Wednesday, February 26, 2020
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Brian Edwards Redefines Current Affairs Television: Or, How the ‘Fearless Interrogator’ Learned to Giggle.



EVERY YEAR the Catholic and Anglican dioceses of Auckland run a Lenten Studies Series. The theme for 2013 was “Recovering the Common Good”. Invited to participate in one of the four scheduled panel discussions, I was pleasantly surprised, upon turning up last Wednesday evening, to find the old wooden church adjoining Holy Trinity Cathedral close to two-thirds full. It was reassuring to discover that “The Common Good” still packs some pulling power.

Perhaps it was the lingering after-effects of two hours spent discussing the notion of the common good that made me respond so negatively to Dr Brian Edwards’ recent posting on the state of current affairs journalism in New Zealand.

Dr Edwards begins his posting with a brief definition of what current affairs journalism used to be about:

“Current affairs programmes were essentially programmes about politics or issues with a strong political content. On shows like Compass and Gallery we talked to and about politicians and political issues.”

This was “serious” current affairs journalism, said Dr Edwards, distinguishable by its format: “which essentially mean[t] long studio interviews with politicians or lengthy studio debates between politicians. Being entertained was relevant to those viewers only insofar as the disembowelling of politicians was entertaining and new. Our early heroes were Robin Day and David Frost; today we bow down before “Hardtalk’s” Stephen Saccur”.

There was little to object to in these introductory paragraphs – except the tone. Far from validating his readers’ appreciation of current affairs as it was practiced in the days when he was justifiably feted as New Zealand’s leading broadcaster, Dr Edwards was inviting his readers to join him in constructing a straw man.

A straw man he could hardly wait to demolish.

“‘Serious’ is our other favourite word”, wrote Dr Edwards, inflecting the plural possessive with just the right note of populist disdain, “which is why Seven Sharp does not and cannot qualify in our philosophy as a current affairs programme. Those people are having far too much fun. Giggling and current affairs are incompatible.”

It was at this point that Dr Edwards set about his straw man with gusto.

“Can you see where I’m going with this? Can you detect a change in the air? Well, you’re right. You see, I’ve come to accept that there’s been a recent redefinition of what we mean by ‘current affairs’, a more inclusive, more democratic interpretation of the term. And that it’s a good thing. ‘Current affairs’ is no longer exclusively about politics, no longer confined to the ‘serious’ or ‘discursive’ studio interview or lengthy documentary. ‘Current affairs’ now includes anything that is of general public interest though not necessarily in the public interest.”

And that was that. In a single paragraph, Dr Edwards bade farewell to his decades-long association with current affairs broadcasting undertaken for “the common good” and announced his conversion to the sort of television that gets produced when a television network decides it’s no longer committed to making or broadcasting prime-time current affairs journalism.

Dr Edwards uses words like “inclusive” and “democratic” to describe this new kind of programme. Crucially, he draws a distinction between matters “of public interest” and matters “in the public interest”.

So did the Roman Caesars.

But there is a huge difference between the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus and what the German political-sociologist, Jurgen Habermas calls the “public sphere”.

The former were certainly places where the masses gathered to be entertained. And, underlying all the excitement there certainly was an implicit political message concerning the unanswerable might of the Senate and People of Rome. There was, however, nothing remotely “inclusive” about the pure spectacle of the chariot races. And only if you conceive of democracy in terms of giving the “thumbs-up” or the “thumbs-down” to your favourite gladiator could the Roman Games possibly be called “democratic”.

Habermas’s “public sphere” is a very different place. It is where free citizens come to listen and talk to one another. The place where they actively review (if I may borrow the language of Catholic social teaching) “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily”. A place to define, develop and preserve “the common good”.

The short way of saying all that is: The “public sphere” is that democratic space where citizens engage in politics.

And that was the space in which Dr Edwards used to do his best work. A space created and (most importantly) defended by a licence-fee-funded (at least partly) and editorially independent (at least theoretically) public television network.

However imperfectly, the NZBC, and later Television New Zealand, attempted to bring the nation’s politicians and the nation’s voters together in a place where questions could be asked and answered; issues examined; policies critiqued. A space where broadcasters, acting on their behalf, were free to extract and present the information New Zealand citizens needed to hold the powerful to account.

In that honourable and unquestionably democratic role, Dr Edwards had few peers. Whether it was on Compass, Gallery, The Dean/Edwards Show or Fair Go, this highly intelligent man, with his lilting Irish brogue, had been our prosecutor, our elucidator, our “fearless interrogator”. The people’s man: champion of the common good.

To see Dr Edward’s conflate Caesar’s (a.k.a the all-powerful, neoliberal, market-driven economy’s) circuses with the intelligent, democratic, current affairs journalism he personified for so many years, was nothing less than tragic.

And all the proof you’ll ever need that giggling and current affairs are, indeed, “incompatible.”

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US military gives credence to Pacific climate change concerns



                  The worst drought in 70 years of records has renewed the focus in the media over whether these conditions might be related to climate change. At an estimated cost of $2 billion to the economy, the implications of the drought are huge for an industry which forms one of the primary sectors of our exports.  While Joyce and English have light-footed around the issue, the Greens have argued that the National Party are not taking climate change seriously enough at detriment to our farmers.  English fueled the Greens’ argument through his statement in the House last week that similar arguments on climate change had been made in Australia, and it had not stopped raining for the last five years. Unfortunately for English, he had overlooked the fact that Australia has been in drought for the last four years. Grilled by Corin Dann on Q+A on this gaffe, English produced some deft political sound bite maneuvering to shift his answer from focusing on climate change to focusing on the $500 million dedicated towards cleaning up waterways. While cleaning up waterways is great news, the Ministry for the Environment has predicted in their modelling that droughts are going to be more frequent, signalling that it is in New Zealand’s interest to think about the ongoing impact of climate change. Yet listening to the National Party leadership, climate change is often positioned as something that only environmentalists worry about.

While this article in the National Business Review somehow interpreted English not answering on climate change as leading on climate change, the issue of climate change is far less contentious than how it is often presented in the media. With 97% of publishing, peer-reviewed scientists agreeing that climate change is due to human activity (source: NASA), the arguments against it are often based on myth. It is not unusual to hear such myths bandied around as the temperature has not risen for the last 17 years, and the notion that because some parts of the world are cooling global warming is dismissed as an overall trend. Such myths propagate from the way that science is always interpreted through the lens of the social, an area that has received much more attention in literature since Bruno Latour and Thomas Kuhn paved the way for frameworks that examine how the reception of science is often based less on fact and more around the way that it taps or butts against notions of social consensus. Climate change and how we deal with it has also been influenced by the demands of industry, which has been based on the previous paradigm of exploiting resources, making it a touchy issue where legislation (such as carbon taxes) impact on the bottom line. This, together with confusion over the journalistic values of balance (which sees the skeptic side elevated despite broader scientific consensus) has clouded the issue. Moreover, climate change as an issue that requires nation state cooperation often butts against the internal interests of the nation state in requiring a much more global cooperation that transcends geopolitical factions.

Yet if it is not taken seriously in New Zealand, and often paraded as myth in the US media, there are indications that the defense industries are taking the IPCC’s predictions with much more weight. James Clapper is the current Director of National Intelligence and most senior security advisor to President Obama, overseeing 16 intelligence agencies. In the 2013 World Threat Assessment Report, Clapper trots out the usual geopolitical threats to US interests while highlighting the impact that climate change will have on migration and conflict. Clapper’s views reiterate that of the US Commander of the Pacific Navy, Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, who states that climate change is the biggest threat facing the Pacific. This threat, he argues, has led the US Navy to look at scenarios where they may have to work with China and India to manage the effects of climate change on populations. This news will not come as any surprise to anyone who follows US military policy. Since 2010, the Pentagon has had much more emphasis on the role of climate change and the pressure it places on resources to exacerbate conflicts.  The Pentagon estimated in 2010 that more than 30 US military bases are at risk from sea levels rising and the instability caused by climate change led weather effects. In 2008, the Center for a New American Security conducted climate war games set in the year 2015 with 45 scientists and national security analysts from Asia, South Asia, Europe and America in an attempt to see how nations might collaborate to deal with escalating conflicts from climate change effects.

The focus from the US military should signal to the New Zealand government that while climate change threats are often taken as marginal by the media and the public, the science is entering the mainstream. This should not be taken as the need to secure ourselves against our Pacific neighbours  – as this article from the AUT Pacific Media Centre shows, the Pacific Islands that surround us want to hold onto their sovereign nations and waters rather than migrating. However, in the context of looking at the ongoing impact of a greater frequency of drought, the notion of climate change needs to move to the centre of our discussions rather than remaining at the periphery.

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Peter Jackson wants to direct a Dr Who episode – how will NZ taxpayers get conned?


Peter Jackson’s Darleks at a select committee meeting this month arguing for a limitation of unionized labour

Peter Jackson wants to direct a Dr Who movie episode meaning it will be 5 hours long with non-unionized Dalek’s rewriting our labour laws.

After the manufactured crisis at the Hobbit where Jackson and Key pretended the union’s demand to be treated fairly was a reason to give Warner Bros millions in corporate welfare, I’m not sure what I’m expecting Peter Jackson’s Daleks to scream out…

“Terminate contract! Terminate contract!”

“Exacerbate union frictions! Exacerbate union frictions!”

“Contaminate public good will! Contaminate public good will!”

“Impersonate good faith bargaining! Impersonate good faith bargaining!”

“Exaggerate union demands! Exaggerate union demands!”

“Disseminate false information! Disseminate false information!”

“Instigate anti-union hysteria! Instigate anti-union hysteria!”

“Incriminate Helen Kelly! Incriminate Helen Kelly!”

“Discriminate against workers! Discriminate against workers!”

“Eradicate union rights! Eradicate union rights!”

“Masturbate all over our labour laws! Masturbate all over our labour laws!”

etc etc.

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Why ‘Argo’ is a lie


The publicity surrounding Argo takes me back to `the Deerhunter`, a 1978 film about a trio of Russian-American steelworkers from Pennsylvania and their infantry service in Vietnam. In an improbable scene Michael `Mike` Vronsky (Robert De Niro), Steven Pushkov (John Savage) and Nikonar `Nick` Chevotaevich (Christopher Walken) are forced by their Vietcong captors to play Russian roulette. Stephen plays against Mike and loses control of the gun as it discharges. Stephen is then imprisoned in an underwater cage containing rats and the bodies of previously killed US soldiers. Mike and Nick overpower/shoot their captors and rescue Steven. After many escapades Steven and Mike make it back to Clairton, their home town in Pennyslvania. Nick is rescued by helicopter and recuperates in a Saigon military hospital with partial brain damage. In 1975 his friends revisit Saigon and find Nick in a crowded club. In an improbable Russian roulette scenario with Mike, Nick shoots himself fatally. Back in Clairton the funeral service is followed by remiscences at the local bar. As the film ends, Mike toasts in Nick`s honour and everyone sings `God bless America`.

The Deerhunter won five academy awards including best picture, best Director(Michael Cimino) and best supporting actor (Christopher Walken). These accolades validated what Time magazine called the `new patriotism`. Many Americans had been perplexed by a war which had fuelled anti-Americanism abroad and social division at home. In these circumstances Cimino`s film was a cathartic portrayal of human savagery,suffering and courage. Such was the reality of armed conflict. John Wayne style patriotism was out of place. Yet,as John Pilger has noted, such a construction was premised on a lie. Excluded from view was the wars most brutal aspect, the US bombing campaign. Across North Vietnam, Laos and eastern Cambodia thousands upon thousands of civilians were killed or maimed. Landscapes became moonscapes, entire ecosystems were poisoned.

The Deerhunter`s humanist credentials were also a deceit. Film reviewer Pauline Kael wrote `the impression a viewer gets is that if we did some bad things there we did them ruthlessly and impersonally, the Vietcong were cruel and sadistic`.

Well, as it happened, the new patriotism was eventually overshadowed by the Iranian hostage crisis. Valour gave way to humiliation as blindfolded US embassy officials were paraded on screen. The feeling was compounded by the failure of a military rescue mission. Two of the eight aircraft involved crashed, eight American servicemen and one Iranian civilian died.

Argo downplays this debacle with the (relatively) true story of a daring escape involving six American embassy staff and an unorthodox CIA agent named Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck). As the US embassy is seized six staff escape to the Canadian ambassadors residence where they are sheltered, fearful of capture and execution. Meanwhile, Tony Mendez devises an outrageous escape plan with two Hollywood hucksters, film producer Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin) and make up artist John C hambers (John Goodman). As part of the mission the hidden embassy staff would pretend to be a Canadian film crew in Iran, scouting locations for `Argo` a low budget never-to-be-made science fiction epic. Then, with fake Canadian passports they would fly out from the airport under the noses of the Iranian revolutionary guard. However, Mendez is told that his operation has been cancelled to avoid conflict with a planned rescue of the embassy hostages. His superiors are persuaded to reobtain reservations for the escapees` Swiss air flight. At Tehran airport, after a tense confrontation, reservations are confirmed and the plane is boarded at the last minute, just as the revolutionary guards uncover the ruse. They try, unsuccessfully, to stop the plane getting off the runway.

We then get queasy, patriotic schmaltz. Tony reunites with his partner and is secretly decorated for bravery. Justice and the American way prevails. The planned military rescue mission thus becomes a backstory, its tragic failure never raising a mention in the film.

Local concerns about Argo`s mis-representations have been well canvassed. In Affleck`s version of history New Zealand, the United Kingdom and other countries refused to habour the fugitive US officials. Former New Zealand embassy worker Maureen Campbell-White has provided a contrary, first person account. She recalls that when travelling in the Turkoman steppes with colleagues, two American`s were picked up and temporarily hidden in the New Zealand embassy back in Tehran. Furthermore, New Zealand`s then ambassador Chris Beeby and second secretary Richard Sewell secretly provided food and beer for those hiding out with the Canadians. Winston Peter`s outrage at Affleck`s omissions is perfectly understandable. How dare he blacken New Zealand`s unassailable reputation for courage, mateship and hospitality!

We have one consolation though, Argo`s inaccuracies and omissions are enough to offend many other nationalities. My research indicates that the US embassy officials were initially sheltered by the British before the Canadians stepped in. The film`s portrayal of the six Americans in a Tehran bazaar rehearsing their fake identities never happened. The airport confrontation with the Iranian revolutionary guards never happened, Tony Mendez and the six escapees were not questioned or detained. The climactic car chase by armed Iranians pursuing the jetliner lifting the Americans to safety never happened either, they lifted off without a hitch.

Overall, the film belittles Canada`s role in the rescue mission, an observation recently shared by Jimmy Carter, American President at the time. `I was taken aback by its distortion of what happened. Because almost everything that was courageous or innovative was done by Canada not the United States`.

Behind these and other distortions is the really big lie; the misrepresentation of Iranians and of America`s role in their history .

The film started promisingly with vivid cartoon storyboards of the infamous Mossadegh coup of 1953. As indicated, British and American diplomats/intelligence officials helped local conspirators to depose the Iranian Prime Minister before he could nationalise oil reserves. British and American oil interests trumped the principles of national sovereignty and economic democracy. Omitted from the story boards, however, was the US ambassador`s participation in the actual overthrow, the role of US military advisors and the use of assasinations to destabilise Mossadegh`s government.

A subsequent `Argo` storyboard reveals a torture scene as a voiceover recounts the brutality of SAVAK, the Shah`s secret police force. True enough, but one should also note that SAVAK also operated abroad. On European and American campuses Iranian students were spied upon by the compatriots for evidence of anti-Shah behaviour. Opponents of the regime were `disappeared` when they returned home. Domestically, SAVAK was socially pervasive and about as popular as the Stasi in East Germany, hence the vicious reprisals following the Shah`s overthrow.

This contextual observation is absent from Affleck`s film. Depictions of the US embassy seizure and the hostage crisis were extremely misleading. Yes, the hostages were mistreated, their mock executions attesting to this travesty of international law. However,the scenes of Iranian students rejoining shredded embassy documents were never properly explained. They weren`t only trying to build pictures of the missing embassy officials. More fundamentally, the students were looking for evidence of collusion among the CIA,SAVAK and US diplomats and of collusion between US diplomats and certain factions within the new Iranian government. As Robert Fisk has pointed out Iranian suspicions were eventually confirmed, the embassy really was a` nest of spies` and the Shah`s regime really was an instrument of American imperialism.

At this point let me say that I am no friend of Shi`ite fundamentalism, you can put me in the same category as those Iranian leftists who supported the revolution but were suspicious of the clerics. Can I also say that Iranians as a people are appallingly treated by this film. There is no such character of any depth, just storyboard stereotypes – Islamic crazies, robotic propagandists, crowd figures, unnamed execution victims. Those Iranians who opposed the Shah AND the new clerical autocracy are excised from history. For the record, four main left groupings were on the front line – Fedaii, the Mojahedin, Pekyak and the Tudeh party. There were splits, some trusted the new regime initially, others were always suspicious. Many were killed, imprisoned and driven into exile. All of their experiences have been rendered invisible by Hollywood.

Already I can hear people saying `it’s only a film, chill out`. Well this defence doesn`t wash because `Argo` uses documentary style techniques which are suggestive of historical authenticity. The opening voiceover authoritatively recalls important events preceding the revolution. Actual footage of the captured hostages, President Carter and popular anger across the United States lends credibility to Argo`s narrative. And, the end credits present official looking postcripts for the people portrayed by the main actors.

As of now, Argo`s jaundice comports with the American/orientalist stereotype of Iran as a crazed Islamic theocracy intent upon acquiring nuclear weapons. This strengthens fundamentalist elements in Iran and makes conflict involving Iran, Israel and the United States more rather than less likely. In which case there could be another humiliation in store similar to the one that followed `the Deerhunter` back in 1979.

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In the wake of the Devoy appointment – HRC to see 20-30% redundancies



Our most important watchdog, the Human Rights Commission is about to announce cut backs of between 20%-30% reducing it to a lap dog.

This news could come as soon as next week.

The boof National appointed to the HRC in September 2011, David Rutherford, has completed his scalping plans and the defanging is set to begin. Not content with stacking the Human Rights Commission with rugby-heads like Rutherford, National have appointed multivitamin spokesperson Susan Devoy to Race Relations, and ACT acolyte Ken Shirley, religiously conservative Ravi Musuku and homophobe Brian Neeson to the Human Rights Review Tribunal.

Not a critical or intellectually enlightened mind amongst them.

Hardly glorified guardians of human rights are they? More a team of human wrongs.

And this strangulation of funding to limit the ability of our watchdogs to guard against Government abuse is a tactic we see agains and again from this Government.

Public Broadcasting is supposed to be a watchdog, but by re-defining talent shows and lite entertainment as public broadcasting we mutilate the concept into cheap advertising filler to numb and distract rather than engage and challenge. Combine this redefined Circus Maximus content equation to cutting back on public broadcasting funding and the political appointment of John Key’s electorate chair onto NZ on Air into the mix, and we have a public broadcasting watchdog that has been neutered and muzzled.

John Armstrong (hardly someone you would call a woolly socialist) pointed out what underfunding the Ombudsman is doing to slow unchecked political power. Slowing our Ombudsman watchdog to a snail’s pace could be considered an oversight, but when linked to the exact same resourcing problem at the Office of the Judicial Conduct Commissioner and we get a picture of two of our highest placed watchdogs so squeezed for funding that they can’t afford to bark.

The job losses at the Human Rights Commission will see a hollowing out of staff and critical thinkers. Our country will be a lesser place because of this.

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Appearing on Native Affairs 8.30pm tonight



I will be on the best current affairs show in NZ, Native Affairs tonight at 8.30pm on Maori Television alongside Marama Davidson and Claudette Hauiti debating the appointment of Dame Susan Devoy as the Race Relations Commissioner.

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The dirty truth of Charter Schools



To no-one’s surprise the Ombudsman has found that John Banks, the ‘official’ champion of charter schools (yeah, right – another story), had withheld information without valid reason, including:

‘Charter schools would get money for set up costs and property funding that their private-sector backers would be able to keep if a school folded.’

Excuse me? Overseas corporates will get paid to set up regimes to enable them to take profits from New Zealand children? Risk free and taxpayer funded? Warner Bros deal, with added extras? Heard of the Robertson Foundation?

“The Robertson Foundation is one of the new breed of so-called ‘philanthrocapitalists’, private sector investment funds and trusts that view charity not as altruistic giving, but as just another  business investment opportunity to influence government policy and the delivery of public education. And, to do so by lobbying behind closed doors, completely outside the democratic process.’ (John Minto)

Ring any bells for you?

However the underlying issue isn’t so much as charter schools and shady deals, but the government’s overall education agenda.

There is no problem with New Zealand education, other than those imposed by politicians and the unseen influences behind them.

There wasn’t any problem with New Zealand education in 1987 either, but then, as now, problems were created – a standard disaster capitalism technique, through using or creating a ‘crisis’ to justify privatisation.

National standards have been, and still are, the government’s trump card in justifying ‘reform.’

It is vital to their agenda that these standards are manipulated to show two things: New Zealand schools have been failing to lift ‘achievement’ and that National’s policies since 2009 have started to address this.

Over the last few months a disturbing trend has become apparent. In order to explain this, it is first necessary to review the national standards processes that are in presently in place – apologies if the next section gets technical.

Readers may not be aware that back in 1999, the then Minister of Education, Nick Smith, had signaled, in a never-to-be forgotten and truly mind boggling rant at the NZEI Annual Meeting, that national testing would be developed should National win the 1999 election. Seems a mother he met at the local market had complained about not knowing how her kids were doing at school…

Since National lost the election, we were spared the testing regime, only for a variation to reappear in 2009. Same agenda, different delivery.

This variation chose to establish ‘national standards’ of achievement in literacy and numeracy for all public school children commencing from the end of the first three years of schooling, and for each level from year 4 onwards. It is has never been explained why these have been deemed as not necessary for private schools and now charter schools.

The very short time frame for the development of national standards, combined with their dubious educational value, resulted in considerable fall out in the Ministry of Education. This led to the departures of many of the key people behind the development of the New Zealand Curriculum, and, presumably, their replacement by more compliant staff.

Recent news about problems within the Ministry is not surprising. Guess there’s a price to pay for demanding adherence to politically imposed and educationally suspect policies.

Given the decision not to test children, the government chose to require all classroom teachers to ‘assess’ each child’s achievement against relevant standards using their ‘overall teacher judgement,’ (OTJ) based on evidence collected over the year, and comparing this with published exemplars – a very time consuming process. This process was not based on research evidence and has resulted in ‘square peg in round hole’ syndrome that has left New Zealand and international assessment experts rather bemused.

This syndrome has resulted in two predictable problems:

Problem number one: teachers are required to use their judgement (a necessarily subjective process) to rate each child’s achievement for reporting purposes.

This leaves us to the conundrum that teachers have to use a subjective judgement to get an objective outcome.

Problem number two: Since teacher judgements are subjective, then it is necessary for there to be a moderation process, so teachers of similarly aged children in the same school establish some level of consistency with their judgements. Several meetings needed.

So far, so good, and in fact these kind of moderation processes have been used in schools for many years, although not overburdened by sheer volume of national standards.

But….. while teachers of similar class levels can relatively easily moderate judgements, there also has to be moderation with teachers of older and younger classes, so that there is internal consistency throughout the school. More meetings.

Whew, after many meetings, reviewing judgements in reading, writing and mathematics, each school should now be satisfied that the national standards rankings for all children are ‘accurate.’

Not so fast – how can each school be certain that their internal rankings are consistent with neighboring schools? Or with schools across the country, in city or rural areas? The impossibility of nationally moderated should be obvious to all but the ideologically blind.

Or is this the case? Are these ideologues really blind to the problems?

How have schools tended to cope with the challenges, both with workload, and with moderation?

Many/most have fallen back to pre-existing tests, developed for diagnostic, not ranking purposes, but which do provide a basis for national comparisons.

STAR (Supplementary Test of Achievement in Reading) was developed by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) over a decade ago, and has recently been upgraded.

Another test, e-asTTle (electronic – assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning – an acronym that helps explain dazed looks in teachers’ eyes) is more recent, and provides for online assessment of reading, writing and mathematics.

Future articles will explore the implications of online assessment and link this to some very worrying developments in USA.

The third test, still widely used, is one familiar to many who have long left primary schooling – the Progressive Achievement Tests (P.A.T.).

This now means that a national test program is developing by default as schools strive to be as accurate and fair as possible with the assessments of all children’s achievement, and as an inevitable response to workload issues. Teachers don’t have time to spend hours on OTJs and moderation meetings, preferring to put their efforts into planning and teaching. Fair enough.

There’s a very big BUT here. Towards the end of 2012 schools found that their students’ nationally benchmarked scores on these tests had mysteriously jumped, so that the bulk of children were now achieving relevant national standards. A principal of a lower decile school has suddenly found that the majority of his school’s pupils were now at the national standards in reading according to STAR results.

Two possible reasons for this: the first being that all schools had now become extremely effective due to the benefits of national standards, while the second, for the more cynical ones amongst us, is that something untoward had happened to the tests.

And this has turned out to be the case. The way test scores are normed has been changed for both STAR and e-assTTle, so that children are now shown as achieving at a higher level. Instant fix.

This then will reflect on school’s national standards results that are submitted to the Ministry of Education, and then published in league tables by the media.

This year’s results will be submitted to the ministry in early 2014, will be available to the media some months before the election and will inevitably be compared to previous years’ results. Surprise, surprise, national standards results will show that New Zealand schools are now much more effective at raising achievement, just time for the election campaign.

Is that rat starting to smell yet? There’s an even bigger and nastier rat in the cupboard – the subject of the next article.

Naturally, the Ministry of Education are ‘now aware’ of the issue (even though their fingerprints are all over the test revisions) and will investigate, following on from an article in the Listener, which in itself was based on inside information from educational commentator Kelvin Smythe: Article on e-asTTle and STAR coming up in Listener

To conclude, a couple of quotes from Kelvin:

‘The politicians want to free up the tests so certain actions by the review office or by the Wellington bureaucrats can move the results up or down for advantage in the election cycle.’


“This is the Novopay of testing: old reliables (for instance, PAT) have been distorted by the high stakes’ national standards environment; and now we have this colossal mess up with two widely used literacy markers, and Parata calls this ‘quality data’. We had quality data, now we have the rubbish.”


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The Right has a new media voice




Fairfax Media has a  ” new columnist for the Waikato Times” (see:  Bill denies kids what they need). Narelle Hensen’s first piece appeared in the Waikato Times on 18 March, followed five days later by another piece, Dole queues long but bosses can’t get workers.  (Note: Ms Hensen has previously written and worked  under her maiden name; Narelle Suisted, for the Auckland publication, “Auckland Now“, and TV3’s “The Nation“.)

Her first column-piece was a thinly-disguised, homophobic lecturing against gays, lesbians, marriage equality, and their fitness (or lack thereof) as parents.

The second was a nasty little smear against the unemployed.

(This blogger is waiting for her next target. Solo-mums? Maori? There are plenty of minorities available.)

What Fairfax hasn’t disclosed is that Ms Hensen also worked as a Communications Officer for the right-wing think-tank, Maxim Institute (see: Wikipedia Maxim Institute). The Maxim Institute is virulently opposed to marriage equality, as outlined in their submission to Parliament  on the Marriage Amendment Bill (see:  Submission to the MarriageMaxim Institute).

It appears that the right-wing in this country have a new voice in the msm (mainstream media).

In her first article,  Bill denies kids what they need, Ms Hensen railed against marriage equality.  She used children as her weapon-of-choice, and started of with this bizarre statement,

“Most of us, no doubt, would agree, and would find it difficult to decide which of our parents to give up for another mum or dad. But that is what the Marriage Amendment Bill will require of some kids in generations to come. That is why I don’t support the bill.”

Did I read that right? She condemns the Marriage Amendment Bill because  a child “would find it difficult to decide which of our parents to give up for another mum or dad” ?!

Why would marriage equality demand that of children now? And in what way would that be different to divorce as it is presently?

As most of us are perfectly aware, it is the Family Courts that determine access to children – not the concept of marriage equality.  I doubt if Ms Hensen could point to any aspect of the Marriage Amendment Bill that would demand that a child has to “decide which of our parents to give up for another mum or dad”.

She offers another justification to oppose marriage equality,

“That means some kids will be denied the right to either a mother or a father, while their peers, by luck of birth, will be allowed both.”

Really? And what about the thousands of children who already have only one parent? What about the thousands of heterosexual couples who have separated and their children are “denied the right to either a mother or a father”? Or one has died through illness or accident – that’s real bad luck!

And just why is it “luck” to have heterosexual parents as opposed to gay or lesbian parents? The implication being that having gay/lesbian parents is “bad luck”. Perhaps being born to a mixed-race couple is also “bad luck” for a child? Or born to parents, one of whom might have a disability?


racism cartoon


Not to mention the bad luck of being born to right wing parents…


If a child is ‘lucky’, it is that they have a stable family, with love, attention, set boundaries, support, respect, nutritious food, warmth, good housing, access to education; healthcare,  etc.  The gender/orientation of parents and caregivers doesn’t really seem to factor as a life-giving necessity.

Indeed, Ms Hensen seemed eager to dismiss love as a trivial matter not worthy of consideration,

Of course, a lot of people argue the Marriage Amendment Bill is about love, and equality. But love or equality for who? These terms sound great, and they capture our emotions, but taking a moment to think about them makes us realise that in practice, they demand compromise from someone – either gay couples who must compromise the right to raise children, or children, who must compromise the right to have both a mum and a dad.”

It is unclear why gay (or straight) couples need to “compromise” – except in Ms Hensen’s mind where, for some reason, having gay or lesbian parents is a lesser option than heterosexual parents. Is  love a transaction that “demands a compromise”? She doesn’t explain what she basis that idea on.

What a strange world that Ms Hensen inhabits.


Ms Hensen referred to a particular group to justify her prejudices,

That is why the group Homovox started in France. It consists of homosexual couples who disagree with same-sex marriage, and same-sex adoption. As one contributor says: “The law should seek what is best for a child, and that is to have a mother and a father“.”

It took only a few clicks and poking around on a Search Engine to find out a little more about “Homovox“.

For one thing, it is not a LGBT organisation at all. It’s a front group set up by the Catholic Church, as GAYNZ reported on their website,

When is an LGBT organisation not an LGBT organisation? When it has been established by an antigay French conservative Catholic to make it seem as if there is “French LGBT” opposition to marriage equality. Thus it is with France’s  “Homovox”, allegedly a “French” gay organisation of  “LGBT” marriage equality opponents. However, on his website, Joe. My. God’s commenters uncovered who was actually behind the website, which turned out to be someone from the French Catholic Right. To  be more precise:

[redacted information]

A google search of Maillard Jean-Baptiste turned up this:

He appears to be an anti-gay French Catholic.


Doing some more research on these guys–they are all Catholics, some are ex-gay, most are right-wingers, and some can’t be found online.

None of these men–an no women–give their full names, where they work, and the man who claims to be the mayor of a “village” doesn’t actually name his village. 

Source: “Homovox” Exposed

It seems that the Catholic Church in France has copied the tactics of the Unification Church and Scientologists, who also  employ front-organisations as  smoke-screens to the parent-church.

Did Ms Hensen know this? If  she didn’t, she’s not much of a journalist.

If she was aware of the true nature of “Homovox” – and chose not to disclose it – then she has an agenda of her own. And the presentation (or lack) of facts is not part of it.

Ms Hensen is not above claiming  statistics to back up her prejudices,

“Of course, there are those who argue it is better to bring up a child in a loving homosexual relationship than it is for them to be raised in an antagonistic heterosexual relationship. But if we are going to make comparisons, they must be fair. And when you compare a loving, heterosexual marriage with a loving homosexual union, the statistics paint a very clear picture.”

– but tellingly, she refuses to disclose any such statistics for the reader. So much for her comment that “if we are going to make comparisons, they must be fair”.

We are, I guess, expected to take her word that such statistics exist? Perhaps they are held by her former employers at Maxim Institute – an organisation known for it’s  hostility toward gays and lesbians having full equal rights.

The point of that last paragraph, I suggest to the reader, is to undermine any notion that having loving parents who care for children should not  be judged on the basis of  sexual orientation. Note her reference,

“And when you compare a loving, heterosexual marriage with a loving homosexual union…”

What about comparing a dysfunctional heterosexual household with a loving gay/lesbian household? God knows there are plenty of the former. Our newspapers are full of stories where children, infants, babies were mercilessly ill-treated until their fragile bodies could no longer cope with dad’s punches whilst mum looked on, or vice versa.

The parents of Delcelia Witika were good, solid, heterosexuals who engaged in  Maxim Institute-approved,  heterosexual, sex. Then they killed their little girl.

I submit to Ms Hensen, that at such a point in a brutalised child’s life, they are not really  going to give a damn if the wearer of  steel-capped boots kicking their heads to pieces,  is heterosexual or not.

Ms Hensen’s says,

It is often very difficult to decide whose rights win, which is why there are so many court cases, and indeed courts, all about human rights. But when it comes to adults’ rights conflicting with the rights of children, most of us would agree that children should come first.”

Except when good parents are gay or lesbian, right, Ms Hensen?




Ms Hensens next article on  job seekers, was nothing less than a hate-fest on one of society’s minorities; the unemployed. (See: Dole queues long but bosses can’t get workers)

Her entire article was dedicated to a simple premise; that  job seekers in this country are unemployable, with anti-social personalities and severe behavioural flaws consisting of;

Failing drug tests
Physicality when told to leave site
Not turning up for interview
Smoking throughout interview
Chewing gum throughout interview
No CV prepared
CVs full of basic spelling mistakes”

Her column  mercilessly depicted the unemployed as unfit for employment. One of her commentators even questioned their right to be citizens.

She quoted anecdote after anecdote of unemployed people with allegedly poor personal habits and poor work ethics – though she gave few details what the jobs were or any other specifics.

Employers and Manufacturers Association Northern chief executive, Kim Campbell, referred to New Zealand’s  unemployed as  being “the dregs” –  a theme typical  of Ms Hensen’s piece.

Dave Connell, vice-president of the New Zealand Contractors Federation and managing director of Connell Construction, was somewhat more subdued in his criticisms,

“We have dealt with absenteeism, drunkenness, drugs . . . We are persevering for three to six weeks sometimes.”

As a damning propaganda piece, with the purpose of vilifying the unemployed, it was masterfully done.

Other than that, though, one has to ask the question; what the hell was the point of it? What possible purpose did it serve? Because it sure as hell didn’t shed much light on the subject.

I have an idea.

Up till now, the unemployed have been painted as lazy, boozing,  and unwilling to go out and find work.

That myth has been well and truly dispelled with stories of thousands of unemployed queuing for a few jobs. Just recently, on 12 March, ‘Campbell Live’ did a series of stories of hundreds of workers lining up for just seven jobs at an Auckland factory (see: Sign of the times: hundreds queue for 7 jobs)

Or any of these stories of job seekers outnumbering vacancies,

10 applicants for every one shelf-stocking job

Applicants queue for 20 jobs at new KFC store

2700 applicants for 150 jobs

Demand Strong for New Jobs Up for Grabs in Glenfield

Jobseekers flood a new Hamilton call centre

1200 applicants for 200 supermarket jobs

Ms Hensen could not write a credible story desparaging the unemployed as “lazy”.  In these times of high unemployment, the public no longer accepts that generalisation. In fact, most people probably know someone who has lost their job, or, fresh our of school or University, cannot land a job, and has been turned down application after application.

So, for  Ms Hensen that avenue was closed off.

Instead, in the best tradition of right wingers who blame the victims of  this country’s on-going recessionary fall-out, she attacked and desparaged the quality of job seekers.

Repeating  anecdotal stories, without any supporting  context to offer a deeper understanding, she wrote a piece that painted job seekers as poorly educated; drug addicts; inarticulate – even chewing gum!

As a hatchet job, it  certainly perpetuated negative stereotypes about the unemployed. It also reinforced the unacknowledged class structure that has been developing in this country for the last 30 years; the unemployed are “riff raff, beneath our contempt; and not worthy of being treated as our equals”.

As a “dog whistle” it attracted 321 comments (as at the time of this blogpost being written) – many of which were little more than ill-informed, offensive, stereotyping.

Ms Hensen might care to reflect on the irrational hatred expressed by those who supported her story. Is that the readership she is pandering to?

It also showed of some of Ms Hensen’s sources as less than ideal unemployers, with barely concealed prejudices.

But even if Ms Hensen’s poisonous polemic was 100% accurate, reflecting an unvarnished reality – employers and government have only themselves to blame.

How many times have trade unionists, economists,  and leftwing commentators warned employers and government that if New Zealand continued to drive down wages – as National has been doing with it’s labour law “reforms” – what did they think would happen?

On 1 April, the minimum wage will rise by 25 cents to $13.75 per hour. In Australia the rate is NZ$19.96 an hour, though wages are usually higher than that.

On 1 May, young people 16 to 19 will also have a new youth rate, that will be 80% of the minimum wage. That’s $11 per hour. How will young New Zealanders react to what is effectively a wage-cut?

And employers are whinging their heads off that the best and brightest are buggering off to Aussie?

The reality, though, is more prosaic. People want work. The unemployment benefiit ($204.96/wk/net) is not sufficient to live on. Many looking for work will be University graduates. Others will be poorly educated. But they all want a job.

Perhaps the real purpose of Ms Hensen’s  article – dressed up as a “news story” –  was designed to serve as propaganda in a  prelude to relaxing immigration laws and allow immigrant workers to flood the country? By creating a new urban myth that unemployed New Zealanders are “dregs”, it gives National the excuse to bring in labour from overseas. Cheap labour. Workers who will not kick up a fuss about exploitation; lax safety practices; and abuse.

The abuse of workers on Foreign Charter Vessels fishing within our EEZ waters gives an idea what might be  our future (see previous related blogpost:  A Slave By Any Other Name).

I suspect Ms Hensen is not finished with excoriating minorities in this country. Her poison pen is poised. It’s only a matter of who is next in her sights. And what her agenda is.

What a waste of intellect.





Linked In: Maxim Institute Media and Communications Officer at Maxim Institute/Narelle Hensen

Bill denies kids what they need (18 March 2013)

Dole queues long but bosses can’t get workers (23 March 2013)

“Homovox” Exposed.

Other blogs

The Jackal: National’s Campaign of Disinformation



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