March 09, 2007
MOON SHOT OR LONG SHOT? INVESTIGATE: JAN 03
"That’s one small step for man....one giant leap for conspiracy theorists": did we really land on the Moon? HAMISH CARNACHAN investigates the controversial argument over whether NASA faked it, or whether the people pushing the theory are, themselves, loose moon units...
Houston, the Eagle has landed" - famous words that spelt out one of the defining moments of the twentieth century. ‘Eagle’, the Apollo 11 landing module, had gently touched down on the Moon’s surface and the United States’ National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) had finally achieved what many thought was impossible. For the very first time, a craft carrying humans had visited a world other than our own planet.
On a clear morning in mid-July 1969 NASA’s landmark mission began. Columbia, the command module atop a massive Saturn V rocket, successfully rose off pad 39a, thundered towards the heavens billowing a cotton-wool vapour trail and disappeared beyond the stratosphere.
The voyage to the Moon ran smoothly and on the distant side of the Moon, Eagle prepared to disengage from its mother ship.
Neil Armstrong’s voice soon crackled across the airwaves and into the headsets of the anxious technicians awaiting news back at Houston’s Mission Control. The broadcast carried the news of the successful separation: "The Eagle has wings".
The pivotal phase of the mission was underway, but when the engine on the lander was fired to begin the descent it was like triggering a signal for the drama to commence.
At 14,000 metres an alarm sounded – the computer was becoming overloaded with data – but Mission Control gave the all clear to "continue powered descent".
Moments later another siren screeched a warning. The computer readout suggested Eagle was approaching touchdown too fast. Mission Control scrambled to analyse and again snubbed the signal to abort – descent velocity was fine.
At 6400 metres above the lunar surface, and with Eagle closing at a rate of 3700 metres per minute, the time to decide whether to land or abort was almost up when Armstrong glanced out of the window and saw that they were heading directly into a boulder field.
With a landing in rough terrain impossible he manually angled the craft away, hoping to find a smoother spot to touch down. A call came through from Mission Control: "30 seconds". Fuel was running dangerously low and there was a risk that Eagle would not have enough in reserve to ascend.
Finally Buzz Aldrin’s triumphant dispatch came through: "Contact light". A collective sigh of relief was let out followed by a monumental roar that rocked the mission centre. After years of meticulous planning and four days after the mission was launched, Man was finally on the Moon.
It was 20 July, 1969, a day that is fixed in the memories of everyone who saw the flickering, grainy black and white television images of Neil Armstrong stepping down from the Apollo 11 capsule onto the lunar surface.
Arguably it was the most monumental feat in modern history – perhaps recorded history – some have even called the Apollo 11 mission the pinnacle of Man’s pioneering adventures.
So many of the people who stood witness that day were left speechless and it was Armstrong’s now famous words, "One small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind", which articulated what they could not say themselves.
Hundreds of kilograms of samples were brought back throughout Project Apollo, as were reams and reams of film and still-photo footage. These invaluable archives and the astronauts’ experiences not only gave us an indication of how the Moon was formed and how it could be exploited in the future, but they provide evidence that set the missions in irrefutable fact.
The famous first mission to the Moon, and the five others that were to follow, were, to a majority of people, "remarkable accomplishments". For many others at the time though, the achievements were too unfathomable, incomprehensible even. They simply did not believe it was possible to put a man on the Moon.
Though there have always been subcultures that strongly believe the landings were faked, today, more than 30 years on, there is a growing wave of disbelievers who are finding favourable platforms and forums to launch attacks against the Apollo missions.
The new breed of sceptic has laid down a fierce challenge to NASA, and the space agency is now finding it increasingly harder to rid itself of the rumours that it pulled "one giant con on Mankind".
Now the conspiracy theories have been elevated to a higher level of public awareness with international television screenings of a documentary that proposed NASA faked the whole affair.
"Conspiracy Theory: Did we land on the Moon?" as the program is titled, has aired twice in the United States and in numerous countries around the world including New Zealand, creating quite a stir. While some have written it off as a "personal attack against NASA" from its creators, millions of Americans and people of other nationalities now believe that the landings were staged in a studio at the conspicuously secretive Area 51 military base in the Nevada Desert.
One of the spin-offs of the film is that Internet conspiracy sites have since flourished and now provide an inexpensive global medium for sceptics to push their position. They seem to have made substantial headway, and the level of debate on the topic has become unprecedented.
In October this year, a Washington newspaper report suggested that the argument was getting ugly too. The Daily News ran a story alleging that one sceptic confronted 72 year old former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, poked him, verbally abused him and demanded that he swear on the Bible that he really walked on the Moon. Aldrin supposedly responded by punching Bart Sibrel in the face.
So what is behind this recent groundswell of contention? As more and more people noticeably start to query NASA’s moon landings is there actually some substance to their doubts? Do the Apollo missions really deserve the highest accolades or were they, as the sceptics claim, an elaborate hoax staged right here on Earth?
Sibrel, who was four years old when man first set foot on the Moon, is one of the growing numbers of detractors who have made it their own personal goal to prove that the landings were the biggest con job in history.
Central to the stance that sceptics like Sibrel have adopted is that the landings were staged to dupe the Soviet Union – it was the height of the Cold War and the United States had entered into an aggressive space race with their old foe.
On his website (moonmovie.com), Sibrel lists the grounds on which he has taken issue with what has generally been regarded as established fact, and claims to have found a credible source who worked for the space program during the 1960s to back these up.
"He asserted, most confidently, that the Apollo moon landings were, first, impossible and, second, falsified as a Cold War tactic to bluff the Soviet Union into thinking the United States had greater capability than it really did," states Sibrel.
"I discovered that the highest ranking official at NASA resigned, without explanation, just days before the first Apollo mission. All three crewmembers of the first historic flight also resigned shortly thereafter.
"Neil Armstrong, the most famous astronaut because of supposedly being the first man on the Moon, refused to even appear in a single still picture on the Moon! Aside from the initial press conference immediately following the event, in which he seems very disgruntled, he has not given a single interview on the subject, in print or on camera, to anyone ever!"
History notes that Sibrel is indeed correct in these claims. However, is it rational to argue, with absolute certainty, that a solitary testimony from a retired NASA employee and a handful of resignations are anything other than coincidence?
Well, Sibrel asserts that there is more evidence to back up his allegations and on his website he lists his ‘Top Ten’ reasons why the landings were a hoax and why Man has never set foot on the Moon.
Sceptics have literally cre-ated a field of study in the dissemination and scrutiny of NASA material and typical of their contentions are some of the following points, often shown as proof that there were no moon landings.
Richard Nixon, the king of cover-up, was the President at the time and sceptics query his potential antics that were never discovered. They argue that a successful manned mission to the Moon offered a spirit-lifting distraction for American citizens smarting over 50,000 deaths in the Vietnam War.
It is also argued that the Soviet Union was well ahead of the US in the Cold War space-race. They had a five-to-one superiority over the States in terms of manned hours in space and were the first to achieve important milestones such as launching the first man-made satellite into Earth’s orbit, putting the first astronaut in space, putting the first astronaut in orbit around Earth, and completing the first space walk.
Detractors say this put America at a perceived military disadvantage in missile technology and because they were so far behind in technical capability they had no other alternative but to fake it.
There is the fact that passengers of a spacecraft that went beyond Earth’s orbit would likely have been subjected to the potentially lethal radiation of the Van Allen radiation belt. Questions are raised about the possibility of astronauts travelling through the field unscathed.
Sibrel suggests it is odd that "the Apollo missions were the only times ever that an astronaut, Soviet or American, left the safety of Earth’s orbit and ventured into the deadly hazards of space radiation."
Also peculiar, says Sibrel, is the astronauts’ silence on their mission.
"Neil Armstrong, the first man to supposedly walk on the Moon, refuses to give interviews to anyone on the subject. Collins also refuses to be interviewed. Aldrin, who granted an interview, threatened to sue us if we showed it [Sibrel’s own documentary, "A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Moon"] to anyone."
Another significant point of conflict is held in the photographs and film taken on the Moon. On close inspection, analysts have discovered that there are numerous inconsistencies and oddities. For example, no stars are shown in any of the film and the shadows do not fall in the same direction. To some this suggests that the footage was shot in a studio under artificial lighting.
"Sunlight would cast shadows that would never intersect," argues Sibrel.
The Hasselblad cameras that were used by NASA on the missions had many crosshairs in each frame. Keen-eyed sceptics have noticed that in some shots the crosses disappear behind objects in the picture, providing further proof of foolery.
Perhaps even more bizarre are the pictures with identical backgrounds that are supposed to have been taken at different locations on different days. In two sequences from the Apollo 16 mission, this irregularity is clearly depicted.
But the biggest discrepancy and the "ultimate give away", according to the sceptics, is the footage that shows the American flag fluttering in the wind – an impossible phenomenon on the Moon simply because no wind can form in the vacuum of outer-space.
"The wind was probably caused by intense air-conditioning used to cool the astronauts in their lightened, un-circulated space suits. The cooling systems in the backpacks would have been removed to lighten the load not designed for Earth’s six times heavier gravity, otherwise they might have fallen over," suggests Sibrel.
Sibrel has spent many years and almost US$500,000 in a quest to prove his theory that the landings were faked. But aside from querying inconsistencies and highlighting unexplained oddities, he professes to have uncovered irrefutable evidence.
"In my research at NASA I uncovered, deep in the archives, one mislabelled reel from the Apollo 11, first mission, to the Moon. What is on the reel and on the label are completely different. I suspect an editor put the wrong label on the tape 33 years ago and no reporter ever had the motive to be as thorough as I. It contains an hour of rare, unedited, colour television footage that is dated by NASA’s own atomic clock three days into the flight.
"Identified on camera are Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and Michael Collins. They are doing multiple takes of a single shot of the mission, from which only about ten seconds was ever broadcast. Because I have uncovered the original unedited version, mistakenly not destroyed, the photography proves to be a clever forgery. Really! It means they did not walk on the Moon!"
In a book he released last year, amateur French astronomer and photographer Philippe Lheureux made international headlines when he made similar claims about NASA faking photographic footage.
But Lheureux puts a different spin on the hoax theory. In ‘Lumieres sur la Lune’ (Lights on the Moon) he suggests astronauts did get to the Moon but in order to prevent competitors from using sensitive scientific information in the genuine photos, NASA released bogus images.
The BBC quoted Lheuruex from French television: "In order not to give out scientific information they released photos taken during the training stages.
"That satisfied the American taxpayer and that left no real possibility for other countries to make scientific use of them."
Lheureux presents evidence from a photo of a lunar landing craft’s ‘foot’ because it is totally dust-free. The problem here, he says, is that according to Neil Armstrong large clouds of dust were displaced on landing.
Need more proof? How about props in space? According to the BBC report, Lheureux says that when one of the photos purportedly taken on the Moon is enlarged a letter ‘C’ can clearly be seen scribed on a rock "exactly like some cinema props".
Sibrel alleges that NASA continues to doctor their film footage to clean up obvious errors like those that Lheureux claims to have exposed.
"Newly retouched photographs correct errors from previously released versions. Why would they be updating 30-year-old pictures if they really went to the Moon?" asks Sibrel.
In the face of this barrage, NASA’s persisting silence does not seem to have helped quell any of the doubts either.
In response to Lheureux’s claims, the agency was reported to acknowledge that about 20 pictures of the thousands that were taken do take some explaining but on close examination they have a scientific explanation. NASA left its response at that.
In the past NASA has either relied on information sheets originally issued in 1977, or private citizens, concerned enough to mount their own campaigns to address some of the concerns in circulation.
But in late 2002 it seemed that the US space agency had finally got fed up with all the dissent. They commissioned James Oberg, a 22-year Mission Control veteran and prominent space-travel author, to work on a 30,000-word book to debunk the faked landing hypothesis and also examine how such theories become popular and spread.
The former chief historian at NASA, Roger Launius, conceived the idea to give schoolteachers a tool to help answer classroom queries because half the world’s population was not yet born the last time an astronaut reached the Moon.
"As time progresses, this gets less and less real to everybody. At some level, I think that may be what’s happening here," Launius told Washington’s Daily News.
However, days after they announced the funding for the book, NASA added fuel to the fire by pulling its financial backing. According to the worldwide news service, AFP, a NASA spokesman said the project had lost its focus because it was "being portrayed by the media as a PR campaign to debunk the hoaxers and that was never the intent".
Oberg has lost his promised US$15,000 contract for the work, but despite this setback he informs Investigate that he is forging ahead with the book, writing it "commercially".
Until Oberg completes the book though, the task of silencing the critics will be left to individuals like Dr. Phil Plait, a teacher of physics and astronomy at Sonoma State University in California. Plait, who has no links to NASA, invests his own resources in disseminating information he believes categorically disproves the conspiracy theories.
And just as the sceptics are using the Internet to spread their message, so too is Plait on his ‘Bad Astronomy’ website (www.badastronomy.com). In times when public opinion is so easily influenced by the Internet and "subjective" television programming, he says he created the site to add balance to a growing argument.
"Am I a bad astronomer?" asks Plait. "I don’t think so. I would say I am an average one. But on these web pages, I’m discussing astronomy that is bad."
A good part of this discussion is a detailed rebuttal of Fox television’s "Conspiracy Theory" documentary in which Plait assures that the rumours broadcast on the network are completely false, some laughably so.
"Sometimes, I think I have heard everything when it comes to bad astronomy. Then something comes along so strikingly nuts that I have to wonder what still lies ahead. In this case, the craziness involves people who think that the NASA Apollo missions were faked."
The "craziness" Plait refers to has grasped a sizeable chunk of the American population too. Although the documentary states that 20 percent of Americans now doubt that Man set foot on the Moon, the claim, like many of the others, is actually false. The real figure, sourced from a 1999 Gallup-poll, is closer to 6 percent.
Some call this slice of the population the "lunatic fringe" but, nonetheless, 6 percent of almost three hundred million, is still a significant body of outsiders. Still, Plait isn’t fazed by the foibles of his countrymen.
"There is no idea on God’s green Earth so dumb that you can’t get a big chunk of the American public to buy it. These are the same people who believe you can cut taxes but expand services, and who believe you can extract oil from the ground indefinitely without running out of it."
On his site he proposes that part of the problem creating the current wave of doubt is a lack of understanding of science. Plait doesn’t profess to have covered every claim by the conspiracy theorists, simply because there are so many, but he does answer many of the major "myths". He says some involve subtle, but comprehensible, physics, while lesser assertions are easily shown to be false.
For example, he readily acknowledges that the US flag is moving but says the explanation is entirely logical.
"The flag had a stiffening rod on the upper side so it would stand out from the staff. When the astronauts moved the pole, the free corner lagged behind by simple inertia. The flag actually flops unnaturally quickly because there is no air resistance to impede it."
As far as the absence of stars in the footage goes, claimed by sceptics to be indicative of filming inside a studio, Plait reasons that basic photography clears this contention.
He says that because the Apollo astronauts all landed on the ‘day’ side of the Moon, and all the film they shot from orbit were over the ‘day’ side, the exposure settings were all set for daylight.
"Set your camera to 1/125 at f/8 (a setting typical of the slower films in use in 1969). Aim it at the night sky and shoot pictures. Tell me how many stars you see. Aim your camcorder at the sky and see how many stars you can film.
"Even with the eye you’d have difficulty seeing stars from the daytime lunar surface unless you stood in a shadow and shielded yourself from any light reflected from the ground, for the same reason you can’t see stars from a brightly lit parking lot at night."
But sceptics also assert that con-verging shadows in numerous pictures provide further evidence that the landings were staged inside, under artificial lighting. As Plait has already indicated, this is one of those issues that requires a little scientific understanding.
"Shadows lie on parallel lines pointing away from the Sun. Because of perspective, they will appear to radiate away from the point on the horizon directly under the Sun. It’s simply incredible that people who claimed to have backgrounds in photography and engineering would not know this.
"A brief look around outdoors on a sunny day will show that shadows of nearby objects do not line up with more distant ones, or even point directly away from the Sun. The reason is that you don’t line up the base of the object with its shadow. You draw a line from a point on the edge of the shadow through the object that casts that part of the shadow. So it’s simply ridiculous to draw lines from the base of the lunar module through its shadow. To see if the shadows were consistent, you’d have to draw lines from objects on the lunar module to their corresponding shadows. These lines should converge on the Sun."
One sequence in the program that Plait appears to take pride in ripping apart quite convincingly shows that two scenes supposedly filmed on different days at different locations were actually filmed at the same spot.
"Maybe this proves the missions were filmed on Earth on a set. Or maybe it merely shows that whoever edited the film mixed up the footage," says Plait who suggests the logical explanation would make no sense at all to a conspiracy theorist.
Another couple of photos show that crosshairs etched on the camera lens appear to be behind objects in the foreground. There’s no question about it - the crosshairs do disappear at the edge of the objects. One in particular appears to be in front of the American flag but behind an astronaut’s arm.
"If you’re going to stage the landings on Earth, why put crosshairs on the camera at all? If we assume the photos were shot with the calibrated cameras that would have gone to the Moon, and NASA went to the time and trouble to build stage sets and have people in spacesuits act out the landings, why not just shoot the scenes you need? Cutting and pasting makes no sense at all - nobody would have missed the apparently doctored shots if they weren’t made."
Plait says somebody editing out distracting crosshairs for press release makes perfect sense, or another feasible explanation is that areas of brighter light in the picture may simply have hidden the marks.
French cynic Lheureux claims the absence of dust on the foot of the Eagle landing craft proves some pictures were faked. "Not so" in this case says Plait – it is merely a case of confusing lunar dust with household dust.
"Household dust is mostly organic (a lot of it is dead skin). It has a low density and floats easily in the air. Lunar dust is powdered rock, much higher in density and with no air to support it. There are no dust bunnies [eddies] on the Moon.
"Kick any dry, bare ground surface on Earth and you will kick up rock dust. Kick the Moon and you will kick up lunar dust. Both kinds of dust are powdered rock, different origins but with somewhat similar properties. Rock dust is pretty cohesive once it packs down. One reader sent in a picture of the lunar rover churning up dust and asked how this could happen if there is no dust on the Moon. Same way an ATV in a gravel pit kicks up dust. Nobody ever said there is "no dust" on the Moon, just no fluffy, easily mobilized dust.
"Once the lunar lander rockets blew away the near-surface dust, what’s left? Larger particles too big to move easily."
The ability of NASA astronauts surviving passage through the extreme radiation of the phenomenon known as the Van Allen radiation belt takes some explaining and Plait offers detailed analysis on his website.
In very simple terms, because they passed through the belt at such a rapid speed, the astronauts spent less than 15 minutes in the danger zone. Plait calculates that exposure over that amount of time would have been about 1 percent of a fatal radiation dose – perhaps not completely safe but entirely survivable.
Finally, it is well known that America was losing the space race to the Soviet Union. In one of the most famous speeches of his presidential career, John F. Kennedy acknowledged this and pledged support and billions of dollars of funding to match the Russian’s strides in space: "I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."
Of course history tells us that Kennedy did not survive to see his vision fulfilled and it was the infamous Richard Nixon who was in power when NASA finally accomplished the goal. But for some sceptics it would not have been above Nixon to pull a lunar landing scam.
However, why would the President have gone to the trouble of preparing a contingency speech to be read to the watching world if the mission failed and the astronauts died?
In 1999 the BBC reported that a memo found in America’s national archives revealed the extent of emergency planning for the first mission by NASA and the Whitehouse.
Radio transmissions would supposedly have been terminated, leaving the space travellers to die or commit suicide in silence. Nixon’s speech would have opened: "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace."
Is this irrefutable evidence that Man did reach the Moon, or another prop in an elaborate hoax?
Perhaps the AFP news service is correct when it suggests that by staying silent, NASA merely feeds the hoax rumours; by denying, it encourages charges over an establishment cover-up – the agency appears to be in a no win situation.
Sceptics like Bart Sibrel point to a human condition called "cognitive dissonance", a condition when someone has a long held belief so deeply rooted in their psyche that they cannot see anything else, even if visible facts present themselves that prove contrary to their belief.
"The pride inducing moon landings can certainly cloud some people from seeing the distasteful truth," he states.
Meanwhile, Plait will not reply to queries that do not firstly address his own: What evidence would it take (available now on Earth) to prove we really went to the Moon? He suggests cognitive dissonance should work both ways.
"I have found it to be a great general-purpose cut-through-the-crap question to determine whether somebody is interested in serious intellectual inquiry or just playing mind games," says Plait.
With such resolute opponents facing off, which side of the story are we supposed to believe? Will we ever really know, with absolute certainty, whether Man reached the Moon or not?
Well, the answer may be closer than many think. European scientific astronomers have announced that they will use the latest, and most powerful, telescope ever made to search for equipment NASA astronauts left on the Moon.
It is hoped that the Very Large Telescope (VLT), capable of imaging a human hair from 16 kilometres away, will provide visual confirmation of one or more of the six lunar modules that landed on the Moon.
Across the Atlantic, Californian company TransOrbital plans to mount a search for further proof. Trailblazer will be the first commercial probe to orbit over one of the Apollo landing sites and take photos of gear left behind by NASA. The launch of Trailblazer has been tentatively scheduled for August 2003.
Certainly such technological developments will have set alarm bells ringing already.
"Sceptics, you may have a problem."
conspiracy theory problem no. 1: in 1969 there were no computerised photo-editing programmes. forging photographs was strictly a cut and paste job. if we never got to the moon, who took these pictures on kodak extachrome film. this is not fuzzy broadcast video, this is hard copy colour film, with a small earth in the background. who got far enough out in space to take a picture of a small earth and a large moon? to put it in perspective, more computing grunt is required to create this magazine than was used in the apollo programme
conspiracy theory problem no 2: if it had been filmed in a studio, multiple light sources would be required to evenly fill such a large background, yet only one source exists in this photo. additionally, if the light source were man-made then it would have to be so close that shadows would be seen radiating in different directions
conspiracy theory problem no. 3: if we faked the first trip to the moon because we couldn’t do it, why compound the risk of discovery by faking several more moon landings in quick succession? why not quit while they’re ahead? why fake the apollo 13 crisis?
conspiracy theory problem no. 4: hundreds of thousands of people worked on the apollo flights, each performing detailed technical tasks, each expecting certain data on the screens in front of them. to fabricate that data and fool all the people involved would probably be a larger technical problem than actually getting to the moon in the first place
conspiracy theory problem no. 5: contrary to the claims in the documentary that it was only test flown once, and crashed, three lunar module prototypes were test flown on earth more than 160 times
BIAS: does the media play fair? INVESTIGATE: JAN 03
IAN WISHART hunts for subtle slants in our daily news coverage
Back in the late 1980s, as AIDS hysteria swept New Zealand and the world, and virtually every second newspaper headline screamed warnings that "on current estimates" AIDS will have killed every person in New Zealand by the year 2005, a journalist who shall remain nameless awoke one morning, took a huge whiff of the steaming vapour from a cup of the finest Arabica beans, and went in search of the most politically-incorrect story of the decade: proof that AIDS wasn’t going to be the decimator of all human life as we knew it.
For sure, it wasn’t going to be easy. The media were constantly bombarding the public with figures showing a burgeoning number of heterosexual women coming down with HIV. But the journalist wasn’t convinced. He knew there was some serious spin on the story, generated largely by health workers sympathetic to the plight of the gay community and concerned that public interest in finding a cure would wane if "straights" - heterosexuals - felt they were not at risk. No references to "the gay plague" here, thank you very much.
But the journalist had some nagging doubts. Having been a party to some of the scare stories, he’d seen by now a lot of hot air but very little substance. Yes, there were big increases in the number of women developing HIV, and even men catching it from infected women, but was there more to it?
As we now all know, there was. But this journalist was the first in New Zealand to write a story laying out the hard evidence as to why AIDS would not make the jump from the homosexual or I/V drug-using communities to heterosexuals. The evidence lay in some new research showing that HIV was only being transmitted from women to men if both partners had open sores or pre-existing sexually transmitted diseases. And even then, it was something like a 1 in 300 chance of catching the virus.
The journalist interviewed a string of medical experts both in New Zealand and overseas, confirming his data and suspicions, then presented it as a freelance article to Auckland’s Metro magazine.
Editor Warwick Roger, not noted for his political correctness, nonetheless sent the feature back with a letter saying he wasn’t interested, that it wasn’t the kind of article that Metro would run. It wasn’t "an Auckland story".
Nor would the Listener accept it. Six months later, however, Metro did run it. They assigned their own journalist but came up with exactly the same story, and trumpeted to the nation about their findings.
Yeah well, at least the truth finally emerged. But how much can the ordinary person trust the news media in this country? How many stories don’t get run because of an attitudinal block that has nothing to do with the facts of the story?
Investigate’s coverage of the Intelligent Design debate is one example of an issue finally getting some exposure despite a mental block in the liberal media, but if you turn your television on almost any night there are subtle examples of bias in news coverage.
Take the immigration debate. In the last week of November and first week of December, we ran the video recorders over One News and 3 News. One of the biggest news stories in this time concerned Winston Peters’ comments on immigration.
On One’s Late Edition, anchor Peter Williams opened with this:
"Winston Peters is unrepentant in the wake of a new poll which suggests many New Zealanders think he’s increasing division in the community."
Let’s pause there for a moment and search for liberal-loaded newspeak. We’re told Peters is "unrepentant". Unrepentant for what? Who elected One News to be judge and jury on what politicians should be repentant for? If One News wants to editorialise, it should broadcast editorials and state clearly that’s what they are.
But it gets better. Late Edition then tells us there’s a new poll suggesting many New Zealanders think he’s increasing division in the community.
"The One News Colmar-Brunton poll," continues Williams, "shows the majority believe his comments on Asian immigration raise tensions."
"Auckland," begins the reporter, "is home to one in three people born in another country. It’s often portrayed as the start of what will be an increasingly changing face of New Zealand. Changes Winston Peters warns will lead to a divided and mutually exclusive society.
"But in a One News Colmar-Brunton poll, it’s Winston Peters who’s being called divisive. Seventy-one percent of those polled say his views increase tension between Asian immigrants and the rest of New Zealand. Only 23% disagree."
The facts were presented as if Moses had just held up stone tablets and read from them, and on the face of it they appeared damning of Peters.
But, again, was it really that simple? Once again, no.
You see, opinion polling is an art form. I know. I worked in the industry for a year. The answer you get in a poll is almost 100% dependent on what question you ask and how you tilt it. In a truly objective poll, questions are phrased as neutrally as possible so as not to skew the results. But in polls designed by news organisations, the questions are often far more obtuse.
The value of this One News poll on immigration was about to be defined by whether or not its questions were horribly biased. Let’s take a look:
Question 1: "Winston Peters’ views and statements increase tension and division between Asian immigrants and the rest of New Zealand... Agree...Disagree...Don’t Know."
As you can see, it’s not a question. It’s a political statement and it could have been drafted by the Prime Minister’s office for all the objectivity it displayed.
One News is telling survey respondents that Peters is being divisive. In polling terms, One News has loaded the dice for what some may believe are political reasons. By making a firm statement portraying a negative image, One News is inviting respondents to see it that way before they’ve even opened their mouths to respond.
Question 2: "Asian immigration is a good thing. It makes the country more multicultural and the economy stronger...Agree...Disagree...Don’t know."
Again, a political statement rather than a polling question. One News is telling those surveyed that they should believe immigration is a good thing. The final ‘question’ in the poll asked whether the Government should stop any further Asian immigration (given that we’ve now established Peters is being unkind to Asians and that Asian immigration is good for our economy and good for multiculturalism), to which 71% disagreed and said the Government should not stop Asian immigration.
Having set up their straw-man, One News then tries to set him alight.
"The Government," continues the report, "says the poll is proof Winston Peters has read it wrong."
"I think this is a very telling poll indeed," Labour’s Immigration Minister Lianne Dalziel is quoted as saying.
The liberal prejudice running through the report - that Peters is being divisive and causing tension by daring to comment on the issue, that he should shut up because immigration is a good thing and multiculturalism is a good thing - these are the prejudices of staff in the news organisation, not scientifically-tested facts.
Ironically, the reporter and producers who worked on the story, and the person who dreamt up the poll ‘questions’, may not even realise they have the biases - the attitudes are so ingrained they are accepted as "the way it is".
But One News hadn’t finished the hatchet-job. Anchor Peter Williams came back after the break to interview sociologist Paul Spoonley from Massey University.
"Is Winston Peters’ reading of the issue all wrong? Is he the one actually out of touch with what New Zealand is thinking? Are you surprised Paul that New Zealanders, at least according to this poll, appear to have a pretty liberal attitude towards Asian immigration?"
"No, not really," replied Spoonley. "I think what they’re beginning to realise is that our economic future is very much with Asia, and we’re beginning to accept that Asians coming here is part of that future."
What One News never declared in their coverage was that Paul Spoonley has been highly critical of NZ First leader Winston Peters on his immigration stand in the past, and that Spoonley is funded by the United Nations to help the UN plan for immigration.
"Embracing cultural diversity and demonstrating a tolerance of others is surely one of the most significant challenges of this period of our history," Spoonley told an audience in 1996, before getting stuck into people whipping up hysteria about migrants.
"Some national politicians, notably Winston Peters of the New Zealand First party, have articulated these concerns. These politics reflect the beliefs held by significant numbers that ‘at the economic level, the nation-state is threatened by globalisation; at the cultural level (so it is thought), it is threatened by immigration’. Racist politics are one result.
"Peters has always denied any racist intent…but, inevitably, his rhetoric is seen as an endorsement of certain racist views in the wider community. It is reinforced by an increased and declared interest by the New Zealand police in the involvement of Asians in various criminal activities, and especially the possibility that Triad gangs are operating in New Zealand.
"This is an irony because one of the post-war myths was that Chinese migrants were law-abiding and had a strong work ethic. In fact, the statistics for those charged with drug offences in 1965 show that 103 of the 113 involved were Chinese. Few knew about the statistics and the popular mythology that prevailed in a post-war era meant that Chinese were viewed benignly. But with the racialisation of Asian migrants in the 1990s, the mythology has been discarded and one of the stereotypes which sustains this racialisation of Asian involvement is organised crime. It contributes to the generally negative perceptions held towards Asians by New Zealanders.
"These negative and hostile reactions have been articulated in a variety of ways. In its most extreme form, they result in racist and neo-fascist politics as expressed by skinhead and motorbike gangs…The most significant expression of the anti-Asian sentiments are provided by New Zealand First, and specifically its leader Winston Peters, whose statements encapsulate the guarded racism of middle (and typically elderly) New Zealand."
In other words, Paul Spoonley is hardly an "independent" academic in the immigration debate. Politically, from his speeches at least, he appears to be a globalist and is certainly happy to take funding from UNESCO whilst pushing multiculturalism as a cure-all for the world. In addition, he’s not a Peters fan.
Meanwhile, across on 3 News they were running this:
"Proof today that Winston Peters has been mining a very popular prejudice. A TV3/NFO poll has surveyed feelings about levels of immigration, and Asian migrants stand out.
"Asians were the only ethnic grouping to attract a majority disapproval rating among those surveyed.
"53% said they felt too many Asians were coming here."
Different TV channels, different polling companies, and diametrically-opposed poll results. TV1 saying 71% favour Asian immigration. TV3 saying 53% disapprove of Asian immigration. Both polls had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4%.
Even so, TV3 still labelled Peters’ comments as prejudiced. Who says so? How can one possibly "pre-judge" the immigration issue? Surely it’s a simple question of whether New Zealanders want new immigrants or not, end of story. How can there be a moral side to this that one could pass pre-judgement on?
Yet both news organisations pitched the story as if to say that people who questioned immigration levels were "prejudiced".
For the record, as those who’ve listened to me on Radio Pacific will know, I’m in favour of even higher immigration levels than we currently have - maybe 100 to 150,000 a year. But that doesn’t mean that I would label opponents of immigration as "prejudiced" or "racist".
But news bias in New Zealand doesn’t stop at immigration. Try the fluoride debate.
Health is an area that few of the mainstream news outlets cover objec-tively, probably because the health system is state-run, collegial and orthodox in its approach. Dissent in our health system is not tolerated. Subsequently, journalists charged with covering health stories often end up ‘captured’ by so-called health ‘experts’ who, provided they front up in a white coat, could go on camera and declare the Moon was made of green cheese and they’d still be taken seriously.
"The region with the worst rates of dental decay among its children has voted not to add fluoride to its water," began another One News report during our survey period. "The people of Whangarei have voted against joining the 60% of the country that already has fluoridated tap water.."
Again, the bias inherent in the introduction was almost overwhelming. The reporter was linking tooth decay to the absence of fluoride, and implying that voters were idiots for not seeing the link.
While the reporter’s moralistic and disapproving tone was clear, she did strive for some balance by quoting a man described on screen as a "fluoride opponent":
"Definitely a victory for common sense here," said Lawrie Brett, fluoride opponent. "As a category A poison we just don’t want it in the system."
What One News failed to make clear is that Lawrie Brett is a dentist. Not just any old tree-hugging greenie. He’s a dentist who opposed fluoridation.
Instead, One News moved from quoting "fluoride opponent" to some comments from "health authorities", with all the implicit bias that such a title carries.
"Health authorities though say after almost 50 years there are no proven illnesses from adding [fluoride to drinking water]."
Of course, had One News bothered to do an internet search, the reporter could have called up any one of 461,000 pages of information on the alleged harm caused by fluoride, a known toxic chemical.
Which is illustrative perhaps of one of the most dangerous biases of all in our media - a blind belief that authority figures tell the truth.
Contrast One News’ reliance on pro-fluoride "health authorities" with this comment from renowned US cancer researcher Dr Ludwik Gross back in 1957:
"The plain fact that fluorine is an insidious poison, harmful, toxic and cumulative in its effects, even when ingested in minimal amount, will remain unchanged no matter how many times it will be repeated in print that fluoridation of water supply is ‘safe’."
Is NZ television lending itself to Government propaganda?
"Fluoride does occur naturally in water," reported the journalist earnestly. But again, had she moved beyond the assumption she would have found that only calcium fluoride occurs naturally in water, which has never been used for fluoridation.
Bias is inherent in New Zealand’s daily media not because of a grand conspiracy but because of a lack of general knowledge, a willingness to be politically-correct and a reluctance to challenge powerful figures.
Here’s a challenge: start watching the news and reading the papers and looking for the hidden socio-liberal biases. You’ll be surprised how many you find.
SUMMER BREEZE INVESTIGATE: JAN 03
Ask anyone about the summers of their childhood and the stories are likely to be similar - long lazy days at sleepy coastal towns. But now those sleepy hollows are becoming mega-resorts, and HAMISH CARNACHAN wonders if paradise is being lost forever
It’s a migration of monumental proportions. Lured by a mysterious, seemingly magnetic, pull of azure oceans and a bizarre ritual of basting in the sun on golden sands, New Zealanders leave the city centres and rural outposts in their droves during an annual summer exodus.
Warm seasonal weather, longer days, restless nights, and pohutukawas bursting into bloom seem to trigger this strange propensity to drift in a coastal direction at the same time year after year. When the signs are right, tools are downed, computers terminated and homes fortified.
The traditional migratory paths become clogged and congested with cars snaking like bison across an African savannah. Irritable bulls driving the family group to their traditional summer stomping grounds jostle for position, cursing and bellowing at each other, often coming to blows with the heat-induced aggression.
Of course many do stay behind, particularly the elderly that are too weak to travel, but also a handful of the younger generation in their late teens or early twenties. These youngsters will remain and invariably search out a mate in their year-round environs.
However, the masses will still assume their yearly movement, returning to familiar haunts like salmon to a spawning stream. This pattern has been witnessed for many decades now but as the population has exploded the numbers of leavers have swelled exponentially too.
As time and the summer travellers march on, so too does progress, and many of these migratory environs are starting to bear the weight of modification. On an increasing scale it seems that the traditional kiwi holiday is evolving to accommodate the changing lifestyles of New Zealand’s seasonal wanderers.
In many places, multi-storey apartments and ‘holiday homes’ of palatial proportions have usurped the temporary canvas and caravan cities that once dotted the shorelines of our favourite summer retreats.
The traditional fish and chips shop now has to compete with cafés that have popped up to cater to the migrants’ more extravagant culinary expectations, and the staple summer diet of beers and bangers on the barbeque have been exchanged for champers and gourmet paninis.
Mount Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty is a prime example of a traditional holiday hotspot that has undergone such a transforma-tion. Local resident Graham Barnett first started spending time at Mount Maunganui in the early 1950s. Then, in his late teens, he was drawn to the beach, the surf, the sun, and of course, the girls. He says Mount Maunganui beach became a focal point of his life, he was a fit young man, a strong swimmer, and loved the beach lifestyle, so the natural progression was to sign up with the Mount Maunganui Surf Lifesaving Club.
Barnett still classes himself as a strong swimmer, which isn’t all that surprising considering he remains an active member of the surf lifesaving scene. In fact, he’s coming up to 50 years service at the club and, as the longest serving member, he can still be found patrolling the beach a couple of days each week.
Having spent most of his adult life at ‘The Mount’, as the locals like to call it, Barnett has had a first hand account of the development that has taken hold of this once quiet beachside retreat. He says he isn’t surprised by the change but holds fond memories of the place before it became the popular destination it is now.
"It’s always been a nice place to be so I guess progress was always going to catch up with us at some point or another," says Barnett.
"Back in the fifties Christmas was still pretty busy and there were plenty of people around – not by today’s standard though."
Barnett remembers an almost hour long trek from Tauranga to Mount Maunganui beach, an unsealed loop route that skirted the southern end of the harbour. Nowadays, with the recently completed harbour-bridge causeway, the trip takes less than 10 minutes.
"The Mount used to be a little place but obviously as access opened up more and more people started to visit or move in. Before that though, there weren’t many houses and you were classed as living in the sticks if you were any further out than the rugby club [approximately 2km south of the main beach]. Papamoa [approximately 10km south of the main beach] seemed an eternity away and we used to call it Shanty Town because it was just a handful of run-down baches.
"Really, when you look at the change that’s gone on, the Mount has gone from a sleepy little holiday spot to Surfers Paradise."
His reference to the popular destination on Australia’s Gold Coast is an allusion to the numerous apartment blocks that now dominate the beachfront properties at Mount Maunganui.
Luxury condominiums now stand in place of the scattered and simple baches that Barnett recalls, and developers eagerly eye up the few that remain as potentially lucrative investments.
As a recent example, a two-bedroom Lockwood bach and its 811sq m section at Mount Maunganui, which initially sold for $1.8m, is understood to have gone for between $2.1m and $2.2m in the second sale just three weeks later. The site can be developed with seven new apartments or town houses.
Tauranga real estate agent Gill Beadle says dramatic increases in property prices at Mount Maunganui, highlighted in this case, have only eventuated within the last five years. He attributes the rise to population increase.
"We’ve seen tremendous population growth over the last 10 years and subsequently subdivision started to take off in the nineties. Also, we saw Auckland money starting to come south, which was a change because traditionally it went into northern beach locations.
"You can really put it down to supply and demand. With the influx of people the demand for property on the Mount peninsula has soared and therefore so have the prices."
Beadle insists holiday homes still make up a substantial slice of the Mount Maunganui property market but says that that share is competing against development and an aging population looking to retire in the area.
"Development of property into apartments will continue because there’s a demand and this trend has really been driven by the Auckland apartment scene. I don’t think the Mount will ever end up like the Gold Coast because the council has restrictions to ensure there’s not too much height but the change has been noticeable. It’s gone from one windswept café 10 years ago to struggling to get a seat in one of the six down there today."
Mount Maunganui may not be the Gold Coast but at an average of $450,000 for an apartment it is certainly starting to become somewhat of an exclusive destination, generally out of reach of most kiwi holidaymakers.
Beadle says the locals are not happy with the extent of the development but, understandably, they love what it’s doing to their property prices.
Locals aren’t too happy about the influx of visitors each summer either. Each year you can expect reports of mayhem descending on Mount Maunganui as drunken youths take the New Year’s festivities too far.
"It’s crazy at that time of year," says Barnett. "We didn’t have all the fools in fast cars in the early days. That was the best time. We had three dance halls going every night and there was hardly ever any aggro.
"Now the young idiots want to party all night and sleep all day. One of the biggest problems is broken bottles on the beach. It costs a hell of a lot to employ people to keep the place tidy over Christmas and it’s the local ratepayers who have to foot the bill."
Drunken youths are not the only gripe though…
"We’re getting like Coronation Street. We used to have plenty of room around but now with these apartments and houses and all the cars it’s causing big problems."
When Barnett first ventured out to Mount Maunganui beach all those years ago space was never an issue. He recalls never having trouble finding a camping ground. Today, however, an Internet search for campgrounds in the area turns up only one result, Mount Camp Ground, which, by the way, is also now a company-owned and operated investment.
"In the early days you could just park up and camp on the beach or even pitch a tent and party on one of the vacant lots," says Barnett.
It seems the traditional kiwi camping holiday at Mount Maunganui is now as hard to come by as those vacant house sites.
Of course there are still locales to escape from the hustle and bustle of city living. But small holiday centres whose mainstay was once steeped in this now nostalgic notion of getting back to nature and living simply are few and far between today.
Any such places within a few hours drive of a major civic centre seem to have been taken over, consumed by coastal development that has, over recent years, moved as swiftly as the masses pack up and migrate in summer. For example, there is the Coromandel Peninsula. Traditional summer escapes like Tairua, Whangamata and Pauanui have been developed to such an extent that they are now, essentially, satellite townships of Hamilton and Auckland.
The Thames-Coromandel District Council’s (TCDC) area manager for Tairua, Pauanui and Whangamata, Peter Mickleson, says the improved access to the peninsula has boosted the appeal of the area and has had a marked effect on the social fabric of holidaymakers.
"The people who come here now tend to have a very high disposable income, particularly holiday home owners. I think because there are now better roads and access is easier it’s a more attractive prospect to buy those holiday homes," says Mickleson.
The TCDC has a policy in its district plan to limit development of the existing settlements to their present boundaries but Mickleson says subdivision is now commonplace.
"There’s a lot of development happening here. We probably get about 10 to 12 subdivision applications a month just for Whangamata. It’s all basically infill so it’s the quarter acre getting chopped into two or three or four; the old bach being remodelled into a modern home; that type of thing."
The majority of these new homes stand vacant for most of the year but when summer arrives so too do the holidaymakers – en masse. Whangamata swells from a permanent population of about 4500 to almost bursting point at 40,000 people over this period. Mickleson admits that this stretches local amenities and infrastructure to the limit.
"Our water supply systems and our waste disposal systems are designed for 4500 people. It can cope with peaks to an extent but, for instance, if we have a very dry summer then we do run out of water," he says.
Unlike Mount Maunganui, which has the backup facilities and services of Tauranga, a sizeable city, places like Whangamata, Pauanui and Tairua are essentially still isolated.
Mickleson says the population influx over the summer months means these towns have now been forced to a crossroad in their future development options.
"It creates a dilemma within the community in that do you build a water supply system to cater for 40,000 people that gets used for three weeks of the year and is paid for by 4500 permanent residents, or do you build a system that caters to permanent residents and is stretched to capacity during peak times?"
And when the locals are expected to foot the bill for an influx of "outsiders" it can create tension says Mickleson. On the other hand, he acknowledges that the visitors actually support the permanent residents – most of the retailers’ profits are made over the summer season. He says an important part of small-town living is being able to juggle the costs and benefits of the seasonal influx.
"We get about 200,000 visitors to the peninsula over the summer period. Now there are motels and hotels etcetera that can cater for about 30,000 of those so all the rest are actually staying with people who have homes. So we have to say to the homeowners that you are part of the problem causing strain on infrastructure.
"It’s just part of kiwi culture that if your mate’s got a bach you go and stay with them I guess. It does create a strain but we always cope in the end."
For anyone who has visited the townships on the Coromandel Peninsula it is appar-ent that they are at very different stages of development to Mount Maunganui. But, is it feasible that they be heading down that same path? Mickleson says there is always that risk but it depends on whether that’s necessarily good or bad.
"There are a lot of people who probably think Mount Maunganui is great and should be more developed and others who will say it’s gone too far. But at the end of the day it’s for the community to decide how much is too much. To a great degree, the district plan is steering development into those areas that the community has agreed there should be development and is trying to protect those other areas," he says.
"The other thing is changing trends in New Zealand. The days when you went to your holiday home and spent the whole time mowing the lawn and trimming the trees are gone. Today the sections are smaller because people don’t want to be spending their holiday maintaining the property. I suppose people are busier than they used to be."
So a different way of life may be behind the changing face of the New Zealand holiday and the changing character of the traditional destination. But what about those who don’t have friends with baches or have the money to buy a holiday home?
Because the popularity of these places such as Whangamata and Pauanui (the latter being coined a "playground for the wealthy elite") has driven up land value at a substantial rate, they too are becoming out of reach as holiday destinations for most families.
Camping grounds here are scarce because, like Mount Maunganui, the land is now an attractive prospect for development. And who could blame the camp-ground owners for selling out? It doesn’t take the greatest busi-ness mind to weigh up the fi-nancial benefits of accepting the developer’s cheque when he comes knocking. Especially when the only alternative is to slog it out and wait for business that only provides any substantial rewards over an eight-week season each year. Prime real estate with low returns doesn’t justify holding onto that land.
Currently in Whangamata there are three camping grounds although one has recently been sold. Mickleson says he is not sure what is going to happen with the property but predicts that in time, as land value increases, the owners will come under pressure to sell to developers.
"I think land prices will eventually squeeze out the ones in the prime locations. The one that recently sold was closest to the beach but there are campgrounds further away that may never come under that pressure. Again, I think it will come down to demand. I guess there will always be demand from people who want to go and pitch a tent in a campground but I think there’s less demand now than there was 20 years ago."
That may be the case on the Coromandel Peninsula, but if you head east across the Firth of Thames and then veer north to the coastal limit of the Hauraki Gulf you should be able to find the tiny township of Mangawhai where tenting is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance.
Mangawhai is a quiet little seaside resort nestled between the beautiful Pacific Ocean on the east coast and gently rolling farmland. About 1000 residents live here permanently but the population swells at summertime as the holidaymakers move in.
Lorraine Hartley, the owner and operator of Mangawhai Riverside Caravan Park, has lived here for eight years and has noticed "dramatic changes" over that short period. She says property, including farmland, has been "extensively" broken up into smaller blocks to be developed into holiday homes and the range of shops has flourished.
"When I first came here there was a small block of shops up at Mangawhai Heads and a very small block in the village. It’s been a gradual thing but they’ve almost doubled in size within the last four or five years," recalls Hartley.
Today, visitors can stumble across anything from boutique clothing outlets to legal advice at the local shopping centre. In addition to the four campgrounds there are also a range of other accommodation alternatives including luxury apartment rentals and bed and breakfast venues.
Hartley says that although she has noticed an increase in the number of visitors throughout the year and suggests that the mass migration at Christmas has changed from what it once was, most of the businesses still depend on the summer break.
But for all the devel-opment that has hit Mangawhai over re-cent years and all that the town now has on offer, Hartley says the traditional camping holiday is making a comeback because people still enjoy living simply.
"In the last two or three years I’ve had lots of people coming in with brand new tents saying, ‘We want to go back to doing what we used to do as kids and give our own children that experience too’," says Hartley.
"The other thing we’ve found is that Aucklanders who don’t want to get into the business of buying land and building houses are bringing caravans onto the park and they leave them here all year round. That’s the bulk of my business today.
"We have another side of business developing too though. That’s the [temporary] home park. We’ve redeveloped some sites to give more space and clients purchase their own unit, which can be up to two or three bedrooms, and they locate these on the large sites. They’re almost like a semi-permanent home and it adds a new dimension to camping."
So it seems you can still find a good old kiwi campsite – if you look hard enough – they’ve merely taken on new character just like the places and the vacations we remember from our childhoods.
However it also seems that there is no longer anything that can simply be categorised as a ‘traditional kiwi’ holiday. Times have changed and so have the lifestyles and the needs of the summer migrants.
Time has caught up with many of our holiday hotspots too, and ‘progress’ has followed it there, at varying degrees though, as you can see through the different stages of development.
But at least some things about summer will always stay the same: sandwiches will always be crunchy at the beach; some item of utmost importance will always be left at home; kids will always be carsick; holidays will never be long enough; and the mass migration will always be observed year after year after year…