In which a late night twitter discussion rammed home the importance of candidates having to 'earn it' and the media's coverage of "foregone conclusions" is defended

On Sunday night Auckland mayoral candidate Chloe Swarbrick was feeling fed up with media coverage of the city's election and took to Twitter to express herself. In reply to a tweet saying turnout was tracking only marginally ahead 2013's poor effort, she said:

"I'm optimistic, but again doesn't help that media sold this as a boring one horse race that everyone should just give up on".

That irked me a little, so I replied that no media had urged anyone to give up on the race and asked how the media could have have this differently. That started an  conversation with her and one of her supporters, Richie Hardcore, that raised some interesting points about the intersection of politics and media.

Twenty-two year-old Swarbrick has complained on numerous occasions about how she's been cut off from much of the media coverage of the Auckland mayoral race and not taken seriously. As her tweets showed she's also frustrated the media covered the race as "a foregone conclusion" leading to "a self-fulfilling prophecy".

Undoubtedly, much of the media's analysis from the start of the race has been that it's Phil Goff's mayoralty to lose. Or, to be more honest, that it's hard to see him losing. He has name recognition, is one of the country's longest serving politicians, has strong links into the Auckland community and the rest of the field is made up of novices. It's hardly controversial to expect him to canter home.

And there's the rub. How do journalists cover the election without stating the obvious? What's the alternative? We would be damned just as much, if not more, had we tried to beat-up a tight race when it wasn't that tight or tried to boost other candidates. Surely, as I tweeted on Sunday, media analysts can and should only be expected to tell the truth as they see it and as the evidence suggests it to be.

But as Hardcore pointed out, it does tend to keep outsiders, well, outside. And people do like to back a winner, so Swarbrick has a point about it becoming self-fulfilling.

Their argument, at its core, suggests that every candidate deserves the same treatment and fairness is measured by everyone getting the same shot. In principle, that's absolutely right. And in more than principle. The media should, as with any story, cover elections without fear or favour, giving every candidate a voice.

But it's not that simple.

I've had to make – or been involved in making – many such decisions as a journalist and it's always complicated. Calls have to be made and sometimes they cut people out. For good reason.

Consider this Auckland mayoral race. There are 18 candidates, most you've never heard of and have had next to no media coverage. Why? Because the media has deemed them not to be serious contenders. Does that meet the standard Swarbrick and others are demanding? No. Is it fair? Yes. Here's why:

For a start, time and space are finite. To give everyone equal coverage would be soak up huge real estate in the papers, online and on-air. If you give time to all 18, then that means less time given to, say Goff, who really needs to be challenged and tested the most given his favouritism for the job. Practically, no TV or radio studio in NZ could fit 18 candidates and any effort to moderate that many competing voices would almost certainly turn into a farce. Swarbrick was on Checkpoint's bus tour of five mayoral candidates. Now imagine how that would have gone with 18 on board.

For one, those most likely to get the job would get an easier run and less time in the glare of questions.

So journalists have to make a call on who gets in and who doesn't, and those who don't naturally don't like it.

The accusation, as Swarbrick and Hardcore went onto tweet, is that the established names are reinforced and the status quo rarely challenged. Swarbrick said the media must be subject to checks and balances and be more responsible. All fair points. But the fact is that we are and we do take these issues seriously. This tension is as old as elections; here's just one example.

At the 2014 general election, I was in charge of The Nation on TV3 and we decided, for those reasons of time and space, that Colin Craig would not be included in our minor party leaders debate. We agonised over the decision and what was a fair line to draw. We could accommodate six candidates in the studio, so who should be left out. Ultimately, if we were to include Craig – and the Conservatives were polling well at that stage, well ahead of some of the existing minor parties – which sitting MP should be left out? If we went by seats in parliament or length of service, we favoured the establishment. So what other measure should we follow? Polls are volatile. Drawing straws, just silly.

So Craig was left out, but went to court and appealed. Late on a Friday afternoon a judge who knew little about practical issues involved in making live television ruled that the Conservative leader should get his shot and to deny him would be bad for democracy. It took time off the others, he was badly lit, crew had to work late and early to make it work and it undermined journalistic independence, but Craig was accommodated. So the check and balance worked for Craig, but at a cost. Other principles (press freedom) and others' rights (the other minor parties) paid a price.

The thing is, sometimes a bunch of very important principles are incompatible and something has to give. And it's not just a matter of a lazy or corrupt media.

In fact, I'd go further than that. I think if you look at recent elections here and round the world, it's no bad thing that every candidate is not treated equally from the get-go. If you're coming into politics – the serious business of making decisions that effect the everyday lives of so very many people – fresh and without a track record, I think it's healthy that you should have to earn it. Experience matters. To get serious coverage, it's no bad thing that candidates have to show they are serious.

Look at Colin Craig. The closer he got to power in 2014, the more serious coverage he got. And it exposed the cracks in his character and his party structure, as we've all appreciated more fully in the past few weeks. In 2002, United Future rode TV's worm to eight seats in the 2002 election, but clearly wasn't ready for the responsibility voters gave it.

Look at Donald Trump. Is there any better example of how an outsider with a gift for politics but few (or perhaps simply dangerous) ideas about governance and the use of power has had to be taken seriously, and how damaging that can be to a political system?

I think it's healthy that candidates for election to senior posts have to earn it, to show that they deserve to be taken seriously and to be given the time and space that might otherwise be given to those with more chance of holding office.

Perhaps the best example of this principle is Swarbrick herself. At the start of this race, she was excluded from most debates. But she worked the meetings she was invited to, made the most of the interviews she got. She worked hard on social media, held her own meetings, made serious contributions to the debate. And by the end of the race, she was being included in most of the debates. Her voice is being heard.

She earned it, and come Saturday Swarbrick is probably going to come in ahead of some more establishment figures.

 

Comments (21)

by Anne on October 06, 2016
Anne

Chloe Swarbrick is a young lady to be closely watched in the coming years. Highly intelligent, articulate and mature beyond her age. Lucky the political party who gets her.

by Nick Gibbs on October 06, 2016
Nick Gibbs

Tim, I tend to agree. I think she has gained the name recognition she needs for future races but now faces the challenge of what to do for the next four years when the race starts again (unless she running for and wins a council seat). Maybe run for a party in the GE? Which will just make her a career pollie much like Goff. 

 

 

by Rich on October 06, 2016
Rich

What do you think of the rules <a href="https://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv-radio-and-on-demand/broadcast-codes/broadcast-code">UK broadcasters have in elections</a>:

'broadcasters must offer the opportunity to take part in constituency or electoral area reports and discussions, to all candidates within the constituency or electoral area representing parties with previous significant electoral support or where there is evidence of significant current support. This also applies to independent candidates"

and

"Any constituency or electoral area report or discussion after the close of nominations must include a list of all candidates standing, giving first names, surnames and the name of the party they represent or, if they are standing independently, the fact that they are an independent candidate. " 
 

by Tim Watkin on October 06, 2016
Tim Watkin

Rich, on part 1, that seems to be quite a good wording. It acknowledges that there is a threshold and that it involves either a track record or evidence of current support. Just what 'evidence' means is a devillish bit of detail, but allows some discretion.

And I'd note that requires everyone to have the chance to be in a report or discussion. It doesn't mean, perhaps, that everyone has to be in a debate. And it only requires the offer to be made. Sometimes minor candidates are offered opportunities but miss deadlines or dick around and yet the media gets the blame for not covering them.

Part 2 is trickier. Sounds like a fair point, but it's not something I've ever done or seen done in NZ broadcasting. It'd be easier to do online via credits or text. But would you really want the host to read out 14 more names and parties at the end of a programme? Not so sure.

by Graeme Edgeler on October 06, 2016
Graeme Edgeler

For a start, time and space are finite. To give everyone equal coverage would be soak up huge real estate in the papers, online and on-air. If you give time to all 18, then that means less time given to, say Goff, who really needs to be challenged and tested the most given his favouritism for the job. Practically, no TV or radio studio in NZ could fit 18 candidates and any effort to moderate that many competing voices would almost certainly turn into a farce. Swarbrick was on Checkpoint's bus tour of five mayoral candidates. Now imagine how that would have gone with 18 on board.

Contrasting the coverage of Swarbrick with the coverage of Goff is a little inapposite. I don't think anyone is suggesting that you shouldn't cover Goff.

The question is: how did, for example the Nation decide that Mark Thomas should, for example, be included in its Auckland Mayoral debate, and not one of the other candidates instead? On what basis was he considered a serious candidate, as against one or more of the others?

If you are right that you couldn't cover all of them, there are a number of ways news media or debate organisers could do this: someone could make a qualitative assessment of whether the candidate was serious. Someone could speak to each of them for 10-15 minutes and ask them questions about their policies and knowledge in a bunch of areas.

Also, on the Internet, space is not all that finite.

And to reverse what I said earlier - if Goff is already well known, wouldn't the public benefit more from hearing about the people we don't know about?

And, just to go completely off track, while I'm opposed to the Court decision in Craig v TV3, the decision to run a debate without him in it was the wrong one.

by Tim Watkin on October 06, 2016
Tim Watkin

Graeme, sorry but I say "tosh" to almost all of that.

You say no-one is saying you shouldn't cover Goff, which completely ignores my point that time and space are finite. A TV or radio programme with the whole country - indeed world - to cover is not going to do repeated coverage of one city's mayoral race. And most of the audience is not watching online (and even if they were, if you made a TV or radio debate saying 'this is going online so we can involve every candidate and let it run for... one hour, three hours, whatever' that doesn't mean anyone is going to watch. It would likely be turgid and of little use). So if you include any extra candidates that does mean less time and fewer questions for Goff.

Why Thomas? 'Twas after my time, but I think it's pretty obvious that he'd be chosen because he's a long-term politician, a standing local board member, was the first person to announce, had a full raft of policies, was campaigning full-time and attending every event, door-knocking etc... But that's stating the obvious, so am I missing your point?

 I am right that media can't cover them all so a decision has to be made. So yes, we could make a qualitative assessment. And given different media make different choices, there is a certain amount of qualitative assessment involved. But you want to minimise that because, well, everyone's assessment will be different and you're trying to take personal bias out of the equation. If the reason given for Swarbrick not being included was, 'I talked to them all for half an hour and thought four of them was good, but she wasn't really up to it', imagine the outrage. So the goal is to take the personal out of it.

And no, just because Goff is known, that's no reason to hear more from others. That makes no sense to me at all. There are specific issues in this job and this city that have nothing to do with being Education, Defence or Trade Minister etc. Those most likely to hold the most power must receive the most attention.

And, no the decision on Craig wasn't wrong. You might not agree with it, but whatever the choice made something or someone was compromised. We made the choice we thought compromised our viewers and ethics the least. As the TV producer who gave Craig more TV time than any other, I can hardly be accused of shutting him out of the political process and stand by that decision 100%.

 

by Alan Johnstone on October 06, 2016
Alan Johnstone

The media have given her an easy time instead of subjecting her to scrutiny and pointing out that she is wildly unqualified for the role.

This is a very serious business, Auckland council is one of the largest businesses in the country, it's not a job for a novice

by Murray Grimwood on October 06, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Actually, if the media - and I seriously include Tim in this - did their homework, they'd realise that the mantra chanted by the Goff brigade (since '84 in this country) is a porky.

Basically, the mantra is that you can have economic growth forever, which - due to the mathematical inevitability of doubling-times - is impossible on a finite planet. What actually happens, is that folk go more and more into debt, based on that belief. As does society in general, until it collapses.

Even now, as the end-game approaches, nobody - and I gave Tim a nudge here, with silence/avoidance the only reply - will ask the needed questions.

And Alan - if it continues to be treated as a 'business', we fail. Business requires profit, dividend, interest. All manifest as growth, growth is unsustainable. So we need a different approach. If you hadn't heard this yet, blame the media....

http://sustainable.unimelb.edu.au/sites/default/files/docs/MSSI-Research...

by Alan Johnstone on October 06, 2016
Alan Johnstone

Business, noun, "an occupation, profession, or trade"

by Tim Watkin on October 06, 2016
Tim Watkin

Alan, I think you make a fair point. She certainly has not been challenged as hard as Goff or Crone and has become something of a protest-anti-establishment figure. But equally, that's because everyone knows she won't win; it's the flipside of the foregone conclusion argument.

If she was treated as a serious contender as she thinks she should be, she may get more coverage, but she may not like where it leads or the obvious analysis that she's not ready for that kind of role. On the other hand, she may prefer that rigorous analysis and reject the heroic outsider label some have given her. I haven't seen her comment on that, except to say that she thinks she could do the job.

by Rich on October 07, 2016
Rich

Auckland council is one of the largest businesses in the country

It's not a business, it's local government. And they pay a CEO nearly $700k to do the business management. Pitt the Younger ran the whole British Empire when he was 24 (getting elected was easier in those days if you chose your parents well).

 

 

by Graeme Edgeler on October 07, 2016
Graeme Edgeler

And, no the decision on Craig wasn't wrong. You might not agree with it, but whatever the choice made something or someone was compromised. We made the choice we thought compromised our viewers and ethics the least. As the TV producer who gave Craig more TV time than any other, I can hardly be accused of shutting him out of the political process and stand by that decision 100%.

I didn't accuse you of shutting anyone out of the political process. I think the argument that the Conservatives were consistently ahead of four of the other parties invited was strong. In fact, it was understated. The Conservatives weren't just ahead of each of those parties, they were ahead of them all combined.

I agree entirely that it is the proper place of an executive producer to decide that you could only have six people at a minor leaders' debate. Reaching the view that "we only have this much time available, and this much space available, and this many podiums, and this much light, and it would be a breach of journalistic ethics to have more than six people at this debate" is an entirely proper position to take (although, in the end, it wasn't one you took, in light of the judgment).

I do not think the Courts should have interfered with this view. What I am saying is that having reached that view that it would be a breach of ethics to try to fit seven people into that debate, and knowing that that would have meant one party was going to miss out, you chose the wrong party to leave out. If you were to hold a six person debate, then Colin Craig should have been invited before a number of the other leaders who were invited. Because it is only fair to try to put myself in the difficult decision you faced, my first cut for the debate would have included Colin Craig, and excluded Peter Dunne (with debate over whether that should have been Jamie Whyte).

I suspect that the magnitude of "the worm" was a one-off, for a number of reasons, but let us imagine that debates can make a difference to the votes a party can get. Indeed, let us imagine that it could add over 20,000 votes. Even with 23,000 more votes, Peter Dunne doesn't get another MP, he just stops causing an overhang. 25,000 votes change to the Conservative Party and that's the difference between them having zero MPs and seven MPs and a massive effect on the Parliament that follows the election.

by Alex Stone on October 07, 2016
Alex Stone

I predict that Chloe Swarbrick will come in as the second-highest polling candidate. How would it be if the new mayor hires her in a special role as 'listening envoy to the future' - or some such thing?

by Alan Johnstone on October 08, 2016
Alan Johnstone

So, after all that fuss, she polled 7%. Smudge higher than the 6% I predicted elsewhere.

Yet another lesson in the dangers of taking the self validating echo chamber of social media seriously

by Tim Watkin on October 09, 2016
Tim Watkin

I tend think you're right, Alan. Social media is a distorted mirror to look into. Swarbrick certainly made a name for herself, but only amongst a small percentage. She did much better than expected and third is a stunningly good result ahead of an experienced local body member and the guy who got 109,000 votes just three years ago, but still only got 26,000 votes, barely a quarter of Crone, ahead of her in second.

So you can take it many different ways. Good on her, but beware hype.

by Tim Watkin on October 09, 2016
Tim Watkin

Graeme, the point is someone had to be shut out. And someone just about always has to when it comes to debates (Greens miss out on 'major party' debates, Dunne and Anderton have has their travails in the past). That's both the problem with them, every configuration you can choose has a big downside. Yet also makes my point about earning it.

But still, I take on board your argument. I'm just curious how you would justify Dunne. You mention the worm; that's ancient history but maybe a minor consideration. Your MMP maths is a good argument.

But look at it from the other direction. You'd be shutting out a party that had won a place in parliament for FOUR consecutive elections, a sitting MP and a minister, and one of NZ's longest serving MPs in favour of a party that had never won a public office of any kind.

So either way the arguments for being in the debate are strong. Or, for being left out are bad. You've just got to make a call. I appreciate you putting yourself in my shows. So ultimately all we can say is that we came to different conclusions on that one.

But my point was that the decisions made are seldom lazy or cynical media or anyone trying to rig results or discourage voting. That's an accusation often made, but hopefully what our to and fro shows is that's seldom a perfect outcome, even when we all want the best.

by Brendon Mills on October 11, 2016
Brendon Mills

Too bad CS never ran for council (or local board). It would have been more interesting.

by Alan Johnstone on October 11, 2016
Alan Johnstone

There wasn't a single council seat she'd have won

by Brendon Mills on October 14, 2016
Brendon Mills

I guess we will never know. Will find out in 2019 I guess. Not really bothered either way.

by Nick Gibbs on October 16, 2016
Nick Gibbs

Swarbrick was on Q and A today which was more free promotion of her by TVNZ. Was there no one available to join the panel who actually won a seat or better yet Len Brown would have an interesting perspective on immigration. Why Swarbrick?

by Graeme Edgeler on October 19, 2016
Graeme Edgeler

Swarbrick was on Q and A today which was more free promotion of her by TVNZ. Was there no one available to join the panel who actually won a seat or better yet Len Brown would have an interesting perspective on immigration. Why Swarbrick?

It was the panel, not an interview, so they like to have a range of views. Can you think of anyone better to give the views of someone young?

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