Hard-hitting documentary explores Tongan ‘deportee dumping’ lives

In Gangsters in Paradise – Deportees of Tonga, Vice embeds with four Tongan nationals who have been sent back to where they were born after serving prison time in New Zealand and the United States. Video: Vice Zealandia

By Philip Cass

“It’s like crabs being stuck in a bucket scratching each other to get out.”

“It’s like rubbish dumping.”

Those are two views about the crisis facing Tonga as countries like the United States, Australia and New Zealand deport criminals to the kingdom.

The first comes from a deportee who talks about how it feels being sent back to struggle for a living in a country with which he and other former prisoners are often barely familiar.

The other is from Tonga’s former Commissioner of Prisons, who wants Western countries to take more responsibility for the people they deport and stop treating Tonga – along with Samoa and Fiji – as dumping grounds for people they regard as “rubbish”.


READ MORE: Responses to Gangsters in Paradise

They are, he reminds us, human beings.

The two views come from a hard-hitting documentary, Gangsters in Paradise – The Deportees of Tonga. A regular contributor to Kaniva Tonga news, photographer Todd Henry, acted as associate producer for the Vice Zealandia documentary.

Talia’uli Prescott … permanently banned from NZ – “I loved being a bad guy, but now I want to be a good guy,” Image: Vice/Kaniva News

Statistics show that the United States deported 700 criminals to Tonga between 1992 and January 2016, an average of 29 criminals a year. However, police figures show that up to 40 percent of the criminals deported to Tonga have come from New Zealand.

Most of the deportees are men between 25-35 years and have usually done time for assault, robbery, burglary, theft and drug offences.

20 years absences
Most have lived outside Tonga for 20 years.

Last year former Deputy Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said about 400 Tongans had been deported from the US, Australia and New Zealand since 2012.

More than half had partners or children living overseas.

Gangsters in Paradise is not comfortable viewing. It begins with an interview with a deportee who admits to having been jailed when he was barely out of childhood for shooting another boy four times in the stomach.

Violence played a big part in his upbringing, as it did in the lives of other deportees. For others, migration and re-migration provided a disturbed and unstable childhood.

Talia’uli Prescott talks about joining the King Cobras in New Zealand. They were aiga he tells the camera, explaining that it is a Samoan word for family.

“When you don’t have a family, they give you one,” he explains.

Permanently banned
He is permanently banned from New Zealand.

“That’s the only world I know,” he says.

“It’s very sad.”

By good fortune he has a job at Queen Salote wharf and says that he doesn’t want his legacy to be as somebody who was deported to Tonga.

“I loved being a bad guy, but now I want to be a good guy,” he says.

Other deportees have had a harder time fitting in.

As American deportee Sione Ngaue says: “We’re judged before they even get to know us. We have a red ‘X’ against us.”

Family land
Some deportees, like Ngaue, have staked a claim to family land. He works 6 hectares after a dispute with his uncles.

While some of the interviewees regard their time in prison as a chance to rethink their lives and gain a different perspective, others have brought nothing but trouble to Tonga.

Tonga is in the midst of a methamphetamine crisis and some deportees have gone back into the drugs trade.

One scene in the film shows a dealer preparing methamphetamine for sale, boasting that he can make TP$5000 (NZ$3200) from his Sunday night trading.

And sympathetic as he might be to their plight, Prisons Commissioner Sione Falemanu says deportees have brought more crime to the kingdom and sparked a wave of robberies.

With the Tongan diaspora spread between Sydney and Salt Lake City, this issue is clearly not going to go away. After a public screening of the documentary in Auckland last week, members of the audience who spoke during a talanoa, were sympathetic, but others warned that the deporting countries would also have to take note of what was happening.

“In all honesty, this is an ongoing issue, and believe it or not, it won’t be resolved in the near future. We’re going to have a lot of deportees. And to be honest, we need to start removing the [negative] perception around deportees,” one audience member said.

However, another warned: “If New Zealand does not actually pay attention to what we are seeing, it’s going to backfire on New Zealand. We’re already seeing it.”

Dr Philip Cass is an editorial adviser for Kaniva Tonga.

Article by AsiaPacificReport.nz

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Contrasting accounts of Indonesian genocide and betrayal in West Papua

BOOK REVIEW: By David Robie

Two damning and contrasting books about Indonesian colonialism in the Pacific, both by activist participants in Europe and New Zealand, have recently been published. Overall, they are excellent exposes of the harsh repression of the Melanesian people of West Papua and a world that has largely closed a blind eye to to human rights violations.

In Papua Blood, Danish photographer Peter Bang provides a deeply personal account of his more than three decades of experience in West Papua that is a testament to the resilience and patience of the people in the face of “slow genocide” with an estimated 500,000 Papuans dying over the past half century.

With See No Evil, Maire Leadbeater, peace movement advocate and spokesperson of West Papua Action Auckland, offers a meticulously researched historical account of New Zealand’s originally supportive stance for the independence aspirations of the Papuan people while still a Dutch colony and then its unprincipled slide into betrayal amid Cold War realpolitik.

Peter Bang’s book features 188 examples of his evocative imagery, providing colourful insights into changing lifestyles in West Papua, ranging through pristine rainforest, waterfalls, villages and urban cityscapes to dramatic scenes of resistance to oppression and the defiant displays of the Morning Star flag of independence.

Some of the most poignant images are photographs of use of the traditional koteka (penis gourds) and traditional attire, which are under threat in some parts of West Papua, and customary life in remote parts of the Highlands and the tree houses of the coastal marshlands.

Besides the photographs, Bang also has a narrative about the various episodes of his life in West Papua.


Never far from his account, are the reflections of life under Indonesian colonialism, and extreme racism displayed towards the Papuan people and their culture and traditions. From the beginning in 1963 when Indonesia under Sukarno wrested control of West Papua from the Dutch with United Nations approval under a sham “Act of Free Choice” against the local people’s wishes, followed by the so-called ‘Transmigrassi’ programme encouraging thousands of Javanese migrants to settle, the Papuans have been treated with repression.

‘Disaster for Papuans’
Bang describes the massive migration of Indonesians to West Papua as “not only a disaster for the Papuan people, but also a catastrophe for the rainforest, eartyn and wildlife” (p. 13).

“Police soldiers conducted frequent punitive expeditions with reference to violation of ‘laws’ that the indigenous people neither understood nor had heard about, partly because of language barriers and the huge cultural difference,’ writes Bang (p. 11). The list of atrocities has been endless.

“There were examples of Papuans who had been captured, and thrown out alive from helicopters, strangled or drowned after being put into plastic bags. Pregnant women killed by bayonets. Prisoners forced to dig their own graves before they were killed.” (p. 12)

A “trophy photo” by an Indonesian soldier from Battalion 753 of a man he had shot from the Lani tribe in 2010. Image from Papua Blood

A book that provided an early impetus while Bang was researching for his involvement in West Papua was Indonesia’s Secret War by journalist Robin Osborne, a former press secretary for Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan, the leader who was later ousted from office because of his bungled Sandline mercenary affair over the Bougainville civil war. Osborne’s book also influenced me when I first began writing about West Papua in the early 1980s.

After travelling through Asia, a young Peter Bang arrived in West Papua in 1986 for his first visit determined to journey to the remote Yali tribe as a photographer and writer interested in indigenous peoples. He wanted to find out how the Yali people had integrated with the outside world since missionaries had first entered the isolated tribal area just 25 years earlier.

When Bang visited the town of Angguruk for the first time, “the only wheels I saw at the mission station were punctured and sat on a wheelbarrow … It was only seven years ago that human flesh had been eaten in the area” (p. 16).

During this early period of jungle trekking, Bang rarely “encountered anything besides kindness – only twice did I experience being threatened with a bow and arrow” (p. 39). The first time was by a “mentally disabled” man confused over Bang’s presence, and he was scolded by the village chief.

Political change
Ten years later, Peter Bang again visited the Yali people and found the political climate had changed in the capital Jayapura – “we saw police and military everywhere” following an incident a few months earlier when OPM (Free Papua Movement) guerrillas had held 11 captives hostage in a cave.

He struck up a friendship with Wimmo, a Dani tribesman and son of a village witchdoctor and healer in the Baliem Valley, that was to endure for years, and he had an adoptive family.

On a return visit, Bang met Tebora, mother of the nine-year-old boy Puwul who was the subject of the author’s earlier book, Puwul’s World. At the age of 29, Puwul had walked barefooted hundreds of kilometres across the mountains from the Jaxólé Valley village to Jayapura, and then escaped across the border into Papua New Guinea. A well-worn copy of Puwul’s World was the only book in the village apart from a single copy of the Bible.

Years later, Bang met tribal leader and freedom fighter Benny Wenda who, with the help of Australian human rights activist and lawyer Jennifer Robinson, was granted asylum in the United Kingdom in 2003: “I felt great sympathy for Benny Wenda’s position on the fight for liberation. By many, he was compared to Nelson Mandela, although he was obviously playing his own ukelele” (p. 81)

A local chief in red sunglasses and bra talks to his people about the dangers of Indonesian administration plans for Okika region. Image: Peter Bang

Wenda and Filip Karma, at the time imprisoned by the Indonesian authorities for 15 years for “raising the Morning Star flag”, were nominated for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.

Bang founded the Danish section of the Free West Papua Campaign and launched an activist Facebook page.

One of the book’s amusing and inspirational highlights is his secret “freedom paddle” on the Baliem River when Peter Bang used a yellow inflatable rubber boat and a pocket-sized Morning Star flag to make his own personal protest against Indonesia (p. 123). This was a courageous statement in itself given the continued arrests of journalists in West Papua by the military authorities in spite of the “open” policy of President Joko Widodo.

As a special section, Bang’s book devotes 26 pages to the indigenous people of West Papua, profiling some of the territory’s 300 tribes and their cultural and social systems, such as the Highlands communities of Dani and Yali, and the Asmat, Korowai and Kombai peoples.

Fascinating insight
This book is a fascinating insight into West Papuan life under duress, but would have benefitted with tighter and cleaner copy editing by the English-language volunteer editors. Nevertheless, it is a valuable work with a strong sociopolitical message.

Peter Bang concludes: “Nobody knows what the future holds. In 2018, the Indonesian regime continues the brutal crackdown on the native population of West Papua.”

In contrast to Bang’s authentic narrative of life in West Papua, Maire Leadbeater’s See No Evil book – launched yesterday – is an activist historical account of New Zealand’s shameful record over West Papua, which is just as disgraceful as Wellington’s record on Timor-Leste over 24 years of Indonesian illegal occupation (tempered by a quietly supportive post-independence role).

Surely there is a lesson here. For those New Zealand politicians, officials and conservative journalists who prefer to meekly accept the Indonesian status quo, the East Timor precedent is an indicator that we should be strongly advocating self-determination for the Papuans.

One of the many strengths of Leadbeater’s thoroughly researched book is she exposes the volte-face and hypocrisy of the stance of successive New Zealand governments since Walter Nash and his “united New Guinea” initiative (p. 66).

“A stroke of the pen in the shape of the 1962 New York Agreement, signed by the colonial Dutch and the Indonesian government, sealed the fate of the people of West Papua,” the author notes in her introduction. Prior to this “selling out” of a people arrangement, New Zealand had been a vocal supporter of the Dutch government’s preparations to decolonise the territory.

In fact, the Dutch had done much more to prepare West Papua for independence than Australia had done at that stage for neighbouring Papua New Guinea, which became independent in 1975.

Game changer
Indonesia’s so-called September 30th Movement crisis in 1965 – three years after paratroopers had been dropped on West Papua in a farcical “invasion” – was the game changer. The attempted coup triggered massive anti-communist massacres in Indonesia leading to an estimated 200,000 to 800,000 killings and eventually the seizure of power by General Suharto from the ageing nationalist President Sukarno in 1967 (Adam, 2015).

A West Papua cartoon by Malcolm Evans (who also has a cartoon featured on the book cover) first published by Pacific Journalism Review in 2011. © Malcolm Evans

As Leadbeater notes, the bloodletting opened the door to Western foreign investment and “rich prizes” in West Papua such as the Freeport’s Grasberg gold and copper mine, one of the world’s richest.

“New Zealand politicians and diplomats welcomed Indonesia’s change in direction. Cold War anti-communist fervour trumped sympathy for the victims of the purge; and New Zealand was keen to increase its trade, investment and ties with the ‘new’ Indonesia.” (p. 22)

The first 13 chapters of the book, from “the Pleistocene period” to “Suharto goes but thwarted hope for West Papua”, are a methodical and insightful documentation of “recolonisation” and New Zealand’s changing relationship are an excellent record and useful tool for the advocates of West Papuan independence.

However, the last two contemporary chapters and conclusion, do not quite measure up to the quality of the rest of the book.

For example, a less than two-page section on “Media access” gives short change to the important media role in the West Papuan independence struggle. Leadbeater quite rightly castigates the mainstream New Zealand media for a lack of coverage for such a serious issue. Her explanation for the widespread ignorance about West Papua is simplistic:

“A major reason (setting aside Radio New Zealand’s consistent reporting) is that the issues are seldom covered in the mainstream media. It is a circular problem: lack of direct access results in a dearth of objective and fully rounded reporting; editors fear that material they do receive may be inaccurate or misrepresentative; so a media blackout prevails and editors conflate the resulting limited public debate with a lack of interest.” (p. 233)

Mainstream ‘silence’
Leadbeater points out that the mainstream media coverage of the “pre-internet 1960s did a better job”. Yet she fails to explain why, or credit those contemporary New Zealand journalists who have worked hard to break the mainstream “silence” (Robie, 2017).

She dismisses the courageous and successful groundbreaking attempts by at least two New Zealand media organisations – Māori Television and Radio New Zealand – to “test” President Widodo’s new policy in 2015 by sending crews to West Papua in merely three sentences. Since then, she admits, Indonesia’s media “shutters have mostly stayed shut” (p. 235).

One of the New Zealand journalists who has written extensively on West Papua and Melanesian issues for many years, RNZ Pacific’s Johnny Blades, is barely mentioned (apart from the RNZ visit to West Papua). Tabloid Jubi editor Victor Mambor, who visited New Zealand in 2014, Paul Bensemann (who travelled to West Papua disguised as a bird watcher in 2013), Scoop’s Gordon Campbell, Television New Zealand’s Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver and Tere Harrison’s 2016 short documentary Run It Straight are just a few of those who have contributed to growing awareness of Papuan issues in this country who have not been given fair acknowledgement.

Also important has been the role of the alternative and independent New Zealand and Pacific media, such as Asia Pacific Report, Pacific Scoop (both via the Pacific Media Centre), West Papua Media and Evening Report that have provided relentless coverage of West Papua. Other community and activist groups deserve honourable mentions.

Even in my own case, a journalist and educator who has written on West Papuan affairs for more than three decades with countless articles and who wrote the first New Zealand book with an extensive section on the West Papuan struggle (Robie, 1989), there is a remarkable silence.

One has a strong impression that Leadbeater is reluctant to acknowledge her contemporaries (a characteristic of her previous books too) and thus the selective sourcing weakens her work as it relates to the millennial years.

The early history of the West Papuan agony is exemplary, but in view of the flawed final two chapters I look forward to another more nuanced account of the contemporary struggle. Merdeka!

David Robie is director of the Pacific Media Centre and editor of Pacific Journalism Review. He was awarded the 1983 NZ Media Peace Prize for his coverage of Timor-Leste and West Papua, “Blood on our hands”, published in New Outlook magazine.

Papua Blood: A Photographer’s Eyewitness Account of West Papua Over 30 Years, by Peter Bang. Copenhagen, Denmark: Remote Frontlines, 2018. 248 pages. ISBN 9788743001010.
See No Evil: New Zealand’s Betrayal of the People of West Papua, by Maire Leadbeater. Dunedin, NZ: Otago University Press, 2018. 310 pages. ISBN 9781988531212.

Adam, A. W. (2015, October 1). How Indonesia’s 1965-1966 anti-communist purge remade a nation and the world. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/how-indonesias-1965-1966-anti-communist-purge-remade-a-nation-and-the-world-48243

Bang, P. (1996). Duianya Puwul. [English edition (2018): Puwul’s World: Endangered native people]. Copenhagen, Denmark: Remote Frontlines.

Osborne, R. (1985). Indonesia’s secret war: The guerilla struggle in Irian Jaya. Sydney, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Robie, D. (1989). Blood on their banner: Nationalist struggles in the South Pacific. London, UK: Zed Books.

Robie, D. (2017). Tanah Papua, Asia-Pacific news blind spots and citizen media: From the ‘Act of Free Choice’ betrayal to a social media revolution. Pacific Journalism Review : Te Koakoa, 23(2), 159-178. https://doi.org/10.24135/pjr.v23i2.334

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MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Journalist turns tales of undercover Papuan reporting into love novel

Stranger than fiction … Aprila Wayar poses with her latest novel Sentuh Papua which chronicles a Dutch journalist’s undercover reporting of Papua and is based on actual events. Image: Bambang Muryanto/Jakarta Post

BOOK REVIEW: By Bambang Muryanto in Yogyakarta

A Dutch freelance journalist, Rohan (a pen name), had been interested in the political turmoil in Papua for years. In 2015, his application for a journalistic visa was denied. The 32-year-old then decided to embark on an undercover reporting assignment in the country’s easternmost province.

For 153 days, he observed the way local people lived, met with leaders of the pro-independence Free Papua Movement (OPM) in the jungle, enjoyed the beauty of Papua’s nature and met Aprila Russiana Amelia Wayar, or Emil, a local journalist who later became his girlfriend.

It was Emil who wrote about Rohan’s adventures in Papua and their love story in the novel Sentuh Papua, 1500 Miles, 153 Hari, Satu Cinta (Touch Papua, 1500 Miles, 153 Days, One Love).

In the novel, Rohan’s character said foreign media agencies in Jakarta refused to publish his report on Papua, worrying that the government would revoke the visas of their Jakarta correspondents.

Emil recently launched her 374-page novel in a discussion forum organised by the Alliance of Independent Journalists’ (AJI) Yogyakarta chapter and the Yogyakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH).

Emil has been in Yogyakarta since early this year to publish the book. She chose Yogyakarta because she had spent time there as a student at Duta Wacana Christian University (UKDW).


The 38-year-old author said she initially intended to write a journalistic piece that was rich in data and interviews. She used the character of Rohan to describe the lack of press freedom in Papua, human rights violations in the province and challenges to OPM’s quest for self-determination.

‘Easier to understand’
“I then chose [to write a] novel to make it easier for Papuans and Indonesians to understand the [province’s] issues,” she said.

Through the book, Emil, who used to work for independent media platform Tabloid Jubi, was determined to represent the other side of Papua’s story vis-a-vis mainstream reporting on the province, which she deemed mostly biased.

She said many journalists covering cases of human rights abuses in Papua only interviewed security personnel and neglected the victims.

“Journalists writing about Papua have to cover both sides,” she said.

However, she realised both the challenge and risks that come with reporting Papua as a journalist, as she herself often received threats and harassment while doing her job.

In her book, the characters Rohan and Amelia, who is based on herself, are chased by a group of people armed with machetes.

According to Reporters Sans Frontier’s (RSF) latest World Press Freedom Index, Indonesia ranks 124th out of 180 countries – the same position as last year.

Open access promise
The Paris-based group highlighted the restriction of media access to Papua and West Papua as a factor that has kept Southeast Asia’s largest democracy at the bottom of the list.

The condition prevails despite President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s campaign promises to open access to Papua for foreign journalists.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian Press Council categorised Papua and West Papua as “medium/relatively free” in its 2017 press freedom index.

Yogyakarta-based lawyer Emmanuel Gobay said Emil’s book, despite being published as fiction, was a good reference for those who want to understand Papua from both the local and professional perspective.

“This novel reflects the state of press freedom in Papua,” he said.

The novel, which Emil wrote in eight months, is her third after Mawar Hitam Tanpa Akar (Black Rose Without Its Stem) and Dua Perempuan (Two Women), both of which told stories about social issues in Papua.

Emil was the first indigenous Papuan novelist invited to the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) in Bali in 2012. She plans to write a fourth book in the Netherlands, where she is currently undergoing medical treatment for a heart condition.

Bambang Muryanto is a Jakarta Post journalist and an Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) advocate.

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MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

A timely climate media strategy to empower citizens

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: A timely climate media strategy to empower citizens

BOOKS: By David Robie, editor of Pacific Journalism Review

At the time of reviewing this important and timely book, Hurricane Irma had just ripped a trail of unprecedented destruction from Antigua, Barbuda and Saint Barthélemy in the eastern Caribbean to Florida with at least 81 deaths.

Florida involved one of the largest mass evacuations in US history, with nearly 7 million people being warned to seek shelter elsewhere. Seventy percent of Miami lost electricity at the height of the storm.

And Irma in turn had followed on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated a large swathe of Texas. This was the first major hurricane to hit US soil in more than a dozen years.

Seventy-one fatalities and more than US$70 billion in damage. Two wrecking storms of such destructive force hitting the US mainland in less than a fortnight. Unsurprisingly, President Donald Trump dismissed any link between climate change and the two hurricanes.

“We’ve had bigger storms than this,” he snorted, even though earlier he had “marvelled” at their historic size.

The catastrophic category 5 Hurricane Irma sparked an analysis of media responses by Carbon Brief and a forensic examination of the science of climate and Atlantic hurricanes. Citing three climate specialists in particular, the website concluded: ‘The strongest hurricanes have gotten stronger because of global warming’ (Multiple authors, 2017).


Florida’s global warming denier governor Rick Scott weathered criticism after the devastation to his state by still refusing to say—as he had done for seven years since he was first elected in 2010—if he believes man-made climate change is real (Caputo, 2017).

Rather ironic
This is all rather ironic given that at the time of completing Journalism and Climate Crisis: Public Engagement, Media Alternatives, the co-authors were writing in the context of massive wildfire ravages in the Canadian city of Fort McMurray—epicentre of one of the world’s most controversial energy mega-projects, the Alberta tar sands—and, on the other side of the globe, aggressive wildfires were savaging Australia with sharply increasing frequency and intensity.

Just a few years earlier, in 2009, 173 people had perished in the “Black Saturday” bushfires that engulfed the community of Kinglake in the state of Victoria. Disturbing coral bleaching was also damaging Australia’s popular tourist attraction Great Barrier Reef off the Queensland coast.

Noting that the reality of anthropogenic climate challenge can no longer be ignored, this book warns that neither can the “responsibility of journalism to inform, motivate and empower citizens to engage with the problem” (p. 2)

Journalism and Climate Crisis seeks to disrupt the status quo of the way climate change is reported in much of the world, especially Anglo countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, and to offer strategies for community empowerment, action and hope in the digital age.

While much of the mainstream media, compromised as they are through their declining commercial models, offer little scope for change, the co-authors offer many examples of active communication success, mostly through alternative media.

The four co-authors are uniquely qualified for this collaborative volume. Robert A. Hackett is professor of communication at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, and as a co-founder of NewsWatch Canada, and has been a leading writer on environmental and peace journalism models. He also contributed an issue-defining article in the July 2017 edition of Pacific Journalism Review on climate change and critical media models.

Susan Forde is director of the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research and associate professor of journalism at Griffith University, Australia, and whose books include Challenging the News on alternative media. Shane Gunster is a colleague of Hackett at Simon Fraser University, where he is an associate professor in the School of Communication. Kerrie Foxwell-Norton is senior lecturer in journalism and media studies at Griffith University and a co-author of Developing Dialogue.

‘Normative touchstones’
The book is divided into seven chapters as well as an introduction to journalism models for climate crisis and a conclusion written by the co-authors. The first chapter is on Democracy, Climate Crisis and Journalism, looking at “normative touchstones”, followed by a chapter on Engaging Climate Communication, which examines audiences, frames, values and norms. The third chapter deals with Environmental Protest, Politics and Media Interactions.

Chapter four From Frames to Paradigms offers an in-depth comparative analysis of civic (or public) journalism, peace journalism and alternative media. This is followed by a British Columbia case study on Contesting Conflict with an examination of advocacy and alternative media in that province.

Chapter six analyses Australian independent news media and climate change in the context of COP21 when the historic Paris Agreement was forged. The final chapter looks at a Guardian Australia case study to demonstrate alternative approaches to environmental coverage. The conclusion offers a strategy for ‘media reform for climate action’.

Writing about “ordinary journalism in extraordinary times”, the authors argue that the conglomerates that “increasingly dominate media ownership are maximising short-term profits, stripping assets and disinvesting in news and thus have declining capacity and inclination to face up to the challenges of climate crisis”. Mirroring the arguments of McChesney and Nichols, for example, the authors state:

Working journalists are faced with tighter deadlines, heavier workloads, multiplatform demands, a 24/7 news hole to fill and a broader palette of topics to report. The result is predictable: fewer beat [rounds] reporters with specialised expertise, less investigative or accountability journalism, more pressure to act like stenographers, reporting competing claims rather than assessing their respective validity (p. 4).

However, the problem does not end there. It goes beyond the “crisis of journalism’s business model—Climate Crisis journalism faces additional barriers of institutional structure, class power and ideology”. Citing Naomi Klein’s argument for taking climate change seriously, they reaffirm the need for a positive role for government, a strengthened public sector and collective action—which is precisely why conservative political forces, especially in North America and Australia, prefer not to take it seriously.

The co-authors argue that journalism needs to rethink its mission to cover urgent political issues such as climate change. The problem is less about the informed citizen, and much more about empowering the public to be engaged. They are highly critical of how “elite media” in Australia and the US, for example, have privileged denialist opinion and vested interests, blaming them for widespread misinformation and disengagement. This is contrasted with Western Europe’s “vibrant and pluralistic” media systems.

The co-authors draw from the Christians et al. (2009) model of four normative democratic roles for journalism in their search for answers. While they critique the limited effectiveness of the traditional monitoring and the watchdog function of the media (and institutional biases of “objectivity”), they propose the facilitative role seeking to improve the quality of public life and the radical role foregrounding social injustice and abuses of power as being more helpful for climate crisis strategies. They give less emphasis to the collaborative role “in support for broader and dominant social purposes”, but this latter category is important in many developing countries, such as in the Pacific.

Their concluding and positive message is that global media reformers and environmentalists have a strong basis for common ground in seeking public support for alternative media and independent journalism as key pillars of democracy and climate communication.

Journalism and Climate Crisis: Public Engagement, Media Alternatives, edited by Robert A. Hackett, Susan Forde, Shane Gunster and Kerrie Foxwell-Norton. Abingdon, UK: Routledge. 2017. 204 pages. ISBN 978-1-1389-5039-9. This review was first published by Pacific Journalism Review.

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Coups, globalisation and Fiji’s reset structures of ‘democracy’

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: Coups, globalisation and Fiji’s reset structures of ‘democracy’

BOOKS: David Robie, editor of Pacific Journalism Review

When Commodore (now rear admiral retired and an elected prime minister) Voreqe Bainimarama staged Fiji’s fourth “coup to end all coups” on 5 December 2006, it was widely misunderstood, misinterpreted and misrepresented by a legion of politicians, foreign affairs officials, journalists and even some historians.

A chorus of voices continually argued for the restoration of “democracy” – not only the flawed version of democracy that had persisted in various forms since independence from colonial Britain in 1970, but specifically the arguably illegal and unconstitutional government of merchant banker Laisenia Qarase that had been installed on the coattails of the third (attempted) coup in 2000.

Yet in spite of superficial appearances, Bainimarama’s 2006 coup contrasted sharply with its predecessors.

Bainimarama attempted to dodge the mistakes made by Sitiveni Rabuka after he carried out both of Fiji’s first two coups in 1987 while retaining the structures of power.

Instead, notes New Zealand historian Robbie Robertson who lived in Fiji for many years, Bainimarama “began to transform elements of Fiji: Taukei deference to tradition, the provision of golden eggs to sustain the old [chiefly] elite, the power enjoyed by the media and judiciary, rural neglect and infrastructural inertia” (p. 314). But that wasn’t all.

[H]e brazenly navigated international hostility to his illegal regime. Then, having accepted an independent process for developing a new constitution, he rejected its outcome, fearing it threatened his hold on power and would restore much of what he had undone. (Ibid.)


Bainimarama reset electoral rules, abolished communalism in order to pull the rug from under the old chiefly elite, and provided the first non-communal foundation for voting in Fiji.

Landslide victory
Then he was voted in as legal prime minister of Fiji with an overwhelming personal majority and a landslide victory for his fledgling FijiFirst Party in September 2014. He left his critics in Australia and New Zealand floundering in his wake.

Robertson is well-qualified to write this well-timed book with Bainimarama due to be tested again this year with another election. He is a former history lecturer at the Suva-based regional University of the South Pacific at the time of Rabuka’s original coups (when I first met him).

He and his journalist wife Akosita Tamanisau wrote a definitive account of the 1987 events and the ousting of Dr Timoci Bavadra’s visionary and multiracial Fiji Labour Party-led government, Fiji: Shattered Coups (1988), ultimately leading to his expulsion from Fiji by the Rabuka regime. He also followed this up with Government by the Gun (2001) on the 2000 coup, and other titles.

Robertson later returned to Fiji as professor of Development Studies at USP and he has also been professor and head of Arts and Social Sciences at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland, as well as holding posts at La Trobe University, the Australian National University and the University of Otago.

He has published widely on globalisation. He is thus able to bring a unique perspective on Fiji over three decades and is currently professor and dean of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne.

Since 2006, Fiji has slipped steadily away from Australian and New Zealand influence, as outlined by Robertson. However, this is a state of affairs blamed by Bainimarama on Canberra and Wellington for their failed and blind policies.

Even since the 2014 election, Bainimarama has maintained a “hardline” on the Pacific’s political architecture through his Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) alternative to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), and on the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus trade deal.

‘Turned their backs’
While in Brisbane for an international conference in 2015, Bainimarama took the opportunity to remind his audience that Australia and New Zealand “as traditional friends had turned their backs on Fiji”. He added:

How much sooner we might have been able to return Fiji to parliamentary rule if we hadn’t expended so much effort on simply surviving … defending the status quo in Fiji was indefensible, intellectually and morally (p. 294).

For the first time in Fiji’s history, Bainimarama steered the country closer to a “standard model of liberal democracy” and away from the British colonial and race-based legacy.

“Government still remained the familiar goose,” writes Robertson, “but this time, its golden eggs were distributed more evenly than before”. The author attributes this to “bypassing chiefly hands” for tribal land lease monies, through welfare and educational programmes no longer race-bound, and through bold rural public road, water and electrification projects.

Admittedly, argues Robertson, like Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara (Fiji’s prime minister at independence and later president), Rabuka and Qarase, “Bainimarama had cronies and the military continues to benefit excessively from his ascendancy”. Nevertheless, Bainimarama’s “outstanding controversial achievement remains undoubtedly his rebooting of Fiji’s operating system in 2013”.

Coup 3 front man George Speight … jailed for treason. Image: Mai Life

Robertson’s scholarship is meticulous and drawn from an impressive range of sources, including his own work over more than three decades. One of the features of his latest book are his analysis of former British SAS Warrant Officer Lisoni Ligairi and the role of the First Meridian Squadron (renamed in 1999 from the “coup proof” Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit – CRWU), and the “public face” of Coup 3, businessman George Speight, now serving a life sentence in prison for treason.

His reflections on and interpretations of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces Board of Inquiry (known as BoL) into the May 2000 coup are also extremely valuable. Much of this has never before been available in an annotated and tested published form, although it is available as full transcripts on the “Truth for Fiji” website.

‘Overlapping conspiracies’
As Robertson recalls, by mid-May, “there were many overlapping conspiracies afoot … Within the kava-infused wheels within wheels, coup whispers gained volume”. Ligairi’s role was pivotal but BoL put most of the blame for the coup on the RFMF for “allowing” one man so much power, especially one it considered ill-equipped to be a director and planner’ (p. 140).

The BoL testimony about the November 2000 CRWU mutiny before Bainimarama escaped with his life through a cassava patch, also fed into Robertson’s account, although he admits Colonel Jone Baledrokadroka’s ANU doctoral thesis is the best account on the topic, “Sacred King and Warrior Chief:The role of the military in Fiji politics”.

It was a bloody and confused affair, led by the once loyal [Captain Shane] Stevens, 40 CRWU soldiers, many reportedly intoxicated, seized weapons and took over the Officers Mess, Bainimarama’s office and administration complex, the national operations centre and the armoury in the early afternoon. They wanted hostages; above all they wanted Bainimarama. (p. 164)

The book is divided into four lengthy chapters plus an Introduction and Conclusion – 1. The Challenge of Inheritance about the flawed colonial legacy, 2. The Great Turning on Rabuka’s 1987 coups and the Taukei indigenous supremacy constitution, 3. Redux: The Season for Coups on Speight’s attempted (and partially successful) 2000 coup, and 4. Plus ça Change …? on Bainimarama’s political “reset”. (The Bainimarama success in outflanking his Pacific critics is perhaps best represented by his diplomatic success in co-hosting the “Pacific” global climate change summit in Bonn in 2017.)

One drawback from a journalism perspective is the less than compelling assessment of the role of the media over the period, considering the various controversies that dogged each coup, especially the Speight one when accusations were made against some journalists as having been too close to the coup makers.

One of Fiji’s best journalists and editors, arguably the outstanding investigative reporter of his era, Jo Nata, publisher of the Weekender, sided with Speight as a “media minder” and was jailed for treason.

However, while Robertson in several places acknowledges Nata’s place in Fiji as a journalist, there is no real examination of his role as journalist-turned-coup-propagandist. This ought to be a case study.

Robertson noted how Nata’s Weekender exposed “morality issues” in Rabuka’s cabinet in 1994 without naming names. The Review news and business magazine followed up with a full report in the April edition that year, naming a prominent female journalist who was sleeping with the post-coup prime minister, produced a love child and who still works for The Fiji Times today (p. 118).

Nata then promised a special issue on the 21 women Rabuka had had affairs with since stepping down from the military. However, after Police Commissioner Isikia Savua spoke to him, the issue never appeared. (A full account is in Pacific Journalism ReviewThe Review, 1994).

NBF debacle
Elsewhere in the book is an outline of the National Bank of Fiji (NBF) debacle that erupted when an audit was leaked to the media: “In fact, the press, particularly The Fiji Times and The Review, were pivotal in exposing the scandal.” Robertson added:

The Review had earlier been threatened with deregistration over its publication of Rabuka’s affair[s] in 1994; now both papers were threatened with Malaysian-style licensing laws to ensure that they remained respectful of Pacific cultural sensitivities and did not denigrate Fijian business acumen. (p. 121)

The bank collapsed in late 1995 owing more than $220 million or nearly 9 percent of Fiji’s GDP – an example of the nepotism, corruption and poor public administration that worsened in Fiji after Rabuka’s coups.

On Coup 1, Robertson recalls how apart from Rabuka’s masked soldiers inside Parliament, “other teams fanned out across the city to seize control of telecommunication power authorities, media outlets and the Government Buildings” (p. 65).

The 1987 Fiji military coups leader Sitiveni Rabuka as he was back then. Image: Matthew McKee/Pacific Journalism Review

But there is little reflective detail about Rabuka’s “seduction” of the Fiji and international journalists, or how after closing down the two daily newspapers, the neocolonial Fiji Times reopened while the original Fiji Sun opted to close down rather than publish under a military-backed regime.

About Coup 3, Robertson recalls “[Speight] was articulate and comfortable with the media – too comfortable, according to some journalists. They felt that this intimate media presence ‘aided the rebel leader’s propaganda fire … gave him political fuel’. They were not alone’ (p. 154) (see Robie, 2001).

On the introduction of the 2010 Fiji Media Industry Development Decree, which still casts a shadow over the country and is mainly responsible for the lowest Pacific “partly free” rankings in the global media freedom indexes, Robertson notes how it was “Singapore-inspired”. The decree “came out in early April 2010 for discussion and mandated that all media organisations had to be 90 percent locally owned. The implication for the News Corporation Fiji Times and for the 51 percent Australian-owned Daily Post were obvious” (p. 254).

The Fiji Times was bought by Mahendra Patel, long-standing director and owner of the Motibhai trading group. (He was later jailed for a year for “abuse of office” while chair of Post Fiji.) The Daily Post was closed down.

Facing a long history of harassment by various post-coup administrations (including a $100,000 fine in January 2009 for publishing a letter describing the judiciary as corrupt, and deportations of publishers), The Fiji Times is heading into this year’s elections facing a trial for alleged “sedition” confronting the newspaper.

In spite of my criticism of limitations on media content, The General’s Goose is an excellent book and should be mandatory background reading for any journalist covering South Pacific affairs, especially those likely to be involved in coverage of this year’s general election.

The General’s Goose: Fiji’s Tale of Contemporary Misadventure, by Robbie Robertson. Canberra: Australian National University. 2017. 366 pages. ISBN 9781760461270.

Baledrokadroka, J. (2012). The sacred king and warrior chief: The role of the military in Fiji politics. Unpublished doctoral thesis. Canberra: Australian National University.

Robertson, R., & Sutherland, W. (2001). Government by the gun: The unfinished business of Fiji’s 2000 coup. Sydney & London: Pluto Press & Zed Books.

Robertson, R., & Tamanisau, A. (1988). Fiji: Shattered coups. Sydney: Pluto Press.

Robie, D. (2001). Coup coup land: The press and the putsch in Fiji. Asia Pacific Media Educator, 10, 149-161. See also for an extensive media coverage examination of the 1987 Rabuka coups: Robie, D. (1989). Blood on their banner: Nationalist struggles in the South Pacific. London: Zed Books; 2006 coup and 2014 elections: Robie, D. (2016). ‘Unfree and unfair’?: Media intimidation in Fiji’s 2014 elections. In Ratuva, S., & Lawson, S. (Eds.), The people have spoken: The 2014 elections in Fiji. Canberra: ANU Press.

The Review (1994). Rabuka and the reporter. Pacific Journalism Review, 1(1), 20-22.

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Article by AsiaPacificReport.nz

Endangered – the frontline journalism of outrage

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: Endangered – the frontline journalism of outrage

Article by AsiaPacificReport.nz

War Reporters, a short video launched by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) last year to honour journalists facing “danger zones”. Its release coincided with the publication of RSF’s 50th book in the “100 photos for press freedom” series – this one dedicated to the work of Robert Capa.

REVIEW: By David Robie

Media coverage of the decapitation and other atrocities against journalists has heightened global awareness of just how dangerous the profession of journalists is when covering war zones, corruption and human rights violations under dictatorships.

“Although violence against journalists is not a new phenomenon, the trend has worsened,” writes New Zealand-based media academic, political scientist and analyst Maria Armoudian in her new book Reporting from the Danger Zone: Frontline journalists, their jobs, and an increasingly perilous future.

Researcher Dr Armoudian, lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Auckland and author of the 2011 book Kill the Messenger, provides sobering statistics in her “danger zone for journalists” analysis.

Since Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded by Pakistani extremists in 2002, at least five journalists have been decapitated on the job.

Four years ago, in 2012, Paris-based media freedom advocacy agency Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) reported a 33 percent rise in journalist killings. This followed the world’s worst single massacre of journalists at Ampatuan on the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines in November 2009 when at least 34 were killed.

To this day there has been no justice for the families of the victims.

The mounting death toll has been accompanied by a 37 percent rise in abductions (to 119) between 2013 and 2014, writes Armoudian, citing RSF statistics.

The author also summarises other media freedom organisation tallies, noting “hundreds more have been imprisoned of exiled”.

Armoudian goes to great pains to stress that it is the local journalists who bear the brunt of the violence and slayings, “accounting for more than 75 percent of journalists killed or imprisoned, and 90 percent of the abductions.

“The attacks signal a dark era for journalism and a stark departure from previous decades when combatants, at minimum, tolerated journalists, treating them as civilians, and often sought their sympathies.” (p. 1)

What has changed? The social media revolution and the realisation by extremist groups that they no longer need journalists to tell their story.

In fact, making martyrs of journalists make good video footage. They are the “collateral damage” of insurgencies.

This research project was funded by the University of Auckland, which covered a grant from the Faculty Research Fund.

The research for Danger Zone drew largely on interviews with 32 journalists worldwide, including New Zealand’s Jon Stephenson, the country’s only “war correspondent” but nobody from the Asia-Pacific. Twenty four of the journalists agreed to be named in the book while the rest chose to remain anonymous due to the continuing occupational dangers they face.

An Auckland University of Technology journalism graduate, Corazon Miller, now a reporter with The New Zealand Herald (who recently gained a scoop interview with controversial Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte), and a Pacific Media Centre (PMC) associate, also assisted with research and transcripts.

Danger Zone has seven chapters with the introduction entitled “Why ethical journalism matters”. The other chapters explore the “origin of stories” (sourcing), the foreign correspondents’ “afflictions”, “staying alive”, “living in a danger zone”, the “first casualty” and a conclusion.

Many of the journalists with long experience recount how difficult and risky the job has become.

Carol Williams, a veteran correspondent who has reported on the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Ukraine conflict, for example, recalls that human rights stories “just happened to occur on my turf”.

She had started off as a foreign correspondent covering nuclear disarmament and the superpower relationship during the Cold War. But she became motivated by witnessing

“some of the most horrible things that were done to children. In Sarajevo, the Serbs would shoot into schools and hospitals. Little six-year-old kids [were] seeing their teachers blown up in front of them …” (p. 21)

Freelance American journalist Dahr Jamail, with little previous journalism experience, was motivated by his “personal outrage”.

“I saw the selling of the [Iraq] War and was completely outraged and decided, ‘Well, I will go in.’ And one thing I can do as a US citizen is go in a report on how this is impacting [on] the Iraqi people because that’s the phase of the story that was totally omitted from the mainstream [media].” (p. 19)

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Roy Gutman, author of How We Missed the Story, argued that journalism in conflict zones provides change-makers and hope as an antidote for hopelessness.

“Journalism is one of the few means [that] we, maybe the only means, that I certainly had, or that we have as the general public, to expose horrible practices in the hope that somebody will do something about it. And that’s what journalism is all about.” (p. 21)

He exposed Serbian concentration camps and ethnic cleansing “killing fields” in Bosnia … and “that story did have impact, and have a wallop”.

It is pleasing to see Jon Stephenson, the only journalist to take on the NZ Defence Force establishment on a matter of truth and integrity – and win, featuring in this book several times.

In one chapter, Stephenson explains how difficult it is, especially as a freelancer with limited resources available, to get to a remote and dangerous conflict zone. His form of independent “embedding”, if it can be called that, is by becoming immersed with ordinary people, not the elites.

On his first trip to Afghanistan, Stephenson flew to India, took a train to the Pakistani border, and then made a long walk across the harsh countryside into Pakistan via Wagah.

“I just walked across the border … from the moment I arrived in Pakistan, I started collecting info on what the locals felt … on buses, and even in a hotel, I’d talk to the hotel clerk and … I met an MP from the Pakistani parliament. He invited me to his home in Islamabad. I interviewed the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan who I met on the roof of the Marriott being interviewed by CNN. And I just started there really and worked my way up.” (p. 110)

Stephenson met the family of Abdul Haq, one of the major resistance leaders during the so-called jihad against the Soviets, and ended up in a family compound in Peshawar with some other journalists.

As well as the analysis, Danger Zone provides some “helpful resources” for journalists. However, while useful, including some key links such as the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, there are notable omissions, such as Reporters Sans Frontières/Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which runs an extensive safety programme for freelance journalists in particular. This is a curious oversight because RSF is mentioned in many citations.

Pacific Media Centre, which has been the most active unit on this issue in New Zealand with a Pacific Media Watch freedom project dating back to 1996, and is associated with RSF is also not listed. This is strange given the fact that Danger Zone originated in Auckland and that the PMC, based at the neighbouring university, has produced several publications on conflict and peace journalism.

There is also no mention of the world’s worst atrocity against journalists, the Ampatuan massacre in the Philippines.

However, these are minor criticisms. Essentially this book is inspirational for a new generation of journalists in a troubled era for journalism and a helpful resource for media school libraries.

It is also encouraging that all the interviewees for this project “expressed compassion and empathy for victims of violence, abuse, and failed institutions, and most were vicariously traumatised as a result”. Ethical journalism is alive and defiant in the face of mounting pressures.

But, warns Dr Armoudian, far more work is needed from scholars, international media law experts, “and journalists themselves”, in developing safer ways to secure vital information for democracies.

Reporting from the Danger Zone: Frontline journalists, their jobs, and an increasingly perilous future, by Maria Armoudian. New York and London: Routledge, 2017. 155pp. ISBN 978-1-138-84005-8

Armoudian, Maria (2011). Kill The Messenger: The media’s role in the fate of the world. New York: Prometheus Books.

Gutman, Roy. (2008). How We Missed the Story: Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and the hijacking of Afghanistan. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press

Sweeney Todd A Horror Story Then and Now – Not Quite A Gonzo Review

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: Sweeney Todd A Horror Story Then and Now – Not Quite A Gonzo Review

Introspection and review by Selwyn Manning. All still photographs by David Rowland.

A ghastly tale of horror and intrigue looms for Wellington and Christchurch theatre-goers as New Zealand Opera sharpens its knives before its Auckland consumers – but beware, this story of Sweeney Todd may compel you to think.

Sweeney Todd is one awful story. And the tale is retold so well by this rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s musical horror, that at times you can almost smell it, how rotten Victorian London was. But is its power to compel dread found in the mirror this story presents?

Introduction to Sweeney:

Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Sweeney Todd, NZ Opera, Civic Theatre, Auckland, New Zealand, Thursday, September 15, 2016. Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com
Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Sweeney Todd, NZ Opera, Civic Theatre, Auckland, New Zealand, Thursday, September 15, 2016. Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com

Many of you will be familiar with the story: how Sweeney Todd was once happy and married to a delightful and true wife, how the couple were blessed by a loved and loving daughter, how a corrupt judge coveted their world, how his class and power was a privilege of his time, how the ugliness of obsession became compulsion, how he convicted Sweeney on a trumped up charge, sentenced him to life as a prisoner of mother England to be served within the penal colony of Australia, and then when the beauty within the Todd family turned vulnerable the judge set out to devour all of that which was left of Sweeney Todd’s world. Some fifteen years later, Sweeney Todd escapes, returns to England and seeks revenge against those who destroyed what he loved.

In a way it’s a brilliant story, the ghastly deeds committed by Sweeney and Mrs Lovett mask the true monster of class and inequality, the abandonment of meritocracy, the privileged’s indifference and consequential loathing for those cast below it. Indeed, Sondheim’s story transports us to an earlier time to when Victorian England was rotten to the core.

Such tales, when performed well, transport us not only to another time, but conjure up the opportunity to compare their lot to ours. Often, we are delighted to realise how far we have come culturally. But then, as all forms of good art do, especially when performed as superbly as New Zealand Opera is renowned, we find ourselves challenged by our own Contemporarianism.

Antoinette Halloran and Teddy Tahu Rhodes in Sweeney Todd, NZ Opera, Civic Theatre, Auckland, New Zealand, Thursday, September 15, 2016. Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com
Antoinette Halloran and Teddy Tahu Rhodes in Sweeney Todd, NZ Opera, Civic Theatre, Auckland, New Zealand, Thursday, September 15, 2016. Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com

Prelude To Sweeney – Masterclass:

On preparing to attend this opera, I chose to wear tidy but casual pants. I donned a nice shirt rather than white shirt-black tie attire, and the jacket was almost unworn but was perhaps more suited to the cool weather outside than the Civic’s special magic. Perhaps, in hindsight, I should confess, it was a little test. Some opera-goers are notorious for being a tad snobby, and Sweeney Todd was too rich to resist. Were Auckland’s elite happy that New Zealand Opera was performing this Sondheim ‘musical’ only to risk broadening the audience demographic?

We had chosen not to enter via the Civic’s red carpet, but rather through the right-hand side entrance. We made for the booking office and were greeted wonderfully as always by New Zealand Opera’s staff. With tickets in hand and having been presented with a fabulously produced and written programme, we sought not to mingle but made for the theatre’s stalls. The ushers were delightful in guiding us to our row, then our seats. We settled in, relaxed, gazed upward and about as we always do when inside the marvelous Civic theatre.

We politely stood up, as is the custom, to let others squeeze passed as allocated seats were sought.

Then, a dreadful moment presented as one very finely suited man of considerable height and an air of boardroom elegance squeezed passed to loom above us. Before realising we were perhaps considered casts of a lesser God, the man paused time to insist, in his patiently expressed but obviously refined vowels, that we were sitting in his seats! “Are you sure,” I replied intoning a suggestion rather than question. “Positive,” he retorted.

As I traversed my mind to consider the scale of probabilities, he beat me to it and snapped: “Show me your tickets!” I reached for my pocket electing to annoy by deploying the Union tactic of a ‘go slow’. But once the evidence was presented I am sad to report that on inspection, it was proven that the ‘person’ who was to become the focus of my societal-comparative-analysis was indeed correct. We had been ushered to the wrong row, the wrong seats, and I had failed to check the bloody tickets.

Needless to say dejection set in before ejection was sought and shamefully it became our lot to squeeze passed the polite-and-the-tolerant and search out our seats with haste before the Civic’s magical shooting star heralded our journey back to acceptability to another time and place.

And transported we were.

The Resurrection and the Performance:

Cast of Sweeney Todd, NZ Opera, Civic Theatre, Auckland, New Zealand, Thursday, September 15, 2016. Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com
Cast of Sweeney Todd, NZ Opera, Civic Theatre, Auckland, New Zealand, Thursday, September 15, 2016. Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com

Within seconds of the superb Auckland Philharmonia’s conductor Benjamin Northey instructing his organist to bellow out a most agonising sequence of chords, two things came to mind: Vincent Price, and, how as children, one of my brothers and I used to nick the keys to the church next door, sit on the organ stool, pump the treadle while depressing the lowest note that old Gherty could muster. There rumbling out a diabolical racket, we would smart with devilish grin knowing our mother wouldn’t be too far away to save the community from the horror story score we had conducted. From the first note, I had one foot in Sweeney Todd present and the other in a past which seems too long ago.

Director Stuart Maunder AM has achieved something special here. He has ensured his cast performs to their strengths. And it works. Teddy Tahu Rhodes, with respect to you, from the moment you appeared as a demon among the light you became our Sweeney Todd.

Rhodes’ voice… people if you want to hear what a real baritone sounds like then you have to see and hear this guy perform this role. He makes Caiaphas in JC Superstar sound like a genteel grandfather.

When Rhodes speaks as Sweeney, all before him become captors with a compulsion to listen. And thank you for that, as Sweeney’s message is powerful. In performance, voice has many elements where the unspoken whispers to the inner you. Could it be that Sweeney Todd compels us to consider what kind of character in truth we have become?

It is true that Rhodes channels a horror that lurks within Sweeney, and within this character there is time and space to pause, to consider, to realise cause and effect.

Rhodes’ strength plants Sweeney Todd’s feet firmly on the ground, which choreographs well opposite soprano Antoinette Halloran who is cast as his offsider Mrs Lovett. Halloran is the yang of his yin (or considering the characters, is it the other way around). In any case, Halloran is a master of comic timing and centre-stage presence. And she has to be to make this production of Sweeney Todd work. It is simply due to a well-learned and earned talent that by degrees she allows her audience to sense that perhaps Mrs Lovett’s beguiling charm is but a cloak that conceals a duality – an oscillation between hope and construct, an intention caught between love and greed that morphs into a ghastly heart.

Helen Medlyn as the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd, NZ Opera, Civic Theatre, Auckland, New Zealand, Thursday, September 15, 2016. Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com
Helen Medlyn as the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd, NZ Opera, Civic Theatre, Auckland, New Zealand, Thursday, September 15, 2016. Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com

The story has its diversions. The plight of the young potential lovers, Johanna and Anthony Hope (performed superbly by Amelia Berry and James Benjamin Rodgers) is vital so as to accentuate a corruption manifest in the evil Judge Turpin (Phillip Rhodes), the horribly sycophantic Beadle Bamford (Andrew Glover), the tragedy that becomes Tobias Ragg (performed by the marvelous Joel Granger), and the hilarity of arch-crook Pirelli (performed by Robert Tucker). Another special mention: it pays to pay attention to the Beggar Woman (so wonderfully performed by Helen Medlyn) for she holds the key to a very clever flick of the knife.

Once again production designer Roger Kirk has created a marvelous set that anchors, transforms and transports, and yes that summary includes that dreadful barber’s chair.

Prologue to Sweeney:

On exiting the Civic, my man was there standing centre-stage upon the red carpet. He had chosen not to exit but rather juxtapositioned his back to the entrance (perhaps a barrier to the hordes outside). Again he towered above all others and sought to chat, to mingle, and again we squeezed passed with thought.

The freshness of pre-equinox air greeted us, the vibe on the street was joyous. Theatre-goers were well pleased with Sweeney Todd. Lovers lined up to share ice-creams near a shop where Royal Dalton was once sold. On the south-side of Queen Street I felt delighted to realise the decrepit Kerridge Odeon buildings had been demolished before noticing a man to my left of prime working age and inclination sat on a blanket holding a cardboard sign that read: “Can you help me please.” He, like some of the characters in Sweeney Todd, clearly slept rough. But his story was reality not fiction while in truth he shared a commonality as a consequence of indifference, class and inequality. Another rested his back against a Queen Street shop wall, perhaps to take timeout from begging. And my partner said to me (or to herself): “I must always remember to bring along some cash.”

We headed for the Civic Car-park, where at the Town Hall entrance, there exposed to wind and rain, another man lay wrapped up in a blanket and prepared snuggle down to sleep off the cold. We got in our car, exited the car-park, accelerated up Greys Avenue, turned left into Pitt Street, and worked our way passed a young man who lay amid the traffic flowing passed the corner of Karangahape Road. Help was at hand, a group of people had placed him in the recovery position, held his hand and awaited an ambulance’s arrival.

Then, Kingsland-bound, we drove passed where Dick Smith’s used to be, and noticed a slight teenager dressed in the lightest of summertime cloth preparing to earn herself a living for the night, and I thought of how on one-late-Friday-night, at the age of thirteen years four months, Aaron Williams and I shared a half dozen bottles of beer beneath the Southmall railway bridge in Manurewa and waited for the last train to pass. I thought then of how we didn’t realise we had our lifetimes ahead of us. And it took some four days before I could write this review.

Bravo New Zealand Opera, and thank you all especially Stephen Sondheim for Sweeney Todd – for while he became the protagonist for a terrible horror (yes his actions were chosen by the monster of whom he had become) Sweeney was merely a mask to disguise what a society and culture had created.

What: New Zealand Opera.
Performance: Sweeney Todd – the demon barber of Fleet Street.
Auckland dates: September 17, 18, 21, Friday 23, and Saturday 24.
Wellington dates: September 30, October 1, 2, 4, and 5.
Christchurch: October 12, 13, 14, 15 (two performances).

To discover more and purchase tickets, see:

Amelia Berry and James Benjamin Rodgers in Sweeney Todd, NZ Opera, Civic Theatre, Auckland, New Zealand, Thursday, September 15, 2016. Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com
Amelia Berry and James Benjamin Rodgers in Sweeney Todd, NZ Opera, Civic Theatre, Auckland, New Zealand, Thursday, September 15, 2016. Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com