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.
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?
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.’’
Sean Plunket has revealed his childhood was traumatic, and he takes anti-anxiety medication.
Plunket’s tweet on Harvey Weinstein followed his labelling of author Eleanor Catton as an ‘‘ungrateful hua’’.