Not mad, not bad, just sad

Adam Dud­ding went to gauge Sean Plun­ket’s san­ity in the wake of a high­ly­pub­li­cised so­cial me­dia spat over a Hol­ly­wood pariah.

Sunday Star-Times - - Focus -

Re­cently I got to won­der­ing if Sean Plun­ket had, per­haps, lost his mar­bles. He’d quit his job at the Broad­cast­ing Stan­dards Au­thor­ity (BSA) be­fore it even started. He’d posted a tweet that seemed sup­port­ive of se­rial sex­ual preda­tor Har­vey We­in­stein and seemed sort of smug about the 100-odd un­a­mused re­sponses. He’d just fin­ished a dis­pu­ta­tious stint as com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for Gareth Mor­gan’s TOP party, dur­ing which time he ev­i­dently rev­elled in puerile ex­changes with New Zealand Twit­ter’s most ven­er­a­ble res­i­dents.

I rang to ask if he’d meet to talk about th­ese and other mat­ters and he sug­gested I buy him lunch. So a few days later I went to Welling­ton and found him wait­ing at a table in the sunny court­yard of a cafe in Cuba St.

I ex­pressed re­lief that the menu prices weren’t too high, see­ing me­dia lunch bud­gets aren’t what they used to be, and Plun­ket fell into rem­i­nis­cence of the lunches of the 1980s when he was a baby ra­dio re­porter in Par­lia­ment and ‘‘Roger Dou­glas would get the Press Gallery pissed and throw ma­jor re­form at them’’.

He then rat­tled through his CV highlights since – re­porter at the short­lived Auck­land Sun, then Ra­dio New Zealand, then TV3; pre­sen­ter of TVNZ’s Fair Go; over to the Holmes show; long-run­ning host of Morn­ing Re­port; then talk­back stints at New­stalk ZB then Ra­dio Live. This was handy be­cause if I’d had a chance to get my first ques­tion in, it would have been to ask him to rat­tle through his CV.

The rat­tle in­cluded the minu­tiae of con­trac­tual and le­gal dis­putes with sev­eral em­ploy­ers, and the non-re­newal of his Ra­dio Live con­tract in De­cem­ber 2015 dur­ing Mark Wel­don’s reign of chaos at Me­di­aWorks. He’s not worked as a broad­caster since then, though he has a me­dia and PR con­sul­tancy.

He also touched on the events of Jan­uary 2015, when he called Booker-win­ning au­thor Eleanor Cat­ton an un­grate­ful ‘‘hua’’ (sounds like, but doesn’t mean, ‘‘whore’’) be­cause she’d den­i­grated New Zealand’s ‘‘ne­olib­eral’’, ‘‘money-hun­gry’’ politi­cians at an In­dian book fes­ti­val, even though she’d ben­e­fited from state arts fund­ing.

His at­tack on Cat­ton was ‘‘a bit of shit-stir­ring’’, and Plun­ket had ‘‘a bit of a chuckle’’ when he saw Dun­can Garner ag­i­tate the same bucket of ex­cre­ment with a re­cent at­tack on ‘‘trea­sonous’’ Taika Waititi. But Plun­ket main­tains he started a ‘‘worth­while pub­lic de­bate’’.

I asked: Which bit was worth­while?

When you called her a hua?

‘‘Hua? I was just try­ing to broaden peo­ple’s

I’m a dif­fi­cult per­son to live with. I’m an ar­gu­men­ta­tive bas­tard. I’m happy to de­bate, but I’m log­i­cal. Most women I’ve been in a re­la­tion­ship with have even­tu­ally said to me: ‘You’re not in­ter­view­ing me on Morn­ing Re­port now you know’.

un­der­stand­ing of the Maori lan­guage!’’

This is the kind of joke that, when Plun­ket says it in per­son or on ra­dio, is quite funny, be­cause he is ca­pa­ble of irony and has a way of sus­tain­ing a wheez­ing halflaugh as he talks, which makes you want to laugh along. It wouldn’t work as a tweet though.

I told Plun­ket I’d met Cat­ton at the Tai­wan Book Fair in Fe­bru­ary 2015, and she wouldn’t give me an in­ter­view be­cause, as I un­der­stood it, she felt ex­tremely bruised by the me­dia brawl Plun­ket had started. Plun­ket looked dis­mayed. ‘‘Well I didn’t mean to trau­ma­tise her. I asked her for an in­ter­view and she said no, so I got her dad on.

‘‘If I per­son­ally hurt her, I’m most cer­tainly re­gret­ful. But we’ve got to have the ma­tu­rity for her to say what she thinks and I say what I think.

‘‘I don’t like swim­ming with the cur­rent. I don’t like group-think. My favourite book is An­i­mal Farm’’.

I asked if he un­der­stood him­self – whether he could point to the mo­ment in child­hood, say, when he de­vel­oped his con­trar­ian at­ti­tudes, and he said: ‘‘Can we go off the record?’’

I agreed, and he briefly re­counted a gen­uinely shock­ing story of dys­func­tion and abuse that went way beyond your av­er­age my-mid­dle-class-child­hood-was-tough tale. To avoid leav­ing a con­fus­ing hole in this story, I asked him to talk about it again in vaguer terms, but on the record.

He said his life story was such that he un­der­stands ‘‘some of the trau­mas of … sex­ual abuse within a fam­ily’’.

‘‘In my life I have seen what hap­pens to women in po­si­tions of low so­cio-eco­nomic power and it’s dis­gust­ing. Women need to have equal power with men or they get screwed over.’’

He said he grew up amid chaos un­til he went away to board­ing school in Nel­son, which he loved. ‘‘My life ex­pe­ri­ence from a very young age has taught me that one needs to be very wary of plac­ing trust in au­thor­ity fig­ures.’’ Those ex­pe­ri­ences have in­formed the way he be­haves pro­fes­sion­ally and pri­vately (he has a teenage son from a pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship).

‘‘I’m a dif­fi­cult per­son to live with. I’m an ar­gu­men­ta­tive bas­tard. I’m happy to de­bate, but I’m log­i­cal. Most women I’ve been in a re­la­tion­ship with have even­tu­ally said to me: ‘You’re not in­ter­view­ing me on Morn­ing Re­port now you know’.’’

Also: ‘‘I suf­fered from pretty se­vere de­pres­sion in my life and I only got a proper di­ag­no­sis a cou­ple of years ago that I have an anx­i­ety dis­or­der.’’ He takes the anti-anx­i­ety drug ven­lafax­ine. He’s 53. A few years ago he went to a party and caught sight of a man con­nected to the dif­fi­cult years of his child­hood, ‘‘and that’s what trig­gered for me how raw it was’’. He tells peo­ple his child­hood was no big deal ‘‘be­cause you nor­malise it and you push it down. That was just my life. I choose not to be a vic­tim. We’re all dam­aged in some way but I’m not go­ing to crawl away into a cor­ner be­cause I had a tough up­bring­ing’’.

So there’s some se­ri­ous stuff roil­ing be­low the sur­face. But what about the roller­coaster of the past five months: TOP’s abra­sive com­mu­ni­ca­tions; an uned­i­fy­ing Twit­ter spat with Lizzie Marvelly; the Har­vey We­in­stein tweet. Was Plun­ket hav­ing some sort of semi-pub­lic men­tal break­down?

‘‘No.’’

Let’s con­sider the We­in­stein thing. It was October 11, six days into the tsunami of sex­ual al­le­ga­tions against the Hol­ly­wood mogul, and Plun­ket tweeted: ‘‘Is any­one else feel­ing for Har­vey We­in­stein?’’

There were about 100 re­sponses, mostly vari­a­tions on a po­lite ‘‘no’’, plus a hand­ful for light scold­ings such as ‘‘Back in your box.’’ or ‘‘Great trolling’’. Abu­sive re­sponses ranged from ‘‘you tone deaf asshat’’, to ‘‘dis­gust­ing moth­erf ..... ’’ . In other words, the re­sponse wasn’t all that big, and by the ap­pallingly low stan­dards of Twit­ter, not es­pe­cially ob­nox­ious.

Five min­utes later, Plun­ket stoked the tiny flames of out­rage by tweet­ing ‘‘If I was fish­ing to­day, I would have caught my limit’’, fol­lowed by ‘‘And the out­raged are off. Of­fence taken ev­ery­where. For the record, he de­serves what he gets.’’ He pedan­ti­cally noted he hadn’t ex­pressed sym­pa­thy for We­in­stein, and said the ini­tial tweet was a ‘‘so­cial ex­per­i­ment’’.

The story metas­ta­sised to main­stream me­dia, spark­ing an es­ca­la­tion to medium-level out­rage in news-site com­ments and on Face­book. He told Ra­dio NZ the ob­ject had been to ‘‘raise the is­sue that so­cial me­dia was in dan­ger of af­fect­ing wider pub­lic dis­course around so­cial progress’’. Soon af­ter that, he and the BSA an­nounced he wouldn’t be tak­ing up his post.

If Plun­ket was try­ing to start a con­ver­sa­tion about in­ci­vil­ity on so­cial me­dia, wasn’t it a lit­tle bizarre to do so by de­lib­er­ately pro­vok­ing in­ci­vil­ity, and be­ing un­civil him­self, on so­cial me­dia?

Plun­ket: ‘‘What bet­ter way to start a con­ver­sa­tion than to say: ‘here’s the prob­lem’?’’

Me: Re­ally? It’s like, I dunno, protest­ing against im­mod­est cloth­ing by run­ning around naked.

Plun­ket: ‘‘I could sit there and say, ‘Isn’t Twit­ter a bit mean’ and it wouldn’t have got any cov­er­age at all.’’

He men­tioned Jon Ron­son’s book So You’ve Been Pub­licly Shamed, which un­picks the mob men­tal­ity of Twit­ter pile-ons.

Me: Sure, that’s a great book. But why would you be­ing a prize a...hole on Twit­ter help fix any­thing?

Plun­ket: ‘‘I wasn’t be­ing a prize a...hole. I asked a rhetor­i­cal ques­tion.’’

Me: Hmm. I’d say you in­dulged in in­flam­ma­tory trolling on a sen­si­tive sub­ject in an en­vi­ron­ment where words are fre­quently shorn of con­text and tone.

Plun­ket: ‘‘What if I was sit­ting around in a pub with 20 other peo­ple and I said ‘Any­one else feel­ing for Har­vey We­in­stein?’ You’d say – ‘What do you mean by that’?’’

Me: Maybe. But I’d also be look­ing at your stance, and face, and hear­ing your voice, so I’d know if you were mak­ing a joke.

Plun­ket: ‘‘So why don’t we learn to be more em­pa­thetic and ask, ‘What do you mean by that’?’’

Fair point. Ex­cept that is pre­cisely what peo­ple did in Twit­ter replies. Some­one called ‘‘A Light Sprin­kle’’ said: ‘‘Are you se­ri­ously say­ing you have sym­pa­thy for some­one who com­mits a sex crime??’’ Michete­ri­ous asked: ‘‘Feel­ing what?’’ Max­ine Gay asked: ‘‘Are you s...ting us?’’

I asked if he re­gret­ted his tweet. Plun­ket: ‘‘Well of course. It was a bit of a shit­fight I prob­a­bly didn’t need at the time.’’

Me: Was it a stupid tweet? Plun­ket: ‘‘Well, that’s for oth­ers to judge.’’

Me: The jury’s in. Most of us agree it was stupid.

Plun­ket: ‘‘No, I would never call my­self stupid. If I had my time again I might have done it dif­fer­ently. But I’ve got an ego.’’

It was rather fun try­ing to ar­gue with Sean Plun­ket. Tran­scrib­ing my tape I no­ticed he’d talked over me a lot, and that he was good at bat­ting off ques­tions by re­fram­ing them. He’d say ‘‘That’s your opinion’’, or ‘‘I don’t think any­one died’’, and I’d for­get my point, and em­pathise with those women who’d had to re­mind him he wasn’t on Morn­ing Re­port now.

He was in clearer pos­ses­sion of his mar­bles than you’d con­clude from his on­line be­hav­iour, but he wasn’t back­ing down.

Take TOP. In Au­gust Gareth Mor­gan de­scribed Jacinda Ardern’s el­e­va­tion to Labour leader as ‘‘lip­stick on a pig’’ – a metaphor for su­per­fi­cial repack­ag­ing that’s been used in gen­der-free con­texts for half a cen­tury. Some called it sex­ist, then Mor­gan and Plun­ket took the log­i­cally ro­bust but tonally gauche stance of telling any­one who’d taken of­fence to stick it, or as Plun­ket tweeted: ‘‘Oh FFS be of­fended then it’s clearly what you want’’.

Afi­ciona­dos of on­line-in­sult ping-pong can search up the snarky Twit­ter match that un­folded be­tween Plun­ket and colum­nist Marvelly, with crowd noises from their re­spec­tive claques. Nei­ther came out look­ing very rea­son­able, but Plun­ket’s un­will­ing­ness to dis­en­gage long af­ter Marvelly had quit was, she said, ‘‘dis­turb­ing’’.

No­body died, but surely this was un­wise of TOP even for purely po­lit­i­cal rea­sons. Some of the vot­ers who were drawn to TOP’s in­no­va­tive, pro­gres­sive poli­cies found the trolling and ru­de­ness dis­taste­ful, and turned away. Why didn’t Plun­ket in­stead stick with the ap­proach of TOP can­di­date Ge­off Sim­mons and his charm­ing, pol­icy-fo­cused Face­book videos?

Ev­ery­thing was un­der con­trol, said Plun­ket.

‘‘At that stage, ev­ery vote on the left was dried up. We were hunt­ing for mid­dle ground and the right. Can­di­dates couldn’t aban­don where we stood, but we had to say things that were go­ing to get the odd other per­son across the line.’’

It was about this point, said Plun­ket, that he re­alised the BSA job wasn’t go­ing to work. He’d been think­ing about falling on his sword even be­fore the We­in­stein tweet, as he re­alised ‘‘I couldn’t have a pri­vate per­son­al­ity, and that was go­ing to be a prob­lem for the BSA’’.

One of the in­sults that smarted for Plun­ket was be­ing called a misog­y­nist.

‘‘I find it hurt­ful. I take it to mean I don’t re­spect women. I don’t like the term and I most cer­tainly aren’t.’’

See­ing he raised the sub­ject and sus­pi­cions with his tweet, were there any We­in­steinian in­ter­ac­tions with women of his own that he re­gret­ted?

‘‘Once – at the age of 17 at a party. I came on to a girl who came on back at me and we ended up in the bed­room and she said no and I left – but I felt an­gry.’’

Is that it?

‘‘That felt bad enough, given what I’d seen. I’d seen peo­ple do ter­ri­ble things and be hor­ri­ble to each other. And I’m very sen­si­tive to it.’’

He’s been think­ing that he wouldn’t mind get­ting back into broad­cast­ing and jour­nal­ism.

‘‘I’ve recog­nised that for what­ever rea­son, be­cause of my his­tory, I have very lit­tle chance to re­tire and lead a quiet life as a pri­vate per­son.

‘‘I’ll al­ways be me. I’m not sit­ting here to hurt any­one. I’m sit­ting here to de­bate and take part in what­ever dis­cus­sion this coun­try has with it­self. And if I’m tone deaf to some – well you have to recog­nise the lens that you see things through.

‘‘I’ve re­ceived tonnes of mes­sages from friends and peo­ple I don’t know say­ing ‘well done’ for standing up to this group or that group. Tone deaf to some, in­cred­i­bly acute to oth­ers. It’s all a big ball of wax, you know.’’

CAMERON BURNELL / STUFF

Sean Plun­ket has re­vealed his child­hood was trau­matic, and he takes anti-anx­i­ety med­i­ca­tion.

REUTERS; ROBERT CATTO

Plun­ket’s tweet on Har­vey We­in­stein fol­lowed his la­belling of au­thor Eleanor Cat­ton as an ‘‘un­grate­ful hua’’.

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