Brown envelopes, botulism and Fonterra

August 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

Fonterra CEO Theo Spiering fronts the news media in Beijing

Fonterra CEO Theo Spiering fronts the news media in Beijing

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.


Death of a newspaper

March 27, 2013 § 5 Comments

capital times edit

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.

Forever dolphin love

March 1, 2013 § 2 Comments

Dolphins as seen from Oriental Bay. Photo by Steven Wong aka @winesentience.

Dolphins as seen from Oriental Bay. Photo by Stephen Wong aka @winesentience.

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.

There are photos from the Scoop team here and there’s raw video from TV3 here.

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.

Heading towards catastrophe

February 11, 2013 § 1 Comment


The economist and philanthropist, Gareth Morgan, is right. There are simply too many cats in New Zealand for the native bird population to prosper. The concentration of cats in our cities is completely at odds with an idealised view many New Zealanders have of their country as one that is clean, green and natural.

Morgan has started a campaign to make New Zealanders think again about being a cat owner. His website Cats to Go sets out the arguments as to why cats are menace to native fauna – not just birds, but skink, gecko, frog and insect species.

In 2011, New Zealanders owned 1.4 million cats and that number corresponded to one in two households owning at least one cat. On his website, Morgan quotes studies that show cats have contributed to the extinction of nine native bird species and raised the risk of losing another 33 native birds.

But for suggesting that people should think again about being a cat owner, Morgan has become a lightning rod for cat lovers, many of whom are in denial that their little Tiddles is a pathological killer of native wildlife.

It’s interesting that some of the reaction has come from people who seem to be in complete denial that their cat is a top of the food chain alpha predator because, apart from dogs, cats have no natural enemies in New Zealand.

One of the arguments used by the cat protection lobby is that cats also control rodents but as this science blog post points out, with fewer cats, we humans would simply raise own game to keep the numbers of rats and mice down, as we already do with possums and stoats.

Morgan’s position has also been subject to a number of distortions, some funny memes, Facebook pages like this one and this one.  But he never advocated for the destruction of pet cats but makes a case for destroying feral cats – as we already do to rabbits and possums – because he argues that the trap, neuter and release (TNR) programme employed is not effective in preventing the carnage caused by cats.

The science is unequivocal. As this study shows – and this one and this one – cats are responsible for an enormous slaughter of small birds and animals. The danger is that cats are killing off the native birds at rates that are higher than they can replenish their populations or even grow their numbers.

If Morgan’s campaign gets people thinking about whether they will replace their ageing moggy when it finally passes on and hangs up its claws or to choose to have only one cat, that’s got to be more compatible with efforts being made by the Department of Conservation, local authorities and dedicated individuals who are working to protect New Zealand’s natural wildlife.

For the record, I feel it is necessary to mention that our household has a cat. She is lethal to the local rat and mice population. But she has brought home the occasional silvereye, weta and skink. I’ve come around to the pleasure of native birds because our home in Wellington’s Aro Valley has become a drop in centre for these guys.  That these three kaka or native New Zealand bush parrots are in our neighbourhood is tribute to the work done by the Zealandia wildlife sanctuary.

Zealandia provides a safe, predator proof environment for native birds – a kind of fenced land ark which is repopulating the surrounding Wellington suburbs with birds that filled the pre-1840s tree lined natural landscape.  The kaka, tui, morepork that are seen and heard on a daily basis in our immediate neighbourhood have only been made possible because they are able to breed in complete safety from cats and other predators within Zealandia’s fortified 225 hectare valley.

As Morgan’s Cats To Go website puts it:

Imagine a New Zealand teeming with native wildlife, penguins on the beach, Kiwis roaming about in your garden. Imagine hearing birdsong in our cities. Sure, we are seeing more tui and kereru these days, thanks to some good work on rat and possum control in some areas. But many other species are still endangered; such as the cheeky kaka, beautiful kokako and curious weka. These birds once ruled this land. Some species can’t coexist with cats and rats at all, such as mohua, saddleback and robins, so they rely on a few pest free refuges for their survival.

The call to reduce cat numbers in New Zealand has caught the eye of a number of international media outlets, including The Guardian, The New York Times, The Telegraph, The Atlantic and online websites like Russia Today and Boing Boing. While Morgan is described as a cat hater by Boing Boing, none of the others beats this indecent, over-the-top report from Taiwan’s tabloid NMA animation studio video. Enjoy but remember this is a bizarre and entertaining distortion and not an accurate reflection of the arguments.

Cuddly Grizzly Bear

November 21, 2012 § 2 Comments

Grizzly Bear play the State Opera House.

Grizzly Bear play the Wellington State Opera House. Photo courtesy of @fantalefm.

Grizzly Bear is an anomaly and I mean that in a really good way. The band from New York gets called indie rock but given how its music confounds and transgresses the rules of so much that is stereotypical about rock, that label does it a disservice and blinkers the sparkling music it makes.

There were times last night when Grizzly Bear sounded a bit like the Fleet Foxes, or 70s progressive rock, or abstractly jazzy with elements of Kurt Weill thrown in. But none of these tangential references are really remotely accurate. Grizzly Bear sound like Grizzly Bear and there’s no one else around who can come close to what these guys are doing.

Many bands have gifted and talented singers – think Radiohead, The National, Vampire Weekend, Beach House, Lawrence Arabia, Phoenix Foundation – but how many have an embarrassment of riches like Grizzly Bear with three fine vocalists interchanging and harmonising?

They are multi-instrumentalists too, adding textures with flute, saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, lap steel and piano. It is rock music that sounds like nothing and everything, a hypnotic pop sensitivity that shifts from swagger to dreaminess in a heartbeat, and there’s nothing else to do but surrender to the swelling drama of the music.

I had a deep feeling the band would make its weirdly idiosyncratic albums sound even better on stage and that’s exactly how it happened. Grizzly Bear is a different animal live – so adept at changing the mood and feeling of a song. Heard in the flesh, the music is taut and elastic and it sounded pristine in a venue that celebrates its 100 anniversary next year. Seeing artists play at the State Opera House sells itself but when it happens to be musicians of this kind of calibre, the whole experience becomes exquisite.

Grizzly Bear last night played songs mainly from its most recent albums, Shields and Veckatimest. Songs like Two Weeks, Ready Able, Yet Again, Gun Shy, Half Gate swooped and soared while A Simple Answer came chugging out majestically, showing just why these guys are currently so highly cherished by fans and critics everywhere.

Part of the anomaly that is Grizzly Bear is that it sounds like a cult indie band but one that smashed the charts when its second to last album, Veckatimest, soared to eighth on the Billboard 200 charts in 2009.

Grizzly Bear is so hot right now. There’s a rare chemistry at work here – not the kind that creates an explosion but the kind that makes rare, swirling colours. It was such an extraordinary treat to see the band play Wellington for its first time. It helps that Grizzly Bear comes across as a band of friends who are enjoying a long moment in the sun and as long as that moment lasts, there’s so much to love about these five guys from Brooklyn.

I took some video. The first one (Yet Again) is only 17 seconds long because one of attendant Nazis rushed over to tell me to stop. The second one (Two Weeks) was done guerilla-style and it shows but at least the sound is clear.

Radiohead makes music that makes time travel easier

November 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Radiohead in concert

Radiohead in concert. Photo by Ajay Murthy.

When Radiohead beamed down in Auckland for only the second time, not everyone went home happy. I say beamed because there’s something increasingly ‘otherworldly’ about the band – especially if you factor in its newer recordings and singer Thom Yorke’s solo album The Eraser and his Atoms for Peace side project.

But judging by the comments from some punters to the NZ Herald review of the concert, contemporary Radiohead got the thumbs down from those wanting a Radiohead nostalgia trip.

Those fans had come to see the OK Computer era band and were not prepared for a show skewed towards the more recent end of the group’s career (with the emphasis on the King Of Limbs album) and which carried its past musical baggage very lightly.

But for the rest of us with expectations of just being able to see one of the seminal alternative music acts to straddle the end of one millennium and the beginning of another, it was a glorious and illuminating experience.

Radiohead may not have brought many of the old songs that made first made it famous, songs like Creep, High and Dry and Karma Police, but the group did bring two hours of Radiohead’s futuristic dystopian world view. It was brutal and uncompromising at times but worth every second.

Radiohead are more interested in being history makers, than repeating history.

Backed by a gorgeous and, at times, hallucinatory epilepsy inducing light show, Radiohead began the programme in a rush, slowed down in places, crashed through more of the band’s later songs with a relentless sonic aggression that ended on a ringing high.

If you didn’t know the lyrics, it was easy to imagine music about worlds spinning out of control and collapsing stars.

Someone posted the group’s set list on Twitter (via @christype) and although I haven’t verified it, it does match the list that the NZ Herald published in its online review. The highlights included Lotus Flower, Weird Fish, Ideoteque, Separator, two newish songs – Identikit and Supercollider – and one old favourite, Paranoid Android.

Interviews with band members have made clear their fear of being trapped in a time warp, playing the same songs to audiences which expect a backward looking ride through the group’s considerable back catalogue, with an emphasis on OK Computer, the album that makes many critics best album lists.

There’s now a similar case to be made for King of Limbs as an artistic breakthrough album.  There’s just such an evidently fierce intelligence and convention defying ethos about Radiohead that makes the band want to confound expectations. This show was less about the past and much more the present and the directions it is intent on pursuing.

Radiohead were awe-inspiring at the Vector Arena – a completely sold out show! – because my only real expectation was to see one of the epochal bands of a generation play live in the flesh. This beloved and artful super group thrilled because there were all the signs that its famous creativity shows little evidence of ebbing or slowing down.

Judging by the group’s thunderous, digitally enhanced sound and brilliantly hallucinatory stage design, Radiohead is intent on making light speed, as if it was in a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. Plot a course to the heart of the future. Twenty five years after its genesis, Radiohead remains a vital and creative tour de force. No complacency to see here, people, just a band whose artistic ambition continues to burn hard and fiercely. And it was a thing of wonder to see live.

Thanks to Ajay Murthy (@ajaystwtr) and @christype for the images used here. The videos below were taken on my Flip recorder. This review also appears on the Fantale FM website.

Gangnam Style goes gangbusters

September 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

This much is confirmed. The Korean Wave has landed in New Zealand. I don’t just mean it in that it is doing the rounds at the Korean clubs and restaurants in Auckland. That much is a given and has been for years. No, the moment K Pop announced itself here was at the rugby of all places, and the song that hit the ignition switch was the massive global hit, Gangnam Style.

If you haven’t heard it or seen the video – which is saying something going by the nearly 300 million plus views on YouTube – Gangnam Style is a one-hit disco inferno that has been burning a hole in the internet since July and astonishingly, it is entirely in Korean language, except for one English phrase.

Perhaps it is not so astonishing that Asia would eventually create a breakout global pop hit and, given the strength and vibrancy of the Korean entertainment industry, that it would be a Korean artist to crack that code. I can’t believe that when Gangnam Style hit the Web that the artist – the Korean hip hop and dance music artist PSY – and the record company money men would have predicted its runaway success.

But the word runaway doesn’t seem to do it justice. The song is more than a runaway. It is an escaped convict of a tune and it is precedent setting becoming the first K-pop song to go to number one on iTunes, to be the most ‘liked’ song on YouTube and now it is knocking on the door of getting into the top ten of most watched YouTube videos which at this rate could be sometime next week.

For the record, Justin Beiber’s Baby tops the list with over 770 million views. In tenth place is Eminem’s Not Afraid with over 350 million views. And somewhere in between are Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, Shakira, LFMAO and Charlie Bit My Finger – Again! You can find the list here.

Already, Gangnam Style is the most popular K-pop song of all time. K-pop stands for Korean popular music. It is the South Korean iteration of various styles of Asian popular music as characterised by nationality and language. There’s J-pop from Japan and C-pop for Chinese popular music. C-pop is further broken down into Cantopop for Cantonese pop music (largely out of Hong Kong) and Mandopop (Mandarin language popular songs out of Taiwan and the mainland).

Wikipedia tells me that Mandopop is most popular in China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan and Cantopop has a fan base mainly in Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and southern China, especially in the Cantonese speaking province of Guangdong.

J-pop on the other hand has a significant Western following through the country’s successful cultural exports of video games and anime where J-pop songs are often integral to the rest of the product. Anyone who has seen Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo and had its theme song (translated for the English version of the film) become an earworm for days will know exactly what I mean.

K-pop on the other hand has a below the radar fan base in many Western countries, apparently driven by an explosion in South Korean popular culture in the 1990s that included cinema, television as well as music. This soft power surge in Korean creativity extends beyond Asia and into many European, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries where dubbed versions of South Korean television soap operas and historical dramas are popular.

But in the West, that fan base appears to be a niche one. Who knew that K-pop has fan bases in Poland, Germany and France?

And just when it appeared that the Korean Wave was running out of steam, along comes an unlikely looking flag bearer. He’s a portly, girl-obsessed singer with a campy dancing style who has become a global phenomenon. It is impossible to say if PSY’s Gangnam Style has blown K-pop sky high in terms of permanent awareness but for a while, millions of people around the world are doing the horsey dance, even the gangs of Bangkok.

Here’s the clue that alerted me to Gangnam Style’s big time arrival in New Zealand – a tweet and a video taken at a provincial rugby match at Auckland’s Eden Park that shows spectators dancing to K-pop while the speakers blare out. It is all so Gangnam Style.

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