Is the Dirty Politics debate making a mockery of the manifestos? And should authors have the right to right to use material that's obtained by criminal means?
A couple of weeks ago I said that every election has its surprises. But I certainly didn't see Nicky Hager coming down the track, book in hand. Perhaps I should have, since both my 2002 and 2005 examples involved him.
In any event, we are now just over four weeks from the election. Hager’s book has already used up one week of campaign time. And we have yet to get to the supposed Kim Dotcom time bomb due to explode on 15 September.
So is this going to be the first policy-free election?
One would hope not. We are still getting over the aftermath of the GFC of 2008-2011. The inequality debate is directly stimulated by that event. Christchurch has still got a lot of rebuilding to do, with all the different choices that implies.
But over the last week any substantive policy issues were virtually drowned out. How many people know about the Greens' child and welfare policies, or National's cycling announcement? And without actually looking it up, I could not think of what Labour has promised in the past week. On checking, it was free doctors’ visits for those over 65.
But that is the problem with non-party actors attempting to hijack election news; it crowds out the policies that will actually be the basis of governing the country. And if people can’t recall the policies of the parties due to their naturally limited bandwidth, they are more likely to revert to their general sense of which party they will support. Of course many would say that is a good enough basis to decide how to vote, but it rather makes a mockery of election campaigns and the manifesto commitments each party makes.
I suspect many readers will say I am rather naïve, that elections are never just about policy, they are also about the political process itself and the personalities involved. Of course that is reasonable. In the age of television and the all-encompassing media, both traditional and new, voters can constantly measure reactions, including both the oral and visual cues, of the main players. And make their judgements accordingly.
This leads me to the role of the new media. Pretty much everyone who visits this site will have a comprehensive political perspective. And that must also be true of virtually all those who visit the other well-known new media political blogs such as Kiwiblog, The Standard and Whaleoil. Certainly every commenter on these sites knows where they stand.
So in many respects they are venues for partisans, some who express their views reasonably. Yet there are many others who do not. I must say I wonder whether any of the intemperate commenters would ever actually speak to someone like that face-to-face, or in a public meeting. No wonder they need pseudonyms, some of which are actually quite colourful. I can’t believe many people would actually want to be known to own such language or such overt hostility.
In this respect the new media is very different to mainstream media. There will be many people during this election who get their information from the newspapers, radio and television, and who are genuinely undecided voters. They have grown up with the certain civility that is expected of these media outlets. They can actually use the traditional news media to help them decide. This could hardly be said of the blogosphere.
In many respects the blogosphere is still the wild west of media. You only ventured out to the west if you were made of hardy stuff. The shrinking violets stayed back in the east. But the wild west was ultimately tamed.
Although rather lost sight of in the current controversy, Whaleoil is a much more moderate (and now moderated) site than it was 12 months ago. David Farrar is going to go further than he currently does in his site. Andrew Geddis is right; it was very unfair to include Farrar in the Hager book. While David has a well-known political view point, you would be hard pressed to find his primary posts straying beyond the bounds of reasonable decency.
The Law Commission has issued a comprehensive report on the regulation of new media. And essentially other than the law of defamation and the criminal law, there are no controls. That is the constitutional reality of what free speech means. You can say anything you like within these bounds.
However, in a broad sense new media is the same as any other published material; it is not a private conversation. So do new media outlets have a responsibility for their commenters, some of whom seem to be quite happy to make criminal threats behind the shield of anonymity? Does the decision to create a blog site, also mean a responsibility to have a moderation policy? This was not suggested in the Law Commission report, but the events of the last week raise this question.
The Hager book also raises questions on the nature of a free press. Should authors and publishers have free rein to use criminally hacked material to publish private emails (or traditional correspondence), particularly where they relate to third parties in a way that can only further damage the reputation of the third party?
The fact that the third party may have already suffered reputational damage should not mean that anything goes.
I appreciate that writers and traditional media jealously guard their ability to protect sources, and do not look too deeply in how the source material was gathered. The current rule is that so long as the author and publisher themselves did not conduct the criminal activity, then the source material has legitimacy, even if the source has criminally obtained the material. The News of the World failed this test because they actually commissioned the criminal activity. The argument is that to have any restrictions would have a chilling effect of the operation of a free press. And that argument is compelling.
But I still worry about the impact on third parties, even if they are in the public domain. What recourse do they have? At the present time virtually nothing, other than the good sense of the publisher and the author. And maybe in defence of free speech that is enough.