August 11, 2013 § Leave a comment
It is difficult to feel sorry for Fonterra. In fact, it is hard to feel pity for any business with a monopolistic influence. Remember the bad old days of Telecom and the deliberate underinvestment in New Zealand broadband? The latest bolt of lightning to hit New Zealand’s Big Dairy may not be a doppleganger for the ghastly 2008 Sanlu poisoning disaster in which hundreds of babies in China drank toxic milk but it still has the potential to do as much harm.
Luckily, there is no human cost this time round, unless you bet on the heads that are likely to roll over how long it took to identify a botulism threat. The source of the contamination – a dirty pipe – happened last year but it was only identified this year and revealed.
Although the real danger was small, botulism is potentially fatal and the company has again been thrown into another massive damage control exercise, recalling product, saving face and limiting the withering publicity, especially in a key market, China.
China is important because that’s where a lot of Fonterra’s projected growth in the coming years is set to come. Both the Chinese and New Zealand governments have asked the company to please explain and the dairy farmers who are shareholders in the business are angry because of what they see as another breach of trust by the white collar class that runs the corporate side of things.
The botulism fright makes Fonterra’s DCD fertiliser contamination scare last year look like a practice run, but if you add it all up, the charge sheet is starting to fill up. If there is another quality scandal, the damage will be deeper and not just to Fonterra but also to the brand the New Zealand government has built for the country as clean and green.
That’s why the stakes are so high. It is no wonder Fonterra’s chief executive, Theo Spierings, flew directly to Beijing to mollify Chinese fears about the safety of New Zealand milk products. Chinese consumers have enough to worry about with their own domestic food production. Buying overseas food products at a premium means they shouldn’t have to worry about its safety and if Chinese parents lose confidence in New Zealand Made, they will buy baby formula from our competitors.
With so much at stake, I followed news of the Fonterra response on Twitter. There would have been considerable pressure to deliver a convincing performance to win over the Chinese and foreign media in the Chinese capital. A Daily Telegraph journalist, Malcolm Moore, live tweeted the media conference.
There were a couple of small gaffes. Moore tweeted Theo Spierings referred to the Republic of China twice which is the name for Taiwan (China’s official name is the People’s Republic of China) but by and large, the apology delivered had been convincing.
But there was one curious aspect to the whole media show. Moore said brown envelopes were given to Chinese journalists but apparently, not to the Western reporters and a Fonterra public relations flack was evasive about what was in them.
It may be a minor detail in the scheme of things but it is interesting for illustrating a cultural trait of doing business in China. Assuming that what was inside the brown envelopes was cash, Fonterra would have been ostensibly trying to elicit the goodwill of the Chinese journalists there with a small gift.
The amount of cash would not have been significant. It would have been to cover the cost of travel and maybe lunch. When I worked at the Asia New Zealand Foundation, visiting Shanghai Daily journalists used to tell me that this is a common practice in China, particularly in covering business events and the inference of gift giving in such a context is favourable publicity.
The difficulty for Fonterra in following this local custom is that it looks like a bribe, in a country where bribery is a hot political, social and economic issue. Gift giving is a Chinese custom and, unlike in the West, cash is an acceptable gift. Every Chinese New Year, Chinese families give red packets of cash to children and others.
But in a business networking context, the line between giving gifts and bribery is such a grey one. Many foreign companies working in China have an official no cash gifts policy – either receiving or giving. I found these guidelines on a US China business solutions website:
Although gift giving is an important part of Chinese culture, the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibits American companies from making “corrupt payments” of money or anything of value to foreign officials for the purpose of obtaining or keeping business. This includes both direct payments and indirect payments through intermediaries. The law provides an explicit exception for “facilitating payments” for “routine governmental action” such as obtaining permits, processing governmental papers, and securing services such as police protection, mail pick-up and delivery, phone service, power and water supply. However, the lines between “corrupt payments” and “facilitating payments” can sometimes be hazy, so when in doubt, seek advice of counsel.
The public relations company employed by Fonterra might carry out this practice with journalists for many of its clients under the category of ‘facilitating payments’ but it does raise uncomfortable questions about whether to do in Rome as the Romans do. What happens when this practice runs counter to a corporate culture that is trying to underline its integrity and transparency as its leadership tries to repair its reputation after making a second egregious mistake? If so, then maybe Fonterra should come clean about it and not evade the issue.
It’s a conundrum to ponder and it could, of course, be much worse, as Glaxo Smith Kline is finding out to its cost.
July 8, 2013 § 4 Comments
The singer’s eye fell out during the middle of the set. Yes, really. The eye fell out while he was pounding on the band’s second drum kit. But as far as we can tell, no one in the audience noticed.
Loud music does that. It provides great cover when your eye falls out on stage. And I nearly captured it for all time, immortalised in a video uploaded to YouTube. As Maxwell Smart would say, missed – by that much!
It happened when the Wellington art rock band, the Lovers in Monaco played at a Wellington art gallery in a leafy seaside suburb. Support was ably provided by Jet Jaguar. Art galleries are cool places to see live music. They are generally airy, neat and stylish venues and so was the Sea Star Gallery in Seatoun.
As the redoubtable lead singer (who values his internet anonymity) of the Lovers of Monaco tells it in an email:
After singing the chorus in our second song “Dirty Boy” I thought I should crank it up a notch, so I jumped on the drums. I tend to pound away frenetically and this time, I got a bit too carried away. In my physical contortions, my eye popped out.
He then describes what happened next:
For the uninitiated, you can’t tell when your eye pops out. It’s a piece of methyl-acrylic that does its own thing and one-eyed people just have to roll with whatever is going down. So the ping, it transpired, was the sound of my eye bouncing off my kick drum. I turned and saw it staring back at me in the centre of my drum stool. The drum stool is black. Eye is white. It was iris side up. It looked pretty macabre.
Here’s the quick recovery:
Anyway, rock is rock and I had made the call for the band to change to the chorus. I had to deliver it so I shouted the lyrics into the microphone in a half strangled way while hunched over against the art gallery wall so the crowd couldn’t see the horror story unfolding before them. Then I grabbed my eye and dashed off to the toilets to give it a quick wash and pop it back in.
Here’s the almost famous video taken on the night of 29 June 2013. As you will be able to see, members of the Lovers in Monaco are arrayed in a row along a long wall which made it difficult to frame the entire group together from my vantage point on the mezzanine floor.
Apparently, you can hear the sound the eyeball makes when it bounces off the kick drum. After repeated viewings, I can’t pick it but the singer is adamant.
Every word is true. It was all filmed by some guy DocRaccoon and has been posted on YouTube. Sadly for rock posterity, he was focused on Nick’s guitar solo when my eye popped out. But you can hear it ping at two minutes and 43 seconds. Thenceforth you get a good shot of me hunched against the wall.
Here’s another video taken that night. I’m amused that of the only two songs I captured on my Flip recorder, one of them was almost an eye-opener. As it happens, I didn’t get the cigar but came close.
The Lovers in Monaco play what I categorised as a blend of Krautrock with a touch of LCD Soundsystem. But I’ve been disabused of the notion. The singer says the band is a new “new rock and sleaze sound”.
Who else is rhyming ‘score’ with ‘Berhampore’ today? Lock up your daughters because, all set to a backdrop of 1930s porn, the Lovers are here.
If you go to see the Lovers in Monaco, ask for an encore. Maybe even suggest to them that they change their name to the Lovers in Monocles.
June 10, 2013 § Leave a comment
I am so glad Asia is creeping up on New Zealand. Otherwise I might never have discovered the Double Fly Arts Centre (双飞艺术中心) collective. This crazy gang of Shanghai-based artists is a rare find and certainly not the kind of art you’d expect to be sanctioned by China’s Ministry of Culture and I would bet my last dollar that it hasn’t been.
On the other hand, Double Fly (双飞) hasn’t been banned either. For a while, a number of their videos could be seen as part of the Moving on Asia exhibition at Wellington’s City Gallery. The show ended last week and if you missed it, Double Fly video short films can be found online (as are many of the other works from the Moving on Asia exhibition).
Here’s the one where they rob a bank. Watch how baffled the workers are when the Double Fly robbers rob a construction site which will be a bank – once its finished.
Here’s another one where members of the group dress up as businessmen and behave shockingly in an up-scale café. They become such a nuisance that the police are called.
In this one, the Double Fly save the world while parodying global leaders in scenes like Silvio Berlusconi’s infamous Bunga Bunga parties.
The curators say the video art in the Moving on Asia exhibition is designed to raise questions about New Zealand’s geographic and cultural relationship to Asia at a time when the country’s ties to the region are becoming stronger and more nuanced.
The exhibition of 45 works from Indonesia, China, South Korea, India, Philippines and Taiwan were drawn from Gallery LOOP in Seoul and curated for the City Gallery show. The exhibition’s three parts are New Town Ghosts, Movement No.2 and Who Cares about the Future? A big part of that future is China and the new art has to transmit the electrifying changes that are happening to Chinese society. Rapid progress has benefited millions of Chinese but there’s been an alarming cost as well, like yawning income gaps, environmental degradation, worsening corruption, and the struggle for a moral society.
Since China began opening up in the 1980s, video art started to be made as the equipment became more portable, cheaper and available. Now, it seems video art has blossomed as a medium of choice for many Chinese artists.
While the government, by and large, supports art that subscribes to its narrative of nation building and the legacy of five thousand years of civilisation, many of the new generation of Chinese artists are evidently bucking government orthodoxy while tackling taboo subjects such as censorship, human rights, social injustice and even sex.
While the rebellious artists may not get government support and funding, they cannot be stopped from creating and distributing their works, such as the video shorts in Moving on Asia which gives us a view of a thriving scene that’s off the official map. Viewing these works gives us different perspectives on China and that is helpful to those of us interested in understanding the country better if we can’t be there.
But in fact, there isn’t a clear link between Chinese government censorship policy and its impact on contemporary visual arts. As said above, the Government has been applying strict rules on creative content, i.e. TV programmes, theatrical performances, creative writing etc, however, there is not a clear censorship rule around contemporary visual art and this still remains a grey area. On the other hand, the majority of party politicians and government officials don’t fully understand arts and are not good at reading the metaphors behind the art works (and) this inhibited the censorship system working properly.
In recent years for example, cases of art works that have been withdrawn from exhibitions are mostly due to depiction of violence, explicit sexual or abusive material. These themes have been fundamentally banned in all creative industries in China. In addition, political direction is another essential issue that the Chinese government applies strict rules on, and political dissidences would find difficulties in showing their political themed art works in China.
Just ask Ai Weiwei (艾未未) whom the Chinese government categorises as a political activist and a troublemaker. His troubles with Chinese officials are well publicised and can also be seen in the documentary Never Sorry. His latest work includes a music video Dumbass, about his arrest and jailing last year, and more recently, a statement about China’s food safety scandals.
By coincidence, the Moving on Asia exhibition ended on June 3, the day before June 4 which, most Chinese bloggers will be able to tell you, is a sensitive topic on the Chinese internet. Any mention of June 4 is removed as quickly as it is posted behind the Great Firewall because the crushing of a large student-led protest on that day in 1989 is a taboo subject that China’s leaders want to keep hidden.
There’s a vigil held in Hong Kong each year (something that would not be permitted anywhere else in China) while Chinese activists, using virtual proxy networks and other tools to circumvent the ‘Chinese intranet’, post photos, links and other information about the ‘Tiananmen Incident’ on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.
The famous ‘Tank Man’ photo doesn’t last long on the Chinese internet. So sensitive is the topic of June 4 that this photo-shopped Giant Duck version was also taken down on Chinese micro-blogs. Here’s an NPR report on how a giant yellow duck art installation on Hong Kong harbour become an unlikely symbol of the Tiananmen Anniversary.
This is why discovering Double Fly has been a minor revelation. I think it’s a positive sign that such chaotic and mentalist art is being made in China. It’s a positive sign for China that Double Fly and other punk artists can get their work shown overseas; that some of it makes its way to my city art gallery; and there are curators who are interested in our Asian future and who think art is important to understanding the region.
Who cares about the future? I think these artists do and they give us some idea of what to expect in that future because the hints are there to be found in the weird and challenging world of contemporary video art coming out of China.
April 17, 2013 § 1 Comment
As sure as night follows day, one of the things that happens when a natural catastrophe or act of terror or war happens is the scramble in news rooms to find out the nationalities of those killed or injured or who were there when it happened. It’s an automatic response. Journalists in news rooms hundreds and thousands of kilometres away from the epicentre look for the local area person or persons who may have been caught up.
The story priority cascades downwards from was a local area person killed; were they hurt; were they there but uninjured (can they tell us what they saw and did they have a lucky or miraculous escape). Bottom of the list as you drill down is did a local area person have a friend or in-law (a local area person of the said local area) who was directly affected by the tragedy and/or violence. If none of these apply, then the story is simply an international story that fails to make the crossover into national news.
When explained like that, it sounds faintly ridiculous but that’s how it works. It’s also how New Zealand news rooms would have responded to the Boston Marathon bombing this week and, given that the event regularly draws runners from all around the world, there would have been not unreasonable odds on there being at least one New Zealander taking part.
By the end of April 16, three people were dead and more than 100 people had been injured in what the American authorities are treating as a terrorist attack. To the relief of New Zealanders who may have had relatives and friends in Boston at the time, no Kiwis were seriously hurt. But the reaction of those New Zealanders becomes an important strand of the story here.
It was perhaps insensitive of me send a facetious tweet but this rush to action in newsrooms here to locate a New Zealander in the attack is its own way a fairly tasteless ritual. But it becomes more acutely so if the death or injury to a New Zealander is framed in sharp relief against the other casualties, making it seem as if those casualties mattered less.
At least one journalist took offence at my tweet but I think it’s a valid point expressed satirically. Journalists are not callous people unmoved by tragedy but the nature of the business can make them inured to the suffering of others and the old editor’s adage, if it bleeds, it leads, still holds true.
There were, of course, New Zealanders in the marathon and they were able to tell their stories to the New Zealand media as you will have seen here and here. But as any news editor will tell you, if there was no local area angle to dig into, the story would have less of a connection to a local area audience. My big issue with putting a tight focus on our local area is how if the editorial process is handled clumsily it can make our news industry appear more parochial than it usually is.
How else would you explain that images of the All Black captain Richie McCaw are more likely to appear on the front page of the biggest daily newspaper in New Zealand than the prime minister by a ratio of 11 to four? This is one of the observations made in a study called Selling the News by an Auckland graphic designer, James Wendelborn.
James has spent a considerable amount of his time over the past 15 months classifying and displaying New Zealand Herald front pages. He’s illustrated and published the data on a Tumblr. It confirms what you might already suspect.
The infographic at the top of this post is stylised depiction of what a typical Herald front page might look like. Yes, really. And the four ingredients that top the list for space are crime, tragedy, advertising and sport. He observes that the Herald features an expected strong emphasis on New Zealand stories and that crime and tragedy stories occupy a disproportion amount of space to the frequency in which they appear there (and they appear often!).
And here’s what Herald front pages looked like throughout 2012.
James has broken the stories down into three main categories – good news, bad news and neutral. One of his conclusions:
There’s a definite tendency to report ‘bad news’ which historically, readers will tell you they don’t want but editors will tell you that’s what sells.
This is supported by the probability that 43 per cent of the stories were in the bad news category, with good news at 27 per cent and neutral at 30 per cent. But wait, there’s more.
The Herald is much more interested in small, personal stories – the death of a teenager in rural New Zealand is always going to get the lead story over hundreds dying overseas. As they have no doubt discovered, this will be because that’s what sells – there is a well-established mentality of caring more about one local tragedy over many international ones.
James also notes that many important issues rarely get a look in on the front page. For example, environmental stories, and this includes that elephant, climate change, occupied 0.3 per cent of the front page acreage over the 12 month long study.
When climate change is such a major issue, only seven environment stories is kind of irresponsible. Richie McCaw shouldn’t be featured on the country’s front page more times than the Prime Minister. And I’m frankly over the paper’s infatuation with property prices and rugby players, although perhaps the country needs to get over those things first.
Draw your own conclusions. Visit Selling the News and connect to James on his Twitter or send him an email and let him know what you think of his work. He’s made a fascinating contribution to any discussion on what we as New Zealanders might want in our news and what matters to us as a society.
March 27, 2013 § 5 Comments
The presses are to stop rolling for Wellington’s Capital Times and it is a moment for reflection. For as long as I have been a Wellingtonian, the free weekly newspaper has been taking the city’s cultural and social pulse. After 38 years, it more than qualifies as an inner city institution but there’s little room for sentiment in the economics of the digital age.
In matters of the life and death of a small, hard scrabble newspaper, nostalgia makes little difference if advertising revenue is tanking and last week, the owners of the Capital Times announced they had decided to call it a day. They could see no glimmer of an upswing for the paper and they are right.
The newspaper’s editor, Niels Reinsborg, says rival community publications owned by APN and Fairfax are slashing advertising rates by up to 50 per cent. While advertising remains steady at the Capital Times, revenue is down and costs are up. The owners think the situation is not sustainable and the prognosis is not healthy. It simply doesn’t make sense to keep going.
The news has sadden many of its contributors and readers. Its long standing film reviewer, Dan Slevin, is disappointed. He thinks there’s a few more years left in newspaper that has carved a niche for itself as a metro giveaway with a heavy focus on the arts and entertainment scene. But even he agrees that the end will have to come – if not sooner than certainly later.
The end of the Capital Times – which has a circulation of 20,000 and a staff of eight – is another signpost on the breakneck road between traditional news business models and the increasingly digital, mobile, touchscreen, app driven world of publishing. Advertising is shifting online or being divided between the old and the new, making for a smaller pie from which all newspapers are trying to take a bigger slice out of. Caught in an advertising war for fewer dollars, the Capital Times was becoming increasingly vulnerable.
Factor in a wider business environment characterised by recession, job insecurity, redundancies, cautious consumer spending and a retail and hospitality sector that is, by and large, also pinching, and it all makes for a confluence of gloom for newspapers.
Advertisers are less reliant on newspaper advertising. They are learning that it is free to use social media and peer to peer sharing through online social networks. All of this makes it extremely difficult to keep a marginal, independent community publication going for longer when doing so would be postponing the inevitable.
While many publishers are attempting to future proof their publications by moving their content to the web, they are still baffled by how to make money from their online publications. Newspaper and magazine publishing is currently trapped in a kind of limbo between hard copy and digital and it is going to take deep pockets to persevere until the online rewards are realised. The business model that works for a 24 page free community paper isn’t the same as for a local community news website that relies on volunteers, subscribers and donors to keep its costs down and augment any advertising it can attract.
By and large, the bells are tolling for the newspaper industry. It has been in a sunset phase for some time now. It joins CD shops, postal deliveries, video game parlours, travel agencies, book and video shops in the endangered category. In the years ahead, we will be mourning the extinction of many animal species as habitat loss and poaching take their toll on the last wild Sumatran tiger or black rhino. To this melancholy list, we are also seeing the end of days for many brick and mortar businesses – to which I add newspapers. And that is cause of reflection.
The last edition of the Capital Times will hit the streets on April 10.
March 1, 2013 § 2 Comments
As news stories go, it wasn’t supposed to be much of a news story. Word on Twitter this week was that a huge pod of dolphins was churning its way around Wellington harbour. The Radio New Zealand news room ignored it because it is radio without pictures and, anyway, dolphins come into the harbour at least once a year on the hunt for schools of fish. I wouldn’t call them a common sight but you could say they are a regular sight.
But in no time at all, the Wellington twitterati was cooing with pleasure as more and more people from vantage points in office blocks overlooking the water witnessed the massive pod of up to 100 bottlenose dolphins turn the inner harbour into a banquet. They laboured their way in front of the skyscrapers that lined Jervois Quay like a peloton in a road cycle race and Twitter was positively radiating delight at the sight.
I could just make out the pod from a window on the third floor of the eastern side of Radio New Zealand House before it ploughed across to the Overseas Terminal and Oriental Bay. There they lingered a while, casting a spell in glorious sunshine in front of hundreds of Wellingtonians on the waterfront. This was happening on a superlative summer afternoon – the latest in an unbroken series of beautiful days in what forecasters are calling the sunniest summer in a lifetime and longer.
Twitter transmitted the excitement to those of us trapped in our workplaces. All the while I was thinking what an endorsement this was for our city, for the cleanliness of the water in the harbour and for their status as a protected species, that this unusually large visitation by one of the most recognisable ambassadors of the wild oceanic world should feel so at ease and at home so close to us.
If you’re wondering where the headline came from, here’s a video of the inspiration – Forever Dolphin Love by New Zealand’s own Connan Mockasin.