We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
Monday, February 29, 2016
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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE PRISON DIARY OF A. C. BARRINGTON” by John Pratt (Otago University Press, $NZ29:99)
It is rarely that I am troubled by the title of a book. But I am mildly troubled by the title given to this one. The Prison Diary of A.C. Barrington is subtitled Dissent and Conformity in Wartime New Zealand. A.C. Barrington was, as we shall see, a New Zealand pacifist and conscientious objector who was imprisoned for eight months during the Second World War. The title suggests that we are being presented with his diary. The subtitle – especially with that word “dissent” in it – suggests that the focus will be on Barrington’s dissenting pacifist views.
But while these things are part of the book’s story, this is not what it is mainly about.
You will note that the book’s author is in fact John Pratt, a distinguished professor of criminology at Victoria University of Wellington. John Pratt uses Barrington’s diary to give us a case study in imprisonment and a detailed view of what New Zealand prisons used to be like. In effect, The Prison Diary of A.C. Barrington is a work of criminology, with John Pratt’s text using selected quotations from Barrington’s diary to illustrate his points. Pratt does remark that, given the nature of prison life, there are many repetitions in Barrington’s diary and the diary in its full form does not make for exciting reading. As he notes at one point, Barrington endured “the drab monotony of prison life where every day was entirely and deliberately predictable.” (Chapter 3, p. 83). Pratt has therefore presented selections from the diary thematically, rather than chronologically. Even so, I think the title should have been something other than The Prison Diary of A.C. Barrington given that the book is mainly the work of Professor Pratt.
Having got that out of the way, let’s consider who and what A.C.Barrington was. A devout Methodist layman, Archie Barrington (1906-86) was an active member of the CPS (Christian Pacifist Society). He was in Mount Crawford prison in Wellington from May to December 1941, having been convicted for, among other things, distributing in wartime the anti-war pamphlet “Defend Freedom and Peace at Home”. The better-known pacifist (and former decorated soldier) Ormond Burton was one of his fellow prisoners. It was illegal for prisoners to keep diaries in prison, but Barrington contrived to do so by writing about 800 words a day in the margins of published books that he was allowed to keep. Only after Archie’s death did his son John (who contributes this book’s detailed Introduction) discover these marginal diaries and hand them over to Professor Pratt for editing.
Both John Barrington and John Pratt point out the irony that New Zealand in the Second World War had a far harsher attitude towards Conscientious Objectors (COs) than did Britain, Canada, Australia or America – doubly odd in that New Zealand’s wartime Labour cabinet included men who had been prosecuted and imprisoned for opposing the First World War. Unlike Britain, when New Zealand introduced military conscription in 1940, it allowed no right of appeal. Pratt writes:
“Clearly, New Zealand had not learnt the lessons of World War 1. In that earlier conflict it had enthusiastically followed the British policy of suppressing dissent, imprisoning around 400 whose CO claims were disallowed and, astonishingly, transporting a handful all the way to the front line in France, literally forcing them into uniforms as they did so. Archibald Baxter famously recalled being brutally subjected to this in We Will Not Cease. Little changed during World War II. Acting Prime Minister Peter Fraser (himself imprisoned during World War I for sedition) explained to a Wellington police conference in 1940 that catching the distributors of subversive literature ‘had to take precedence over everything short of murder.’ ” (Chapter 1, pp.28-29)
In the final chapter of the book, entitled “Dissent, Intolerance and the Dark Side of Paradise”, Pratt returns to the topic of why New Zealand was so harsh towards its COs. He considers the idea that Labour Party leaders were partly intent on showing themselves to be respectable wartime patriots, rather than the subversives they had once seemed to be to New Zealand’s conservative majority. Pratt, however, does not really think this explains the case. Instead he believes “rather than this policy [of treating COs harshly] being seen as an aberration, it should be understood as one episode in the long history of intolerance and repression in this country: one that had deep structural causes, which the war and attendant issues now brought to the surface.” (Chapter 7, p.154) In short, Pratt joins those (like Bill Pearson, like Jamie Belich) who see early- and mid-20th century New Zealand as being a narrow-minded and intolerant society where “ the… emphasis on conformity, homogeneity, communitarianism and respect for state authority also led to high levels of informal and formal suppression of difference.” (Chapter 7, p.157) So “conshies” got roughed up and ridiculed by the country’s majority. Pratt quotes (in Chapter 7) particularly vindictive editorials, news-stories and letters-to-the-editor that were written to present COs in a bad light.
And yet there is another strain to this book’s presentation of Barrington’s sincere pacifist views. Many liberal, open-minded and fair people will realise that the First World War was not the same as the Second World War. Even now, historians can credibly see the first conflict as an imperialist melee between nations, all of which had interested motives. In other words, a purely imperialist war. By contrast, and even though the western Allies ultimately made common cause with Stalin’s genocidal regime, the Second World War had the clear purpose of stopping Hitler – a purpose which most people now would still applaud. Was it, I ask, really inconsistent of Labour leaders to oppose the prosecution of the earlier war but zealously support the prosecution of the latter? At one point, Pratt comes close to noting that Barrington’s views had at least an element of naivete to them:
“…. His beliefs remained unchanging and unflinching. His view – that both Britain and Nazi Germany bore equal culpability for the war – explains his dispassionate and equivocal reactions to war news he periodically received…. Subsequent revelations of Nazi atrocities were proof, for Barrington, of the evils that stemmed from war. (That a country should deliberately seek war to enable it to pursue such atrocities did not seem to occur to him.)” (Chapter 5, pp.122-123)
In his opening chapter, Pratt gives a potted history of how conscientious objectors and pacifists were treated in this country and elsewhere. But, as I have noted above, this is not really the focus of Pratt’s book. Pratt, the criminologist, is more interested in the nature of prisons and imprisonment.
He states early that Mount Crawford was one of New Zealand’s more lenient prisons – not a jail where hardened and violent criminals were imprisoned. In the months that Barrington was there, there was only one act of violence (recorded in Chapter 4), when a warder hit a prisoner. There was none of the stand-over tactics that hardened criminals often inflicted (and still inflict) on new arrivals and other vulnerable prisoners, such as happened (and still happens) in other prisons. At that time, New Zealand’s murderers, who faced the death penalty, tended to be incarcerated in Auckland’s Mt Eden prison. Hence A.C.Barrington’s experience was of a medium security prison:
“By 1940 most New Zealand prisons were designed to accommodate the mainstream prison population who constituted only low- or medium-security risks…. One of the particularly important aspects of Barrington’s diary is thus that it describes not the most extreme form of maximum-security imprisonment, but the most typical, which Mount Crawford represented.” (Chapter 1, p.38)
Most of the inmates, we discover (in Chapter 5, “The Inmates”), were petty thieves, embezzlers and the like, who virtually expected prison to be a regular feature in their lives. Though they observed a regular and rigid routine, the warders turned a blind eye to many of the prisoners’ social activities. “Most, it seems, chose not to pry too deeply into what the inmates were doing, as long as security, safety or prison routine were not ostensibly put at risk.” (Chapter 4, p. 94) While fretting at many of the boring things he had to endure, A.C.Barrington’s diary (as quoted at Chapter 4, p.90) shows him finding at least some sympathy for the warders who were locked into as dull a routine as the prisoners were. Barrington and his fellow COs were not the sort of “absolutist” pacifists who refused to cooperate with prison authorities or do any assigned work in prison. Instead, they tended cheerfully enough to the prison’s vegetable fields and pigpens. In return, the warders clearly regarded COs as “a better class of prisoner”, most of the COs being educated middle-class people as opposed to the prison’s petty criminal working-class old lags. There were some warders who played the system by taking food from the prison gardens for their own home use, and some who used unpaid prison labour for their own private work. For all that, the relationship between prisoners and warders was as mutually considerate as it could be in the circumstances.
On the positive side, Pratt infers from Barrington’s diary that New Zealand prisoners were fed far more generously than contemporaneous prisoners in English or Australian jails. Large, hot meals were served daily at Mount Crawford. On the negative side, the menu was nearly always the same and was, like so many aspects of prison life, very monotonous. (Chapter 3, pp.73 ff.) To vary the monotony, prisoners often scrabbled for different sources of food, even delving into garbage pails to retrieve unused fruit and vegetables.
The overall impression we get of this particular prison is that it was a place of petty annoyances. Strict and sometimes redundant regulations governed everything. A warder had to go through the cumbersome process of getting written permission before he could replace a blown light bulb in a prisoner’s cell. Loud radio broadcasts blared out most of the time, driving some prisoners to distraction. (Yet, surprisingly, Barrington was allowed a private radio in his cell, which he could listen to through headphones.) The prison library was a paltry thing containing hardly any books worth reading – a particularly irksome matter for literate and studious men like Barrington and Ormond. The clothing the prisoners had to wear was thin, worn and threadbare, which left many prisoners permanently cold in the prison’s chilly, windblown climate. Occasionally films were shown to prisoners, but they tended to be puerile entertainments or old newsreels. Visitors from outside – sometimes distinguished people – offered prisoners W.E.A. (Workers’ Educational Association) lectures. Of course some prisoners came to listen only so that they could surreptitiously pass notes to each other or trade cigarettes for biscuits, but the lectures were still a civilising influence. But any “lecture had to finish by the appointed time, otherwise the routine and rhythm of prison life would be disrupted.” (Chapter 2, p.48) Often, then, lecturers would be cut off in mid flow.
There is little in Barrington’s and Pratt’s account to move us to laughter, although we might smile wryly when Barrington, the devout Christian, notes in his diary: “Burning, tearing or defacing books in any way is strictly forbidden. (NB I notice that marked New Testament in my cell ends half way through St James Epistle, remainder having been torn out, possibly for toilet & cigarette paper).” (Chapter 2, pp.58-59)
In his lengthy commentary, what annoys Professor Pratt most is the way repeated attempts to reform prisons tended to come to nothing, and annual reports on prisons smoothly glossed over real problems. At the end of Chapter 2, Pratt remarks:
“It is clear … that a very large gulf existed between the aspirations of the prison authorities – to develop a more reform-focused, ameliorated prison system – and the reality of prison life. The annual reports merely acted as a frontispiece for a prison system that was badly run down and that seemed to have little purpose other than maintaining its own continuity. The morass of prison regulations not only reinforced the subordinate status of the inmates and denied the warders any initiative, but also solidified the prison’s own impermeability.” (Chapter 2, pp.63-64)
Of Mount Crawford in particular, he remarks at the end of Chapter 3:
“Despite the intended reforms of the twentieth century, the prison had in fact lost little of the uniformity and predictability associated with its late-nineteenth-century administration. Incarceration was no longer intended to terrify prisoners away from crime and relentlessly crush any recalcitrance they might display, yet the underlying traditions and conditions were still in place, corrupting, narrowing and diminishing the supposed reform initiative. Any real prospects for reform were negated by the debilitating environment: a cold prison made colder by the unrelenting dampness of the Wellington winter; ramshackle farming practice; split or overflowing chamber pots; tea that tasted like porridge and porridge that tasted like tea; and disinterested warders supervising work about which they knew or cared little.” (Chapter 3, pp. 83-84)
Above all, the professional criminologist is angered that no real attempts were made to educate or rehabilitate prisoners:
“Nothing was done to prevent them from returning after release; instead, the gates were simply opened to usher them back in. The prison’s main purpose was to provide a sanctuary – albeit a tawdry and shabby one, one that stripped men of their dignity and autonomy – for those whom society had discarded.” (Chapter 5, pp. 117-118)
If we are expecting Pratt to tell us that New Zealand prisons have improved since the primitive 1940s, Chapter 6 (“Prison Past and Present”) gives us a rude shock. Mount Crawford prison, he notes, closed in 2012. But what we now have is more high security in all jails, with prisoners now clothed in high visibility suits, a far stricter separation of prisoners and prison officers (none of the affable interaction and chat that Barrington recorded) and the absolute impossibility of outside speakers coming in to offer civilising lectures. Instead, prisoners are pacified and mentally drugged with in-cell television. Worse, the median age of prisoners has got lower. 24% or prisoners in New Zealand jails are now under 24 years of age, with a far higher proportion being convicted of violent offences than was the case 70 years ago. It is Pratt’s belief that, now as then, New Zealand locks up far too many people and our prisons still do too little to really rehabilitate prisoners.
You can see that these issues take us quite some way from the prison experience of A.C. Barrington. I do not think that Barrington’s experience was particularly harsh. Eight months in a relatively humane prison is not the worst thing a CO could have endured. But I can see that the boredom and discomforts of prison could have numbed a less resilient soul.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“LE PERE GORIOT” by Honore de Balzac (first published 1835). (Usually translated into English as “OLD GORIOT”)
On this blog, the devoted Balzacian in me has already opined that, of the novels of Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), his late masterpiece Le Cousin Pons is his best-structured novel, La Rabouilleuse is his most gripping story, and La Cousine Bette is his most gregarious and chattery tale. But often, when critics seek to establish Balzac’s credentials as a Great Novelist, it is to Le Pere Goriot (Old Goriot) that they turn. I understand, too, that Le Pere Goriot shares with the small-town tragedy Eugenie Grandet the distinction of being the Balzac novel most often taught in French high schools.
Why has Le Pere Goriot attained this distinction? Partly, I think, because, in Eugene de Rastignac, it has such a strong central character, who really does undergo a major change in the course of the narrative. And partly because, like Le Cousin Pons, it is one of Balzac’s more tightly-structured works.
Like so many of Balzac’s works Le Pere Goriot, though written in the “liberal monarchy” era of Louis Philippe, is set in the earlier Restoration period. The main action takes place in 1819-20.
Innocent young law student from the provinces Eugene de Rastignac (he is 22 when the novel opens) has come to Paris and stays at the boarding house run by Madame Vauquer. He observes, at first with a quizzical eye, and gradually with a more jaundiced one, the lives of his fellow boarders.
One strand of plot involves him with the stately Madame Couture, widow of a republican official, and her ward, the virtuous, beauteous, consumptive Victorine Taillefer, who has been disinherited by her cruel father. Impressionable Eugene de Rastignac falls in love with Victorine. He is urged by another boarder – the witty, worldly, garrulous Vautrin – to marry her after, by various turns of the plot which I will not relate, Vautrin has contrived to have Victorine’s inheritance restored to her. But Eugene virtuously refuses this suggestion, believing that an opportunist marriage to an heiress would make him an immoral fortune-hunter. In the midst of all this, Vautrin gives Eugene much pungent and worldly advice (about twelve straight pages of it) – before Vautrin himself is revealed to be Jacques Collin, a master criminal wanted by the police. (Vautrin, like much of the cast of Le Pere Goriot, is a recurring character who appears in many of Balzac’s novels and in later works spends much of his time trying to corrupt Lucien de Rubempre.)
A second strand of plot concerns Eugene’s relationship with his distant cousin, the Vicomtesse de Beauseant, who educates him in the fashionable ways of high society. Eugene and (by implication) Balzac see the Vicomtesse de Beauseant as the epitome of decorum, and also as a slightly tragic figure. When she is jilted by the man she hoped to marry, there is a sad scene where fashionable people come to gloat at her grief at a ball she throws. Yet for this reader at least, Balzac’s favourable view of her rings a little false. To me, the viscountess seems simply somebody who plays the same society games as other affluent people in the novel, except with a little more discretion and taste.
Much as they open up the novel’s social perspective, however, these two strands of plot are secondary to the strand which gives the novel its title.
“Le pere” Goriot (“old” Goriot), aged about 70, is a retired vermicelli maker and miser who lives in increasingly straitened circumstances at Mme. Vauquer’s boarding house. Taciturn and secretive, he is a source of mystery to other boarders, especially as he is sometimes seen to be visited by two beauteous and well-dressed women of fashion. Eugene de Rastignac spies on him, and soon discovers that the two fashionable women are in reality the miser’s daughters. One is Anastasie de Restaud, wife of the Comte de Restaud. The other is Delphine de Nucigen, wife of the fabulously wealthy Alsatian banker Baron de Nucigen. This central strand of plot really shows Eugene de Rastignac’s sour education in how the demands of society and fashion often override filial piety and family ties. For old Jean-Joachim Goriot sacrifices everything for his daughters, with an obsessive, monomaniacal love, while his daughters regard him with scorn and simply make greater and greater demands upon him. Eugene is nevertheless fascinated by both father and daughters, and old Goriot comes to regard Eugene as a kind of substitute “son”, if only because Eugene’s own entrée into high society allows him to report to the old man on the daughters’ appearances at balls, levees and banquets from which the old man is barred.
It is clear that the marriages of the two daughters were both entirely mercenary (both husbands married them solely for their father’s wealth). Both daughters have taken lovers, with whom each has had a stormy relationship. One daughter is jealous of the slightly higher social station of the other, and their attitude towards each other is as catty as their attitude towards their father is contemptuous. There are episodes in the novel in which Eugene de Rastignac is impressed by one of the daughters – Delphine – imagines he loves her and becomes her “escort”. But he is eventually disillusioned in her. When Old Goriot dies, neither daughter bothers to be present at his deathbed and the old man is buried in a pauper’s grave at Eugene de Rastignac’s expense. Symbolically, it is the empty carriages of the two daughters which, purely for form’s sake, follow the funeral procession.
With the motif of two thankless daughters taking everything from their father, it is inevitable that Le Pere Goriot has sometimes been compared with King Lear, even if there is no redemptive Cordelia to offset the Goneril and Regan. The comparison can lead to the fruitful reflection that, like Lear, Old Goriot has given his love in the hope of getting something in return. Goriot may be mistreated by his daughters, but his original conception of parental love was a flawed one. The relationship of Eugene de Rastignac with the criminal Vautrin, who teaches him much, also put me in mind of the relationship of Pip and the criminal Magwitch in Dickens’ Great Expectations, where the young man is taught about the unity of society by discovering his own dependence, as a gentlemen, on an outcast. Eugene de Rastignac, however, draws a much more pragmatic lesson from Vautrin’s teaching (and his experience of Paris society) than the one Pip draws.
Rastignac, remarks Balzac about thirty pages before the end of the novel [which is not divided into chapters]:
“had seen society in its three great aspects: Obedience, Struggle and Revolt; or in other words, the Family, the World and Vautrin; and the necessity of choosing one of them dismayed him. Obedience was boring, Revolt impossible and Struggle hazardous. His thoughts carried him back to his home and his family. He remembered the pure happiness of his life there…”
But returning to that pure provincial happiness is simply impossible for the young newcomer to Paris. The novel has shown a young man’s initiation into the world. Ostensibly it shows the disastrous effects of the shattering of the most sacred bonds of the family (Goriot and his daughters; Victorine Taillefer and her father). But Eugene does not recoil from this world, much as the behaviour of Goriot’s daughters may disgust him. Instead he accepts that if Paris is a social battlefield, he will join the battle and win, using society’s rules to his own advantage. Calculation has entered the young provincial’s soul and clearly, when he “throws the gauntlet down to society” on the last page, he is going to proceed to a life of looking after Number One. The image of the virtuous, stabilising family has been reduced to a mere sentimental dream. On the last page, having discovered how heartless society can be, how thankless family members are to one another, how mercenary and self-interested all “successful” people really are, Eugene de Rastignac stands gazing over the city of Paris and vows to declare war on its society. But he will not preach against it. He will beat it at its own game.
Is this, then, the novel of a young man’s education, or of his corruption?
Despite the three interwoven plots, I still see Le Pere Goriot as one of Balzac’s most concentrated and carefully organised novels. The whole action takes place in the space of three or four months, and by having Rastignac come in to witness the story of Goriot and his two daughters after most of their fraught relationship has already been played out, Balzac is in a way adopting the technique of classical tragedy in arranging his story around its crisis.
The seediness of the boarding house is conveyed vividly, with the cheating of the servants; as is its bustling nature with the high-spirited nonsense and gossip and punnery of the younger boarders in contrast with the fixed eccentricities and quiet fastidiousness of the older boarders. Of course there is a degree of melodrama. This is Balzac, after all. That Eugene de Rastignac can hear, through thin walls, every word of angry conferences between Goriot and his daughters is simply a convention that we have to accept. One is also in the world of those “titanic” characters that Balzac liked to create – Vautrin, not only in his long, oratorical advice to Eugene; but also in his heroic defiance when he is facing arrest. Goriot declaring to Anastasie “I wish I were God so that I could throw the universe at your feet.” He is a man deformed by a dominant passion and therefore more vulnerable to the calculations of less exalted, but more cunning, people. One could also note that – as Dickens was later to do – Balzac enjoys attaching a physical “prop” or tic to his characters: the red wig glued, as a disguise, to Vautrin’s skull; Goriot's dinner-table habit of sniffing the bread etc.
To point to the flaws of Le Pere Goriot, however, is merely to point out that the best novels have their flaws. I rate Le Cousin Pons more highly as a literary work, and La Rabouilleuse more intriguing as a story, but Le Pere Goriot is still up there with Balzac’s best.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A sort of footnote for fastidious readers:
I am fully aware that, among literary critics, Balzac is despised as often as he is admired. For many years (especially in the 1940s and 1950s), the foremost critic of French literature for British readers was Martin Turnell (1908-79). He wrote admiring works about classical French dramatists (Corneille, Racine, Moliere) and about Flaubert, Baudelaire and others. But he hated Balzac, and joined the chorus of those who condemned Balzac for being melodramatic, puerile, primitive in his psychology and limited in his ideas. (Bet if he was criticising Eng. Lit. he’d be the type of chap who did his rag at Dickens while praising George Eliot). In his 1950 tome The Novel in France, Turnell spends a chapter turning his guns on Balzac and ripping apart four of the master’s best – Le Pere Goriot, Le Cure de Tours, Eugenie Grandet and La Cousine Bette.
Le Pere Goriot seems to anger him most because it has often been called a masterpiece, whereas according to Turnell “it is mainly interesting as an illustration of [Balzac’s] most characteristic vices as a novelist…. The chief reason for examining it in detail is to try to correct some of the exaggerated estimates of previous writers.” Turnell proceeds to “correct” our view by quoting passages which he doesn’t like and which he sees as crude in the way they present Balzac’s themes or emphasise melodrama. Oh yes, and Balzac was vulgar enough to share some of the stylistic vices of those who (ugh!) write ‘detective stories’. (Yes, dear reader, Turnell does enclose ‘detective stories’ in quotation marks as if he is donning rubber gloves to pick up a piece of greasy rubbish.)
And what does Turnell achieve by his rant? Nothing, actually. He thinks he is showing how far Balzac falls beneath the standards of the best classical French prose. But all he is really telling us is that Balzac’s Romantic-era prose is not to his taste. This often happens with over-fastidious and academic critics. They think that by displaying their tastes they have proven something objectively.
“What an unappreciative twit”, I think, as I close Turnell’s dyspeptic chapter and consider once again what a satisfying and thoughtful novel Le Pere Goriot is.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
MY LITTLE COCOON
I drive to work in the morning and my car radio is always tuned to the Concert Programme, so I enjoy about 25 minutes of classical music en route. A jolly way to prepare for the day, especially as in the earlier morning the Concert Programme seems to prefer the lively early Baroque pick-me-up of Vivaldi or the cheerful Classical bounce of Mozart to the Romantic musings of Beethoven and his followers. When I drive home, I’m usually listening to a jazz CD. Jazz and classical music – surely that is the heart of worthwhile music, isn’t it?
When I eat my breakfast near the kitchen radio, I am of course listening to Morning Report on National Radio – the only possible mixture of news and intelligent commentary. Yes, before the evening meal I do usually watch TV ONE news – for all its manifest faults - but after dinner, when and if I am doing the dishes in the kitchen, I am again tuned to National Radio. Earlier, I might have listened to such commentary as Checkpoint. Then I go upstairs and set about doing something like reading or preparing work or writing this blog. And if I have any music playing in the background (which is only sometimes) it will be either classical or jazz, on CD or on some computer-accessed station such as Radio Swiss Classic.
You see what I am doing here, don’t you? I am constructing my own soundscape – upmarket news and commentary and highbrow music.
And given this self-chosen cocoon, it is easy for me to drift into the delusion that my selected soundscape is the norm.
Surely this is what ALL intelligent people listen to?
And of course, it isn’t.
The audience for the Concert Programme (or Concert FM, or Radio National Concert, or whatever it is now called) is minuscule. On any given evening it is being listened to by – at most – a couple of thousand people nationwide. I know that this fact leads neoliberal sharks to suggest scrapping it and I personally would loudly lament its loss. But it is a fact nevertheless.
It is also a fact that National Radio is the most widely listened-to and respected radio station in the country. This further fact leaves neoliberals grinding their teeth and wishing there was some way of spiking this independent entity that does not speak the language of commerce. I would have to note, however, that even though no other individual radio station has the audience of National Radio, collectively the many commercial stations, with their mix of pop or rock music and superficial talkback and drivel pretending to be news, gain more listeners than National Radio.
So my soundscape – the sounds that influence me nearly every day – is in no way the national norm or average. It in no way reflects a majority opinion and I would have to be very arrogant indeed to assume that it is the only soundscape for intelligent people – even if that delusion still lurks in my mind.
I think I am not the only one to suffer from such a delusion, however. Users of social media are often under the delusion that the opinions they share with their “friends” represent some sort of social consensus – or at least majority opinion. Look at all those hits given to postings. Look at the wealth of comments (often showing a poverty of expression) that follow so many postings. Once the commentariat of Facebook gets going, it convinces itself that its agreed opinions are the only possible opinions. How strident they become. But Facebook is a chosen environment. It is not society at large, and what you and your “friends” agree on represents only what you and your non-representative “friends” agree on.
I was delighted to have this demonstrated a couple of months back. All over Facebook, there were postings saying what huge popular support there was for the distressingly dull “Red Peak” flag design. Apparently there was a “surge” of support for it. Apparently it was what the mass of New Zealanders wanted, as opposed to the other designs that had been chosen by the official design committee. Postings kept coming up purporting to show how its colours represented the true national identity. And what a great victory for the popular will it was that, with the advocacy of the Green Party, “Red Peak” was added to the other four designs in the first round of voting over the flag.
Came the ballot and of the five options…. Red Peak came third, some way behind the two more popular choices.
Of course (much as it doesn’t appeal to me) this does not necessarily mean that Red Peak was a worse design. Of course it does not mean that one cannot criticise the two preferred options [or like the two less popular options]. But it does mean that a lot of people were misled into thinking they represented a consensus when they were only looking at the inside of their chosen cocoon.
Maybe this is merely an amplification of the old truism that we think our circle of acquaintances is the whole world. But having so many like-minded people on a chosen media platform really does reinforce the delusion, when we should all take the time, frequently, to wriggle out of our cocoons.
Monday, February 22, 2016
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“POLITICS AND THE MEDIA – Second Edition” edited by Geoff Kemp, Babak Bahador, Kate McMillan and Chris Rudd (Auckland University Press, $59:99)
One of the things I thought I would never do on this blog would be to review a textbook. Textbooks are designed for a specific audience, are basically exposition and explanation, and are not noted for the fireworks of their prose. Textbooks, by their very nature, are sober, clear, direct and (unless they are very unreliable textbooks) balanced in their views on any controversial issue. They are intended to guide students through an academic subject in the most helpful way possible. In short, they are generally dull.
But I could not resist reading and reviewing the new Second Edition (the First Edition came out in 2013) of Kemp, Bahador, McMillan and Rudd’s Politics and the Media first, because the subject interests me, and second, because it is a New Zealand book which gives some specifically New Zealand perspectives on its subject as well as global perspectives.
Let’s take as read the tell-tale signs that it is a textbook, its intended audience being fresher or sophomore students in Political Studies or Media Studies departments at any New Zealand tertiary institution. At the end of each chapter there is a neat paragraph labelled “Conclusion”, allowing students to review the main arguments of the chapter they have just read. There are no illustrations or other distractions from the text – besides, I am sure the compilers of this text are savvy enough to know that nothing dates more quickly than a topical photograph related to the media, and they would not want their book to date too quickly. It should serve as a textbook for a few years at least. There is a brief bibliography at the end of each chapter (students have to be encouraged to do further reading). The binding is sturdy (the book will be thrust in and out of student bags and will suffer more than average ill usage). The print of its 350 pages is larger-than-average for easier reading.
So it’s a textbook.
Sixteen Media Studies and Political Studies academics (including the four editors) have written the book’s 20 chapters. The first twelve chapters deal with generic and global perspectives on media and politics. The last eight chapters deal specifically with the New Zealand scene. 10 of the 20 chapters were written by the editors.
Because they deal with the global scene, the first twelve chapters tend to be more general in what they say, but many of their observations can be translated into New Zealand terms. Take Geoff Kemp in his two opening chapters (on media and politics in general and on the history of media). He observes that: “The under-30s are viewing less and less linear (real-time) television, a change in media use that invites us to think about how it may change politics too.” (Geoff Kemp, Chap. 1, p.7) This statement is clearly as true of Wadestown as it is of Yonkers. Ditto the observation that: “Clearly the media operates at multiple levels – from the grassroots to the global – in its organisation, content and distribution, but the nation-state and national media remain at the core of political decision-making, though an increasingly globalised media is a challenge facing traditional nation-states.” (Geoff Kemp, Chap. 1, p.7) There is the odd but pervasive paradox that global interests dominate the media, but that audiences, readers and viewers are often attracted first to stories of what is national and/or local. Kemp also reminds us that modern media (“modern” meaning in the last 200 years or so) have altered radically the “imagined communities” which our minds inhabit, but that specific media technologies and delivery platforms are always changing. It is fashionable to see “broadcast” television and radio as being on the way out, but as Kemp remarks: “While history may one day confirm that the age of broadcasting has given way to a ‘narrowcasting’ new media era, for the moment television remains relatively young in media history terms and still relatively dominant as a political mass medium.” (Geoff Kemp, Chap. 2, p.36) There is still a lot of kick to radio and television, despite the rise of the internet, blogs, twitter and other social media. I appreciate also Kemp’s chapter on journalism and journalists in general, especially on journalists’ changing status “as traditional newsrooms shrink while the digital realm grows.” (Geoff Kemp, Chap. 5, p.72) While this chapter is a very general survey, and a little bland, it does at least give space to Robert Fisk’s thesis that there is always a tension between the desire for “balance” in journalism (which can often mean blandness or a lack of commitment) and the journalist’s desire to take a stand or be partisan.
In this part of the textbook concerned with general principles and the global scene, Babak Bahador weighs in with a chapter (Chap. 4, “The State and Propaganda”) which presents the very Chomskyite thesis [familiar to viewers of the long documentary Manufacturing Consent] that in a capitalist free market economy, the media become propaganda for capitalism by means of their ownership, their advertising, the sources that use, the organised “flak” they get from interest groups and their own implicit ideology. Having presented this view, however, Bahador has the balance to list all the objections of Chomsky’s critics. In his chapter (Chapter 7) on the media and foreign policy, Bahador notes that once upon a time, where international affairs were concerned, media generally tended to support the national interest – especially in times of war. Now, however, with the rise of 24-hour live coverage TV (“the CNN effect”), presentation of foreign affairs is much more dramatized and less likely to be so firmly in the national interest. Or is it? The question leads to the quandary of whether news services themselves set agendas or are simply the messengers of power elites. When he discusses (Chapter 8) the effect of the media upon issues of war and peace, Bahador notes the big effect the Vietnam War had in making American and other media less automatically patriotic; but, alas, there has been the rise of “militainment”, the fetishisation of military hardware and the tendency to present the combat of war as some sort of real-time computer game. On top of this, there is now the greater sophistication of the military in controlling media outlets or limiting relevant information, and the special problem of reporters “embedded” with the military and thus tending to view events as their friends the soldiers do. According to one media theorist whom Bahador cites “there is an inherent compatibility between news values and war and an incompatibility with peace processes. This is because the news media are attracted to stories characterised by immediacy, drama, simplicity and ethnocentrism.” (Babak Bahador, Chap.8, p.131).
I did take heed of the other chapters in Part One – Chris Rudd on how media research is undertaken (i.e. the problem of sources); Chris Rudd on the effect of media on citizens and politicians (i.e. the shift to a more fragmented media where the audience for any given platform is likely to be more limited and more partisan); and Maria Armoudian on how news stories are “framed” (i.e. into what narrative category the media choose to fit news stories). In the textbook’s global and generic section, however, the three most essential chapters seemed to me to be the following:
* Chris Rudd on the hard facts of media ownership and control (“Political Economy of the Media”, Chapter 3). His essential thesis is that: “Deregulation, privatisation and commercialisation – the touchstones of neoliberalism – have placed the production and distribution of information into the hands of few companies, with all the implications that has for the functioning of a modern democracy.” (Chris Rudd, Chap.3, p.40). He reports, for example, that four companies dominate New Zealand news media . In the print media are “NZME (New Zealand Media and Entertainment) and Fairfax Media. Together they account for nearly 90% of the daily circulation of New Zealand’s provincial and metropolitan newspapers. A similar situation exists in radio, with NZME, owners of the Radio Network (New Zealand’s largest radio broadcaster), and MediaWorks, owner of nearly a dozen radio stations.” (Chris Rudd, Chap.3, p.42) Further, economic imperatives mean “…the free market is likely to under-produce news about current affairs, government and public policies. It produces political news that tends towards soft news, focusing on the drama and entertainment of politics – for example, the personalisation and celebrification of political leaders in talk shows and political satires such as The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight in the United States, and 7 Days in New Zealand. This is not to say that soft news cannot inform; but the danger is it may come to overshadow or displace hard news rather than complement it.” (Chris Rudd, Chap.3, p.47) It is certainly displacing hard news in the New Zealand media.
* Then there is Geoffrey Craig (Chapter 6) on the matter of spin and of politicians’ techniques (often covert) for containing and controlling the media. The rise of media trainers coaching politicians on how to answer questions, how to avoid tricky subjects and how to evade really capable interviewers is discussed in detail: “Spin doctors will, for example, coach politicians to stay on message regardless of the nature of journalistic enquiries. They will also put pressure on journalists through persuasion, bullying and hectoring to try to influence the reportage of the journalist, and either raise or lower expectations about providing information. In addition, spin doctors seek to set and maintain the news agenda through a range of measures: planting stories, timing the release of information to maximise news coverage, diverting journalists from positive news about political opponents or unfavourable news about their charges, promoting political personalities, and kite-flying, where proposals are informally floated in order to gauge journalistic and public reaction before final decisions are made about a formal public release of information.” (Geoffrey Craig, Chap.6, p.96) Craig does, however, set some limitations on this. When the spin doctor himself becomes the centre of the story (as happened with Tony Blair’s Svengali, Alastair Campbell), then his effectiveness is limited. Moreover, even after the most assiduous application of spin, it will still be journalists who “frame” and prioritise stories.
* As for the third of the most impressive chapters in Part One, it is Donald Matheson discussing (Chapter 12) “The Power of Online Politics” – that is, how social media, often framed as a counter-force to traditional media, have an impact on political processes. Again, like other contributors, Matheson notes the current fragmentation of media: “… the traditional, professional media’s power is weakening. The economics of current affairs has become marginal as advertisers drift towards social media and online search advertising, leaving entertainment-style formats such as TVNZ’s Seven Sharp best able to justify their costs. In New Zealand, as in many Western media systems, the mass audience has fragmented, as has the power of old media to claim to convene the public. Moreover, these media are now held accountable themselves by emerging media. MediaWorks, which runs TV3, faced a campaign run through Facebook and the petitions site, Action Station, to save the current affairs show Campbell Live in 2015. Television’s long-held power to speak in behalf of the public has become more fragile.” (Donald Matheson, Chap. 12, p.188) Yet Matheson does not really see a totally new political environment arising from cyberspace, because much blogging is connected intimately to existing political elites: “Much of the critical enthusiasm for blogging since it emerged in the early 2000s focused on its potential to widen the space of public debate. Two major points were made: that there are more voices to be heard now in public life and that there is a better quality of debate. Examples such as the Whale Oil blog, as well as the weight of research, show that new forms of media such as blogging are far from [being] independent of existing structures of power.” (Donald Matheson, Chap. 12, p.190) In other words, familiar political games continue to be played in the blogosphere.
When we reach Part Two of Politics and the Media, the part of that deals specifically with New Zealand media, we have some necessary but worthy chapters such as the dry statistical analysis of how much time, and how much sympathetic reportage, the media have given to different political parties in the last three general elections (Chapter 13). I do not doubt the truth of the book’s last two chapters. Sue Abel speaks on Maori in political media (Chap.19) and says Maori history and concerns are distorted by the media. Susan Foutaine and Margie Comrie say that women politicians are trivialised or sexualised in New Zealand media (Chap.20). Unfortunately neither of these contentions is news.
I found myself more drawn to Bryce Edwards’ account (Chapter 14) of “party professionals” and the New Zealand media. In introducing his subject, Edwards remarks: “Occasionally… the public gets a glimpse of how the spin doctors and party professionals operate and this can be controversial as shown by the publication of Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics during the 2014 general election. This chapter looks at such controversies and other details of how politicians attempt to manage the media and information. It explains how the media strategies of politicians are becoming more covert and sophisticated, and suggests that the story told in Dirty Politics is merely a continuation of trends that have been apparent for decades.” (Bryce Edwards, Chap. 14, p.219) [Emphasis added.] In New Zealand, we too suffer from the plague or PR people and media trainers programming politicians to avoid, or divert attention from, hard questions; and of “focus groups” which coach politicians in selling themselves to the electorate without disclosing real policy details.
When Gavin Ellis (Chapter 15) examines the political role of newspapers, he gives a potted history of newspapers in New Zealand, which began with 19th century newspapers being set up specifically to promote the political views of their proprietors. Gradually, newspapers changed into vehicles of information which tried to be more subtle, and less overtly partisan, in their political preferences. Then came neoliberalism and: “There is ample evidence that [New Zealand newspapers] have enthusiastically embraced the marketing command to ‘give the people what they want’ (or what will induce them to buy the newspaper). The New Zealand Herald’s move to a tabloid format in 2012 has been accompanied by more tabloid content and front-page lead stories with headlines such as ‘My Shame’ (about a man convicted for surreptitiously photographing women) and ‘Body Falls From Hearse’. Good journalism appears as oases amid populist news stories. Other newspapers have followed suit with more entertainment-driven content and there has been a broad shift toward the British tabloid mantra ‘if it bleeds, it leads’.”(Gavin Ellis, Chap.15, p.244)
Kate McMillan’s account of “Radio and Politics in New Zealand” (Chapter 16) correctly notes how commercial formats allow politicians to appear on air without having to face hard political questioning which the likes of Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report and Checkpoint would subject them to. While she endorses the diversity of deregulation, she again notes how impoverished New Zealand political discourse would be without a credible and independent public radio system. Seasoned journalist Joe Atkinson says something similar in his chapter on politics and television (Chapter 17). When Ashley Murchison examines New Zealand’s online media (Chap.18), he issues the familiar warning that this does not herald a brave new world of informed, diverse and independent political commentary, but is as riddled with bias and partisanship as the more traditional media. Indeed the online commentariat is often more zealous in its partisanship than old mainstream media would dare to be: “Some of the more well-recognised and popular New Zealand blogs include Whale Oil, Kiwiblog, The Standard, The Daily Blog, The Dim Post, No Minister and Public Address…. The traditional left-right divide operates within this domain. Accordingly, while the blogs serve to provide basic information about contentious political issues, they also operate as a platform to encourage support for a particular side of the political spectrum… As such, it is not uncommon for prominent political bloggers to have well-established and sometimes controversial affiliations with political parties.” (Ashley Murchison, Chap.18, p.304)
Because it more directly affects you and me, I found most of the essays of Part Two to be more stimulating than those of Part One. Even so, I was constantly reminded that this is a textbook. When making a contentious or controversial statement, the collective authors tend to be measured and even in tone. I was hoping for a full-scale, no-holds-barred attack on the progressive trivialisation of New Zealand’s news services, to the point where only a few Radio New Zealand programmes offer genuine political analysis. A further thing I did not find in this stately tome was a systematic analysis of the education levels and social classes of the readers, viewer and listeners of mainstream New Zealand media (and the partakers in New Zealand social media), especially when the authors are discussing the impact of specific platforms. Perhaps such sociological analysis will be available in the Third Edition.