Hard News by Russell Brown

Take That!

No, it won't have done Helen Clark any political harm domestically to have been able to lay down the law to the Israeli government on live TV last night. The sentencing just before 6pm of the two Israeli agents on charges of fraudulently attempting to obtain a New Zealand passport was the cue for a series of interviews, fresh off the plane at Auckland Airport in which she briskly ticked off a list of diplomatic sanctions against Israel, until such time as its government formally acknowledged and apologised for its outrageous actions.

Clark has spent months in the mode in which she is least appealing: firefighting and fending off personal attacks. The spy scandal gave her a chance to do something she's good at - the sharp and statesmanlike response to an external challenge. Watching her on One News, Holmes and, later, BBC World News, it was hard to avoid to feeling that you couldn't imagine Don Brash doing it like that.

The Australian's Clare Harvey, the only Australian newspaper staff correspodnent based in New Zealand, picked up on the political relief angle, but it will be hard for the Opposition to criticise the firm response, even in those terms. And, more to the point, this was an entirely appropriate response to an outrageous attack on New Zealand's sovereignty. The unfriendly actions of Mossad, or whichever agency it was, stood to seriously damage the credibility of the New Zealand passport system, and to potentially affect every New Zealander who travels internationally.

NBR has a rapid roundup of the ensuing news stories this morning, and the Christian Science Monitor has a fascinating backgrounder which notes claims that Mossad had been systematically working to abuse our passport system for years. Israel's Ariga describes the passport case as "another battlefront" for Israel's troubled leadership and Ha'aretz quotes Foreign Ministry sources as saying that its refusal to acknowledge the New Zealand government's protest was "imposed" on them by the Prime Minister's Office and Mossad. The right-wing Jerusalem Post quoted New Zealand Jewish leaders who said they were "embarrassed" by the scandal.

Readers may recall that I recently grumped about a Sunday Star Times editorial that complained, waywardly, that the government had "introduced a ban on alcohol in a public place" and "turned everyone who put a bottle of plonk in the car on their way to a BYO restaurant a criminal."

This was not, of course, the case. What the government did do was in the Local Government Act 2002 provide local authorities with the ability to pass bylaws establishing liquor bans in such places and at such times as they felt it necessary to protect public order. The new law specifically stated that such a ban could not apply to someone simply buying or taking liquor to another place.

Auckland City already operates a liquor ban on some central city streets between 9pm and 6am from Thursday to Saturday nights. This has generally been a good thing (although it has been a surprise to some visitors to Auckland, including, one night last year on K Road, the editor of Scoop). The streets late at night are better for the absence of yobs sucking on alcopops.

But in April this year, the Auckland City Council announced that under its new powers it would be introducing liquor bans in 10 locations, including the Mission Bay Reserve and a considerably extended CBD zone. Gordon McLachlan wrote, with some justification, about council wowserism, but councillor Noeline Raffills assured everyone that the bans would be an after-10pm affair. Surely, you thought, they'd be sensible about this.

But oh no. This is the Auckland City Council we're talking about and its capacity for rank silliness ought never to be underestimated, especially under a tory majority. So take a look at the council's liquor ban proposals, which include a 24-hour, seven-day ban on the consumption of (or even loitering with) alcohol in public throughout a wider Auckland CBD stretching from Upper Queen Street right down to the water and from the far edge of Victoria Park to Symonds Street.

This takes in the university precinct (but not the university grounds themselves), the area around the student halls of residence, and Albert Park, where it will now be illegal to settle down with a cold one on a hot day or to have a picnic and a glass of wine. Time-honoured student activities of the dinner-on-a-traffic-island type are also to be outlawed - or at least subject to case-by-case begging for an exemption. The AUSA is now trying to negotiate. Read the council's page on the bans and you will not find any real justification for such a draconian move, or an explanation of how and why the proposal changed between April and now. The most likely explanation is that the council wants to move the city's handful of tramps and dossers somewhere - anywhere - else, and it's prepared to wade as far into citizens' lives as it has to achieve that. Surely this is "political correctness gone mad"? No, can't be: it's a centre-right council isn't it?

It might have been a good idea to get well-known Treaty naysayer Chris Trotter to review David Slack's Bullshit, Backlash & Bleeding Hearts for The Listener - perhaps he could bring a fresh and lively perspective - but the subsequent review is a bit bizarre. Trotter pots Slack, as a former prime ministerial speechwriter, as part of "a cosy circle of bureaucratic, academic, ethnic and political elites" that has locked everyone else out of the Treaty debate and his book as "little more than a description of, and justification for, elite consensus formation." This seems an excessively paranoid, and insulting, description of a group of New Zealanders from both sides of the political divide who were obliged to address an issue that could not be ignored and - although mistakes were made - acted in the best of faith and largely did the right thing.

It may be valid criticism of the book that it proceeds from the assumption that the attempt to address Treaty grievances has generally been A Good Thing, and that it largely consults people, including former National minister Doug Graham who share that view. But Trotter deploys a boilerplate grumpy-right tactic: largely ignoring what anyone actually has to say in favour of totting up ideological profiles. He actually went through the book and counted the words in every indented quote, of which there are quite a few, then sorted them into his own classifications of whether the people being quoted were personally "wary of", "antagonistic to" or "neutral" about the Treaty, and "those who were broadly in favour of either entrenching or enhancing the role of the Treaty in New Zealand life." Unsurprisingly, members of the Trotter's Treaty-hugging "elite" feature strongly.

On the other hand, "nowhere in BB&BH," says Trotter, "does Slack interview, or quote extensively from the writings of, such scholarly Treaty critics as Jock Brookfield, Andrew Sharpe, W H Oliver, James Allan or Kenneth Minogue."

Well, there's very little quoted from any academic writing - it's not that sort of book. But works by four of the five (excepting Allan) are listed in the book's bibliography. Brookfield concluded his book Waitangi & Indigenous Rights: Revolution, Law & Legitimation by stating that New Zealand needed constitutional reform (a "quiet revolution") that included the recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi and provided for the place of Maori in the constitution and sharply criticised Brash on the foreshore issue in an essay this year - which would seem to make him more part of the conspiratorial "elite" than an overlooked critic.

Minogue, emeritus professor of political science at the London School of Economics, has, so far as I know, written only one book on the topic, Waitangi, Morality and Reality, published by the NZ Business Roundtable in 1998. It hardly seems an act of dizzy liberalism to, on the other hand, allow Dame Anne Salmond "generous" space (that is, twice as many words as Don Brash gets) to comment on matters on which her work has been copious and widely recognised.

So much of the full-page review is devoted to this fevered number-crunching that there is virtually no mention of what Slack himself has actually written. Are the pop-history chapters notably flawed? Is he on the money in the chapter where he says that the unworkable concept of Treaty "partnership" (as opposed to "co-operation"), which got loose amongst a well-meaning bureaucracy, is to blame for many subsequent misgivings and problems? We wouldn't know from the review.

I do occasionally see Chris Trotter, and get on perfectly well with him. But I wonder at his branding as a left-wing commentator lately. All this bellyaching on the apparent behalf of the rank-and-file New Zealander (including a frothing "eight out of 10" verdict on Don Brash's law-and-order speech in the Star Times) seems a bit odd to me.

Anyway, I've found a couple of offshore media stories particularly interesting this week. One is the controversy about Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Truth, which takes on Fox News and makes the case, with the assistance of former Fox journalists, out-take video clips and leaked memos, that Fox isn't just right-wing, but a purveyor of systematic political bias and frequent falsehoods.

NewsMax responded with a story pointing out that Murdoch actually did Al Gore a few favours during the last presidential election campaign, so how could he really be a Republican bigot? Good point: I think Murdoch does have beliefs, but few so firm that they can't be put aside for financial advantage, as the Chinese government was happy to discover. He's amoral, basically: but that doesn't make the unethical behaviour of Fox News management - and the out-and-out lying of star hosts like Bill O'Reilly - any better.

The other story has been the fallout from the Butler report in Britain. I've done The Mediawatch Blog early this week so I can point you to it. It has lots of links relevant to those and other stories, including many clips from Outfoxed, whose marketing is almost as interesting as its content. The O'Reilly interview with James Glick is an absolute must-see if you feel like using some of the boss's bandwidth this afternoon.

And on that tip, I should point out a few changes in the nature of my mainstream work from here on in. The Computers column in the issue of The Listener published tomorrow is my last, after 10 years. From now on, I will be writing a Listener column called Wide Area News, which will take a broad view of the media. At the same time, my role at Mediawatch has changed a little: I will continue to contribute as part of the Mediawatch team, with weekly interviews, comments and work on the website, but most weeks it will be presented by the very able Colin Peacock. I'm happy with it all, and looking forward to stretching out in the new, larger column.

PS: for a couple of hours today this post carried the unhappy - and indeed wholly inaccurate - news that W H Oliver was deceased. Clearly, he is not, as is evidenced by the entry of his autobiography in last year's Montana Book Awards. I was thinking of something else altogether when I wrote that. Also, the link to Jock Brookfield's unpublished essay on the foreshore issue was broken and is fixed now. Cheers, RB.