The Good Life Greg Dixon

Noth­ing stinks worse than a me­dia beat-up.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - GREG DIXON

Con­flict­ing re­ports are emerg­ing over what caused 10 schoolchil­dren to be hos­pi­talised in Wairarapa, as au­thor­i­ties work to find the cause of the mys­te­ri­ous sub­stance that left about 30 kids sick. – the “news”

It was 2.30pm, Septem­ber 21, 2018, and some­thing was rot­ten in the heart of Wairarapa. Weirdly, it ap­peared to be a pri­mary school in Carter­ton, coin­ci­den­tally a town that bills it­self as the “heart of the Wairarapa”.

Spook­ier still was the unhappy hap­pen­stance that meant we and our friend Slow Train, af­ter in­dulging in a slap-up lunch in Grey­town to mark the dear boy’s birth­day, were driv­ing through the very town at the very mo­ment the great “mys­te­ri­ous sub­stance” brouhaha was brew­ing.

Head­ing home to Master­ton, we poo­tled through Carter­ton stuffed to the gills with warmed olives, home­made dumplings, fried cala­mari, bao buns, Korean spiced chicken nib­bles and seafood chow­der. Un­sur­pris­ingly, we were burp­ing a lit­tle, though oth­er­wise all seemed quiet. Save, of course, for the usual un­godly rum­ble of log­ging trucks – Carter­ton’s on State High­way 2 – and, this day, stand­ing by the not-very-fetch­ing clock tower at the heart of the heart of Wairarapa, two men who, to put not too fine a point on it, were sus­pi­cious look­ing char­ac­ters. “Ban 1080”, said their signs. “Get up, stand up”, said their dread­locks.

On we drove. We were home in time for a short nap for Michele, and an early cock­tail hour for Slow Train and me, and then, the tele­vi­sion “news”.

“Chil­dren are be­ing taken to hos­pi­tal and dozens more are be­ing de­con­tam­i­nated at their Carter­ton school right now af­ter a mys­tery sub­stance made them start vom­it­ing,” be­gan New­shub’s Melissa Davies, wear­ing her bad-news face as she in­tro­duced the shock-hor­ror lead story.

Slow Train looked at me. I looked at Slow Train. “Was it him?” we were both think­ing. We in­stantly dis­missed our sus­pi­cions.

“It might’ve been those 1080 pro­test­ers,” I said. But no, Mike McRoberts had the good/bad oil: “It’s sus­pected the school may have ac­ci­den­tally been sprayed with pes­ti­cide as an air­craft flew over …” Hell’s bells! Ac­ci­den­tal, low-fly­ing ter­ror­ism!

“I’m not sure if it dropped any­thing or not,” a re­puted “news” web­site re­ported Daniel, aged 12, say­ing soon af­ter. “But af­ter a few sec­onds, ev­ery­thing started to stink like poo.”

Here’s a thing: pes­ti­cides don’t smell like poo.

So, no sur­prise that by the fol­low­ing day, with the chil­dren thank­fully safe and well, the po­lice said no such thing had hap­pened.

So what was it? My mind reeled. Had some­one in Room 4 let off a stink bomb?

Had the stench of an­other bad week for the coali­tion Government drifted over the Re­mu­takas? Or was it sim­ply a brazen at­tempt “to put Carter­ton on the map” – this, af­ter all, is an un­pre­dictable town; it’s had both Ge­orgina Beyer and Ron Mark as mayor. But my real sus­pi­cion was this: the stench was from the rot­ting corpse of daily jour­nal­ism af­ter it had fi­nally, and de­servedly, carked it from over­dos­ing on click­bait, re­port­ing spec­u­la­tion as news and breath­less beat-ups.

‘ Po­lice have ar­rested a tiny pile of mush­room com­post af­ter it caused a poo stink, which made chil­dren vomit,” said ab­so­lutely no “news” source two days later, though the cul­prit ac­tu­ally was com­post, a dis­sat­is­fy­ing and ba­nal rev­e­la­tion, but also so bonkers it made me hoot.

Com­post can be dan­ger­ous stuff, but to keep things in pro­por­tion, not nearly as dan­ger­ous as, say, gar­den hoses. Ac­cord­ing to ac­ci­dent fig­ures, 254 peo­ple con­tracted Le­gion­naires’ dis­ease from com­post and potting mix in 2014, while more than 2000 were injured by piti­less hoses.

But nei­ther com­post nor hoses seem to have any­thing on mass hys­te­ria. As the com­post de­liv­erer said, “I think a lot of peo­ple pan­icked. In ret­ro­spect, it was a bit over the top, re­ally, for a lit­tle smell.”

You can’t blame the kids. Or teach­ers. Or par­ents. But hey, bigc­ity me­dia, be­fore you make one of your in­creas­ingly rare vis­its to “the re­gions” in or­der to beat up wild spec­u­la­tion as “news”, ask your­self this: does it pass the poo stink test?

“Ban 1080”, said their signs. “Get up, stand up”, said their dread­locks.

The writer pre­pares for a visit to Carter­ton.

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