Hard News by Russell Brown


Drugs, testing and workplaces

Late last year, New Zealand Rugby announced that it was to begin random, out-of-competition drug-testing of players, coaches and administrators – not for drugs that might be used to gain any performance advantage, but for illicit recreational drugs.

The messaging around the announcement was careful. In the words of NZR contracts manager Chris Lendrum, the move was "essentially about the health and wellbeing of our people" and support, rather than punishment.

The reality behind the messaging is more complex. NZR did consider a broader culture-change strategy, like that underway at the Defence Force, which commissioned the New Zealand Drug Foundation to advise on its policies and practices around drug use. (The Defence Force has taken a similar longer-term approach to its sexual violence problem and in 2015 commissioned a review of its own culture from the specialist consultancy Tikai.)

But in the end, rugby went for something quicker and simpler, contracting The Drug Detection Agency, a franchising business whose shareholders include Julie Christie, to conduct its drug testing. The Drug Detection Agency's advisory board includes a franchising lawyer, an accountant, a professional director, a toxicologist and Christie, but no one with direct experience of drug and alcohol counselling.

It is tempting to conclude that NZR is less concerned about pastoral care than with avoiding what happened to Racing 92, the French club now scrambling to manage the PR fallout from its contracted player, New Zealander Ali Williams, getting busted buying cocaine outside a nightclub over the weekend. Williams' arrest compounds the club's problem with another of its New Zealand players, Dan Carter, being arrested for drink-driving two weeks ago. It's notable that almost all the news coverage has noted the club's PR issues and none of it on player welfare.

The irony, of course, is that had Williams bought his coke discreetly and not been a drunk asshole trying to score on the street at 3am, he would have been fairly unlucky to have been picked up in testing, had there been any. Cocaine metabolites are typically detectable in urine for around 48 hours after use. In case of heavy use, or use with alcohol (as per Williams) that could extend to four days, or perhaps a week if use is chronic, but that would be unusual.

Methamphetamine clears detection limits a little more quickly. But, depending on the cutoff value used in testing, cannabis metabolites may be detectable up to a month after use – while impairment is generally back to baseline after three hours . This is, of course, one of the key problems with workplace drug testing: it tends to privilege more harmful drugs which clear the body more quickly. 

Which brings us to Prime Minister Bill English's anecdata yesterday about employers who tell him they have trouble finding prospective employees who can pass a drug test. He said:

"One of the hurdles these days is just passing a drug test. Under workplace safety you can't have people on your premises under the influence of drugs and a lot of our younger people can't pass that test."

The problem, of course, is that – with the exception of alcohol – workplace drug tests really don't measure with someone is "under the influence" of drugs. They are more useful in screening for people who are occasional drug users, if that's what an employer wants to do. By the same token, there is no workplace drug test which can tell you whether a potential hire has a long-term problem with alcohol.

I can't find any reliable figures for how many jobs in the economy are subject to either pre-employment or random drug testing (which is to say, almost every news story on the subject originates in a press release from The Drug Detection Agency, which has clear interests in the matter and reports its internal data accordingly). But it seems around 5% of the 90,000 or so tests conducted annually (which corresponds to a lower-than-90,000 number of employees actually tested) return non-negative results, around three quarters of them related to cannabis.

The rate amongst those seeking jobs seems to be much, much lower. After the introduction of sanctions for beneficiaries who failed pre-employment drug tests, the failure rate amongst 8000 beneficiaries tested was 0.27%. Later news reports that the rate of sanctions was growing were statistical bollocks.

Let's be clear: there are sectors in which it is vital that employees not be impaired by drugs. Anything that can be done to improve the terrible workplace safety record of forestry, for example, seems worthwhile. (Although, as Chris Fowlie notes, forestry's enthusiastic embrace of testing does not appear to have improved that safety record.) But we can get an idea of the real-world efficacy of drug-testing in the evidence that the influx of construction workers to post-quake Christchurch created a methamphetamine boom.

Other industries, of course, have no interest in drug-testing their employees. The US tech industry, to take the most notable example, learned many years ago that drug-testing was a good way to lose the race for talent – and while Amazon tests its blue-collar workers, it wouldn't dream of having its coders pee in a cup. There's also the fact that the evidence that drug-testing actually curbs drug use is pretty thin. Further, drug-testing can have unintended consequences – one of the reasons synthetic cannabinoids took off in New Zealand was that for years they didn't show up in drug tests.

But let's come back to those rugby players. Two friends of mine have been in the presence of All Blacks who were on party drugs – one was saucer-eyed and somewhat confused down at the Viaduct two days before a test for which he wasn't in the squad and the other, a legend of the game, had a post-season night out dancing with some friends. Young people do that. But neither was causing the danger or distress to others (or putting themselves at risk) in the way that any number of players have through their alcohol consumption.

New Zealand Rugby and other employers might be better served by treating drug use the way they do (or should) alcohol use: be aware of problematic use, test for actual impairment, counsel. News media should stop treating the press releases of directly-interested companies as news. And politicians should stop reaching for the drug boogeyman every time they're in a tight spot over employment.


If this was ever funny, it's not any more

Two months ago, White Press Secretary in waiting Sean Spicer said in an interview that denying of access to out-of-favour media organisations – as President-elect Trump had done for much of his campaign – would take America from a democracy to a "dictatorship" were the government to do it. Last week, the White House, via Spicer, did it.

A cluster of leading news organisations – including The Guardian, CNN, The New York Times, Politico, The Los Angeles Times and BuzzFeed – was excluded from an off-camera briefing which supplanted the usual televised daily press briefing. Reporters from Associated Press walked out after discovering that their colleagues had been banned.

This unprecedented move came in the wake of the accreditation of a kind of media organisation previously unseen at White House briefings. Among them are Right Side Broadcasting (which has commonly been referrred to as "Trump TV" in the past year). But most strikingly, Gateway Pundit has been accredited. If you don't know Gateway Pundit, you're lucky. Its founder, Jim Hoft, is notorious for embracing conspiracy theories so baseless and bizarre that even other wingnuts won't touch them. He is often consequently referred to as "the dumbest man on the internet". But he is reliably – actually, make that maniacally – pro-Trump.

As is the man Hoft has appointed as his White House correspondent: Lucian Wintrich, the Milo-style gay conservative behind "Twinks for Trump", who refers to the President as "daddy".

The intention is clear enough here: experienced political reporters have been having a field day with leaks from inside the dysfunctional Trump White House, and in calling the equally prodigious flow of claims the President and his spokespeople for the demonstrable falsehoods they are. Trump's senior, Steve Bannon, made it clear at CPAC last week that the press should be regarded as "the opposition party". Trump himself described the free press as "the enemy of the people". The last thing they want is to be held to account.

If this was ever funny, it's not any more. Lawrence Douglas was correct to write in The Guardian that the press ban is an attack on democracy itself, but his entreaty to Congressional Republicans – as morally and ethically empty a group as has ever been seated in the Houses – seems unduly hopeful.

The cap on all this came in Carole Cadwalladr's chilling Observer report Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media, which looks at the way the same money has gone into Breitbart, Trump himself – and a sophisticated big data operation aimed at persuading people with without them even knowing they've been persuaded. By, essentially, creating the reality the people paying the bills wish to be perceived. And not only in America.

Sam Woolley of the Oxford Internet Institute’s computational propaganda institute tells me that one third of all traffic on Twitter before the EU referendum was automated “bots” – accounts that are programmed to look like people, to act like people, and to change the conversation, to make topics trend. And they were all for Leave. Before the US election, they were five-to-one in favour of Trump – many of them Russian. Last week they have been in action in the Stoke byelection – Russian bots, organised by who? – attacking Paul Nuttall.

Cadwalladr continues:

Later, when Trump picked up Mercer and Cambridge Analytica, the game changed again. “It’s all about the emotions. This is the big difference with what we did. They call it bio-psycho-social profiling. It takes your physical, mental and lifestyle attributes and works out how people work, how they react emotionally.”

Bio-psycho-social profiling, I read later, is one offensive in what is called “cognitive warfare”. Though there are many others: “recoding the mass consciousness to turn patriotism into collaborationism,” explains a Nato briefing document on countering Russian disinformation written by an SCL employee. “Time-sensitive professional use of media to propagate narratives,” says one US state department white paper. “Of particular importance to psyop personnel may be publicly and commercially available data from social media platforms.”

Yet another details the power of a “cognitive casualty” – a “moral shock” that “has a disabling effect on empathy and higher processes such as moral reasoning and critical thinking”. Something like immigration, perhaps. Or “fake news”. Or as it has now become: “FAKE news!!!!”

The isn't just some crazy conspiracy theory. Cadwalladr has spoken with people who have researched this area deeply and in detail. She's drawing on US and Nato documents. It's happening and it will continue to happen. And, because the internet is everywhere, this isn't just a matter of backing one team in a foreign football competition: wherever this happenes, it happens to us too.

If this was ever funny, it's not any more.


Mt Albert: Cooperating, competing and carpooling

In the week of the Mount Albert by-election, our household received four phone calls about voting. There were two from Labour humans checking that we were planning to vote and knew how and where (one on Saturday), one from the E Tu union, for the salaried journalist in the house, and a surprisingly engaging 58-second robocall from the Labour candidate herself.

The Labour Party clearly not only wanted wanted to win the by-election, it wanted as many voters as possible to turn out for a by-election that had been deprived of its competitive edge by National's decision not to stand a candidate. It probably also relished the chance to test-drive the Auckland electoral engine it figures is essential to any hope of a general election victory later this year.

In the end, Jacinda Ardern won by taking more than three quarters of the votes on an inevitably low turnout. Certain political commentators' fevered predictions that National voters would rush to cast tactical votes for the Green candidate, thus handing Labour a humiliating defeat on home turf, didn't pan out – because normal people don't act that way, especially not on a balmy Saturday in February.

In the end, the Green candidate, Julie Anne Genter, came a very distant second,  8511 votes behind the victor. It would be harsh to say that was because she ran a poor campaign. She was only only candidate apart from Ardern to knock on our front door and ask for votes. She rode around the electorate on a bike decorated with an election hoarding, which sent an appropriate Green message. (She wasn't the only one with a branded vehicle: Ardern had the little red caravan and The Opportunities Party's Geoff Simmons, who placed third, drove around in that alarming van.)

Perhaps this is how Auckland will play out in Auckland in September: Green voters will tick the Labour candidate while their party strategically seeks party votes. But I don't think there is quite the demarcation between local and national campaigning that some people would have you believe. Contact with a candidate is potentially a strong incentive to vote for the party. It's worth being present on the ground.

There's also the chance to shift the public's expectation of general election candidates from other parties. There has not been enough note taken of the passive campaigning of candidates who stood for John Key's National Party three years ago. Up and down the country, they eased to victory (or, least, brought home the party vote) by not turning up at public meetings and letting the Prime Minister make their case. Both Labour and the Greens could make that look as lazy as it is this time around.

What Labour really doesn't want its ally doing is encouraging people to split their votes as if that helps both parties. Labour's big problem in Auckland in 2014 was the number of people who returned well-liked Labour MPs but sent their party votes elsewhere, generally to National.

I think the way Labour sees what happened on Saturday is this: it's a solid stake in the ground and another step towards presenting a strong Auckland team bolstered by fresh talents like Michael Wood and Deborah Russell. That team, so far, has electorate organisations and the party leadership on the same page, which hasn't always been the case for Labour.

The way much of the news media sees it, on the other hand, is OMG JACINDA'S SO POPULAR SHE SHOULD REALLY BE DEPUTY LEADER AND MAYBE EVEN LEADER WOULD YOU VOTE FOR HER AS LABOUR LEADER. Because of course what Labour needs in election year is yet another leadership shakeup.

Yes, Labour needs to present a strong face in Auckland and no, neither Andrew Little or Annette King are from Auckland. But it should be (and presumably is) working on doing that by presenting a strong Auckland lineup: Ardern, Wood, Sepuloni, Russell, Twyford, Henare, Salesa, Sio and, yes, probably even Willie Jackson, who is perceived quite differently in parts of the city than he is at large. I genuinely think Auckland voters will place more value on that than on the symbolism of deputy leadership. How many ordinary people can currently name the deputy leader of any Parliamentary party?

What the Greens and Labour have in common is that a good deal of their electoral relevance in Auckland derives from their success working together in the city's local body elections. For Labour, there's a lot more mileage in making a case to Māori voters in the sight of Paula Bold-Wilson joining Will Flavell on the Henderson-Massey local board, or in Richard Hills (who identifies awith Ngāpuhi) being elected to Council in the North Shore ward, than in having Little blunder through an interview about whether the Māori Party is is "kaupapa Māori". 

By the same token, I was surprised the Greens didn't bite the bullet and put up Chloe Swarbrick in Auckland Central. Auckland's emergent leadership offers quite a compelling story.

Anyway, as things stand, Labour and the Greens have made a pretty good fist of the cooperating part of their election-year alliance. I think that became clear during my chat with Ardern and Genter at Splore. They were so friendly that they carpooled out to Tapapakanga and posed for pictures together afterwards. But there were awkward moments when it came to talking about their respective electoral brands (Jacinda: just a thought, but it might be better not to refer to your allies as a "small party"). Still, they did both seem genuinely pleased when I brought up the by-election phenomenon of households like the one pictured below. There are worse ways to be seen in an election year.


Friday Music: Nadia 2

It's a testament to the power and control of Nadia Reid's singing and playing that matching her studio recordings in session seems to hold no fears for her. And thus was the case with her BBC 6 Music Live Room session, recorded last week for Marc Riley's show during a 12-date European tour that finishes this weekend:

You can listen to the rest of the session here on the 6 Music website

The song is one of two previewed from her second album, Preservation, which is out next Friday (and can be pre-ordered here on Bandcamp and here for the LP and CD). The other is 'Richard', which, as she acknowledges in this Otago Daily Times interview, is about a former beau. She's been playing it live for some time, but on record it's a demonstration of the unusual sounds producer Ben Edwards can create in his Sitting Room studio in Lyttelton. ('Reaching Through' on her first album is another example, although when I win Lotto I'm going to bankroll her to go to Nashville and re-record it with an orchestra and five guitarists.)

Her New Zealand tour in support of the album begins in Port Chalmers on March 30 and finishes up at the Tuning Fork in Auckland on April 8.


You can never hope to catch more than a a fraction of the music at Splore, and that's okay. There's always more than music happening and sometimes  the right thing to do it just hang with your friends and enjoy each other's company. But I did hear plenty I liked: Blackalicious were vibrant on Friday night, Dub Pistols were 100% party-time on Saturday night and Fat Freddy's Drop, with a memorable cameo from the mud people of the audience, were perfect for Sunday Splore.

But the big discovery for me wasn't a band, but a DJ. Denmark's Courtesy fired up on Splore's DJ stage shortly before midnight on Saturday – and she was wild and amazing. I'm not sure I've heard anyone mix like that with vinyl. As Pitchfork's Philip Sherburne observes, her intense, physical style "gives the set the kind of life and spirit you simply don't get with automated beatmatching".

And guess what? She's playing Whammy bar in Auckland tonight. If that's past your bedtime (it certainly is mine this weekend), there are a few mixes available on her Soundcloud. They don't entirely tally with what I recall of Saturday night – that seemed more house and less techno – but they offer an idea of what she's about.


One thing I did miss at Splore was Pitch Black's performance. I obliged myself to be back at camp in bed by midnight because I needed to be up and running the Listening Lounge talk programme the next morning. As it transpired, I lay in my tent and heard them loud and clear – and they sounded brilliant. They're playing Neck of the Woods on Karangahape Road next Friday along with International Observer, Deep Fried Dub, Digital Playground and DJ Dubhead. International Observer is on at 10pm and Pitch Black at 11.30.

If you can't make that, here's a look at the extraordinary digital projection they deployed at Splore:

And finally on the Splore tip: I posted some pics I took there.


The longlist for the 2017 Taite Music Prize is out.

The remarkable Newtown Festival has revealed its lineup for Sunday week and it includes Hex, Salad Boys, Mel Parsons, Peach Milk, SoccerPractise, French for Rabbits and and a lot more.

And Cut off Your Hands have been announced as the support for all three of The Pixies' forthcoming NZ dates. Good match: COYH are unabashed about their new wave roots – enough to toss in a blazing cover of Talking Heads' 'Crossed and Painless' in their Laneway set just after the release of their own distinctly Talking Heads-ish new single:


One thing I've really been enjoying in the past few months on 95bFM is the new, earlier timeslot (7-10pm) for Stinky Grooves on Tuesday nights. If you're not in broadcast range, you can catch Stinky Jim's round-up of all manner of rhythms here on his b-casts page (being podcasts, they're wickedly downloadable) – or here on his own website, where he provides the full playlists and more.

Also on the b tip: The Phoenix Foundation headline 95bFM Bands in the Park, Albert Park, Friday March 10 from midday


Audioculture has dug up a Mockers story I wrote for Rip It Up way back in 1984.

And on the same site, Michael Brown offers 10 riffs on the Māori strum.


Elsewhere, the Trainspotting 2 soundtrack is fun.

Depeche Mode are unimpressed by Richard Spencer's claim that they are "the official band of the alt-right".

A new Shazam-like product that could lead to public performance rights revenue being dsitributed more accurately and fairly.

And an interesting Annie Mac-fronted short BBC doco about the fate of Britain's nightclubs:



Auckland's A Label Called Success is as busy as ever. Newish, this chilled little number with parping digital horns:


The Friday Music Post is sponsored by:


Representing New Zealand music


Splore 2017

I'm a fitful photographer at festivals: I kick off keen but by the time the party really starts, I'm happy enough to simply avoid losing my phone, let alone take it out and point it at things.

And thus it was at Splore 2017. There are no pictures of Saturday night. But I did take a few during the four days I was on site at Tapapakanga Regional Park. Here they are.

Feel free to add your own: just use the "file upload" button under the comment window. 500kb to 1MB is a good size.