Hard News by Russell Brown

Strangeness on the radio

Clearly, Paul Holmes fancied himself - and his listeners - to be having a laugh yesterday when he launched into his bizarre tirade against that "cheeky darkie", Kofi Annan, on his Newstalk ZB show yesterday. Oddly enough no one seems to have found it funny.

The very good Newstalk ZB website is this morning prominently featuring Holmes' apology for yesterday's comments (Windows Media format). Well, it briefly starts out as an apology and then tips into a stream of self-serving blather about how he, Holmes, loves "all the colours" and is most certainly not a racist.

The section of his show where he made most of the comments, from 7.45am, is here (you'll have to sit through about two minutes of tedious used-car advertising) and it is ... more blather, in this case in a fairly demented tone. (Indeed, it can seem that unstructured blather from the host is the cornerstone not just of Holmes' show, but of much of the ZB daytime schedule.)

If you can't bring yourself to listen, the Herald has a transcript of the Kofi funnies, and further drivel from later in the show, some of it uttered in the course of Holmes' weekly chat with Brian Edwards. It is worth noting that the twice-yearly radio survey period looms.

Radio New Zealand, meanwhile, led its first few bulletins today with the news that a new United Nations report has found New Zealand to have one of the highest rates of using of amphetamines and ecstasy in the world, but pretty much failed to shed any light on the story. Two drug abuse treatment experts, who didn't seem very familiar with the report, did their best in an interview, but it was unedifying.

The New Zealand Herald took a similar angle with its online story.

You might have formed the impression that New Zealand's drug habits were in inch-high headlines in the report, but we're not mentioned in the official press release from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and actually accorded but a single paragraph in the report itself, on page 108, at the end of the section on Australia.

As you might expect, the media in various other territories, from Australia to the Philippines, also led with the news that their countries were leading the world in stimulant abuse. The Voice of America report, meanwhile, highlighted Eastern Europe and Asia.

But anyway, the numbers are there; 3.4% of New Zealanders using amphetamines and 2.3% using ecstasy. That's less than Australia, but still quite high in international terms.

So what's the context? Well, for a start, the report is based on surveys taken in 2001, so the figure for ecstasy is likely to be a little high compared to that right now (ecstasy use is highly cyclical - it tends to swing around every few years as a new social group discovers it), and the methamphetamine number may be low. (Interestingly, the E cycle seems to have been on the upswing in Britain in the last couple of years, and, naturally, so has the attrition rate. Coroners' reports show 202 deaths to have resulted from the something over 300 million doses taken in the UK over the past six years. One in six of those deaths involved ecstasy only. It does happen.)

More importantly, the UN study measures "annual prevalence" - the number of people between 15 and 64 who admit to have used stimulants in the past year. It makes no distinction between the suburban P addict doing burglaries to support his habit, and the commerce student who buys an E for the Big Day Out, so it's of limited use in measuring the impact of such drugs on public health. Headlines on the subject should be thus be written carefully.

It's also worth noting that this isn't the first time New Zealand has starred in such studies. For years, we were the world's champion per-capita consumers of LSD. Feel free to speculate on relevant aspects of the national culture in respect of that.

The actual report is here, as a 5.3MB PDF file. I haven't read all of it, but its slightly windy tone is not untypical of UN publications on illicit drug use. For years, the work of the United Nations Commission on Drugs was coloured by the "advice" of people like the hysterical anit-marijuana activist Gabriel Nahas. In this case, the damning of stimulant use as "an almost acceptable feature of the 'let's-have-fun' culture in clubs and dance settings" by UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa isn't likely to win over the kids.

So, it's a useful report that confirms other studies suggesting that amphetamine use is on the up worldwide, and bringing its attendant problems with it. Just be careful on the moral panic.

Anyway, while we're on reports, a new one from an Otago University group Trust And Country Image: Perceptions of European Food Distributors Regarding Factors That Could Enhance or Damage New Zealand’s Image, Including GMOs - adds some welcome clarity to the issue of how the end of the GM moratorium might affect our trade prospects in Europe. It brings together interviews with European food buyers in what appears to be a notably solid methodology. So in a domain where perception is frequently presented as reality, it's well worth reading. The preamble says, among other things:

Highly negative consumer sentiment towards GMOs in Europe seems likely to continue to influence food buyers, at least for the next few years. This negative sentiment appears likely to transfer from GM crops to non-GM and organic versions of the same crop type due to fears concerning accidental mix-up or contamination. However, no evidence was found that presence of GMO food crops in a country causes negative perceptions in general of food from that country. Furthermore, it appears that GM applications in non-food areas are unlikely to damage perceptions of country image in relation to supply of food products from that country.

I got a furious email from John Tamihere's press secretary, Helen Bain, about my observation yesterday that JT defends smacking as "some kind of Maori cultural right". He has, she says, never said that. Very well then: I ought to have said that he seems to give that impression.

In general, I have a lot of time for Tamihere, but he is on record as upholding "the right of parents to give their kids a slap". When the Maori Women's Welfare League and the Children, Young Persons and their Families Service have campaigned against corporal punishment in Maori communities, it's unhelpful for the Youth Affairs Minister to say things like that. Statistics show that 42% of Maori parents regularly discipline their children by hitting them, compared to only 27% of the general population. Take in the disproportionate presence of Maori children in abuse statistics and logic dictates what ought to change.

PS: They're all on the drugs: predictable post UN report soft-on-crime bandwagon-jumping from National's Tony Ryall, and Act's Stephen Franks, and more hypocrisy from Peter Dunne. Not an original thought in any of them, sadly …