Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Editing the Listener

I wrote in a previous post of the now defunct New Zealand Listener. Astute readers will know that I am either profoundly ignorant, woefully out of touch with the New Zealand media landscape, or prone to the occasional bout of irony, especially when it regards said media landscape.

In that comment, I was alluding to the decline of New Zealand's favourite, once centre-left journal, presided over by one Pamela Stirling. As a teenager, I was an avid reader of that magazine, and in many ways it played a formative role as I began to develop an intellectual and critical perspective on New Zealand and world politics and cultures, insofar as I can be said to have one. It has a long history of political engagement from a leftist perspective, and covered a wide range of issues that were important locally and globally with integrity. Some people found it boring and predictable, but their opinions on the Listener are just about as relevant as my opinions on the NBR.

In 2004, Finlay MacDonald stood down as editor to do god-knows-what, and was replaced by Pamela Stirling. Under Stirling, the Listener has become a lifestyle magazine, regularly covering such hot issues as New Zealand house prices ("when will the bubble burst??"), aging remedies for baby-boomers, which schools are the best value for money, and more crap about the health of baby-boomers. Pretty much all media in New Zealand is dreadful, and (with honourable exceptions such as Di Wichtel) Stirling did a fine job in making it a little worse.

I'm not going to mention the abominable Joanne Black or that twat Bill Ralston, because it's too depressing and nobody reads what they write anyway. I just want to point out one of the stupid things I saw when I picked up the issue I found sitting on the coffee table the day I returned to Auckland after a year and a bit overseas. Jane Clifton's weekly 'Politics' column began with the claim that "almost overnight, we're having to realise that, beyond a certain point, governments can't do much for us. They are all powerless and clueless in the face of both the global credit crisis and the possibility of a pandemic, of which swine flu is just the latest menance" -- just as our forebears had to experience the bubonic plague as a fact of life, so we too have to endure these things, because governments just can't do that much about it.

This is, on the face of it, a ridiculous claim. We will start by noting that western societies don't often face the bubonic plague these days, and have eradicated many once endemic and extremely destructive diseases. Their success in doing this was not accidental, was not luck, and certainly wasn't decided by the market, but was in fact due to government programmes, be they in immunisation or in quarantine to prevent the spread of diseases. This recent Swine Flu to which Clifton alludes, if it was to be a pandemic, has thus far at least been contained by a concerted global effort of government organisations. Schools have been closed throughout the United States, whole cities in Mexico have shut down, and nice people at the Auckland airport asked me if I was feeling well as I walked towards customs. It's not a coincidence, and although the capacity to carry diseases over great distances at great speed has increased dramatically over the past 40 years of commercial air travel, the coercive power of the state, its techniques around quarantine, and its ability to administer vaccines are also extremely effective.

Likewise, the recession. It is true that the New Zealand government could have done little to prevent the recession, and it's also true that New Zealand's economy is so intertwined with the fortunes of global markets that there's little National can do (which is fortunate, because it seems there's so little that they want to do), but similar events in the past suggest that it is, in fact, possible for governments to do things to recover. Indeed, not undoing one of the things that that government did would have been a good thing to have done, or not done, to prevent the current mess, if you follow me.

Now, despite her relationship with a senior National MP, I don't mean to insinuate that Clifton's column is part of some right-wing conspiracy to manipulate the chattering classes into supporting the Government's laissez-faire approach to economic practice at a time when it seems like an especially bad idea (I was going to find a link to a comment that suggests that there are people that would easily believe this, but one of the reasons I can't be bothered with actually doing these blogs is that I'm too lazy to do that sort of thing). Rather, I think that she's guilty of sloppy reasoning, shallow thinking, and a lack of historical perspective that I would call extraordinary if it weren't so frequently encountered in the New Zealand media. After all, why think about things and provide informed analysis when you can pound out a few witless one-liners and appear to provide a holistic, though meaningless, view of the world. This is New Zealand after all, it's such a small population, we're punching above our weight on one global stage or another, and you're just a tall-poppy cutter-downer. Or something. Here, listen to my electronic dub CD.

So, Editing the Listener was to be a kind of homage to the excellent Editing the Herald, whose news-rage benefits us all. Unlike Editing the Herald, Editing the Listener would have been dedicated to a longer form of criticism, in respect of the different style of journalism one encounters in that august journal, and also my long-windedness.. However, given Editing the Herald's late legal difficulties, the existence of other, slightly more competent bloggers who are willing to do the job for me, and the fact that I don't usually live in New Zealand and the Listener doesn't like to put articles online for ages, the whole enterprise seems a little pointless.

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