HARD NEWS 24/8/01 - The News Without the News

Published: Fri 24 Aug 2001 01:07 PM
Approved: Kiwifruit
Subject: HARD NEWS 24/8/01 - The News Without the News
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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES - a community rises in anger, crowding the local hall to demand justice and jobs for its children. People call each other stupid and gutless - and that's just the politicians. Yes, the West Coast is back in the news.
And what news it is. On Monday night, TV One News led with Conservation minister Sandra Lee's rejection of an application by the Australian mining company GRD Macraes to double the size of its access agreement to mine gold in the hills near Reefton.
Or that was the theory, anyway. In the course of what was loosely referred to as a news story, Mark Sainsbury failed to tell his audience: who had made the application, what they were applying to do, that the land concerned was a conservation park, or on what basis the application had been rejected. Even the apparently key information of the name of the town at the centre of the story was only slipped into the last line of the report.
What we were told - repeatedly - was that the Labour MP for the West Coast, Damien O'Connor, had described Lee's decision as "stupid" and "gutless" and that Lee, "speaking out for the first time" was "backing her decision". Well, you'd hardly expect her to oppose it, would you?
There followed a brief parade of the usual suspects: Jenny Shipley declaring it an outrage, Helen Clark explaining that letting Damien O'Connor nut off was part of the deal and Sandra Lee getting the odd word in.
We might have been told that the official O'Connor was implying led the minister astray was former Forest and Bird chief Kevin Smith, who now works in Lee's department. We might have been told that Macraes has had all necessary consents to proceed with its original project - indeed, it has done so since 1995. Hell, we might even have been shown what an opencast mine looks like, or refreshed on their history - pretty clean in Otago, dirty, toxic and dangerous in Coromandel.
TV3 news viewers got much of that - but the state broadcaster was simply abysmal. It got no better when, the following night in Reefton, I understand that a Holmes reporter tried to get the locals to make a lot of noise as the programme crossed live to their meeting. To their credit, they refused. For God's sake, these are citizens, not a gameshow audience.
So what's the guts?
Well, it's not like they're starving on the Coast. Quite apart from the receipt of a $120 million development grant, the West Coast economy is booming off the back of tourism and dairy farming - which just happen to be the two industries most critically reliant on the perception of New Zealand as a clean, green place. That's not just supposition - it's market research carried out by the Ministry of the Environment and released this week.
This boom, however, reflects the Tasman economy as much as the Coast's - and it applies rather less to Reefton than anywhere else. Reefton is off the main drag, has few particular tourist charms and is, in fact, a town built on extraction of timber and minerals. It used to be a mighty town: the first place in the southern hemisphere to enjoy electric street lights. If I lived there, I'd fret about it slipping away too.
But I struggle to understand the idea that an Australian mining company has the god-given right to come in, exploit conservation land owned by the New Zealand people - all of us - and then ship out when the gold's gone, leaving behind 120 million tonnes of tailings, containing arsenic and heavy metals. It will be sealed, but this is a location that was subject to the biggest earthquake to strike New Zealand in my lifetime. You can't say it is without risk.
That's why outdoor recreation and fishing organisations - populated by real men, not Grey Lynn greenies - rushed this week to congratulate the minister. And apart from anything else, Macraes has said that even if it can't change the minister's mind, it will proceed with its original, smaller plan, which will provide nearly as many jobs. Indeed, I look forward to a news reporter asking Macraes why, when they've had the consents for six years, they don't just get on with it.
Onto other matters: a couple of months ago, the Leader of the Opposition, Jenny Shipley, met with the new members of the Human Rights Commission. She told them that even though they were fine people and quite probably the best people for the job, they could expect to be targeted by the National Party, because they were in a spot where National perceived the government to be vulnerable. Bad luck, but there was politics to be done here.
Shipley presumably didn't expect one of the commissioners to make things quite so easy. That one was Ella Henry, who, in June wrote a letter to a policeman who had nabbed her partner driving her car through an orange light near a school crossing. The policeman's letter seemed a bit over the top - threatening a $10,000 fine if she didn't name the man driving her car. Her reply was just as silly.
She accused the officer of picking on her partner only because he was brown-skinned - and enclosed her business card as a human rights commissioner. Bad move. She subsequently apologised by letter to the officer concerned and offered to meet with him personally, but the police have said they consider the matter closed.
Not quite - in fact, it's all over Holmes and the Herald and Shipley has been demanding her resignation. Why, says Shipley, National's former deputy speaker Ian Revell resigned under similar circumstances in 1999, didn't he?
Again, not quite: Revell didn't just write a dumb letter and then think better of it - he conducted a correspondence in which he threatened the North Shore police superintendent with dismissal when his contract ended and even - amazingly - pressured the Minister of Police to intervene. Over what? A parking fine. Ella Henry might have been just as daft, but you'd have to say when it comes to arrogance there's nothing to touch a Tory.
I should note clearly here that I know Ella and I have worked with her. She is one of the kindest and most capable people I know. She has life experience that most of us - let alone Jenny Shipley - could barely conceive of. She has tendered her resignation, and the government, in the interests of damage control, will probably accept it. To say that it's all a shame is an understatement.
Anyway, apparently it wasn't the chicken thing that got Havoc pulled off air last week - although points to Sue Kedgley for trying to cash in - and I'll resist the temptation get any further up TV2's nose by speculating on who or what was the cause. New Zealand's favourite half hour, or 45 minutes, actually, of television will be back in a couple of weeks, chooks and all - and so, boys and girls, will be the show they call Back of the Y Masterpiece Television. I wonder whether the Lucy Lawless bit will make the cut?
Jolly good then. Staying with TVNZ, Murray McCully appears to have turned over the fetid earth covering the sweet little deals the state broadcaster's top executives designed for themselves before the election. This has been rumour for a long time.
Yes, it's golden parachutes all round, with $5 million in exit payments to be triggered if the commercial focus of TVNZ is changed in unspecified ways. What the hell was the then TVNZ board thinking? McCully is gamely insisting that the executives had every right to look after their own interests and that the scandal is that the current government introduced a charter when it ought to have known that TVNZ senior management had arranged to raid the till if it did so.
Apparently, holding voters and taxpayers to ransom is okay these days. Can anybody else think of a business where the management treats its shareholder in such a fashion? Well, not one where the management is still the management, anyway. What was that I said last week about Jonestown? - G'bye!

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