Hard News by Russell Brown


Media Take: Afghanistan, trust and NetHui

The most puzzling part of the response to Jon Stephenson's Collateral Damage report last week for Native Affairs was the extent to which it focused on claims that the programme had not made.

Stephenson's story drew on both a paper trail and first-person  interviews with Afghan villagers to make the case that official accounts of the mission to prosecute those responsible for the killing of a New Zealand soldier in 2010 were not the truth.

His attention to detail meant it was a story not easily dismissed, and the Prime Minister and his Defence minister were caught giving notably different accounts on the same morning. Key stuck to the old story: nine insurgents were dispatched and no civilians were harmed. Jonathan Coleman granted that it was possible that civilians were killed -- but it certainly wasn't our chaps that did it.

Thing is, the Native Affairs report didn't claim that New Zealand SAS troops were directly responsible for the deaths of innocent villagers. You won't find that in the script. It did say that they were part of the mission in which these people were killed, that the mission was conducted in pursuit of those responsible the death of  New Zealander Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell and that our Prime Minister, John Key, was consulted in advance.

And yet it was incorrectly reported that the programme had called the mission a "revenge" attack (Stuff's reporter even attributed those words directly to Stephenson himself) and reports that Stephenson had claimed our own SAS troops were directly responsible were relayed (via AAP) as far afield as the Daily Mail website.

I'll be questioning Jon Stephenson about his report and asking him why he thinks accounts of it went awry on Media Take this week. Also on the show, Toi Iti looks at who we do and don't trust according to Readers Digest and I'm interviewing Antony Royal, the chair of Nga Pu Waea, the Maori Broadband Working Group, ahead of this week's NetHui conference.

We're recording the show tonight at TVNZ (we're hiring Studio 3, the same one we used to use for Media7). You're warmly invited to join us if you have a little time in the Auckland CBD after work.

It's a little complicated, because the building is currently more of a building site.  If you can be at the Victoria Street entrance between 5.30 and 5.50pm we will get you through the construction works and into Studio 3.

We record from 6pm and it should all be wrapped up by 6.45 ,when we might adjourn across the road to the Empire Tavern for a convivial glass. We're working on getting the Empire to do us a favour on prices, but I can report that their Monday night $10 steak deal isn't bad. (I'm sure some of our regulars will be keen to socialise beforehand too, and the Empire will also be the place for that.)


Now win the argument

I'm pleased that Labour made education the keynote of its election-year Congress over the weekend, because it's the policy area in which the present government has, I think, done the most damage.

From their feckless introduction under Parliamentary urgency and implementation without trial, and the subsequent waving through of league tables -- the very thing the government's advisers cautioned against --  National Standards have been, at best, a disruptive waste of resources.

Since then, there have been so many other problems, cuts and pointless confrontations in education and the performance of the responsible ministers has been so woeful that my confidence in National to productively execute any policy is roughly nil.

Which is not the same as thinking the policies announced by Labour are necessarily  enough of an answer. If Labour is to repurpose the money already budgeted for National's managerial strategy of "executive principals, expert teachers, lead teachers and change principals" it does need to explain how it will increase the performance of teachers, as well as the number of them. It does bear noting that National has finally managed a policy proposal there that post-primary teachers, at least, support.

But the good thing here is that this hopefully begins an actual policy debate in an area polls consistently show is regarded as a priority by the public. Moreover, it's already a discussion about evidence. I can't see that being a bad thing.


When I saw the response to David Cunliffe's speech to Women's Refuge on Friday afternoon, I tweeted something to the effect about despairing that his "sorry I'm a man" had been plucked out of context and elevated above the real substance of his speech.

Having seen the video of the speech now, I'm not sure I was correct. I think what Cunliffe said, to that audience, was the substance and I applaud his candour. Expressing sorrow is not synonymous with feeling guilt -- but it can be the same as taking responsibility, and that's what I think Cunliffe was doing there. I'm happy with that.

And I think the range of responses to what he did has been extremely instructive. If you frame that speech as a "gaffe", you're placing the game above what actually matters.


Friday Music: Wellies not required

It wasn't really like being there, but being telepresent at Glastonbury Festival last weekend was certainly cheaper, dryer and less demanding, and I did it every whichway.

Firstly, via BBC iPlayer. Our household's only region-block-defeating solution is currently a Chrome extension called MediaHint that only works on my computer, rather than the telly, but which gave me access to the BBC's astonishing internet coverage: live streams from multiple stages as well as the BBC 2 and Three programming, as well as catch-up highlights.

So I got to watch The Arcade Fire, MIA and a bit of Skrillex (which actually looked like a right old bundle of fun) on Saturday morning. But the really special time was James Blake closing the Park Stage on Monday morning our time. It was gentle, supple, pulsing and it made me smile to see a few thousand knackered fans swaying around with their eyes closed and goofy smiles on their faces. There are worse ways to enter the working week.

Happily, the whole set is now available on Vimeo:

James Blake - Live at Glastonbury 2014 from on James Blake on Vimeo.

I also, er, got my auntie to send me a few things on VHS. But there was a way of catching the vibe that didn't require any jiggery-pokery: the BBC's YouTube channel, which features songs from dozens of performances. The advtange there was that I could watch it on home theatre-equipped television via my Apple TV (the same applies to Vimeo). As I have noted many times before, I would pay a reasonable price to have full access to live concerts and festivals via Apple TV or any similar gadget.

Here are a few YouTube highlights ...

A right old singalong with MGMT's 'Kids' at the John Peel Stage. They seem to have come to terms with their probably unrepeatable hit:

An even bigger singalong for Dolly Parton's 'Joelene'. I'm not really sure how much of what we're hearing is her live vocal, but who cares?

The smart, rugged and funny Australian Courtney Barnett, who I'd go and see like a shot if she happened to play here:

The Daptone Super Soul Revue, whose set was, according to my friend Jen Ferguson (and she knows her stuff!) a total joy on the day: (Update: Part One of Jen's blog review -- it's amazing how so many of her highlights were away from the big stages: brass bands, a New York-style gay disco.)

Connan Mockasin! Kooky Kiwi pride!

Goldfrapp was a revelation:

And 'Reflektor', from the constant circus that was Arcade's Fire's set:

There's lots more, including Yoko Ono, De La Soul, Lily Allen and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, in a 40-song YouTube playlist I made.


Over at Audioculture, there's Alan Perrott's great article on the Screaming Meemees. They burned briefly but so brightly as teen sensations: I was in Christchurch at the time, but I remember being really excited when 'See Me Go' -- such a great teen-boy anthem -- went to number one in the charts, and equally so when the Screaming Blamatics Tour blew through.

It's particularly special because Alan captured the memories of the band's irrepressible guitarist, Michael O'Neill, before the severe stroke that Michael suffered recently. I hope the recovery is going as well as it can do for Michael and his family.

Here is Michael O'Neill, playing at the Auckland Town Hall, back then:


Flying Nun Records is using what it describes "as a little bit like crowd-funding and a bit like good old fashioned pre-orders" to get Robert Scott's forthcoming (July 18) album The Green House pressed to vinyl. You can choose from seven different pre-order options, including hand-drawn and painted artwork and a bonus album. This is great. And here's a taster from the album -- with Tiny Ruins on backing vocals!

Peter McLennan brings good news: not only is Marbecks Records defying what looked for a while like the end of its long run, it's expanding again.

My friend Paul Shannon directed me to Pitchfork's 10 Essential Sun Ra Tracks (which include a feature-length movie), this being the 100th anniversary of the great man's birth. I saw Sun Ra with the Arkestra two nights running in London many years ago, and I still struggle to articulate more about it than just what I felt: that I was in the presence of something pure and musical.

Although Sun Ra and some important colleagues such as John Gilmore no longer dwell at this planetary address, the Sun Ra Arkestra continue to play and tour. Indeed, they played Glastonbury 2014. Here's a clip:


Here's something nice. Radiohead's 'Reckoner', remixed with a little extra drum by Leftside Wobble:

At TheAudience, Martyn Pepperell has profiled Samuel Truth ("government name: Troy Samuela") , who has this deep, sweet production on the site at the moment:

Paddy Fred has remixed 'Shallows' by his Wellington friends Groeni. Quite nice:

And, to conclude, a couple of dates for your calendar next week ...

First, a Public Address Great Blend in Auckland next Thursday, featuring a discussion with Adam Holt (Universal Music), Fergus Barrowman (Victoria Universty Press) and Roseanne Liang (Flat 3) and a performance by the clever and groovy High Hoops. You need to click through on that link and RSVP pronto if you want to come along.

And the rarest of treats: Peter Jefferies playing the King's Arms on Saturday the 12th. He's joined by Shayne Carter, who will, I presume be playing some of his new music. We have something good coming up on Public Address for this next week.


The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:



Hope and Wire

I remember that in September 2012 I was sensing in my Christchurch friends an unfamiliar psychology. The earthquakes were abating, but in a handful of visits to the city where I was born and in the discussions on this site, I apprehended a new normal that was dank and weird, a place no one had been before, where no one knew how to be.

That was the month it was announced that NZ On Air was funding a six-part (now three-part) drama centred on the Christchurch earthquakes, to be directed and co-written by Gaylene Preston and screened by Tv3. I flew down to Christchurch to interview Gaylene for Media3, only for our commissioner to declare, for reasons never made clear, that we would not be allowed to do that story.

We had a cameraman booked, so I figured I'd do the interview anyway, but a miscommunication left me sitting for an hour at Beat Street cafe while Gaylene was a kilometre away at Pomeroy's, thinking the whole thing was off. When I finally reached her, she generously invited me along to her friends' place for dinner. After we'd eaten, she talked to the rest of us about the project she'd taken on, Hope and Wire.

Although the work was yet to be done, I could see that Gaylene was already under pressure to justify herself, not least thanks to a rambling column by Vicki Anderson of The Press, in which Anderson prosecuted her standing grudge with NZ On Air and quoted "one prominent New Zealand filmmaker" (When A City Falls director Gerard Smyth, I'm fairly sure) declaring the funding decision to be "crazy". [Edit: I am now satisfied that if anyone said "crazy", it was not Gerard Smyth. My apologies to Gerard.]

Gaylene reeled off many of the characters, places and relationships we saw on screen in last night's first, two hour-episode of Hope and Wire. She knew them well; she'd brought them to Christchurch with a broader story she wanted to tell and perhaps had wanted to tell for a while. I wondered whether she'd be able to capture the city's strange experience without growing her stories from the rubble.

Hope and Wire got a bit of a clobbering on social media last night, and much of that was from people in Christchurch who felt that she had not captured their experiences. In truth, it wasn't going to be possible to do that, nor, probably, to speak to people who'd lived the trauma as well as to the rest of the country. It was, as Gaylene said from the beginning, "a postcard to Auckland". I found myself thinking it would be a good way to show people outside New Zealand what had happened.

Hope and Wire certainly has real strengths. Rachel House is simply tremendous as Joycie: she carries the drama and embodies the terrible mix of anxiety and fatigue that people in Christchurch know. The rendering of the earthquakes themselves and the blending of real-life footage with acted drama are a technical triumph.

But I always felt that Joel Tobeck was struggling to to find a third dimension in his wicked landlord Greggo and even Steven Lovatt couldn't bring his crooked lawyer to life . And while some people were outraged by the assault by King, the skinhead leader, on his girlfriend Monee, I thought it was the most believable thing King did in the whole two hours. I'm not sure cartoon skinheads had much to bring to the story.

We are also seeing the pressures of publicly-funded drama in New Zealand, with beancounters asking "does it need all the earthquakes?" and, I suspect, a demand for storylines and characters that would engage a mainstream audience and tick demographic boxes. A project that was avowedly not in the South Pacific Pictures house style still seems to have washed up with a bit of soap about it. The dark, subtle post-traumatic drama that beckoned may not have been possible in the first place. It wasn't going to be our Treme.

Hope and Wire's blend of documentary and drama, with characters breaking out and speaking first-person to the camera, is a bold stylistic move, but it often seemed awkward last night. Perhaps Bernard Hill's Len should have been the only one granted such a meta-narrative.

What we've wound up with is patchy and sometimes outright clunky. But it's what there is and I hope we can find some measure in our responses to it.


Decidedly Undecided

In last night's debut Media Take, I talked Colmar Brunton's Andrew Robertson and UMR's Gavin White about an issue that has been exercising polling nerds for the past few weeks: the significance of the "undecided" vote in polls this year.

In particular, the Political Scientist blog has proposed that the real story in Fairfax/Ipsos polls -- which seem to have shown a crash in Labour support and a flood towards National -- is the steady downward trend in decided voters. So, perhaps, what's actually happening is uncertainty about where to vote on the Left and steady support for the one big party on the Right.

On the show, Andrew and Gavin agreed with Thomas Lumley at StatsChat that the conclusion is limited by the small number of polls (nine) counted by Political Scientist. Thomas concluded:

We simply don’t have data on what happens when the decided vote goes up — it has been going down over this period — so that can’t be the story. Even if we did have data on the decided vote going up, and even if we stipulated that people are more likely to come to a decision near the election, we still wouldn’t have a clear story. If it’s true that people tend to come to a decision near the election, this means the reason for changes in the undecided vote will be different near an election than far from an election. If the reasons for the changes are different, we can’t have much faith that the relationships between the changes will stay the same.

The data provide weak evidence that Labour has lost support to ‘Undecided’ rather than to National over the past couple of years, which should be encouraging to them. In the current form, the data don’t really provide any evidence for extrapolation to the election.

But Andrew and Gavin also agreed that the fact that media organisations either bury the undecided vote or don't report it at all is a problem.

When undecided voters (who unfortunately aren't all counted in the same way by the different polling firms) approach a quarter of the sample, ignoring their existence leaves out a key part of the picture. And apart from anything else, they all (with the exception of Roy Morgan, the black box of New Zealand political polling) signed up this year to the New Zealand Political Polling Code, which obliges polling companies and their media clients to prominently report the undecideds.

Andrew himself has followed up an earlier post on the issue with another one, noting an alternative reason for an increase in the undecided vote in election year, which is ...

... that polls can actually designed to try to maximise the number of undecideds.

My view is that non-response is probably the most important source of error for political polls. Part of the problem is that the average person is not obsessed with politics, and they are harder to survey for this reason (because they are less included to take part in a poll). By targeting as high a response rate/as low a refusal rate as possible, polls are trying to maximise coverage of non-politically-obsessed people.

On the show, we discussed a number of other dimensions of polling and the media, including the fact that journalists shouldn't hang their hats on decimal-point differences in successive polls.

And I was able to tell the world that Maori Television's news and current affairs division is poised to become a player this year. It will be polling all seven Maori electorates, at least two of which (Te Tai Tokerau and Waiariki) may be critical at a national level.

This is a big step up from the only previous regular insight into those electorates, the Marae Digipoll polls, whose sampling methods (1000 Maori voters nationally, only two thirds of them on the Maori roll) leave them drawing only "indicative" conclusions in the individual Maori electorates, where the samples will often be fewer than 100 respondents.

You can watch all that from about the 13-minute mark in the on-demand version of Media Take. But, of course, you should watch the whole thing!