Home > Media > How To Beat Up a Story

How To Beat Up a Story

Today’s  “Dominion Post”  contained an interesting editorial – interesting because the editorial related to what amounts to be a non-story;

No police record, no known next of kin, no mail, no benefit history. For 30 years 88-year-old Michael Clarke kept to himself in his Newtown bedsit. Some time last year he died the same way.

His remains were discovered in his bedsit at the grim Newtown Park Flats last week. Authorities believe he may have been dead for as long as 14 months.

The discovery has triggered an outpouring of dismay, but the discovery of a body in Wellington City Council accommodation is not an uncommon occurrence. As far back as 1997 former Wellington coroner Erika Kremic called upon the council to institute regular checks of its tenants. It is a call that has been echoed periodically by police who have to deal with the grisly remains when a death goes unnoticed.

But the council says there is a limit to what it can do. Council social portfolio leader Stephanie Cook said this week that staff tried to keep tabs on tenants and knocked on doors and visited them at least once a year. Yet many of the council’s tenants valued their privacy and did not like intrusions. The newspapers plastered over interior windows in the Newtown Park complex bear out her words.

However, it is no more acceptable for bodies to lie around for weeks or months than it is to shoehorn the vulnerable into cramped, dilapidated tower blocks that reek of urine.

Tenants in the council’s 40 housing complexes – a high proportion of whom are either elderly, immigrants, or suffer from physical and psychological disabilities – should be checked upon. Any who object should be informed that the checks are a condition of occupancy.

To its credit the council is taking steps to improve the quality of its accommodation, much of it built in the 1960s to accommodate single workers.

In conjunction with the Government, it commenced a $400million upgrade of its housing stock in 2008. Interior walls have been knocked down to make bigger flats suitable for families, communal landings and long corridors have been removed to get rid of gathering places for undesirables, and communal gardens have been established to encourage neighbourliness. Already the Central Park flats at the bottom of the Brooklyn hill have been transformed and work has commenced on the three tower blocks that are to remain at the Newtown Park Flats.

But the revamp will take time and will not entirely solve the problem. As a provider of last resort housing, the council will always have antisocial tenants who object to anything they regard as scrutiny. It will also always have vulnerable tenants who are fearful and suspicious of authority. They may prefer to keep to themselves, but regular checks are preferable to the alternative – dying alone and unnoticed as Mr Clarke did.

Source

I have two problems with this editorial.

1. The editorial claims that   “the discovery has triggered an outpouring of dismay“?

That claim is debateable at best – and a downright exxageration at worst.  Comments left on the “Dominion Post’s” own webpage were, by considerable majority, of the view that Mr Clarke’s passing was regrettable and that these things sometimes happen. In other words, it is a fact of life – however sad and unpleasant – that sometimes people will pass away in such circumstances.

I have read very, very, few comments of  “dismay“.

In fact, the only “dismay” seemed to be directed at the media that appeared to be “feasting” on this story and beating it up for all it’s worth. The media appeared  to be totally out-of-step with public thinking on this issue.

2.  The next issue that I raise is this part of the editorial;

“Tenants in the council’s 40 housing complexes – a high proportion of whom are either elderly, immigrants, or suffer from physical and psychological disabilities – should be checked upon. Any who object should be informed that the checks are a condition of occupancy.”

Pardon?!

Since when did New Zealand society take a sharp right-turn (or left-turn,depending on your political viewpoint), and abrogate peoples’ rights to privacy and keeping bureacrats out of their lives, as a “condition of occupancy”?!

Would the writer of this editorial insist that everyone living in a rental flat, regardless of socio-economic position, be “checked as a condition of occupancy”?

Or is he/she simply insisting on Council/HNZ tenants?

As  MilesLacey stated  on a “Dominion Post”  Forum;

As a former Wellington City Council tenant I think it’s worth pointing out that people move in and out of WCC flats all the time so it was probably assumed by everyone that Michael Clarke had simply moved on like so many others. Even if people do think that it’s odd that someone hasn’t been around for some time there is still the notion that it’s none of our business to meddle in the affairs of others unless they let us.

We can’t force people to care about others. We can’t force people to watch out for their neighbours. Once we start doing that we move into the murky world of the surveillance state where everything we do starts being monitored “for our own good”.

And I would also point out that not all people who die alone and aren’t discovered for weeks or months on end are elderly or living in city council flats. Why impose upon the privacy of council tenants, as proposed by the editorial [of Sept 3], but not anyone else? Seems less like looking out for our neighbours and more like snooping on the “undesirables” such as the poor.” – Miles Lacey,  Sep 03 2011

Considering that Council/HNZ tenants are at the bottom of the socio-economic pile (generally), the suggestion is that if you are,

A. Poor

B. An immigrant

C. Have a disability

… then you are less deserving of privacy that someone well-off; not an immigrant; and able-bodied/minded. This is not “Nanny Statism”. It’s not even National’s “Daddy Statism”. This is Big Brother, knocking on our doors, and demanding that we open up for inspection!

Today it will be Council/HNZ tenants.

Tomorrow, it may be superannuitants.

And next week – the rest of us. Big Brotherism – for our “own good”.

And it all began with the “Dominion Post”.

For our own good, of course. Are we feeling any safer now?

  1. Deborah Kean
    6 September 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Exactly! From 1987-90, we, my baby son and I lived in the Nairn Street council flats, and our building contained mainly pensioners (and a handful of ‘solo mothers’.) I would have loathed the idea of being ‘checked on’ as a condition of occupancy!
    That being said, I look back with amusement and pleasure on the day when one of my neighbours knocked on the door, and when I opened it said “whew”! She hadn’t seen us or heard us for a week, and was rather worried… and quite relieved when I explained that I’d been on holiday in Australia and my son had been staying with my sister. That was okay, she was my neighbour and I appreciated it – but a social worker, or a council worker, no!

  2. 6 September 2011 at 9:40 pm

    I think you’ve described my feelings on this issue perfectly, Debbie. As I quoted Miles in my piece above,

    We can’t force people to care about others. We can’t force people to watch out for their neighbours.

    There’s a world of difference between supporting and encouraging a community to develop – and employing a bureacrat to keep an eye on tenants. It’s the former that society should be encouraging. The latter may achieve the goal of not letting a body remain for long periods of time in a flat – but does it really achieve that “sense of community”? Can we buy a community, rather than support a community to grow, naturally?

    As Miles hinted, the suggestion of paid surveillance staff is more about keeping an eye on those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, dressed up as “caring”. Bollocks. It’s yet another way to denigrate the poor and vulnerable and remove any last shred of dignity they might have.

    I think I’d rather live in the community you described, Debbie, of a caring neighbour. 🙂

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