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February 28, 2007

Healthy goals

Healthy goals

Claire Morrow seems to have been given some Tony Robbins CDs for Christmas

2007, Year of the Car. I know, I know, it’s not very United Nations; in 2007 I plan to in-crease my ecological footprint. I have been telling everyone (for most of 2006) about my new year’s resolution. I have a small page in the back of my to-do book that lists the indi-vidual steps involved in learning to drive. Step one - purchase learner’s handbook (check). Step two - find said learner’s handbook (it’s in this house somewhere!), step three - get learner’s permit. Step four - if no progress has been made by the end of March, consider behavioral therapy...and so forth.


The most popular new year’s resolution is to get more exercise. About 60-70% of people make three or more resolutions. About 40% of people succeed, and maintain their success for more than two months on the first attempt. About 17% fail 6 or more times, but still achieve their goal in the end. So that should inspire you.

I am always somewhat surprised by people who don’t make new year’s resolutions - most people are just busy doing other things or have goals privately in place that they don’t feel the need to discuss at length, but there are two interesting sub-groups I have noticed. The “I’m so fine the way I am” group (may I suggest honest and searching appraisal as an appropriate goal for 2007) and the “I can’t change” group. The latter have things they reckon they would like to change but they couldn’t actually be bothered changing them. It’s like saying “I want to earn lots of money...but I don’t want to work for it”. Psychotherapy might be a good suggestion, or antidepressant medication. If you couldn’t be bothered changing it...stop complaining about it. C’mon. Get with - I detest this phrase - the programme.

Research has actually been done – repeatedly - showing that in spite of the gut scorn we might feel about the overly optimistic on New Year’s Day, new year’s resolutions are actu-ally a useful thing, and most people use them to improve their lives. A shock, I know. You decide you want to achieve something, then you do what you need to achieve it, and then - as if by magic - it’s achieved. Not as much is known about what divides those who don’t achieve their goals from those that do, but enough is known about what constitutes a good behavioral modification plan that broad outlines of what will be most likely to work can be offered. Do you have your pencils ready?

(many “New Years” resolutions are actually made around the end of January or beginning of February, when things are settling down after the silly - or flat out stupid - season)

You must have put some thought into what you want to achieve, and be fairly motivated to achieve it. It is no good declaring that you will quit smoking (because you know you should and are tired of being hassled) when in your heart of hearts you know you like smoking and want to keep smoking, but figure you can white knuckle it through a few weeks to teach the hassler a lesson, and then light back up when they’re not looking. That is acting, but it is not a realistic goal. In that case a realistic goal might be “I would like to smoke less, exercise more and be more assertive”. You are looking for something you want to achieve for your own sake.

You need realistic expectations. You don’t just learn to drive in January. Frankly, I will be lucky if I find the book in January. You can lose 10 kilos by February, but it will make you ill. Best aim for lose 1 or 2 kilos a month so I can wear a bikini next summer. Priorities again. I would like to lose 10 kilos, but I have other things I want more. Losing 10 kilos is not something I am highly motivated to do. Weight loss didn’t even make my list. A com-mon resolution is to spend more time studying or working (23%). Aside from the obvious question (why?) the next really good question is - where will this time come from? You can’t just make more (if only!). So more time studying is not going to be much use to you in the long term if you achieve it by sleeping less (although this is a common short term strategy, and very effective for some people, it’s not going to work long term). Likewise if your mission is to spend more time working, you might want to check with your kids before you start skipping soccer practice to analyse flow variables. Ideally, you would actually find a way to work or study so that you achieve more in the same time. Or you would like to have a flexible timetable that you stick to. Or you would rather study on the train than listen to your iPod on the train this year. You get the idea.

You need a plan. Well, not everyone does, some people just do it, as the slogan says. But the most effective goals (the ones that stick), tend to be better planned. You make a mini list of things you need to do to achieve your goal. Going out and buying the hand-book is a first step. It has a date attached to it (The goal does. I haven’t seen the hand-book in months so who knows what it has attached to it.) When you achieve that part, you move on to the next bit. You can’t overdo it to the extent that your first step is to order 5 or 6 books on reducing clutter. Ordering 5 or 6 books on reducing clutter does not reduce clutter. One book might, so long as you read it. Your goal needs to be very specific and have a date or series of dates attached to it. There is no need to quit smoking on January one. You can make quitting smoking your goal, and set a date to quit. Then you spend a few weeks preparing, then you quit. A goal of “be a better person” is hard to measure. Clarify what you mean. You might mean volunteer work or you might mean baking for the bake sale. You might mean you will stop throwing rocks at puppies. “Wear a bikini next year” isn’t specific enough, and you can’t measure it. Nothing to stop you. You mean “lose 1-3 kilos a month until I reach my goal weight of_____”

And of course the other 2 stalwarts - if at first you don’t succeed, try try try again. People should have a plan B (what to do when things go wrong - and there will be stumbling blocks, practically guaranteed) and get support if you need it. Including, of course, tell people your plan. So I’ll let you know how the driving goes.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 01:00 AM | Comments (0)

February 27, 2007

Benson-Pope and the Naked Schoolgirls

Labour MP David Benson-Pope’s parliamentary career may be on the rocks today, after new revelations from Investigate magazine.

The magazine’s website has today revealed major new allegations against Benson-Pope, including a much more recent criminal assault, which may well force police to re-open their investigation into the besieged cabinet minister. Those fresh revelations include:

• That Benson-Pope physically assaulted a teenage schoolgirl by slapping her on the thigh, leaving a red mark. This incident happened in 1997 just two years before Benson Pope entered parliament, making it a very recent assault allegation • That Benson-Pope watched naked schoolgirls while they showered, after bursting in on them in the shower block at a school camp in 1997 • That later the same day Benson-Pope again burst in unannounced on girls showering and getting changed after a “mud run” • That Benson-Pope burst in on schoolgirls as they were getting changed ready for a tramp at a school camp in 1998 • That a formal complaint by a girl and her parents to the then Bayfield principal Bruce Leadbetter about the indecent behaviour went ‘unanswered’, despite a promise from the principal that he would forward it to the Board of Trustees for investigation • That Benson-Pope socialized with students, including taking them on high-speed drives through the country side fast enough that the car appeared to become “air borne” as it jumped a rail crossing • That Bayfield High School has a bigger problem with teacher violence and sexual behaviour than earlier publicized – that one teacher there was sleeping with a sixth form student in the late 1990s, and that another teacher assaulted students even worse than the Benson-Pope incidents

Investigate magazine was inundated with emails and phone calls from former Bayfield students after running a cover story on David Benson-Pope last week. As a result of new information, the magazine contacted more than a hundred former pupils by email in order to corroborate the fresh allegations that had come to light.

Of the latest criminal assault allegation from 1997, one student told Investigate David Benson-Pope used a ruler to slap her across her thigh, leaving “a red mark”. The student’s crime, apparently, was failing to count to ten in German. She told Investigate her reaction was one of shock.

“[I thought] Holy shit!, and I looked around the room to see if anyone else had seen it and people had.

“I seriously would like to have him in a room and tied to a chair so I could knock the living shit out of him! To be quite honest.”

Some of the former schoolgirls contacted by Investigate since the magazine came out have distinct memories of what they regard as unacceptable sexual behaviour by David Benson-Pope on school camps.

One woman has told Investigate Benson-Pope walked unannounced and uninvited into the girls dormitory while they were getting changed after a mud run.

“He knew we were in there. It was straight after the mud run, he knew we were all in there getting changed and things like that and he just wandered straight on in, and thought he had the right to do that.”

The woman says up to twenty-five girls aged 14 and 15 were in various stages of undress, some fully naked, during Benson-Pope’s “visit”.

“Girls were naked and in the process of getting changed.”

She says the Labour MP lingered, staring, for 30 seconds, before finally getting out because of the pandemonium his presence was causing.

“Screaming and yelling and telling him to get out, and all this swearing.”

The woman says it was the second time that day Benson-Pope had attempted to see the schoolgirls undress.

“He walked in on the showers one time, then later on that day walked into the dorm room while we were getting changed. Straight on in.”

This incident happened at the fourth form camp in 1997. The woman told Investigate she and the other girls were embarrassed and dumbfounded that a senior male teacher felt he had the right to enter the girls’ dormitories at all, when it should only have been female staff permitted.

“He’s an arsehole. He really is. I don’t know if any other students did, but me and my parents made a formal complaint about it, but nothing was done about it.”

She says they took their concerns in the first instance to Bayfield principal Bruce Leadbetter.

“We were told to write a letter and it had to go in front of the Board of Trustees. But that never happened.”

When Investigate phoned Bruce Leadbetter for comment, he wasn’t happy to hear from us.

INVESTIGATE: “There was actually a complaint made to you about him being found in the girls’ showers at a school camp, is that correct?”

BL: “I have no comment to make about anything, I’m sorry.”

INV: “Is that true though?”

BL: “I say I have no comment to make about anything, sorry.”

INV: “By making no comment, I’m anticipating that could be true and one of the other allegations –”

BL: “Listen, did you hear what I said? I have no comment –

INV: “- one of the other allegations is that the school had a culture of violence under your reign.”

BL: “I find this pretty, pretty rude.”

INV: “Bruce, if that teacher walked through the girls’ showers on a school camp –

BL: “Don’t threaten me, don’t use a bullying tone, I have no comment to make.”

And with that he hung up the phone.

If Bayfield High did discipline David Benson-Pope, and there’s no evidence they did, it didn’t work.

According to another female student in an email to Investigate, David Benson-Pope again tried to see naked schoolgirls on the 1998 fourth form camp, his last year at the high school before entering parliament.

“I do remember one incident involving him when I was in 4th form at a school camp at Tautuku. I remember that the girls were in their dorm getting ready for a tramp and we were all mucking around and taking ages to get changed. BP [Benson-Pope] got quite agitated and just marched on into the dorm without knocking or any warning at all and yelled at us all to hurry up. At this stage quite a few of us were still trying to get changed.

“I'm not sure if anybody reported this incident to the other teachers but it was talked about for a few years after that and it didn't do much for his image with the students in my year!”

The same woman told Investigate she also found the Labour cabinet minister “sleazy”.

“He was not well liked among the kids in my year, or by too many people at all! He came across to me as really arrogant, self important and a little sleazy, and could be very domineering and intimidating to students who didn't obey him.

“BP also taught my mother at Bayfield High School in the 70s. He was new to teaching then and according to my mum he was not well liked then either. She says he quite often used scare tactics to get students to obey him.”

Another female student, who started at Bayfield ten years earlier in 1987, says she never saw inappropriate behaviour involving David Benson-Pope, but was aware of rumours.

“I had an encounter with David Benson Pope in the stairwell one day after some girls had been nasty and spreading rumours. He told me that what other people thought was irrelevant, that I knew the truth and that’s what matters. I often think of this as I face similar situations throughout my life. He was a brusque, sometimes arrogant man, but I don't believe he was ever inappropriate.”

Remember, her memories reveal there were allegations about David Benson-Pope in 1987 – clearly unrelated to either the 1982 school camp where he watched girls in their nighties, or the 1997/1998 incidents 10 years into the future while he was a Dunedin City Councillor preparing to enter parliament.

Another aspect of Bayfield’s school culture to emerge as a result of Investigate’s sweeping survey of former pupils was sexual activity between schoolchildren and teachers.

One former schoolgirl, who started at the school in 1995 told us this:

“Bayfield has a bit of a reputation for pupils marrying, or getting into relationships with teachers, not necessarily while they were at school but certainly after. I can think of two at least that are still going strong.

“However, in my form there was a girl who was apparently sleeping with a PE teacher and now that we all think back she was in nearly every sports team he coached. He had team barbeques at his house too. He was "advised to leave" but the grapevine said that they were still together, at least for a while after he had left. The affair began while she was in sixth form and into the seventh form.”

Remember, those statements come from a girl who attended in the late 90s. What then do we make of these comments from a woman in the class of ’84:
“[student name deleted] was rumoured to be having a relationship with the [deleted] teacher (that was [teacher’s name deleted] wasn’t it?) after she left high school which I thought was odd given the age difference.
Investigate found more corroboration for the late 90’s incident when we raised it with another student we were questioning:

INV: There’s suggestions that a PE teacher, or a gym teacher was having –

STUDENT: - having an affair with a student? Yep, and they’re still together. I can’t remember his name, but her name was [deleted].
He got fired and she was told never to see him again but apparently they’re still together.

There are claims from former Bayfield students on the Oldfriends.co.nz website that sometimes they used to get “pissed” with teachers at the teachers’ homes after hours.

Another student, this one male, told Investigate he remembers going for a drive with Benson-Pope in what appears to be a low-rent version of a Helen Clark motorcade:

“I can clearly remember being in BP’s Green Fiat with two other students (as I recall) when the car was able to get airborne travelling at speed over a few railway mounds that intersect various points of the roads out on the Taieri! Looking back now that was inappropriate behaviour from a teacher (adult), even if egged on by his students.”

But like others, this student has also backed up Investigate’s claims that Benson-Pope ogled schoolgirls in their nighties.

It began, he said, when he and some others were caught raiding the kitchen.

“In 1982 (as I recall) I attended a school camp at Whare Flat. I and several other students were caught having broken the rules, in my case having been out of my bed after lights out. Nothing too untoward, I was getting something to eat from the kitchen in between two bedrooms at each end of the cabin. How I was caught is material in that there were two teachers on patrol with a powerful torch and my silhouette was enough to identify me and others through the cabin curtains.

“The punishment for this was for us guys to strip down to our grots, and stand outside along with some of the other girls, (they were allowed to wear nighties), who had also been caught out for similar reasons. There was more than one teacher in this group, one of whom was definitely David Benson-Pope.

“I distinctly remember having the torch shone upon me in a way that I consider to have been humiliating… Perhaps Mr David Benson-Pope would like to refer to the Bayfield High school’s policy of having male students stand outside in their underpants in the company of girl students, while a powerful torch is being shone upon them? One can only hope that the nighties were thicker than the curtains!”

With fresh allegations of criminal assault that are only a few years old, and large numbers of witnesses to David Benson-Pope repeatedly sexually harassing naked schoolgirls, Investigate believes the Minister’s position has become untenable.

Investigate approached Benson-Pope through his lawyers for comment, but no reply had been received two hours after the deadline passed this morning.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:48 AM | Comments (0)

Minister of Sleazy Developments: Feb 06 issue

NEWbenson0001.jpg

MINISTER OF SLEAZY DEVELOPMENTS

Another blow to David Benson-Pope’s credibility

He’s already been sprung for shoving a tennis ball in a student’s mouth and bashing another in the face with his fist, and he’s been trying for two months to prevent Investigate from accessing more police documents. But now IAN WISHART can report Labour cabinet minister David Benson-Pope stands accused of making teenage schoolgirls strip to underwear and nighties at a school camp, and that’s not all


You’d think we’d already heard all there was to know about the David Benson-Pope case: the tennis balls, the bleeding nose, or the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy he claimed was setting him up on the basis of false allegations. But no, buried deep in more than 1,000 pages of documents released to the news media in December are previously unpublished allegations that the former school teacher used to make scantily-clad 14-year old girls parade for him at school camp, that he was “sleazy” towards the girls in his care and that he harassed a female teacher and vandalized her students’ best work as part of a personal vendetta.

Although Benson-Pope is no longer an associate Education Minister, as Social Development and Employment Minister he retains extensive responsibilities for youth issues.

While Investigate has been probing the police file, the embattled cabinet minister has been fighting tooth and nail to prevent more still-confidential police documents being released to the magazine. It raises an obvious question: does David Benson-Pope have something more to hide over the police decision not to prosecute him for assault despite a prima facie criminal case?

On 1 December last year, police announced that a long-awaited release of their investigation file into the Benson-Pope case had been delayed after direct submissions from the minister’s lawyer, John Haigh QC.

As a result of that delay, Investigate immediately lodged an Official Information Act request with police seeking copies of the behind the scenes submissions from the cabinet minister, and details of any other correspondence between police and the minister.

When the Benson-Pope file was released, those items of correspondence were mostly not included. The first inkling of a reason why came in a brief three paragraph letter to Investigate from Police National Headquarters on December 19:

“I have carefully considered your request, but following submissions from Hon. David Benson-Pope I have decided to refuse it in terms of sections 9(2)(g)(i) and 9(2)(a) of the Official Information Act 1982.”

Section 9(2)(a) of the Act allows for suppression to protect the privacy of individuals, and s9(2)(g)(i) is more complex. What police were arguing under that section is that because Benson-Pope is a Minister of the Crown, he’s entitled to special privileges: according to police, Benson-Pope’s submissions to the police - on whether he should be charged or whether Investigate could access the documents – could not be released under the Official Information Act because they come under the category of “free and frank expressions of opinions” between a Minister of the Crown and officials of a government department.

Before turning to that precise constitutional showdown between Investigate and the police, however, it’s worth briefly recounting what the criminal investigation of David Benson-Pope actually discovered.

There were three main areas police were investigating:
1. Did Benson-Pope, while he was a school teacher at Dunedin’s Bayfield High in 1982, shove a tennis ball in the mouth of a student and then tape his hands to a desk so he couldn’t remove the ball?
2. Did Benson-Pope attend a school camp that year where he punched a student in the face, causing a bleeding nose?
3. Did Benson-Pope force male and female students to go outside in their underwear and stand in the freezing cold at a school camp for up to an hour as a disciplinary technique?

So what really happened? Initially David Benson-Pope denied categorically that it happened, but he subtly changed his tune to the ‘Winebox defence’: “I cannot recall”.

The police file however, tells a very different story about the MP’s teaching style. According to one woman interviewed by police about events when she was a 14 year old in Benson-Pope’s class, the Labour MP was a “sleazy” teacher.

“Quite sleazy, some of the comments he made used to grate me. The girls, including me, felt that he was always staring at our legs beneath desks…With the girls he was always sleazy if he could be, he seemed to thrive on it.”

David Benson-Pope, according to another police witness, used to address female students in his class as “fluffy-bunnies”. A former female art teacher at Bayfield High School also has negative memories of David Benson-Pope as a teaching colleague.

“I feel that David Benson-Pope harassed me over a couple of years. He had a position of responsibility and was the president of the PPTA. Basically, if you didn’t agree with his way of doing things and way of thinking – he made it known.

“Because my kids went to a private school he assumed I was a National party supporter. Because I wouldn’t agree with his proposed strike action he made my life difficult in the staffroom by yelling at me.”

The teacher also accuses David Benson-Pope of stealing material from her class, and vandalizing students’ work as part of his alleged vendetta against her:

“He would also come and take materials from my art room – that I had budgeted hard to get – and tell me that because he had a position of responsibility and I didn’t there was nothing I could do to stop him.

“Eventually the last straw was a time when he interfered with displays of my best students’ work. Some of the pieces were lost as a result. I walked out of the school threatening human rights action. Eventually there was mediation and Benson-Pope apologized.”

Last year, when the allegations of the MP’s brutality first surfaced, he initially claimed his accusers were liars, and school bullies. Ironically, however, one of the themes running through the police file has been bullying by Benson-Pope, that he treated bright students well and the less-academically able badly, or that he simply enjoyed picking on the helpless.

One student told police that when Benson-Pope delivered canings in the corridor outside the classroom, he did so with apparent relish:
“Mr Benson-Pope would whistle the cane in the air before taking a run up of about 10 feet. I’m estimating the distance but you could actually hear him running up. It was pretty psychologically damning, standing there bent over listening to the run-up. I’m pretty sure it was a run-up for each of the three canes on that occasion. As a result I suffered severe bruising but no bleeding. Obviously very painful to sit for the next few days.”

A second boy remembers refusing to jump the vault at PE in the third form because he didn’t feel confident. He told police his punishment from Benson-Pope was the cane. He was one of two boys given the cane for non-compliance at PE that day.

“I had to wait outside the school hall while Tony [the other offender] was dealt with first. I could hear screaming and yelling – I still remember it well today because [Tony] was such a tiny boy.”
A former teacher confirms the incident. “It’s a lasting impression because it’s the only caning I’ve witnessed. I remember Tony ran a lap of the assembly hall yelling in pain after the caning.”

“When it was my turn,” continues the former student who’d refused to jump the vault, “I was brought into the hall. I was bent over and caned once over my trousers by Benson-Pope. I pleaded not to be caned again but was struck once more with the cane.

“I remember Benson-Pope laughing while he caned me – and that’s what got me the most. When I got home I realized I had blood on my bum.”

There is no question he was an unorthodox teacher. Many former students and teachers spoken to by police felt that although his discipline style was a hang-over from the ‘Mr Gormsby’ era, his teaching approach was “new age” or “ahead of its time”. Significantly so that even those attacked by Benson-Pope still respect many of his classroom achievements.

But it was out of the classroom, according to police witnesses, that even more borderline behaviour took place. Benson-Pope had a huge interest in outdoor education, and organized many of the school camps each year and other outdoor excursions.

“There was some funny discipline at the camps,” one teacher says in her witness statement, “including kids having to run behind a car in the nighttime.”

In 1982, Benson-Pope took fourth-formers to a camp at the Catlins reserve south of Dunedin, where a large number of students have now told police that teenage schoolgirls were made to stand outside in their nighties in the early spring cold as part of “discipline”.

One former schoolgirl remembers she and her friends in the dormitory had been “talking” after the lights went out, and Benson-Pope warned them that “if we didn’t shut up we would be outside.

“He was yelling at us, angry, telling us to get outside.

“I remember he told us that we had to take any surplus clothing off, e.g. jerseys and trackpants. It was just our nighties and no footwear.”

In other words, girls were effectively forced to strip to underwear and nighties by Benson-Pope, according to the witness. Although some of the teachers spoken to by police say it was female teachers responsible for disciplining the girls on camp, this witness and others can only recall Benson-Pope being there.

“We had to stand on the concrete, outside the long dorms. There were a few girls involved, over a dozen. I remember [one girl] being there as she told Benson-Pope she couldn’t do it for health reasons – that night her ankles swelled up really badly as a result. I remember later a lot of the girls tried to comfort her.

“I remember the incident so clearly because it was freezing cold, I believe it was winter. We were out there for about an hour.

“Benson-Pope just stood there, watching. If anyone spoke he threatened we would have to stand out there longer. I imagine I was feeling pretty self-conscious standing there in just a nightie.”

Another senior female teacher says, “Generally he threw his weight around on those camps, but apart from forcing a girl to complete an activity that she was distressed about I have no incidents to report.

“I was not a fan of his, I just found him arrogant and actively avoided him. I was just wary.”

And remember, that’s a teaching colleague of Benson-Pope’s, not a disgruntled student.

One student remembers smelling alcohol on Benson-Pope’s breath during the camps, while a female student interviewed separately also told of staff drinking, and how one female teacher “looked the worse for wear” in the morning.

Another of his fellow teachers, Bayfield’s former Senior Master, told police he remembered an alleged assault on camp that appears to be different from the ones the media and police investigated last year.

“There was one incident at a school camp that occurred at Tautuku Camp. It was about an assault, it was serious enough that we tried to get Benson-Pope back from camp, but he wouldn’t come back from camp.

“I cannot remember how it came to the notice of the school, but the headmaster dealt with it in the end.”

The Senior Master says he was unaware of the tennis ball incident or the bash to a student’s face on camp.

“If a parent had come to me as Senior Master telling me their child had been taped to a desk and a tennis put in his mouth and left like that, I would have gotten Mr Benson-Pope into my office and found out what had happened. He would be reprimanded for it and made to apologise to the family. The child could well be moved from his class.

“If the parents had wanted it dealt with in the school we would; if they had gone to the police we would leave it to the police to deal with. It could well have been an assault.”

But Phil Weaver – the boy at the centre of the tennis ball incident – didn’t tell his parents. His mother was dead and his father, according to reports on the police file, wasn’t coping well.

“From what I knew of his father he was a bit of a drinker, I remember Phil got beatings off his father,” one student told police.

The incident involving the tennis ball has been well-reported. Weaver tried to remove the punctured tennis ball from his mouth but Benson-Pope shoved it back in and used black tape to bind Weaver’s hands to the desk so he couldn’t pull the ball out of his mouth. According to witnesses, Weaver was left bound and gagged for more than 20 minutes until the end of the class. The police file notes the nine children witnessed it, which police call “strong” evidence for a court trial, and “none appears to have any hidden agendas”.

David Benson-Pope continued to deny to police that the incident took place, a stand so at odds with the corroborating evidence that police said his position was an “aggravating” feature of the crime in the decision as to whether to prosecute.

Police concluded a prima facie case existed and said charges could include kidnapping, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years jail for anyone who “detains any person without his consent…to cause him to be confined…”

Other options included cruelty to a child and common assault.
On the second charge of assaulting a student at the school camp by punching him in the face, police only had two witnesses, but both remembered it clearly.

No charges were considered over Benson-Pope’s actions making students stand in the cold in their underwear while he watched them.

So this, then, is the background to Investigate’s decision in early December to apply for copies of all communications between David Benson-Pope and police on the case. We wanted to ascertain that no improper pressure had been brought to bear on police, particularly after news reports that Benson-Pope had sought a delay in the release of the file to the public.

THE OIA REQUEST
When police came back with their refusal to release the extra documents, the magazine immediately appealed to the Ombudsman over whether the information was indeed confidential because Benson-Pope was a cabinet minister.

“In regard to the refusal under s9(2)(g)(i), Ombudsman’s ruling in Case 983 makes clear that only opinions of an exceptionally free and frank nature should be withheld. It is difficult to see how Mr Benson-Pope’s communications with the Police could fall into this category. Mr Benson-Pope’s position as a Minister of the Crown means that there is considerably more proper public interest in the processes leading to a police decision not to charge Mr Benson-Pope, than perhaps would apply to an ordinary criminal offender.

Additionally, s9(2)(g)(i) is more properly designed to protect legitimate Crown business in the affairs of state, rather than to protect a Minister of the Crown against whom police found a prima facie criminal case.

It is of particular public importance to see that a Minister of the Crown cannot bring undue private influence to bear on a police investigation that he is the subject of, and indeed the Minister’s plea to police for information to be withheld under this section is itself of public interest, as it may be seen to be of itself an exercise of such influence. An ordinary member of the public gets no protection from this section in such circumstances.

Accordingly, Investigate seeks to widen its OIA request to include the content of communications between Police and Mr Benson-Pope on the Investigate OIA request.

It is the magazine’s submission that the public interest properly requires full disclosure of the documentation or information originally sought, so as to clear the Minister of any suggestion of improper influence being brought to bear. Again, the fact that he pleads s9(2)(g)(i) indicates that his communications to police must have been, by definition, exceptionally free and frank, and the public have a right to know how much so.

Turning now to s9(2)(a), again the issue here is not mere tittle-tattle of no public interest. The Minister already has a reduced right to privacy by virtue of holding high public office, and the OIA was not intended to protect the privacy of Ministers of the Crown on matters of public interest. Rather, this section was to provide protection in the first instance to ancillary people, members of the public, who might be harmed by the release of OIA material out of proportion to their involvement in the circumstances at issue.

The Minister’s reduced right to privacy is further reduced by the circumstances of the specific criminal case, and the fact that Police found a prima facie case against the Minister existed. This is an extremely rare and constitutionally important circumstance, against which Mr Benson-Pope’s wish not to have the content of his communications with police must fail.

I would draw attention to the Court of Appeal’s comments in TVNZ, The Queen v David Bain, CA255/95, where the justices wrote: “The substantial public interest in the murder and the trial is however relevant in another way. The material presented to this Court demonstrates significant media interest in and speculation about the suppressed evidence. The suppression might itself “promote distrust and discontent”. That speculation is not in the interests of the administration of justice and is itself a reason supporting the revoking of the prohibition order.”

Investigate magazine seeks an urgent review of the police refusal to disclose the information requested, given the proximity to Christmas, the fact that the material has already been collated and reviewed by Police (subject to the addition of the latest communications) and our impending magazine deadlines.

When we got a reply from Chief Ombudsman John Belgrave, we were not expecting the answer we received. At the centre of it all, says Belgrave, is section 9(2)(g)(i) of the Official Information Act, which reads:
9(2) …this section applies if, and only if, the withholding of the information is necessary to –
(g) Maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through
(i) The free and frank expression of opinions by or between or to Ministers of the Crown or members of an organization or officers and employees of any Department or organization in the course of their duty;”

“In general terms,” argues Belgrave, “the purpose of this section is to avoid prejudice to the generation and expression of free and frank opinions which are necessary for good government.

“The ability of Ministers, officials and others to express their opinions on relevant issues in a free and frank manner is an essential ingredient of the climate necessary for the effective conduct of public affairs.”

To back up his analysis, Belgrave cites the 1982 Danks Committee report that led to the creation of the Official Information Act:

“To run the country effectively the government of the day needs nevertheless to be able to take advice and to deliberate on it, in private, and without fear of premature disclosure. If the attempt to open processes of Government inhibits the offering of blunt advice or effective consultation and arguments [Belgrave’s emphasis], the net result will be that the quality of the decisions will suffer.”

In other words, Benson-Pope’s submissions to police and vice versa are protected speech necessary for the maintenance of public affairs.

“The information at issue,” says Belgrave, “reflects opinions put forward on behalf of Mr Benson-Pope by his lawyer, and responses by the legal advisor for the police. For the purpose of my investigation it has been submitted that such exchanges should occur without any inhibition from concern about disclosure under the Official Information Act.

“It has been further submitted that an expectation of confidentiality existed on the part of Mr Benson-Pope’s lawyer.

“By way of basic approach, I consider that the lawyer for a person in the position of Mr Benson-Pope should be free to express views and opinions without concern that such communications will be released into the public domain under the Official Information Act. The prospect of public disclosure in my view would be likely to inhibit representations that may (and should) properly be made on behalf of the client.

“There is, however, no absolute rule and it is necessary for the actual information and issue to be considered.”

Chief Ombudsman Belgrave did consider the documents Investigate is seeking, and says he’s satisfied that the opinions of both lawyer John Haigh QC and the police legal advisor “were expressed freely and frankly”.

He refuses to release those communications because of the “expectation” of confidentiality. However, even that isn’t the end of the matter – Belgrave is required by law to consider whether the withholding of the information “is outweighed by other considerations which render it desirable, in the public interest, to make that information available.”

To that end, Belgrave says he looked again at the content of Benson-Pope’s submissions on why he should not be prosecuted, and why Investigate shouldn’t be allowed the documents, and determined that although the information might be “interesting” it was not of public interest to release it.

Naturally, Investigate fought back.

“It is a standing maxim of New Zealand law that “There is no confidence in iniquity” [Gartside v Outram, 1857, 26LJ Ch 113, per Wood VC, restated many times including European Pacific Banking Corp v TVNZ, I Wishart and Ors, 1994]. Iniquity as determined by the Privy Council does not even mean a test as high as illegality. Mere immorality is sufficient to trigger it,” we told Belgrave.

“In a similar case to the one in question, a police officer supplied information in confidence to a reporter which revealed corruption by members of the police force. Despite statutory obligations on secrecy, the courts discharged an interim injunction to allow publication in the public interest. Full publication that is, not merely reporting the matter to “proper authorities”. Cork v McVicar, The Times LR, 31 Oct. 1984.”

In another British case, the issue of a public figure claiming confidence also came under fire:

“It is in the public interest that P’s article is displayed on the website. P’s past behaviour described in the article is closely linked to his present political platform and the public should be aware of such an inconsistency in someone who is eligible. It is thus a “pressing need” and not merely information that is “interesting to the public” (Lion Laboratories v Evans [1985] QB 526, 537).

“Additionally, David Benson-Pope has an overwhelming conflict of interest in hiding behind the protections of s9(2)(g)(i). He is, in Investigate’s opinion, using his Ministerial position to influence the police and intimidate them. The activities in question do not relate to his time as a Minister. Neither he nor the Police can claim immunity from scrutiny on that basis. To do otherwise would be for the Chief Ombudsman to confirm that the Labour Cabinet are indeed above the law of the land, even for alleged criminal offences predating their political office, let alone criminal offences committed in office.”

The magazine then mounted an attack on the idea that letters from lawyers to police in this case should not be divulged.

“You cite in your letter that Benson-Pope’s responses to police regarding the case should somehow enjoy some kind of privilege similar to a lawyer-client privilege, even though no privileged relationship exists between the accused and Police. Indeed, the legal maxim applicable is “anything you may say can be taken down and used in evidence against you in a court of law…”

“I am unable to find any statutory ground for such a privilege inside the Act itself, nor does the section that Benson-Pope relies upon include it. Accordingly, if it is not one of the statutory defences available in the Act the Ombudsman has a duty to rule in favour of the release of the information.”

The key argument appears to rest on whether Benson-Pope’s legal submissions fall within the tight definition of the section 9 defence.
Firstly, the section applies “if, and only if”. In other words, it is a last resort section. And it can only apply if it is necessary to “maintain the effective conduct of public affairs”. Not just any conduct of public affairs – there is a suggestion inherent in the section that disclosure might result in some kind of breakdown of public affairs were the protection not in place.

Remember, the affairs in question were not public administrative matters, but personal affairs of an allegedly criminal nature that happened in a public place. For the Ombudsman to let Benson-Pope off the hook on Ministerial grounds would be like suggesting the Ombudsman should be immune from parking tickets because they hinder his ability to carry out his job without interruption.

But continuing with our breakdown of the section, it only applies to “free and frank expressions of opinion” to or from Ministers or officials that are “necessary to…maintain the effective conduct of public affairs”.

In other words, not all free and frank expressions of opinion to or from Ministers or officials are covered, only those vitally necessary to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs.

“Is David Benson-Pope’s desire to avoid more political embarrassment really a matter of national security and the maintenance of the rule of law? Because that is the implication from your letter, with respect,” we suggested to Belgrave.

And even if the Ombudsman is correct (and we think he isn’t) that the submissions are covered by that section, there’s still the question of whether public interest should take precedence over Benson-Pope’s right to privacy.

The Benson-Pope case is a criminal justice issue, where justice should be seen to be done. There is some suggestion that police were pressured in regard to releasing the original documents under the OIA, and that too is a matter of enormous legitimate public interest.

The Ombudsman drew a distinction between what might be interesting to the public, and what is genuinely of public interest. He didn’t feel the Benson-Pope documents were genuinely in the public interest.

Public interest is a legitimate defence in two scenarios – breach of confidence (alluded to above) and the right to privacy. As we’ve already explained that any claim to confidence fails on the iniquity test, or would if it was put to the court. By this, we mean that although the MP’s legal submissions are unlikely of themselves to be iniquitous, they are central to the overarching prima facie criminal case, and as such an important part of the picture.

The Ombudsman has already confirmed the submissions were extremely “free and frank”, which again is relevant to determining whether they were so frank as to possibly intimidate police out of prosecuting.

Then there’s the novel defence raised for the first time by the Ombudsman himself, which is that an expectation of privacy existed to such an extent that it overrides the Official Information Act’s presumption that information should be released.

The dominant recent case on privacy in New Zealand is Hosking & Hosking v Simon Runting & Anor [2004] NZCA 34 (25 March 2004).
Lord Goff, in Attorney-General v Guardian Newspapers Ltd (No. 2) [1990] 1 AC 109, has been cited in the Hosking case in NZ as follows:

“His Lordship went on to discuss three limiting principles: (a) the principle of confidentiality only applies to information to the extent that it is confidential; (b) no duty of confidence attaches to useless information or trivia; and (c) the public interest in protecting confidences may be outweighed by the public interest in disclosure, particularly in the case of disclosure of iniquity”.

Elsewhere in Hosking, the point is made by the Court of Appeal:

“The test for the "privacy" of information, i.e. information that warrants protection (that its disclosure would be highly offensive to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities), taken in Campbell from the judgment of Gleeson CJ in the High Court of Australia in Australian Broadcasting Corporation v Lenah Game Meats (2001), comes directly from the American privacy jurisprudence.”

In other words, the test as to whether the information being withheld is ‘private’ needs to be more deeply considered in the light of existing case law definitions. Is the Benson-Pope information likely to be “highly offensive to a reasonable person”? The actual test in US law is:

“SS 652D Publicity Given to Private Life
“One who gives publicity to a matter concerning the private life of another is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if the matter publicized is of a kind that
(a) would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and
(b) is not of legitimate concern to the public.”

Not only would the suppressed Benson-Pope data have to be “highly offensive” to remain private, it would also have to be of no legitimate concern to the public. Yet if there were truly no legitimate concern, he would never have been investigated in the first place.

And further through Hosking:

“The Court in Aubry [Les Editions Vice-Versa Inc v Aubry and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (1998) 157 DLR (4th) 577] recognised, however, that expectations of privacy may be less in certain circumstances. This will often be the case if a plaintiff is engaged in a public activity where the public interest in receiving the information should take priority.”

The Hosking judges considered this aspect further in quoting some US jurisprudence on the issue:

“But privacy is not the only cherished American value. We also cherish information and candour, and freedom of speech. We expect to be free to discover and discuss the secrets of our neighbours, celebrities and public officials ... The law protects these expectations too – and when they collide with expectations of privacy, privacy almost always loses.”

In Bradley v Wingnut Films, a New Zealand case involving filmmaker Peter Jackson cited in Hosking, the American definition of whether the information should be private was used:

“The Judge also felt the plaintiff would have difficulty establishing that the matter would be highly offensive and objectionable to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities.”

As we told the Ombudsman, his provisional view that an issue of privacy exists should be reconsidered in view of warnings from the Court of Appeal on precisely this matter in Hosking:

“In his judgment Randerson J listed several reasons for his conclusion that the courts should not recognise a separate privacy tort. The same reasons were at the forefront of the arguments in this Court. The first of these is that the deliberate approach taken by the legislature to date on privacy issues suggests caution towards "creating new law in this field". Emphasising this, the respondents contend that the deliberate exclusion from the Bill of Rights Act indicates a clear decision not to introduce any broad privacy protection in our law.”

Investigate believes it is unconstitutional for the Ombudsman to make a decision on privacy not grounded in statute – the OIA – or common law. Indeed, as the upholder of the Official Information Act, it would be ironic indeed for the Ombudsman to be creating new privacy laws where no legal basis for them exists.

The judges in Hosking, in the magazine’s view, deliver a killer blow to Benson-Pope or his lawyer’s arguments regarding privacy, when they say this:

“The question is how the law should reconcile the competing values. Few would seriously question the desirability of protecting from publication some information on aspects of private lives, and particularly those of children. Few would question the necessity for dissemination of information albeit involving information about private lives where matters of high public (especially political) importance are involved.”

Not only is there no inherent right to privacy, but political figures have even less protection, a point the judges develop at paragraph 120 of the Hosking ruling:

“The present case raises an important issue in relation to private facts. Should public figures have lower expectations of privacy in relation to their private lives, and how does this impact on the families of public persons? Prosser identified three reasons why, in the United States context, public figures are held to have lost, at least to some extent, their right of privacy: (1) by seeking publicity they have consented to it; (2) their personalities and affairs are already public facts not private ones; and (3) there is a legitimate public interest in the publication of details about public figures. That third factor is an important consideration to which we will return.”

David Benson-Pope holds high political office as an elected MP and Cabinet Minister. He is accused of a crime potentially carrying a prison sentence. There can be no higher legitimate public interest in a democracy than scrutiny of elected public officials by the news media.

The Hosking judges continued, ruling, “that voluntary public figures (those who engage in public activities, assume a prominent role in institutions or activities having general economic, cultural, social or similar public interest, or submit themselves or their work for public judgment) have no right of privacy in relation to public appearances or activities. But as Lord Woolf CJ said in A v B (supra at 554): ‘Where an individual is a public figure he is entitled to have his privacy respected in the appropriate circumstances. A public figure is entitled to a private life. The individual, however, should recognise that because of his public position he must expect and accept that his actions will be more closely scrutinised by the media.

“ ‘The right to privacy is not automatically lost when a person is a public figure, but his or her reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to many areas of life will be correspondingly reduced as public status increases. Involuntary public figures may also experience a lessening of expectations of privacy, but not ordinarily to the extent of those who willingly put themselves in the spotlight’.”

In fact, so tough is the privacy test for politicians internationally that New Zealand courts note even their families are fair game for public scrutiny, especially if criminality is alleged:

“In the United States the families of people who court public attention will also have lower expectations of privacy because the legitimate public interest in the public figure is not necessarily limited to the individual himself. In Kapellas v Kofman 1 Cal 3d 20 (1969) a newspaper editorial was published urging electors not to vote for a certain candidate for the city council. The article referred to the fact that three of the candidate’s six children had committed various offences and misdemeanours. She sued for, inter alia, an invasion of her children’s privacy but the claim failed, with the Court observing (at para [17]): ‘... when the legitimate public interest in the published information is substantial, a much greater intrusion into an individual’s private life will be sanctioned, especially if the individual willingly entered into the public sphere ... The children’s loss of privacy is one of the costs of the retention of a free marketplace of ideas’.”

On the issue of what is legitimate, the Hosking bench wrote:

“Legitimate public concern -

“There should be available in cases of interference with privacy a defence enabling publication to be justified by a legitimate public concern in the information. In P v D, absence of legitimate public interest was treated as an element of the tort itself. But it is more conceptually sound for this to constitute a defence, particularly given the parallels with breach of confidence claims, where public interest is an established defence. Moreover, it would be for the defendant to provide the evidence of the concern, which is the appropriate burden of proof if the plaintiff has shown that there has been an interference with his or her privacy of the kind we have described.

“Furthermore, the scope of privacy protection should not exceed such limits on the freedom of expression as is justified in a free and democratic society. A defence of legitimate public concern will ensure this. The significant value to be accorded freedom of expression requires that the tort of privacy must necessarily be tightly confined. In Douglas v Hello! Brooke LJ formulated the matter in the following way (at para [49]): ‘[A]lthough the right to freedom of expression is not in every case the ace of trumps, it is a powerful card to which the courts of this country must always pay appropriate respect’.”

The Hosking Bench returned to the definition of public interest used by the Ombudsman to provisionally reject Investigate, and concluded that the balance should fall to the media’s advantage unless there was a compelling reason not to:

“The importance of the value of the freedom of expression therefore will be related to the extent of legitimate public concern in the information publicised.

“The word "concern" is deliberately used, so as to distinguish between matters of general interest or curiosity to the public, and matters which are of legitimate public concern. We accept in this respect the observation of Eichelbaum CJ in TV3 Network Services Ltd v Broadcasting Standards Authority (at 733) that there is a difference between material that is "merely interesting" to the public and material "properly within the public interest, in the sense of being of legitimate concern to the public".

“A matter of general interest or curiosity would not, in our view, be enough to outweigh the substantial breach of privacy harm the tort presupposes. The level of legitimate public concern would have to be such as outweighs the level of harm likely to be caused. For example, if the publication was going to cause a major risk of serious physical injury or death (as in the Venables case), a very considerable level of legitimate public concern would be necessary to establish the defence.

“The line is to be drawn when the publicity ceases to be the giving of information to which the public is entitled, and becomes a morbid and sensational prying into private lives for its own sake, with which a reasonable member of the public, with decent standards would say that he had no concern. The limitations, in other words, are those of common decency, having due regard to the freedom of the press and its reasonable leeway to choose what it will tell the public, but also due regard to the feelings of the individual and the harm that will be done to him by the exposure.”

Applying any of these tests, Benson-Pope’s plea to privacy in regard to his communications with police must fail.

Justice Keith, in a separate judgement in the Hosking case, went further, calling the media’s right to freedom of expression “central” to our democratic system:

“The importance of freedom of expression -

“The right to freedom of expression is recognised in our law (notably by Parliament in s14 of the Bill of Rights), as in the law of many other parts of the world, as being of the highest importance in a modern democracy. The purposes and values underlying it are also widely accepted. They include individual liberty and self-fulfillment, the value of the marketplace of ideas and the protection and advancement of democratic self-government.

“The right of privacy should not interfere with publication of matters of public record, or obvious significant public interest,” Justice Keith writes [our emphasis].

At paragraph 267 of the Hosking judgements, Anderson J also warns strongly against the idea that public figures should enjoy special privacy protection:

“Freedom of expression is the first and last trench in the protection of liberty. All of the rights affirmed by NZ Bill of Rights Act are protected by that particular right. Just as truth is the first casualty of war, so suppression of truth is the first objective of the despot.

“In my view, the development of modern communications media, including for example the world wide web, has given historically unprecedented exposure of and accountability for injustices, undemocratic practices and the despoliation of human rights. A new limitation on freedom of expression requires, in my respectful view, greater justification than that a reasonable person would be wounded in their feelings by the publication of true information of a personal nature which does not have the quality of legally recognised confidentiality.”

Apart from the overwhelming public interest in finding out why police chose in the end not to prosecute (and Benson-Pope’s frank submissions are relevant to that quest), Investigate believes his plea for confidentiality fails at one final hurdle.
The Ombudsman has referred to Benson-Pope’s lawyer John Haigh QC expecting all discussions to be confidential, and that this expectation of confidentiality is crucial for the maintenance of public affairs.

However, if that is indeed the case, why did the police release dozens of pages of interim submissions from John Haigh QC and even Benson-Pope himself in the original document release? Surely releasing those documents must compromise the “expectation” of confidentiality for others dealing with police in future?

In Investigate’s view, Labour MP David Benson-Pope’s actions up to the date of this issue going to press indicate he still has something to hide, and the magazine will pursue this until the question is resolved.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:08 AM | Comments (0)

February 26, 2007

Burning down the house: Feb 07 issue

Turkey.jpg

BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE

The kitchen, the kitchen, the kitchen’s on fire at Eli Jameson’s place

The holidays bring visitors from around the world, and for the past few weeks I have been playing host to my old friend insomnia who has apparently decided he needed a break from the harsh northern winter and the Seasonal Affective Disorder that is its constant companion. I’m not sure which aphorism is more appropriate here: that houseguests, like fish, stink after three days, or that when even your neuroses have neuroses, well, you really do have problems.

In any case, three a.m. found me sitting up watching the sort of stuff one watches late at night on pay TV. No not that sort of stuff - get your mind out of the gutter. I’m talking about lifestyle programming, specifically cooking shows. Now regular readers of this column will know that I’m horrified by the current state of cooking programming and its programming-executive driven shift away from what is maligned as “dump and stir” TV and towards the clever gimmick. (Anyone who is interested in reading more about this transformation should check out - it’s very generously online - Bill Buford’s article in the New Yorker of 2 October 2006 on the rise of food television.) But then again, I’m a purist.

Anyway, the gimmick behind the show I was watching was that a New York chef, himself the very model of a Modern Masculine Metrosexual, would travel around America’s flyover country, the unfashionable bits in between the coasts, and sort out home cooks’ inability to bake a ham or boil water. In the episode I was watching, a very nice lady had written in because she was depressed that she couldn’t flambé some dessert or other -- crepes su-zette, I think it was.

I was immediately struck by two emotions: envy and amazement. Envy, that in every damn lifestyle and reality show I see set in the US, Americans seem able to afford vast homes with barn-like lounge rooms and kitchens that could have been equipped by Gordon Ramsay himself. And amazement that anyone would have trouble setting fire to something in a kitchen. I couldn’t work out whether such a skill - or lack thereof - was, as the song says, a blessing or a curse.

Me, I’ve been setting a lot of stuff on fire lately. It all started a couple of months ago at my annual turkey fry. Yes, turkey fry. Now for those of you not familiar with this custom, it originated in the southern United States, specifically Louisiana, and involves the deep-frying of an entire turkey in a vat of oil heated to around 180 degrees Celsius. Accomplish-ing this is not an easy task, and requires some specialist equipment. If you want to do this, head down to your local Chinatown and get an outdoor wok burner that hooks up to your barbecue’s LPG tank. I cannot be much more helpful than to tell you that mine has no English characters written either on the equipment or in the documentation (which is all in Mandarin) other than the word RAMBO, and when you fire it up it produces a roaring blue flame that looks and feels like someone just hit the afterburner switch on an F-111. On top of this you will need to get a really large pot. This accomplished, frying the turkey could not be simpler, and what you get is -- trust me on this -- one of the tastiest birds you will ever eat.

All one does is get a good free-range turkey, around five or six kilos and a lot of frying oil. Peanut is best but expensive; anything with a high smoking temperature will do. Start by plonking the bird into the empty pot and filling with water until it is just covered.

Remove the bird and use a screwdriver or some other implement to mark the resultant water line as this is how high you will want to pour the oil. One wants enough oil to cover the bird but not so much that the stuff boils over. I think you see where this is going. When ready to fry, heat the oil -- I can get 3 gallons up to temperature in about 15 minutes with my rig -- and carefully lower the bird (which you have dried well and seasoned with salt, pepper and some cajun seasoning) into the oil. The pot will bubble up spectacularly, settle back down and in about 45 minutes pull it out. The skin will be golden and crispy, the meat moist and tender.

Where I went wrong this year was to add an extra two-litre bottle, “for good measure”. Aiding me in the actual lowering of the bird was my friend the Major, a veteran of several foreign theatres of war including most recently Iraq. This is relevant, because as it turned out it was good to have someone on hand who is cool under fire. With fifteen other guests surrounding the vat and the gas burner powering away, we put the turkey in. And as predicted the oil bubbled up. And up. And then, unfortunately, up and over the sides. Two jets of fire shot up the side before settling down into a scorching conflagration of flaming hot turkey grease and oil that could only be tamped down with a heavy application of - wait for it - kitty litter.

The turkey, as it turned out, was delicious. The backyard pavement on which this occurred may never be the same, though: for weeks it drew every cat in the neighborhood.

RECIPE: Bananas Foster

So it was Mrs Jameson’s birthday the other night, and I decided to finish our home-cooked feast with this great recipe (which, oddly enough, is also a New Orleans creation). It’s a great capper for a romantic dinner because it is easy, delicious and impressive (especially if your kitchen is in view of the table, or you decide to do it tableside. To recreate this you’ll need:

1 cup brown sugar
75-100g good butter
2 bananas
100ml good dark rum, such as Havana Club, Mount Gay or Myer’s
1 hefty pinch cinnamon
2 scoops quality vanilla ice cream, ideally but not necessarily home made.

Method:
1. Open your bananas and split lengthwise. Heat a pan over high heat and melt the brown sugar and butter together. When the mixture has turned into a nice caramel, slide in the bananas and fry on both sides, coating with the sugar.

2. Now here’s the tricky part. And by all means, don’t pour directly from the bottle lest you conjure the ghost of General Molotov. First, turn out the lights for maximum effect. Then, pour in the rum carefully and then tip the pan forward to catch a bit of flame from the stove, or use a match if cooking on an electric. Flames should dramatically shoot up, and when they settle down add the cinnamon. Arrange the bananas with a scoop of the ice cream on two plates and pour over the remaining rum-caramel.

The key here is to make sure you don’t be too generous, as I was, with the rum. Otherwise you might find yourself, as I did, finishing your special evening sans eyebrows.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:43 AM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2007

Valencia: Feb 07 issue

Valencia.jpg

AMERICA’S CUP 07: ON THE SPANISH RIVIERA

Elio Leturia checks out a stopover in Barcelona, while Jay Clarke finds the Silver Whisper cruise liner is well up to the task of being an America’s Cup viewing platform

With the America’s Cup about to kick off in Valencia, Spain, this year, the big cruise lines are offering a number of packages to capitalize on what is likely to be one of the most hotly-contested and spectatored events in the Cup’s history. For the first time, the Cup is being raced in modern Europe, the hub of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

The cruise liner Silver Whisper is being used as an oncourse viewing platform/hotel for the races and for the first time has been given permission to shadow the Cup racers down the course. Whisper will be departing for Valencia from its rival Mediterranean port, Barcelona on 22 June, which means if you time your flights properly there’s time for plenty of R and R in Barcelona for a few days prior.
Barcelona is a city of contrasts, especially between the medieval sites and the newer, modernista areas. It's easy to navigate and walkable, though you'd need a map in the charming and narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter.

Here are your reference points: Gran Via De Les Cortes Catalanes runs parallel to the sea and divides the old city from the modern. La Rambla in the old city divides the Gothic Quarter from El Raval. Passeig de Gracia divides the more modern Eixample neighborhoods.

Placa de Catalunya is the hub, at the end of lively La Rambla and at the beginning of chic Passeig de Gracia. It is the best place to begin after having taken a bus from the airport (around 4 euros compared to a much more expensive cab ride).

The placa, or plaza, is a big, open space where multitudes converge and move off in different directions, looking for stores to shop in, sights to see, restaurants in which to dine. In the area there are stores, good restaurants, fast food chains, business offices and a busy subway stop.

Let's begin by walking in the direction of the sea, following the famous La Rambla. It's like a carnival, busy and buzzing with tourist attractions. Magicians, mimes, musicians, exotic-animal vendors, beggars and fortune-tellers share space with tourists and strollers.

To your right is El Raval. It is the poorest area of the old city and its reputation has been one of vice and crime. It used to be known as Barcelona's Chinatown. Now, it has its share of interesting places and affordable restaurants, even if it is a bit seedier in spots than the Gothic Quarter or more modern areas.

Among Raval's spots of interest are the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, Antoni Gaudi's magnificent Guell Palace and the Gran Teatre del Liceu. But if you are looking to explore the flavor of the city and the friendly demeanor of the locals for free, visit the Mercat de la Boqueria, a "modernisme" (Barcelona's version of art nouveau) structure made of metal, where you can do your grocery shopping and choose from an extensive array of prime local ingredients and produce from seafood, breads and fruits to spices and vegetables.

There is the old Hospital de la Santa Creu, which holds the Catalunya library (3 million documents, says National Geographic's "Traveler Barcelona" book), where you can see students chatting in a building dating back more than 600 years.

On the other side of La Rambla is the Barri Gotic, or Gothic Quarter, a labyrinth of medieval streets filled with stores, bars, restaurants, hotels, churches, a breathtaking cathedral (work started in 1298) and Roman ruins.

With its dark corners, cafes and history, the Gothic Quarter showcases a unique personality. An afternoon here is spent weaving through the crowds of tourists who fill the narrow, cobblestone streets, and you could easily spend days exploring its alleys and walkways.

Next to the Gothic Quarter, you find El Born, a neighborhood that has been restored and embellished. It is home to the Picasso Museum, where you can see artwork from his early years (Picasso spent his youth in Barcelona). Be sure to walk through the 700-year-old Carrer de la Montcada, which houses grand galleries and sophisticated bars.

At the sea edge of La Rambla, south of El Born, you find the monument to Christopher Columbus, then the waterfront.

Facing the Mediterranean Sea, you notice a commercial area with numerous malls in what is called Port Vell, next to the water. Feel like shopping? This is a good place to find affordable items. You will also find the aquarium and the Maremagnum, a complex of stores, eateries, bars and discos.

Facing the port, another neighborhood called La Barceloneta is to your left. Once a group of warehouses, it harbors pricey seafood restaurants and blue-collar housing in amazingly narrow blocks. Beyond that is the beach, which bubbles with sun seekers.

On the other side of Placa de Catalunya, there is a dramatic change in the streetscape, as the view becomes that of modernist buildings and streets laid out in a grid. It's L'Eixample (the extension), a district divided by Passeig de Gracia and its elegant stores, tapas bars, cafes and restaurants.

This is a different face of Barcelona. Modernisme is the main architectural style, and it's a delight to the eye. For Barcelonians, L'Eixample can mean a place to live, a place to work, a place to enjoy the nightlife and especially, a place to shop. Unfortunately, most everything is expensive.

What can we do here on the cheap? Try walking. In just one block on Passeig de Gracia you can admire the facades of three architectural wonders: Gaudi's extraordinary Casa Batllo, with its undulating lines and balconies resembling jawbones; Puig i Cadafalch's Casa Amatller and its geometrically tiled top floor and, at the corner, Domenech i Montaner's Casa Lleo Morera, with its magnificent windows and bulging balconies.

To see what's inside these and other modernist buildings, you can buy a Ruta del Modernisme ticket that gives you access to these and other buildings, as well as other museums and attractions, at half-price within 30 days. The price is 3.61 euros for adults, 2.40 euros for students and senior citizens.

A couple of blocks away on the same street you find Casa Mila, or La Pedrera, another Gaudi marvel. It's so convoluted and striking, it's difficult to describe. But think of the movie "Star Wars." You will feel you are in outer space. Gaudi practically eliminated any straight lines in the architecture, from staircases to floors to ceilings.

Following the work of Gaudi, you have to see Sagrada Familia, a cathedral, still unfinished, more than a century in the making. Inspired by Gothic cathedrals, this church's design is unique, with its swirling towers and busy details.

Ten blocks from Casa Mila, Sagrada Familia has eight finished towers which represent the apostles (four others are to be built). Drawings show that more towers are part of the original design, with the tallest representing God as the central axis.

Work continues, but what you can see already is enough to take your breath away. It looks as if its towers were made of sand eroded by the wind. And still the overall effect remains solid and imposing.

Eight euros buys you a visit from 9 a.m. till 6 p.m. during the colder months. The site is open until 8 p.m. from April through September.

If you're looking for more Gaudi at an even more reasonable price, visit Parc Guell, which is free. Originally conceived as a garden city, two homes were built in a setting supposed to hold 60. The park makes you feel as if you are in a fairyland, with its curved benches, fountains and plazas covered by colorful mosaics and sculptures of real and mythological creatures. From the park, you can stare out over the city to the Mediterranean and feel the pure and clean air.

If you're looking for a smoke-free environment, try Starbucks. There are three of them, the only smoke-free places I found in Barcelona.


On board the Silver Whisper, of course, it’s a different story again. I knew I was going to like the Whisper as soon as I stepped into our suite. Our stateroom, like all others, had a walk-in closet - a feature that instantly convinced my wife that we were truly on a classy ship. Our bathroom was equipped with double sinks as well as a tub and separate shower - notice, not EITHER a tub or shower, but BOTH.

Beyond the sitting area with its plush sofa and chairs was a veranda, a nice place to read a book or enjoy a cocktail while gazing at the restless sea. The mini-bar was pre-stocked with sodas and liquor of our choice, and canapes were delivered to our suite every day at 4 p.m. Sometimes it was hard to leave our room.

But of course we did, and found the rest of the ship just as elegant as our stateroom. Soft colors and rich woods gave the public rooms a warm feeling, and we never had to memorize fancy names for ship spaces. The decks were numbered, not named, the bar was simply The Bar, the restaurant was The Restaurant, the spa was The Spa, The Humidor was the cigar smokers' den, the Terrace Cafe had a terrace and the Panoroma Lounge indeed provided a panoramic view. Simplicity can be elegant.

It and its sister ship, the Silver Shadow, are the line's largest vessels, but with a maximum of 382 passengers they'll never threaten today's giant cruise ships, which can carry more than 3,000.

Which is how its guests like it. Luxury cruises do not come cheaply, and Silver Whisper's clientele are discriminating yet very down-to-earth people, we learned.

Such people demand a certain level of excellence, and they get it aboard the Silver Whisper.

First, they demand service that is several cuts above that on mainstream ships. Our cabin attendant, a young Italian woman, was always around with a happy smile, making sure our needs were met. Dining room waiters did their job with skill and pleasantry, even knowing that tipping is a no-no on all Silversea ships. A room service meal was just as fine as the restaurant's, and if they said it would be there in 10 minutes, it was.

We generally took a buffet breakfast in the Terrace Cafe, which transformed itself in the evening to an elegant, reservations-only alternative restaurant. We often took lunch on the pool deck, and I thought it was sort of incongruous - considering that people were in shorts or bathing suits - that waiters stood by to carry our plate of hot dogs, potato salad or whatever to our table, just as they did in the dining room. A nice touch, though.

In the evening, we took most of our meals in the dining room, where the menu was inventive, the food excellently prepared, the choices broad and the service impeccable. I was particularly impressed with a cannelloni that was delicate in taste and texture. Lifting an ordinary dish like this one to such heights was, I think, the mark of a good chef.

Complimentary wines of high quality were served with lunch and dinner, with the sommelier choosing ones to complement the entrees. But passengers could order different selections if they chose, also complimentary. Bottles of rarer wines like the grand crus, however, carried charges that ran as high as US$785 a bottle. Yes, there were people who ordered them.

In the Mandara spa, services were keyed to a high level. Businessmen breaking away from their workday gruel might go for an Executive Men's Facial to smooth out those pinstripe worries. Women could luxuriate in a Javanese Honey Steam Wrap treatment, which uses cinnamon, ginger, sea salt, coffee, honey and steam, or go for a Hot Lava Rock Massage, in which spa personnel massage client's bodies with steamed lava stones covered with a blend of rich cocoa butter. Luxury? Yes, indeed.

Onboard diversions ran along traditional lines. Books, magazines, games and movie video tapes were available in the library. Daily bridge games attracted several tables of players. Trivia quizzes, musical and otherwise, were popular, and in the evening we enjoyed pre-dinner and post-dinner shows in the two-story show lounge. Other than the fitness room and the pool, there were few activities for more active passengers. Shore excursions, too, were more geared to the older travelers the ship caters to.

On sum, Silversea gave us an experience well above what we've had on any other ship.
It doesn't get any better.

SILVER WHISPER
Gross tonnage: 28,258 tons.
Length: 186 metres.
Beam (width): 25 metres.
Passenger decks: 7.
Passenger capacity: 382.

GETTING THERE:
Lance Green at New Zealand’s Viaggio has managed to secure berths on Silver Whisper for kiwis wanting to see New Zealand win back the America’s Cup on the Mediterranean. Green, who has extensive background in the cruise industry, argues the liner’s smaller size and upmarket décor make it the perfect viewing platform for the America’s Cup, allowing guests the advantage of both watching live from the decks as the yachts duel their way past, and also the close-up action on the live TV coverage on the ship and in the suites.
“Throw in the fact that we’ve secured a package with no hidden costs, in NZ dollars, and we’re confident this is simply the best way to see the races, bar none.”
Ph 0800 100799

Posted by Ian Wishart at 10:14 PM | Comments (0)