Is the Media Helping Drive NZers Overseas

Published: Wed 25 Oct 2000 02:21 PM
Is the Media Helping Drive
New Zealanders Overseas?
Speech to the National Press Club
Members Dining Room
Parliament Buildings
25th October 2000
Rt Hon Simon Upton MP
(Embargoed until delivery)
For some months now, New Zealand has been wracked by one of its periodic bouts of national self-doubt. We have begun, once again, to question whether we’re viable as a nation. It’s not the first time we’ve been through this sort of crisis of confidence. Indeed, it seems to be part of the natural order of things here. Where other countries have a business cycle, we have a national identity and confidence cycle.
At the top of the cycle we experience wildly euphoric mood swings in which phase we congratulate ourselves on having out-smarted everyone else. (First country in the world to make synthetic petrol, first country in the world to be nuclear-free, first stockmarket in the world to open each day, number one rugby nation in the world etc, etc).
At the bottom of the cycle, euphoria is replaced by mordant gloom - (only country in the world to make synthetic petrol at four times the world price, only country in the world to have ripped up its security pacts before anyone else did, only stockmarket in the world still trying to recover from the 1987 crash, only stockmarket in the world affected by failure to reach Rugby World Cup semi-finals…). I’m sure you recognise the pattern.
By my pick we’re ready for a turning point. We’ll be the first country in the world to found a recovery in national confidence on its medal tally at the Disabled Olympics and seeing its own scenery as the backdrop to the Lord of the Rings.
I had intended to come here today to talk about what we know about the reasons kiwis leave home. But reading your publicity for this meeting – "The media and its current direction" (not a title I realised I was agreeing to) – I felt obliged to narrow my focus. I was briefly tempted to turn in a trite little report card on the performance of political journalists along the lines the Herald adopted for cabinet ministers last year but it would have been impossible to avoid being petty. So I’ll talk instead about why our very own media might help people make the decision to leave.
In short, I’m going to suggest to you that the manic depressive tendency in the national psyche is in no small part attributable to a media hothouse that substitutes gullible hysteria and serial hyperbole for sober scepticism and substance. In a nutshell, we seem to treat our national debates as melodramas because we can’t inject enough substance into them to make them interesting in their own right.
Now I freely admit that one of you might deliver an equally interesting account of how political behaviour guarantees that substance never gets in the way of pre-determined tales of government vision or opposition outrage. Perhaps MPs should establish a dining club so that journalists, editors and assorted media proprietors can tell politicians what they look like from the outside. But since you’ve asked me to comment on the media, I shall concentrate on what you look like from my side of the fence.
Before I start making enemies hand over fist, let me say that – as always – there are individuals who rise above their peers and make a major contribution to how we understand ourselves as a nation. I’d like to pay tribute, here today, to Colin James whose doggedly cerebral engagement with issues and pretty impeccable even-handedness has given him an authority that is rare in this country. He does the reading, he does the thinking and he’s always willing to think again.
In a totally different vein I’d like to pay tribute to Chris Trotter who kept left wing journalism alive through the most atrocious times in an engaging and always thoughtful way – and who continues to explain what motivates the current government better than most in the government caucuses. And in a different vein again I’d like to pay tribute to Jane Clifton and Denis Welch who, in their very different ways, have a sense of the ridiculous that is such a powerful part of the English-speaking political tradition. Clifton, in my view, is a seriously funny writer who could dominate parliamentary sketch writing in any country she chose. Imitators should give up now.
These are all very talented individuals – and there are many more decent and wholly professional people whose careers I won’t damage by naming. But looking at the news media as a whole, I see a profession that is seriously under-researched. There just doesn’t seem to me to be a sufficient critical mass of well-informed, well-read journalists to do justice to the public policy debates we heroically attempt. The popular caricature of MPs (cheerfully reinforced by that wonderful poster of a mechanical clown-like figure with people rushing up and down ladders pouring cans of lubricant labeled 'charm', 'hypocrisy' and 'bluster' into various orifices) is of people who swan in, swan out and generally wing it with a few platitudes to keep the crowds happy. Such people do exist. But my experience is that many MPs despair of ever being able to communicate the often complex trade-offs they face simply because journalists haven’t done the in-depth reading to enable them to be reliable intermediaries in the argument.
I used to buy the old union line that this was because journalists weren’t paid enough, were over-worked and under the thumb of some philistine editor full of unreconstructed prejudices and myopically conventional views. But is that right? Sure, rank-and-file journalists are scarcely in clover. But even in New Zealand it’s possible to aspire – through journalism – to fairly astronomical incomes. Someone like Paul Holmes is considered, by the market place, to be worth two to three times the Prime Minister. So it can’t be that there aren’t pinnacles of fame and fortune to aspire to.
So do we blame the public? Do we take the view that three to four minute bursts of human interest, conflict or national angst (i.e. sporting catastrophe) are all that people want so the serious journalist is an expensive, elitist indulgence? This seems to be the New Zealand Herald’s judgement as it has undergone its conversion from a serious, if slightly pompous paper to a cross between a tabloid and USA Today. The front page invariably juxtaposes a picture story (covering a third of the page), a bust-up in the world of sports and ego, a small dose of amusing lifestyle trivia and (leading from the top left) a single news story, preferably a scam. The almost one-to-one mapping onto the Holmes show format evidences either an overwhelming public preference for pap or a determination to avoid substance.
The one section of the public that is believed to want in-depth analysis is the business community. And here I have to take my hat off to the Business Herald which, stylistically, could be a wholly different paper. It is a vast improvement over what tried to pass itself off as business coverage in the Wilson & Horton era and, alongside the NBR and The Independent, and some other business reporting in metropolitan dailies, gives business readers a better deal than they’ve previously had.
But for the politician hoping for an informed debate in electronic or print media, it’s lean pickings outside the ranks of the business reporters. Few journalists are specialised enough to get under the surface of an issue. Many cabinet ministers (regardless of political colour) often find themselves having to play an educative role with journalists who, for whatever reason, just haven’t done the background reading to conduct a sensible interview. One of the reasons for this may be that editors have concluded that their audiences either aren’t interested or can’t make judgements for themselves so it is better to provide large amounts of pre-packaged opinion, some of it provided for free by those with barrows to push, some of it from syndicated opinion pushers. Viewers or readers can then simply immerse themselves comfortably in the prejudices of their choice and believe they’ve added to their understanding of the human condition. Having faceless staff journalists beavering away on the issues probably is apparently not worth the trouble compared with having a cynical old columnist (like myself possibly) on tap.
But at least the role of these commentators is clear. Much more disturbing is the tendency of all news services to star in their own news and in some cases to become active participants in campaigns of their own choosing. The Evening Post decided last year that it was going to throw its weight behind the Transmission Gully motorway as a token of solidarity with its readers. Harmless enough you might think, but what about readers with environmental or other reasons to oppose it? The New Zealand Herald has committed itself to a much more grandiose quest – “The Jobs Challenge”, in which it has committed itself to “promote a new sense of economic, social and cultural well-being in New Zealand”.
It’s an ideal formula for the populist tabloid model that the Herald aspires to. It ostentatiously takes the people’s side (whatever that is) and also allows the paper to publish adulatory comments from its readership. The edition of the 11th October reported an “overwhelming response” from readers who apparently said all the right things. Correspondents applauded the Herald’s ‘leadership’. Letters of support had “poured in”. These are the sorts of sycophantic comments that used to adorn official party newspapers in the Eastern Bloc countries and still do in Pyongyang. Having secured such a supportive base, the paper felt confident to ordain one of its very own readers as the voice of truth: “Lisa Er of Titirangi put it best: 'Attitude can transcend political parties, ethnicity and beliefs'.”
But hold on a minute. The Herald claims it is promoting “a national conversation about our economic future”. What sort of a ‘conversation’ is it when the Herald has decided to weigh in as chief cheer-leader? And does it really think something called ‘attitude’ is the key to everything? The judgement approvingly quoted by the Herald could support any political creed including some pretty unsavoury ones. I am reminded that much popular sympathy for fascism in its early days was built round its rejection of rationalism and pluralism, and a yearning for national and political transcendence of the woes and divisions of the age. It is instructive to cite Mussolini’s Doctrine of Fascism (1932) in which he predicted the end of liberalism because “the peoples feel that its agnosticism in economics, its indifferentism in politics and morals, would lead … to certain ruin”.
Now I don’t for a moment suggest that anyone in the Herald is remotely engaged in a proto-fascist recourse to the anti-rational, emotive collectivism of early twentieth century fascism. But that in a way underscores my point.
The Herald seems to be oblivious of history or the role of the serious media as a source of detached, sceptical commentary in a pluralistic society. It is precisely that indifferent, agnostic role that has traditionally marked out the Fourth Estate’s serious mission as a conduit for national debate.
Lest I single out unfairly the Herald’s new role as a cheerleader in its own news generation, let me remind you of TVNZ’s repeated use of its own news service to market other programmes it is screening. It is not unusual for TVNZ to produce a documentary that then leads off its news bulletin as a way of building its viewing audience for the evening. Even more remarkable has been its practice of having key journalists star in their own reportage. The most blatant example was Linda Clark’s infamous involvement in reporting off-the-cuff comments by Jenny Shipley after a Crossfire interview in which Shipley made allegations about the sums TVNZ was contemplating spending on extricating itself from the Hawkesby fiasco.
I have never discussed the matter with Jenny, but knowing her as I do, I would take her side any day. She is a Presbyterian Minister’s daughter and it shows. If she said anything that could have been construed as Clark construed it, it would have been firmly tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I can just about hear her saying “I made it up – just like you do” with a cheeky inflection and an “I’m not telling you” defiance in her voice. Whatever the case, it was incredible that someone at TVNZ should have let the comment get into the public arena thereby enabling it to report the incident with its own reporter starring as key witness.
I don’t know how damaging the affair was for Shipley but it certainly didn’t dent Clark’s upward trajectory. She now fronts her own televised inquisition – Face the Nation – which is a good format and could be a genuinely important part of national debate. But once again it’s clear that the inquisitor hasn’t read enough. Time after time devastating holes in arguments are not pursued as Clark shifts to another tranche of pre-prepared questions. In common with almost all television and radio interviewers she is also far too much a protagonist in her own right. This isn’t a new observation. The cult of the media personality is scarcely new. But when you see it dispensed with, the effect is stunning.
I didn’t used to be a CNN devotee, but I’m coming to the view that it is setting higher and higher standards that nothing in this country approaches. The Middle East crisis has generated some superb opportunities for getting the facts – and the conflicting viewpoints – out in the open. Time and time again, CNN’s reporters have displayed a measured, detached and self-effacing approach that has left me awestruck: a 25 minute, live interview with Israeli Prime Minister Barak in which powerful and acute questions from an interviewer we never saw took no more than three to four minutes in total. An Insight documentary on the roots of the Middle East two nights ago teamed up two professors – one in London, one in Washington. The questioner barely engaged – viewers were left to draw their own conclusions on the basis of two very different, but highly informed commentaries.
Here in New Zealand, politicians and others are never left to shoot themselves in the feet or reveal their inconsistencies unaided. Whether it's Clark, Holmes, Plunkett or even Kim Hill (who does seem better prepared especially if the subject matter interests her) it seems that our journalistic personalities have to ride in to display their own slight learning with the subtlety of pneumatic hammer operators. There is, repeatedly, a tendency to assume that listeners, viewers or readers can’t form their own views but require, instead, entertainment of a gladiatorial type. Of course there’s a place for that. But there’s also a place for a more reflective approach that exposes the ideas that are at stake including the ambiguities that are a much more real part of day to day life than the certainties.
It is the failure to understand ideas and ambiguities that I find so desiccating in political reporting. It is often manifested in a dismissal of anything principled as “ideology”. Whether it’s the Business Round Table, the Treasury, Margaret Wilson on employment law or Michael Cullen on ACC, arguments of a philosophical nature are frequently dismissed as ‘ideological’. And in this, politicians are every bit as guilty as politicians. If you don’t agree with a coherently argued position or you can’t be bothered getting your mind around it, it seems that labeling it as ‘ideological’ is the easiest way of disposing of it. No-one seems even to be aware of what ideology is.
At the risk of delivering a lecture, can I point out that an ideological view is one that seeks to harness ideas to the pursuit of power. It is an idea rooted in Marxist theory which holds that the institutions of society – laws, property, social relations, customs – must always be understood in terms of the interests of those who advance them. As such, it is an inherently cynical term. Its application has traditionally been linked to the doctrinal basis of the political left. And while the collapse of the socialist/communist project may have swept away those foundations the term ‘ideological’ continues to be applied liberally to any body of thought that rises above the wholly pragmatic and seeks to ground its premises in some sort of world view.
While its intellectual pedigree may be all but obliterated, ideology’s provenance as a cynical term lives on. Yet those who strive to order their thinking according to some coherent principles are surely worth at least passing interest. If their approach to ideas is narrow and mechanical, and this can be so of left and right, then the sense of slavish dogma associated with the term ‘ideological’ may be justified. But if politicians and commentators are relating their ideas thoughtfully to different traditions of thinking – and being candid about where the hard corners are – that seems to me to be a debate worth illuminating.
This was never more so the case than the debate that is raging around the Treaty of Waitangi. I find myself utterly depressed by the skin deep analysis that is being applied by most journalists (and in fairness many politicians) to the most troubling debate of our time here in New Zealand. Tariana Turia’s comments have been fascinating – and through upton-on-line I have been examining their lineage. Turia (or her speech writer) are hooked into some pretty heavy-duty theory. But journalists – and politicians – seem to have fallen for the ‘h’ word because it’s easy copy.
The gap between Tariana’s endorsement of post-colonial theory and the book commissioned from Kenneth Minogue by the Business Round Table couldn’t be wider – and the potential for fruitful political debate couldn’t be deeper. But the impression I get is that most commentators haven’t bothered to read anything much. Ideas don’t trouble them. So allegations of ideology are a complacent way of papering over the deficiencies.
Perhaps, then, the absence of a public debate that goes beyond the phenomena of ratings-driven crusades and cult-presenters has played its part in the exodus from our shores? Could wildly gyrating public sentiment be a symptom of the lack of depth and substance in national discourse? People have always left because we are small, peripheral and seriously over-preoccupied with our own importance. A lack of confidence in the quality of public debate – by politicians and the journalists who report them - could be one of the unspoken sources of despair that take root from time to time.
When some of New Zealand’s most respected –and senior – journalists measure their success in terms of who can gain the most privileged access to Ministers (and one has started putting the hallowed words from on high in italics to emphasise their 24 carat status) you know we’re conducting a small town debate. Such practices are hugely corrosive of public trust in both politicians and journalists. Why should we trust people whose access to information could at any time be jeopardised by critical reporting? Why should we trust news outlets that star in their own news reporting or who organise campaigns any more than we trust politicians who arrange good news stories to gild the electoral lily?
Which brings me finally to my experience with the internet as a mode of communication. It has completely changed my relationship with voters and any reliance I ever had on the mass media as a means of communication. My first experience with it was as an environment minister toying with proposals to amend the Resource Management Act. It quickly became clear that in a technically complex field the only way to manage a potentially explosive issue was to communicate very frankly and very directly with the people who had to make the system work. Within two years we had about 2000 subscribers encompassing every professional and interest group that counted for anything. With the exception of the very final round of cabinet decisions, I made a point of putting all work in progress out on the web as it came to hand. It generated a very lively debate – and it removed the possibility of conspiracy theories. The only Minister in the current government that seems to be taking a similar view is Annette King. Her website has whole papers available rather than the carefully laundered pap that afflicts her colleagues’ sites.
Then, during the election campaign, we launched upton-on-line for a bit of light relief. It took off, survived the election and has developed into a really useful way of injecting a considered viewpoint in a way that is simply impossible through newspapers or electronic media. That hasn’t stopped a degree of bare-faced plagiarism by some journalists but we bear them no malice. From my point of view, upton-on-line has made it possible for me to by-pass the filter that the mass media provides – to knock out the middle man if you like – and communicate directly with people who are interested in getting beneath the slogans and thinking about a more challenging debate. Since April this year, upton-on-line has contributed 30,000 words to treaty issues alone.
Could it be that the internet could rescue us where critical mass is failing us? I don’t know. But it does make it easier to live here and still engage in a grown-up debate. It could also be a means of re-connecting with the diaspora that has already left these shores … but that’s another speech, the one I had originally intended to give today.
In the meantime, I’d like to suggest that the absence of sufficient serious public analysis to sustain a national debate may be one of the reasons we seem to be prone to extravagant mood swings and policy u-turns. I’ve commented on many occasions that we are the last bus-stop on the planet. No other developed country is trying to make it, economically and socially, from a position of such political, economic and physical isolation and with such a small skill base.
The absence of a sustained, reflective debate through the mass media means that we tend to over-react to crises and find ourselves prey to all sorts of intellectual cargo cults. Ideas often arrive here late and are then applied in undiluted form. In a small society they can wreak quick havoc. But lacking home-grown roots they are quickly supplanted by the next cargo of ideas to arrive.
You know the sort of thing I mean. Last year we were pursuing nirvana in Ireland and Finland. I wonder which country is next? I’m picking Israel on the knowledge economy trail. Watch this space. But in between shipments we drift into a vortex of introspection. Now I don’t say the media alone can solve this problem any more than politicians can. But surely editors and proprietors could think about investing in something a bit more sustaining than the analytical gruel we’re presently surviving on.
It’s all symptomatic of a small country with an even smaller skill base. It may be that we can’t sustain more. But to my way of thinking, there’s much that could be improved with a little more reading and a little less latching on to instant conclusions. Failing that, I suggest we get up a subscription to persuade the owners of The Australian to invest in a weekly New Zealand edition. That at least would be worth lying in for on Saturday mornings.

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