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Nothing stinks worse than a media beat-up – just look at the Wairarapa brouhaha

The writer prepares for a visit to Carterton. Photo/Greg Dixon

Conflicting reports are emerging over what caused 10 schoolchildren to be hospitalised in Wairarapa, as authorities work to find the cause of the mysterious substance that left about 30 kids sick. – the “news”

It was 2.30pm, September 21, 2018, and something was rotten in the heart of Wairarapa. Weirdly, it appeared to be a primary school in Carterton, coincidentally a town that bills itself as the “heart of the Wairarapa”.

Spookier still was the unhappy happenstance that meant we and our friend Slow Train, after indulging in a slap-up lunch in Greytown to mark the dear boy’s birthday, were driving through the very town at the very moment the great “mysterious substance” brouhaha was brewing.

Heading home to Masterton, we pootled through Carterton stuffed to the gills with warmed olives, home-made dumplings, fried calamari, bao buns, Korean spiced chicken nibbles and seafood chowder. Unsurprisingly, we were burping a little, though otherwise all seemed quiet. Save, of course, for the usual ungodly rumble of logging trucks – Carterton’s on State Highway 2 – and, this day, standing by the not-very-fetching clock tower at the heart of the heart of Wairarapa, two men who, to put not too fine a point on it, were suspicious looking characters. “Ban 1080”, said their signs. “Get up, stand up”, said their dreadlocks.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

On we drove. We were home in time for a short nap for Michele, and an early cocktail hour for Slow Train and me, and then, the television “news”.

“Children are being taken to hospital and dozens more are being decontaminated at their Carterton school right now after a mystery substance made them start vomiting,” began Newshub’s Melissa Davies, wearing her bad-news face as she introduced the shock-horror lead story.

Slow Train looked at me. I looked at Slow Train. “Was it him?” we were both thinking. We instantly dismissed our suspicions.

“It might’ve been those 1080 protesters,” I said. But no, Mike McRoberts had the good/bad oil: “It’s suspected the school may have accidentally been sprayed with pesticide as an aircraft flew over …” Hell’s bells! Accidental, low-flying terrorism!

“I’m not sure if it dropped anything or not,” a reputed “news” website reported Daniel, aged 12, saying soon after. “But after a few seconds, everything started to stink like poo.”

Here’s a thing: pesticides don’t smell like poo. So, no surprise that by the following day, with the children thankfully safe and well, the police said no such thing had happened.

So what was it? My mind reeled. Had someone in Room 4 let off a stink bomb? Had the stench of another bad week for the coalition Government drifted over the Remutakas? Or was it simply a brazen attempt “to put Carterton on the map” – this, after all, is an unpredictable town; it’s had both Georgina Beyer and Ron Mark as mayor. But my real suspicion was this: the stench was from the rotting corpse of daily journalism after it had finally, and deservedly, carked it from overdosing on clickbait, reporting speculation as news and breathless beat-ups.

“Police have arrested a tiny pile of mushroom compost after it caused a poo stink, which made children vomit,” said absolutely no “news” source two days later, though the culprit actually was compost, a dissatisfying and banal revelation, but also so bonkers it made me hoot.

Compost can be dangerous stuff, but to keep things in proportion, not nearly as dangerous as, say, garden hoses. According to accident figures, 254 people contracted Legionnaires’ disease from compost and potting mix in 2014, while more than 2000 were injured by pitiless hoses.

But neither compost nor hoses seem to have anything on mass hysteria. As the compost deliverer said, “I think a lot of people panicked. In retrospect, it was a bit over the top, really, for a little smell.”

You can’t blame the kids. Or teachers. Or parents. But hey, big-city media, before you make one of your increasingly rare visits to “the regions” in order to beat up wild speculation as “news”, ask yourself this: does it pass the poo stink test?

This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.