our competition]

It’s proof that New Zealand’s Got Far More Talent than silly TV shows would have you believe.  I’m not sure what his juggling’s like, but Harry Parsons is definitely one to watch, and he took out the top prize in the solo/duo category with his performance.

It’s hard to compare his against his ‘competition’, Khona Va’aga-Gray from McAuley High in Manukau.  “I wrote this song for a dear friend of mine,” she began, “who just celebrated her 40th wedding anniversary.”  Her Nana? No, a primary school teacher, “and this is about the journey that love takes.”  I have chills remembering those words, followed as they were by a soulful, heart-felt original piece.

Of the bands, there was a great diversity, all of the highest quality: Aasha Will & Cullen had a touch of the Lumineers in their alt-folk stylings and with Dave Dobbyn’s manager Lorraine Barry now working behind the scenes for them, these 15 year olds won’t be disappearing soon.

Aftershock, from Rotorua, amused and delighted with their heavy metal stylings, complete with synchronised hair-twirl-moshing (I don’t know if there’s a better term, but you’ll know what I mean); while my personal favourites were Sunday Best and All of a Kind.

 Which is to take nothing away from the overall winners, A Bit Nigel. With a hint of Kings of Leon in the singer’s voice, the trio from Taupo-nui-a-Tia College and Rotorua Boys’ High have made the national finals three times – finally in Year 13, this was their last opportunity, and they took it out with a slick performance:

  

The funny thing is, when you look at these bands on stage, such as their talent, such is their swagger, you forget they’re just high school kids. Backstage with the finalists I’ve just seen perform, waiting to present the award for our music video competition, I don’t recognise many of them. They look so young, smaller, quieter; many with acne and braces and the other trappings of adolescence. This disconnect makes me even more admiring of them – full-strength talent in pint-sized containers.

I’m not naïve enough to equate talent and potential with eventual success, not in that industry, not now, not ever. It irks me when a TV talent show judge whose claim to fame is a 9-month marriage to J-Lo tells someone with a sweet voice “you’re going to sell a lot of albums”. It’s meant as a compliment I guess, but it’s basically a lie – or at best incredibly unlikely, even if that person does eventually win the TV talent show.

Whereas here’s the list of those who’ve tread the Smokefreerockquest stage before:

“Kimbra, Midnight Youth, Opshop, Evermore, Ladyhawke, Minuit, Kids of 88, Die!Die!Die!, Pistol Youth, Bang!Bang!Eche!, Ivy Lies, Cairo Knife Fight, Cut Off Your Hands, Luke Thompson, the Datsuns, Zed, Brooke Fraser, Anika Moa, Anna Coddington, The Electric Confectionaires, Steriogram, Aaradhna, Spacifix, Phoenix Foundation, The Feelers, The Black Seeds, Nesian Mystik, Bic Runga, The Checks, Julia Deans, Pine, King Kapisi, Kingston, The Naked and Famous, Autozamm, The Good Fun, The Peasants, and Elemeno P.”

It’s probably still literally ‘unlikely’ any given Smokefreerockquest entrant is going to crack the big time, but the hard work, originality, talent and perseverance it takes to make it to the national finals sets them in good stead. And I won’t be surprised if any of the ten acts I saw on Saturday night are added to the list of those who’ve ‘made it’ in a few years time.

109

Johnny Foreigner & the Auckland Property Market

A few weeks ago, in the make-up room above the pub for Back Benches, I asked each of the three MPs there for the show – Louise Upston (Nat), Jacinda Ardern (Lab) and Holly Walker (Green) – what they thought of restricting the sale of residential property to foreign investors.

I’m not claiming any kind of credit – it’s hardly an original idea, and it’s already Green policy – but the point is that it’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for a month or so, trying to find the upside, the downside, and most importantly, whether it would have any impact on the ever-escalating Auckland property prices.

I’m part of the problem.  Having bought a fairly modest house four years ago, which is now worth probably $200,000 more than we paid for it, there’s equity to spare. We’d been offered the option to purchase an investment property from relatives cashing out for retirement and we’d taken the opportunity to look at what else was out there for the same sort of money.

 A pre-approval from the bank had given us access to the QV site; a supposedly reliable tool based on recent sales data from the surrounding neighbourhood, factoring in house size, land size, sales history and so forth. It gives an expected sales price, and a lower and upper range. It's very different from the CV price, which we all know in Auckland is well removed from reality. 

We looked at three places. A brick and tile unit in Onehunga and a couple of small 3-bedroom places in New Lynn, both on half sites with some degree of cross-lease. They all returned approximately $400 in rent, the expected sales figure was around $380,000, the upper limit around $420,000.  Each went in excess of $460,000… one didn’t reach reserve at $470,000 and was re-listed for $499,000. The owner had bought it a year earlier for $330,000.

Were the new purchasers from overseas? In one case, no, another – hard to say. Because as a number of commentators have pointed out already, in a city where just under a third of residents are ‘Asian’, it’s very easy to get the impression that foreign ownership is a bigger issue than it actually is. No-one seems to have any accurate data on just how many houses are sold to, or owned by, overseas interests. Which you think might be a useful piece of information for a Government to know.

Notable exception to Labour’s new announcement - the biggest overseas group buying our houses, the Aussies. Can’t stop them doing it because it’s reciprocal, apparently. Which doesn’t seem to matter on issues like getting the benefit and other social services, where it’s not.

 Bill English’s reaction this morning was to say it wasn’t much of a problem, it’s a range of issues, building new houses was much more important, and yes, that might be so. But of course Labour has also announced a plan to build new houses (10,000 each year for 10 years, as David Parker repeatedly pointed out on the Nation), and has made the move on Capital Gains Tax – a move which one Government Minister told me made absolute sense, but was ‘political suicide’. So restricting foreign sales (or adding a stamp duty) is just another tool in the toolbox, along with LVR requirements, easing land restrictions and the like.

I must note Don Brash also on The Nation, clinging to the Productivity Commission’s recommendation on land restrictions. It’s a good one for the former Act leader – blame arbitrary council red tape for the problem, people should be able to build where they want, and Howard Roark should design whatever he wants. And yes, land inside the Auckland boundaries costs a great deal more than land immediately outside. But the answer – or at least the sole answer – to Auckland’s low-cost housing issues is not a series of disconnected ghettos out at the extremities.

I can’t see any downside to this announcement from Labour. We are not gaining anything from having overseas investors buying up existing housing stock and keeping out first home buyers. I realise the hypocrisy, coming from someone looking for a rental investment, and I’d happily look at other options if the returns were even in the same ballpark, and if I could leverage off my existing equity to do so – even commercial property is difficult to finance like that.

Also, I’m borrowing at the same rates, in the same market, as the other resident buyers – as compared with some foreign residents able to borrow at lower rates (I’m told this is the case in China, I’ve been unable to find any decent links to this, happy to be corrected or backed up).  What doesn’t make any sense as a rental property at 5%+ is far more manageable below that.

Is it xenophobic? Only in the same sense that all our border controls, immigration policy are xenophobic. Being a New Zealand resident or citizen gives you benefits in New Zealand over people who aren’t. That’s pretty much standard practice in every country in the world. And until we have a completely borderless world society, I’m okay with that.  Which is not to say there won't be some out there who respond to this announcement positively, for the wrong reasons. As we've seen just today thanks to that taxi footage, there are Dickheads Amongst Us.

 Happy to have the downsides explained, and my latent xenophobia unpacked… I for one hope that National comes around on this issue, sees the sense in it, not as a silver bullet, but as another tool in the box, and we can at least start to take some of the ridiculous heat out of the Auckland market without so much as lifting a hammer.

45

It's urs!

So there’s been something I’ve been wanting to tell you about for a while. But I couldn’t.

I’ve been hiding it for as long as I could. Hiding it as it swallowed up my life savings, hiding it as it began to affect my job, my family life. It’s overtaken my days, and I find my mind in overdrive when I try to sleep at night, obsessing, fretting. I didn’t really know when or if to tell people, whether I should wait a while longer, what people might say, how they might react.  I told Russell about it, and he was cool. But in the coming days it’s going to be all over the media, and I’m going to need your help, your support. So now it’s time:

It’s called “urs”.

It’s pronounced “yours”. I have the domain name for both, just in case.

It’s a website, but more than that, I hope. I hope it’ll be a community, a positive influence, a new way of doing things.

 Who's it for? To quote the Hudsucker Proxy, “you know, for kids.

It’s a site where youth –anyone enrolled in either a high school or a tertiary institution, aged 13-25, but more focused on senior high school and junior university – can submit content they’ve created.  Created in the classroom, or for the classroom, after hours, on the weekends – whatever.  From photos taken for art class or fashion school, documentaries made for media studies, skateboarding videos, music videos, reviews, features, new tunes, short stories, short films… you get the idea.  As long as it’s creative, as long as it’s yours.

We have competitions, big competitions, where we encourage the creation of new content - again, a range of media, a range of interests, a range of skill levels. Thanks to partnerships with the likes of APN Digital and TVNZ – say what you want about the MSM, but there are people in those organisations who really care about doing the right thing – we’re able to give a wider audience and greater recognition to the best of that content , and provide decent prizes as a result. How about a year’s free movies and a gig reporting from a film premiere in Hollywood as a prize for contributing the most creative film review? If that doesn’t seriously challenge the stereotypical teen ennui, I’m not sure what will.

Why am I doing this? I’d like to make a living from it, of course, but what I’m really saying is that I’d like to make a living from something that makes me feel good doing it. I am where I am today because of student media – it was while at law school I found the local student newspaper (Salient) and student radio station (Radio Active, then bFM). I can’t say they were exactly nurturing environments – the radio stations especially seemed intent on letting as few new people onto the airwaves as they could, least of all young students. In fact, long story short, if it wasn’t for a certain Programme Director at bFM telling me to sod off, I wouldn’t have gone and helped start George FM, turning it into a dance music station in the evenings. Still not sure how I feel about that particular legacy.

But I persevered, and student media gave me the experience and the profile that led to what I do now. And while student media still exists, thrives in some cases, it varies greatly from campus to campus, and the audience is largely limited to that campus. There’s little if any focus on video – which is now the favoured medium of the young – and almost nothing for secondary students. Nothing focusing on media created by them at least. If I’m wrong, please let me know. Um, quickly?

There’s YouTube of course. But for every Gangnam Style billion-hit-wonder, there’s a million videos with only a dozen views, and very little way for even a very good item to raise its head above the parapet. It’s not curated, at least not in any useful way for a New Zealand teenager trying to get noticed. And URS will be harnessing YouTube’s awesomeness in terms of dealing with video, not to mention bandwidth and various other legal niceties (I wasn’t aware until recently, for instance, that YouTube has a blanket agreement covering the use of copyright music, which will be handy). But greatness gets buried in YouTube. Check out this beautiful video from a Western Springs College Year 13 student of 2012. It’s fantastic, and has just a hundred-and-something views.

So the guts of it is, I want to offer a modern version of what I got from student media. But more supportive. A site where the entire goal is about giving young creatives a hand, giving them guidance (we have Masterclasses from a range of experts across the industry and academia), encouragement, pathways to academia, industry, and in time, for some, an income. Ultimately, I’d like to think it will raise the level of creativity of the coming generations, and give them confidence to seek out and tell their stories, the ones that matter to them, in the way they see fit. If that fails I’ll become old and bitter, set up a media training agency and start a grumpy blog about all these young people who aren’t as good as I once was.

What I’d really like to do – not immediately, but soon, is set up an aspect of the business, the sole purpose of which is to give a voice to those not well represented in traditional media. Those whose background, economic situation, geographical location, whose language, accent or culture mean they’re less likely to appear on our screens in primetime. I hope URS will do that naturally anyway, but where resourcing or encouragement is needed, then I want to make that happen.

 I’ve had overwhelming support from teachers, lecturers, media partners, sponsors and the like. It’s an attractive demographic for certain sponsors, clearly, but what seems to attract the people I’ve been meeting with these past months is that underlying idea – encouraging and nurturing young people to make great content.

The only question mark at this stage is the audience. Will they engage, will they contribute, will they make URS… well, theirs? I hope so. Of some reassurance is the fact these young people are already out there doing it, already making content.

A bit of final bug-testing, a bit of content loading, a deep breath, and URS will be good to go next week. It’s been a couple of years in my brain, six months taking shape, and the last couple of months trying to tie down a thousand or so ever-shifting loose ends. And I’m very aware that once the site goes live, that’s when the real work begins.

I mentioned your help and support above. I’ve taken care of the money side of things (for now), so I’m not asking for crowd-source-funding or the like – I haven’t exactly been a very attentive blogger of late, and now you have some idea why. But I would appreciate your brains. Your ideas, advice, other projects I should be aware of, things to watch out, suggestions for competitions, themes, people to talk to, companies or organisations who might want to come on board, teachers… and of course, those creative young minds.

The site will be heavily moderated, certainly to begin with, and I make no apology for that. By not offering comments for a time, by accident or by design, Russell very cleverly avoided PAS becoming as nasty as most other corners of the blogosphere. I’m going to take the same approach. And of course, at least until my audience can be trusted, EVERY SINGLE PIECE of content will be moderated to ensure it’s age appropriate. YouTube helps in that regard, but I don’t need to tell you what an explicit photo getting past the gatekeepers could mean for a site like this. So while I’m not expecting it, I’m happy to take names of anyone who might find appealing the idea of flicking through a bunch of teenagers’ photos/videos from time to time/every night.

 Anyway, it’s all very exciting, and I hope you can share in that with me, at least in spirit. I’ll post the address of the site once it’s up and running next week, but in the meantime, hit me with your thoughts, suggestions and kind offers.


Special thanks to those who have had the smarts and/or courage to get behind the project from the get-go - AUT, APN Digital, TVNZ, Adidas, Sony, Paramount Pictures and STA Travel. More to come...

(Oh also, Back Benches return date was officially announced today, April 10, 10.30pm on PRIME. For those in the 04, feel free to come in for the taping from 6ish to 7ish that evening. Perfect for an after work beer...)