Hard News by Russell Brown


This. Is. Crazy.

It's eight days since the Prime Minister airily assured Guyon Espiner on Morning Report that "in my experience with Work and Income", homeless people could go along to their local office and get sorted with some emergency housing.

We now know that what that means is that Work and Income will place people in spartan accommodation on very high rents and then lodge those rents as a debt against them, even if they have no means of repaying it.

Another Morning Report story broadcast this morning looks at where that leads and cites, among others, the case of a mother of eight who now owes Work and Income $60,000 because she has had nowhere else to go but the accommodation that is costing her more than $1200 a week.

The woman was evicted by Housing New Zealand months ago after "methamphetamine contamination" was detected at her home. The story says it's "unclear" whether the contamination happened during her tenancy or is the fault of a previous tenant.

Auckland Action Against Poverty cooordinator Alastair Russell explains in the report that there is a mandatory 12-month ban under Housing New Zealand's meth policy.

"So she'll clock up this debt for another six months and then go back to Housing New Zealand seeking assistance with a debt of probably in excess of $100,000."

The aggravation here is Housing New Zealand's zero-tolerance policy, which is not connected to the Ministry of Health guidelines  (which only cover clan lab remediation anyway), but is, so far as I can tell, triggered by any detection at all of methamphetamine residue in a building. 

The problem here, as toxicologists explained to the Science Media Centre back in March, is that residues from meth being smoked – as opposed to manufacture, which involves dangerous chemicals and real health risks – pose, at worst, a "minimal" risk of toxicity.

There is a further problem in that the companies which carry out such testing operate in an unlicensed environment. There are no standards for the services they offer.

So on a scientific level, the HNZ policy is woo. But it's not about science. They're not testing for health risks; they're testing for tenant lifestyle. And they're using tenant lifestyle as a pretext for generating churn in the inadequate stock of public housing, because the only way they can get more people into public housing is to get other people out out of it.

Perhaps this mother allowed meth to be smoked in her house, perhaps a previous tenant did. But is throwing her and eight children out on the street really a sensible or humane response? Especially when the upshot is that she will have to return to be re-housed after her stand-down and the only difference is that she will then be carrying a crippling debt?

This. Is. Crazy.


The media awards are dead – long live the media awards!

Friday's Canon Media Awards was the most interesting instance of the long-running national ceremony in a long time, maybe ever. There were notable insurgencies – The SpinOff took two awards from 11 first-time nominations, Radio NZ's The Wireless won Website of the Year – and there seemed to be more young people in the room than I can remember.

It might well also have been the last media awards in the current form.

For years – and more especially since the broadcast categories were removed, making the whole thing slightly less leviathan – the awards have centred on a rivalry between the country's two big newspaper chains. Assuming the whole merger thing isn't just a ruse while big investors get their money out of APN and Fairfax, the two chains could be one by this time next year. Nominations earned as rivals in 2016 might be awards received as colleagues by May next year

This isn't necessarily a disaster. The partisan cheering and table-thumping can be a bit wearying if you're not involved. And the path ahead seems clear enough: make it a journalism and publishing awards across the various media platforms.

We got a bit of that on Friday. One News Now was named best news site,  TVNZ's Luke Appleby got Scoop of the Year for the prison fight club story, The Wireless and The SpinOff got noms and awards in "proper" journalistic categories (most notably, Tess McClure was named Junior Feature Writer of the Year). And while it will take some working out, it's do-able. I'd like to see more recognition of "digital" – the one-word name for the level at which so may young people come into the industry now. And while it was great to see Harkanwal Singh win "best digital artwork or graphics", I think we're due for data visualistion to be a thing.

These are changing times. And in that context, I think the most touching story on Friday was the naming of Barbara Fountain as Editorial Leader of the Year. Barbara has been editor of New Zealand Doctor for the past 20 years and has made it an exemplary trade publication – but it could have ended last year. Instead, she stepped up and in partnership with Anna Mickell bought NZ Doctor and several smaller publications from their previous owner. It continues to operate as both a print periodical and a paywalled website and we're all the better for that.

Also: warmest congratulations to my friend Matt Nippert, who was named Reporter of the Year after a number of years as a bridesmaid. If ever a man earned the right to drink red wine from a trophy and exclaim "I am a  golden god!", it's Matt.


And yes, we won too. Public Address was named Best Blog Site. That's the whole site, not just me: and that means all our bloggers, our developers CactusLab and you, the readers and commenters. Lord knows some of you try my patience at times, but I learn something from you every day.

But it was personally pleasing too. Public Address has been online since 2002 and we've had comments since 2006. Hard News itself has its roots in the Hard News radio rant on 95bFM, which began in 1991 and whose text (and sometimes audio) was published on the internet from 1993.

You do have your ups and downs in that many years, and I've had some dispiriting experiences recently. I've wondered if I still had the energy for this, the more so given that my means of support as a working journalist have been increasingly uncertain. It's hard to find the time not just for publishing, but for people.

But I'm cheered, not least by the kind words from my journalist peers on Friday night. We'll press on. And this week I'll finally get the forms and sign us up to membership of the Press Council, something Graeme Edgeler has been patiently offering to pay for for quite a long time now. (Sorry Graeme.)

I'm also cheered by something I saw a few hours before Friday's awards ceremony. For years, I've been wishing for a shared voluntary subscriptions platform for blog and independent media. I started talking a while ago to Alex Clark, who had a vision for something similar.

He is an extraordinarily persistent man, he was able to attract a little investment, and I'm pleased to report that Press Patron is under serious development and only a few months away from a 1.0 release. I went and had a look at the work in progress and it's good.

I should note that although the mock-ups on the Press Patron website feature Public Address pages, this is Alex's baby. My main contribution has probably been steering him away from the hard paywall model towards the voluntary subscriptions that have worked for us on a more informal level.

So at some point I'll ask those of you who are supporting Public Address via PayPal subscriptions and online banking payments to consider moving to this new platform. I'll have a much better idea of who (and how many) you are and will be able to communicate better. You'll have a dashboard to manage your contributions to us and other sites. I'm keen to work on a subscriber benefits system once the platform is up and running. It's good.

And finally, thanks and congratulations to our friends at the other blog site nominees, Villainesse and The Pantograph Punch. We do different things in different ways, but it felt nice to be there alongside positive ventures. I think we've well and truly broken through some stultifying conventions about what blogs are.

Update: I've received the comments from the judges, Deborah Hill Cone and Bill Ralston. They're touching and gratifying:

With Public Address Russell Brown inspires hope the internet can be deep as well as fast.  He should feel proud he has created a unique and meaningful community with a compelling voice that demands to be heard, not by shrieking loudly but by talking thoughtfully.

For an online entity, Public Address retains a surprisingly quirky and organic personality. Readers are left in no doubt this is an enterprise which is authentic and wholehearted, not dreamt up in a corporate focus group.  The writing is classy but fierce, bringing clarity to topics as varied as racism, footpaths and eczema.

Public Address is a place to read something that means something.


And after all that, we have a TV show to record this evening. The SpinOff's publisher Duncan Greive will be grilled until he reveals his secret sauce.

Also, we'll look at a story – the crisis around housing and homelessness – in which public service media have taken the lead, with Newshub's Mike Wesley-Smith and Louisa Wall MP. And we'll turn our attention to the strange and unnerving spectacle of the US presidential elections with Jennifer Curtin and John Dybvig.

If you'd like to join us for the recording of Media Take – and you only have another month before we're all on the street looking for work – come to TVNZ at 5.45pm today.


Friday Music: Iggy at the Royal Albert Hall and all

Wonderful, said the Financial Times. We'll never see his like again, said The Independent. Triumphant, said the Telegraph.  Primal, priapic and peerless, said some clever-clogs at The Guardian.

Happily, the Daily Mail appears not to have sent a reviewer. But Iggy Pop's show at the Royal Albert Hall last Friday seems to have been momentuous. He played with a band that included Josh Homme and Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders and by all accounts it sounded fucking great.

Actually, it sounds fucking great in the many videos of the show that have turned up on YouTube. The show focused on the two albums David Bowie produced for him, Lust for Life and The Idiot (he also did 'China Girl'), and his most recent album, and Post-Pop Depression, which he made with Homme.

He's 69 years old and that might be his last album, and this might have been nearly his last show. He bounds on to do 'Lust for Life' like a crazy man.

His bung hip  starts to trouble him soon enough. He has an old man's body. But 'The Passenger' is just joyous:

And here's the final song of the night, 'Success', and he's still stage-diving and charging out to invite hugs from woman and man alike.

More to the point, his voice is tremendous and his band (lord knows this hasn't always been the case) is tight and knowing. Ive never really been a fan of Queens of the Stone Age, but Josh Homme is clearly a brilliant bandleader here. 

Inevitably, many of those visible in in the crowd are not exactly youthful themselves. Hell, it's more than 35 years since I heard an Iggy Pop song. But if I'd been there ... yeah, I'd have given Iggy a hug if he came looking.


If you read around the genesis of disco and thence what we know as dance music, one name that keeps coming up is that of Alex Rosner. Rosner was the gifted audio engineer who turned the system at David Macuso's invitational party The Loft from a superior home rig to a thing of sonic beauty.

This short Red BullMusic Academy documentary finds Rosner in good form still. He mostly customises sound systems for churches not nightlubs now, but perhaps there's not so much difference between the two.

One thing that comes through in the video is the value placed on sound that is "good" rather than simply loud. There has been talk in the past year or two of a return to that ethos, but there are currently no clubs or bars in New Zealand that meet it. It would be nice to think that one day a club will open having spent its money not on bathrooms or lights but this kind of sound.


Terry Elliot Tolkin wants to write a memoir. Who, you say? He was an A&R executive for Elektra, indie label owner (he signed the Butthole Surfers), DJ, club booker and other things.

He's going to need an editor. But if all his stories are as great as the one feauring Letterman, Dinosaur Jr and Donald Trump that's on his Kickstarter page, hell, I'm in.

I would note that this story is a hundred times better than anything that happened in the first series of Vinyl.


And that's yer lot for the week. I've been listening to the new James Blake and Ahnonie albums, but I don't have any time to write about thatbecause I'm off to Wellington soon for the Canon Media Awards, where Public Address is a finalist for Best Blog Site and I'm in the final three for a health journalism scholarship.

Feel free to post your own stuff in comments. Remember that you can embed any YouTube clip by just pasting in the URL – no need for any code.


The Hard News Friday Music Post is kindly sponsored by:

The Audio Consultant


Crowded houses

In the course of a searching interview with Guyon Espiner this morning, Social Housing minister Paula Bennett sought to emphasise how much the  goverment is spending on housing support: two billion annually in subsidies for social housing and accommodation supplements for people in private rental, she said.

She then said that $760 million of that was composed of the effective discount given to state house tenants paying income-related rents. So the government is actually spending something over $1.2 billion in subsidies to largely private landlords.

That, as I noted in a 2014 post on the government's emerging housing policy, is the plan. Although a similar policy in the 1990s had seen seen the cost of the accommodation benefit balloon far beyond official estimates, the government was set on a steady exit from public housing and a renewed emphasis on private provision subsidised by the taxpayer.

I concluded that post thus:

In the absence of an accompanying state building programme – again, the government aims to do the opposite – it seems extremely optimistic to suppose that third parties will step up and build at the necessary scale. And that the expansion of subsidies to landlords won’t simply drive up house prices even further.

I presume – well, hope – the government has expert advice to the contrary. But wishing won’t make it so. And it is useful to remember two things about the 1990s. The first is that the government’s fond predictions of fiscal sustainability were blown out of the water almost immediately. The second is that the second half of the 1990s saw the emergence of appalling public health problems that we deal with to this day.

There may be something I’m missing here – I’m no expert. But it seems that policy predicated on no more than an ideological desire to get the state out of social housing provision could well go terribly, terribly wrong.

But the cost of the accommodation supplement hasn't gone as high as some predictions – including this one in 2011 on Interest.co.nz, which held out the prospect of a $2 billion cost by 2016. In the current climate, with double-digit annual increases in private rents, that seems counter-intuitive.

Is it because, as Mike Wesley-Smith noted in this compelling report on Auckland's "hidden homeless" for The Nation, the supplement is still calculated on market rental valuations set in 2010? And thus, having played its part in rental inflation, the supplement isn't even keeping pace with that inflation? Any observations or corrections are welcome.

I don't think it's overstating the case to say that what's happening in Auckland's poorest suburbs represents a crisis. It's one which will have long-term implications, especially in public health. And it's one that government simply doesn't appear able to deal with.

Between the Prime Minister's fanciful assurance earlier this week that anyone who happened to be homeless could just go to Work and Income and get sorted out and Bennett's boasting that the government was providing 3000 new beds – which she was then forced to admit were not new beds at all (the government has promised $41 million over four years to keep emergency accommodation operating; basically keeping the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff from being scrapped and sold for parts) – it's hard to have any confidence at all in what's going on.

What made it worse was that in her interview Paula Bennett did find someone to blame: existing state house tenants.

"We've had decades of people thinking it's a home for life," she said.

So people who aren't rushing to leave their fixed rents in favour of a private rental market that's getting out of control are the villains? That was a low thing for the Minister for Social Housing to say.

In conclusion, a word for the journalists. The Nation's coverage over the weekend, Morning Report's report this week and John Campbell's report for Checkpoint this week (embedded below) have all underlined how important the fourth estate's role in holding power to account is. And while that work certainly isn't exclusive to public media, it seems worth remarking that all those three have been made possible by public broadcast funding that has been frozen since this government's first budget in 2008.


Media Take: Heavy topics

We take on a weighty trio of topics on Media Take tonight: family violence, the mooted Fairfax-NZME merger and its likely impact, and reporting about climate change.

Our guests on the domestic violence panel are Jeremy Eparaima and Kyle Macdonald. Jeremy is a former violent abuser who has been working with the It's Not OK campaign since 2011 and is now contracted by the police to talk to recruits and frontline officers. He was the subject of an unflinching profile by senior police reporter Anna Leask as part of the Herald's week-long #betterthanthis campaign.

Kyle is a psychotherapist who contributed a column to the campaign noting that family violence is a male problem and that addressing it "is the work of all men". He stirred some inevitable indigation in doing so, but was in part motivated by a more controversial column that appeared on the second day of the campaign – the one by Tony Veitch.

The problems with Veitch's self-serving column have been well addressed by Emma Hart on Public Address, Delaney Mes on The Spinoff and others. It makes for a stark contrast with Jeremy's comprehensive ownership of his own violent behaviour. But how the hell did it end up in the Herald on Sunday?

We sent the NZME the following list of questions last week:

Whose decision was it to include Tony Veitch in the Herald’s domestic violence campaign?

Were domestic violence organisations consulted on that decision?

Was his victim consulted in advance? Has there been any contact since?

Did anyone assist Mr Veitch with the writing of his column?

Who signed off on the column? Was there sign-off at corporate level, or editorial only?

I had actually drawn up those questions before we were told last week that Veitch had  been assisted in writing his column by NZME communications staff, and that editorial staff were told it could not be altered before publication. But I think the questions as submitted serve well enough as an inquiry about that.

Yesterday, we received this reply from acting managing editor Murray Kirkness (Shayne Currie is overseas), who has overall responsibility for all Herald mastheads, including the Weekend Herald and the Herald on Sunday, which are edited by Miriyana Alexander:

Dear Brioni Gray,

I reply to your email of May 13.

Tony Veitch’s opinion piece was considered and discussed at length by senior editorial staff before publication. The decision to publish was an editorial call. 

I trust you have seen the other work produced as part of the anti-domestic violence #betterthanthis campaign. Encouragingly, we had reports of a spike in calls to refuges and police last week. We hope this will continue -- and that shows such as your own will join us to help try to reduce the levels of domestic violence in our communities.

It is indeed encouraging to hear that the Herald's series has prompted people to seek help. That's a tribute to Anna Leask, who guided the admirable campaign and wrote most of the stories. We invited Anna on the show, but she was unable to join us.

But it's a crying shame that the story about the campaign became the entirely misconceived Veitch column. (It's notable that although it appeared under the #betterthanthis banner in print, it now doesn't on the website.) It always looked like a clumsy corporate attempt to rehabilitate a radio asset by inserting him into an important newspaper campaign – one which damaged that campaign. And nothing we've learned has changed my mind on that.

In the second part of tonight's show, Merja Myllylahti, project manager at AUT's Research Centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy, and former Herald managing editor Tim Murphy discuss the mooted merger of Fairfax New Zealand NZME – which may or may not put both businesses on a stronger long-term footing and might embody a return to local media ownership, but will inevitably end up in more jobs lost in journalism and less choice for news consumers.

And in the third part, Tagata Pasifika reporter John Utanga and Rod Oram talk about reporting on climate change – especially with respect to the Pacific, where issue is more acute than it is here in New Zealand.

There's also a lively and wide-ranging online-only bonus Q&A where we assembled all the panelists to respond to questions from our studio audience.

So, yes, I think we've provided plenty of substance this week.

You can watch Media Take at on demand here.

And don't forget the online-only session with audience questions to all the panelists here.