Up Front by Emma Hart


The Best Possible Taste

The Broadcasting Standards Authority used to do this fantastic test of community standards when it came to language. They would knock on people’s doors, hold up cards with words like “Arsehole” on them, and say, “How offensive is this?” Disappointingly, this is now done over the internet, but the results page is still one of my favourite places on the internet. The survey is done every four years, and listening to people trying to report on it without breeching the very broadcasting standards it concerns is a thing of joy.

This is not about that. But it’s worth bringing up to note that what the BSA does is not set “community standards”, but reflect them. Its job is not to tell people what to find offensive, but to have people tell it, and then try to apply that standard consistently. I personally would have “faggot” much higher on that list, but that’s not the BSA’s fault. (Also, I’d hyphenate “mother fucker”, so what do I know?)

In this spirit, the BSA has just released the report on its Litmus Test of the Good Taste and Decency Standard. So many jokes. Shush.

The purpose of this testing is to help ascertain how well BSA decisions align with public opinion. This contributes to ensuring the BSA has a clear appreciation of the diversity of community views and public attitudes towards these decisions.

The BSA put five of its decisions before four focus groups. They were shown clips, asked if each piece was offensive, then told the BSA’s ruling and asked whether they agreed with it. It should be noted that there were only 28 participants across the four groups. For the first time, some of the focus groups were located outside of Auckland: in Hamilton, Wellington, and Ashburton.

The broader findings are consistent with those of the Sweary Bastards survey. Our community’s standards are slowly changing. We are becoming less offended by sex and swearing, and more offended by sexism and racism. There were also, taking into account small numbers, geographic variations.

In Wellington, for example, participants appeared more sensitive to issues relating to racism or sexism. The Wellington group also appeared to more readily grasp the role of context when considering good taste and decency. This was less the case in Ashburton, where participants in the group appeared less likely to take context into consideration when evaluating the clips. In Hamilton, the group was broad-thinking and very aware of tolerance of diversity issues, while the Auckland group was more conservative in its views in terms of what was acceptable and more likely to perceive that standards in broadcasting are being lowered.

Also, there were some issues with… er, no, I can’t think of a tactful way to describe this. One of the clips was one of Jeremy Wells’ Like Mike pieces.

It should be noted that in Ashburton and Auckland the voting for whether the complaint should be upheld was made when participants did not realise that the clip was a parody of Mike Hosking (even though this was explained upfront in Auckland, participants seemed not to register the fact and it had to be reiterated to them again once they had already made their judgements).

Wells is good. And, y’know, Poe’s Law. But people in Auckland were the hardest to convince that it wasn’t actually Mike Hosking? Are we sure, really really sure, that Hosking himself isn’t just playing a very long trolling game?

A common theme, given the complaints tested encompassed Paul Henry, Sean Plunkett, breakfast radio, and I guess Mike Hosking, was “Well you have to expect that from those people, don’t you?” Except often ‘people’ wasn’t the word used. I don’t know what the word used was. The BSA removed it.

I assume it’s on the list somewhere.

But I do recognise the sexism thing but it comes down literally that I wrote down that Paul Henry is a *** and that’s just kind of what you expect from him in some ways.

And what you’ve got is Sean Plunket sounding like an ***, really he’s demonstrating that he doesn’t understand a fundamental disability issue.

I think the guy is a *** so he doesn’t even understand what disability is about.

It’s sweet of them to protect me, but I just inserted “cunt” in every one of those gaps. Yes, even the second one.

There was one complaint that caused some division, where the majority of the focus groups did not agree with the BSA ruling:

During Sean Plunket’s talkback show, the CEO for the National Foundation for the Deaf called in to discuss captioning on television, especially the perceived problem of the lack of captioning on broadcasts of games in the Rugby World Cup 2015. In response Mr Plunket questioned whether this was really a problem, suggested that ‘You can actually watch the rugby with the sound off, you can see – they’ve got big numbers on their backs – you can see what’s happening’ and terminated the call by saying to the CEO, ‘You do have a hearing problem because you’re not actually engaging in a conversation.’

The BSA chose not to uphold the complaint, stating that;

talkback radio is an environment where excessive language and inappropriate comments are often heard from listeners calling in and sometimes from the radio host, in order to stimulate reactions and responses. Talkback radio is an example of  freedom of expression in action and it serves a valuable public purpose, giving some who may not otherwise have any opportunity to be heard, a forum where their views can be expressed.

Two problems with this. One is perfectly articulated by one of the Ashburton participants.

“They say that talkback radio is an example of freedom of expression and action and serves a valuable public purpose, well he didn’t allow her that as such. She didn’t get a chance, did she? He never actually gave her a chance to express her opinion.”

The other takes us back to the Swearing is Fun! Survey. One of the patterns that emerged from that survey was that

Use of ‘bad’ language by radio hosts, in both breakfast programmes and talkback scenarios, is less acceptable than in other scenarios

 Related to the above, there appears less tolerance for use of ‘bad’ language from real people (as opposed to actors), including interviewees and callers to radio talkback

Their own data says people hold talkback radio hosts to a higher standard of Good Taste and Decency. Well. Higher than Game of Thrones.

One thing we can deduce from these findings. It’s okay to ask a female scientist if she’s fucked Richard Branson. It’s not okay to say “fuck” while you do it. That’s our current community standard.


What Sorry Looks Like

I feel like I’ve been swimming in a sea of Domestic Violence the last couple of days, since that terrible Tony Veitch piece came out. I’ve seen so many people – lefties, women, feminists – saying, well, he’s sorry, and it was just that one time, and what more do you want really? Even someone who felt it appropriate to say we shouldn’t kick Veitch when he’s down.

Think about that for a moment. We shouldn’t kick people when they’re down. Someone you couldn’t pay me to link to thought it was okay to publicly say that, in this case.

So let me tell you what ‘sorry’ looks like, when it comes to domestic violence. I’ll be drawing heavily on the writing of Lundy Bancroft, an expert who specialises in male violence against female partners, specifically. In his book, Why Does He Do That?, he talks about what the men he counsels need to do to change.

-          He has to admit, and admit fully his responsibility

-          He has to admit he did it on purpose

-          He has to acknowledge that what he did was wrong

-          He has to truly acknowledge the effects of his actions

-          He has to accept consequences of his actions

-          He has to devote long-term and serious effort toward setting right what he has done

-          He has to lay aside demands for forgiveness

-          He has to treat his family and everyone else consistently well from that point forward

-          He has to relinquish his negative views

-          Admit fully his history of psychological, sexual and physical abusiveness toward any current or past partners whom he has abused.

-          Acknowledge that the abuse was wrong, unconditionally.

-          Acknowledge that his behaviour was a choice, not a loss of control.

-          Recognize the effects his abuse has had on his partner and children and show empathy for those.

-          Identify in detail his pattern of controlling behaviours and entitled attitudes.

-          Develop respectful behaviors and attitudes to replace the abusive ones he is stopping.

-          Make amends for the damage he has done.

-          Re-evaluate his distorted image, replacing it with a more positive and empathic view.

-          Accept that overcoming abusiveness is likely to be a lifelong process.

-          Be willing to accountable for his actions, both past and future.

What would I need to see? This. Some of this. Any of this.

Unreformed abusers, even when their abuse is witnessed, physical, undeniable, will try to minimise their behaviour, by omitting incidents, playing down the severity and the impact on victims, and shifting blame onto their partner. There were faults on both sides. The relationship was dysfunctional, in some kind of passive-voice nightmare in which they were just gosh-darned helpless.

Veitch is still lying. It’s appalling that a national newspaper chose to give him a platform to do so. 


Cui bono?

I want to spend some time talking about the opposite of a Universal Basic Income. Well, not quite the opposite. We know what happens if a state makes no provision for its worst off. We don’t have to imagine what happens without social welfare: Engels wrote it all down for us. Then Dickens cleaned it up quite a lot and wrote it down so people would actually read it.

I want to talk about England, and the Disability Benefit. More specifically, the “Fit for Work” test. You see, one of the things we apparently have in common with England is an epidemic of people pretending to be ill, or pretending to be more incapacitated than they are. For some reason, their doctors conspire with them in this. The assessments of NHS professionals cannot be trusted, and must be verified by other NHS professionals. A government cannot, particularly in a time of austerity, allow its citizens to defraud it.

The job was outsourced to a company called ATOS. People with Parkinson’s were declared fit for work. So were people in hospital receiving cancer treatment. (Luckily, this would never happen in New Zealand.)  People were declared fit for work days before dying.

Late last year, a report was released linking Fit for Work assessments to nearly six hundred suicides.

One million recipients of disability benefit had their eligibility reassessed under the WCA tests in England between 2010 and 2013, according to researchers from the University of Liverpool.

The researchers calculated that these assessments were linked to an additional 590 suicides, 279,000 extra cases of self-reported mental health problems and the prescribing of an additional 725,000 antidepressants between 2010-13.

This is equivalent to a 5% rise in total suicides, 11% increase of self-referred mental health problems, and 0.5% more antidepressant prescriptions.

The human toll of these assessments, on people who are not job-seekers, but too physically or mentally ill to work, is appalling. On the other hand, it’s technically a success, because those 590 people are off the government’s books. If it’s morally unconscionable, at least it is actually saving money, right?

Yeah, nah. That’s when we get to here. The fit for work assessments cost more money than they save. Despite the British government having Sercoed ATOS and brought in completely different private contractors, the situation has if anything got worse.

The study by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that the Department for Work and Pensions is handing over £1.6bn over the next three years to private contractors who carry out the controversial health and disability assessments. 

But at the same time, the Government’s own financial watchdog has warned that savings in benefits payments are likely to be less than a billion pounds by 2020 as a result of the new tests.

Surely we can agree that this policy is purest ideology. It’s a failure in both human and financial terms. Its sole purpose is to punish people for not working. The experience of being on welfare is so appalling that people are killing themselves rather than endure it.

New Zealand is very little different. The underlying mentality is the same.

Yet a Universal Basic Income seems politically, and perhaps financially, Too Hard. Is there a middle ground, between hounding cancer patients and sending out trucks of free money? Well, I have some suggestions.

Remove the Stand-down

The stand-down is the period after you successfully apply for a benefit you’re entitled to, and before they start paying it to you. Why? Because. It’s usually two weeks, though it can be thirteen, and may be longer if you have unused holidays from a previous job.

Fuck that noise. Grabbed your kids and left your abusive partner? Good on you. Well fucking done. Have a benefit, right now. Saved money while you were working, before you got sick or lost your job? Yay you. Instead of punishing you for not pissing it all away, have a benefit, right now. Human being cannot actually live on just air, so have some money, so you don’t die.

Get Rid of Medical Assessments

I mean okay, also, bring back a separate Sickness/Invalid’s benefit. There’s a simple clear policy idea right there. Bring it back, put those people on it, and then leave them the fuck alone. (Yes, there is a Supported Living Payment, but in practical terms it’s very difficult to get, and doesn’t cover most people who would have been on a Sickness Benefit.)

Don’t work-test them. They have doctors, who know them, and specialist who, y’know, specialise. Don’t waste money paying other doctors to check up on them, and don’t make them sicker by putting them through the stress of a Designated Doctor assessment.

And don’t make people with permanent, chronic conditions and disabilities keep going to their doctor to get a certificate to say yeah, they haven’t magically regained their hearing or the use of their legs. It’s stupid. It’s just stupid.

Don’t Work-Test Care-givers

Don’t make parents of young children look for work. That thing they’re doing? It’s work, and what you pay them for it is total and utter shit.


You know what Work and Income is really, really bad at? Helping people find work. Imagine if that was their prime function, for people on the Jobseeker Allowance. You don’t have a job, you want a job, you go in, and they help you find a job. Apart from anything else, this would make things far more pleasant for their staff, if their relationship to their clients was less adversarial.

Just help. It’s the right thing to do.


The Up Front Guide to Plebs

I like to take what I consider to be a healthy interest in other countries’ politics. In part, this offers a refreshing break from crying when people tweet about New Zealand electoral law.

I’m not ready to pay too much attention to the US presidential race, in the same way March is too early to pay attention to Super Rugby. There is, however, only so long you can spend watching Justin Trudeau cuddle baby pandas. (It’s a long time, mind, but a finite time.) Eventually, one has to glance across the Tasman and think. “Oh dear. What the fuck are yous doing?”

First it was the review of the Safe Schools Program, because Heaven Forefend children learn not to bully people because of their sexuality or gender identity. That’s indoctrination. And then there’s the same-sex marriage plebiscite.

Now, perhaps you’re wondering, WTF is a plebiscite? Why isn’t it a referendum? I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading, and while it’s very confusing, I think I may have some answers.

WTF is a plebiscite? How’s it different from a referendum?

In Australia, a referendum concerns the constitution, and is binding. A plebiscite is for non-constitutional law change, and isn’t binding.

So the Australian parliament can just ignore the result of the plebiscite?

Yes they can. But Turnbull has said they won’t.

But they can?


But they won’t?

Fuck knows. Some government MPs who are opposed to marriage equality have said they will consider themselves bound by the plebiscite, but they also expect it to be defeated.

Will it?

Will it fuck. Various polls put the Australian public’s support for same-sex marriage at 65-75%, with only 25% opposed – very similar to the numbers in New Zealand.

Okay, so what’s the question going to be? Who gets to decide the wording of the question? I mean, that stuff’s quite important, yeah?

Yes it is, officially the Prime Minister, and nobody knows yet.

So if we already know the result, and it’s not binding anyway, why have it? Why not just have a parliamentary vote like we did in New Zealand?

The plebiscite appears to be part of a deal Turnbull did with his conservative MPs. It’s a delaying tactic. It’s basically an extra, time-consuming hurdle for the law to get over.

Okay, so when will the plebiscite be?

The Attorney-General, George Brandis, said it would be after the election, but before the end of the year.

So, then?

Then Malcolm Turnbull said “Eh…” So probably not.

What happens if Labor wins the election instead?

They’ve promised to hold a parliamentary vote within their first 100 days.

Couldn’t they have done this under one of their Prime Ministers, though?

You might very well think that.

Well, it sounds like Australia is getting marriage equality next year no matter what. So what’s the problem with having a plebiscite? Isn’t this lovely cuddly democracy in action?

Well, let’s say we don’t care about the $160m it’ll cost. Democracy is expensive. What it means is that both sides of the argument will have extensive, largely unregulated campaigns on the issue.

Take a moment to imagine what that’s going to sound like.

A plebiscite would give anti-gay campaigners the biggest stage they have ever had. US research (Hatzenbuehler et al) has shown that the mental health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people suffered significantly during referenda debates on marriage equality.

For LGBTI people who experienced a US state referendum on marriage equality there was;

-          a 37 per cent increase in mood disorders,

-          a 42 per cent increase in alcohol-use disorders, and

-          a 248 per cent in generalised anxiety disorders.

In states without such referenda, there was no increase.

This is why having referenda (or, okay, plebiscites) on human rights issues is inherently degrading. In this case, it means giving a platform for some people to be called child molesters, to be told they’re not fit to raise their children, that they are simply less human than other people.

But then there’s a party, right? And everyone sings Pokarekare Ana and cries.



Everyone who’s still standing.




It’s not often I get a column mostly written in my head, and then have to tear it up and throw it away. Surely that should be even less likely to happen with a memorial column: isn’t the subject the past? But this will be a very different column from the one I would have written two weeks ago.

I have very dear people in my life who come to visit Christchurch once or twice a year. Because they don’t see it every day, they can be our best guides to how things are changing. All those I saw around Christmas remarked on how the city felt noticeably better this time.

Much of this is the central city. Finally, more is going up than coming down. My own feeling is that the impression is due not so much to the completion of any one project, like the bus exchange or the Margaret Mahy playground, as the way the dots are starting to join up. The shops on New Regent St are no longer isolated. They’re between the Isaac Theatre Royal and the playground. St Asaph St is turning into a lovely bank of bars and restaurants that should be really nice if they ever stop digging up that road. We could do with more functional footpaths and bike lanes, but there’s obvious progress. I spent Sunday at Hagley Oval, the prettiest test cricket ground in the country, and yes I will fight the Basin Reserve over that title. We have pavement cafes and by gods we will use them.

And then, things happened. Because this isn’t about the past, five years on. Things are still happening.

I was out in the garden when the Valentine’s Day quake hit. It was vast and rumbly and long and far stronger than anything we’ve had for years. I went inside, and I was right back to picking things up off the floor and cleaning nutmeg out of the pantry. A week later I’m still finding things that have shifted or fallen, and my bedside lamp will never be the same again. It’s not just one quake, either. It never is. Little aftershocks still rumble lazily on. We’d been so long without them, we let our defences down.

Almost immediately afterwards, we were told our mental health funding had been cut.

The babies born on the day of the quake start school today. Like the rest of our children, they’re more likely to show signs of anxiety and developmental delays. And I don’t know, you might be sick of us because of the way we voted (no we didn’t, but never mind), or our endless whining, or the way we want to keep complaining and yet won’t take your eminently sensible ‘just leave’ advice, but we’re a vulnerable population. When you neglect a vulnerable population, bad things happen. Bad, expensive things.

On a smaller but similar note, it turns out my kids’ old school has in fact not secured a rebuild site. This feels like yet another step backwards. Five years on, to have any school still in limbo, still in temporary premises, still subject to disruption, is not good enough.  

What’s also not good enough is our public library. The Central Library wasn’t badly damaged by the quakes, and could have been repaired on its site for very little more than its insurance payout. But no. Because the convention centre. So five years on, we have two tiny ‘temporary’ libraries instead, and no sign of any permanent replacement.

It’s fair to say, my optimism has taken a few knocks, and not just because of the Australian batting I sat through yesterday.

So today we will remember. The important thing is, today we will be allowed to remember. We will be given space to be sad, to reflect on the way our lives have been shaken up. It’s good for our mental health. And then we will get up and get on, because as my mother used to say, there’s no other choice.