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Drug History: What happened when Dunedin cancelled methadone

by *Rex

This article is about what can happen if a drug substitution programme is suddenly cancelled. 

In 1978, the Dunedin Hospital Board followed a New Zealand-wide trend and began an opiate substitution programme for local addicts using the synthetic narcotic, methadone. The main aims were to try to stabilise the lives of the addicts and to stop them from committing crimes to obtain drugs as well as to limit the spread of diseases from sharing needles. Prior to this, a few local doctors had been prescribing on an ad hoc basis for the small number of addicts in Dunedin, but there had been no overall strategy or control.

A pharmacy in the city centre was designated as the pick-up point and daily doses of oral non-injectable methadone were dispensed to around a dozen individuals. As part of the programme all of the methadone users attended regular counseling with staff at the Department of Psychological Medicine and the emphasis was on controlled withdrawal.

Dosages were also capped at a maximum of 50 milligrams per day and this was gradually reduced until the addict became drug-free. If people couldn’t cope with this regime there was some discretionary leeway to allow them to withdraw more slowly or begin the programme again.  Long term maintenance (which is now the norm) was definitely not supposed to be available. 

By 1986, the number of people on methadone had risen to somewhere in the region of 120. What caused this big jump in the number of opiate addicts in Dunedin to occur so quickly?

There were two main reasons.

Firstly, there was an increase in the supply of illegal drugs. Although the collapse of the Mr Asia drug ring had reduced the amount of overseas heroin on the streets of New Zealand, home-bake heroin – made in clandestine local laboratories from prescription pain-killers – had become widely available. Many people had also started stealing opium poppies in the summer months and when the resin from these was combined with acetyl anhydride (stolen from chemists) it was easy to produce a rough and ready dose of morphine/heroin at no financial cost. In the early eighties many addicts started growing their own supplies of poppies. 

Secondly, sometime in late 1984 or early 1985 the methadone clinic got a new director, Dr James Hannah, a well-respected physician who was the head doctor at  Cherry Farm Mental Hospital. For most of the week the programme was based at the hospital (which was a 30 minute drive from the city) and the people on methadone were only seen one day at week in the city itself, first at the Psych Service building at the Psychology Department and later at Wakari Hospital.

While the previous regime had stuck closely to overseas models – with a regime of urine testing prior to prescribing to make sure the potential client was really truly addicted and not just dissembling in order to get free drugs – Dr Hannah dispensed with these tests and it was possible to get onto the programme at a high dose on the first appointment.

It was easy to get on the programme now and it was also easier to stay on too, as Dr Hannah was more flexible about allowing people to withdraw much more slowly. As a result many casual users, who in different circumstances might not have become addicts, got onto the programme with little more than a good story and a few fresh needle marks on their arms.

There was good money to be made in selling their weekend takeaway doses (when the pharmacy was closed) and some young people were coached into signing up by older established methadone users who wanted access to their supplies. For almost two years it was so easy to get methadone in Dunedin that some people moved to Dunedin from other parts of the country (particularly Christchurch) to take advantage of the looser controls. This new generation of fresh addicts often saw methadone as a useful currency that they could sell and/or swap for other drugs at weekends. When Dr Hannah retired in 1986, methadone had become the most widely available and cheapest (at $1 per mg) narcotic in Dunedin.

This big increase in the population of local drug addicts did not go unnoticed by the local media or the Hospital Board, which decided that it was time to take action.

In September of 1986  Professor Paul Mullen, the head of the Hospital Board’s Department of Psychological Medicine, which administered the clinic, appointed a new director, Dr Bruce Spittle. His clear mandate was to reduce the number of people on methadone.

Spittle’s first move was to announce that no new drug-substitution programmes would be started. His second was to force all of the clients onto rapid-reduction programmes, often one milligram a day as opposed to one milligram a week or every two weeks. This may not sound like much but anyone addicted to methadone can tell you how painful a rapid reduction can be. Once people’s doses had been reduced to nothing, that was it and there was no more practical help from the clinic.

“Dr Spittle told me I was obviously an incurable drug addict and he gave me a final prescription which reduced my dose to zero at the end of the month. Did I stop using drugs? Absolutely not but I had to do so illegally again.” (Anonymous Dunedin drug user) 

In an article in the Otago Daily Times, Dr. K.W. Berenson, the Chief Superintendent of the Hospital Board denied that people were being forced off methadone against their will.

“No patients at present on the methadone treatment will be taken off unless the person concerned asks for the treatment to be discontinued.” (ODT 25/9/86)  

In the following day's paper Professor Mullen also asserted that patients who were having their methadone treatment reduced were “receiving smaller doses by mutual agreement.” (ODT 26/9/86) He went on to say that if some people were “finding their reduction too difficult to cope with then consideration would be given to actively stabilising their doses.”

 Both these statements were hotly contested by the affected individuals and some of them organized a support and advocacy group called Forum X.

The group's spokesperson, Mike Martin, although not a drug user himself predicted that the “stabilising effect” provided by methadone was infinitely preferable to the obvious alternatives which were “more home-bake laboratories and more crude street drugs.” He predicted that the “social cost (of forcing people off programme) would be enormous.” (‘Withdrawing Drug Treatment Warning’ ODT 28/8/86)

Just four days after Professor Mullen had said that no-one was being forced off the programme, he did an abrupt about-face and announced that it was now being axed completely. It’s hard to believe he made this decision in just four days!

In an article entitled ‘Board curtails Drug Programme’ (ODT 30/9/86) he admitted that people were being removed from the programme whether they liked it or not. At the same time the clinic also withdrew its authorisation for any other general practitioners to prescribe methadone to patients (ODT 30/9/86).

“It is clear that methadone, which was supposed to wean addicts off their addiction, did not work. It simply substituted one addiction for another.” (ODT 30/9/86)

He also said that anyone withdrawing from methadone “had no excuse to turn to crime or any other drugs.”

Over the next few months practically all of the people on the programme had their doses rapidly reduced to zero and by late 1986 there was no longer a methadone programme in Dunedin. 

Some of those affected left the city and moved to other areas whose hospital boards still had a functioning programme. But many others had no choice but to remain in the city. They were still addicts. What could they do? According to Bruce Spittle they could simply stop taking drugs. He didn’t take them and they didn’t need to either. Most of the affected people resorted to two main solutions. They began stealing drugs from pharmacies/doctors/vets etc, as well as poppies in summer and/or found a sympathetic general practitioner who would prescribe some kind of daily opiate regime for them.

By the mid-eighties all pharmacies had modern electronic alarm systems and it was much more difficult to break into them than it had been the previous decade. Despite this, people started trying. The main method was to use a quick smash-and-grab approach to get bottles of opium tincture or packets of codeine to convert into heroin. 

Several sympathetic local doctors had been shocked by the closure of the programme and began to prescribe alternative narcotics to former methadone users. These included codeine, palfium and pethidine, but by far the most common drug prescribed was opium tincture, or paregoric as it is sometimes called. It is a mixture of opium, alcohol and camphor which used to be the basis of cough medicines like Gees linctus.

It was easy for the addicts to burn off the alcohol, freeze out the camphor and turn the opium into an injectable heroin by adding acetyl anhydride. Paregoric quickly became the new drug of choice in Dunedin and was readily available for 50 cents a milligram on the street. More and more doctors were persuaded (or bullied) into prescribing the drug.

Two pharmacists actually started selling it out the back door to certain customers. One was caught and struck off the Pharmaceutical Register. A number of doctors were also censured in 1987/88 for prescribing or over-prescribing paregoric and other drugs to former methadone patients and their ability to prescribe opiates was curtailed. 

“I came back to Dunedin from overseas with a heroin habit and found out they’d cancelled the methadone programme. My doctor started writing paregoric for me and I started buying it from other users as well. Soon I was cooking up and shooting it two or three times a day.” (Anonymous Dunedin drug user) 

Several months after the last few people had been forced off the programme Dunedin’s Midweeker newspaper reported (19/4/87) that there had already been 20 pharmacy burglaries so far that year compared with four at the corresponding time in the previous year. Three months later, a story in the Otago Daily Times headed 'Increase in Pharmacy Burglaries' (15/7/87) reported that the number of pharmacy burglaries was now up to 26, plus 21 break-ins to doctors' surgeries and vet clinics – and six to doctors' houses. 

In the article Dr Berensen denied that this increase had anything to do with shutting down the methadone programme and put it down to “an increase in such burglaries throughout the country”, although he provided no evidence to support this contention.

As well as the increase in burglaries at least three people died and a number of others were hospitalised in 1987 after injecting sodium pentobarbitone stolen from veterinary clinics. Another person died from an overdose of paregoric.

In April of 1987,  31 year-old Steven Duncan died when one of his heart valves became infected. He had been on a methadone programme in Australia and tried several times to seek help at the clinic in Dunedin but had been refused.  He was already in poor health from years of abuse and he had predicted to many people that he would die if he was forced back to using impure street drugs such as paregoric. (ODT 16/4/86) 

In May, frustrated and depressed by the death of his good friend Duncan, Project X founder Mike Martin committed suicide. 

On December 29, 32 year-old Beverly Edwards, one f those forced off the programme, died of an overdose.  The corner’s report stated that the cause of death was “the effects of asphyxia complicating a convulsive episode occurring during the partial withdrawal from the drug, dextromoranmide (palfium).” She had been given a short prescription of this drug by a local doctor when she could not get any methadone. Her son still holds Dr Spittle partly responsible for her death.  

The Hospital Board’s heavy-handed approach was beginning to draw criticism from concerned health professionals. As far back as September 1986, several staff had voiced their concerns about the new policies during a meeting of Drug Treatment Centre personnel and the Health Department’s Drug Advisory Committee. The Medical Superintendent of Auckland’s Carrington Hospital, Dr. F McDonald, also expressed “grave reservations” about the Board’s approach.

How many of these pharmacy burglaries and deaths can be laid at the door of the Hospital Board is of course impossible to say but the board must surely take some responsibility for what occurred when people who had been given a legal recourse to cope with their drug addictions were suddenly forced back into the criminal world.

In an article in the New Zealand Pharmacy Journal by Mr Lex Graham (cited in the ODT in an article called ‘Disturbing Drug Treatment Trends’ (20/11/86) the owner of Knox Pharmacy, who had been dispensing methadone since the programme started in 1978, gave his cautious backing to drug substitution programmes, saying that in his opinion both the addicts and society are on balance “just a little better off.” He acknowledged that methadone provided many people with much-needed stability and made a subtle criticism of the Board’s policy by noting that  “A prescriber (Dr Spittle) at the Drug Dependency Clinic has a fairly inflexible approach to the problem.”

He also said that pharmacies were becoming increasingly attractive to burglars because of the “storage of additional controlled drugs” (i.e. paregoric) now that many former methadone patients were now being "maintained" on this drug by local doctors. 

A number of Dunedin doctors, not just those who were prescribing to former addicts, did not approve of the way the Hospital Board was handling the issue but were reluctant to publicly criticise the board in case the criticism came back to hurt them. Dr John Dobson from Christchurch was freer to speak his mind and in an article entitled ‘Methadone Treatment Policy Criticised” he said that he thought some aspects of the Dunedin Drug Clinic were “inhumane.” (ODT 25/9/86)

A private survey of 25 ex-patients found that 100% had continued to take narcotics since being forced off and that 100% of them would prefer to go back on methadone (or some other narcotic) and not be forced to withdraw unless they asked to. These survey forms and some other private submissions were presented to the Chairman of the Hospital Board, Mike Cooper by Mike Martin shortly before his death.

Even nationwide media had woken up to the fact that something strange was happening in Dunedin. In May of 1988 More magazine published a feature article about the death of Beverly Edwards and the situation with the clinic in Dunedin. 

Soon afterwards, Hospital Board chairman Mike Cooper called for an inquiry and organised interviews with doctors, social workers, nurses, the police, probation officers and drug users themselves. After these interviews an all-day session was organised at the hospital with experts flown in from all over the country.  Eventually, later that year, Dr Spittle tendered his resignation and went overseas on leave.

Dr Gill Carradoc-Davies, a clinical psychiatrist for the Hospital Board, was offered the position of clinic director and accepted. Before taking it up she went on a two-month study tour of drug rehabilitation clinics in the United States and England. In December 1988, the Dunedin Drug Clinic once again began prescribing methadone for local addicts. 

Nowadays, Dunedin drug addicts, like most around the country, are offered a choice between methadone and suboxone (another synthetic narcotic) and can stay on a drug substitution programme as long as they need to without being pressured to come off drugs before they are ready to. One seldom hears of a pharmacy being burgled, no one is prescribing or selling paregoric and hopefully one day soon both AIDS and Hepatitis C will both be just be a bad memory. 


School donations: a small step towards a level playing field

by Gareth Shute

Among the provisions in yesterday's Budget was new funding for schools: $150 annually per student. The money is availabe only  to decile 1-7 schools  and it's specifically intended to reduce the need for those schools to ask for yearly donations from students' families. I'm arguing that it's long overdue. But there's a backstory worth knowing, one that explains why donations are being addressed this way.

The recent Tomorrow’s Schools Review suggested capping the "voluntary" yearly donation amount that schools could request. This was a recognition that when it comes to donations, schools are not on a level playing field. Stuff reported in January that of the $140 million donated in 2017, more than half went to just 10% of schools.

Wellington College received the most in donations – almost $5.7m – and two schools in Epsom were next in the list. Catholic school St Peter's College got $3m in donations and Auckland Grammar, which is part of the state system, had $2.2m. Unsurprisingly, when the Tomorrow’s Schools Review was released, the idea of capping voluntary donations was slammed by Auckland Grammar principal, Tim O’Connor, who believed it would result in "lower standards".

Instead, the Budget allows those high decile schools to continue seeking donations to whatever level they wish, but at least tries to bring the low-to-mid decile schools up to a similar level. Yet, one might ask: doesn’t the current decile system already balance out the funding levels?

This is true to a degree. The current decile system allows "targeted funding for educational achievement" (TFEA) which is supplied per student depending on the school’s decile rating. A decile 1A school receives an additional $818.78 per student, but the rate drops quickly so that a decile 3I school receives $199.39 and a decile 10Z school receives zero (all rates given are pre-GST). Higher decile schools are often able to make up this difference by asking for yearly donations.

Auckland Grammar has the largest suggested donation per student – this year it was $1275 per student – which far outweighs the additional funding a decile 1A school receives under the basic decile scheme. While Auckland Grammar is a certainly a special case, there are others with a sizeable yearly donation. For example, Epsom Girls Grammar asks for $905 and Westlake Boys High School  asks for $625 per student (both are decile 10Z).

This situation doesn’t just apply to secondary schools either. Take the case of Mt Eden Normal School, which asks for a yearly donation of $450 per student (what’s more, their recent Food & Fun Fair raised around $58,000, though 10% was donated to the victims of the Christchurch shooting).

Lower decile schools do also ask for a donation, though usually at a much lower level. For example, decile 3I school Henderson High seeks $120 per year. However, in a Herald article from 2009, the principal of Henderson at the time (Joy Eaton) said she hoped to receive donations from around 30-40% of parents. In the same article, the then-principal of Bay of Islands College (Auretta Perrin) said that they had ceased seeking the yearly donation because it was costing more staff time than it was worth.

When the decile system was first introduced in 1995, it was acknowledged that schools with higher numbers of disadvantaged students required more resourcing, so it was necessary to provide extra payments to schools according to the socioeconomic rating of their surrounding area, as measured by census data. This reasoning seems difficult to argue with, but the system of donations up until this week’s budget actually tipped the scale away from this outcome – high decile schools not only made up the difference in funding through donations, but exceeded it.

 Of course, donations are not the only advantage that high decile schools have. One important source of income can be the number of international students a school can attract, since they pay full fees. Here again, the differences can be stark – Auckland Grammar has 144 international students, while decile 1 schools Mangere College and Papakura High School have zero.

Being located in a prized area of the city can have other advantages, since schools are able to leverage this to partner with other organisations to provide resources to their students. Take for example, Rangitoto College which has a full-sized stadium, a 10-lane indoor swimming pool and an astroturfed hockey pitch within its grounds. The first two of these are owned by the AUT Millennium charitable trust and these facilities don’t help directly with the school’s day-to-day costs – but they add value for those who attend the school and help attract international students.

These are just a couple of examples to show the different ways in which high decile schools can seek comparative advantage. On the flipside, the difficulties faced by students at low decile schools are striking. RNZ visited Tamaki College this week and the principal told them about the issues the school was constantly dealing with: "in winter cold children; hungry children throughout the year."

Equally striking was the article in The Spinoff last year by Sam Oldham, a teacher at Manurewa High School, who wrote that "Students enter our school, on average, two years delayed in their reading age, an outcome of entrenched, intergenerational poverty."

The differences are stark. This announcement in the current budget at least means the staff at those schools no longer try to chase up families for donations and can hopefully focus on the many other challenges that they face in giving their students a decent education. Meanwhile, it seems clear that the 10% of schools who been receiving half of the donations up to this point will be unaffected by the change, so it’s good politics all around.

Yet somehow it still seems likely a backlash is around the corner, so it’s worth remembering how we got here and why this small change introduced the Budget should be heralded and supported against its detractors when they emerge from their overpriced villas in the leafy suburbs to cry foul. It is a small step, but certainly in the right direction.


The economics of shit speech

by Joshua Drummond

It’s time we fixed the New Zealand news media’s problem with shit speech.

First, let’s put together a working definition. Shit speech is the stuff that might not necessarily be described as hate speech, but it occupies much of the same spectrum. It’s speech that presses the buttons of prejudice, bigotry and outrage, but isn’t necessarily hateful per se; that isn’t (always) lies, but is most often inaccurate, skewed, or otherwise misleading. It’s the floating turd in gutter journalism.

To paraphrase the Broadcasting Standards Authority decision on Heather du Plessis-Allan’s foul commentary about Pasifika nations, it’s speech that is “inflammatory ...and [has] the potential to cause widespread harm.” It’s the foundation the Pyramid of Hate is built on.

In New Zealand, common topics that shit speech explores include, but are not limited to, immigrants and refugees, the “entitlement” of Maori, LGBTQI issues, the “Treaty grievance industry,” and the full spectrum of climate change denial. (Anti-Islam rhetoric usually features prominently, but for some reason, it hasn’t much lately. I wonder why.)

Notably, shit speech is often almost completely devoid of style, substance, wit, or even basic legibility. Mike Hosking’s blithe strawmen frequently contain so little substance that they barely qualify as brain-farts. Leighton Smith is a frequent climate change denier whose only saving grace is writing so inane it’s indistinguishable from the output of an AI trained to generate meaningless text.

So who’s talking shit? As well as the names already checked, and an array of occasional op-ed contributors, it’s Duncan Garner with racist takes on immigrants. It’s Sean Plunket with misogynist references to “feminazis.”

Those are just the ones that come immediately to my mind, but there are plenty more, and not all of them are on the right of politics. I’d also count Chris Trotter and Bomber Bradbury among our stable of shit-talkers, as well as other voices on the Left who seem to glory in stoking conflict. If I’m being honest, I should sometimes include myself among those, from back when I had a regular-ish column.

But the voices on the left don’t tend to have the platform the others do. Not at all coincidentally, many of these personalities overlap with the talk radio and TV broadcasting stable. They are powerful media personalities, with their own shows, who occupy very special safe spaces in New Zealand’s news infrastructure.

This is because these personalities are engineered to generate attention through outrage. Which is ironic, seeing as they’re often accusing others of being outraged snowflakes or virtue-signallers (and I think it’s telling how quickly and enthusiastically some people adopted the creepy, hateful language of Gamergate and the alt-right) People who love this behaviour signal-boost. So do people who hate it. The behaviour exists because we enable it - and the media personalities’ bosses love them for the attention that we all give out. The feedback loop looks like this:

  1. Get people to talk shit

  2. Shit gets engagement

  3. Profit! (Sort of, as we’ll see.)

  4. Go to 1

NZME has just implemented a paywall, where they’ll hide their premium content – presumably the excellent work done by the likes of David Fisher, Keith Ng, Kirsty Johnston, Matt Nippert and many more - behind a $5 a week subscription. When this was first announced, the words “Mike Hosking” started trending on Twitter – spurred mostly by people begging the Herald to install him behind the paywall, so they didn’t have to hear from him any more.

This won’t happen. I’ll bet any amount of money that while quality investigative journalism will tend to disappear behind the paywall, shit speech will continue to dominate the free pages. The many people who can’t afford five bucks a week on news will continue to get Mike Hosking & Friends for free, along with all the Daily Mail re-skins they can stomach. So it’s more important than ever that their audience makes it clear that this isn’t actually acceptable. 

I’ll get to how this might be done in a bit, but first, some context.

Why shit speech is so compelling to publishers

For news media, it all went comprehensively to shit when advertising became quantifiable. Before online marketing, you couldn’t say for sure if things like TV commercials and newspaper advertising - what we’d now think of as “traditional” advertising - actually worked. The old approach is the equivalent of carpet bombing. A business would spend a great deal of money at an agency, who would produce creative, that would then get placed at further enormous cost as a billboard or full-page ad in the New Zealand Herald or in the ad breaks for One News with John Hawkesby.

I hope you heard that last bit in the announcer’s voice, and if you did, it means you are as old or older than I am. Sorry. Ideally, following the media placement, sales would ensue. But you couldn’t always directly attribute the sales to the campaign.

Then Google AdWords and others came along and it became clear quite quickly that, for the most part, the traditional approach was (and mostly still is) total balls. Businesses, large and small, flocked to advertising media that could give them a tangible return on investment, and the vehicles of traditional advertising started their long, slow crash.

Which brings us to the present day. Now that big-ticket ad spend and the even more reliable income stream of classified ads is mostly gone – and for all the wailing about Google and Facebook, this is how newspapers used to make most of their money, and that lunch got cut first by eBay and TradeMe – one of the last things that online news media has left to sell to advertisers is a flimsy, flawed measure of attention called “engagement.”

In online attention economics, you have a few key metrics that add up to a broader definition of “engagement.” Clicked on a link for the first time? Congrats, you are now a Unique Visitor, and that fact has been recorded somewhere in analytics software. Hung around on the page reading? That’ll clock up your on-page time. Scrolled past a certain point on a page? Clicked a “continue reading” button? That’s measured too. Read the comments? Left a comment? That definitely counts as engagement, and that’s why many news sites cling to comment sections despite overwhelming evidence that, without extensive moderation, they are toxic cesspits comprehensively dominated by cranks and extremists, who drive out moderate voices. It’s also a reason news sites have autoplaying videos, despite the fact that audiences hate them. You scrolling past a video as it starts to play and continues to babble away on mute still counts as engagement.

The other thing that can be easily tracked and counts towards engagement scores is social media interactions, which, in a sad irony, tend to take place on the same platforms that have so comprehensively bankrupted the news media.

Where that leaves us: Beat journalists are ridiculously overworked, and the meagre funds that publishers set aside to do investigative or otherwise valuable, society-enriching work – like Stuff Circuit, or the Herald’s investigative team – are constantly under threat. But that’s not all; there’s another, even more insidiously perverse incentive at work, and it’s called the conflict narrative.

The conflict narrative is something that gets hammered into you at journalism school. It goes something like this:

  • Good stories have conflict.

  • Good stories get read.

  • Therefore, stories should have conflict.

On the surface it seems fairly harmless, but once you dig into the concept a bit you discover a midden of toxic bullshit. This simplistic formula is an excuse for all manner of media evils, the main one of which is false objectivity, or Telling Both Sides Of The Story. And it gets worse, because while the impulse to tell good stories or to provide balance comes from a place of good intentions, it’s very easily hacked by bad actors who take advantage of dwindling journalist resources to do their jobs for them.

This is why we so often see the Taxpayer’s Union, which is a laughably obvious front for industry and corporate interests, one that exists solely for the purpose of anti-democratic malfeasance, quoted to provide “balance” to a hard news story about, say, cigarettes or cycleways.

It’s why it’s deemed acceptable to print commentary featuring Both Sides of an issue like climate change, even when one “side” is demonstrably wrong and, very often, intentionally lying.

It’s why, in politics reporting, we get opposing sound-bites instead of policy discussion. It’s why Duncan Garner hounds Chloe Swarbrick for a scalp instead of having a proper discussion about the nuances of cannabis law reform.

It’s why we have the press gallery offering sage reckons about some political happening or other being a “bad look”, offering Machiavellian commentary as if politics was nothing more than an episode of Game of Thrones, instead of the vital mechanism through which government delivers for the people it represents.

The conflict narrative is also a big part of the reason why it’s deemed acceptable for talking heads to intentionally stoke conflict in their op-eds and on the air.

I want to make the point that narrative conflict is not always bad. In many ways, it’s inevitable. Any unpopular truth-telling will incite some conflict, no matter how well-intentioned or carefully put. So will satire and other hard-hitting commentary, punching up to the powerful. All these things are essential.

But there’s a difference between conflict caused from telling the truth, and allowing (or encouraging) your staff to lie, prevaricate, promulgate bigotry, and otherwise stir shit on vital topics in the name of audience engagement. Racist commentary serves no good purpose. Misogynist commentary serves no good purpose. Ignorant takes and lying about climate change serves no good purpose.

Making news, instead of reporting it

There’s another feedback loop in the shit-speech ecosystem: the news media having their cake and eating it too. Or, rather, making the news and reporting it too. Here’s a working example: Mike Hosking hates bikes. He hates cyclists. He hates cycleways, and he’s not shy about expressing it in many, many radio rants and (loosely transcribed from radio) columns in the Herald. But the Herald has other columnists and writers, like the excellent Simon Wilson, who use the garbage Hosking produces as fuel for far more considered pieces that politely present the hard evidence for why bikes are actually a bloody good thing in cities.

Now, Simon Wilson’s sort of writing is a good thing, and we need more of it. But it’d be better if he didn’t need to use Mike’s shit, in the same publication, as the launchpad. (Another, more recent example of this cynical content factory in action: Sean Plunket, speaking on Mediaworks’ Magic Talk, on how “woke feminazis” are going to ban rugby. His words are repeated verbatim, with no counter-speech, as clickbait news on Mediaworks’ Newshub website. This then is counterproductively signal boosted – often by people who oppose or seek to mock this sort of misogynistic, paranoid bullshit but just end up smearing it around. When I saw it, it was because some leftie had angrily retweeted it.)

In the Hosking example above, I’ve used cycling as an example, but it if you substitute “cycling” for “climate change” it all gets a bit more fraught. Much of the news media is constantly trying to have it both ways on this, and other important topics; keeping the deniers and cranks onside, but also presenting the science.

The result is not any kind of balance; it’s a net loss for audiences. The NZME ecosystem is particularly awful for this. The could easily create an editorial line on climate change, as Stuff has laudably done, but instead they allow at least two of their headline columnists to deny and cast doubt on this vitally important matter at every opportunity.

The biggest of all these problems is that shit speech is cheap and it sells. As a product, it’s a no-brainer. For the people trained in producing shit speech, it comes as naturally as pooing. Why spend money on expensive investigative journalism when you could get 10 times the engagement and attention by just throwing a few fresh turds on Facebook?

How we can get rid of shit speech

Many of the views espoused by the shit-talkers shouldn’t be on the air. They shouldn’t be in our nationally-syndicated newspaper columns. They are poisoning the well of our discourse, and our society is about ready to die of dysentery. This isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. To cause conflict is what shit speech is for. It’s a disgrace. And it’s not even the shit-talkers’ fault. 

This isn’t so much about media personalities or even their politics as much it is about perverse incentives. Most of the people I’ve mentioned are gifted communicators who could do so much better if they tried, or if the incentives supported them to.

The blame for shit speech sits entirely with the people who publish it.

I’ll say it as plainly as I can: if media publishers and editors gave the merest fuck about ethics, we’d wouldn’t have this issue. But we do, and audiences are dealing with it in the wrong way. Every time some new, horrible reckon arrives, instead of ignoring it, we draw attention to it. Well, that’s exactly what publishers want us to do. We won’t rein in Mike Hosking et al’s claim to the shit-speech throne by furiously tweeting their columns everytime they say something offensively stupid. Instead, shit speech needs to be deplatformed and ignored. Here’s how that can be done.

  1. Lay complaints with regulators

  2. Note your concerns with advertisers and sponsors

  3. Hold the editors and publishers accountable

1. Instead of angry-tweeting or rage-posting on Reddit about the latest debacle (including, of course, a link to the offending screed), use your energy to complain to the relevant authorities. First, complain to the editor or producer of the shit-speech in question. If the response is insufficient, then take it to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (for radio and TV) or the New Zealand Media Council (for print and websites.) While a rebuke from either authority still holds some weight in the media, it doesn’t always count for much, which is why I recommend also doing step 2: 

2. More effective still is to express your displeasure to the people who sponsor or advertise on the content in question. This is publishing’s Achilles heel. Sure, complain to the harried marketing coordinators running corporate Twitter accounts if you feel like it, but it’s always best to vote with your wallet. You know how many departing customers it would take to make BNZ’s sponsorship of the Mike Hosking Breakfast profoundly unprofitable? Not bloody many.

So if, like me, you are furious at NZME encouraging Mike Hosking and Leighton Smith’s endless prevarication on climate change, you might want to take it up with the sponsors, and make sure that people who feel the same way are ready to do the same thing. If their scant margins are threatened, publishers will drop shit-stirring broadcasters like hot turds. We’ve seen this happen many times before, not least with John Tamihere during the Roastbusters scandal. (Of course, he’s running for Auckland Mayor now, which to me is just another example of the shit-speech Ouroboros in action.) In fact, that’s actually a neat summary of the issue: the personalities themselves are not really the problem. The platforms are. If Mike Hosking was drummed out of his media tomorrow, another shit-stirrer would pop up to take his place, because that’s how the incentives are set up. So, to me, step 3 is the most important:

3. Hold publishers and editors accountable. Don’t ever complain to the news personalities who generate the awful opinions you hate so much, because that’s what they’re paid to do. Ignore them. Go straight to the publishers. Complain to the editor. Tweet at the publishers. Make sure you’re letting them know that you know what they’re up to, and that it’s not good enough. Inform them that you’re talking to their sponsors, that you’re calling advertisers. For some reason, a lot of people who set themselves up as free speech defenders for foreign fascists hate this sort of behaviour, but sadly for them, this is free speech and freedom of choice in action, and you should wield this powerful weapon as best you can. Oh, and if you absolutely must link to examples of shit speech to make a point, don’t reward the sites hosting it with a direct link. Take a screenshot, or use a service like Pastebin instead.

And here’s my final suggestion for defeating shit speech: pay for news. If you can afford it, sign up for the Herald’s new paywall. Donate to the Guardian. Click the Press Patron button on The Spinoff and Public Address.

“Wait,” I can imagine you thinking, “you’ve just shelled out around 2000 overwrought words telling us what a shitshow the news media is through the powerful medium of poo metaphors. Now you want me to literally give them money?”

Yes, and here’s why.

For all the gross excesses of conflict-milking and shit speech promotion by media companies, going after “engagement” is a losing game. News publishers are fighting over the scraps left by megatech companies, and unless they can figure out a way to monetise effectively, they are quite properly fucked. Like democracy in The Simpsons (and, increasingly, real life), the economics of ad-supported publishing Simply Don’t Work, and the news media extinction vortex is spinning ever-faster around the plughole of doom.

Proper journalism doesn’t have much of a place in this economy. Of course, it never really did. Excepting the extremely weird and endangered animal of state-owned media in liberal democracies, a lot of the news only ever really existed as a reason for customers to purchase reams of classified ads. Clickbait and shit speech has always been with us. The incentives were perverse from the start, and now they’re just more so.

However, if you pay for your news with real money rather than nebulous “engagement”, you become an actual customer, a true stakeholder. This is important. For all the pitfalls of the news media, and despite the best efforts of unethical publishers, journalism - real journalism - is more important than ever before.

We need people who will find important things out and tell us the truth about what is happening in the world. In my opinion, while I think it’s far better for society for real news to be available for free, paying directly for good journalism is what might secure its future. It removes some of the pressure to create cheap engagement through outrage. Instead, you can show that you value real news, and a diversity of well-framed opinion that doesn’t cause conflict simply for the sake of engagement. And if you don’t like what your paid news source is up to, well, opting to withdraw your custom speaks much louder than an angry retweet.

This whole long thing has been an exhortation to stop signal-boosting shit speech, but I'd like to end it with a call to promote well-considered, positive speech from new, diverse voices that might otherwise get drowned out by all the shouting.

If we, the audience, can show news publishers that shit speech isn't what we want, it increases the odds that they'll start serving up some proper good shit instead.


An attempt at demystifying Sharia

by Felix Geiringer

I have written this piece, at this time, in the hope that I can contribute to removing the mystery, and therefore fear, associated with Sharia.  It is intended to be my answer to the Islamophobic dog whistle of “they’re trying to bring Sharia over here”.

I am no Islamic jurist.  So, apologies to everyone out there who knows this stuff much better than I do.  My relevant background is that I (briefly) studied Sharia at University.  I then worked (briefly) as a lawyer in the field of Islamic finance.  What follows are therefore the fumblings of an amateur.  Yet, I hope that this perspective of an outsider is still a useful contribution. 

Sharia is a legal system which seeks to extend the religious principles of Islam into a legal structure applicable to daily life.  You could think of it as the Islamic counterpart to Judaism’s Halakha or Catholicism’s Canon Law.  However, there are differences between them.

Catholicism has a well-defined hierarchy, and senior office holders have the power to make law.  Sharia doesn’t work that way.  I’ve also heard it said that Sharia and Halakha seek to extend into every part of a devotee’s life in a way that Canon does not.   There are also significant differences between Sharia and Halakha, but that seems to be a particularly controversial topic and I do not address it here. 

Sharia law is mostly derived by analogy from the two foundation texts: the Quran (God’s revelations to Muhammad) and the Sunnah (a record of Muhammad’s life).

Like common law judges, there are people in the Islamic world who are respected as being able to apply this reasoning and make decisions on new issues as they arise.  And, like the common law, there is scope for different people to reach different conclusions.  The decisions such people reach can have authoritative weight outside of the issues before them – more so if a consensus has arisen between multiple such decisions from different jurists. 

As an aside, I believe I saw some Sharia law reasoning in action when I heard Yasser Arafat speak in Oxford in 1996. A student challenged Arafat on Palestinians forcing women to wear head scarves.  Arafat replied by telling a story of Muhammad visiting a friend and remarking that his friend’s wife had beautiful hair.  The student was angry, saying that Arafat hadn’t answered her question.

I believe Arafat was expressing his view in accordance with the principles of Sharia law.  Arafat described the Prophet seeing a woman’s uncovered hair and clearly not being offended. Arafat left his audience with the obvious inference and therefore his view on how he would interpret the relevant Sharia.

There are acts of violence described in the foundation texts which are antithetical to modern civilised society – just like there are in the Bible.  But, also just like the Bible, there are many passages extolling virtues like love and kindness, and urging people to look after their neighbours and those less fortunate than them. 

The obviously outmoded nature of all historic religious texts is one of many reasons why I am an atheist.  However, it is obviously untrue to suggest that people can only follow a religion by strictly adhering to every anachronistic aspect of it.  

Modern Muslims living in accordance with Sharia derive workable rules for living in the modern world from fundamental principles taken from the foundation texts.  Modern Muslims do not think Sharia requires them to pretend it is still the 7th Century in the same way that modern Christians do not kill all people who work on Sundays (Exodus 35:2).

There are Islamic states that have, for example, criminal justice systems that do not conform to New Zealand’s standards of fairness or proportionality.  They implement those systems in the name of Sharia. Yet, there are other people who consider themselves devout Muslims and who argue that that is a misapplication of Sharia.  Indeed, there are also many non-Islamic states with criminal justice systems that fall well below our standards.  

In Islamic finance, I dealt, in particular, with two fundamental principles: the prohibition of usury; and the prohibition of gambling.  

That is usury in its original meaning – charging interest.  You know, the thing that annoyed Jesus so much he drove everyone out of a Temple with whips.  Despite Jesus’ low opinion of money lenders, usury in the Christian world went from prohibiting any interest, to prohibiting too much interest, to payday lenders advertising on television. 

Equally, the problems with gambling are well known in our society.  At one end, it persuades some of our least well paid to put everything they earn into pokies.  At the other, it crashed the world economy in 2007. 

Islamic finance finds ways to allow financing that depend on neither interest nor speculation.  It is a difficult, but not impossible, task.  The financing structures that are created are, at the least, useful alternatives to mainstream finance.  For example, contracts have been devised which enable someone to buy a house without unaffordable mortgage payments by instead sharing the house value growth. 

Should we fear the arrival of Sharia?  Actually, it is already here and has been for a very long time.  It will have arrived with the first Muslims to settle here in the middle of the 19thCentury.  It is still here with those who chose to arrange their affairs in accordance with it.  Just like there are people in New Zeland who follow Halakha or Canon.

What about Sharia becoming part of the mainstream law of New Zealand?  Again, arguably it already is to at least a limited extent.  In recognising the applicability of principles of tikanga, our courts have noted that the common law method has always taken account of the common traditions of subcultures within society.   I am not aware of a case that has done this, but, notwithstanding the relative importance of tikanga to New Zealand, I would expect that weight would also be given to Sharia in a case that appropriately raised it. 

While there is plenty of room to improve, I would also argue that our general laws, public institutions, and major private institutions, have been steadily moving away from an assumption that we are all Pakeha Christians.  Gradually our laws have been shifting to ones that seek to genuinely accommodate people of all cultural backgrounds, including Islam. 

No doubt there are people who think that (their interpretation of) Sharia should be universally imposed, just as there will be people who think that way about Halakha and Canon and many other ideologies. Heck, I think the laws should be reformed to better fit with my ideas of what is fair and right.  But Muslims are no different to the rest of us.  The vast majority either just want to be left alone or are happy to argue for the social changes they believe in through our political process. 

In 2008, the then Archbishop of Canterbury gave a speech about how this inclusion of parts of Sharia in our mainstream legal structures was a good thing.  This was for two reasons.  First, Muslims in our society would be grateful of the availability of Sharia compliant alternatives that allow them to both follow their faith and fully participate in society. 

And secondly, the rest of us might find that some of those Sharia compliant alternatives are good alternatives for us regardless of our faith (bring on more availability of interest free home loans!). 

It is a cheap (but frighteningly ubiquitous) trick for people to compare the best of their preferred system with the worst of someone else’s.  The truth, of course, is that the world is diverse.  Islam is no more inherently bad than Christianity. 

I am not advocating for New Zealand to become an Islamic state, far from it.  New Zealand must remain a free and democratic country. But an essential component of that is pluralism.  We need not fear people expressing views merely because those views are drawn from Sharia.  Indeed, there are fundamental principles of Sharia to which we would all relate. 


We shouldn’t have to look back on those moments and think: I was lucky

by Amberleigh Jack

“It’s not a gender issue.”

If you’ve read any online comments since Grace Millane’s horrific murder, you’ve no doubt seen that one.

“And don’t meet Tinder dates alone.”

“But it’s not a gender issue.”

Only, it is.

It’s tragic and it’s horrifying and every person I know has been hit incredibly hard by the unnecessary and awful death of a young woman that none of us knew.

Every woman I know has been hit, it seems, even harder.

Are we experiencing some kind of collective survivor guilt? Maybe. Because I’m sure I don’t know a single female who hasn’t, at least once, found themselves in a situation where they’ve had that gut-wrenching realisation that, “this could go horribly wrong.”

And this week we’re all thinking of those moments. And we’re thinking of the times that we were truly scared. And we’re shedding tears for a beautiful young woman because, despite having considered the possibilities and the what if’s over the years, we can’t fathom what she went through.

And we feel guilty for comparing our own moments. Because they pale in comparison. But they all add up to a massive, real problem.

So, yes, these crimes are a gender issue. 

Because male violence against women is a very real, very specific thing. And it happens far too often.

And I’m tired. I’m angry. And this week alone we’ve had very public, very violent, very real crimes against women. And they’re a few of many.

It’s disheartening to look back over your own run-ins with violent men over the years and consider yourself lucky.

I’ve been thinking about mine all week, like I think most women have. Because they’re not rare. You’re not so much lucky to avoid physical or sexual violence as a woman. You’re lucky if you escape them unharmed.

When I was 16 I was lucky. An older man approached me and told me he liked to sit outside my school to watch the girls. He told me he wanted to get some beers so he and I could go somewhere quiet. I declined, he bought beer and then followed me onto my bus, sat directly behind me and followed me as I got off at my stop. I was lucky. I was able to run into a dairy. And I was lucky. Because the lovely couple that owned it sat me behind the counter and called my dad.

I was lucky, as an adult, that my rapist chose to get up and leave after. That my only physical harm was a few bruises.

I was lucky that the man I stood up to after he was extremely violent to a woman close to me, chose not to act on his threat against me. After calmly promising me that I’d pay. He told me, “never let your guard down. Because years from now, when you least expect it, I’ll get you.” It took a couple of years before I stopped thinking of him whenever something unnerving happened. But I was lucky. He simply threatened me. He never acted on it.

I’ve been told many times that I’m very lucky that the man I took to court for abuse never went to jail because, “if he had you’d never be safe again.” He’s a free man, I guess I’m lucky.

I was lucky when, years ago, a man tried to get in my car, yelling and banging on the window and trying to force the door open when I managed to shut it. He let go when I drove off. I was lucky.

I’ve been followed. I’ve been groped. I’ve met people online that seriously creeped me out. I’ve literally had someone joke, with a smile on his face, while we were in bed, that he could “do anything” and I’d be completely helpless. 

And none of these are all that rare. My experiences aren’t extraordinary. Far too many women have far too many similar recollections.

And I’m lucky. Because they’re simply memories and lessons learned. And when you’re a woman there are so many lessons to be learned. I’ve been told them all, by both men and women.

“You let him into your house, what did you expect?”

“You can’t lead a guy on and then change your mind. You don’t want to wind him up.”

“What were you doing out on your own anyway?”

“You’re asking for trouble wearing that.”

“That’s just part of being a woman. You can’t let that bother you.”

“If you were that scared why didn’t you scream?”

“Surely you gave him some reason to believe you were interested.”

“You probably shouldn’t have antagonised him when he was already angry.”

Grace Millane did nothing wrong. The multitude of women who have been brutally attacked and murdered in our country at the hands of men did nothing wrong.

We’ve all been in unfamiliar countries or places on our own, and we should be able to do so and feel safe.

We’ve all chatted to strangers in bars or online - sometimes we’ve gone home with them. Sometimes we’ve been drunk, or high. Sometimes we’ve been wearing short skirts and high heels. Sometimes we’ve flirted. Sometimes we’ve turned guys down. Sometimes we’ve been out, late at night, on our own. Sometimes we’ve been obviously drunk in the back of taxis.

We shouldn’t have to look back on those moments and think: I was lucky.

Am I accusing all men of being rapists and murderers? Fuck no. I have a plethora of wonderful, protective, kind-hearted men in my life who I love and adore.

But I’ve also known enough men with the potential to snap, or who simply have deeply ingrained ideas when it comes to women to know that we have a major problem.

And the responsibility to change our culture falls on all of us, collectively.

I don’t know the answer. But it has to start somewhere. Respect boundaries. Stand up to jokes that just aren’t funny anymore. Realise that not travelling alone or avoiding Tinder isn’t any real solution. 

Teach our boys to keep girls safe as much as we teach girls to keep themselves safe.

But it’s not a gender issue, right?

To Grace - I’m so sorry. And may you Rest In Peace.