Hard News by Russell Brown


Debate like it's 2008!

You're in danger of people liking you a little bit more than they have lately -- so why go out of your way to look like a bully? That's just what Michael Cullen did yesterday in the House when he hauled out the old canard about Keith Locke having been a cheerleader for Pol Pot.

I looked into this one years ago, after Locke politely took it up with me. I looked into some old Socialist Action League material, which is as cringe-inducing as you might expect. Locke welcomed the arrival of the new government in Cambodia in 1975, but so did many other people, and other governments. I could find no evidence that he was a cheerleader for the later genocide, or for Pol Pot. But Cullen knew that.

It would be fairer to say that Locke and others, lost in their dreams of socialist revolution, were keener on China then than they are now, but that's irrelevant -- just as Close Up's elaborate contrivance to compare Clark and Goff as student protesters with the pair of them as government ministers 30 years later was irrelevant. As I noted yesterday, I have some qualms about Locke's unwaveringly negative views about interacting with China. Sometimes it seems like the acceptable face of xenophobia. But perhaps the debate could be conducted in 2008, not 1978. And without substituting baiting for argument.

Unless, of course, he actually wants our political culture to descend into Trevor Loudon-style ideological panty-sniffing, Cullen should be ashamed of what he did yesterday.

Moving on, the casual reader might have taken today's Radio New Zealand headline Global crime study puts NZ third worst to mean that we have the third worst crime rate in the world.

Not quite. The 2004-2005 International Crime Victims Survey covers a group of up to 38 countries (not 78, as all the local news reports have it) -- but not all countries are in every pass of the survey and the core group is 30, mostly European countries.

It takes the form of a phone survey and aims to overcome differences in the official recording of crime by asking a standardised set of questions. Its authors write that "the near universal drop in volume crime is arguably the most striking result of the fifth round of the ICVS and poses a clear theoretical challenge to criminologists."

For the basket of the 10 common crimes New Zealand does indeed fare worse in a group of 30 countries than only Ireland and England and Wales. Our rating is principally hurt by theft from cars and burglary. Spain and Portugal are at the other end of the scale, which might surprise anyone who's been pickpocketed on holiday.

Interestingly, the others with us in the group of 10 countries with the highest rates include both very affluent countries such as Switzerland, Ireland and Iceland and less affluent countries such as Estonia and Mexico.

But, along with the rest of the world, our experience of most of these crimes continues to fall. (One year-prevalence rates for car theft have fallen from 2.7% in 1991 to 1.8%, for example.) It has fallen faster in some other places, and the authors speculate that "improved security may well have been one of the main forces behind the universal drop in crimes such as joyriding and household burglary."

The more recent rise in victimisation in the less common crimes of robbery and assault has been mirrored -- and exceeded in quite a few other countries in the sample. Notable exceptions include the USA (which nonetheless still has a horrible record on gun crime, and much the highest rate for the use of weapons in sexual assaults). In general, these crimes fall more heavily on urban populations. The wildly varying rates reported in one place, Northern Ireland -- 0.5% (1995), 0.1% (1999) and 1.1% (04-05) -- suggests that this kind of survey has some real problems.

Indeed, the authors emphasise that the section on sexual assaults needs to be approached very carefully, taking account widely varying cultural perceptions of what constitutes an assault. We surely don't believe, for example, that the incidence in of sexual assault in the past five years in Mexico has really been zero. But, even as the likelihood of the reporting of assault, especially in a domestic setting, has risen, the victimisation rate for sexual assault in New Zealand has halved since 1991.

There is some unalloyed good news on the measures most directly impacted by policy and resourcing -- satisfaction with police performance (which combines reporting rates, public satisfaction with police, and police performance in dealing with reported crimes) and provision of victim support -- where New Zealand is stellar. On the latter measure, the report says:

The top position of New Zealand is corroborated by statistics on the numbers of clients of victim support according to the national victim support agency in New Zealand. In this country with a population of 4 million, circa 100,000 victims are assisted annually according to the national victim support organisation.

Also, we have the lowest rate of bicycle theft in the survey.

That these surveys are almost always reported in the frame of whoever is issuing the press release can be seen in the fact that the same survey was actually reported two weeks ago, exclusively as good news, subsequent to a release from Victim Support.

That would have been the whole account had not National's Simon Power issued his own release yesterday, highlighting the less happy findings. Yesterday's news stories are essentially rewrites of that release. But Power's statement, inevitably, contains its own spin. Does no one have time to read the report itself, and report on that?

Anyway, the summary is online and the full report is here. Feel free to poke around.

And finally: how much of a premium would you pay on your iPod for free access, for life, to the entire iTunes library? The music companies reckon $80; Apple says $20. Emusic, as you might expect, smells an antitrust case brewing.

Watch this one …

And a special Easter bonus: the video and audio from Webstock is now online. Enjoy.

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