Speaker by Various Artists

32

The crisis is all around us, and so are the solutions

by Nicky Hager

Three years after first publishing this essay in Don't Dream It's Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand, the problems with news media are just as worrying.

The gap between media and journalism widens. But there is some very good news. The new Labour-led government has committed to doing the single most positive thing that can be done for media in New Zealand: building up Radio New Zealand as a centre of public-interest news.

The essay that follows is about how to do this in a way that really makes a difference ...

Nicky Hager, 2018

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The years 2015 and 2016 may be remembered as the point at which New Zealand’s news media ceased to be able to do its job. 

2015 was the year when TV3 slashed serious current affairs and investigative journalism. The same happened at Māori Television: two out of three major TV channels at once, both with a strong smell of political interference. The New Zealand Herald, which until recently had the country’s best array of columnists, merged its news with Newstalk ZB radio, cutting various critical commentators and replacing them on the Herald website with the opinions of talkback hosts. 2016 saw plans for a mega-merger of the two main private newspaper/media companies, a further great, panicked rationalisation. Government-friendly media celebrities increased in dominance. Clickbait was so ubiquitous that it was ceasing to be a pejorative term. 

And somewhere in all this, and similar events before and since, we are no longer getting what we expect and need from news. In the battle against PR people and political impression managers, there aren’t enough journalists and there isn’t enough media space to do the job.

The results are already evident. Despite the best efforts of some fantastic, decent people in the media, many important subjects don’t get discussed and probed. Political events, that have almost certainly been orchestrated, go unanalysed. Ministers grow complacent in the knowledge that, on most issues most of the time, no one will be fact checking their statements or digging much beyond the press release. And every year there is more PR being disseminated as news. 

If the media has too little capacity to dig and scrutinise, too few informed commentators and critics, and not enough healthy space for ideas and debate to be heard, democratic politics does not work properly. It still looks as though there are political clashes, debates and politicians being questioned – and there are some outstanding examples now and then of the media doing well – but more often than not media scrutiny and investigation are inadequate or absent. 

Muddling on is not the answer. The current news media cannot provide the breadth and depth of news required by a reasonably functioning democratic society. The time has arrived for deliberate, dramatic action to build the news media of the future

First, I strongly believe that news has to become primarily a public service, like schools, hospitals and courts. Public funding is the only viable model, and is entirely appropriate since news is a public service. The future requires new and greatly strengthened publicly owned news organisations, working alongside the privately owned ones. This means, in the first phase, building up by something like four times the public spending on news. 

We also need to recognise the continuing importance of mass media. The internet allows for a diversity of commentary and niche subject sites. It has also allowed for the appearance of some specialist news sites. But mass of news media is crucial in itself, to avoid social atomisation and allow us to hear regularly what a variety of people are thinking about and saying. Large public service news media, providing news for public and private outlets, will be vital to maintaining the unifying and democratic role of mass news media. 

But it is a third, less discussed, component of a future media plan that I want to focus on here: protecting news media independence. How do we stop politicians and other powerful interests interfering in news organisations? This question will become especially important in an era when news is more dependent on public funding. 

The year 2015 illustrated what can happen when there are too few protections for news media independence. The cutting of critical journalism at Māori Television (in particular the outstanding Native Affairs programme) appeared to be directly the outcome of government influence. The gutting of investigative journalism and current affairs at TV3 came from senior executives who had friendly relations with the National government and little sympathy for critical journalism. Both private and public news organisations have inadequate defences against this type of interference.

Prime Minister John Key was asked on Newstalk ZB about the closing down of TV3’s Campbell Live: was it bad for democracy to have fewer commercial television programmes holding government to account? Key replied that ‘its role in life isn’t to hold the government to account, it is to entertain its viewers and follow news stories’. He said viewers were more interested in ‘light entertainment’ such as Campbell Live’s 7 p.m. competitor on TVNZ, Seven Sharp

Another long-term example of political and commercial interference in news is Television New Zealand. TVNZ has the potential to be the largest and most important source of public interest news and current affairs in the country. But some particularly negative developments in New Zealand news have occurred there. 

From 1989 to 2004, Paul Holmes fronted the flagship Holmes programme, which imported talkback-style bigotry and right-wing populism to prime-time television. The negative influence of this, featured on the publicly owned channel (as part of a wider programme of commercialisation), spread outwards to other news media. It established the role of celebrity media personality, friend of politicians and big business. 

Later, TVNZ gave Seven Sharp, the successor to Holmes, to an even more negative and cynical celebrity announcer, Mike Hosking. (TV3 followed by giving prominence to a similar announcer, Paul Henry.) 

The changes at TVNZ were shaped by a complex combination of government policies, personalities and commercial and political pressures. But one stark part of the picture is the influence of the TVNZ board members, who are appointed under the Broadcasting Act by two government ministers: of broadcasting and of finance. 

The TVNZ board epitomises the risks of external influence. Although it is the constitutional responsibility of ministers to appoint people representing a wide cross-section of the public to run an important public organisation like TVNZ, this does not always happen. Ministers tend to have a winner-takes-all approach to their ministerial power, putting their own preferences ahead of their wider responsibilities. 

There are a number of aspects to political influence. The first one is the lack of any requirement for non-partisan board appointments. A Labour-led government makes Labour-friendly appointments and a National-led government appoints National-friendly members. There is a more or less complete board change whenever the government changes. For instance, the 1999–2008 Labour-led government appointed environmentalist Rob Fenwick and the public intellectual and former vice-chancellor of Waikato University, Bryan Gould. When National was elected to government in 2008, it began replacing the Labour-appointed board with very different people. 

Some of the post-2008 board members are unsurprising: people from careers in advertising, sport and media organisation management. The two National government-era board members most concerned about news itself were Richard Long and Barrie Saunders. It is hard to imagine two men more hostile to critical, probing journalism. 

Barrie Saunders is a long-term spin doctor and political lobbyist for big corporates. He worked for the Business Roundtable from 1990 to 1998, during a period when the group aggressively opposed any journalists and news organisations that wrote critically about the Roundtable’s far right social and economic policies. 

Since then his lobby firm Saunders Unsworth has defeated government climate change initiatives on behalf of the biggest climate polluters and pushed through direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising in New Zealand (the only country besides the US not to ban this practice). In 2011 he told the Sunday Star-Times that journalists, the medical profession and the medical academics were ‘negative’ about such advertising and boasted that his firm had pushed this model through on behalf of its clients.[i] 

As he told the paper, ‘Lobbying is good for democracy . . . It reduces transaction costs to the government’. In other words, the government didn’t need to waste time dealing with the messy breadth of opinions and needs in society and could work things out quietly with lobbyists like himself. 

Richard Long has also been a long-term friend of the powerful, from inside and outside the media. Colleagues recall that when he became editor of the Dominion in the early 1990s, he sent his staff a list of people who were no longer to be quoted in the newspaper. They included a range of well-known critical voices on public issues. 

Long’s attitude to politics and media was seen most clearly when he left the Dominion and became the chief of staff for the National Party leader Don Brash in 2003–2005. There he oversaw media management for Brash, planning the daily ‘lines’ he would use to evade journalists and spin the news. For instance, Long and his staff penned all the untruthful lines about National’s secret collaboration with the Exclusive Brethren church, which had paid for a million dollars of anonymous attack advertising against the Labour and Green parties during the 2005 election. Long and his team prepared a series of secret internal media scripts for Brash. Here is just one example: 

Q. Did anyone in the National Party have any knowledge of these pamphlets? 

A. Well, I can’t speak for the tens of thousands of party members all around the country but I can assure you that the party’s governing body had absolutely no knowledge of the material you describe, and neither did the leader or any other member of the caucus.[ii] 

Long planned for Brash to feign irritation if journalists kept pressing him about the Brethren – ‘time to get mildly irritated’, his media notes said, then ‘If it continues, [get] even more irritable’. Brash did exactly as he was told to avoid further questioning. Documents showing Long’s media tactics were leaked and became part of my book, The Hollow Men. The prepared lines had been untrue and Brash was forced to resign the day the book was published. 

Having two such people on the board of public television is like having tax haven lawyers on the board of Inland Revenue. They cannot influence decisions about individual news stories, but they can help to create a culture, structures and priorities that fostered a less public kind of news organisation. 

In April 2014 the TVNZ board sent its shareholding National government ministers a statement of intent outlining the ‘scope of functions and intended operations of TVNZ’ until 2018. This list is worth repeating: 

• commissioning, production, purchasing and archiving of video content 

• provision of television production facilities 

• programming television channels and related marketing services to commercial and non-commercial partners 

• provision of advertising and sponsorship services 

• broadcasting free-to-air and pay television channels 

• provision of online services 

• provision of services to the broadcast industry 

• provision of audio-visual footage, programming, video and DVD rights 

• other things as determined by the board. 

Missing from this list, of course, is any mention of news and current affairs. There’s nothing about acting as a fourth estate or holding governments accountable. 

There are only two mentions of news in the document. The first notes that local content, including news and current affairs, ‘is the most expensive to produce’. Later it says the company should ‘drive’ flagship news and current affairs programmes ‘to increase audience share and advertising revenue’, including online. That’s it. 

The TVNZ annual report that year, with a grinning Mike Hosking on the cover, said, ‘Never before has so much television been watched. . . . At TVNZ we’re focused on maximising our share of TV audiences.’ In this world view, TVNZ is a business. News is a source of ratings, advertising and sponsorship opportunities.

Elsewhere TVNZ has stated that ‘The principle of editorial independence recognises the importance of isolating control of editorial content from commercial and political influence.’[iii] It says this principle is reflected in the 2003 Television New Zealand Act. But this is a minimalist view of media independence. The relevant section of the TVNZ legislation says that cabinet ministers cannot direct the gathering or presentation of news. This is important but far from being enough. If Long and Saunders have helped to determine the culture and priorities of the news departments, there is no need for such individuals to interfere in individual news decisions. The damage is already done. 

Up until now, the maintenance of news media independence has largely been informal. It has relied on having enough individuals at all levels of the media with a personal and professional sense of responsibility for preserving the fourth estate’s role in society: stroppy editors and reporters who have stood up to pressures; owners who have been proud of their social role. 

But commercialisation, corporatisation and aggregation under foreign owners have created news-entertainment businesses run by managers. Managers measure the world in ratings figures and revenue, not the social value of an informed society and holding people in positions of power to account. The structural and cultural changes inside news organisations explain much of the current decline in quality and independence. 

The final issue concerns the present administration’s apparent feeling of entitlement to not only enjoy the power of government, but also to use whatever means it can get away with to shut down other voices and influences. One aspect of this is the calculated attack politics seen in my 2014 book Dirty Politics. There also appears to be a conscious effort by some senior ministers to shut down critical media voices and boost supportive ones. This is another source of reduced media independence in New Zealand. 

For all these reasons, it is no longer possible to take news media independence for granted. It has been getting worse and informal systems have been inadequate. Media independence has emerged as an urgent issue for protecting and strengthening future news services in New Zealand. 

Improving the independence of private news organisations or embedding protections in a way that makes them secure is not easy. One useful step would be stronger media standards organisations and tougher standards, backed by law, not just voluntary codes. But that regulates only the news that is done; standards have little effect on the news that is cut or trivialised. 

However, much can be done to improve the independence of public news media, the mainstay of future public-interest journalism. There are two parts to this: protecting the independence of the news organisations and protecting their funding. 

A good starting point for future public service media is the Radio New Zealand legislation. Section 7 directs that RNZ provide an independent broadcasting service with ‘comprehensive, independent, impartial, and balanced national news services and current affairs, including items with a regional perspective’. But, like TVNZ, the RNZ board is appointed by the shareholding government ministers and its budget is determined by them. It is worthwhile looking outside the media for models of more independent public institutions. 

Various organisations play a similar role in society to that of a news organisation. They include the Ombudsman, Auditor-General, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, each of whom has formal powers for gathering information and serves as a watchdog on behalf of the public, scrutinising the actions of people and organisations in positions of authority. 

The independence of these organisations is strengthened by the requirement that their senior officers are appointed by the entire parliament, not just ministers in the government coalition. These officers are selected by the Officers of Parliament Committee, which comprises representatives from all political parties. In most cases its decisions must be unanimous. This would be a sound arrangement for choosing the senior decision makers in future public news organisations. 

The law court system, another pillar of a civilised society, is also a useful model. They have strong traditions of institutional independence. The courts largely run themselves and avoid interference from the government and government departments. Judges are protected from political and other influences. 

Such an approach will require a change of thinking about news media, to recognise that they are public-interest institutions requiring an independent status and protections. Remaining is the difficult question of how to prevent government funding decisions being used to undermine the independence of news organisations. Squeezing or cutting funding, or the threat of this, is a powerful way for governments to punish, reward or otherwise influence publicly funded news. The harm can also be done simply by neglect and lack of interest in news and allowing commercial pressures to rule. 

The goal, for crucial institutions such as the Ombudsman, which recently faced an underfunding crisis, and public news media, should be to insulate their funding from political fluctuations. This is difficult because governments claim a right to decide public spending decisions. Long-term funding must be free from political interference. A possible precedent for this is the funding of parliament, where representatives from all parties, not just the government, make funding decisions. Increased news collaboration between RNZ and TVNZ will also help build a stronger base. 

The current crisis in news media can help too, impelling decision makers to get on with building the new system. Independence is only part of what is needed to build strong, lasting news media in New Zealand. Legal and organisational structures that allow editorial independence and security of funding need to go hand in hand with creating the public-focused, mass media of the future. But the independence is vital. Without it the rest will be undermined or will not last.

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Don't Dream It's Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand can still be purchased in the original print, and in e-book form.



[i] Adam Dudding, “Who’s Pulling the Strings?” Sunday-Star Times, July 17, 2011. 

[ii] Nicky Hager, The Hollow Men (Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2006), 34. 

[iii] Television New Zealand, TVNZ Annual Report FY2012 (2012), 69

0

Unknown Places: Armageddon (Greenlane)

by Nicole Magolan

We’re stopped at an intersection. I’m peering into the car next to us, seeing a featureless face of blue.

‘There’s a blue man,’ I say.

Jasmine leans over the passenger seat, eyes wide. ‘What do you mean blue? How is he blue?’

A car horn blares and we both yelp. The traffic light has flashed green. I slam the accelerator, and the blue man is lost behind us.

‘Don’t worry, it was just a guy in a skin suit. There’ll be plenty more where that comes from.’ A goofy grin inches over my face. My quiet anticipation has begun to bubble out in raw excitement.

Jasmine reflects my smile, braces glinting. Nervous energy oozes from her. She’s never experienced an event like this, never knew it existed, until she was adopted into my group of weirdos. She has no idea what to expect.

Armageddon. Not the end of the world (though it could be, depending on your perspective). It’s a gathering of geeks. We come in our thousands, from all over Auckland and beyond. Decked out in cosplay, bursting with enthusiasm, joining forces to celebrate what we love.

And Jasmine and I are slogging through the traffic in my tiny car. I tap my fingers on the steering wheel and glance over at her. She swipes sweaty palms along her jeans. Fiddles with a loose thread from her t-shirt. This fledgling nerd wasn’t keen on cosplay, but I went all out. After hours of shopping and dyeing and cutting and stitching and complaining, I am now Rey: the badass lead character of the new Star Wars films. The force is strong with me today.

We watch the footpaths. The clusters of people are growing thicker. There’s a Harley Quinn, Wonder Woman, and Poison Ivy strutting along with arms linked. A pair of girls ahead of them with shimmery pink hair. A skeleton, touching up his face paint at a bus stop. Kids bouncing along next to struggling parents; backpacks bulging with water bottles and snacks, trying to manoeuvre push chairs through groups of Hogwarts students.

The makeshift gravel car park is nearly full when we finally rattle in. We climb out into the sharp wind and I shiver in Rey’s scavenger clothes. It’s an overcast day, but at least it’s not raining. That would mean everyone squeezing into the expo hall with its sticky, sweaty air. I open the boot of the car and retrieve my staff. A tall pipe, covered in screws, duct tape, and bits of cloth. It completes the living-on-a-dessert-planet look. Also, without it my friends would lose my hobbit-sized self.

We merge into the crowded footpaths, those passing in cars now looking at us. Adrenalin is buzzing. I’m craning my neck, scanning for any familiar faces.

‘Woah, look at those transformers!’ Jasmine points out a group marching into the entry line. They’re covered head to toe in rugged armour, bulky weapons in hand.

‘Those are awesome. They’re not transformers though,’ I reply, ‘they’re from Halo, a video game.’

We tag on to the end of the line, snaking through a half-empty car park. Goose bumps tingle along my arms. There’s a guy wearing a Star Wars tee that I also own. A girl rocking a Star Wars jacket I almost bought a couple weeks ago. The goofy grin won’t leave my face, but I’m channelling my inner Rey while interacting with others.

‘How’s Luke Skywalker doing?’ asks a Doctor Strange.

The line picks up speed. My ticket is taken, my legs are moving, my staff is pounding the concrete. We swarm through the gate.

I’m snapping photos of cosplayers and people are snapping photos of me. Jasmine is pointing at everything and asking, ‘what is that?!’ I’m posing with R2-D2 when I spot my friend Eliza, dressed as a character from Marvel’s Agent Carter. We fist bump and she squeals about how she’s going to meet one of the celebrity guests here today. We continue through the marketplace together. Looking over an array of overpriced t-shirts, insanely detailed figurines, and the hordes of swords, daggers, and other replica weapons from movies and TV shows. Eliza and I reminisce about the time her ex-boyfriend bought a samurai sword, and preceded to take a ‘look’ at it, nearly slicing our necks in the process.

I prepare my wallet for the butchering it’s about to receive and empty it out at various stalls, buying a lot of awesome merchandise that I absolutely need. As I turn to ask Jasmine whether there’s anything she wants, I notice a blue figure amongst the stream of people.  

‘Look Jasmine, there’s the blue man,’ I say.

Jasmine is gone, swallowed up by the crowd. I falter a step, and get wacked by a large paper bag. I try to retrace my steps, but I’m against the flow. The blue man flickers in and out of my vision. I’m getting poked, prodded, bumped. I’m donking people on the head with my staff and it’s getting hard to breath. ‘You shall not pass!’ is boomed by a grumpy Gandalf. ‘Hey Rey!’ calls a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man as he thwips past. I spin, trying to stay rooted to one spot. What was Jasmine wearing? All around me are bow-ties and spiky wigs and poofy dresses.

I fall back into the rushing tide. It carries me along until I wash up at a big pirate ship display. ‘Magic: The Gathering’ the sign declares – my brother’s favourite trading card game. Sure enough, he’s hunched over a table with cards splayed out in front of him. I rush over and leap onto his table. Ignoring the yells, I scan the crowd. To the right is a group of Ricks chanting “wubba lubba dub dub!” and there’s some sort of dance party happening to the left, with more dabbing then should ever be allowed.

‘This is not okay,’ my brother is saying when I clamber back down.

‘Have you seen Jasmine?’

‘Seriously? She’s right there,’ he points over my shoulder.

Jasmine is amongst the chanting Ricks with a smile plastered over her face. I heave a sigh, which turns into a snort as she begins to chant along. Eliza appears behind her, and the two of them push through towards me. I wrap my arms around Jasmine. She’s bright red and full of laughter.

‘How about we get some lunch?’ I suggest. Making sure to stay close together this time, we head outside to the food carts.

Jasmine gasps, and pulls me back a step. ‘Hey,’ she says, ‘I saw the blue man!’

This is a chapter from Unknown Places, a collection of short stories about Auckland by undergraduate creative writing students at Manukau Institute of Technology published here this week. The published stories are:

The Crescent (Otara)

Unknown Places: Queens of K Road (Central)

Gravel Lot (Mangere)

Names in Stone (Waiuku)

The Bach (Awhitu Peninsula)

 Armageddon (Greenlane)

0

Unknown Places: The Bach (Awhitu Peninsula)

by Anna Matheson

There’s an old yellow bach at Hudson’s beach with a rusty green roof and blue window frames. Aloe vera, flax, and pink flowers grow under the deck. There are feijoas, mandarins, and lemons growing in the  backyard and two Norfolk pines tower over the roof. A bookcase is full of picture books like Peter Pan and Robert the Rose Horse. Guess Who, Monopoly, and five decks of cards sit in a pile. Splotches of blue paint stain the golden carpet, names in pencil mark the wooden door frame by the kitchen and mismatched crockery fills the kitchen cupboards.

If you look past the rusty roof and chipping paint, you might see fairies dancing under flower beds, and treasure glistening in the sand. 

You might see a girl with knotty, blond hair and missing front teeth, singing in the shade of the Norfolk pines. You could let her make you lemonade with oranges and grapefruit. Then she’d teach you how to ride down the hill on a rusty bike without fear, carry towels down the hill just as high tide says goodbye, and to swim in that tide like a mermaid.

She’d teach you to smile in your muddy t-shirt, faded blue shorts and matted hair, tangled with leaves. How to crash her brother’s four-wheeler into the side of the bach, to camp in the backyard telling ghost stories with cousins, and climb to the top of Crab Rock, without wondering how to get down. 

She’d take you by the hand and teach you to swim in the middle of winter without feeling the cold. How to catch fish and hold them up by their wet, slimy lips; how to jump off rocks without looking down. She’d show you how to find crabs under rocks at low tide, and climb the tree in her neighbour’s  backyard; how to toast marshmallows on the bonfire, draw pictures with sparklers and play spotlight late into the night.

As summer passes her hair would grow longer, her skirts would get shorter and her two front teeth would appear. She’d teach you to cry over boys who don’t love you, and to speak with a voice so soft it floats away with the waves. She’d teach you to swim again, only this time, conscious of your body in your bikini; how to apply black mascara, and straighten your wild, curly hair. She’d teach you to roll your eyes at your mother, waste hours at the beach scrolling through your phone, and to gaze in the mirror, noticing every imperfection. She’d teach you to lie to yourself, to sneak gin from your parents’ liquor cabinet and to complain that the bach is too far away from the city’s bright lights.

 

*

 

Today, the pale yellow bach doesn’t feel magical. Maybe everything looks magical when seen through a child’s eyes. Or maybe love mutes our senses, making us blind to the cracks on the walls and the sand in the sheets, and deaf to the airplanes which fly overhead in the night.

The new owners have taken the garden out, pulled off the railing around the deck, and painted the window frames white. Other than that, it’s still the same sixties bach with a rusty green roof and a light blue door.

The bach made time stand still, but my childhood years have passed and I’m not the same girl I was then. All of that time washed away the second the new owners held the keys. And with it, the girl who found fairies in flower beds, believed her legs were a tail and ran around with twigs in her hair, she washed away too. I’m no longer the girl that ran barefoot on the prickly grass, saw pictures in clouds, and wrote songs in the shade of the Norfolk pines.

But if you look hard enough, you can still find traces of her. She’s hiding in the hole in the side of the bach. Her name still marks the wooden door frame, and the back of a crumpled Monopoly dollar. You might even find her hiding in my eyes, when I make a sarcastic remark, or see her hanging from a curl in my hair.

I miss this place, it’s true. And I miss that little girl I left behind.

This is a chapter from Unknown Places, a collection of short stories about Auckland by undergraduate creative writing students at Manukau Institute of Technology published here this week. The published stories are:

The Crescent (Otara)

Unknown Places: Queens of K Road (Central)

Gravel Lot (Mangere)

Names in Stone (Waiuku)

The Bach (Awhitu Peninsula)

 Armageddon (Greenlane)

10

Heroes of the Recovery

by Greg Jackson

They can be heroes, day after day …

There’s another story in the ruins and rebirth of post-quakes Christchurch for me at seven years on from February 22, 2011.

Heroes.

The villains have had a good workout. We all have our own list. The crooks, the cons, the shysters high and low – all in their own slimy way “here to help with the rebuild”.

Then there are the people who have inspired and sustained us through to the other side where you are settled in insurance terms and deeply, profoundly unsettled in yourself.

I’ll kick off with on the day in our fourth floor central city office, where when the Feb 22 biggie rocked us metres out of plumb some of the staff’s first thought was to open a window to let in the poor bastards outside on the scaffolding.

Scaffolding from the repairs post the September quake that had just been signed off by a man and a woman. They looked white even for Christchurch when we let them in. Never saw them again.

Then my colleague Nick Clarke, who had been trained in disaster response, motored off down the stairs and across the road to start pulling out the maimed and others from collapsed buildings across the road.

Within days, he and I set up shop co-ordinating the international aid groups who flew in under the media radar. We set up a collective NGO shop to help our shattered city. I’d had a crash course in disaster communication the year before in Haiti, running media and political advice for the boss of one of the world’s largest aid and development groups.

I kept the day job too: running on so much adrenalin it took months to work out one knee was badly buggered getting out of town after the quake.

It’s easy now to forget that the ground just kept shaking all the time. Pretty much hourly.

Soon after the phones got reliable again, I heard from Christchurch’s supreme networker and facilitator, Garry Moore, who now suffers under the ex-Mayor title for the rest of his mortal days. His house was stuffed and his business interests in inner city bars were the same. But being Garry he had a few side projects on the go.

“You really need to talk to Gerard Smyth the movie guy, he‘s got some amazing film coming in right from the day on and he needs a hand to put the story together,” was the gist of it.

Indeed he had – and being Gerard, he too just kept going from his creative base inside what had then become the red zone.

I helped out with the development for what became the best quake film that ever will be, When A City Falls.

Some days we would be bouncing around the floor of my cottage less than 1km from the Port Hills fault, clutching our laptops through the aftershocks, spurred on to the tight, tight launch deadline by the Irish incentive, a chorus of it “can’t be done” from others.

He made it. At the premiere every time the sound of a big quake coming in boomed out you could feel all the locals hunching up. Sharon was holding hands with a senior Civil Defence guy to help them both keep it together.

If you ever want to see what it was like here, buy the movie.  It’s truthful.

Some of the film in it was taken right after the quake hit and Gerard hit the inner city streets, using a camera whose half-broke lens had to be held on by hand.

There was an urgency to telling that story, but at that time the day to day storytelling was being done locally superbly by the Press newspaper under then-editor Andrew Holden.

They lost their building and several staff. They took hits physical and mental, but just kept going.

So there’s another hero shout-out.

Nationally, the truth tellers of the Christchurch quakes were what Campbell Live was then. Even after the murky demise of that superb show on TV3, John Campbell and producer Pip Keane stayed right on the case for Christchurch, through quakes, floods and fire. They still are. Even the latest case of flood danger this week.

As the quake aftermath kept unfolding we tried to keep it together for our family, ranging in age from still-young sons through to my parents in the throes of early dementia.

I found out my knee had torn cartilage but it took a year to navigate through the maze of ACC and Southern Cross. It was Southern Cross who finally broke the Catch 22 standoff between private insurance and ACC and got me the op.

The day I got the first diagnosis I stopped off in my old Brighton hood to get some anti-inflammatory stuff from the chemist. They told us about their February quake experience. “And then the stock just flew off the shelves,” the receptionist said, just as a magnitude 6 hit and it all happened again. The shop is closed now and the South Brighton block of shops it was in is gone.

We worked in a holiday a year or so later with damaged immune systems, which was not so good an idea. We got a virus and all got sick. It has never totally gone away.

One of the few really good ideas the then-government had in early 2011 was to provide a wage and salary subsidy for Christchurch businesses affected by the quake. It helped keep the NGO I had taken an income cut to work with afloat, so there, grudgingly I must hand out a salute to something good National did. When I got really sick with the virus I had to stop full time work.

The repair estimate offer by EQC for our battered house was so low  we just disengaged from the process on the legitimate grounds we were ill. The final settlement was vastly more than they claimed it would be.

In the hard winters that followed we kept warm by hunting down farm trees that had fallen in a gale through the contacts of my mate Lou and chopping them up and drying them out.

The hell floods of 2014, a trifecta of once-in-100-years rains, came closest of anything to breaking me in a life that has not been without challenges. It also turned into the start of the pathway to resolution for us.

Once again, supreme networker Garry Moore popped up. With his own immersive flood experience he tipped us off to the work of the wonderful Jo Byrne and now MP but then law ace Duncan Webb.

Jo and her family sank several times below the Plimsoll line of her home in Flockton, the floodiest part of town. When she entered the fray of insurance and seeking solutions from local and central government she pretty much decided it was not good enough and emerged as a natural leader.

You will have seen her on TV and heard her on the radio. She has become a good mate to Sharon and me. Amid this week's flood risk she offered us a bolthole at her new home.

Jo helped put together information sharing meetings for flooding victims and quake casualties trying to find their way through the maze of bullshit from EQC and insurers.

At one of these Duncan Webb – who offered tons of free legal advice and took part in High Court judgement trial to get clarity – summed it up when he said New Zealand “has a legal system, not a justice system”. He also explained that it was up to us, the policy owners, to prove our damage. These two simple ideas set us on the road to resolution, proving our damage and finding the people to do it.

We have a 1920s cottage with a rubble foundation that broke apart in the February quake. The network we were now in pointed us to Bevan Craig of Auckland based Underfoot Services. Much disliked by EQC, he quickly established our foundations were indeed shot. It was a sharp contrast to EQC’s estimated $591 worth of damage.

The proving business can be costly. One of the best supports we got was from our bank ASB, which helped bankroll much of the next stage of proof and presentation of our evidence. Shout-out ASB, you saved our butts!

The whole proof process involves a plethora of skills – engineers, structural engineers, quantity surveyors, lawyers, geotech testing – and is another article in itself.

We found our lawyer in a bar at a talk he gave at what was effectively Christchurch Resistance HQ, Garry Moore’s kid’s bar Smash Palace.

Ex-detective and class action expert Grant Cameron told us how he had come to in the early stages of the truckload of legal work flowing from the quakes and thought to himself “Hang on I’m just a boy from Bexley when it gets down to it.”

Grant and his firm, GCA Lawyers, have helped so many people lost in the legal maze of quake resolution get through. With us as fellow pros with prole backgrounds, he put together a multi-point list of what needed to be done to get settled.

He assigned the sharpest lawyer we have ever come across.

Laura Bain was a killer in high heels. Elegant, polished and so specific that as she herded first the hapless EQC out the door, put us over cap and then started on the insurer’s hired guns we nicknamed her the “clipboard of fear”.

Now, we believe, conquering the UK, Laura was that rarest of professionals – one who could interpret and decode complex law to levels ex-journos could understand.

In a mega shout-out to Laura, who helped set us free, I think of the old song “Tell Laura I Love Her”, in the most prim and fiscally relieved way of course.

One of the things about the quake recovery resolution process in Christchurch that has not been covered much was the insane levels of sexism in what was a male-run and testosterone-ruled world.

Sharon studied geography at university and  knows building inside out, so she understood what was going on seismically and structurally. When we were negotiating with engineers and quantity surveyors they would give her the flick if they could.

So she would have to brief me (I was once told by a management guru I had the body language of a Glasgow street thug) to front them. It really does need sorting, I’m sure many women have been screwed over in the resolution process by this.

Woven into this 18 month long process, we kept an eye on the efforts of our local MPs, many of whom are now in the new Government.

Ruth Dyson, Megan Woods and Poto Williams all worked their guts out. So did Nicky Wagner from the other team.

In August last year we finally settled with our insurers. I can’t tell you how we did because of confidentiality.

Who was worse to deal with: EQC or the insurer? EQC by a long shot. IAG were business-like and no pushover, but they got on with it. 

Now we have a freehold house of battered structural integrity and some freedom from constant worry.

Could we, for all our skills and life experience, have done this without the many wonderful people we either met or re-connected with?

No, not a chance.

I feel shifty at how much altruistic public-spirited heroism we have met along the way.

Somehow these folk often facing their own personal dramas can be heroes. Day after day.

Thanks to you all from us and the one/s I have doubtless missed out.

In fact, I nearly missed out Sharon’s aunt and uncle, Mike and Madeleine who when she took them some peaches a few years ago asked if we wanted a glasshouse.

A big, solid old-school glasshouse on a rental they were selling.

We did and moved it in two sections on a yuge trailer hustled by my mate Lou.

It is my happy place. Sharon gets to visit and eat the produce but all my life it turns out what I wanted most was to be a dear old man tending his tomato plants in his glasshouse.

Helped by the heroes of the recovery to get there.

2

Unknown Places: Names in Stone (Waiuku)

by Mark Joblin

It’s not steep but it’s still uphill. There’s a gentle sloping footpath leading through the memorial garden, up to the central cenotaph. Park the wheelchair. Get up. One step at a time. A wobble, hold it, a few more steps, lean on the stick, pause. Stare up at the marble spire, polished and reflective, permanent and sorrowful. Glance down, it’s blurry, look up again, it clears. Left hand outstretched to the raised base, lower until the hand finds the sun-warmed stone, gently sit. Rest. Rummage in the left coat pocket, bring out the flask, just a splash, lid on, back in the pocket. Ponder.

‘Uncle Joe! Uncle Joe!’

 A jolt. Look over to the right. He’s moving, he’s fast, standing upright, looking here, wind in his springy black hair. He’s on a scooter. It’s downhill, George Street is. Check the flask is secure in the left pocket, feel the safety of the stick. Wait.

 ‘Uncle Joe.’

Don’t answer.

He glides to the end of the street on the footpath, takes the hard left turn into Queen Street, passes the empty wheelchair and enters the small memorial grounds. Moving up the footpath, he kicks twice, enough to carry him to where he stops with a skid.

‘Sup.’ Voice of a new teenager.

‘Hello.’

‘You’re pissed again.’ A mix of snigger and sneer on the handsome bronze face. A wisp of facial hair, medal to his recent arrival at manhood.

‘Fallen asleep in anybody else’s garden? Pissed on the street again? Nanna says you should take a bath, nah — the whole town says that.’

His words find a nerve. Blink. The boy grins, full lips, perfect white teeth.

‘You know we got lunch today, why you always wandering off, making Nanna angry? You’re the pain in the arse great-uncle that I’m always lookin’ for, always wheeling around town, just a lost old fart hanging round waiting to die. You make everyone cringe.’

Somewhere deep down, that hurts.

The boy’s expression is blank. 

The smile is gone. He sees no point.

‘I’m going back, I’ll tell Nanna you aren’t coming.’

Watch him turn, a kick and he’s leaving, tall and upright, at attention. Down the path and he’s off. More kicks as he easily takes the George Street gradient. His face is set, his face is familiar, his face … it’s now, have to say something now, it has to be said. Stand. It’s quick, the back, the knees, hips, everything feels the urgency, the stick is helping, the wobble has gone. A determined breath.

‘Mohi Maxwell, come here.’

He stops. Quickly. The voice, deep, powerful, in control. Mohi’s expression is one of uncertainty. He turns, rolling down the hill, round and back into the memorial. Off the scooter, he lays it down beside the wheelchair and walks the few paces and stands. In a hushed voice:

‘Yes?’

‘Help me sit down son. I will tell you a story.’

He nods apprehensively. Stare towards the footpath.

‘Your great grandfather and I were very good friends. He was one of the last full blood Maoris I knew, dark skin, handsome, cheeky. I had a Jewish father so wasn’t liked that much by the other white kids. We grew up very close to here. We left school soon after the war started—’

‘What war?’

‘World war two.’

‘Were you in it?’

‘I was fourteen when it started. We cut flax, it was sent overseas to make webbing.’

‘What’s webbing?’

‘Canvas belts and straps that hold equipment on a soldier’s back. We did that for a year or two. Then, just like everybody else, we joined the Army. We had to be 18 but got in at 17. We did our training and were lucky enough to get sent to the same unit. For months we worked up—’

‘Worked up, did you go to the gym?’

‘No, serious soldier training, after basic training. Our unit was the 34th Battalion of the 3rd New Zealand division. In the spring of ‘42, we were sent to Tonga as Garrison—’

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s like guarding, or defending a place.’

‘Why?’

‘The Japs had taken Singapore, the Yanks and Aussies had slowed ‘em in the Coral sea and they gave the Jap Navy a thrashing at Midway. It was at Guadalcanal that they were stopped. Us and the Yanks started hitting back in the stinking jungle on that and surrounding islands. 

‘But not Mohi and I—’

‘He was Mohi?’

‘You’re named after him.’

Let it sink in. Keep moving.

‘We were sent to Tonga. We all dug trenches, stood guard and went on patrols, manned our Vickers guns and filled sandbags. Of course we met the locals. Mohi did. He met a girl named Makea. Our billet was outside her village. We all got on well, your great grandfather got on just a bit too well. We were there five months before being sent into action in the Treasury Islands.’

Pause.

‘We were helping another unit flush out some left over Japs on Mono Island when your great grandad was killed by a landmine.’

Don’t look down, vision is blurring.

‘We came back after that and were disbanded to help the home labour shortage. Many of us went to Italy with the 2nd and shot up the krauts, I was one of them. A little payback for Mohi and my father.’

‘I didn’t get home until ‘46, married my wife then went back up to Tonga. There we found Mohi’s girlfriend, Makea, had died but not before having Mohi’s daughter. My wife and I took her in, naming her after her mother and raised her here in Waiuku. Help me up son.’

Slowly stand.

‘Help me round to the right, look at the side of the cenotaph.’

‘The what?’

‘It’s a memorial to people buried overseas.’

Stare at the eastern side, marble, gray. Names, lots of names, names in stone.

Point the stick at just one.

‘Read this out loud.’

‘Honetana M.’

‘Private Mohi Honetana, my best friend. Your Nanna is Makea Maxwell, her mother was Makea Ariki, Mohi’s girlfriend in Tonga. You are named in honour of my friend and carry my family name but you have another name too.’

‘Really?’

‘Mohi Maxwell Ariki Honetana.’

Look at him. The blur, the tear. His voice is laboured.

‘Just one name has lots of stories.’

‘They all have stories son. We remember them, every ANZAC day. That’s just a few weeks away. I wonder if you could push my wheelchair up here then, you can wear your family medals.’

‘Family medals?’

‘Yes, your family. Your medals.’

‘Will you be pissed?’

‘Probably.’

‘I’ll bring Nanna.’

‘Then I’ll leave the flask at home.’

This is a chapter from Unknown Places, a collection of short stories about Auckland by undergraduate creative writing students at Manukau Institute of Technology published here this week. The published stories are:

The Crescent (Otara)

Unknown Places: Queens of K Road (Central)

Gravel Lot (Mangere)

Names in Stone (Waiuku)

The Bach (Awhitu Peninsula)

 Armageddon (Greenlane)