March 09, 2007
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.
LOST IN THE MATRIX INVESTIGATE: JUN 03
From Donald Duck to Donald Dark, is a new breed of cartoon a threat to our childrens’ mental health? IAN WISHART brings together research from around the world that suggests violent cartoons and interactive games are turning kids into killers...
Once upon a time there were cartoon shows. You remember them, Mickey and Donald, Roadrunner and Wylie Coyote, even Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. Bright, bold and usually hilarious, those early Warner Brothers and Walt Disney hit shows had generations of kids cackling over their Cornies on a Saturday morning. Sure, they were violent, but in a harmless, toony sort of way. Back in those days, a burglary in Auckland was front page news, murders were running as low as three or four per year, and wagging school was an occasional "treat", not an occupational choice. Youth suicide was virtually unheard of. In 1972, the suicide rate for 15 to 24 year old males was just 9 per 100,000 of them. Today it runs as high as 39 deaths per 100,000 in that age group.
For a long time, media watchdog groups have claimed a link between television violence and aggression in teenagers and adults. Now the international studies are lining up thick and fast - not only is there a link, but some experts believe television has declared psychological warfare on children and is literally training children to kill, as you’ll see shortly.
But first, a clue to the problem can be found in the spin surrounding it. For years, New Zealand TV executives have denied any link between TV violence and violence in society. "We reflect society, we don’t lead it," has been the industry position for more than two decades.
However, while both TVNZ and TV3 have endeavoured to comply with a viewing watershed of 8.30pm before screening adult material, a much bigger problem has slipped below the radar for most people: the huge increase in violence and the occult in childrens’ programmes, screened directly in childrens’ viewing hours.
Donald Duck has given way to Beast Wars, Digimon and the latest craze hitting New Zealand, Yu-Gi-Oh. What most of the groundbreaking new childrens’ cartoon shows have in common are two things: Japanese animation and extremely dark, violent, occult and brooding themes.
Yu-Gi-Oh has already hit the news headlines in New Zealand after alleged counterfeit playing cards associated with the programme as merchandise were seized at Auckland by customs agents at the request of the authorised importer..
How dark is Yu-Gi-Oh? Well, for a start, it is unashamedly religious programming aimed at children, although admittedly no religion you ever grew up with. Instead, 41 year old Kazuki Takahashi, the show’s creator, wanted to revive "ancient Egyptian mysticism" as the underlying force in his programme.
The show follows the adventures of a young boy named Yugi:
"When Yugi was growing up, his Grandfather gave him an ancient Egyptian artifact called the "Millenium Puzzle" to try and figure out. It is said that whosoever manages to solve this puzzle will be granted dark and mysterious powers. Yugi eventually was able to solve the Millenium Puzzle, and when he did, something amazing happened!
"When the Millennium Puzzle activates, Yugi is filled with its magical energies and becomes Yami Yugi, his much more powerful alter ego. Not only is Yami Yugi a master dueler, but he is full of confidence and courage."
In what must have been a merchandiser’s dream, Takahashi uses the artistic device of a magical card game that is played by Yugi and his friends, and, pf course, by tens of millions of children around the world who purchase the cards in bookshops and toystores.
"Duel Monsters is a card-battling game in which players pit different mystical creatures against one another in wild, magical duels! Packed with awesome monsters and mighty spell-cards, Yugi and his friends are totally obsessed with the game.
"But there’s more to this card game than meets the eye! Legend has it five thousand years ago, ancient Egyptian Pharaoahs used to play a magical game very similar to Duel Monsters. This ancient game involved magical ceremonies, which were used to foresee the future and ultimately, decide one’s destiny. They called it the Shadow Game, and the main difference back then was that the monsters were all real! With so many magical spells and ferocious creatures on the earth, it wasn’t long before the game got out of hand and threatened to destroy the entire world! Fortunately, a brave Pharaoh stepped in and averted this cataclysm with the help of seven powerful magical totems.
"Now, in present times, the game has been revived in the form of playing cards..."
And you can pretty much guess the rest. Yu-Gi-Oh has become an international obssession for kids everywhere.
Central to the show, and the card game, are the dark haunting characters and artwork typical of the Japanese comic style known as "Anime" (pronounced AH-nee-may). So popular has anime become in the US that several universities now offer lecture courses on the style and its origins. Wrote the Seattle Times recently:
"Anime often tackles such themes as death and betrayal, and the stories sometimes are so intense that they are edited for children in the United States.
"The animations are shown as television series or feature-length movies in Japan, where adults are as likely as children to be the core audience.
"The academic movement in the United States reflects the fact that so many students had already become anime aficionados on their own. As elsewhere in the country, the University of Washington and most colleges around the state have student-run anime clubs.
"While parents sometimes decry anime for its violence and gory graphics, anime fans argue that those more intense animations are geared toward adults, not kids.
"The craze borders on obsession for some. At Washington State University, a handful of students gather weekly to learn conversational Japanese simply to understand anime better. And diehards watch anime with subtitles instead of dubbed versions because they feel the dialects and the voice inflections get lost in translation."
So if shows like Yu-Gi-Oh are part of the staple television diet in Japan, perhaps there are some clues there as to the long term effects on society. Correspondent Michael Zielenziger reports Japanese youth culture is in deep depression:
TOKYO - Kenji has seldom left his bedroom in five years. On a good day, when he forces himself, he can almost get to the front door of his mother’s small Tokyo apartment before fear overtakes him.
"It requires a lot of courage just to go downstairs and get the mail," said the 34-year-old shut-in, who is thin as a twig and nearly as fragile. "I have two personalities: One who doesn’t want to go out and one who does. They are fighting with each other constantly."
Kenji’s self-imposed confinement is surprisingly common in Japan today, after a decade of economic and social decline that has produced many worrisome effects. At least 1 million young Japanese adults, the vast majority men, imprison themselves in their rooms for months or even years at a time, according to Tamaki Saito, the first therapist to write a book on the subject. They sleep during the daytime and pace their rooms at night, hardly ever leaving except for a quick run to the 7-Eleven, if they can manage that.
Counsellors and psychiatrists say Kenji’s reclusiveness, known in Japan as "hikikomori," is an illness that exists only in Japan and was unknown even there until a decade ago. Hikikomori sufferers shut themselves off from siblings and friends, even parents, whom they sometimes attack in violent outbursts.
Kenji’s behaviour is a symptom of Japan’s decline. A growing number of professional counsellors and other experts worry that the nation itself is becoming a lot like Kenji: isolated, apprehensive and unable to interact with the outside word.
"I fear that Japan, as a nation itself, is becoming hikikomori," says psychiatrist Satoru Saito, who treats shut-ins and counsels families in his Tokyo clinic. "It is a nation that does not like to communicate. So what these young adults are doing is a mirror of what they see around them in adult society."
Japan’s trains still run on time, its streets are safe and most people live comfortably. Handguns are illegal, drug problems do not permeate schools or streets, and random violence is virtually unknown.
Still, deep pessimism has infected many aspects of Japanese society:
- Japanese are killing themselves in record numbers, more than 31,000 per year, three times the number who die in traffic accidents. Their suicide rate is the highest among industrialized nations and is steadily climbing. The rate among workers in their 30s has risen nearly 45 percent since 1996.
- Japan’s birthrate is among the lowest in the industrial world and still declining, because young women are avoiding marriage and refusing to bear children. By 2005, Japan’s population will begin to shrink, a trend that demographers say will be nearly impossible to reverse. The labour force, likewise, will dwindle drastically.
- Alcohol consumption is declining across the globe, but not here. Though alcoholism is rampant and accepted as a release from work and social pressure, it is almost never discussed by opinion leaders or at the workplace.
- Japanese workers are increasingly dissatisfied with their lives, stressed out and depressed, and modern antidepressants have become legal only recently. A survey of 43 nations by the Pew Research Centre, released this month, found that Japanese are far more pessimistic about themselves and their children’s future than the people of any other relatively prosperous nation.
- The demise of Japan’s extended family structure is causing unprecedented strains. While divorce rates are low, couples are growing apart, living in sexless marriages, often in separate bedrooms. Stressed-out mothers force their children to study and go to "cram school" in order to pass competitive entrance exams to high school and college, while absentee fathers spend their time and energy at work.
"Whether it’s hikikomori, alcoholism or sexless couples, these are all different manifestations of the same problem," says Masahiro Yamada, a prominent sociologist. "These are all symptomatic of the social and psychological deadlock of Japanese society.
"When you look around at Japanese society, you see that more and more people have just given up."
Men such as Kenji appear desperate to fit into society. Yet when they pursue even modest individuality, they generate friction that leaves them burned out or too weak to cope.
Though Kenji seldom leaves home, he agreed to speak about his condition after twice begging off, tearfully explaining on the telephone, "I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just can’t come." When he finally did agree to talk, he said it was the first time in five years that he had left his apartment or spoken to anyone except his mother.
After just two trips outside their apartment, he became angry and "unstable," his mother said. He since has retreated to his room again, and his mother refuses to let him come to the phone, speak to outsiders or be photographed.
Kenji once was a mischievous child who loved playing third base. But he remembers being suddenly "frozen out" by classmates at his Tokyo grade school at age 12, when they inexplicably stopped talking to him.
"First it was just the boys, but within a week it was the girls, too," he says. "I thought it would pass after the winter school vacation, but it didn’t change at all. Since I wasn’t a student who studied hard, without having any friends I couldn’t find a reason to go to school. It was too painful."
Today, some 20 years later, he talks about those events as if they had happened yesterday.
Articulate and thoughtful, now he spends his days reading newspapers, watching TV and thinking.
Psychiatrists describe hikikomori as a syndrome in which young adults, usually men in their 20s and 30s, shut themselves off from the world, away from friends, school or work, for six months or more. These individuals do not suffer from other known psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia, autism or panic disorder. Hikikomori is different from agoraphobia, which occurs in the United States, whose victims fear leaving home to visit an unsettled social environment but can mix with friends or relatives in their homes.
Stress and fatigue also trigger the social isolation. Dai Hasebe dropped out of junior high school after his parents enrolled him in a juku designed to help him pass the competitive high school entrance exams. In elementary school, the 12-year-old hadn’t gotten home until after 10 at night.
"After a while, I just got tired," says Hasebe, now 19, who has spent most of the past six years secluded in his parent’s three-room Tokyo apartment. "There was no particular incident," such as bullying or a harsh conversation with a teacher, that made him stop going to school, he said. "I was just relieved not to have a schedule."
Hasebe now wears shoulder-length hair and a moustache and whiles away each afternoon building scale models in his bedroom. He constructs Japanese Zero fighter planes and French helicopters, draws precise diagrams of military equipment and designed a sort of 21st-century fantasy gladiator, a silvery pterodactyl with a rocket launcher that stands sentry in the entryway of his family’s home. Hasebe hardly eats; his pants barely stay on his hips even when they’re tightly belted.
Dr. Kosuke Yamazaki, a professor of child psychiatry at the Tokai University School of Medicine, thinks hikikomori patients’ frustration is the leading cause of domestic violence in Japan, as lonely, isolated and troubled adult children lash out in a cry for help. "They behave like brutal tyrants," he said.
Many of his patients often expressed fear that they would kill their parents by accident. "They say they have a personality that sometimes rages out of control."
Masahisa Okuyama, whose son suffers from hikikomori, founded the KHJ support network, which now has 31 chapters across Japan. Its name is formed from the initials in Japanese for obsessive neurosis, persecution mania and personality disorder.
"Parents are also victims of this disease," explains Okuyama, a former advertising executive, who was beaten by his 27-year-old shut-in son. He abandoned the family’s suburban home for a small apartment out of fear that his son would kill him.
"He hates me, but the relationship between parent and child is so strong," Okuyama says. "He can kill me or I could kill him. Let’s face it, we’ve been dissolved as a family."
More than half the parents in one suburban group of 120 affected families say they’ve been attacked by their children. One woman pulled up her sleeve and revealed an ugly black-and-blue mark, the result of being assaulted by her son. Another woman sleeps in her car for fear that her son will beat her.
Around one table, a group of 11 parents discussed how best to reach out to their children. Most cooked dinner for their children and left food outside their bedroom doors. Some said their children left their rooms only when their parents went to bed. With tinges of guilt, many admitted that they found it difficult to communicate with their children when they were younger.
Kenji desperately wanted to find a way to rejoin society. "I sometimes look back and say, `How did I become like this?’" he said.
"When you are raised by a wolf you grow up a wolf," Kenji said. "You can’t go back into normal society. That’s how I feel. Teachers tell you, `You are free to grow up and become what you want.’ But adults can’t show us any example where that’s true."
While it would certainly be unfair to blame all of Japan’s growing social chaos on its dark, occult-obssessed youth television, it would also be a mistake to ignore its impact. And lest New Zealanders get too comfortable, it is worth remembering that New Zealand’s youth suicide rate is nearly four times higher than Japan’s.
Is Yu-Gi-Oh going to make it any better? Not if the names of some of its game cards are an indicator. The programme screens at 4.30pm in New Zealand, making it "prime time" accessible to all children. And according to international reports, children are lapping up television’s new obsession with the occult like there’s no tomorrow:
It was a report in the Times of London that first illustrated the extent of the problem. Journal-ist Daniel McGrory discovered the huge range of pagan TV programmes for kids was encouraging many to begin exploring paganism, and even satanism, by searching websites on the internet.
"Teachers’ groups are worried that nobody is monitoring the effect this fascination with the occult is having on its teenage followers. There are no official figures in Britain for victims driven to suicide, but experts have no doubt that some young people have suffered from the malign influence of satanic cults.
"It took 15 suicides in two years before the authorities in Saxony demanded an investigation. Here, teachers’ unions and experts say that the authorities do not take the menace seriously enough. They warn of the dangers to teenagers of dabbling unsupervised with sinister websites. Some of these describe in lurid detail how they should drink blood or carry out blood-letting to seal their pact with Satan. They also encourage impressionable teenagers to join in "chat rooms" to express how miserable they are," wrote McGrory.
"Parents are advised not to rely on Internet filters to prevent their children from accessing sites featuring satanism and witchcraft.
"For many young people interest was aroused, innocently enough, through television programmes such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which a teenage girl does battle with all manner of satanic forces.
"In a recent survey of 2,600 children aged 11 to 16, more than half said that they were interested in the occult. The worry is that more than 15 per cent of those questioned by Mori said that they were worried about what they had discovered on the Web.
"The Association of Teachers and Lecturers wants schools to introduce classes advising young people of the risks of delving into the occult on the Internet. Peter Smith, the general secretary, said: "This goes beyond reading a Harry Potter story. This represents an extremely worrying trend among young people. Parents and teachers should educate children and young people about the dangers of dabbling in the occult before they become too deeply involved."
"Experts believe that there are now more than 1,000 cults operating in Britain and that their popularity has spread through the Internet. They are becoming adept at snaring young professionals through so-called self-help websites—for stopping smoking, losing weight, meeting a partner or playing the stock market.
"Ian Haworth, general secretary of the London-based Cult Information Centre, tours schools to dispel the idea that only vunerable youngsters fall prey to satanic cults. He says that recruiters are also active at college and university campuses, distributing free magazines that offer links to scores of Internet sites. "There is no doubt the Internet means that many more youngsters can dip into areas of the occult without realising what they are letting themselves into," he said.
In the case of Buffy, copycat psychosis appears to be the order of the day. In one celebrated case last year, a British teenager was arrested after becoming convinced that he, too, was a vampire, and beheading his elderly neighbour before drinking her blood. A young German couple were similarly found guilty of the ritual vampire murder of a man - they drank blood from his corpse before having sex in a coffin they’d purchased for the occasion.
Similar strong followings for Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch are also making an impact. Britain’s Pagan Federation recently reported it was receiving more than a hundred calls a month from children and teenagers wanting to know more about joining an occult group.
Pagan Federation spokesman Andy Norfolk told journalists youngsters’ questions had become "much more mature" than those of the "how do I cast a spell?" variety, and tended to deal with "the religious aspects of witchcraft."
"We don’t get asked how to become a witch, but rather we get asked what a young witch should do.
"Many of those who write seem to have already found their spiritual path and wish to learn more."
Although the Pagan Federation denies actively recruiting children, it has appointed a "youth affairs" officer who also happens to be a school teacher, and its adult members have published a series of books for children, some available in New Zealand, with titles like The Young Witches’ Handbook, which includes spells for passing school exams or attracting a lover, or Spells for Teenage Witches, "a self-help book for young people".
In the US meanwhile, prominent newspapers like the Miami Herald have begun to investigate the rapidly plunging standards of broadcast television:
MIAMI - Fifty years ago, when a married Lucille Ball was having a baby on I Love Lucy, network censors wouldn’t allow use of the word "pregnant." This past year, on Friends, Rachel had a baby resulting from a one-night stand - and on the day it was due tried to speed up the delivery via a quickie sexual encounter with her male roommate.
Forty years ago, Ozzie and Harriet never had a scene of any kind take place in the Nelsons’ bedroom. This year, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a fistfight between Buffy and a vampire turned into roughhouse sex so violent that it literally knocked the house down around them.
Thirty years ago, network officials told singer Helen Reddy they would cancel her show unless she started wearing a bra. This year, contestants on Fear Factor were ordered to strip naked on camera to stay in the game.
Twenty years ago, an outraged NBC censor vetoed a Saturday Night Live sketch where Bill Murray and Gilda Radner’s nerdy characters put on a dopey high school nativity pageant: "You can’t give noogies to the Virgin Mary!" This year, Cameron Diaz hosted SNL and sang dirty children’s songs that purported to be about hirsute shellfish and rain-soaked kitty-cats.
It’s not puritan paranoia: This is not your father’s broadcast television. TV, once expected to be a polite guest in our living rooms, has turned into more of drunken party-crasher. Sex, violence and language that in earlier days would have triggered FCC threats and congressional investigations is now routine. Says show-biz historian and critic Michael Medved of TV standards: "I’m not sure I would use the word SHIFTING. I think the word COLLAPSING might be more appropriate."
You think he exaggerates?
Every week the CBS crime show CSI features mutilated corpses that would gag a maggot. Televised urination has become so routine that when FX’s The Shield had a cop whizzing on a suspect, producer Shawn Ryan bragged that "we shot it in a very tasteful way, as p——— scenes go."
That’s the sort of comment that outrages Laura Mahaney, vice president of the conservative Parents Television Council, which is lobbying advertisers to boycott The Shield. "What you’ve seen is a run to the bottom of the barrel, where the networks are seeing who can put the filthiest stuff on the fastest. You never would have seen references to oral sex or inferences of oral sex even five years ago. Now you do all the time, even on shows at 8 p.m ... It’s like a freight train run amok."
Whether you share Mahaney’s disgust, it’s hard to argue with her facts. A brief, chaste lesbian kiss on the 10 p.m. L.A. Law scandalized the country in 1991; this season, when lesbian witches on the 8 p.m. Buffy the Vampire Slayer levitated because the oral sex was especially good, it passed almost unnoticed.
Producers, network executives and other TV experts say there are several reasons television’s standards, which were relatively static for its first 40 years, have changed so dramatically over the past decade, but prime among them would have to be a disappearance of the will to fight the flood anymore.
Adds Medved: "There’s always been this sort of push-pull between Broadcasting Standards people and producers. Obviously people in the creative community want to test to see what they can do. There’s almost an element of gamesmanship to it. But what’s been happening in the past few years is that the creative people push, but on the other side, no one pushes back."
Critics argue it’s because the very people hired to be censors have themselves grown up on a sex and vio-lence TV diet and become inured to it, blind to what now surrounds them.
But while levitating nude witches engaging in oral sex on Buffy doesn’t make them bat an eyelid, those same TV censors are quick to leap on anything seen as non politically-correct. In the US, black comedian Arsenio Hall got a big laugh after cracking a black joke on the Tonight show, while one of David Letterman’s scriptwriters found herself censored for trying to tell a similar one-liner. An example in New Zealand this year was the ongoing furore over whether two Christian videos should be banned.
In a column for National Radio’s Mediawatch programme, commentator Karl du Fresne picked up the story:
"Those videos expressed views that were understandably unpopular with gay activists. One was that the gay activist lobby was demanding not just equal rights, but special rights; the other was that homosexuality was a factor in the spread of HIV and Aids.
"Neither of these, you might think, qualifies as an outrageous or even exceptional proposition. Yet the videos ended up before the Chief Censor, who considered them so potentially injurious to the public good that he imposed an R16 restriction. Not satisfied with that, a gay activist group appealed to the Film and Literature Board of Review, which declared the videos objectionable in anyone’s hands."
A court fight ensued, and eventually the Court of Appeal ruled that the videos should be cleared for release, but the Film Review Board then asked the Government to consider outlawing what it calls "hate speech".
In March, while most of New Zealand’s attention was on the Iraq crisis, a parliamentary select committe chaired by MP Diane Yates, released its own report on the issue, "and oddly enough," writes Du Fresne, "the main thrust is that the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act should be modified to encompass hate speech.
"That would mean politically incorrect opinions such as those expressed in the Living Word videos could be banned without the pesky Court of Appeal getting in the way. And the Chief Censor wouldn¹t have to bother himself with nitpicking, high-flown notions about freedom of expression.
"Interestingly enough, nowhere in the report is any attempt made to define "hate speech". It’s one of those wondrously loaded phrases, like "social justice", that can mean whatever the user wants it to mean. In the context of the committee’s report, it seems to mean anything that might offend a minority group.
"Presumably it would be left to the Chief Censor to define hate speech, and in so doing to determine what New Zealanders are allowed to say, see and hear. This places unprecedented and dangerous power in the hands of a bureaucrat and casts him in the role of a commissar in Soviet Russia. It also tugs the censorship laws in an entirely new direction, and one that I suspect Parliament never intended when it passed the Act in 1993."
Amid the irony that the chief target of censors may soon be the so-called "morals cam-paigners", rather than programme-makers, dark entertainment like Yu-Gi-Oh continues unchallenged to prep the pre-teen market with violent occultism while Buffy and Charmed do the trick for their older siblings.
One very harsh critic of the high-violence, high occult kids shows is Lt. Colonel David Grossman, a military pschologist who used to study methods of brainwashing US soldiers to make them better killing machines. Now he tours the US like a voice in the wilderness, warning that today’s television content and violent role-playing computer games are on a par with the best military technology in training kids to murder.
Grossman has studied social and crime trends in a range of countries, including New Zealand, and his diagnosis is grim.
"To understand the why behind outbreaks of this "virus of violence," we need to understand first the magnitude of the problem. The per capita murder rate doubled in the US between 1957—when the FBI started keeping track of the data - and 1992. A fuller picture of the problem, however, is indicated by the rate people are attempting to kill one another - the aggravated assault rate. That rate in America has gone from around 60 per 100,000 in 1957 to over 440 per 100,000 by the middle of this decade. As bad as this is, it would be much worse were it not for two major factors.
"First is the increase in the imprisonment rate of violent offenders. The prison population in America nearly quadrupled between 1975 and 1992. According to criminologist John J. DiIulio, "dozens of credible empirical analyses…leave no doubt that the increased use of prisons averted millions of serious crimes." If it were not for our tremendous imprisonment rate (the highest of any industrialized nation), the aggravated assault rate and the murder rate would undoubtedly be even higher.
"The second factor keeping the murder rate from being any worse is medical technology. According to the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps, a wound that would have killed nine out of ten soldiers in World War II, nine out of ten could have survived in Vietnam. Thus, by a very conservative estimate, if we had 1940-level medical technology today, the murder rate would be ten times higher than it is.
"The magnitude of the problem has been held down by the development of sophisticated lifesaving skills and techniques, such as helicopter medevacs, 911 operators, paramedics, cpr, trauma centers, and medicines.
"However, the crime rate is still at a phenomenally high level, and this is true worldwide. In Canada, according to their Center for Justice, per capita assaults increased almost fivefold between 1964 and 1993, attempted murder increased nearly sevenfold, and murders doubled. Similar trends can be seen in other countries in the per capita violent crime rates reported to Interpol between 1977 and 1993.
"In Australia and New Zealand, the assault rate increased approximately fourfold, and the murder rate nearly doubled in both nations. The assault rate tripled in Sweden, and approximately doubled in Belgium, Denmark, England-Wales, France, Hungary, Netherlands, and Scotland, while all these nations had an associated (but smaller) increase in murder.
"This virus of violence is occurring worldwide. The explanation for it has to be some new factor that is occurring in all of these countries. There are many factors involved, and none should be discounted: for example, the prevalence of guns in our society. But violence is rising in many nations with draconian gun laws. And though we should never downplay child abuse, poverty, or racism, there is only one new variable present in each of these countries, bearing the exact same fruit: media violence presented as entertainment for children."
Grossman’s identification of media violence as a catalyst for child violence is bourne out by confirmation that the two teenagers who committed the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado were addicted to the computer game Doom. It is worth noting that at the time Grossman was making these comments, back in 1998, the Columbine massacre had not yet happened. Grossman says the reason modern media violence is insidious is because it indoctrinates, glorifies and desensitises mass murder.
But haven’t we always had killing? Haven’t soldiers always gone into far more brutal battles than video can match? "Dur-ing World War II, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. S. L. A. Marshall had a team of researchers study what soldiers did in battle. For the first time in history, they asked individual soldiers what they did in battle. They discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of the individual riflemen could bring themselves to fire at an exposed enemy soldier," explains Grossman.
"That is the reality of the battlefield. Only a small percentage of soldiers are able and willing to participate. Men are willing to die, they are willing to sacrifice themselves for their nation; but they are not willing to kill. It is a phenomenal insight into human nature; but when the military became aware of that, they systematically went about the process of trying to fix this "problem."
"From the military perspective, a 15 percent firing rate among riflemen is like a 15 percent literacy rate among librarians. And fix it the military did. By the Korean War, around 55 percent of the soldiers were willing to fire to kill. And by Vietnam, the rate rose to over 90 percent.
"The method in this madness: Desensitization. How the military increases the killing rate of soldiers in combat is instructive, because our culture today is doing the same thing to our children. The training methods militaries use are brutalization, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and role modeling. I will explain these in the military context and show how these same factors are contributing to the phenomenal increase of violence in our culture.
"Brutalization and desensitization are what happens at boot camp. From the moment you step off the bus you are physically and verbally abused: countless pushups, endless hours at attention or running with heavy loads, while carefully trained professionals take turns screaming at you. Your head is shaved, you are herded together naked and dressed alike, losing all individuality. This brutalization is designed to break down your existing mores and norms and to accept a new set of values that embrace destruction, violence, and death as a way of life. In the end, you are desensitized to violence and accept it as a normal and essential survival skill in your brutal new world.
"Something very similar to this desensitization toward violence is happening to our children through violence in the media—but instead of 18-year-olds, it begins at the age of 18 months when a child is first able to discern what is happening on television. At that age, a child can watch something happening on television and mimic that action. But it isn’t until children are six or seven years old that the part of the brain kicks in that lets them understand where information comes from. Even though young children have some understanding of what it means to pretend, they are developmentally unable to distinguish clearly between fantasy and reality.
"When young children see somebody shot, stabbed, raped, brutalized, degraded, or murdered on TV, to them it is as though it were actually happening. To have a child of three, four, or five watch a "splatter" movie, learning to relate to a character for the first 90 minutes and then in the last 30 minutes watch helplessly as that new friend is hunted and brutally murdered is the moral and psychological equivalent of introducing your child to a friend, letting her play with that friend, and then butchering that friend in front of your child’s eyes. And this happens to our children hundreds upon hundreds of times.
"Sure, they are told: "Hey, it’s all for fun. Look, this isn’t real, it’s just TV." And they nod their little heads and say okay. But they can’t tell the difference. Can you remember a point in your life or in your children’s lives when dreams, reality, and television were all jumbled together? That’s what it is like to be at that level of psychological development. That’s what the media are doing to them.
"The Journal of the American Medical Association published the definitive epidemiological study on the impact of TV violence. The research demonstrated what happened in numerous nations after television made its appearance as compared to nations and regions without TV. The two nations or regions being compared are demographically and ethnically identical; only one variable is different: the presence of television. In every nation, region, or city with television, there is an immediate explosion of violence on the playground, and within 15 years there is a doubling of the murder rate. Why 15 years? That is how long it takes for the brutalization of a three- to five-year-old to reach the "prime crime age." That is how long it takes for you to reap what you have sown when you brutalize and desensitize a three-year-old.
"Today the data linking violence in the media to violence in society are superior to those linking cancer and tobacco. Hundreds of sound scientific studies demonstrate the social impact of brutalization by the media. The Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that "the introduction of television in the 1950’s caused a subsequent doubling of the homicide rate, i.e., long-term childhood exposure to television is a causal factor behind approximately one half of the homicides committed in the United States, or approximately 10,000 homicides annually." The article went on to say that "…if, hypothetically, television technology had never been developed, there would today be 10,000 fewer homicides each year in the United States, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults" (June 10, 1992).
"Classical conditioning is like the famous case of Pavlov’s dogs you learned about in Psychology 101: The dogs learned to associate the ringing of the bell with food, and, once conditioned, the dogs could not hear the bell without salivating.
"The Japanese were masters at using classical conditioning with their soldiers. Early in World War II, Chinese prisoners were placed in a ditch on their knees with their hands bound behind them. And one by one, a select few Japanese soldiers would go into the ditch and bayonet "their" prisoner to death. This is a horrific way to kill another human being. Up on the bank, countless other young soldiers would cheer them on in their violence. Comparatively few soldiers actually killed in these situations, but by making the others watch and cheer, the Japanese were able to use these kinds of atrocities to classically condition a very large audience to associate pleasure with human death and suffering. Immediately afterwards, the soldiers who had been spectators were treated to sake, the best meal they had had in months, and to so-called comfort girls. The result? They learned to associate committing violent acts with pleasure.
"The Japanese found these kinds of techniques to be extraordinarily effective at quickly enabling very large numbers of soldiers to commit atrocities in the years to come. Operant conditioning teaches you to kill, but classical conditioning is a subtle but powerful mechanism that teaches you to like it."
Operant conditioning, for the record, is rote learning to kill. Stimulus, reaction. Stimulus, reaction. In airforce training, it is flight simulator computer games - missile lock, fire. Training to operate purely on instinct and adrenalin. Something, says Grossman, that interactive computer games do so well with today’s kids.
So what sort of traction is the issue getting in New Zealand? We invited TVNZ chief executive Ian Fraser to comment, but there’s been no response. However, a working party is due to report back to the Government this September on whether children’s television is too violent.
Investigate approached the Broadcasting Standards Authority for comment on whether our programme standards covered protecting children from the occult.
"We’ve never really thought about it. No one’s ever complained," reported the BSA. Maybe no one’s ever realised they could.
additional reporting: Glenn Garvin, Michael Zielenziger, KRT
July 28, 2006
Donny Osmond interview: June 06 issue
AND THEY CALLED IT...
Ian Wishart catches up with Donny Osmond ahead of his upcoming tours downunder and discovers a pop survivor
(to listen to the podcast of the interview, click here)
It was Wellington, 1973. There was only one TV channel, it was black and white and in our home it beamed in on an old (even then) Bell TV set with an iconic late 50’s US design and a rotating dial numbered 1 to 12 that acted as a channel selector, provided you could find a spanner to wrench it with. With only one channel, programmes rated through the roof, all of them. And in kids TV that season, it didn’t get much bigger than Lost in Space and the Osmonds TV cartoon series.
If it wasn’t enough watching the cartoon Donny being chased by hordes of screaming cartoon chicks across the screen, you could get a dose of the real Donny later in the evening when the weekly dose of the Osmonds live screened for older audiences.
AND THEY CALLED IT….
In other words, the first Donster was inescapable and – being a child superstar – held out by parents everywhere to their kids: “See, look what he’s achieved, and he’s just a few years older than you”, mine would say as they read my lackluster school reports. I remind Osmond of this down the phone line to his Utah home, and he bursts out laughing.
“Yeah, before they ended up hating me!”
They may have called it puppy love once, but thirty-something years later there’s a more mature mongrel edge to the former kid crooner, a sense that life has dished out the same things to Donny Osmond as it has to most of us: love, loss, pleasure, pain, success, crashing failure, hard work, making an honest living and rising again from the wreckage.
Few people know that, apart from singing, Osmond is a master electrician and completely wired his recording studio and home from the ground up. These are skills you learn when the stardom rollercoaster has ground to a halt and you suddenly find yourself with time on your hands and people to feed, as Osmond did when his Donny & Marie TV show ended in 1979. The years that followed pushed him almost to bankruptcy.
“Hand to mouth, basically. It was pretty lean in the early to mid 80s. I was bankrolling everything and I couldn’t get a record deal, couldn’t get a publishing deal, so I was doing demos, and whatever I could do. There was a residual interest out there for Donny and Marie, but that kind of ended in 1985, 1984 because I saw a dead end there. I thought, if I’m going to turn my career around I’ll have to do some drastic things. But I had to do Donny and Marie gigs just to feed the family. I had two mortgages to worry about, trying to sell a home.”
The transition from child star – he was on US national TV at the age of six – to teen idol, was a natural one. But Osmond says the gap between teen idol and adult performer is a much wider bridge to cross.
“Huge! Huge. To make that cross. How do you change the mindset of a whole generation? There’s a certain generation that remembers me for Puppy Love. There’s a certain generation that remembers me just for the Donny and Marie show. How do you alter that, how do you alter history? You just can’t do it.”
“You actually did it quite well in 89 with Soldier of Love,” I venture, recalling the out-of-nowhere hit that took all of us working in radio by surprise that year. I remember the programme director at Auckland’s 89FM playing the new track and trying to make us guess who was singing it, and a collective “you’re kidding??” when the Osmond name was mentioned.
“Yeah,” concedes Osmond, “but see what’s interesting – by the time the Donny and Marie show ended, which was 79, to 89 – that’s a ten year gap. So to a lot of people it was either a surprise to hear that Donny Osmond was recording music like that again, it was a novelty, and it was a whole new generation that discovered me. When Soldier of Love hit it didn’t really feed the bank account that much, but what it did is that it brought up the notoriety to where the demand became a little bit greater. Then Joseph came along and pretty much saved us, and from that point on we were back on track.”
He’s talking about Joseph & The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, and his invitation to star in the Canadian production in the early 1990s. That, in turn, led to him starring in the movie version of the musical released worldwide in 1999, and public acclaim that continues even to this very afternoon that we’re talking.
“As a matter of fact, this happened today. I was at the hospital watching over my dad, and as I was pushing him outside the hospital, giving him some sunshine in his wheelchair, this little eight year old girl was being pushed and she’d broken her foot or something, she was coming into the hospital, and she was crying but she saw me, looked up to her mum and said, ‘Mum, there’s Joseph!’
“So to her, Puppy Love – what’s that? Donny and Marie – who’s Marie, you know? I’m a different artist to that generation of people.”
And just look how different they can be:
“For instance, this just happened to me an hour ago. They’re building a house right behind our house, and construction workers are no-bull kind of people, and this guy came around with the biggest beard – he looks like a Deadhead follower basically, or he’d go to a Stones concert – and he came over and he was staring at me. And I was putting up a playset in the back yard for my kids, and I thought – this is freakin’ me out here, you know? And so he said, ‘You Donny?’, and reluctantly I said ‘Yeah, what’s your name?’
“He says, ‘I’m Dennis. Do you need any help?’
“ ‘No, I’m fine,” I said.
“ ‘OK, I just wanted to talk to you, because I’ve been following you, I quite like you’.”
“But my point is that if you can have staying power, there’s an amount of respect that not just the industry but the public at large can give you.”
Having endured the hard knocks, Osmond is more appreciative of success these days.
“I guess I’m in a better place now than I’ve ever been, because I’m in control of my career. You analyse the early years, and I was pretty much being dictated to about what to do, when to do it and where to do it. What to sing. Now I can guide the ship myself, and at this point in my life I don’t really have to worry about what next plateau I want to go to, it’s which next plateau would make me happy – just satisfy me as an artist – rather than just a good strategic move to make.”
“Were you happy as a child performer?,” I venture.
“I didn’t know any other life. I didn’t have anything to compare it to. Certainly some things weren’t very pleasant, like the amount of work that goes into being in show business. You analyse a lot of other careers and they’ve kind of gone to the wayside, in my opinion, directly because of the lack of work that they won’t put forth, because it takes a lot of work not only to get a career but to maintain a career.”
I wonder aloud if it is a product of faster-shifting tastes, a musical here-today, gone-tomorrow mindset amongst the public.
“Well, there’s several philosophies there,” reflects Osmond. “I’ve certainly had a lot of time to think about why that happens. I call it the iTunes society, everybody just wants little bits and pieces. Music has really become disposable, and along with it so are the bands and the artists. They become yesterday’s dinner, you know, leftovers. And more and more it becomes, instead of flavour of the month, or flavour of the moment, it’s flavour of the nano-moment, nowadays.
“Because you can gain stardom quickly if you get a lucky break – what do they call it over there, Australian Idol – well if you can get a lucky break there you’ve got your 15 Minutes of fame, but then the work starts after that 15 minutes.”
So why is Donny still in the business, still hauling in crowds?
“Tenacity,” he suggests, having released his 54th album last year.
Nostalgia? I ask, or is it that we’re harking back to the seventies and eighties as part of a subconscious yearning for lost innocence?
“Interesting observation,” he reflects after a moment. “I have no idea whether it’s to recapture the innocence, but that’s an interesting way to look at it. I’ve never looked at it that way.”
But for Osmond, he’s also been finding success with cover versions of songs like Neil Finn’s Don’t Dream It’s Over. Why that, I wonder?
“Ah, because I wanted to come back to New Zealand and have a great aud –” Osmond cracks up laughing down the end of the phone, and I have a vision of his trademark grin and wall to wall teeth. “No, I just liked the song! It was weird, when I did that album “Somewhere in Time”, I thought, this is a recording artist’s dream, to be able to just take hits – cherry pick the ones you really love – and do them the way you want to do them, and that was one of them.”
“You also did a good cover of Without You, the Harry Nilsson hit?”.
“That is one tough song to sing. You’ll never see me sing that in concert. It took me three days to get the vocal that I kind of settled on. I mean, there’s always places where an artist wants to tweak and make it a little bit better, but my producer said ‘Leave it alone, that’s exactly the way it should be’. But it was three days of spitting blood trying to hit those high notes.”
Still, according to the comments of those attending his concerts, the boy can still deliver. Nevertheless, when your fanbase stretches from unlikely ZZ-Top look-alikes to eight year olds, and then “legions of nostalgic forty-something women – all clad in de rigour Osmondmania uniform of silky scarf and over-tight spangly T-shirt” as one British reviewer put it, there are “dynamics” to be balanced.
“The difficulty there though is that when you do a concert tour, and mum is all excited about coming to see Donny Osmond, the last thing the teenagers want to do is exactly what mum’s doing. Because that’s for the ‘older generation’. So there’s a dynamic that you kind of have to balance, but every once in a while you look out in the audience and it’s just such a cross-section. But primarily I would say it is the 25 to 55 year old women.”
Father of five – the youngest is eight and the oldest 26 – Donny Osmond is now a grandfather at 48, and happy to have found resonance in his life and 28-year marriage to wife Debbie.
“I’m pretty busy [now]. To the point where it’s nice to be able to turn down gigs. But I like to balance my life a little bit more now than I used to. So I turn down more than I accept.”
Having said that, he’s also apologetic about having to postpone his NZ concerts until the end of July due to a terminal illness in the family, but says he’s looking forward to making his first trip here since 1981, trusty video iPod in hand to keep him company on the long flight, packed with thousands of songs including current favourites, Coldplay.
The Donster epitomizes the drive within him. From a seventies child star when CDs hadn’t even been invented, not only has he outlasted most of his peers but he’s happily embraced the latest technology and bands. If that’s not staying power, I’m not sure what is.