Nigel Latta: Why should we listen to him?

By Catherine Masters

He went inside the minds of our most dangerous prisoners, told us how to bring up our kids, and now Nigel Latta turns moral guardian in search of answers to society’s biggest problems. But why should we listen to him? By Catherine Masters.

Nigel Latta says the rationale for his new TV show is that he has spent 20 years "in among all that stuff" and he'll be offering information rather than advice. Photo / Doug Sherring
Nigel Latta says the rationale for his new TV show is that he has spent 20 years "in among all that stuff" and he'll be offering information rather than advice. Photo / Doug Sherring

Nigel Latta goes back to school and has a go at deciphering poetry. Nigel Latta goes to prison. He is sentenced, strip searched and put in a cell overnight. Nigel Latta has a blood test and radically changes his diet after learning about sugar.

Nigel Latta anti-fans may be flinching but Latta's new six-part television series covers serious subjects, which are treated seriously, albeit in Latta's hands-on style.

The clinical psychologist says he is proud of these shows, which start on TV One on July 29, and that they are among the most substantive "bits of telly" he has done.

They are titled Nigel Latta but he says they are not about him, although he does have plenty of opinions. A team of researchers and directors were involved, and many experts in their fields interviewed, from the head of Treasury to economists, educators, academics, drug and alcohol counsellors and social workers, through to families struggling to survive, to men who have abused their families and others who have been in jail.

The series raises many questions and offers solutions. Is our education system in crisis? Is the prison system in crisis?

How worried should we be about the gap between rich and poor? How bad is the country's love affair with alcohol? Why are so many children in New Zealand killed? And even: is sugar the new fat?

Another question might be: Why should we listen to Nigel Latta? Latta doesn't seem offended by the question. "I don't know why people should listen - only if they find it interesting, I guess," he says.

He has wandered into the cafe in Mt Eden looking as he does on the telly, not dressed up and not dressed down: jeans, shirt, jacket, casual shoes.

He's mostly laid-back but you can tell when he gets angry because he uses words such as "bollocks".

The rationale behind the series, he says, is that he has spent 20 years "in among all that stuff". He has worked in prisons and, he says, with thousands of families.

Latta first appeared on our screens with Beyond the Darklands, which looked at some of the country's high-profile offenders, and followed with his series of politically incorrect programmes where he imparted his views on parenting and teenagers and cracked a lot of jokes.

The new series, he says, is about giving information, not advice.

This is where television is useful, because it allows the country to ask important questions such as: where does alcohol fit into our world?

I've seen the coal face end of the stuff for a long time, but I learned a bunch of things that made me even angrier.
Nigel Latta

He has come out the other side of the series with definite views. For example, he says we keep hearing the education system is in crisis and that he went into the classroom sceptical about NCEA but was pleasantly surprised. The education system is much better than when he was at school, he thinks.

But alcohol is another story. It's behind much of our prison, child abuse and family violence statistics and he has plenty to say about the alcohol industry and lack of effective action by politicians.

"Clearly I have a view that I take in the show and I'm not apologetic for that at all," Latta says.

"But [it's] trying to put as much of that information out there as we can because a lot of these issues just quietly tick away but we don't really talk about them."

We should be talking about them, he says - there is an election coming.

He hopes the series at least starts people thinking: "These are issues I've been working clinically for over 20 years so I've seen the coal face end of the stuff for a long time, but I learned a bunch of things that made me even angrier."

From marine science to psychology

Before Nigel Latta became a clinical psychologist he studied marine science and soon he will be appearing on television going to Antarctica, and in other shows will be explaining science.

On television, he says, people have you pegged as one thing and when you do something different they go, "Oh, that's not you".

"But actually it is, it's just that you didn't know."

When filming in Antarctica he was surprised by penguins, which he says are the worst parents on Earth because along comes a seabird and drags off the baby and the parents "will literally go, 'oh, yeah' and that's it".

Latta, 47, grew up in Oamaru in the days of Jacques Cousteau and went to Otago University thinking he would quite like to be one of those natural history guys. He obtained a BSc in zoology and then a master's degree in marine science.

The science show is about making the subject interesting and relevant. In one episode he looks at the science of fire and burns down a house with the Fire Service.

He reckons he had "about 87 different changes of career" ideas and at one time came close to joining the police. Philosophy, medicine and nursing were also options at one point but in the end he went to Auckland University and did a master's degree, gaining first-class honours in psychology and a postgraduate diploma in clinical psychology.

Despite rumours that you had to be messed up to do psychology, he says he doesn't come from a dysfunctional family - dad was a builder and his mother a stay-at-home mum. "I thought, God, we don't have anything terrible that happened to us. Bugger."

On the prison system

Yes, we see Latta with his shirt off and he says although there is no cavity searching, there is squatting.

He also says his night in Rimutaka Prison was "one of the most bleak and depressing things I've ever done".

He explains that in Beyond the Darklands he dealt with the 5 per cent of people he believes should be locked up forever, but that he wanted to understand the other 95 per cent in prison who will get out, and who often have raging drug and alcohol problems behind their offending.

To the many people who continually call for tougher sentences, including politicians from all spectrums who jump on this popular voter bandwagon, Latta says this is nonsense.

"We get things in the mail now from various political parties talking about how they're going to get tough on crime and three strikes and all that bollocks and it just annoys me because I think it's a very simplistic way of looking at crime.

On inequality

The chasm between the haves and the have nots is something we should be very worried about, according to Latta.

Research shows the greater the inequality, the more social problems there are.

"I know some people roll their eyes and they see that as just making excuses, but it's not."

He says he realised when one of his friends lost his job how fine a line it is.

"And then suddenly all of those lazy, poor people in food banks become us, because that's actually who they are."

In the show and in person, he is scathing about the so-called trickle-down effect.

The whole idea is rubbish. It has been put forward as an idea for 30 years, but wealth trickles up and sideways, not down, he says.

The good news, he says, is there are things we can do and are doing about inequality, such as the campaign for a living wage, and the fact that some in the business world are stepping up to make business a force for change.

"We know that people in prisons have psychiatric problems, they have alcohol and drug problems, they have abuse and neglect stuff, so this idea that getting tough on crime is going to solve the problem is just silly."

On education

The self-styled parenting guru is not angry about the education system. Many of the topics he deals with are sobering (although he often says "we can fix this"), but he says our children's education is in good hands.

Latta, who hated school because it was dull, spent time in two schools in Auckland, wandering around thinking "this is really fun".

"There's all this constant blathering on about a crisis in education.

"Actually, we have a really good education system; it has stacked up pretty well internationally.

"The way we teach kids is way better. It's more based on evidence and research about the things that actually help children to learn."

In the programme, Latta heads to Pakuranga College, where he sits in on classes in English, maths, science and product and design technology. He also has a go at PE, dance class and panel beating.

Tablets and technology are everywhere and one of the messages is that parents who are worried can relax because NCEA teaches students how to learn and inquire rather than just store knowledge.

Latta also goes to Pt England Primary School near Glen Innes, which has the lowest decile rating, 1A, but it is a "fantastic" school where children are taught strategy learning rather than rote learning.

"You ask this little group of kids in a decile 1A school what they want to do and it's like: doctor, lawyer, teacher. I think one wanted to be a magician."

On alcohol

This episode made Latta "really kind of pretty wild". He says the alcohol industry, which is "as slippery as all get-out", is slow to tell us somethings, such as that in women, drinking increases the relative risk of breast cancer, but is fast to push other messages.

"They're very quick to tell us all that bullshit about how, you know, a glass of wine is good for your heart - no, it isn't. You have to drink so much red wine to get the amount of stuff that's supposedly good for your heart [and] it causes all this other damage at the same time."

It annoys the heck out of him that the Law Commission produced a 514-page report about the sale of Liquor Act but the Government "ignored all of the important things and we did the silly things.

"If I was in charge of the world, I would get it out of supermarkets, I would restrict the places you could sell it, I'd stop advertising and I'd make it more expensive, just like we did with cigarettes, because the impact is the same."

On child abuse

Although we tend to focus on the high-profile cases, they are only a small part of an appalling family violence problem, Latta says. This episode features one of the "most intense" conversations he's ever had, with a man who used to abuse his family but who now gives talks on stopping violence.

He talks to others, including two women from an agency who work with violent men and difficult families and who do "really amazing stuff".

There are many good things going on, he says - what we don't need are more "friggin' inquiries", because we know strategies such as early intervention are key.

"There's a crap-load of science that says this stuff is the way to go, so I don't understand why we still need to have more people fossicking about to find what the problem is."

On sugar

Latta used to roll his eyes at the idea sugar was toxic but after looking at obesity and diabetes and the science around sugar and dietary fat, he now thinks "basically everything we've been told for the past 30 years about eating is wrong".

Politicians, he says, have dropped the ball on all sorts of fronts, from sugar to inequality.

He won't say how he will vote in the coming election but says voters need to ask more probing questions of candidates.

"If your local MP says at a shopping centre they're going to get tough on crime, ask them how much money are you going to give to alcohol and drug treatment?"

- Herald on Sunday

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