This week really marked the start of the political to-ing and fro-ing that is going to become a ubiquitous feature of public life this election year. David Cunliffe set out his vision for New Zealand on Monday in his State of the Nation address, giving the electorate a taster for the issues that Labour will make a focus of its campaign narrative this year: unsurprisingly they are largely inequality, the elimination of poverty, and harnessing the power of the state to ensure that every New Zealander has equal and fair access to opportunities to build a satisfying and comfortable life. I’ve already blogged about John Key’s lacklustre State of the Nation announcements and how it shows that the Nats really are flailing around to find a narrative to counter Labour’s story: that crony capitalism for the rich and free markets for the rest are costing New Zealanders dearly in terms of economic and social quality of life.
So far, so good.
The issue that really jumps out at me, however, is the truly astonishing way in which the New Zealand news media have failed to cope with the fact that it is an election year and, shockingly, they actually have an important democratic role to play. Instead, the usual egotistical sensationalism has gone into overdrive, prompting me to wonder if certain reporters have finally sailed off the deep of unbiased reporting and into the land of, frankly, utter drivel (looking at you, Patrick Gower, Katie Bradford, Corin Dann Tova O’Brien, NZ Herald, etc. etc…).
The best analysis of this so far is Sam Durbin’s piece over at Recess Monkey, where he wonders, quite legitimately, if the NZ media have simply decided to call the election for John key already. I’d recommend having a look, even if only to see the rather compelling examples he gives to strengthen his case.
What I’m wondering, however, is what it is that is motivating these journos to use our democracy and their role as the Fourth Estate to inflate their egos and unjustly influence an otherwise transparent political process. I don’t think it’s the case necessarily that all of the media workers are naturally Tories. Neither is it the case that they can all see some inherent flaws in Labour’s policy announcements that we are all missing: Patrick Gower even claimed that despite his outrage at Labour “hiding the details” of its Best Start payment, he liked the idea and the fact that it was a bold addition to the policy agenda this year. Too bad him and his mates at 3 News, TVNZ and the NZ Herald made damn sure that obscene slurs on the integrity of the Labour Party and its MPs meant that it actually did not end up “setting the agenda” this week.
The only explanation that comes to me is that it is simply the concentrated way our media system is set up and owned, combined with the exceptional opportunities that this provides for journalists to compete for an apparently finite number of ego-boosting opportunities that has resulted in this sad state of political reporting.
MediaWorks, Fairfax, APN and TVNZ between then own an overwhelming percentage of news publishing capacity in New Zealand, and almost all of the “serious” political commentary accessed by New Zealand is through the TV, print, or online outlets of one of these organisations. This gives a small number of political editors or reporters at the major stations a rather celebrity-like status. Who wouldn’t want to call the shots when your opinion and take on the day’s events is arguably more important than that of the Prime Minister? The mindless rush to claim the body of “middle New Zealand viewers”, inaccurately characterised as hating politics other than as a horse-race has led the parliamentary press gallery to hunt as a pack, collectively running like a pack of lemmings off the cliff of sane reporting, in the process running the reputation of their profession and any sort of political engagement in this country into the ground.
The challenge for our journalists is to take their profession seriously and to realise the incentives that their perverse working environment creates. It’s not enough to let our journos know that they’re letting everyone down in their job. We’ve got to re-affirm the fact that democratic discourse unfortunately rests disproportionately on their shoulders, and let them know what the country expects of them. The press gallery need to learn that Facebook-bans-that-weren’t and a bizarre fawning over John Key playing golf do not real political issues make. Kids going to school hungry and the fact that Kiwis are more trapped in social immobility than ever before do. The future of our democracy depends on recognising this fact.