News media · Obituaries

Vale Pat Booth, the fearless journalists’ journalist


One of the great New Zealand journalists of my time, Pat Booth, died today. He was 88.

Pat is best known for his work at the Auckland Star investigating the police case against farmer Arthur Thomas, who was framed for murder, but freed, thanks to Pat’s tenacity, after almost a decade in jail.

He was a journalists’ journalist, of the tough, self-taught kind too-often looked down on by today’s mass-produced journalism graduates. I had the privilege of working with him at North & South magazine, where he was deputy editor when I started there in 1989.

Of course, I was in awe of working with such a legend. I remember him for his ready smile, his gruff voice and his total lack of political correctness. He would try to make me bite with some terrible lines. Writing about the new airline, Ansett NZ, he mentioned the aircraft’s tail markings and added: “Speaking of tail, the hostesses’ uniforms….” Of our first Maori governor-general, Sir Paul Reeves, he said: “Paul? I knew him before he was a Maori.” It was awful stuff, but said with a big smile and without malice. And whatever he wrote, Robyn printed it unchanged. You can’t edit a legend.

The Auckland Star for years had a motto that was typified by Pat’s work there, but seems quaint if all you know is today’s news media:

For the cause that needs assistance
For the wrong that needs resistance
For the future in the distance
For the good that we can do.

He republished it right at the front of his 1997 memoir, Deadline.

Pat died today in a rest home in West Auckland. What a sad end for someone so full of life, a journalist never afraid to chase a story, no matter where it led.

Picture: Pat in the Auckland Star printery in 1976 with printer Leo Smith.  Almost all males wore ties back then!


News media · Public affairs · Reviews

Golden age of newspapers recalled in The Post, a film that could not be set today

Every journalist brought up admiring Woodward and Bernstein will be seeing The Post, though of course, this film is set (just) before Watergate, and features Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) rather than America’s most famous reporting duo.

The film is about an important footnote to America’s war in Vietnam, the 1971 newspaper scoop-publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense Department true history of successive American government machinations in that hopeless war. The documents were leaked first to the New York Times, and then the Washington Post, by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, whose pyschiatrist’s office was later infamously burgled by Richard Nixon’s “plumbers” (the leak-fixers behind the 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington DC’s Watergate complex).

Hanks and Streep play Bradlee and Graham much as I remember them from books and their reputation at the time, as being the stubborn newspaper editor wanting to bring his “small-town” paper to national prominence, and the proud establishment proprietor of a family firm.  Their close working relationship and the challenge that taking on the power of the state means for both the company’s finances and freedom to publish is the heart of this film. The film also references Bradlee’s close relationship with John F Kennedy (they met every week till his death) and Lyndon Johnson, which had given the Post the whiff of being a Democratic Party mouthpiece, accusations still thrown by conservatives against America’s traditional liberal newspapers.

But what leapt from the screen for me was the film’s stunningly accurate recreation of the newspaper world I began working in in the late-1970s and which is now long gone; the clattering typewriters, the rows of chain-smoking reporters yelling into telephones at their paper-piled desks under fluorescent lights, the Lamson (pneumatic) tubes that whooshed canisters holding the paper pages of typewritten stories from the news desk to the printers down below; and above all, the clanking ancient Linotype machines that cast newspaper stories (yes, type-cast!) line by line in hot lead for fitting in the big metal page frames from which printing plates were made. And, oh what an experience, the rumble and shaking of the whole building as the huge presses built up speed to thunder out tens of thousands of thick, inky newspapers an hour.

Hanks Post linotypeTom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, posed beside a Linotype machine.

I don’t pine for those days; today’s technology is superior, cheaper and produces a better physical product, let alone the online access. But The Post reinforced for me that the film is set in what really were the golden years of newspapers, years when newspapers, routinely,  actually broke very big news stories, when most households in most Western countries had the paper delivered not just daily, but every morning and afternoon. An era when politicians respected, and sometimes feared, the power of the press rather than manipulated it with photo-ops and sound bites. I became a journalist near that era’s end, but at least I was part of it before the decline.

Nixon’s White House took the New York Times and the Washington Post to the Supreme Court to try to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers. The court ruled six to three that the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”) trumped the desire of a government to keep its deepest secrets secret.

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black famously wrote in his judgement on the case: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

It all seems so quaint in this new age of a news media world-wide mostly obsessed with clickbait, celebrities and bread and circuses.


Enjoy your holiday : 2017 flying to be second-safest year for air travel

SONY DSCBarring a big plane crash in the next week or so — highly unlikely — 2017 will edge last year out as the second-safest year in civil aviation history. This is a piece of very good news you won’t read anywhere else, because it’s not bad, disastrous or puerile, and features no celebs.

With just 11 days, there has not been one major crash of a large scheduled passenger aircraft this year, anywhere on the planet. As of today, just 301 people have died in air crashes  in 2017 (less than New Zealand’s road toll!), 155 of them in eight military crashes and 39 because of a cargo plane crash.

The safest year for aviation so far was 2013, with 273 fatalities in 29 crashes, followed by last year, with 316 deaths in 19 crashes, measured by the Aviation Safety Network as involving planes with more than 12 seats. The worst year was 1972, with 2370 deaths, but far fewer people flew then.

None of the 37 fatal crashes so far this year involved a large jet, except for the cargo plane, (a 747 freighter, in Kyrgyzstan; 35 of the 39 deaths were people on the ground when the plane hit). All the rest bar three small Lear jets were turbo-props. The cargo plane apart, not one Boeing or Airbus jet has been in a fatal crash this year. Not counting the cargo and military deaths, just 107 people have died in civilian passenger aircraft.

This is despite more people flying in more planes every year: Commercial aircraft will carry about 4 billion passengers this year — more than half the world’s population. Only 10 years ago, the number was 2.5 billion. About 14,000 commercial planes are in the air at any one moment. They don’t crash into each other, or the ground, or mountains, or anything else because of the progress in navigation aids and onboard collision warning systems in the past three decades.

When you board your plane this week for your holiday, fly assured you will get safely to your destination, and celebrate — joyously — the stunning technology we humans have created in only the past century of the 200,000 years that our branch of the great apes family has walked upon this Earth.

Picture: A Singapore Airlines Boeing 777-200 arriving from Canberra at Wellington Airport.

Public affairs · Television

Borgen: The greatest political drama you’ll never see on TVNZ

What a find! The Danish political drama Borgen is quality television of the kind New Zealand no longer enoys. It follows the rise and ultimate fall of (fictional) minor-party politician Birgitte Nyborg, who becomes prime minister (statsminister) of Denmark through the machinations of that country’s proportional representation electoral system.
The scripting, acting and photography are simply superb, as is the opening sequence (attached). Nyborg (the wonderful Sidse Babett Knudsen) has to juggle the intense politicking of being prime minister with raising her two children and the collapse of her marriage because of the pressures of office. Other major characters include television journalist Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) Nyborg’s spin doctor (yes, “spin doctor” is Danish for “spin doctor”!) Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk; he is also in Game of Thrones) and her husband, Phillip Christensen (Mikael Birkkjær), whose scene asking his wife for a divorce is so traumatic that Birkkjær in real life cried after filming it.
Denmark (population 5.7 million) is, like New Zealand (population 4.8 million) a small, vigorous democracy, though Denmark is much more affluent (“We are the 12th-richest country on Earth” Nyborg says when trying to justify improved public hospital care).
Like us, Denmark is a constitutional monarchy; its parliament was established in 1849, ours in 1852. Both are unicameral (single-chamber) parliaments; we abolished our upper house in 1951; Denmark its in 1953. Its electoral system is a proportional party list with a 2pc threshhold, unlike our system with geographical electorates as well as a party list. Ours is the same as Germany’s Mixed Member Proportional system — we got ours from Germany and we both have a 5pc threshold. But Danish political parties, like those here and in Germany, have to thrash out coalition agreements after an election, a drama that features prominently in Borgen. Unlike New Zealand, Denmark in real life (and in Borgen) has no Winston Peters figure who has been around forever, deciding who gets to be prime minister.
“Borgen” is Danish for “castle” or “fort” and refers not only to the Christiansborg Palace (the København building housing Denmark’s parliament, government offices, supreme court and the queen’s residence), but also the colloquial Danish word for the government, known as “Borgen” in much the way we refer to the Beehive. The word stems from the proto-Germanic “burgz” (a walled town) which is the origin of the English borough, Scots Edinburgh and German burg as in burgermeister (mayor) and Freiburg (the city in Germany).
The series is in fast-paced Danish with English subtitles, which oddly are in American English. Danish is, as is English, a Germanic language but closer to Swedish and Norwegian than to German, Dutch and English. However, if you understand German, then after a few episodes you start to pick out some of the more curious translations. And you also quickly pick out such nice Danish colloquialisms as “hi hi” for “goodbye” !
I found the DVD box set on Trade Me.


Doctor Who · Reviews

Review: Four to Doomsday still a great classic Who 35 years on

four doomsday 2
The Doctor had three companions with him in the Tardis in 1982; from left Peter Davison, Adric (Matthew Waterhouse, Tegan (Janet Fielding, who seemed never to change out of her air hostess uniform, first worn in the final Tom Baker story Logopolis) and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton).  Producer John Nathan-Turner felt the Doctor plus three was a crowded house, but Davison insisted Sutton remain rather than being written out in Four to Doomsday.

Some “classic” Doctor Who stories have not dated well. Some remain very good. One is Four to Doomsday (January 1982), which I’ve just re-watched. It’s the first Fifth Doctor — Peter Davison — story filmed, though not the first screened (that was Castrovalva, which is not as good).

Davison took a break from playing Tristan Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small to play the Doctor for three years, afterwards returning to the Yorkshire Dales. He played the Time Lord as a boyish, cricket-loving Englishman (!) much like the Tristan character. He was recruited by long-time Who producer John Nathan-Turner, who’d also worked on All Creatures.

It’s a dramatic story with good acting and very good sets and special effects for the time, when Doctor Who was hilariously noted for cardboard props as alien worlds and flying kettles as space ships, such was its low budget from its 1963 start till its 1989 hiatus. In the story, the Tardis lands in a gigantic Earth-bound craft controlled by the Monarch of Urbanka (played by Stratford Johns of Z Cars and Softly Softly fame), who intends to take over our planet after he had mined and polluted his own to destruction.

The latter was a Global Warming plot reference six years before Nasa’s James Hansen created this still very current “we’re all doomed” scenario. The story cites an ozone hole (the Antarctic one was of big concern in 1982) on Monarch’s home planet as the final cause of Urbanka’s ruin, burning it to cinders.

Aboard the Monarch’s ship are four people, at first sight apparently humans kidnapped by Monarch during past visits to Earth over thousands of years—ancient Greek philosopher Bigon; Chinese Mandarin Lin Futu; Mayan princess Villagra; and Kurkutji, an Australian Aborigine.

The latter was played by Ilario Bisi-Pedro, who appears to have been a Black British actor about whom little information exists. Though the part was sympathetically portrayed, I doubt a non-Aborigine would be allowed to play one today without an uproar. At the time, the BBC was actively promoting Doctor Who‘s popularity in Australia, with the Davison era featuring Australian actress Janet Field as one of the Doctor’s companions, air hostess Tegan, she of the execrable accent no dinkum Aussie would speak.

As the story develops, it is revealed that the four kidnapped humans and others like them are really androids whose human memories have been implanted in silicon chips. Monarch and his Urbankan companions Enlightenment (Annie Lambert) and Persuasion (Paul Shelley) refer to Urbanka’s pre-android era as “the flesh times,” with distaste, hence their plan to quickly poison Earth’s population, before mining our planet’s resources, too.

Monarch’s mining scheme is designed to amass the energy to build a spacecraft capable of travelling faster than light, to enable him to go back in time to before the Big Bang that created our universe, where he expects to meet himself, whom be believes is God. It is a fascinating concept and I am surprised no Doctor Who story has actually been set before time began, or featured a meeting between the Doctor and Jesus, for example.

After all, in the 2006 story The Satan Pit, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) meets the Devil. Einstein’s Relativity theories (drawn on in Four to Doomsday, and this year’s World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls) allow time travel, so it’s not an impossible scenario.

Four Doomsday 1
Frozen in time. From left, Enlightenment ( Annie Lambert; I remember thinking she was drop-dead gorgeous in this role in 1982; she’s 71 now and doubtless I still would find her so); Monarch (Stratford Johns (1925-2002); well known on our screens in the 1960s and 1970s as the detective Charlie Barlow in Z Cars, Softly Softly and Barlow at Large) and Persuasion (Paul Shelley, born 1942, a classical actor noted for his Shakespearian performances).


I’ve lately been re-watching All Creatures Great and Small on DVD too, and the resemblance between Davison’s Tristan and Doctor characters is palpably obvious and deliberate, no doubt to maintain the Tristan character’s popularity at a time that Fourth Doctor Tom Baker was replaced by Davison after seven years which had entrenched Baker as the doctor for many viewers.

Davison’s daughter Georgia is married to David Tennant, who was most recently seen on our screens in Broadchurch, which also starred Jodie Whittaker, recently cast as the Thirteenth Doctor.

Public affairs · Wairarapa

Only vivacious persons with stilettos need apply


Iberia is a prominent cafe on Masterton’s main street. Many people say it’s a good one. This vacancy ad for a staff member looked clever. A Director of First Impressions no less! A catchy title for a wait-person or the cashier. But wait!

“V is for Vivacious” — Surely only a woman can be called vivacious? My dictionary says the word means: “Attractively lively and animated; especially of a woman.”

“You will have big stilettos to fill” — Surely only a woman would wear stilettos at work?

So being neither vivacious, a woman nor owning stilettos, there’s no point in me, nor any other male, applying for the job, is there? Iberia is straight-up saying it wants a stiletto-wearing woman for its vacancy.

But isn’t it illegal to advertise for a woman in a situations vacant ad? Or for a man for that matter? Aren’t job ads required to be gender neutral? Iberia’s seems anything but. No other interpretation seems possible.

I went looking for the law.

Below is the Iberia vacancy advertised on Seek today. It clearly (though without directly using the “woman” word) seeks a vivacious, stiletto-wearing woman for its front-of-house role. But it’s illegal to advertise a job saying it’s only for a woman (or only for a man), isn’t it?

1 Iberia

I went to the Human Rights Commission’s site. Its relevant page is very clear. Gender discrimination at work is illegal — if “you are a woman.” There is absolutely nothing on the commission’s relevant page to say gender discrimination at work is illegal if you are a man:

2 iberia

How can that be so? I looked further.  I next went to Employment NZ (part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment). Its relevant page at first seemed very clear:

“All people are protected from unlawful discrimination in their employment. This includes discrimination on the grounds of: age… race or colour… ethnicity or national origins… sex “

Surely “sex” means women and men? But maybe not, because the full sex line reads:

“sex (including pregnancy or childbirth)”

And men cannot fall pregnant or give birth. Maybe they really are not protected.

3 Iberia

So I decided to look still further. Finally, I found the Human Rights Act. Section 21 states:

For the purposes of this Act, the prohibited grounds of discrimination are—
(a) sex, which includes pregnancy and childbirth

4 iberia

So we are back to whether “sex” excludes males from discrimination in employment, because they can not become pregnant or give birth. It seems a classic Catch 22, in Section 21.

But wait! There’s more. There always is.

Trundling through the act, Section 67 jumped from the screen. This makes it unlawful to publish “a job description with a gender connotation (such as postman or stewardess),” and if someone does, that “shall be taken to indicate an intention to discriminate.”

5 Iberia
Does that catch Iberia’s ad for a vivacious stiletto-wearer? Who knows? I’m not a lawyer. Drake, a big international employment firm, must clearly know the letter and the spirit of our employment laws. The Iberia ad doesn’t actually say a “waitress” is wanted, for example, just a vivacious stiletto-wearer. Sticking to the letter of the law but not its spirit, it could be argued Iberia would consider hiring a man as long as he was vivacious and prepared to wear stilettos at work.

As pigs would fly before I’d get an interview there, I shan’t be applying.


Good luck, Mr Gorski

Friday (Moonday) was the 48th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s first walk by humanity on the moon. It was huge news in 1969. I was a small schoolboy and watched it live on television, as did 500 million other people around the world, the biggest audience ever back then for a live television broadcast. It is a sad reflection on the more pathetic side of today’s internet age that a large proportion of people, as measured by various opinion polls, believe it was all a hoax.
There have been real Armstrong hoaxes, though, including a much-denied 1980s one that he converted to Islam while on the moon. The best went round the internet in 1995, just as the net was starting to take off, but before search engines had been invented to help with fact-checking. I had just joined the net (using Netscape Navigator I, the first truly successful web browser) when a chain email fell in my inbox. It read:
Most people believe that when astronaut Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, his first, famous words were: “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” But in fact, as heard by Mission Control, he actually first muttered under his breath: “Good luck, Mr Gorsky.”
NASA officials thought it was a casual remark concerning a Soviet cosmonaut. But there was no Russian, or American, spaceman with the name Gorsky.
Over the years, people questioned Armstrong about the cryptic remark. On July 5, 1995 in Tampa Bay, FL, while Armstrong was answering questions following a speech, a reporter brought up the 26-year-old question. Armstrong finally responded. It seems that Mr Gorsky had died and so Armstrong felt he could answer the question.
When Armstrong was an eight-year-old growing up in a small Ohio town, he was playing baseball with his brother in the backyard one day. His brother hit a fly ball which landed in front of his neighbors’ bedroom window. The neighbors were Mr and Mrs Gorsky. As Armstrong went over to pick up the ball, he heard Mrs Gorsky shouting at Mr Gorsky, “Oral sex? You want oral sex? You’ll get oral sex when that little runt next door walks on the moon!”
It deserved to be true and was a good joke nonetheless. A book of such hoaxes was even published under the name Good luck, Mr Gorsky! I fear that some of those who believe Armstrong never walked on the moon might, ironically, actually believe this original piece of Fake News.
NASA image: Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon, Tranquility Base, 21 July 1969 NZST. Photo by Buzz Aldrin.