17 Apr 2016

Alms race

From Mediawatch, 9:11 am on 17 April 2016

The national media usually have little interest in local election issues, but it was a different story with banning beggars from big city streets recently. Mediawatch looks at how it hit the headlines - and whether it was partly down to Donald Trump. 

Begging in New Zealand

Photo: RNZ/ Diego Opatowski

On Wednesday, Wellington's city councillors voted not to pursue a policy of banning begging on city streets. It followed intense media interest in the issue - and not just in the capital.

It began on 4 April when Sir Robert Jones wrote for the National Business Review that Donald Trump gained support by tackling issues other candidates shied away from. And with that in mind he wrote this:

I’ll wager that any Wellington or Auckland mayoral candidate for this year’s election who will say that if elected he will ban begging will  - in my view  - romp home.

New Zealand is not India, said Sir Robert, and "these bums . . . should be given the boot".

Who wants a begging ban?

Screenshot of poll showing The NBR's readers want to boot out beggars

The NBR's readers want to boot out beggars Photo: screenshot

The NBR asked its online subscribers if begging should be banned. Most of those who responded - and the NBR gave no clue as to how many did - said yes.

The NBR then ran Sir Robert’s proposed policy past mayoral candidates in Auckland and Wellington and found just one in each city were in favour.

But they had an ally in NewstalkZB’s drivetime host Larry Williams. On nzherald.co.nz.on under the headline Beggars turning the city into a cesspit, he wrote:

Why not just ban beggars? Why not ban giving to beggars? What the hell is so hard about banning beggars?"

The Herald, who shares an owner with ZB, urged its online readers to tune into Larry Wiliams' radio programme that evening for more. On the show, Williams spoke to Auckland candidate Mark Thomas and Wellington candidate Nicola Young, who both want to ban begging, as well as Wellington candidate Justin Lester, who doesn't.

Williams heavily criticised candidates who didn't back a ban, or who had failed to respond to his requests for an interview.

Putting the policy out there

One day after Sir Robert's column, Ms Young set out her anti-begging policy on Facebook. TVNZ turned that into a news story and the following day Maori TV posted a nine-minute interview with Ms Young. On Newstalk ZB in Wellington, local host Tim Fookes quizzed Ms Young and a local welfare worker who thought a ban wouldn't work.

Meanwhile in Auckland, anti-begging mayoral hopeful Mark Thomas went out with RNZ's John Campbell to meet a homeless man begging in Auckland

The Trump effect?

Was all this prompted by Sir Robert Jones' Donald Trump-inspired musings in the NBR?

Not entirely. On 6 April, the Wellington City Council released a report on begging in the capital and what could or should be done about it. It considered outlawing begging and also outlawing the giving of money to beggars, prompting a front page story in the Dominion Post headlined "Capital considers ban on begging."

However, the bans were not actually recommended by the report.

There was more to come. Columnist Duncan Garner went on to accuse Ms Young and Mr Thomas of what he called “cheap and desperate local body antics” in the Dominion Post. Next, another of the paper's columnist, Dave Armstrong, wrote:

If a beggar steals or becomes intimidating, there are already laws in place to deal with that. Far from finding beggars offensive, I have found them obsequiously polite. Perhaps we could employ beggars to teach customer service to indifferent staff that can be found in some of our cafes?"


The front page of The Dominion Post reports councillors voting against a begging ban.

The Dominion Post reports councillors voting against a begging ban. Photo: screenshot

Lessons from the past

In the 2013 Wellington mayoral campaign, begging and homelessness barely featured, but in Auckland it coincided with a bid to get a bylaw to outlaw aggressive begging.

During debate over that, long-serving Herald columnist Brian Rudman said papers from the past ran frequent reports of people being locked up for repeated begging. But when they stopped locking beggars up, reports of complaints about beggars dried up.

Mr Rudman said the Auckland Council told him it was getting only about five complaints a month about begging in 2013. 

He also said the old Auckland City Council had an action plan in 2005 including the New Beginnings Court which dealt with minor crimes committed by the homeless.

"It sets up life plans for offenders, helping them break addictions, finding them places to live, helping them back into society. In its first two years the results were impressive," Mr Rudman reported.

That doesn't sound too different to the services several mayoral candidates in both Wellington and Auckland have said they want for the homeless and beggars today, but such ideas were dismissed in the Herald by Newstalk ZB’s Williams last week:

It's the usual politically correct waffle - a coordinated response with police, social agencies, central government, community groups to develop a comprehensive plan for these sorts of issues . . . blah blah blah.

Perhaps Sir Robert Jones was right after all about Donald Trump’s style cutting through here  - but in the media, not politics.