Saturday, March 20, 2010

Refuting the fantasists

John McDonald, the editor of the weekly Dargaville Online newsletter, recently had a lesson in the dangers of false information. At the beginning of this month Noel Hilliam, a controversial amateur historian and occasional grave-robber who lives near Dargaville, approached McDonald and claimed to have won the prestigious 2010 Senior New Zealander of the Year Award. Hilliam produced an apparently-genuine certificate to back up his claim, and Dargaville Online was soon celebrating the local boy's feat on its front page.

After this blog pointed out that Hilliam had not, in fact, won the Senior New Zealand Award - the honour had gone to South Island philanthropist Sir Eion Edgar - New Zealand Awards co-ordinator Grant McCabe contacted McDonald and asked him to withdraw his claims. To his credit, McDonald has placed a retraction in the latest issue of Dargaville Online.

Tim Murphy, the editor of the venerable New Zealand Herald, might smirk at the notion that that the recent experiences of the humble Dargaville Online could hold any lessons for him. The fact is, though, that the Herald's Thursday editorial in defence of outgoing Auckland War Memorial Museum Director Vanda Vitali was just as just as much the product of misinformation as John McDonald's recent celebration of Noel Hilliam. Murphy and his senior reporter John Roughan had a private audience with the embattled Vitali during one of her last days in power, and the editorial that ran last Thursday is full of the unctuous rhetoric and fact-free assertions that have long typified Vitali's self-defences.

Without offering up a skerrick of evidence, the Herald claimed that Vitali captured the imagination of the public and 'made the museum a 'cool' destination', and warned that her departure might lead to the institution becoming a 'fusty' and unpopular place. The Herald did accept that Vitali had been involved in a series of disputes with the Museum Board that appointed her, with staff, and with museum patrons, but it suggested that these might not have been her fault. Vitali's legacy is, the Herald asserted, largely positive, and any problems she has left behind can be resolved 'with a little finesse'.

Luckily for readers of the Herald, Thursday's editorial has been speedily discredited by one of the paper's own investigative journalists. In a feature article in today's Herald, Geoff Cumming draws together some of the data and history that were ignored by last Thursday's editorial, and makes some bleak observations about Vitali's record and her legacy.

Cumming's article opens with the opinion of Bob Harvey, who echoes the facetious line of the Herald's editorial, but Cumming quickly exposes the Waitakere mayor's talk of 'extraordinarily fine exhibitions' and 'crowds around the block' for the nonsense that it is. Cumming shows that the numbers of visitors to the museum grew rapidly in the years before Vitali's arrival, and then dropped during her reign. The decline appears to be continuing: visitor numbers for this January were down a quarter on last year's figures. Cumming notes Vitali's failure to bring a single major interational exhibition to the museum during her reign, and points out that several of the exhibitions that she rejected became hits at other New Zealand venues. Cumming produces a series of eyewitnesses, including the author of this blog and many much more distinguished people, to testify to Vitali's appalling people skills, sublime ignorance of New Zealand culture and history, and contempt for such 'fusty' museum practices as the acquisition and conservation of artefacts.

Geoff Cumming's article should ring alarm bells for Vitali's remaining apologists, including the author of last Thursday's editorial. Now that one of his own reporters has shown up his editorial line, shouldn't Tim Murphy learn a lesson from John McDonald, realise he was the victim of a con job, and retract his words?

[My earlier posts on Vanda Vitali and the Auckland War Memorial Museum can be found here, here and here.]


Anonymous Keri h said...

These are..really interesting...developments, Maps...

I cant access the Geoff Cummins post- can any subscriber of the"Herald" direct me to an open source site?

4:49 pm  
Blogger maps said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:41 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Alas, Cumming's article doesn't seem to be online at the moment, Keri. I had a coffee with Geoff on Thursday and it was clear to me then that he was doing some productive digging around the Vitali issue, talking to former staff and Board members who may have been reluctant to speak out until recent days.

The semi-autonomous Herald on Sunday should be publishing another investigation into Vitali tomorrow, this one by Matt Nippert. HoS is a lousy tabloid but Matt seems to be a serious, assiduous journo (he's the friend of a friend and I chatted with him the other day).

5:43 pm  
Anonymous Keri h said...

Thanks Maps - I look forward to learning more- all I can add, without reading more, is, you have done really good work and - for one of my more distant whanau- have helped him deal with a sudden sacking.

6:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maps. Thanks for all the sterling work. As I'm still in the place I'm a bit wary of 'coming out' so soon. However, I have a few comments to add to Geoff Cummings article:
On Bob Harvey's 'dysfunctional' board comment. Really? They looked pretty strong and unified to me at Wednesday's staff meeting.
On Bob's 'extraodinary woman with a great reputation': the only one who has made that claim is Bob. Perhaps a few staffers at LA County NH Museum can comment on her reputation there.
On Bob's crowds around the block: can he specify when and for what? Perhaps other staff can comment, but I'll be darned if I saw them.
Bob's comments on the board hanging her out to dry: I can distinctly remember the then board coming out in support, at least in public. What was her ultimate undoing was her own refusal to back down in the face of some pretty black-and-white legal opinion.
With regard to her 'great commitment to the development of her staff': yeah right. The acolytes perhaps. The rest of us weren't quite so lucky.
On the constant use of 'critics say': even the acolytes will have a hard time contesting the reduced numbers through the door, the lack of interest in 'Sonic Museum', the failure of exhibitions. 'Secrets revealed' may have gone down well with audiences, but even for this the numbers were hardly record-breaking.
As for Naida Glavish's 'bringing the museum back to life': really? How insulting to the Maori staff who worked their back-sides off on lower pay then they deserved, but who did it for the love. And who's thanks were redundancy.
In her email to staff on the day she announced her resignation she called the museum 'a much loved but rarely visited museum'. Yeah right. I bet she drinks Tui too.
Fact or fiction? Many Vanda orchids are endangered due to habitat destruction.

7:46 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

Now that the Board has finally accepted that Vanda was not fit for the job, where does that leave the staff who lost their jobs and whose lives were changed forever because of her. Vanda will receive a massive payout - courtesy of Auckland ratepayers. The Board should be held accountable for what happened to the staff and if justice in this country didn't belong to the realm of the wealthy, perhaps a group action could be taken. Vanda surrounded herself with a group of sycophants and she wasn't the only one who had an agenda when it came to staff dismissals - Vanda provided the environment for them to operate. As for the shallow exhibitions such as 'Secrets', most people would not be aware that a French designer was brought over for these! What did this cost? Nor would the public be aware that a staff member was appointed to a very senior position (next to the director) without that position being externally advertised (this in a public institution). There is much that should have been revealed but staff have been living in fear.
The ratepayer has a right to know how much they have had to pay to end Vanda's reign.

10:16 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Maps, sorry off topic but check this out re: Celtic NZ rubbishing:)

8:43 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The board has not 'finally accepted that Vanda was not fit for the job'. They knew that months and months ago. However, the trust board is not nearly as powerful as people would like to think. There are all sorts of constraints and it is to their credit that they seem to have come out of this without a 'personal grievance' case against them.

I doubt very much if Vitali got a lot out of this financially. Not when the inner sanctum turns whistle blower and starts leading the board through the books. Then it becomes a case of go quietly and try to preserve what name you have left or be pushed and screw whatever future you may still have.

Take heart in the fact that she will have had her sights set on becoming head honcho at Royal Ontario and that that is now extremely unlikely. Unless they are exceptionally dimwitted.

10:47 am  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

This whole episode, Scott, reflects extremely well, not only on yourself and the stirling industrial relations and journalistic effort you have put into exposing Ms Vitali, but on the blogosphere itself, as a new and powerful means of exposing the Tim Murphys and John Roughans of this world. The way your blog has worked both for and with full-time journalists determined to get the story out has been an inspiration. Thank you and congratulations.

11:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes! Thank you! You've done a wonderful service to the Auckland Museum. Self serving nasty bosses, claiming to be modern operators with a vision - culture to the masses through corporatisation - seem to be popping up throughout NZ. Maybe this episode will give courage to others, in journalism and other cultural industries, to speak up about the direction our loved institutions should take?

1:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hopefully, the newly created jobs that were advertised in the last three weeks or so will be frozen -
it is not appropriate to employ new staff until the mess is sorted.

3:44 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of comments pages:

I love this time. It is like the golden hour (at the end of the day, or after adults play). The comments have come: some smooth, some thick, some fast. There has been basking. The aftermatch handshakes between opponents (not foes). We have the head on a pike. Most are happy. But still, some want more. Some want to read more comments. But we are exhausted. There is no more to say. Can't you just relax, in the moment, and think about your childhood in Hamilton or somesuch town? And then, once recovered, which may or may not involve a little sleep, we will comment some more, on some other social phenomena.

1:11 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:45 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

The Board may have known months and months ago that Vanda was a mistake but staff knew long before that and no one listened.
Some who survived Vanda’s reign may now be ‘basking’ in the ‘golden hour’ but for others the actions of the sycophants, ‘inner sanctum’ – call them what you like, will never be forgotten.
Shortly after Vanda began to implement the restructure – with members of the inner sanctum pointing the bone – she asked staff to complete a survey on various areas of the proposed restructure. Following this, she angrily announced in a staff meeting that she had the results and that she had detected a ‘peculiar pattern’ and threatened to ’get to the bottom of it’.
Staff did try to question but the environment quickly became very dangerous. Staff were ‘not permitted to communicate with the Board’, who would listen? Those with higher level jobs who were pushed out were required to sign confidentiality clauses in order to receive their redundancy payments.
Requirements to sign gagging clauses in return for severance pay should be illegal. Otherwise corruption continues without check and the ratepayer and taxpayer continues to blindly fund it.
When employees of public institutions have serious concerns they should be able to speak out without fear of persecution. Ratepayers and taxpayers need to be more aware, we need to be interested in where our money goes and to ask questions.
It is not a case of ‘wanting more’ it is a case of wanting the whole truth to be known.
Unfortunately people have short memories.

7:51 pm  
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7:28 pm  

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