Saturday, June 25, 2011

Karl du Fresne: Media crucifixions - alive and well

Once again we see how fragile free speech really is in this supposedly liberal democracy. The lesson from Alasdair Thompson’s crucifixion in the media this week couldn’t be clearer: express an opinion at your peril. In the deafening barrage of righteous indignation that followed Thompson’s comment that some women take sick leave when they have their periods, everyone was too busy taking offence to take much notice of what he actually said or the context in which he mentioned it.

The reference to periods came in a radio interview prompted by Green MP Catherine Delahunty’s bill that would require employers to provide information about pay rates, therefore testing whether there is sex discrimination in the workplace. Thompson’s main concern was that this would burden business with more bureaucracy and compliance costs.

Toward the end of the interview, on Mike Hosking’s NewstalkZB breakfast show, Thompson asked rhetorically: “Who takes most sick leave? Women do.” Some had to look after children at home, he said; others had a “sick problem” once a month.

He went on to say it wasn’t their fault, and perhaps there were issues they needed to sort out with their partners.

Not that anything mattered after he mentioned menstruation. At that point rational debate ceased as elements of the media, abandoning all semblance of objectivity, lashed themselves into a shark-like feeding frenzy.

It seems to me that Thompson can be accused of two things. He expressed an opinion – clearly a very dangerous thing to do these days – and he appeared to base it on information from his own workplace, which may or may not be indicative of the wider situation.

Hardly hanging offences, you might think. Freedom of speech includes the right to get things wrong, if indeed Thompson was wrong (we don’t really know). Yet in the ensuing hysteria, the CEO of the Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern) was pilloried as if he were Pol Pot, Hitler and Idi Amin collectively reincarnated

Thompson subsequently tried to salvage things in a 28-minute interview with Mihingarangi Forbes from TV3’s Campbell Live. Faint chance. Once television has decided it wants your bloodied head on a spike, you’re a goner.

Among other things, Thompson tried to clarify his position by saying that women take more sick leave than men (a point that appears to be confirmed by public service figures, though the difference isn’t huge). They take time off to look after kids. Some have period problems. Some take maternity leave and may not come back to work for several years.

He mentioned all this in an attempt to explain why women’s productivity, which is central to the setting of pay rates, may be lower than men’s – which in turn might explain why women on average get paid 12 percent less. For the life of me, I can’t see why any of these comments should be considered exceptionable. He was simply saying that women employees have to deal with issues that don’t confront men, and that this can interfere with their careers and therefore prevent them from reaching the same pay levels as men. That seems to me to be a simple statement of fact.

Crucially, Thompson didn’t say he approved of this state of affairs, or that it was the fault of women. On the contrary, he emphatically declared himself to be in favour of equal pay for equal productivity, equal opportunity and flexible workplaces. He believed pay should be based on productivity, not sex, and he added that he thought the total productivity of women, taking into account their home life as well as their paid work, was higher than that of most men. He agreed it was odd that there are so many female schoolteachers yet so few female principals (a point raised by Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly on the Hosking programme, though it wasn’t directly related to the issue under discussion). He even saw merit in the objective of Delahunty’s bill, if not its remedy. These don’t strike me as the views of a sexist dinosaur, to use the two terms of abuse repeatedly hurled at Thompson in recent days.

Just as crucially, Thompson acknowledged that there was a pay gap between women and men. The real issue, he said, was whether the Delahunty bill would fix it, and British experience with similar legislation suggested it wouldn’t.

This was an attempt to bring the discussion back to where it had started, but Thompson might as well have been speaking in Swahili for all the notice Forbes took. She seemed interested only in skewering him over his comment about periods. (That, and whining repeatedly about her heroic efforts as a working mother with three children. At times you got the impression the interview was all about her.)

I’ve seen some outrageous TV interviews but this was one of the worst. Most of the time Forbes gave the impression she either wasn’t listening, didn’t understand what Thompson was saying or wasn’t interested. Perhaps all three.

It reached a point of almost comical absurdity when Forbes suggested Thompson should resign “because you cannot represent half of the population”, adding: “You certainly don’t represent me very well.” Thompson’s response – that his job was actually to represent employers – seemed lost on his dim-witted, self-absorbed interrogator, as was just about everything else he said.

Media coverage of the Campbell Live interview made much of the fact that at one point, Thompson stood up, walked over to Forbes and confronted her in what could have been interpreted as a a menacing manner. Shown in isolation, this certainly looked bad. What wasn’t clear was that Thompson was acting out of sheer frustration after spending 25 minutes trying to explain himself to someone who clearly paid no attention to anything he said. Watch the unexpurgated interview (it’s available at TV3 on Demand) and you’ll see what I mean.

If anything, Thompson was admirably restrained. I would have slung Forbes and her crew out of the office long before that point.

But perhaps Forbes shouldn’t be held solely to blame for her disgraceful performance. She was, after all, taking her cue from most of her colleagues in the electronic media (including, I’m sad to say, John Campbell), who jettisoned all pretence of balance, fairness and neutrality. When there’s a choice between playing sexual politics and observing professional journalistic standards, we now know which will win.

We also know what a media gang-up looks like, and it’s not an edifying spectacle. Want to stamp out New Zealand's bullying culture? Perhaps we could start here.

Watching TV3's highly partisan news coverage of the issue last night, I got the distinct feeling they won't rest until they can brandish Thompson's scalp. Signing off at the end of her item, the reporter said: "It's fair to say this is not the end of the debate." Yeah, right; I'm sure TV3 will see to that. It's a shame that a network that does so many things right should allow its professional judgment to lapse so badly on occasions like this.

But then it’s hard to identify anyone who emerges from the furore with any credit. I wonder how many of the illustrious public figures who lined up to condemn Thompson took the trouble to listen to what he said, in its entirety. Bugger all, I'd guess. Too busy being outraged.

Shame too on the business leaders who ran for cover or stayed silent when Thompson was being hung out to dry. Will the EMA cave in and sack him in response to the vengeful cries for blood? It will be a black day for business and for freedom of speech if they do.

Helen Kelly shrewdly made the most of the situation, playing on the EMA’s embarrassment in an obvious attempt to secure political leverage. Her father Pat, a union firebrand who died in 2004 and whose anniversary fell on Friday while the row was at its height, would have approved.

For his part, Thompson handled the affair clumsily. His first mistake was to panic and make what looked like an insincere apology. He shouldn’t have to apologise for a genuinely held view. Perhaps some nervous nellie in the EMA got in his ear and urged him to back down, but it only made things worse. Apologising doesn’t deter attackers – on the contrary, it encourages them because it makes the apologiser look weak and indecisive.

His performance led comedian Raybon Kan – described on this occasion as a media commentator – to suggest on Campbell Live that the entire affair was an ad for media trainers. But no amount of media training could prepare anyone to deal with the sort of vicious onslaught Thompson faced.

In the end we are all losers, because every time someone is publicly savaged for having the temerity to speak his or her mind, the rest of us take note and make a mental resolution to button our lips in future for fear for incurring similar punishment. How gratifying that would be for the control freaks and tut-tutters who want to banish all opinions that don’t conform with their own. And how ruinous for democracy.

Saddest of all, the very institution that should be protecting freedom of speech, the media, is busily imperilling it.

11 comments:

Heather said...

Freedom of speech isn't fragile. The legitimate outrage of women is being voiced in relation to a man in a position of considerable privilege and pay not having any idea what he is talking about and still feeling he has the right to give an opinion, and then only apologising for hurt ie still not understanding what he said.
The Herald piece on what he said to Helen Kelly took away any sense of pity for him.

Anonymous said...

Oh please!-think again, Heather. I know what the Media made it look like!- But Karl duFresne is actually quite right in all that he comments, here. And unfortunately,Alasdair Thompson allowed himself to become 'rattled' by the frenetic Media questioning. Yet,-to Alasdair's credit, he did actually refer to it as the "time of the month"!- ie:- a "sick problem, once a month"...he was being sensitive & tactful, for crying out loud! -Yet he gets roundly 'jumped-on' for discussing some of the facts involved!- He didn't say it was 'bad',-'naughty'! -and yes,-sometimes women have to stay home from work when their children get sick, too!-So what!- these are facts! And, not surprisingly, it is LESS-practical or feasible to have the father stay home, because HIS job invariably DOES bring in the higher wage, and may also be less flexible, as far as getting unexpected time-off to tend sick children. Of course, dare i say it -(& being a woman, perhaps none can bite my head off!?)- there is also the necessity, &health advantage, of breastfeeding! -And I don't think men have ever quite mastered this one as yet- (&Raybon Kahn,or Rhys Darby might suggest that it could be hazardous to some babies, lest they end-up with fur-ball!:) ... Oh dear, I've really done it now, haven't I ?! ...I might have a hundred or so, hairy-chested men ticking me off, in reply to my cheeky letter! ... Oh come-on people! ...has everyone lost their sense of good humour and fun? ...

Anonymous said...

We should congratulate Mr Thompson on his statement of observed fact and his opinion that all should be paid equal to their contribution. Male or female, muscular or intelligent, iwi or non-iwi, german or jewish, all have talents worth using without discmination on grounds of sex, religion or politics.
The immaturity of our opinion-makers and the media is at times quite shameful.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Karl for reminding me once again how we just cannot rely on the media to get to the bottom of a story any more. From what I'd heard and read til I read your column I thought Thompson was a dull-witted clod. Then I listened to Forbes's "interview" and .. yep, sure enough, this is just another beat-up. Forbes spoke intelligently and with immense forebearance.
Forbes, apparently Maori and a mother of three, ought to fall on her knees and thank whatever God she worships for her immensely privileged position, and not be so quick to gun for a pakeha male who offends her wounded sensibilities. I bet she has access to all sorts of privileges like cheap childcare (or supportive whanau), and will have got where she is partly through the advantages, in this age of reverse discrimination, of belonging to a so-called "disadvantaged minority".
She has no perspective and if there is anyone should resign it is she.

Anonymous said...

Outrage can only be considered legitimate in the face of lies. Official figures back Thompson up. His only mistake was getting specific.

As to Heather's attack of Thompson’s privileged position, such smells of the ugliest side of tall-poppy syndrome.

This whole debate over equal pay should be discussed in context. Men and women aren't the same. Never will be. That's a factor that one can either rejoice or lament over.

And who says that the workforce alone is the measure of whether women are getting an equal (or better) deal in society? Society spends far more money on specifically female issues. Women have specific official representation. Society might be biased, but demonstrably not against women. And what proportion of men have more influence in the home?

Many women seem obsessed with competing against men in traditionally male roles. Is the lot of the average man better than that of the average woman? Is working outside the home in paid employment better than other roles? Is employment the ideal? Necessity is another matter entirely, which affects everyone.

It would seem to me that only a few paid jobs are actually as worthwhile to society as raising a family, but it seems an increasing number of women see the role for which they are monetarily paid as having higher value. Essentially, women are increasingly buying into a negative female stereotype.

Furthermore, what does a 12% average pay gap actually mean? All things considered, it seems narrower than one would expect.

More women work part-time than men. More women take career/work breaks to raise a family, and I would argue that is a privilege, an advantage, not a disadvantage - although one that has rewards other than money. Work breaks can negatively impact on one’s career, but society accepts career breaks for women, while a man who has a significant break in employment more likely than not has no way back.

Approximately two-thirds of university graduates in NZ are women. Boys and men are disproportionally represented in the statistics of failure. Men are disproportionally represented in the unemployment statistics, prison population, etc. There are reasons behind all statistics, some of which are more readily addressed than others.

I see no outrage that men are under-represented in educational success. Maybe because if they achieved at a higher level than now the pay gap would be much wider?

Looking to the very top of society is not particularly helpful, because one would expect only the most driven members of society to be represented there, including those that have been appointed to top jobs by government.

When Helen Clark was PM, a woman held just about every top job in the country. How much outrage was there then?

In the business world, and in the professions, would one not expect that more men would be at the top than women? Would it not be strange if it were otherwise the case? I suggest the fact that some women are represented at the very top indicates equal opportunity, at least as far as equal opportunity goes. Gender certainly isn't a barrier in and of itself, except maybe where being female and/or a member of a minority is seen as a qualification for the job.

After so many years of women achieving educationally at a higher level than men, at some stage women must dominate the professions. However, maybe more women are attracted to *relatively* low-paid professions (such as, nursing and teaching) than men, which distorts the stats? Part of the attraction is likely natural, as such are not only helping professions but also operate more as a collective than the highest paid professions do.

Anonymous said...

As to why there are relatively few female school principals, is there somehow a suggestion that women are being kept down by the powers that be? Are the existing female principals merely tokens? How about the impact of career breaks? How about the impact of family life in deciding against seeking headship? How about the fact that headship is an administrative role rather than a teaching one? Maybe fewer women are attracted to such a change in work role? Maybe fewer women seek the added responsibility? Surely the suggestion of discrimination in this case is a far less plausible reason?

It is a known fact that the dominance of women in the teaching profession has a negative impact on the educational outcomes of many boys.

The increasing feminisation of society and alienation of maleness is discriminatory, but where’s the outrage?

The problem with feminism is that equality has never been its goal. Feminism champions rights for people it approves of, irrespective of gender, and happily discriminates against those people it disapproves of. Feminism even effectively champions male chauvinism in non-Western countries when championing anti-Westernism.

I wonder if a 12% official pay gap between genders doesn’t already indicate that even in the workforce men have become secondary? And if the official gap is ever the other way around, which I suspect is (at least unofficially) not far off, I wonder how much outrage there would be?

Men in the West seem destined for second-class status in the workforce, along with their second-class status before the family court, their secondary status in the home, their under-representation in university graduation, their overrepresentation in all the statistics of failure, such as, educational failure, unemployment, crime, etc, and I haven’t seen any expression of concern taken seriously, let alone any expression of rage.

Let’s have equality in the full context that men and women are different and that success in the paid workforce is not a strong measure of gender equality.

I have read several articles in professional journals – and even seen TV programs – in which open expressions of gender preference in the workforce are made; preference for the female gender in traditionally male occupations. Are such expressions discriminatory? Maybe! Expressions of outrage? None that I am aware of!

But the fact is that employers cannot be forced to employ anyone, change their preferences, or ignore their personal experiences.

If one wants to see genuine disparity of incomes and opportunity, I suggest looking at other factors than gender. Try getting a job, let alone a good job, if your outward appearance does not conform, and that includes some ethnic and/or religious minorities that simply dress differently. If a person observes a Sabbath, let alone on a day other than Sunday, many jobs are effectively unavailable, and not just in retail, either. And if a person wants days off for religious observances that do not conform to Christian holy days, such is generally perceived as extremely problematic, even if one is willing to take such days off as annual leave, which most people are.

How much outrage is there over such discrimination of minorities by the majority? I don’t think you’ll find much sympathy! Small minorities have little influence, and are often afraid of making much noise for fear of increasing discrimination. Religious minorities are especially discriminated against in increasingly secular Western societies.

And, in New Zealand, the 5% parliamentary threshold prevents small minorities from banding together to vote for a lone representative voice in the national parliament, despite a maximum of 0.833.% of the list vote otherwise securing an MP.

Women’s outrage, whether justified or not, is taken seriously only because women are the largest single interest group. Dissenting male voices are marginalized by the majority of women, and the fear of the majority of men to speak out, not least in the face of media captured by the mob.

Anonymous said...

Freedom of action, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion aren’t championed by the so-called liberal majority. Only selective, approved causes (of approved persons) are championed. And freedom of thought is also under threat.

Thompson is entitled to his opinion, wrong or right. And his rights should be stood up for, even if wrong. However, his perception of his own experience isn’t necessary wrong. And national statistics actually support his contentions.

Some women do suffer from painful periods so one would expect such to be a genuine reason for sick leave on a regular basis. And some women undoubtedly use their periods as an excuse to take sick leave. Obviously such is an excuse that is unavailable to men. And obviously, both men and women make other excuses.

Maybe Thompson has employed more than his fair share of women with painful periods? Maybe as an employers’ representative he has been told of many such women in other workplaces?

Thompson’s experience as an employer and as an employers’ representative should be taken seriously. And have legitimacy in their expression!

However, I think his only error was to be so honest as to give a specific example of women’s sick leave, rather than simply stating that in his experience, and that of many employers he represents, women take more sick leave than men, and that this experience is backed up by national research.

How illegitimate can it be to voice the truth?

Anonymous said...

I recall a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dennis Prager, on Christianity versus atheism. Prager made the point that moving "beyond religion" to "secular values" was no guarantee that reason would prevail, and in fact it clearly is NOT. Hitchens asked for an example of modern secular unreason, Prager replied "there is no difference between men and women", and Hitchens, to his credit, responded, "touche".

- PhilBest

Anonymous said...

It would have been a brave person who publicly supported Thomson while TV3 were attacking so viciously. It is a shame that we have to be so pc that it is not possible to state one's opinions or even the truth without getting accused of being racist, sexist or some other terrible ist. Are we women so precious that we can't take the time to listen carefully before jumping to protect ourselves against perceived insults?

Anonymous said...

This goes beyond PC. Could it be "the" media (like "the" science of climate change) have abandoned a responsibility to present a balanced perspective in favour of grinding personal axes? My Mother's advice that I believe 50% of what I think I see, and almost nothing of what I read seems particularly apt today, but who really cares?

Anonymous said...

For a short period I worked as a "Ringer" for TVone. I had a number of disagreements with the "journalists" who were in charge of gathering the news as to what was in good taste and what wasn't. They were only interested in their own careers, and to be able to show the whole country some poor, unaware, grief-stricken soul at the scene of a tragedy, was all they were interested in - not because they needed to, but because it was good for their ratings.
I have met Mr Thomson, and he seemed a kind, thoughtful person. What he said was most likely correct I suspect. In the industries I have worked in, it was, and while it was not serious, it certainly seemed a factor in the tendency to hire men, rather than women. Too many talented and hard-working women are forced to accept lower pay rates than their lazy male counterparts if they want the job.
Certainly, there should be equal pay for equal work. If that were truely the case, most women would be paid more than men.
I am a male, by the way.