A man on an Air New Zealand flight turns to his partner and says, ‘I wish those children would shut up’. His remark that night features on both major TV networks’ national news bulletins, both ‘current affairs’ programmes and prominently the next day in every metropolitan newspaper in the country. The Timaru Herald even devotes its leader to the story. Since people on planes regularly express the wish that noisy or badly behaved children would ’shut up’ – often in much stronger terms than that – and since those episodes attract no attention whatsoever in the media, we have to assume that there was something else to justify such extensive coverage. There was. The complainant was a Member of Parliament and he was gay. (I’ll come to the ‘gay’ bit in a moment.) Several stories noted that the MP was travelling at the taxpayer’s expense. I take this to mean that Members of Parliament forfeit their right to reasonable peace and quiet while flying or travelling on trains, buses, ships or ferries. It is all right to annoy them. The complainant in the case, the children’s father, did not appear in any of the television coverage. This seems strange since his wife, who did all the talking, says she did not actually hear the MP say, ‘I wish those children would shut up’. Her entire evidence on that point was therefore based on hearsay. Or perhaps ‘not-hear-say’. This seemingly relevant fact seemed to escape the attention of the ‘journalists’ covering the story.
The children’s mother did say that use of the term ’shut up’ was inappropriate and that she would never use it to her children. Poor delicate-eared little darlings. They will no doubt need counselling. As for me, I should be all over the news media. I cannot count the number of times I have told my children to shut up. While admitting that her children had been responsible for ‘a little bit of ordinary noise’, the mother noted that the MP ‘would have no concept of how young families are and how they live’. Now why would that be? Wasn’t the MP once a member of a young family himself? Well, the only thing I can think of is that this particular MP is gay. I take this to mean that being gay disentitles you from complaining about the bad behaviour of other people’s children.
And, by the way, what exactly is ‘ordinary noise’?
Now the difficulty with this story for most of us is that we weren’t there and the prosecution and defence versions of what happened are diametrically opposed. Mum’s evidence on what was said cannot be admitted, since it’s hearsay. And Dad hasn’t appeared in (TV) court at all. His evidence has merely been reported in print and is uncorroborated. So it’s difficult to judge his credibility. The MP, on the other hand, did appear in court and his evidence is corroborated. He has a witness. The New Zealand Herald reports: ‘A person on the same flight said yesterday: “I was sitting in the aisle across from Charles and I actually said to my husband that I wished the parents would tell their children to ’shut up’. They were pretty loud. Thank heavens the witness was married and to a person of the opposite sex. But before reaching a verdict we really ought to consider the question of possible motive for the charge being laid at all. Why would the father have gone to such extreme lengths to publicly attack the MP merely for having said to the person next to him, ‘I wish those children would shut up.?’ It’s a tricky one, isn’t it? But let’s throw caution to the winds and speculate widely: The MP is a member of the Labour Party. The father is a former member of ACT and a virulent right-wing blogger. Hmmmm.
Unfair? Fanciful? Drawing too long a bow?
Well, here’s what I think. I think this rather unpleasant fellow – read his blogs – saw a wonderful opportunity to damage a Labour MP by inflating an inconsequential and probably justified remark made about his children. And I think the coverage given to this matter by the New Zealand media speaks volumes about the quality of journalism in this country. It is a disgrace. I’m a Labour supporter myself of course, so you’re entitled to take that into consideration. But I’m also a father of five children, a grandfather of ten and a frequent flyer. I know about how young families are and how they live. And I’m all too familiar with small children’s behaviour on planes. I have endured their shouting and screeching; I have suffered being kicked in the back for an entire flight by their restless little feet; and I have cursed their inconsiderate and useless bloody parents. I have enormous sympathy for the parents of a screaming baby on a plane. But there my sympathy stops. As for the MP, he doesn’t come out of this lily white either. Instead of dealing with the problem in an assertive manner, by quietly asking the parents if they would mind asking their children not to make so much noise, he went down the non-assertive route of speaking loud enough for them to overhear his complaint. Not very courageous and more likely to receive a negative response and, as it turns out, widespread coverage from our now almost exclusively tabloid media.