20 May 2012

Hold the front page!

In the past week there's been two prime examples of New Zealand regional news stories, one of which has boosted into international prominence. Both have that trivial, lightweight feel that is ideal for filling smaller newspapers, and both benefit from the in-built gossip value that Americans label 'water-cooler issues' - topics that spread through workplaces rapidly because everyone can form an instant opinion on the matter, even if they don't know all the details.

Photo: Cameron Burnell / Taranaki Daily News
The first and most prominent of these resulted from the Taranaki Daily News' coverage of a bridal show in New Plymouth last Saturday night. Photographer Cameron Burnell snapped a candid backstage shot of one of the competitors in the Bride of the Year event, Katrina Hayman, necking a quick sip of Tui beer before the pageant, while dressed to the nines in a bridal gown. The photo was clearly hastily-taken - the left-hand side of the image is even obscured by what looks like a rogue bridal veil. It works so well as an image because it plays with the supposed purity and demure character of the wedding gowns mixed with the rough and ready demeanour of a Taranaki bride - one who is happy to get dressed up but isn't too pretentious to shun a quick beer en route to the ceremony, or in this case, to the stage in a wedding pageant.

The Daily News published a couple of dozen photos of the event on its website, but led with the Hayman shot on the front page of its paper edition. That's because the beer-bottle shot is far and away the most interesting photo taken that night, and it is clearly a conversation-starter. But the photo caused a bit of a storm in Taranaki. The event organisers adopted a stickler's approach, arguing that this sort of free publicity wasn't the right sort of free publicity, with Taranaki Bride of the Year co-convener Lynn Gilbert-Smith writing to the newspaper to express her hope the editor would apologise to all involved, 'as I am sure many would have preferred to have seen a photo on the front page of the winning bride of the year, rather than a free commercial for Tui'. She later explained, 'That was a tacky photograph to display our event. I am really gutted with the newspaper. I just think that the newspaper think they have really won with something here. It's gone global, it's gone across New Zealand ... but it was disrespectful and I don't operate like that.'

She's right, it did go global - the Daily Mail lapped it up, as did MSNBC and plenty of other news sites, for their 'And Finally' silly news sections.

Some members of the Taranaki public expressed the not unreasonable view that it was less than ideal that the beer photo was printed instead of an image of the actual winner of the competition, Dayna Newton. That's a fair point, but sadly winning a bridal contest isn't front page news, even in New Plymouth. Other comments targeted the looks of the competitors, which only goes to show how quickly people forget that if you haven't got anything nice to say, you shouldn't say anything. (Although, if I can make a brief diversion into a hypocritical cul-de-sac, what's up with all those tattoos, Taranaki? Particularly the bride with the admonition to 'Live life like there's no tomorrow' scrawled across her entire upper back in large, flowing script with ornamental curlicues, like a fleshy silent movie title card).

The voice of reason in the 'controversy' emanates from Hayman herself, who pointed out quite sensibly: 'that is just the type of person I am. I don't like to portray myself as someone I am not. A lot of females drink beer and it's just I felt more comfortable having a beer than having a wine'. You can't really argue with that.

The other provincial story that attracted attention this week was the petty case of a tip-off photo sent to the Timaru Herald, which showed Murray Cleverley, the chairman of the South Canterbury District Health Board, drinking a can of beer through a beer bong at a party. The newspaper published the story under the punchy headline 'Health boss snapped drinking from beer bong', and TVNZ's website republished it too

But this is hardly a scandal. Not only was the photograph taken at a private party, it was also from more than six months ago, in October 2011. Presumably the photograph sender was irked that DHB had quite sensibly adopted an alcohol harm reduction strategy in March, advocating measures including substantially increasing the excise tax on alcohol, increasing the alcohol purchase age back to 20, and reducing the marketing and advertising of alcohol. Cleverley told the newspaper:

This is the part of the job that I struggle with. When I signed up (to the health board), I didn't think I was signing away my private life. I've never been one to say I don't have a drink, but I think I am a normal person with a good life balance. It's a sad world when someone sees fit to do this. At the end of the day, of course we have some problems regarding alcohol in the community, and of course I don't tolerate excessive alcohol consumption.

That's a fair point. It's not as if the chairman's actions were illegal or even hypocritical. The fact that Cleverley enjoyed a beer and was photographed doing so is hardly relevant to SCDHB's campaign against the harmful effects of alcohol on society and the health system. The harm minimisation strategy does not revolve around board chairmen living lives of monkish purity. And it's not as if impressionable youths pay the slightest bit of attention to the actions of DHB chairmen or indeed anything that goes on in local newspapers. Hopefully the mean-spirited individual who dobbed Cleverley in will find the additional publicity for the DHB's alcohol initiative just as irksome as the lack of reaction from the chairman's employers and from the Timaru Herald's readers. The newspaper, stringing the story out another day, polled its readers and found that 85 percent of them thought it didn't comprise the chairman in his role. Hopefully that sensible response will put this silly story to rest.
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