Our work here is done: John Key and his allies have haggled over the price, but the world has been left in no doubt as to what New Zealand has become: a country willing to prostitute its national sovereignty for the privilege of watching a thin-skinned cinematographer make a children's movie.
AND SO IT ENDED – as we all knew it would. With a few million more for the studios; a big slop of salve for Sir Peter Jackson’s wounded pride; and an entirely gratuitous and opportunistic raid on the rights of New Zealand film workers.
That latter outcome – the changes to our employment law – could also be seen as part of Sir Peter’s pacification. After all, it was a contract drawn up by Sir Peter’s own company that the Supreme Court ruled against in the case (Bryson v Three Foot Six) which has inspired the Government’s Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Act.
One should never overlook the role which pure spite can play in human affairs.
But, by far the most tragic outcome of The Hobbit debacle, is what it has revealed about 21st Century New Zealanders.
How have so many Kiwis lost the capacity for critical thought? When did they lose their historical memory? Who stole their moral compass?
The answers to those questions are located, to a degree that shames us all, in New Zealand’s so-called "mainstream" news media. Critical thinking and historical awareness, informed by a strong moral purpose, have for long been the hallmark of truly effective journalism. Without them the news media inevitably falls prey to either crude sensationalism or calculating partisanship – sometimes both.
Throughout The Hobbit saga, with one or two notable exceptions (take a bow Gordon Campbell) the reportage of the New Zealand media was woeful. Print and electronic journalists alike displayed an alarming unwillingness to critically examine the claims of any individuals or groups other than the trade unions and their spokespeople. Sir Peter Jackson’s accusations were treated by far too many reporters (and, to their shame, editors) as Holy Writ. There was almost no attempt to place what was happening in some sort of historical context (other than rote references to "the days of the Cook Strait ferry stoppages"). The only discernible moral purpose on display was the public punishment and humiliation of anyone foolhardy enough to challenge the version of events handed down from on high by Sir Peter.
This kind of reporting is fast becoming the norm in the United States, but it was profoundly disturbing to witness the "Fox-News-ing" of our own media. The relentless appeal to the audience’s emotions; the refusal to critically examine the protagonists’ claims; the general contempt for "fair and balanced" news coverage; and the sense that the newspapers, radio talkback hosts and television networks were all attempting to goad their audiences into taking some sort of action – "Save The Hobbit" – was truly frightening.
Right-wing bloggers made much of the "peaceful" march by Sir Richard Taylor’s technicians. But to describe a column of people who headed into downtown Wellington with the intention of intimidating – and quite possibly invading – an Actors Equity meeting as "peaceful" is disingenuous. Nor was I the only one to find the querulous, passive-aggressive video harassment of Simon Whipp, Frances Walsh and Robyn Malcolm as they attempted to return to their hotel from Wellington’s Matterhorn Restaurant late on the night of 20 October, deeply, deeply creepy.
This is what happens when the news media is permitted to use its enormous power to whip up public antagonism against a designated "enemy". That it ended in death-threats against Whipp and Walsh, and the verbal intimidation and harassment of the other Equity representatives was entirely predictable.
And where were the voices of restraint? Where was the appeal for tolerance from the Minister of Labour – the calm reaffirmation of the rights of workers to bargain collectively? Ms Wilkinson was invisible. What we saw, instead, was the Attorney-General, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Economic Development openly siding with film industry employers and, at times, even joining in the abuse of the actors. The anti-trade union witch-hunt was given its very own Government seal-of-approval.
Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition was no better. As I have stated elsewhere, the Labour Party simply couldn’t summon up the courage to defend the actors against Sir Peter. Even when the anti-union backlash caught the CTU’s Helen Kelly with the back of its hand. Even when it had morphed into an ideological and political assault upon the entire labour movement, Phil Goff (no doubt channelling the spirit of Sir Walter Nash) maintained a shameful "neither for nor against" neutrality.
The news media, the politicians – all are guilty. But if they are guilty, then so are we. When Paul Henry vilified non-white New Zealanders, the response was instantaneous and unequivocal. Not so with the vilification of Actors Equity. Overwhelmingly, New Zealanders were happy to howl for the blood of Robyn Malcolm and Helen Kelly. Overwhelmingly, we were willing to endorse the demonisation of Simon Whipp.
And what had these unionist done? No more than unions have been doing since the 1880s. They had asked for a show of international solidarity on behalf of their members’ campaign for basic improvements in wages and conditions.
A nation whose children had been taught about the Great Maritime Strike of 1890 would have found nothing at all remarkable in New Zealand and Australian workers co-operating in this way. A nation capable of remembering that its most beloved prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage (and a third of his cabinet) was born in Australia would have laughed at Sir Peter’s crude xenophobia. A nation with even the slightest understanding of the meaning of Labour Day would have scorned the transparently anti-union "Save the Hobbit" rallies.
But we didn’t. And that is the extent of the intellectual and moral corruption which a quarter-of-a-century of neoliberalism has wrought upon the New Zealand character. And it is the young who have fared the worst – for they have nothing against which they can compare the society of selfishness into which they’ve been cast adrift. The spokespersons for their "wired" generation, utterly enthralled to the cult of individualism, had nothing to tell them.
But Ian Mune did. Hunched on the Breakfast programme's sofa, this rumpled ambassador from "Old" New Zealand delivered what was easily the best, the most eloquent, and the most quintessentially Kiwi defence of his fellow actors – and of working people in all walks of life – that we had so far heard. God bless him!
All that remains to be done now is for the Governor-General to give the Royal Assent to the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Act. John Key has shown the world exactly what New Zealand has become. He has haggled about the price with Warner Bros., but what we are is now beyond dispute. We’re a country that’s willing to hand across its citizens’ taxes and trample all over its workers rights for the privilege of watching a thin-skinned cinematographer make a children’s movie.
And those few of us who have raised our voices against this travesty; this tragedy; this gross prostitution of our nationhood and sovereignty; we have been taught a lesson.
It’s the lesson the powerful have taught the powerless for centuries uncounted. In his novel The Given Day, the American writer, Denis Lehane, spells out the nature of the lesson with brutal succinctness:
What he’d found out, lying there in the dirt while those fists and feet rained down on him, was that if you bucked certain things – the mean things – they didn’t just buck back. No, no, that wasn’t enough. They crushed you and kept crushing and the only way you escaped alive was through pure luck, nothing else. The mean things of this world had only one lesson – we are meaner than you’d ever imagine.