Sunday, October 23, 2005

Matt RW2 - Playboy

It is a covert rite of adolescent passage, and also the life’s work of an unapologetic old horn dog. It can be read for literate articles, or gawked at for pixel-perfect crotch shots. Tom Wolfe calls it one of those "one-handed magazines", and yet it has also engaged both sides of the brain for over six decades. It is Playboy.

In December 1953 Hugh Hefner printed 60,000 black and white copies of a magazine that was nearly published under the title Stag. This first issue of Playboy was financed with a loan from Hefner’s mother, a Methodist nurse who wanted her son to be a missionary, and sold-out due to snaps of Marilyn Monroe with nothing on but the radio. That issue now sells on eBay for $7,000 (copies of the January 1955 edition with sexpot Bettie Page as centerfold top the rankings at $17,000).

While it began small and focused on nudie pictures, by November 1972 Playboy was established as a popular literary heavyweight. It had more than 7 million paid subscribers, and published top-rank writers such as Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac and John Updike.

In 1962 Miles Davis starred in the first of the now-famous “Playboy Interview” series, a regular, in-depth Q&A. The subject choices and timing, while tilting towards Hollywood in recent years, have generally been prescient. Interviews have included Jimmy Hoffa (1963), Jean-Paul Satre (1965), Germaine Greer (1972) and Lech Walsea (1982). Jon Stewart was featured in March 2000, and Alex Hayley got his biography Autobiography of Malcolm X off the ground with a 1963 interview.

It is a common quip that husbands only read Playboy “for the articles.” While this may hold true for the 45 percent of readers who are over 35, the 18 to 35 year-olds are probably reading it for the pictures. Of girls. With big breasts. In the nude. Hefner defends his girly pictures as “tasteful” compared to competitors such as Penthouse who depict explicit sex. Airbrushing women in the pursuit of perfection is also part of the Playboy package, which explains the 1990 case of Pamela Anderson’s disappearing labia.

While Playboy’s pictures may today appear tame, the first issues were unequivocally radical as no one had dared challenge postal obscenity laws before. Hefner is quick to share credit with Alfred C. Kinsey for the sexual revolution. For this social project Kinsey gave his brains, while Hefner brought the porn.

Playboy is inseparable from its owner and publisher, who lives the lifestyle his magazine espouses. Hef, as he is known, is today 78 years-old and lives in a Los Angeles mansion-cum-harem enjoying polygamous relationships with an endless rotation of young blondes. He told Esquire that, "I wake up every day and go to bed every night knowing I’m the luckiest guy on the fucking planet."

And when he wakes he drinks Diet Pepsi for breakfast, prefers working from bed, and wears silk pajamas when he chooses to eventually rise. While no longer running the day-to-day minutiae of Playboy, he retains the title of editor-in-chief and writes cartoon captions and edits the regular Party Jokes page.

The subjects of the magazine’s advertisements and lifestyle features can kindly be called the “finer things” in a man’s life. There’s booze (rum, single-malt scotch, tequila, vodka and beer), cigarettes and cigars, chic male underwear, trucks and motorbikes, and a whole host of in-house merchandise (clothing, books, and even a videogame: Playboy - The Mansion).

Today the magazine is hemmed in by the bawdy and adolescent lad-mags such as Maxim and Stuff on one side, and on the other by XXX pornography on the internet (although Playboy was, in 1994, the first national magazine with a website). Paid circulation has been in steady decline, and today is around 3 million. The editorial director has been changed three times in five years, at the behest of Hef, who maintains ultimate control.

Because of this long oversight by one man, the magazine hasn’t dramatically changed over the past 52 years. Today it reads not as radical, but as a monument to what radical once was. Like the Harley-Davidson featured in its advertisements, Playboy has become an American classic.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

What they didn't want you to read

Here's what's been causing all the fuss. Kind of an anticlimax, really:


5-10% FEE RISE!


by Salient staff reporters

Leaked documents reveal that Vic students are in for a massive increase in fees in 2006, with the University considering 5-10% across-the-board fee rises.

At the time of writing, the University has threatened legal action to stop Salient from publishing this information. (So if you're reading this - yay!)

According to the leaked documents, Vice-Chancellor Pat Walsh presented four options for fee increases in 2006 (for undergraduate and Honours courses):

1. 5% increase across-the-board

2. 10% increase for Humanities and Education; 5% increase for everyone else

3. 10% increase for Law, Humanities and Education; 5% increase for everyone else

4. 10% increase across-the-board

Under all four options, all postgraduate fees will increase by $500 per Equivalent Full-Time Student (EFTS).

In the documents, Vice-Chancellor Pat Walsh justified the increase by saying that the "real levels of government funding continue to decline", and that the University's other major revenue source, student fees, is also expected to be reduced.

In particular, international EFTS has dropped by 10% in 2005, costing Vic an estimated $2m per year. Although the general decline in the number of international students has not hit Vic as hard as some of the other universities, the effect of the decline is expected to compound over the next few years as the lower number of students progress through to second- and third-year, etc.

International student fees generated $37m in revenue for Vic in 2005.

Vic is currently projected to run a $7.8m surplus in 2005, or 3.5% of its total revenue - above the Tertiary Advisory Monitoring Unit's guideline that it is prudent to run a surplus of 3%.

Despite the current surplus, the document says that unavoidable IT and library costs may add up to as much as $2.4m, with staff pay rise and promotion increases adding up to an extra $6.7m. Meanwhile, revenue is only projected to increase by $4.4m. The document concludes that continuing to achieve the necessary 3% surplus without "substantial redundancies" would be a "testing challenge".

There are also concerns that the level of fees is connected to the prestige of the university. One of the Deans says that the "level of fees implies that VUW offers a lower quality product in comparison with other universities. The fee level is not commensurate with the quality of the [Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences] teaching and research programmes."

Though any fee increases above the 5% limit imposed by the Fee Maxima scheme requires special exemption from the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC), a 10% increase would still leave Vic's fees on the low-end for Humanities, mid-range in Law, Science and Architecture & Design, but on the high-end for Commerce when compared with other universities in New Zealand.

A 10% increase will cost full-time undergraduate and Honours students $300-400 per year, and full-time postgraduate students $500 per year.

VUWSA President Jeremy Greenbrook has condemned the proposals, calling it "unjustified and plain greedy". He says the University has been increasing its surpluses over the past few years and "always" underestimates the student and revenue figures.

Vice-Chancellor Pat Walsh has refused to comment on the proposals contained in the documents, saying that the documents were "provided in the public excluded business of the Finance Committee, and which the full Council has not yet seen ... casual acceptance that confidentiality can be routinely breached would make effective governance and management of the University impossible. It is utterly inconsistent with the statutory responsibilities of any member of Council, let alone my responsibilities as Vice-Chancellor."

"Salient has no right to publish information that it is not entitled to have in its possession," says Walsh, "and the University will take appropriate action to protect the integrity of its governance processes."

Vic's move follows Massey University's recent decision to ask TEC for an exemption to raise fees by 10%. Such an exemption is only given under "exceptional" circumstances. The education provider has to prove that the cost of the course is not covered by the income generated, the course could not be cross-subsidised from an overall surplus and that raising fees would impact on the ability of the university to meet the government's tertiary education strategy.

TEC Policy Manager James Turner says the university would have to be in "financial shit, basically" to have an exemption granted. That Vic already had low fees was irrelevant, and the TEC board would closely analyse the increasing costs. There was also a requirement for students to be consulted about any fee increases and students' associations could make submissions to the TEC, he says.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Salient Victorious?

I hear good news might be on the way. A settlement has been reached and Salient is due for unadulterated release.

Sounds like a TKO for the little guys...

...But there still seems to be some shenanigans going on. The media arrived to film the glorious emancipation, but University authorities had mysteriously vanished and turned their phones off. It seems no one remaining at the university knows where the seized magazines are.

Victoria looks to be delaying the inevitable. Terri Schiavo died with more dignity. (Note, this comparison originally read more lyrically, and less correctly: "Terra Schwab died with more dignity." Ahem.)

UPDATE: And they're in. Salient delivered to overjoyed staff at 17:17, Wellington time.

And here's the statement issued in relation to the settlement:

Joint Statement by Vice-Chancellor and VOWS/Salient

Professor Pat Walsh, Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington ("prop. Walsh"), The Victoria University of Wellington Students' Association("VOWS") and the editorial staff of Salient newspaper("Salient") are pleased to record that the issues between them which led the Vice-Chancellor to obtain an injunction in relation to the publication of certain confidential information have now been resolved.

The parties have agreed that:

The confidential documents leaked to VOWS and Salient will forthwith be returned by VOWS/Salient to prof. Walsh and all copies destroyed;

The interim injunction obtained by prop. Walsh in relation to the publication of the Salient edition of 3 October may be discharged and costs will lie where they fall;

The 3 October edition of Salient may be distributed;

All parties look forward to continuation of positive working relationships.

Beyond this statement, none of the parties (prof. Walsh, VOWS and Salient) will be making any further comment to the media about the Court proceedings CHIP 2005 485 2038

Sunday, October 02, 2005

No binoculars in the ivory tower

Injunctions are the heavy artillery in media wars, barring actual bars. In New Zealand we have no Judith Miller, but a court injunction was served today by a university, Victoria, on Salient, its student magazine. The reason: Confidential documents were leaked to Salient detailing plans to raise fees by a level that would require government approval.

All 6,000 copies of the magazine are now under university lock and key. But the article in question can be read here. It's legal. And it's a case of incompetence from an institute of higher learning.

Rather than being effective in suppressing an issue of significant public interest (for students, questions about student fees rate quite highly), Victoria University has shown that sometimes it's best to grin and bear it. Artillery tend to attract calls of overkill.

Victoria has failed to note the developing dynamic in student media. The story has been published in Critic, and also ran in Nexus, and Chaff. These three publications are also student rags, working together through the ASPA newswire. Author of the disputed article, Keith Ng, flagged this co-operation in this months-old press release, and the little ASPA logos on shared stories mean many students are also aware of this service.

ASPA were not listed in the injunction.

I understand the injunction was served on Salient only late on Sunday evening, by accident. Salient editor Emily Braunstien said the university had intended serving it at 10am on Monday morning. By which point, of course, these three other magazines had already been printed and were being distributed. Salient could be seized, but word was already out.

Blogs and Scoop have also stepped onto the case. Name suppression was bent recently by the internet in the case of Mark Ellis and Brent Todd, but the case of Salient vs. Victoria seems a much more defensible, and important, skirting of press suppression.

The effect of all this, has been unwelcome attention from many news outlets over the injunction, which is all out of proportion to the original story. I wrote similar stories about proposed fee rises in 2003, which died quick, lonely deaths.

And the original purpose of the injunction, to prevent confidential information from being made public, is somewhat pointless if there are already 15,000 copies of it printed and numerous internet hyperlinks. Not to mention keen interest in the court case scheduled for Thursday.

This from Checkpoint, an interview with Victoria Vice-Chancellor Pat Walsh:
Radio New Zealand: You are aware the information has already been published. Will you be serving further injunctions?

Pat Walsh: I was only made aware of that two minutes ago by you. I would need to consider the issues and probably make a decision within 12 hours.

RNZ: That might make the whole process of seeking an injunction rather pointless.

Walsh: That's correct. It may do.
Victoria has nothing to gain by continuing court action. Unless, of course, they're after a test case of media and internet freedom where they begin firmly on the back foot.

UPDATE: More comment from Lyndon Hood at Fightingtalk, arguing the case needs big-media support otherwise a nasty precedent might stand, and Tze Ming Mok at Public Address, who sees a suprising lack of attention-whoring from Salient.

DISCLAIMER: The author worked as deputy editor at Salient in 2003, and probably knows too much.

Just in case

After correspondence with Victoria University, this post has been voluntarily, and temporarily, removed. This campaign is ongoing, pending further developments. Either it'll blow over, or it'll blow up. The ball is in Victoria's court...

UPDATE: I hear good news might be on the way. A settlement has been reached and Salient is due for release. Sounds like a TKO for the little guys...

If you're after the Critic version of the article: it is here.

The original, liberated version of the Salient's take will appear here (and I imagine elsewhere), ASAP.