Red Alert

The trashing of politics and media

Posted by on May 15th, 2011

I’ve been writing for a while about the degradation of quality media in this country and building a case for strengthening it.

I have also written at various times about how cynicism towards politics and politicians has become like a cancer in our society. That it creates distance and distrust between people and politicians and has made the practice of democracy somewhat of a farce.

A couple of weeks ago a former senior Australian politician, Lindsay Tanner released a book called Sideshow, dumbing down democracy, which delved into both these subjects. Lindsay was Minister of Finance in the Labor Government and unexpectedly resigned at the last election. I have enormous respect for him as a man and a politician.

He writes of the mass disillusionment with politics in Australia and describes how politicians have become increasingly robotic, with scripted stunts and gimicks.

He talks of the pressures on media to be competitive and the impact of technology-change which has squeezed out much of the commercial media’s ability to be serious and considered about national politics. Instead, commercial media has become a zone of ultra sensationalsim, personalities, celebrities, trivia and gimicks. And politicians have responded by becoming more defensive and robotic to protect themselves.

He says nobody is particularly to blame, it’s the market pressures. But that two crafts; politics and serious journalism, have been trashed in the process.

Sound familiar? I think it’s worse here in NZ  because we don’t have the diversity of media that Australia has. But the hunger for trivia is increasing.

And as Kris Faafoi said in the debate in parliament last week on the Bill that axes the TVNZ Charter, the news on TV is becoming less important than the ad breaks in between news items. One could sometimes say indistinguishable from ad breaks.

We need serious debate about these issues in our country. If you’re interested; listen to Lindsay Tanner being interviewed on Australian Sky News by political editor David Speers.

And then watch the ABC’s MediaWatch clip which lays out in frightening detail the subsequent media coverage of Tanner’s book launch, in precisely the way he predicted it would play out in the media. As an attack on the government of which he was previously a part. Despite him trying to generate discussion about how the media interacts with politics.

How do we get critical analysis and discussion back into our public discourse in this country? That’s a pretty important and urgent question I think. It’s unlikely to come through commercial broadcast media. That leaves the depleted public broadcast media. And print, which faces similar issues. The demise of NZPA has raised some critical issues for our news media generally as we  will soon no longer have a national news agency.

Do New Zealanders care? Jonathan Coleman, the undistinguished Minister of Broadcasting, thinks they don’t. He reckons we all want to exist on a diet of reality TV. Do we really? And what do we do when our news and reality TV become indistinguishable?


47 Responses to “The trashing of politics and media”

  1. Stan says:

    Read what George Orwell wrote in his book “Nineteen Eighty Four”

    ““And the Records Department, after all, was itself only a single branch of the Ministry of Truth, whose primary job was not to reconstruct the past but to supply the citizens of Oceania with newspapers, films, textbooks, telescreen programs, plays, novels — with every conceivable kind of information, instruction or entertainment, from a statue to a slogan, from a lyric poem to a biological treatise, and from a child’s spelling book to a Newspeak dictionary. And the Ministry had not only to supply the multifarious deeds of the Party, but also to repeat the whole operation at a lower level for the benefit of the proletariat. There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers, containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five cent novelettes, films oozing with sex and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versifcator. There was even a whole subsection — Pornosec, it was called in Newspeak — engaged in producing the lowest kind of pornography, which was sent out in sealed packets and which no Party member, other than those who worked on it, was permitted to look at”

    Apart from the fact that the corporate controlled media in 2011 is the antithesis of the state controlled Ministry of Truth in the book, Orwell wasn’t too far off the mark. The ABC Media Watch clip shows how far the mind control is extending in Australia, and as pointed out, its worse here. The media are increasingly telling ‘us’ what to think about issues, and it is becoming more and more common to have TV political journalists (e.g Gower and Garner on TV3) tell ‘us’ how to interpret events. Let’s plan for an independent public broadcasting system that will look objectively at all events without grace or favour to any one side of a debate.

  2. dave says:

    If journalists got paid the same as politicians now do and politicians got paid the same as journos now do, perhaps we`d get quality people in journalism and see less 20 something females outta journo school get employed because of the way they look, not for how they can spell or gather news.

    And politicians’ spelling wouldn’t change one iota in our demcoracy.

  3. Andrew says:

    Jesus, Stan! Talk about nailing it on the head!

  4. Todd says:

    Cyncism towards politics and politicians has become like a cancer in our society.

    will give you the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise I would regard this as a cynical attempt to get around a suppression order. Trevor

  5. Inspired by the deeds of Woodward & Bernstein on Watergate and Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon papers, I wanted to be a journalist. But once I had spent time in news rooms I realized the reality of modern, commercial journalism was light years away from what had inspired me. Worst of all was the realisation that a small group of people in a handful of corporations control much of the media in the English-speaking world. Worse, still, Associated Press and Reuters have a virtual monopoly over day to days from non-English countries and regions. There is no real “freedom of the press” unless you belong to this small group of mass media proprietors. The rest of us only recently have been able to use the Internet to share information and opinion. But the Internet still isn’t the mainstream.

    I see little improvement until we require NZ media to be owned and operated by NZ residents and citizens, combined with restrictions on concentration iof media

  6. mr man says:

    Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper.

    - George Orwell

    If you’ve read the book then you’ll notice the similarities between Osama Bin Laden and Emmanuel Goldstein.

    Good ol’ George. He got shot by a fascist sniper outside Madrid and all he could think of was how annoyed his wife would be. Hilarious.

  7. c says:

    “And what do we do when our news and reality TV become indistinguishable?”

    Stop watching – go online for news. We only use our TV now for watching DVDs – and Media7 :) Still though, there are some good sources of news coverage online, but not enough because we’re such a small country.

  8. Nick Taylor says:

    Indeed, the TV News (watched by 1/6th of the country) is almost a worse disgrace (sport, crime and astrology) than the parliamentary “debate” we witnessed recently over s92a… which for those who don’t know, was anti-internet legislation, pushed-for (and paid-for?) by the American Govt… rushed through under Christchurch “Emergency” Legislation with what appeared to be zero prior-notice.

    It looked like there were about 12 people there, and the majority of those clearly had no idea what they were talking about. “Incompetent” and “Disgrace” were words I used a lot in the following week.

    I wrote to my MP… and he replied, “yes, such and such was aware she had made a bad speech”. But she hadn’t made a bad speech – that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that she was utterly incompetent to be in the room.

    Cynical?

    With very few exceptions (and there are exceptions) I wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire.

    And it’s not just because the media is pathetically inadequate (sports, crime and astrology), and betraying its duties as The 4th Estate – it’s also because our elected representatives are betraying the people who vote for them. The cynicism is well deserved.

    Do New Zealanders care? Yea – well one of them does.

  9. Todd says:

    If there is a name in that list that is subject to a suppression order, I am not aware of it. Please remove only the name that the order pertains to, instead of my entire post.

    I think that Clare Curran’s post insults the intelligence of voters. Politicians only have themselves to blame for the public’s low opinion of them. It is cynical to remove my post Trevor. Please consider this a formal complaint.

    Wall of Shame

    David Gerrett
    Graham Capill
    Donna Awatere Huata
    Trevor Rogers
    David Chaytor
    Ruth Dyson
    Taito Philip Field
    Nick Smith
    Roger McClay
    Bob Clarkson
    David Butcher
    Phil Heatley

  10. Paul says:

    I was a journalist for a decade. It’s all I ever wanted to do and I loved it.

    But eventually I had to give it up because it pays so very poorly. I doubled my salary going into PR. Doubled. That’s just not right.

    When I started as a reporter in 1997 freelancers were paid around 40c/word. Today I understand the averages 25c/word.

    Journalism will reach the point where the only people able and willing to practice it are either independently wealthy or have no alternatives.

    I am very bitter about this.

  11. Todd says:

    How could I miss Pansy Yu Fong Wong off that list.

  12. Commonsense says:

    Lindsay Tanner and you use the term “media” but what you mean is conventional media, i.e. radio, newspapers and TV. From that perspective, it’s spot on.

    Social media holds out the promise to change things. By being a two-way medium, it fundamentally changes the dynamics. The antidote to cynicism is building trust based on genuine openness, direct dialogue, and shared insights.

    Not that it’s going to be easy. But of the two, politicians and media, it won’t be the media to blame.

    Conventional media remains a very powerful force. The tide of social media is rising and there are now a growing number of examples- from electing a President of the most powerful nation to overthrowing despots- that ignoring its opportunities and pitfalls is short-sighted.

  13. Spud says:

    I care Clare, they are ruining our news! :evil:

    Though I will admit I love the sensationlism etc :oops:

    @Stan – I read that book, so creepy. :-(

    @c – enjoy media 7 while it lasts, they want to murder it! :-(

    @Paul – :-( That sucks man :-(

  14. darrenw says:

    How about you set an example Clare by giving them some real news to report on rather than the current Labour approach of making up stories and fabricating stuff out of nothing. I suggest they are reporting what they are fed. Garbage in, garbage out

  15. Phillip says:

    Clare – This reads like you think that political journalists aren’t doing a good enough job of sticking it to the govt of the day. Perhaps if you and your Labour opposition colleagues were doing a better job of giving them decent ammunition, then we’d see more of this quality journalism you pine for. We don’t care about BMWs or housing renovations – we’re more worried about the GST rise and the increasing price of petrol affecting the prices of everyday goods.

    But do you really think slagging off the existing political journos is the way to create debate on this? Sounds like you’ve alienated all of the press gallery in one easy move. And attacking the media aligns you with such stellar politicians as Winston Peters and Rodney Hide, or business folk like Mark Hotchin. You’ve done some great work in opposition, like on s92a. This however, is poorly lacking.

  16. Carol says:

    For the last few weeks I haven’t watched TV3 or TV One evening news. My life feels much better for it. I get all the news I need from the web, National Radio, Stratos and sometimes TVNZ7. I limit my views of the NZ Herald site, and often look and googlenewsNZ for headlines rather than visit a specific NZ News site.

  17. dave says:

    Clare,
    last time I did journalism work I was paid $US0.50 a word. That was Feb/March/April this year. Needless to say it was not for the NZ Media. I was paid 30k a year last time I did journalism for the NZ media – several years ago. I covered two elections and many of the releases that came out of parliament were crap.

    Some of the blog posts written by bloggers are more newsworthy than MSM reports.And if political parties gave media some real news, politicians like yourself would have a better case for strengthening the media.

    NZ media – and its sub-editing – has descended to the level of parliaments question time.

  18. tracey says:

    The Sat Herald led with an article about an assault by a rugby player. LED with it. In the world we live in their editor thought we needed to know that, the most, and urgently

  19. tracey says:

    There are some high quality people in some low paid professions because for some of these people pride and passion is more important than the pay packet. Some of you may doubt this but I live with someone whose career has always been driven by the passion and drive not the pay packet. It’s one of the reasons we don’t have children, because we could ill afford them. Everyday I see the reward of the former though. Never waking up wishing it were still Sunday, taking great pride, giving respect and being respected, and the achievements seem ongoing.

    I have an Uncle who was a journalist, was the first western reporter to interview Ian Smith in Rhodesia. He ended up going into PR, for the same reasons given above, he had a wife from a wealthy society family and a child, and the pressures to move up were immense. he also went into politics, or tried. Failed in Remuera against Doug Graham and then was offered a safer seat elsewhere but his wife didnt want to move to Wellington. He went back to PR and it ate him away everyday, and he NEVER achieved what he might have, never found out if he could make a difference…

  20. Shorter Curran: ‘Why does the media focus on trivial, irrelevant stories instead of tackling the real substantive issues that ordinary . . . Oh my GOD! The Prime Minister had Premier House painted!

  21. dave says:

    .. and asks questions in parliament so they can get info for a media release – and another one with an inflammatory heading. Oh my GOD! indeed.

  22. tracey says:

    Oh my GOD! The Prime Minister sat in a racing car!
    Oh my GOD! The Prime Minister went into the All Black’s dressing room!

    Governor General’s are the frippery of a state not the PM (Of whichever party is ruling).

  23. Richard the First says:

    Tracey, that should be ‘Governors General’. :D

  24. Julian Blanchard says:

    The spotlight on the news media in NZ has increased because of the availability of high quality news reporting we are exposed to now via the internet and Sky. I don’t think that our media has been dumbed down, but we are now exposed to a higher level internationally. Having a fully funded TVNZ won’t change the quality of news reporting.

  25. tracey says:

    Thanks RT1, you should know!

  26. jennifer says:

    One of my ACT buddies argues the liberal left only have themselves to blame, since they replaced winning and excellence with participation and mediocrity, which now pervade both the news room and the Parliament. No wonder Key is on 50 percent. He’s simply running his government like the teachers run the class rooms.

  27. Carol says:

    Jennifer, a government, like classrooms, should be managed for the benefit of all (in the classroom or country), rather than just for the winners. It doesn’t mean embracing mediocrity. Mediocrity is not the opposite to competitions with winners & losers.

    Unfortunately, Key is not managing the country well for the benefit of all citizens. Classroom teachers generally do a much better job in managing their classrooms.

  28. ehoa says:

    The difference between the Parliamentary press gallery and sports press…the latter still has some morals and ethics.

  29. Draco T Bastard says:

    @Phillip

    This reads like you think that political journalists aren’t doing a good enough job of sticking it to the govt of the day.

    They’re not supposed to be “sticking it to the government” but actually reporting what’s news rather than sensationalist gossip which is what we get now.

    Perhaps if you and your Labour opposition colleagues were doing a better job of giving them decent ammunition, then we’d see more of this quality journalism you pine for.

    They’re supposed to be reporters going out and investigating what’s happening – not waiting to be fed the grist on a plate from the politicians. If they were doing their job NACT wouldn’t be so high in the polls because the populace would actually be well informed.

    But do you really think slagging off the existing political journos is the way to create debate on this?

    Do you think it more likely that we’ll get any change if we tell them that they’re doing a good job or if we tell them that their reporting sux?

    You really just sound like an apologist for mediocrity there.

    @Danyl Mclauchlan
    When the government is telling everyone to tighten their belts that’s actually a news story. Did it have to be painted now or could it have waited a couple of years until the economy was doing better without costing any more?

    @Julian Blanchard

    Having a fully funded TVNZ won’t change the quality of news reporting.

    Yes it will because the journalists won’t be restricted by cost cutting measures that makes it difficult to impossible to do their job. This will allow them to research and develop actual news articles rather than printing off reworded press releases.

    w00t for edit button :D

  30. When the government is telling everyone to tighten their belts that’s actually a news story. Did it have to be painted now or could it have waited a couple of years until the economy was doing better without costing any more?

    In terms of the overall budget the cost is minuscule. It’s just a government building: the state pays for their maintenance. It’s only different from a school or a state house – which are also being repainted during the recession – in that the PM lives in it, and Labour are obsessed with trying to smear him, even though they’ve been doing it constantly for four years and have yet to dent his popularity or lift their own through this strategy.

    I agree it’s a story – in the sense that it has news value, journalists will report it etc – but it’s a STUPID story, and Labour don’t get to run stupid, trivial story after stupid, trivial story and then complain about the lack of serious, issues-based coverage in the media.

  31. jennifer says:

    @ Danyl, you say that “Labour are obsessed with trying to smear him”. Well, you are probably correct. But how is that different from what they did to Clark, for years? Real nasty, personal stuff, too. So who invented these new rules? Could it be the Tories, and their allies on the crazy left? Surely not. They only have the most noble of motives.

  32. Carol says:

    Danyl, the painting story was not the only thing Labour questioned the budget on recently, but it’s one of the ones the MSM foregrounded. Holmes on qu & qa this week, went with the labour are only focusing on trivialities line. He pretty much said that, with all the hot issues like Kiwisaver, Labour only questioned the government on the trivialities.

    But if you look you will see, Labour (and the Greens) have been consistently asking questions and putting out press statements on things like Kiwisaver, employment and income issues, eg see here:

    http://www.parliament.nz/en-NZ/PB/Business/QOA/

    But instead of looking more deeply into these issues, and doing headline articles contrasting the different party positions on them, the MSM tend to play up the trivialities more. So it’s not surprising that politiians also try to get some attention with the trivialities. If the media were doing their 4th estate job better, the politicians would also rise to it.

  33. old sammy says:

    Jennifer, yes of course the Right smeared Clark. It was nasty, and middle-of-the-road voters were turned off by it, in 1999 and 2002. By 2005 it was having some effect, but Clark still won her third term.

    If Labour’s strategy is to emulate the Right’s personal attacks and focus on trivia, they should not be surprised if they get the same result: a long spell in opposition.

    Paintergate = Painting Premier House. Same crap, same reaction from the voters. Only blinkered tribalists are unable to see this, on both sides.

    Theresa May famously called the British Conservatives the “Nasty Party”, when they were in opposition. It wasn’t a compliment, and the voters agreed with her. So they kept on rejecting the “Nasty” Tories, at election after election.

    When the Tories finally got back into power, they had spent thirteen long years in the wilderness, and had gone through FIVE leaders.

    Are Labour prepared to wait that long?

    Win the election on positive policy. Lose the election on negative irrelevance. Labour MPs, it’s your call.

  34. old sammy says:

    @Carol

    I rebutted that argument in my comment here:

    http://blog.labour.org.nz/index.php/2011/05/10/walking-and-chewing-gum

    “He pretty much said that, with all the hot issues like Kiwisaver, Labour only questioned the government on the trivialities.”

    This is correct, see Hansard.

  35. jennifer says:

    @ old sammy, you may be right, but I can’t remember the media trashing the Tory tactics. I can remember them covering the smears, though, as if they were hard news and as if opinion was verified fact. I guess now that a handful of folks in the media have decided that Goff can’t win and Key deserves a second term, we can dispense with all this democracy nonsense. Think how much money it would save off the deficit? We are borrowing $400 million a second, after all.

  36. Tracey says:

    “since they replaced winning and excellence with participation and mediocrity”

    Oh good an oft repeated urban myth masquerading as fact.

  37. Paul Carruthers says:

    One of the core issues is the commercial corner the media has painted itself into. Profit returns to stakeholders now take priority over all other considerations – including civil and human rights (in some cases), quality investigative journalism, or any requirement to provide accuracy, fairness or balance.

    Having said that, Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy is a conversation with the average voter so I can’t help wondering sometimes if we just get what we ask for, or believe we deserve.

    Shortland Street seems to hold more fascination for most people than a grave injustice occurring to any of their fellow New Zealanders, because that injustice is happening to someone else, not to them.

    Perhaps the first lie that our good politicians need to overcome is the perception that somehow they are responsible for fixing all of our problems because we voted them in.

    It’s a wholesale abrogation of our collective personal responsibility, and it’s not helping anyone. We keep voting you people in our out because we just want someone to blame.

    If we are ever going to have quality journalism in this country – the public need to take more of an active interest in what is going on in our country.

    We need to stop expecting so much from our politicians and pull our own fingers out more to help them, and we need to stop expecting so little from the media.

    We get what we believe we deserve.

  38. Todd says:

    The post above by Clare has inspired the Parliament’s Wall of Shame, where the Jackal dishes out the dirt on David Garrett, Graham John Capill, Donna Awatere Huata, Trevor Rogers, Nick Smith and Roger McClay in the first installment.

  39. Clare Curran says:

    Sorry for the spelling mistakes. Good discussion though I’d like to hear some voices of those in the media. I know thee are many who believe this is an important debate to be had.

  40. Stephen Judd says:

    Clare, you’ve already heard at least one that I recognise — I imagine using your full name might be a career-limiting move.

  41. @ Paul Carruthers Bravo sir! Although I might argue the concept of some ‘collective’ responsibility – that notion may lead to the condition you despise. What is required is individual responsibility.

    Perhaps one of the problems is that the nature of that which we have abdicated to the Government has become so huge – and so permeates every aspect of our society – that far too much depends upon it and the whole left – right argument sees us becoming morally opposed to each other.
    Government needs firmly putting into its place – preserving our life, freedom and property.

  42. mike says:

    “How do we get critical analysis and discussion back into our public discourse in this country? That’s a pretty important and urgent question I think. It’s unlikely to come through commercial broadcast media. That leaves the depleted public broadcast media. And print, which faces similar issues”

    Clare,
    There is (very) critical analysis and discussion in public discourse – it just moved on from the ‘repeaters’,PR flak and ‘infotainment’ presented by the all the commercial (or not) broadcast media (public and print) – that train has left the station like it or not.
    As a hint You’re using an emasculated version of it here.
    Curious that that wasnt mentioned as one of the options in your statement above

    Other than that I strongly second the postings 15 May from
    ‘c’ and Nick Taylor.

  43. PeteG says:

    Very interesting post and comments.

    I despair at the poor quality of MSM news and current affairs coverage. But it’s not something that can be changed by force or coercion. I think politicians use far too much time and resources worrying about the media. Their obsession with trying to control the message – and mostly failing – adds to the problem.

    And you can’t control the people, you can’t stop them watching “reality” TV, you can’t stop them gorging on fast food where the most substantial ingredient is marketing.

    I’d like to see politicians concentrate on doing the jobs they are elected to do – represent their constituency and run the country as best they can, without getting distracted by futile public impressions. Earn respect rather than trying to fake it.

    If politicians do their job well I don’t care if the media mostly ignore them, administering a country is not supposed to be a glamorous series of thrills between ad breaks. Run the country (and don’t run each other down so much) and don’t get dragged down to the trivial level of modern MSM.

  44. Steve Withers says:

    Fascinating reading there comments. The problems cited over and over are the inevitable consequence of monopoly media ownership, yet no one appears to understand this. Nothing will change until people do.

  45. John Hudson says:

    I don’t think the problem is monopoly media ownership, rather the reverse.

    In our purely commercial media environment there are more and more outlets competing for smaller and smaller slices of the advertising pie.

    There is an increasing number of “platforms” (free-to-air, pay channels, internet etc) competing for your “eyeballs”.

    Most of these “platforms” are already controlled by large foreign-based multi-national corporations (i.e Sky, Prime, TV3).

    This Government seems determined to help those foreign interests in their quest to get a bigger share of the New Zealand market by making the taxpayer-funded “New Zealand on Air” available to them.

    And while we taxpayers are spending billions on communications infrastructure (i.e. Ultra Fast Broadband) the state is spending relatively little (less than a hundred million) on actually making programmes by and for New Zealanders.

    Whatsmore what our Government does spend on programming is going ( from next year with the exception of MTS ) entirely into the commercial sector…which of course is designed to provide as many “eyeballs” to advertisers as possible.

    Sadly New Zealand and Mexico have become the only countries in the OECD not to have public broadcasting television ( that is if you exclude MTS).

    So if you are over the age of 54 ( as more than a million New Zealanders are) you probably won’t have the “eyeballs” advertisers are looking for.

    Therefore you probably won’t get the sort of programmes you want…and because there are so many channels you will get more and more ads on each channel… unless you buy SKY (and even they have lots of ads).. but then you may not be able to afford that and you will find yourself on the wrong side of the digital divide.

    If you want to try and change this you need to talk to the thick-headed politicians who allowed it to happen.

    Good night and good gardening.

  46. Brad says:

    All for moving away from robotics and stunts, let’s focus on government accountability