Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thursday, February 19, 2009: Fair and balanced edition

Sorry for the late post today; I blame the humidity.

Fair and balanced #1: For too long tenants have been repressing landlords, so it's about time that the new government did something to "make the balance more even". That is the position Anne Gibson, property editor, takes on the front page today, heralding (no pun intended) the National government's changes to a Labour bill on tenancy law. Specifically, Housing Minister Phil Heatley is aiming at scrapping proposals that would "limit tenant liability for property damage, pay for professional tenant advocates in Tenancy Tribunal hearings and ban real estate agents from charging letting fees" - proposals that, according to the Herald, were "some of the ... most controversial of the previous government's time in power." That's funny, I was a tenant and I never heard of them. Hmm.

Anyway, Ms Gibson reports that "concerns had been raised about some provisions of the bill". Who raised these concerns, I don't know, because she refuses to tell us, but I suspect it may have something to do with Andrew King, of the Auckland Property Investor's Association - an unbiased lobby group seeking to ensure equitable relationships between tenants and landlords (not really). Mr King is interviewed at length, as is the minister, but Helen Gatonyi, a tenant advocate, gets two short (and weak) paragraphs - with a last-word rebuttal from Mr King - and the Labour spokesperson, assuming there is one at the moment in that fiasco of a party, gets nothing at all. Mr Heatley is "concerned that some specific provisions may deter future provision of private rental housing." I'm not certain why this explains the reintroduction of so-called letting fees, but I guess the property editor knows best.

I'm not an idiot. I know that newspapers have demographics, and that in, say, Britain, this kind of article would fit right into the Daily Telegraph. But the point is that in Britain you don't have to read the Telegraph - you can read the Times or the Independent or the Guardian or the Daily Sport or whatever it is that matches with your prejudices. The Herald, in terms of a major daily newspaper, is all we have - and as such it wields a lot of power over how people perceive issues. Most people here don't think, as they would in Britain, "Oh, well that newspaper would say that." I firmly believe that, if National's changes in the proposed tenancy law are justified then there is no need for Fox News-style weasel words like "concerns have been raised" or "proposals are seen as less pro-tenant" rather than 'more pro-landlord', and something approaching equal time can be given to supporters and opponents of the legislation. Is that really too much to ask?

Listen to your mother: "Baby boom goes against mothers' advice" says the headline on the front page. For the sixth year in a row, says Statistics NZ, the proportion of teenage girls having babies rose, and Mansoor Khawaja, the chief demographer has this to say: "I reckon [always an indicator of sound advice] they just didn't agree with their mothers." But ask the mothers themselves and they tell a different story. "I'm stuck with one and it was a total accident. I wasn't really thinking to rebel," says 18-year-old Emily Collins. Meanwhile, a Waikato university demography professor says, "We haven't really got a massive trend, and we are really looking at the tea leaves trying to work out what is going on." Definitely a rebellion going on. Meanwhile, the end of the article links increasing birth rates to payouts to new mothers, paid parental leave, increases in family assistance and a buoyant economy. I suppose that "More babies - not sure why" doesn't make a particularly catchy headline.

How to fill your newspaper: Newsflash! - something may or may not have happened! That is the gist of the story taking up the top half of A3 today. To be fair to the Herald, it seems that something actually did happen - it just wasn't very interesting:

* The time: last night.
* The place: Zion Wildlife Gardens, near Whangarei.
* The thing: wild animal bites man a bit.
* The unrelated story used by the Herald to pad out a nothing article: The ups and downs of TV's "Lion Man", who used to work there but doesn't anymore and he wasn't very good at running a zoo but it apparently made for entertaining TV and then got convicted of beating up his wife "after he found her in bed with a man and a woman".

So anyway, the Herald somehow heard about this event. They called the park, where "an office manager who said her name was Bridget [or was it??]" denied any attack. St John have no record, they say, of any ambulance being called to the park. A possible cover up? "Police were not involved," meaning that the vicious lion (or tiger!) could still be on our streets, ready to strike again. I await the outcry from the Sensible Sentencing Trust. But, thanks to the Herald's intrepid reporting, the truth came out. A doctor at the local hospital confirmed that a man had been admitted after being bitten on the knee by "a large cat". How large, he does not say, allowing us all room for wild speculation. Anyway, it's a happy ending - the man is in a stable condition.

Of course, that story didn't take up much space; so Elizabeth Binning, police reporter (despite the police being "not involved"!) has to improvise with the story of the trials and tribulations of the lovable "Lion Man". But imagine the sub-editor's dismay when the story came in at only 422 words! Ever resourceful, he or she came up with the perfect answer: pictures. So a picture twice the size of the article graces the page, showing two lions with something to hide. Another picture shows a sign saying "Zion Wildlife Gardens - 1km on right", despite the arrow clearly pointing left. The plot thickens. All I can say is that, in this story, no one comes out looking good.

Fair and balanced #2: If there is one issue that is consistently well reported, it is drug policy - the public "debate" on drugs makes the "open debate" on teen suicide seem like a talkback show about the haka. (Too obscure? Sorry. I just mean drug policy is not very well debated.) The drug policy symposium that caused such a fuss last week began yesterday, with Associate Health Minister and big Editing the Herald fan Peter Dunne making it crystal-meth-clear, as if it weren't already, that the government would not be relaxing laws on cannabis or any other drug. Now, that's fine - no government, and certainly no conservative government, ever won votes by 'going soft' on drugs.

What is less tolerable is the weak, weak reporting on the issue. "Too many mental health problems, respiratory diseases and social issues related [sic] to cannabis for the Government to consider legalising it," NZPA reported Dunne as saying. Mental health problems, eh? Such as? Oh, you don't actually have anything? Ok, well, I'm a reporter so I'm just going forget about it. The other two speakers the article quotes are the Deputy Police Commissioner - guess what he thinks - and Sandeep Chawla, the United Nations director of policy analysis and public affairs at the Office of Drugs and Crime. He has some interesting things to say. "International efforts had held illicit drug use to less than 5 per cent of the world adult population", which sounds like just the kind of bogus, unverifiable claim one would expect from one of the world's top bureaucrats. "...Opium cultivation and production has been limited to just one or two countries in the main", although one of those countries (Afghanistan) has been growing it on pretty much every square metre of its soil. Economies of scale, Sandeep! Most humorously, "he said that containment did not mean the problem had been solved, and a thriving black market in drugs had emerged." Oh dear, I wonder why a black market emerged. Anyway, rant over. I look forward to tomorrow, when presumably other speakers will balance out those three, and be fully and responsibly reported in the Herald. Amirite?

Naive claim of the day: From the Herald editorial on the repeal of the Electoral Finance Act: "Corporate donors probably do not contribute to political parties for any other reason than to see that the country is soundly governed."

Inaccurate headline of the day: "Better health care adds 6 years to life". From the article itself: "A Ministry of Health study has found that Kiwis are living six years longer than 25 years ago, with two of the extra years due to better health services."

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