Air NZ, the Mystery Professor and the Great Trolley-Dolly Folly
Before events move on, I thought it best to summarise today’s adventures in what increasingly became nefarious corporate spin.
I expressed some doubt first thing about a front-page story in the Dominion Post about Air New Zealand’s decision to edit out from its on-board safety video a scene involving an All Black, a flight attendant and a lame but harmless gay-themed joke. The scandal ricocheted predictably on radio and TV throughout the day reporting as fact that the airline was forced to cut the scene in the face of complaints from unnamed members of the “gay community”. By tonight, according to at least one news bulletin, these alleged complaints had grown enough in the media’s imagination to warrant the word “flurry.”
At the heart of the story was the role played by the gay flight attendant whose scene was cut from the video, Will Coxhead, who declared poignantly:
“I’m proud to be gay, proud to be an Air New Zealander and extremely proud of my role in the safety video. Obviously there are some people in the gay community that can be a little precious and need to lighten up.”
In my original post, I expressed doubt that the video was offensive enough to earn any serious complaints and that Air NZ may be guilty of beating the story up to leverage publicity and promote its connection with the All Blacks. At this point, I was accusing Air NZ of nothing more than overeager public relations. But then things got decidedly strange.
@flyairnz, the official Air NZ tweeter, engaged with me directly to explain away the suspicious (to me) anonymity of the so-called complainants from the “gay community”. They couldn’t be named, I was told, because of…you guessed it…the Privacy Act. I responded with some scepticism in this way:
If the Privacy Act were a person, governments and big corporations would queue up for the chance to take it out for dinner and a show. That said, Air NZ claim the complainants are real and that they have spoken to a media outlet — none of which really refutes my claim that Air NZ has milked this for PR gain. I have no doubt you could find a couple of willing and whining punters willing to complain about any imaginable thing. The point is that Air NZ has elevated these complaints by acting on them and then kicking up a fuss. It continues to reek of spin.
This earned this sharp and strange rebuke from @flyairnz:
@philquin the law is the law and we have to take claims of possible gay male suicide seriously
This is a grave claim, but it is mentioned nowhere in the original story which focuses instead on the killjoy whining of some nameless but presumably bitter old queens. If the DomPost knew about suicide fears relating to the gay gag in the safety video but didn’t report them, this would be a straight-forward and unforgivable case of burying the lead.
Why would Air NZ only raise this issue now, along with an unnamed “University Professor” who apparently raised suicide fears with the airline as well, according to a subsequent tweet I received from @flyairnz? I took on this seemingly remarkable escalation here.
I soon received from Air NZ a copy via email of the statement that it was actively shopping around the New Zealand media, and pasted it in full here. This statement confirmed the extent of the airline’s involvement in fluffing this entire non-story into a pseudo-scandal at the expense of the gay community, cleverly through the deployment of one of their own gay flight attendants as “talent”. This was starting to look a lot like cynical spin-doctoring of a particularly low form. (The statement indeed contained mention of a mystery academic expressing fear that the scene could lead to suicide. This Prof. X character, if he or she exists at all, has yet to admit to ownership of such thoughts.)
These beat-up “scandals” have a way of growing into the mould of their inventor’s imagining, and this was no different. As far as I know, there is not a single person who is publicly willing to admit they complained about the video before it was axed, but the media managed to track down one “gay community” representative who was willing to play the role they needed of him for the follow-up stories that percolated through the day. The dial-a-gay-quote came from Thomas Hamilton of Rainbow Youth:
“There will be some people out there who will be really put down and take further action, possibly through self harm or drugs and alcohol abuse.”
Hamilton is making the half-valid point that even small acts of prejudice, such as Richard Kahui’s reluctance to accept a same-sex smooch, add up to generally hostile societal attitudes that can cause harm. The compound effect of these so-called micro-aggressions, Hamilton is saying, shouldn’t be ignored entirely in favour of focussing only on outright acts of bigotry. He is right…to a point.
But the truth is that the All Blacks safety video was fine, even quite good by the standards of its genre. The real harm to the gay community lies not in the lame and unfunny gag in question, but in the way that Air NZ played its publics relations cards today. The airline knew full well the potency of a story that merges gay issues with rugby in general and the All Blacks in particular. It was a deeply cynical play, as demonstrated by the carefully crafted media statement designed to pit their pet gay flight attendant against anonymous whiners from the “gay lobby”. They knew exactly whose side most New Zealanders would come down on. They knew full well that the news media would happily flog the idea that the gay community is “precious”, humourless and “politically correct”.
Who is this professor? Who really made these complaints, and how many were there? Air New Zealand should be held to account because picking fights with minority groups in the form of mystery professors and unnamed activists for the purposes of corporate PR flackery shouldn’t be so easy.