Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mainstream Media will dictate election result.


New Zealand has had the MMP electoral system operating since 1996 and despite overwhelming support for the introduction of a fairer system we are still grappling with a reluctance to fully engage with it. The mainstream media has a powerful part to play in ensuring that MMP is fully understood, that people are engaged with the process and are informed about most important issues confronting our politicians. It is my belief that there are serious flaws in how politics is reported in this country and that the media often shapes public perceptions in ways that stifle debate and understanding and will probably dictate the election outcome.

The fourth estate has important roles in both reporting the events of the the day and also providing robust critiquing of political events and national governance. When lobbyists and political parties are determined to promote their spin on any given issue there has to be some effort to filter the spin and  provide useful commentary and analysis.

Our print and television media now appear to manage themselves around a corporate model where maximizing profits takes precedence over solid reporting. Journalistic staff have been pared back to the barest minimum and junior (cheaper) reporters have taken on roles that were normally the domain of the more experienced journos. While the ability to write isn't necessarily confined to a particular age, some life experience is useful to cut through spin and bullshit. Government press releases and statements are being printed verbatim and are often presented as fact and there are few attempts to do the analysis and research that used to exemplify good journalistic practice. Many believe the corporate leadership of the Fairfax media monopoly are more likely to support the current government and this dictates editorial decision making. Even within New Zealand's relatively free press there are vested interests at work.

Personalities and crisis sell and this has been fully exploited by the National Government who have successfully shaped John Key's "everyman" image into one that resonates so well amongst voters that they are reluctant to have anyone else at the helm. It appears voters would rather suffer the consequences of National's unnecessarily harsh austerity measures than contemplate a new Prime Minister. The media are guilty of buying into National's tactics to the extent that leadership polls have taken precedence over policy and we now have a presidential style campaign that ignores the MMP environment and actively excludes minor parties. Leaders' debates will largely feature the two largest parties and there will be little attempt to look at the depth of talent within party lists.

While Phil Goff has sometimes fallen short and mismanaged some events the reporting of his performance has taken on the appearance of a witch hunt and interviewer bias is blatantly obvious. John Key, in comparison, has had an easy ride, his obvious fudging and dismissively shrugging off tough questions should not go unchallenged, but it generally is. It is a pity that the only way for the leaders of smaller parties to get attention is to court controversy and Hone Harawira exploits this well but suffers through the fact that his behaviour is scrutinized at the neglect of his party's policies.

Smaller parties become defined by their extremes, as these are more newsworthy than the breadth or depth of their policy. The media's simplistic approach also supports pigeonholing smaller parties and supporting stereotypes to the extent that media representation of the Greens as wholesome hippies is actively reinforced despite the evidence of being much broader in its membership and within its candidate list.

The Neo-liberal use of crisis to progress policy has also been effectively exploited by the National Government to great effect. Whether it be the cuts to education, ACC, state services or welfare, the Government has been able to have their spin promoted successfully in the media. When their manipulation of the true state of affairs is exposed, as with ACC, the media silence is deafening. This government has manipulated data and information almost to the level of lying and yet they have not been held accountable.

Despite the huge professional rejection of the Government's National Standards, for example, I have not been aware of any attempt by mainstream media to do any research on the issue. When there are huge funding discrepancies and priority disjoints in spending, like paying many times more to support the Americas Cup campaign ($36 Million) than cleaning our increasingly polluted rivers ($15 million), where is the reporting of these facts?

The future of our country and the direction that respective governments lead us is dependent on how well informed voters are and under the current regime they are ill-informed, the election result is predetermined and our future is shaky at best.

4 comments:

Shane Pleasance said...

Independent media outlets' first responsibility is to the shareholders of the company, and that is as it should be. That is, they need to shift units, sell advertising and generate revenues. I would posit that the standard of writing (should?) meets the expectations of the reader. This mutual intellectual sloth probably defines New Zealand mainstream media and it's audience.

One might argue that the the MSM should or do have some sort of social responsibilty. That may be so, but this inevitably reflects rational self interest, and again, ought to focus on sustainable advantage. Journalists write what the feel based on their knowledge of requirements, what theme they are expected to promote in order to be published. Are they interested in the truth? Would they know it if they saw it? Probably not.

My experience from living in other countries is that larger population bases give (media) businesses the opportunity to work into less mainstream customer groups, but still be sustainable.

Perhaps in NZ those tiny non-mainstream audiences are currently served by blogs?
At the heart of this is choice, and that is crucial. To read or not to read, is that the question? Or to purchase.

Some people might consider it worthy that government funded media is an opportunity for impartiality. It's a sinister Orwellian thought, but perhaps you might feel better if it reflected the values that you promote? I suppose that is what every government thinks. Have you ever seen impartiality? With this government or the last? And the fact is that when your revenue is assured (from the barrel of a gun from taxpayers) your accountability is only to the government, because the audience is the same dumbed down one we have been producing for years, and your competition is private enterprise.

On a positive note,there are good journalists in New Zealand. Great ones.
I also think that printed media is in a state of flux, and will continue to evolve.

A genuine open market, (in the absence of monopolies, state or otherwise) new media will have the opportunity to innovate and develop new products and markets.

Till then...

bsprout said...

You make some good points, Shane.

There will always be a conflicts of interest when profits are weighed against public service and journalistic ethics, as Mr Murdoch has discovered. I would hope, however, that newspapers could have mission statements that extend beyond just rewarding shareholders.

Investigative journalism in mainstream print media appears to be a thing of the past and, as you say, anything containing any depth of research now seems more commonly found in blogs (Gordon Campbell comes to mind).

Print media in new Zealand is now monopolized by Fairfax Media and despite having an increase in profits over double figures, I know few journalists (even good ones) who are well paid for what they do.
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=10708472 I think that paying a dozen top journalists well for going the extra mile on stories would be perfectly sustainable for them.

As you say we may bring it upon ourselves for not demanding anything more than what we are delivered, but then again there are probably many New Zealanders who don't know what a good newspaper looks like.

I must say, however, that local journalists have been writing well on a number of local issues, especially Michael Fallow, Matt Maley and some others who generally serve us well.

You suggest that I would feel more comfortable if publicly funded media reflected my personal values, you are right but I am actually wanting certain principles to be established that go beyond my self interest.

There is no reason why we can't have publicly funded but autonomous broadcasting services, for instance. National radio generally does a good job despite cuts in funding and threats of commercialization and television used to provide a better service and could do so again.

I just want important issues covered in depth, differing views expressed and debated and our politicians challenged and questioned properly when they fall short. Where are the programmes explaining the advantages and disadvantages of the political systems we have to vote on, or the history of why MMP came about in the first place? Where are the programmes analysing and comparing different parties' policies?

We seem to have moved away from the concept of professional ethics and community service to a world where the first consideration should be economic. For journalists it means they don't exist to inform, educate, analyse or critique but to titillate and entertain.

I don't want New Zealand to become like the US where popular media, Fox, has fabricated a world for the Tea Party community based on ignorance and unsubstantiated myth and so created an influential force that may have ultimately led to the economic destruction of their nation.

Shane Pleasance said...

If you want "ethical" reporting, use your own money and go start a paper. Knock yourself out.

Laugh of the day goes to the tea party movement "causing the economic destruction of the US."
Seriously, please do start a paper of your own. I for one promise to buy every copy.

bsprout said...

Shane-http://greenvoices.wordpress.com/2011/08/02/the-tea-party-makes-a-case-for-mmp/

Granted the US economy was already a mess before the Tea Party came along but they have the potential to finish it off by blocking any attempts to save it.