Clan Campbell

In September 2013, Campbell Live’s Kate King did a six-minute report on a new disease affecting dairy cattle – Theileria. It was a measured, well-researched piece that was given the time and space to tell its story well without over-simplifying or being condescending. They got the science right and let the experts and those affected have their say. I was especially interested because I produce a veterinary magazine and it was good to see an animal health/economic issue getting serious treatment.

It was great current affairs, bringing an important story to an audience that had probably never heard of the disease. It’s also the kind of treatment you’ll never see on a Seven Sharp or a Paul Henry show. It was actually really good public service television, and therein lies the problem for Campbell’s show.

I, like tens of thousands of New Zealanders, am appalled at the prospect of Campbell Live being axed – and judging by the way it’s being handled by Mediaworks, that’s pretty much a certainty. The tragic irony is that the channel that should be delivering good public service television – Television One – has long abandoned the role. And why should they do it? It doesn’t rate all that well and since the current government trashed the TVNZ public broadcasting charter in 2010, seven years after it was introduced by a Labour-led government, there has been no obligation on the state-owned channel to serve the public good. The unceremonious dumping of TVNZ6 and TVNZ7, and miserly funding for Radio New Zealand underlined the National-led government’s contempt for public service broadcasting.

Television broadcasting in this country is based almost entirely on a commercial model. We don’t have a BBC, ABC or PBS to help ensure important stories are still told, and that a pool of journalistic talent is retained. The market – our market – has failed to deliver and it’s probably a miracle that Mediaworks has kept Campbell Live going for this long. The apex predators of our commercial television world – the Weldons, Christies, Hoskings and Henrys – are simply not wired or mandated to produce the reasoned, balanced and intelligent coverage seen under the stewardship of John Campbell.

Campbell Live is a wonderful show. I long-since gave up on One News and now prefer 3 News, although in all fairness there’s not a lot between them. A lot of the good reporting that may once have been seen in the main hour-long news bulletin – like the Theileria piece – had migrated to Campbell. Unfortunately the news hour on both channels is padded with too much irrelevant overseas content and way too much sport. Coverage of the Black Caps’ good run at the recent ICC World Cup resembled long and rambling discussion threads on social media.

Much of the quality in Campbell Live is attributed to the man himself, but we shouldn’t forget the team working with him. He has seasoned reporters who have empathy and a light touch when needed, long attention spans and the resilience to ask the hard questions. John Campbell has built a great work culture around him over a very successful decade.

Cynics have pointed out that many of those protesting the likely loss of Campbell Live don’t watch the programme much if at all. They remind me of the cynics 40 years ago who dismissed “Save Manapouri” campaigners with the same argument: “most of you will never visit the place”. Well we saved the lake and it’s safe to say most New Zealanders were pretty happy about that, even if they’ll never visit. Today, people would also be up in arms if cultural institutions such as the NZSO, Te Papa or Radio New Zealand Concert, Opera New Zealand or Royal NZ Ballet were put under threat through loss of public funding. We may not go to their events every week but we do want to be part of a culture that values and encourages institutions like these. The market fails miserably when public funding is withdrawn.

So where does this leave Campbell Live? There’s no doubt there is strong support for this brand of broadcasting. The cash-strapped, ratings-driven Mediaworks/TV3 are probably not the right hosts for it. They, and the state channels, have been colonised by the narcissistic, preening, sneering show ponies who bear out that old H.L. Mencken quote: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

I’d like to think that John Campbell and his style of broadcasting will find a new home and get the big audience it deserves, be it within a reformatted 3 News, online or with a public service broadcaster.

That would be marvellous. Marvelous.

Rights to publish – or not

Every time the family and friends of the victims of the Carterton hot air balloon disaster see images of the tragedy, the pangs of loss must reopen fresh wounds. Four years is not much time to recover from such an acutely awful event.

It’s not surprising then, that they were anxious that members of the public should be shown the images of the crash taken by photographer Geoff Walker. They wanted others to share their shock, anger and desire that an accident like this should never be repeated.

Walker was initially successful in having the release of four images to TVNZ blocked, but it was only a temporary victory and the photos have since been widely published. Some family members supported the release so that the public could see the consequences of things going wrong, and be more careful when deciding whether to go ballooning themselves.

Unfortunately the release of the photos had the opposite effect. They were (thankfully) not graphic. None of the victims was visible but the disastrous fire and plunge of the balloon to the ground were plain to see, albeit from a distance.

Yet anyone who had read accounts of the disaster already had much worse images in their heads long before the actual photos were published. The human imagination is all too capable of filling in the gaps when no pictures exist, and the disaster in my mind’s eye was always more graphic and “real” than the published photos. Rather than heightening our sense of shock and outrage, the publication – and the time that had elapsed – allowed us to process and compartmentalise the disaster, filing it away alongside the countless other tragedies that play out routinely in our papers and on our screens.

I understand the families’ motivation, but they were wrong in this case.

My sympathy for them is undiminished, but I also feel sympathy for the photographer Geoff Walker. He cited copyright reasons for fighting publication, but I suspect he also felt it was just wrong on ethical grounds. Being a professional photographer is not an easy living these days, and the copyright of many is routinely violated.

On grief

Floral tributes mount up at Martin Place.

Australia, it seems, is being buffeted by tragedy and grief. First we had the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes. It deeply affected not only his family and cricketing fraternity, but also the whole nation and beyond that, sports people from other codes in other countries. It was a quite extraordinary reaction and, to be honest, it didn’t sit well with me.

And now we have the Sydney siege, in which two innocent people lost their lives as a result of the actions of a delusional and narcissistic idiot. In each case, the loss of these individuals has been played out and framed very publicly, fueled by hashtags, politicians and wall-to-wall media coverage. Countless thousands are grieving for people they never knew. Each event exerts a powerful gravitational pull.

It’s not the first time this has happened in recent times. The sea of flowers around the Lindt cafe in Martin Place, Sydney (above), is reminiscent of the tsunami of bouquets that engulfed the entrance to Kensington Palace after Diana Spencer died in a car crash. That convulsion of grief encircled the globe and, when it subsided, left people like me wondering what on earth had come over them. And that was well before social media were available to pour more petrol on the flames of sorrow.

I’m not a psychologist – I can’t explain this phenomenon, but it seems selective to say the least. The Stuff website (I only go there for the quizzes) shows just how capricious we can be. Today, we woke up to the ghastly news of the Taleban massacre of 141 school children and their teachers in Pakistan. This was orders of magnitude worse than what’s happened in Australia, but by early afternoon the tragic story had all but disappeared from the Stuff news page, subsumed by stories such as “Katy Perry’s opening act pulls out” (the horror!) and “A giant gourd lands in Auckland” (I’m not making this up). We should really take a long hard look at ourselves.

All of this has got me thinking about grieving in the wake of tragedy and how, in the space of little more than a generation, we’ve changed. I have direct experience of this.

Dawn Matthews at her work as a seed pathologist for MAF.
Dawn Matthews at her work as a seed pathologist for MAF.

I always get a little sad at this time of year. It’s now just a tick over 35 years since my mother’s twin sister, Dawn Matthews, died aged 60 on Mount Erebus along with 256 others who were on the sightseeing flight TE901. Dawn was single and we were her closest family. Needless to say it was a devastating time and the days and weeks that followed were difficult for all of us, not least my mother. Dawn was the last surviving member of the family she grew up in. In a rather cruel coincidence, her only other sibling had also died on a mountain, 42 years earlier – Mount Taranaki/Egmont in that case. (For the record, Erebus is New Zealand’s greatest ever disaster in terms of loss of life, not counting epidemics or war.)

Compared with today’s public grieving, what happened in 1979 was a remarkably private and low-key affair. Perhaps there were so many bereaved families (just over 200 of those on board were New Zealanders), the news media couldn’t even start to cope with the stories of so many individuals. I don’t recall thinking this was anything unusual at the time. At my aunt’s memorial service in Palmerston North, and later at her funeral in Auckland after her body was returned, we were untroubled by reporters or sight-seers. Today I’ve been through some archives and been intrigued by the restrained but poignant news coverage in the immediate aftermath of Erebus. This partly reflects how hard it was to cover such a tragedy in such a remote and dangerous place given the technology of the day, but it also reflects attitudes to loss and grief in the 1970s. Reporters kept a respectful distance. How we felt did not need to be mediated through Twitter or Seven Sharp.

Morning Report the day following the Erebus crash is revealing. About the most intemperate reportage concerned  a “night of tension” being transformed into a “night of horror”. After that, we were told of the “moment of shock” and how relatives waiting at the airport were “calm and collected”, with “no emotional scenes or weeping”. Christchurch airport, where the returning flight was due to land and refuel on its way back to Auckland was a scene of “quiet efficiency behind closed doors”, punctuated by “chattering telexes”.

A piece of the fuselage from the Air New Zealand DC-10 on Mount Erebus
A piece of the fuselage from the Air New Zealand DC-10 on Mount Erebus

Amazingly, the coverage on this first morning dried up after about 20 minutes, and Morning Report went on to discuss the rest of the day’s news, including a report on Blair Peach’s death in London, the situation in Rhodesia (lots of deaths) and an inquiry into the Abbotsford landslip (no deaths). There wasn’t much information to go on in the first 24 hours and, rather than padding the bulletins with endless speculation and repetition, Morning Report just got on with it until there was more to be told. (Compare that with the wall-to-wall coverage on all media following 9/11.)

On Checkpoint later that day, the focus was on the challenging conditions at the crash site, the sequence of events, minor speculation about causes for losing radio contact (solar flares) and earlier criticism about scenic flights to Antarctica. A man who had been a commentator on previous flights was interviewed and cheerily confirmed he’d be happy to do another one. There was also talk of jurisdiction over the crash site, logistics and the application of the newly minted ACC legislation to this unique situation. All very Checkpoint.

Also providing coverage on the spot was Radio New Zealand’s redoubtable John Blumsky, one of only two media people allowed to Antarctica in the initial phase. He later received an award for his coverage of the recovery operation on Mount Erebus, something he achieved with great professionalism in difficult conditions. The New Zealand Police initially refused permission for any filming of the crash site, only grudgingly allowing long-distance shots from the air, to be vetted by the Police in New Zealand before being made available for broadcast. Blumsky’s reports were second-hand, gleaned from interviews with those going to the crash site.

Remarkably absent from this early radio coverage were two elements that absolutely dominate coverage of contemporary tragedies: politicians and the bereaved. Think Christchurch earthquakes, Pike River or the Fox Glacier air crash. The Prime Minister was all over these events and keen to show leadership and compassion. He thoughtfully wore a Crusaders rugby jersey when interviewed in Christchurch following the first earthquake. The Prime Minister in 1979, Robert Muldoon, had a monstrous ego, but even he understood that it was better to leave the initial narrative to those who actually knew what was going on (unlike Key, who fluffed an early estimate of the death toll in Christchurch). Muldoon was barely mentioned in the first Morning Report bulletin and wasn’t interviewed.

Likewise with the bereaved. The faces of those who lost family members in recent disasters – especially those at Pike River – are well known throughout New Zealand households, as their sorrow and anger are painstakingly and repeatedly documented. When it came to dealing with victims’ families in 1979, the New Zealand Herald showed a lighter touch. In an article headed “Tears and incense”, the paper was referring to the perfumed incense burned by Japanese mourners, not anger. It begins:

“Tears welled in they eyes of a young man supporting his widowed mother at a memorial service held in Auckland yesterday for the victims of last week’s DC-10 disaster.

“His younger sister was distraught; his brother, barely school age, could not have understood. But the young man, biting his lip, stood firm.

“Sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows of St-Matthews-in-the City, picking out others in the 700-strong gathering who had painful links with this tragedy…the elderly lady giving her all to a hymn, makeup unashamedly streaked; the young woman who clutched a clergyman as she was shown to a seat – the grief of a nation found expression in that service.”

The article probably sounds quaint to younger ears but just reading it brings tears to my eyes.

So too did a Listener editorial immediately before Christmas 1979, just two or three weeks after the disaster. At Christmas, it gently reminded us, we should spare a thought for the pain of those who had lost loved ones on flight TE901. Talk about understatement – yet it still moves me.

So do we handle these types of events better or worse than we did 35 years ago? I don’t know. But I don’t need to be told how I should feel – about my own loss or that of someone in another country, not of my acquaintance. I felt intensely sad when Dawn was killed and sometimes I still do. But that’s between her and me.

If you want to support people suffering unbearable pain, people you don’t know, think for a while about those families in Pakistan. If you’re quick you’ll find the story online – just under the one about the silly driver who put his canoe on his car the wrong way around.

Knock off

Do-not-knockIf the aim is to send pesky visitors packing, then the “Do not knock” stickers being distributed by Consumer NZ aren’t up to the job. I’ve crafted an alternative and I’m happy to offer it to them free of charge. They might need a slightly bigger sticker though. Here goes.

Hello friend! Are we acquainted? Are we related? Are you a helpful neighbour here to tell me my car is on fire? A solemn police officer with bad news? A council officer come to tick me off for watering my garden on the wrong day? A bereaved Nigerian looking to shift some funds offshore?

None of these? Then be still, beating fist! Keep those calloused knuckles in your pockets! Be gone, before my cats rub themselves against your leg and drool on your shoes! Turn tail! Make tracks! Save yourself!

But perhaps you are here to save my soul. I’m sorry, but this is a godless, faithless, feckless household. We have no souls here worth saving! We have no confidence that your imaginary friend will cure our back pain or lighten our crushing sense of ennui. We prefer our imaginary fiend – you call him Lucifer; we call him Dawkins. No, please, don’t go! I’d love to tell you more!

Oh, you’re here to sell me a new energy plan! So tell me: is your gas gassier? Is your electricity sparkier? Will you slash my bills more cruelly than the other lot? Thought not. But while you’re here, could you check this light? It keeps cutting out. And that plug has stopped working. You can’t? But I thought you were an energy specialist!

But wait! Is that a smartly uniformed diminutive figure I see hovering expectantly through the frosted glass of my door? Come in! Come in and take tea with my wife and I and we’ll share a laugh or two! Oh, so Brown Owl says that would be unwise? Fine, we’ll take six packets please.

Bloody parasites!

For the princely sum of $20 a year, I belong to the New Zealand Society for Parasitology. It’s kind of them to let me join, since I’m not a parasitologist or even a scientist. But I am interested in their work because it crops up often in the magazines I produce (one for vets and the other for farmers), and my hosts are happy to accommodate this media parasite.

Earlier in October I attended the NZSP’s annual meeting and was rewarded with some excellent papers and, I’m happy to admit, some gruesomely fascinating stories.

Hookworm larva - you really don't want to catch this one.
Hookworm larva – you really don’t want to catch this one.

Keynote presenter was Professor Graham Le Gros from the Malaghan Institute. He pointed out that the relationship between human hosts and their parasites might be more mutually beneficial and complex than we thought. While the thought of hookworm, tapeworm, pinworms, head lice and countless other parasites that enjoy our hospitality is pretty distasteful, it turns out that parasites appear to modulate our immune systems in ways that can be helpful. For example, the occurrence of inflammatory bowel disease appears to be inversely related to the presence of internal parasites. Beyond that, parasites seem to be protective against a whole range of inflammatory diseases. Hmm. Hookworm anyone? It turns out people have been trying controlled doses of that very parasite as a last resort to try and control chronic coeliac disease. No-one seemed sure this was a very good idea – it’s a very nasty parasite that causes internal bleeding and intense itching as it emerges.

One treatment that definitely works well is “faecal microbiota transplantation” for treating recurrent infections with the bacterium Clostridium difficile,  responsible for diarrhoea, colitis and even death. We all carry the bug, but if the balance in our gut flora is knocked out of whack, they can overgrow and cause considerable grief. Antibiotics usually work with a first-time infection but if it becomes recurrent, they lose their efficacy. Enter the seemingly miraculous and low-cost treatment which, not to put too fine a point on it, involves taking on board a 50ml slurry of someone else’s poo. According to the fresh-faced Dr Brendan Arnold from Wellington Hospital, the best method involves an enema – taking the treatment down the other end can result in some unpleasant sulfurous belching. He’s treated seven patients this way over five years and the success rate has been 100 percent. Often the chronic symptoms resolved within 24 hours as the introduced bacteria quickly helped restore a healthy balance. Arnold said patients were unfazed by the treatment – it was the attending doctors and nurses who were more distressed by the “yuck factor”.

On the other side of the ledger are people who self-diagnose with internal parasites, blaming a whole range of maladies on unseen passengers. Dr Ian Wilson said “parasite cleansing” is big business, but unless you’ve been travelling overseas recently or are a newly arrived migrant, your chances of carrying a pathogenic gut parasite are pretty small. That’s not to say we don’t carry them – it’s just that they don’t normally cause any problems unless we become immunocompromised. These scientists don’t lack for humour or the same morbid fascination shared by me and other civilians. Wilson’s favourite tale involved a tapeworm discovered in a patient during a colonoscopy. The worm, spotting an opportunity, disappeared up the colonoscope, wrapping its tail around the handle – much to the horror of the operator and amusement of just about everyone else.

External parasites also got their moment in the sun at the NZSP meeting and there were two presentations about the use of fly larvae – OK, maggots – for cleaning wounds. This is done in both human and animal medicine, but is probably easier in humans who are a bit more cooperative when it comes to protecting the delicate grubs as they diligently clean up wounds under the bandage. It’s not a new therapy but has recently come back into fashion to help with cleaning up dead tissue and infective bacteria from chronic wounds. It turns out the maggots need special care. They can drown if the wound is too weepy and they need a bit of air and light through the gauze covering – and of course they can be easily squashed if you’re not careful. Also they aren’t suitable for all kinds of wound. As with the faecal transplantation, it is squeamish doctors and nurses who have a problem with the treatment, rather than the patients.

Returning to the theme of people’s obsession with parasites, Dr Mark Jones, Wellington Hospital, gave a tongue-in-cheek presentation on “delusional parasitosis”. He recalled the frustration he felt when in just one month, his lab had to process 760 tests for “ova and parasites” in faeces samples. Of these, just 11 revealed giardia cysts, which could have been detected using other means (the ELISA test). The rest were clear of pathogenic parasites. Jones said the testing tied up three full-time scientists and were largely a waste of time. Removing the “ova and parasites” tick box from the standard lab form helped cure the over-testing problem, he said.

Jones said a small group of people were convinced they were crawling with parasites and were never satisfied with negative tests. Often they would submit samples under false names and could damage themselves gouging out skin and flesh to offer as samples, helpfully packaged up in a matchbox. Delusional parasitosis emerged into the mainstream about 10 years ago with the arrival of “Morgellons disease” in which sufferers were convinced they had parasites in their skin, often emerging as fibres. A Centres for Disease Control study concluded the fibres were actually just from people’s clothing. It was a lot of fluff.

I found from another speaker that it’s not a good idea to flush your cat’s poo down the toilet because the nasty Toxoplasma gondii protozoan parasites they carry will end up in the sea and infect dolphins.

So many parasites, so little time!

I’ll be back next year.

An existential threat


The other night on TV3’s news there was a report about DOC’s big 1080 operation in the South Island. In it, the reporter said “…because these introduced pests pose an existential threat to our native wildlife…”

Was a very clever line, or was it a bad malapropism? What do you think?

As I understand it, “existential” means something like “pertaining to existence”, but along the lines of the purpose or meaning of existence, rather than the very fact of existence itself.

So when I saw the report I couldn’t help but imagine this conversation down on Codfish Island:


Ferret: Hey, kakapo!

Kakapo: WTF are you doing here, Slim? I thought your lot had been wiped so we could live and breed in peace, every decade or so.

Ferret (smirking): Not a bit of it, sunshine. We’re pretty good swimmers you know. Besides, those buggers from DOC were dropping 1080 all over our patch again, but they’re too wussy to drop it out here around KAAKAAAPOOR (sarcastically).

Kakapo: So what happens now? I suppose you’re going to tell me you’re pregnant too…

Ferret: Yup! And we don’t give a damn about genetic diversity like those hand-wringing scientists. Don’t go thinking I’ll be whelping 10 retards either – this lot’ll have you and yours for breakfast and they’ll be dropping litters of their own before the year’s out.

Kakapo (sighing): Oh, OK so me and my rellies are pretty much buggered then…

Ferret: ‘Fraid so. Hey aren’t you that Sirroco character who tried to shag Mark Carwardine?

Kakapo: What of it?

Ferret:  Well if that doesn’t show what pathetically useless birds you are, I don’t know what does. You only feel like sex once in a blue moon after a good feed of rimu fruit. Even then you end up trying to get it on with the wrong species. Us ferrets, on the other hand, can rustle up a litter on the smell of an oily rag.

Kakapo (hunches wings, droops head a little further): Ah bloody hell, what a waste of all that Comalco money trying to pair me off with my cousins and make me hop around looking cute for Steven bloody Fry. Sanctimonious git.

Ferret: Extinction’s your middle name, sport.

Kakapo (exhales a half-hearted boom; shuffles to the edge of a bluff; glares back at ferret): You’re welcome to the place, mate. I never cared for it much anyway. (Tips off edge, plummets toward rocks below)

Ferret: What am I going to eat now?

Kakapo (nearing terminal velocity): Try some rimu fruit, sucker. Next crop’s due in 2018, LOL…. (hits rocks).

That’s what I’d call an existential threat, but I’m not sure if it’s what the reporter meant.



Dirty laundry

The response on the part of the National government to the out-of-left-field publication of Dirty Politics by Nicky Hager has been almost as revealing as the content of the book itself.

Members of National’s traditional constituency, the well heeled, the business and farming communities probably won’t admit it, but they’ll be feeling queasy when they find how routinely the Government uses a potty-mouthed, puerile bully, aka Whale Oil (Cameron Slater), to attack its opponents.

Judith Collins features heavily in the book and the dialogue between herself and Slater reveals far more of the vicious and vindictive Collins that surfaces only occasionally in the public arena. She’s been happily feeding him scuttlebutt for years, faithfully reproduced on Whale Oil.

Key is determinedly keeping his distance from the National party flunkies implicated in the story. Perhaps predictably he is trying to control the narrative with responses along the lines of:

  • the claims made in the book are ‘dissolving before our eyes’
  • it’s perfectly normal to ‘brief’ bloggers as well as the mainstream media because social media is such an important part of modern communications
  • the content of the book is based on stolen emails
  • but everyone else does it, so why can’t we.

Well, let’s take a closer look. Apart from a claim made about Collins intervening to move a prisoner that appears fairly circumstantial, nothing in the book has been seriously challenged.

As for briefing bloggers, well yes that’s fine – but does the Government also “brief” bloggers such as The Standard or Public Address, which take a perhaps less pro-National line than the likes of Kiwiblog and Whale Oil? And there’s a big difference between the mainstream media and blog writers like Cameron Slater, David Farrar – and me for that matter. They’re not bound by journalistic standards or ethics or basic fact-checking obligations and in Kiwiblog/Whale Oil there seems little or any attempt to moderate the often vitriolic and hate-filled comment threads.

Stolen emails? I understand much of the chatter that was passed to Nicky Hager was in the form of Facebook messages, not just emails. But yes, they were sourced after someone mounted a cyber attack on Whale Oil’s system in response to Slater’s “feral” slur about a young man killed on the West Coast. So Hager has material taken without authorisation and he has to tread a fine ethical line. He pointed out in an interview today that he had refrained from publishing any of the personal details also included in the 8 gigabytes of data.

I was somewhat surprised earlier this year when Whale Oil was given the 2014 Canon Media Award for best blog. Apparently it was for his breaking the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang affair story – it would be interesting to know how much digging he did on his own behalf for that one. There was a fair bit of criticism at the time from other journalists but most of this was slapped down – honour among thieves and all that.

So what’s going to become of this? Nicky Hager has written a good, carefully crafted book that throws more light on a process that we all kind of knew goes on, but is far more deeply institutionalised within the National Government than we might have realised. If Judith Collins really does fancy her chances of taking over as leader in the post-Key era, this book does her no favours. Most National supporters (like those in Epsom) will probably just shrug and smirk like their Dear Leader, hold their noses and carry on.

Labour will probably kicking themselves that they’ve chosen their relentlessly Pollyanna-ish “Vote Positive” tagline, because this book has plenty of juicy material to tempt them down off the moral high ground and get stuck into National and their right wing blogger friends.

At this stage the story still has legs and it’s going to add another dimension to what is shaping to be a seriously loopy election campaign.

Update: Key gets slippery in Monday’s Morning Report.


Staying awake

Between 1915 and 1926 an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica (“sleepy sickness”) swept the world, leaving many victims in a statue-like state, motionless and unable to communicate. In the 1960s the anti-Parkinson drug L-Dopa was tried on these patients, with dramatic results. After decades in a catatonic state, they “woke up”, with faculties and memories from their earlier lives intact. This apparent breakthrough was described by Oliver Sachs in his book Awakenings, later turned into a movie starring Robin Williams. It also formed the core of the challenging but intriguing novel  Umbrella by Will Self. Sadly, the effects of the drug didn’t last and the patients gradually lapsed back into their torpor for the rest of their lives.

Few, if any of the victims of that original epidemic are probably alive today. Yet our rest homes and hospitals are full of people, not just elderly, who are kept in a similar zombie-like state. If you’ve helped care for a parent or grandparent with dementia you’ll know how dispiriting this can be.

Well I’ve just seen a little gem of a documentary at the NZ International Film Festival, Alive Inside, that shows how even the most intractable of dementia sufferers can have their lives improved immeasurably through the simple medium of music delivered via an inexpensive iPod and headphones.

Film maker Michael Rossato-Bennett follows the work of volunteer Dan Cohen, who set up a non-profit organisation in the US, Music and Memory. The premise of what they do is pretty straightforward and stunningly successful, yet Cohen faces enormous barriers to spreading the practice of helping dementia patients reconnect with their past lives and their present through the music they listened to when they were younger. One of the most heart warming of many examples was 92-year-old Henry – you can see the clip here.



He and the others looked like those L-Dopa patients must have, back in the 1960s – awake, alive and connected, not only with their memories but also with those around them. The big difference is that this therapy is sustainable and inexpensive. It wasn’t only dementia or Alzheimers sufferers who benefitted. A prickly and difficult woman, institutionalised with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia softened and smiled for the first time in a very long time, just through the music. When she said “I’m having fun”, you knew she really meant it. And a middle-aged man confined to a bed with MS for the past decade and facing a bleak, depressing future, was reconnected with his life and simple pleasures through the same medium.

Of course the music therapy is not a panacea and it may not work for everyone, but it made you wonder why no-one has tried this before on a large scale. The core function of music to stimulate and communicate has been well understood for a long time, yet many of the “nursing homes” that Cohen approached to take on board this scheme were surprisingly resistant. The problem appears to be that elder care has been taken over by the health system, rather than the welfare system and has been thoroughly medicalised. It’s easier, apparently, to keep patients controlled with anti-psychotic drugs than it is to give them what the really need – human contact, a sense of being needed, and of course that music. One practitioner in the documentary pointed out that he has no problem prescribing $1000 worth of anti-depressants for a dementia patient, but “prescribing” a $40 iPod shuffle loaded with their favourite music could be an insurmountable challenge.

But there is hope. Cohen’s cause has been picked up through social media and is finally getting some traction. And the baby boomer generation (to which I belong) is now contemplating its not-too-distant future as elders. They won’t put up with being institutionalised and hospitalised in a haze of medication. We just won’t let it happen – will we?

See the doco if you can – it’s a beaut, and far more uplifting than a film about dementia deserves to be. And load up that iPod with your favourite stuff. You might need it sooner than you think.

Vet, vet, vet

I’ve just finished writing up the annual NZ Veterinary Association conference, which was held in Hamilton last month. With nearly 1,000 vets, technicians, nurses and various industry people bustling around the massive Claudelands Events Centre for the week and up to five streams running simultaneously it’s a pretty daunting but exhilarating exercise. The best you can do is cherry pick the most interesting looking events and pray you don’t misrepresent them in print (the reports go into their professional magazine).

I have a BA in Geography, which is about as far from veterinary science as you can get, so the more technical stuff can be challenging. That said, most vets take a kindly approach when I’m wrestling with the finer points of small animal orthopaedics or the complexities of antimicrobial resistance. They probably cut me more slack than they would one of their colleagues.

I’ve always felt an affinity with vets, enjoy their company and find their work genuinely interesting – so when the opportunity to write for and edit their magazine came up a few years ago I didn’t muck about.

These people are high achieving, compassionate, engaging, funny and incredibly hard working. They are also practising scientists, something that’s often overlooked.

If you think they must be a watered down version of people who work in human medicine, think again. The basic degree is five years and that usually follows preliminary study just to be considered. And not only can their patients not talk back, they’re dealing with multiple species – everything from sick budgerigars to stud bulls. On top of that they’re dealing with owners, something that requires a whole separate set of skills. And of course they’re working in a completely unsubsidised sector – there is no social welfare for your cat. Some heart-breaking decisions are sometimes needed about whether or not a loved pet can be saved, something that can be as stressful for the vet as it is for the owner. That said, some owners of companion animals are prepared to spend eye-watering amounts to keep their pets alive and happy for a little longer.

Juggling Fig 1
Population pyramid comparing counts of female and male veterinarians in single year age groupings in 2013. Source: The New Zealand Veterinary Workforce in 2012–2013, Veterinary Council of New Zealand.


There are interesting demographic changes going on in the profession, something that is probably being reflected in human medicine, the law and other professions. Traditionally, vets were rural and male, working in small, isolated practices. Small animal medicine is a relatively recent phenomenon – it was agriculture that kick started veterinary science in this country. These days the profession is about 50:50 male and female, but one look at this Veterinary Council population pyramid will show you that the “pink tsunami” in the profession is gathering pace. Up to about 80 percent of each graduating class is now female and it won’t be too many years before the “male bulge” exits the profession into retirement and men become a minority.

One session during the conference was dedicated to several women in their thirties – dairy vets – who calmly explained how they  juggled work, pregnancies, children and the demands of a family farm. They all had supportive employers and families but they all admitted it was tough. They were an inspiration and their stories emphasised how much we need to change our thinking about supporting highly trained young professionals like these through a tough few years. The current government has grudgingly conceded a small increase in paid parental leave, but it’s not enough.

The theme of the conference this year was “Well & Truly”, focusing on wellness among vets as well as their patients. For all their incredible skills and work ethic, vets are also vulnerable to huge amounts of stress, often because they set such high standards for themselves. Sadly, suicide rates among vets are amongst the highest for the various professions. Several guests spoke eloquently on stress and depression, none moreso that Sir John Kirwan. It was clear from the heartfelt feedback during his hour-long presentation, that he’d touched many of those there with his honesty and courage.

So, vets then. They’re pretty damned neat people but they’re also human. Give one a hug next time you get the chance.

Hair boy

“I’ve just returned from a trip to the United States and I can tell you that long hair in men has fallen out of fashion.”

Basil Wakelin, Headmaster, Nelson College, 1965

So thundered our headmaster at assembly a couple of months after I started at boarding school, disabusing us of any ambitions we might have to look like a Beatle.  Basil was a terrifying man and none of us dared contradict him. He had fought at El Alamein just 20 or so years earlier and, as my father was fond of saying, he still had the sand running out of his ears.

But as 1965 dragged on, it became apparent that Basil’s fashion radar was on the blink. The rules about hair were as strict as you’d imaginine in a 1960s traditional boys’ school – nothing hanging in the eyes, covering the ears or touching the collar. Some creative day boys pushed the boundaries by pulling their collars well down their backs and slicking back hair behind their ears with plenty of product – probably Brylcreem. One had a wispy blond moustache that he dyed brown in the weekends.

Being under 24-hour surveillance as a boarder, I had fewer opportunities to bend the rules. We were given a compulsory haircut every three weeks in strict rotation, whether we needed it or not. Our barber was a friendly enough old guy, but our pleas for just a light trim always fell on deaf ears.

Guy Grocott receiving his three-weekly trim-up at boarding school c. 1967
Guy Grocott receiving his three-weekly trim-up at boarding school c. 1967


Our only opportunity to express ourselves came with the summer holidays when we had a glorious six weeks or so to grow our hair, reassuring our parents that they needn’t waste money getting us a haircut – we would get a “free” one soon enough when we were shipped back to school.

This was about as long as a boarder could get away with growing their hair. It's 1969 - the same year as Woodstock. We were quite sheltered.
This was about as long as a boarder could get away with growing their hair. It’s 1969 – the same year as Woodstock. We were quite sheltered.

Of course mandating the length of our hair wasn’t the only means of controlling unruly schoolboys in 1960s Nelson. Our shoes were to be shone daily, socks kept up by means of garters (one lad suffered a potentially life-threatening blood clot from over-tight garters), the scratchy woollen flannel shirts had to be worn year round and remain neatly tucked in, sleeves were to be rolled down at mealtimes and the carving of notches in one’s belt to keep a tally of strokes of the cane received was frowned upon.

Punishments for transgressing these pointless rules ranged from sweeping quadrangles to polishing brass to washing the housemaster’s car.

Suddenly it was the 1970s, I left school and didn’t have another haircut for a good three years or so.

This was all nearly half a century ago. That a New Zealand secondary school should be battling with a pupil over the length of his hair in the 20-teens is extraordinary.

For those who have been hiding under a rock recently, Lucan Battison, a 16-year-old student at St John’s College, Hastings (a state-integrated catholic school) has been embroiled in a legal dispute with the college over the length of his hair – a battle he appears to have won for now.

For all we know, young Battison might be a pious and diligent young man who wants only to emulate the look and lives of the saints that adorn the walls of his school chapel. Or he might be a bit of a ratbag, whose hairstyle is the last straw for the school on a long rap sheet of bad behaviour. Whatever the background to this stoush, the staff and trustees should pick their fights

The author in 1971. It all turned to custard once the shackles of boarding school had been broken.
The author in 1971. It all turned to custard once the shackles of boarding school had been broken.

more carefully.  They were never going to come out of this looking good, and by sticking to their principles they have come across as petty and vindictive, particularly after their attempt to block Battison from attending the school ball. And with a 1988 photo emerging of current school trustee in the 6th form at St John’s with – you guessed it – long hair, there’s just a whiff of hypocrisy about the whole affair.

My own son attended Wellington High School, whose dress code, as such, is the polar opposite of St John’s. There is no uniform and, as far as we understood, no restrictions on clothing or appearance as long as no offence is caused. Pretty much how things work in the real world. Students embraced the opportunity to express themselves and class photos looked like fancy dress parties where everyone can dress and sport their hair however they damn well like. As far as we know the moral rectitude, academic performance and community mindedness of its students are still intact.

New Zealand is pretty good at moral panics. It amazes me that a minor matter like this, that belongs back in the 1950s, is sparking warnings from the School Trustees Association, the Catholic Education Office and Family First. They seem to think this challenging of authority is the beginning of the end and will encourage others to take on their schools. I doubt that it will. But if schools insist on imposing petty rules for no good reason rather than concentrating on educating good, well-balanced young people, then they deserve all the opprobrium that is heaped on them. There really are more important things to worry about. But then again, it is election year.

Green light

I’ve always found the Green Party a bit of an enigma. Plenty of good social justice policies that fit my lefty-leaning perspective, well thought-out ideas on energy and transport and some more pragmatic economic policies than in the past. Yet they remain stubbornly resistant to evidence-based arguments for the use of technologies like cisgenics to increase the productivity of our farming industries. New Zealand will never be one big organic farm and the Greens would make a lot more progress politically if they were prepared to compromise on this.

You have to admire their principled approach, although this would be tested if they ever find themselves in government. That said, I respect them immensely for having their courage to put forward a cohesive policy on abortion law reform.

New Zealand’s abortion laws are woefully outdated and right out of place in the Crimes Act. It is long overdue for abortion services to be regulated under health legislation along with other reproductive services, and not treated as a crime. Successive Labour and National Governments have lacked the guts to update abortion laws, mainly because both parties have their share of social and religious conservatives and are afraid of alienating part of their constituency.

Former Labour MP Steve Chadwick’s proposal to take abortion out of the Crimes Act and remove the requirement for the approval of two certifying consultants was swiftly derailed by a well-organised and shrill “pro life” movement. The Labour leader at the time, Phil Goff, hung Chadwick out to dry saying he “hadn’t thought much about it”, and his counterpart John Key showed similar cowardice. To this day Key insists the current law is working fine – something that would be challenged by any woman having to negotiate the ridiculous and paternalistic obstacles put in their path to ending an unwanted pregnancy.

Chadwick’s attempt was doomed from the start, not only by the lack of backbone shown by political leaders, but by the fixation of media and critics on the 24-week gestation limit. In fact only a tiny fraction of abortions are carried out anywhere near this point, and those that are are almost always cases of severe fetal abnormality or health risk to the mother.

Anyone who doubts the compassion and humanity of those who work in the challenging field of late-term abortion should watch the documentary “After Tiller”. It’s a remarkably heart-warming story. (Tiller was the practitioner who was brutally murdered in his church by a “pro life” extremist.)

Abortion rates in New Zealand are actually falling. There are probably multiple reasons, but the wider availability of effective long-acting contraception is undoubtedly a factor. Yet all is not well. Access is still difficult for many women and the unfair stigma around abortion remains.

Because so much stigma remains, women who’ve had the procedure don’t want to make a lot of noise about it. Yet about one in three adult women in New Zealand will have had an abortion. Unless you live in a convent or monastery you will likely have friends, colleagues or family who have had an abortion at some stage and then just got on with their lives.

A lie constantly trotted out by the pro-lifers is that abortion is dangerous to women’s physical health. A recent United States study showed that the risk of mortality associated with childbirth is 14 times that of legally induced abortion. Morbidity risk is also higher for pregnancies carried to term than for women having abortions.

Similarly, the pro-lifers will tell you that women who have had abortions will suffer from mental health problems as a result. A comprehensive research review in 2011 by the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges in the UK showed this to be another patent lie. Women who have abortions are no more likely to suffer mental health problems than those who carry pregnancies to term. If they do suffer, it is often because they have been stigmatised by partners and others.

Predictably, the announcement of the Greens’ policy was met with a barrage of vitriol by the anti-abortion lobby and dinosaur columnists like Karl du Fresne (“So what are the Greens trying to prove? Were the 14,745 abortions in 2012 not enough for them?”).

In fact the Party had to plead with those commenting on their Facebook page to play nice and cut the abuse. It’s always amused me that those who claim to be defending the sanctity of human life are capable of the vilest abuse and threats of violence. It was encouraging, however, to see as well-reasoned editorial in the Sunday Star-Times (15 June) calling for reform – no doubt they will be heaped with opprobrium in next week’s letters.

The pro choice lobby, now including the Greens, generally engage in the debates with dignity and reason and I applaud them for that.

So stick to your guns, Greens. If you do get the chance to form part of a Government after 20 September, don’t get sidetracked by genetic engineering and organic farming. This is an issue that really does affect people’s lives.

Breaking Paddy

It’s conventional wisdom these days that the downward spiral in the quality and intelligence of Hollywood’s output is directly correlated to the golden age of long-form television. The talent that goes into series like Mad Men, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad has migrated from movies to the small screen. The best movies these days seem to come from outside the US or from indie producers.

All of which means there’s plenty of good stuff on the telly – if you’re prepared to pay for it. With the exception of the occasional good series on Prime and interesting movies on Maori Television, the pickings can be pretty lean on free-to-air television. Take out a Sky subscription including the main movie channels and the choice improves, but not much. To get the really good stuff you need to break through Sky’s double paywall and stump up the extra for Soho, Rialto and perhaps the Arts Channel.

Even then the output can be patchy, but it’s the only way you can guarantee you’ll see all the great shows that everyone talks about around the water cooler. That’s unless you want to get your hands on a box set or access the shows online through not-strictly-legitimate channels.

Normally you can rely on the mainstream media – The Listener or Sunday Star Times, for example – to give you a heads-up when anything from the quality end of the market is about to hit the screens. But not always.

My case in point is the brilliant RTÉ Television (Ireland) series, Love/Hate. Rialto has just finished screening the first four seasons back to back. A fifth season will show overseas later this year with the sixth and final season next year. I stumbled across the end of S1 Ep1 when channel surfing. Some scared looking young Irish lads were out in the forest playing chicken with guns and I could hardly understand a word they were saying. I stuck it onto series link and started watching a few full episodes. I was hooked.

It’s set in and around Dublin in the gritty underworld of drug gangs, with a core cast of a dozen or so. Given the life they lead there’s a bit of turnover in the cast. Like The Sopranos, this show looks at the whole gangster, including their insecurities, weaknesses and the banalities of family life. Again, like the Sopranos the choices made by their wives and girlfriends to ignore where the money is coming from throws up some interesting moral conundrums. It’s gritty and violent all right but also funny and thoughtful with an excellent script and well realised characters. It takes a while to get your ear attuned to the Dublin working class dialect, (“Oi tort oi told yous ta boorn the care!” – I thought I told you to burn the car) but it has its own poetry.

This show is every bit as good as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, but with a budget of about €600,000 per episode I suspect it’s a lot less expensive to make. Most of the cast will be unfamiliar to New Zealanders, with the exception of the excellent Aiden Gillen, best known as Petyr Baelish in Game of Thrones. He’s a bad bugger in Love/Hate as well, but on quite a different level.

Fran, Darren, Nidge and Tommy. You’ll love and hate these morally complex gangsters.

Get hold of it if you can. It’s the next big thing.


Throttling a Tui


I was first introduced to Tui beer one summer at the end of my first year of university. My father had got me a job as a rousie in a shearing gang working on sheep farms east of Dannevirke. I was 18, skinny, unfit, at the bottom of the pecking order, but accepted with good humour as the only pakeha in the village.

This was at the end of of 1970 and Tui East India Pale Ale was little known outside what is now the Tararua district – northern Wairarapa and Southern Hawke’s Bay. But for my gang at least, run by the late Peter Lawson and Herb Chase, the beer was the single alcoholic beverage available after our 12-hour days and also the hydration of choice for the shearers during their shifts. Most shearers would take a single bottle of Tui at breakfast at 7am after the first two-hour run – these were the old-style bottles that held over a pint – and then they’d down two bottles with lunch. Lesser mortals – the presser, rousies and cook – drank only in the evenings and made do with big mugs of strong tea during the day. I don’t recall anyone drinking water.

The traditional invitation to drink was to “throttle a Tui”, something I did with alacrity whenever I got the chance. The beers were kept stacked in wooden crates on the verandahs of the shearing quarters. They were never refrigerated (the small amount of fridge space was reserved for the vast quantities of mutton that sustained the gang).
The Tui was warm, sweet, sickly yet strangely insubstantial. Craft beers were decades away, yet to my uncultured palate it still tasted pretty awful.

Probably the best aversion therapy for drinking Tui at all was starting a run at 5am, hung over with dry horrors, thumping head and heaving stomach. The fumes of last night’s beer mingled with the smell of sweat and sheep shit. It was a powerful lesson on the folly of trying to match hardened drinkers twice my age and one I repeated often.
The rest of that summer was wonderful, but the smell and taste of warm Tui linger like stale onions more than four decades later.

Which is why I’m especially distressed by the choice of beers at the new Pavilion Bar in Westpac Stadium: Tui light, Tui dark and just for variety the anaemic and joyless Amstel Light. Really? Isn’t Wellington the craft beer capital of New Zealand? Surely we can do better. I admit the food in the Pavilion is a little better than the soggy chips and foul burgers in the concourse and there are plenty of good food carts now. But shouldn’t we have left the rubbish beer behind to accompany the rubbish food downstairs?

These days 10,000 is a good crowd at a Super rugby match in Wellington. Alas, Tui is throttling the fun out of the rugby. Unshackle the stadium from the tyranny of Tui and I reckon you’d win some of the crowds back. Well, at least three of us anyway.

Out for a duck

This billboard from SAFE popped up near work the other day. Normally I’m irritated by this organisation, which collects money from the public but doesn’t seem to do much for animal welfare. This poster is fairly standard SAFE hyperbole. Where did they get those numbers from? And don’t they know shotguns aren’t usually equipped with telescopic sights?

SAFE's anti duckshooting billboard
SAFE’s anti duckshooting billboard

In years past I’ve been fairly dismissive of this kind of criticism but there’s no doubt that a fair chunk of the population is becoming less tolerant of pastimes like duck shooting (where did “duck hunting” come from?). And there’s no denying that a good many ducks are left painfully injured or don’t have an especially quick death.
I grew up with duckshooting. Until I was old enough to weild a shotgun – about 12 or 13 – I would avidly follow my father around as we stalked the various farm dams, usually coming home with a few ducks that I would be left to pluck. It was a bit of a chore, but I did enjoy the last part where we singed the plucked carcasses.

Kids' work
Kids’ work

I was never a great shooter but I usually managed to bag a couple, first with our little single-barrel .410 shotgun and then with a rather elderly Damascus-barrel side-by-side shotgun that probably presented a greater risk to me than my prey. My father surprised and disappointed me one day when he admitted he didn’t particularly enjoy shooting ducks any more. I was about 15 and still bloodthirsty for small game around the farm – rabbits, hares, possums, ducks and the occasional turkey. He was in his late 40s, becoming more reflective and starting to realise that wild animals are more than just a problem to be solved.
After my parents sold their farm my opportunities for shooting pretty much disappeared. My last outing was on my cousin’s farm in the late 80s where he, my father and I did the rounds of the dams. We got half a dozen or so between us, plus an unfortunate turkey that got in our way during a quiet part of the day. It was nice to relive old times with family but it didn’t leave any of us hankering for more.

Some ill-directed shooting during my final outing
Some ill-directed shooting during my final outing

These days I find myself on the fence when it comes to the rights and wrongs of hunting. Neither side of the debate cover themselves with glory. The animal rights advocates have little understanding of the positive side of hunting – the skills learned, the enjoyment of passing traditions down the generations, the appreciation of the outdoors and of course the opportunity for a good feed if all goes well. And the hunting and fishing lobby are often both aggressive and overly defensive, lashing out at anybody or anything that might stop them exercising their birthright. They each talk past each other.
From on top of the fence, I have sympathy for both sides – to a point. I’d like those SAFE people with their fluffy rabbit costumes on street collection days to realise that humans and animals have a long, complex history that includes a predator/prey relationship that’s present in all cultures. Hunting is no longer necessary for our survival but the instinct is still hard wired into most of us. And I’d like the guys with the camo gear to realise that what they do is a privilege, not a right – to respect not only their opponents’ viewpoint but also the welfare of the birds and animals in their sights.

The demise of paper

Back in the early 80s when I was a youngish journalist in a government department, computers were just beginning to make their appearance in the office. The typing pool had been hanging on grimly to monopolise the new-fangled word processors with their floppy discs the size of long-playing records – and they really did flop – but theirs was always going to be a losing battle. The writing was on the wall. Desktop Apple computers and terminals for the glacially slow Prime mainframe started to turn up.

We were quick to seize on the limited opportunities they offered – creating our own clunky databases for example. Our system of mailed press releases was replaced with a revolutionary (for the time) system where we pumped them out via a desktop computer linked to a dedicated teleprinter network. It was also extremely expensive to set up. Our press releases clattered out happily on teleprinters in newspapers and magazines around New Zealand and for several years in the early 198os it was a wildly successful system. But it was in a technological blind alley and left behind with the arrival of faxes and then the internet and email.

If anything, productivity was probably not much better than before computers for the next decade or so. It was only when costs started to drop (our first Apple 2E at MAF cost about $14,000 in today’s money), computing speed and storage capacity improved, and of course the internet arrived, that we saw much efficiency. We had been keen to exploit whatever these new machines could do and our initial expectations were often way beyond their capacity. Nonetheless it was amazing what we could do with the eye-wateringly expensive IBM golfball typesetting machine with its 2000 character memory. It didn’t take us long to figure out – with the help of some programmers – how to code our text and send it straight for typesetting on tape or disc, thereby heralding the demise of the compositor, a trade with a long and distinguished history.

The conventional wisdom at the time was that computers would eventually make us all so productive that we’d be soon working four-day weeks and wondering what the hell to do with all our leisure time. Another expectation was that we would soon see the “paperless office”. The first prediction was laughably off target and the second has taken decades to start being realised.

It’s only now with the arrival of large-capacity, cloud-based storage and high-speed connections that it’s become safe and reliable to do away with paper records. That hit home to me a year or so ago when I shifted offices after more than 15 years in a rambling and spacious penthouse. I tossed trailer-loads of paper records, old print samples and the like – truth be told I hadn’t accessed them for years. I haven’t missed them a bit.

The demise of offset print  was widely predicted from the mid 1990s as the internet began to spread its tentacles and digital print arrived, but again it’s taken a few years to bite. It’s starting to happen now, though, and we’re seeing some painful contraction happening in the print industry. Those who are nimble enough to reduce costs and capture the diminishing amount of print work are surviving, but many smaller and mid-size printers have gone. We are also seeing some large-scale casualties with over-geared companies that have expanded too fast and been overly aggressive with their price cutting. The GFC hasn’t helped, but shrinkage in the print industry was always going to happen sooner or later. It’s hard to know if and when the industry will stabilise, but it’s not a good time to have money invested in the print business.

My worry is that we could reach at tipping point where large, multi-service print businesses can no longer survive. As print buyers we’ll lose choice and the benefits of economy of scale that these companies now offer and that would be a shame. My morning paper is gradually getting thinner, I get as much of my news via my iPad these days as I do reading the paper, and I read most books that on the tablet too. Right now we’re spoiled for choice about how and when we access information, but the extinction of cheap paper-based communication could pose real challenges. The question is – should we be subsidising the print industry and accept higher (or at least flat) costs to ensure it doesn’t collapse entirely?


Seeking perfection

Being a writer and editor/subeditor can be something of a burden when it comes to being a consumer of other people’s work in journalism.

Too often it’s easy to get distracted by an errant apostrophe, Oxford comma or clumsy sentence instead of just sitting back and appreciating what’s been written or said. Who could resist taking a friendly dig at the hapless TV3 journalist who reported a motel had been “exterminated” after a bed bug infestation. Or the former TV presenter appearing on a large billboard spruiking carpets with the priceless “If your thinking about new carpet…”

It’s all good fun, but none of us is immune to editorial stuff-ups. While we can get a good laugh at the expense of our colleagues we all secretly dread the day when we let slip our own clanger.

Some people get very angry about poor standards of written and spoken language while others can be rather mean. For example there is a Facebook page dedicated to picking up errors and unintentional humour on the Stuff website. Needless to say they have plenty of material to work with. My own favourite from recent days was the juxtaposition of these two headlines: “Raw milk market revives faith in nutritious food”, followed closely by “Campylobacter outbreak linked to raw milk”. To be fair to the Fairfax staffers, there must be incredible pressure to keep the Stuff site refreshed with new material, although I do despair at the heavy bias towards lightweight celebrity gossip stories – perhaps ideal fodder for people enjoying a sneaky mini-break from work.

Should we care about standards of writing in the wider domain? Yes and no. 

Those of us who write and edit for a living certainly have a duty to maintain good standards, while keeping an open mind about the evolution of punctuation, grammar and usage. Given the huge volumes of wordage churned out today by journalists, marketers, advertisers and others it’s surprising that their output is not riddled with more errors. But I’m not one for just giving up on certain conventions (not using apostrophes is plurals for example) simply because so many people get it wrong.

Some would argue that there has been a sharp, recent decline in the ability of the younger generation to express themselves accurately and clearly, be it in print or via the spoken word. I don’t think that’s true. If TradeMe had been around 50 years ago, I reckon the mangled English we see in today’s online forums would have been just as bad then as now. But 50 years ago the best written communications technology available to most was a typewriter and a landline. Relatively few people typed and those who did were fairly well trained with a good eye for detail. Since the democratisation of the keyboard in the past 30-40 years we see a much more representative sampling of people’s literacy in the public domain than ever before.

I had a conversation with a primary school teacher about the use of apostrophes. “Oh no!” she said. “We don’t teach those any more. We just tell the kids not to use them at all, because that way they won’t make any mistakes!” That conversation was 20 years ago. Further back, I have family letters dating from over a century ago. They’re littered with punctuation and spelling errors, although as far as I know my granny was a well brought-up and educated young woman. Plus ca change.

For a bit more on why we all get so exercised about grammar there’s this good article on the, er, Stuff website (well, okay, they borrowed it from their brothers and sisters at the Sydney Morning Herald…)