Hard News by Russell Brown

Gossip, rumour and fact

Whatever the merits of Canwest's New Zealand IPO, it might not be wise to count its acquisition of MTV programming for C4 among them: not when MTV itself may be with us as soon as September.

In the Herald last week, Brian Gaynor noted that "CanWest has also signed an agreement with MTV to bring its programming to C4" towards the end of a fairly positive assessment of Canwest's offering, which has been popular enough to see allocations to investors cut back.

But those programmes will look a little dated if, as I have heard, MTV Asia really is in discussions with Sky to add both the MTV and VH1 channels to the Sky bouquet. On the other hand, it would stand to hurt C4 far less than it would Sky's existing and somewhat unlovely music offering, Juice TV.

Gaynor's identification of Canwest New Zealand CEO Brent Impey as a strong plus in perceptions of the company id doubtless correct, but the question everyone will be asking is how long the advertising boom that makes Canwest's radio stations so bountiful will last. Opinions on ShareTrader appear to be more pessimistic than those in the mainstream media.

That boom is, of course, seeing the improvement and expansion of media real estate all over the shop: the most recent example of which is the all-new (and somewhat excitably designed) Weekend Herald, which appears to have more substance than its similarly made-over weekend rival, the Sunday Star Times.

But wait! There's more! Probably. The Herald's owner, APN, has done quite a good job of smothering rumours about its plans for a new Sunday title. Word is, it will be produced (and indeed, is being planned) from the Herald's Auckland office, but it won't be the Sunday Herald, but a new APN title. But why would the APN compete with its existing weekend flagship? Well, who said it would compete? And who said it would be a broadsheet?

The topic was doubtless under discussion at last night's enjoyable 65th anniversary do for The Listener at the Auckland War Memorial Museum: "Look," said a journalist of my acquaintance, "at Gavin Ellis and Tim Murphy hovering around Rick Neville and that Horton chap trying to find out what they're doing …"

It's been a busy few days. Paul Atkins, the gentlemanly director of the British Council in New Zealand, invited me to lunch yesterday to meet his replacement, Paula Middleton, a New Zealander long absent from these shores, who comes here after a two-year secondment with the World Bank. I discovered when I explained my various roles to her that she had once had some involvement with Auckland University's Radio Bosom, the messy predecessor of 95bFM. So there you are: another bFM deep-cover alumnus …

Last week, of course, was occasion for a brief visit to winter-festival Queenstown, where I can report that huge marketing budgets are being sluiced around like happy fire hoses for the benefit of a celebrated few. Last week there was the 42 Below party, for which hospitality types were flown in from all over (Radar: "There was more vodka than a Russian supermarket - and I've been to a Russian supermarket."), and a British American Tobacco do, where girls in shiny little red dresses wandered around handing out Dunhills and being groped by a certain TV host. We stepped out for a drink with a couple of celebrity types, but I'll resist the temptation to go all Bridget Saunders.

On a more serious tip, I don't really want to dignify National's Sunday pitch for the string-'em-up vote with a fully worked-up essay, but a few bullet points are in order:

- Whatever your criticisms of the parole system, it's fatuous to describe it as "a failed experiment" when the re-offending rate of inmates who are granted parole is half that of those who don't.

- Even if, as Don Brash promised, parole was scrapped for 85% of offenders, the buggers would still eventually get out anyway - but the system would lose its ability to monitor and restrict their re-entry to society. You'd have to be feeling lucky to regard that as an improvement.

- If, as Brash suggests, National would weaken the Resource Management Act so it could force through the construction of half a dozen new prisons to cope with between and 50% and 100% rise in the national prison muster, it would be buying a fight on something approaching the scale of that looming over its Treaty promises. National is promising things it can't deliver in government - at least without being consumed by the effort. (You might also note the somewhat ironic fact that National MPs have actively opposed every new prison planned by the current government.)

- There is so much wrong with Don Brash's vague plan for a return to hard labour in prisons (scrapped as unworkable back in the 1950s), which was mooted in a response to a question from someone at the Sensible Sentencing Trust as to whether he supported flogging. New Zealand would have to exempt itself from a UN convention. How could the government guarantee public security if it was to send violent criminals out on road gangs? At what cost? How many non-criminals will be denied such labouring jobs so that inmates can be accommodated? The Dom Post has a story outlining some other problems this morning.

- Jeanette Fitzsimons' depiction of National's plans as an Americanisation of our system is well founded. The oft-repeated claim that our incarceration rate is second only to (but far behind) that of the US, doesn't seem to be true (Russia, for example, still had 644 prisoners per 100,000 people in jails in 2001, not far short of the US figure of nearly 700), but are we to follow it down the road that now sees one in seven of all black males incarcerated at any given time - and three quarters of black male high school dropouts either locked up or on probation or parole? Especially when it doesn't work? (View the like-for-like comparisons of crime rates here and in the US if you doubt me.) The ultimate indictment of this philosophy came three years ago as the reality of politically-driven corrective policies and mandatory sentencing gimmicks began to bite:

The three states with the highest rates of incarceration - Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi - in the past two years have tried to limit the growth of their prison populations, according to The Sentencing Project. Louisiana eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, Mississippi eased its "truth in sentencing" law and Texas increased the number of inmates paroled by nearly a third in 2001 over the previous fiscal year.

National's proposed policy is, in practical terms, bullshit. In political terms, it might win a few votes.

I do think that Tai Hobson, whose wife Mary was killed in the RSA murders, is well within his rights to take a civil action against the government over the handling of the murderer William Bell's parole conditions. The Mangere probation office failed disastrously to apply the safeguards in the system, and even though the parole and sentencing laws and structure of the parole board have considerably been overhauled since, that needs to be accounted for.

Anyway, another week, another slightly dotty Sunday Star Times editorial, this one on home detention:

Home detention, a scheme under which some offenders can serve "prison" sentences in the comfort of their own homes, is costing us more and more. As we reveal today, the number of home-based convicts on the dole has more than doubled in the past two years, at a cost of $10 million a year to the taxpayer.

On the other hand, as the Sunday Star Times also reveals, this is still far cheaper than housing inmates in a minimum security prison: $23,000 a head compared to $58,000. So in granting home detention to 485 offenders and paying them either the dole or a sickness benefit we're still saving a net $17 million annually. The idea of forcing them into some sort of work (other than the community service many are already doing) suffers the same problems as any other kind of makework idea: sharply increased costs and distortion of the private labour market.

It's actually hard to divine the point of the editorial, but its rather misleading statement that "There is revulsion that rapists and other violent sex offenders can be eligible" for home detention needs addressing. They can, but not, as a casual reader might think, in the same sense as minor offenders.

To apply for home detention an offender must have been convicted of an offence punishable by a prison term of two years or less. Serious offenders, on the other hand, can apply to serve the last five months of their prison terms under home detention - it's effectively a more secure version of parole, rather than the "get out of jail free" card the SST seems to think it is. It was even supported by the Police Association.

This might also be a good time to remind ourselves that when National introduced home detention in March 1999, the legislation was supported by every party in Parliament.

PS: I trust everyone has read our reprint of the late Andrew Heal's Metro essay on political correctness. I plan to fish out and publish more worthwhile archive stuff from now on. And if you're waiting for a reply from me to your email, hang in there. It's school holidays, but I'm getting there …