So is Gareth Morgan going to go to court to force his way onto TVNZ's minor party debate? That story is a familiar one to me, but it also will be a defining moment for TOP

Well, this brings back memories. A colleague tonight tentatively asked, "now I don't want to trigger anything, but what happened with you and Colin Craig?". I assured her nothing but frustration was triggered, but it did take me back to 2014 and The Nation's day in court against the Conservative Party.

Tonight TVNZ has reported that it understands The Opportunities Party is considering a legal challenge to the broadcaster's decision to exclude it from its minor parties debate this Friday evening. 

Ahead of the 2014 election, The Nation planned a minor party debate and, well in advance, had laid down a threshold that it would only accept parties that were already in parliament. This back back in the days when we had a bounty of lively minor parties – the Greens, New Zealand First, the Maori Party, ACT, United Future and Mana all with MPs in the House. So there was already a unwieldly number of parties to cram into a one hour programme, and so a line had to be drawn.

It was a difficult and much debated line. These lines always are, because they matter. Remember back in 2011, TVNZ had laid down a threshold for parties early in the year and New Zealand First snuck in on a rounding point (technically on 2.9% it had been rounded to 3% by the pollster, and so crossed the line). Winston Peters' performance in that debate helped push him forward to over 6% on election day. Yes, they matter.

I was keen to involve the Conservatives last time. Indeed, I was keen for all kinds of different things in the debates that year. TV3, as it was then, had tried to arrange a four party debate with National, Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First, given that the gap between the big two and the middle two was comparable to the gap back to the minnows. But the big parties weren't biting; at least National certainly said no.

Any news executive or producer has to weigh competing rights. The right of the other parties to get a fair say, the right of those out of parliament to have a crack at getting in, the right of the audience to hear from a diverse group of parties and the right of them to hear from parties for a reasonable length and at a reasonable depth.

Add to that the logistical realities of studio space, lighting and so on, and it's never as simple as saying 'let 'em all in'.

Yet that's more or less what the judge ordered three years ago. Because we had decided to leave Craig out. We had interviewed him one-on-one on the programme as often as Key and Cunliffe that year and more than any of the other minor parties. It wasn't for a an unwillingness to let his voice be heard; quite the contrary, we reluctantly decided to keep him out so that we could best have a constructive debate where voices could be heard in the commercial hour we had at our disposal.

As it was six, was a lot and stretched our ability to light and shoot the set.

The judge understood none of that. Rather, he decided that Craig had the legal right to appear on that programme at that time in the belief that not doing so would unfairly harm his chances at the election.

I remember adding up minutes that would be lost from the existing parties to make room for Craig to join the debate. I remember the long hours of overtime crew were forced to work to make room for Craig. I remember him standing there, poorly lit and tacked onto the side as best we could. So Craig got his place, for all the good it did him.

While as a producer, I think the audience was not best-served by his presence, the worst thing about his appearance on the programme was the way it undermined editorial independence in this country. Undoubtedly, there are strong arguments on both sides of this debate about debates. But an independent news organisation had set a clear threshold and then exercised its media freedom to decide soberly and with care that one party would not take part. The courts ordered it to do otherwise. Think about that.

Yet it does not seem to have had an especially chilling effect. TVNZ has this year set its own independent threshold of 3% in one of its last two Colmar Brunton polls and TOP has not met it. In fact, it hasn't come close at 2.1% and 0.9%.

And so it's considering court action. 

I understand that a party largely excluded from the conversation in the past fortnight - apart from the odd desperate headline about lipstick and femi-nazis - is desperate to have its shot before the biggest audience of the campaign. Gareth Morgan will look at Peter Dunne's commonsense debate performance in 2002 and wonder if he couldn't pull the same rabbit out of the hat. You've got to be in to win.

But TOP was meant to be a party built on policy and principles, because it was about what works, not about politics and the game playing it so often involves.

It seems to have already abandoned its policy purity in the face of real politik and gone for the cheap headlines. Now, if it does go to court, it will be throwing away its principles, by willingly compromising the editorial independence of a state broadcaster. Is this really what Gareth Morgan entered this race to be remembered for?

Consider this: What does it profit a party to gain a debate, but lost its soul? It may get a platform alongside the other minor parties, but it becomes then just like all the other minor parties. And Morgan becomes just another politician.

To be fair, there's nothing wrong with that. This is the political world he chose to enter and while I dislike any undermining of editorial freedoms, there is nothing dishonourable per se about fighting for your place or, indeed, being a politician.

But Morgan said he was different. This decision will show us whether he is. Or not.


Comments (13)

by Simon Connell on September 06, 2017
Simon Connell

[A]n independent news organisation had set a clear threshold and then exercised its media freedom to decide soberly and with care that one party would not take part. The courts ordered it to do otherwise. Think about that. 

I'm not thrilled with courts overturning the decisions of independent news organsations. But I'm not thrilled with the idea that news organisations get to be the gatekeepers of important parts of our democratic process, either. And I think that election debates fall into that category - they're a kind of public service, even when being provided by independent entities. That means they should be subject to some kind of oversight.

It seems to be that a news organisation's assessment of the desirable format/rules for an election debate, in light of logistical considerations, might ultimately be bad for the operation of our democracy - no matter how soberly and honestly the assessment is made.

I don't have a strong view on the right answer as to bringing the Conservaties or TOP into debates. But I do feel uneasy about election debates being a matter of media freedom without oversight. I guess I just dont have the intuitive reacting you're hoping/expecting to elicit from the paragraph quoted above.

by Tim Watkin on September 06, 2017
Tim Watkin

No media organisation is going to be perfect. Indeed, there is no perfect in this world, just a range of different views. So either you have imperfect independence or imperfect compulsion.

And I don't think you could compel a private broadcaster without compensation (they don't always rate as well as this year!). If you said public broadcasters had to have them ALL on, well, three things. Public broadcasters would probably welcome it, it just depends where in their schedule and who's paying for the large outside broadcast costs... 2) you'd have to compel the politicians, some of who refuse to appear with certain others... and 3) you'd still have to find a subjective threshold unless you want all 15 parties on at once (based on 2014 numbers).

So not simple.


by Katharine Moody on September 06, 2017
Katharine Moody

What crowded out your minor party debate of the past was the single person Parliamentary parties, ACT, UF and Mana. As they are just constiuency seats, I'd say unless they were party vote polling above a 2% threshhold, they should just be left to attend debates in their own electorates - as they have no nationwide relevence. It does seem ridiculous that NZF and Greens get lumped in to the same basket as them. Therefore, if running a two debate format, I'd 'vote' for a leaders (two major parties) and all parties (including the two majors) registering above a 2% threshold. One would be a leaders debate, the other a proportional representation debate.

by James Green on September 06, 2017
James Green

TOP is the fifth most popular party at the moment, as the Conservatives were then, any debate that includes at least 5 parties, or includes at least 3 parties not named Labour or National has to include TOP unless it wants to look undemocratic and open itself up for court challenges.

Setting thresholds is a dumb idea, instead you select the number you want at the debate and then invite the most popular.

Act was and still is a tool of the National party, you know that, and UF had definitely evolved into that by this election, and probably the last election too (pre-hindsight).

If National think it is in their interests to not attend you should have put a generic guy in a suit behind their podium to dispassionately read their written policies -- that would have been as interesting as the worm!

by Chris de Lisle on September 06, 2017
Chris de Lisle

James, I'm more than a little concerned at the power /  responsibility that your system seems to invest in the polling companies.

Honestly, if court rulings have to be made on this every election, it suggests that parliament ought to regulate on the matter. At the very least, producers would then have certainty rather than rushing to implement a court ruling day of. 

by Simon Connell on September 06, 2017
Simon Connell

And I don't think you could compel a private broadcaster without compensation (they don't always rate as well as this year!).

That's an interesting question. It doesn't seem likely to me that anyone (ie Parliament or Judges) would compel a private broadcaster to hold an election debate without compensation. But it might be more arguable that a private broadcaster that chooses to hold and screen an election debate has taken on a kind of public function, and doesn't just get to decide on whatever rules they want on whatever basis they want.

by James Green on September 06, 2017
James Green

Chris, polling companies have to be approximately accurate or else they lose credibility, by looking at several polls you can ensure that any one pollster is not rigging them. Lots of aspects of society rely on markets like this without a problem.

by Iain Butler on September 06, 2017
Iain Butler

I'm largely with Tim on this one. The 'right' of a party to be represented in a debate, conflicts with the right of the voter to hear something meaningful from the parties already chosen. Imagine if at the ballot booth you were only allowed 20 seconds to review the voting paper before choosing - the more candidate names on the list, the harder it would be to cast a meaningful vote.

But two questions, Tim:

1. Why is being in Parlimanet already considered so much more important than being (somewhat) popular with voters intending to vote in this election? Remeber back to when Peter Dunne and Jim Anderton started this fad for court-ordered air time, they argued successfully that because they were in Parliament, even though they polled lower than parties which werent' they were owed some space. so what? Peter Dunne is an incumbent of the 2014 Parlimanet, but no-one is arguling he deserves air-time now, and if TOP out-ranks ACT on all available polling, sure David Seymour should be the one slung out to make room.

2. Did you ever discuss appealing the court decision in 2014? Obviously it wouldn't have come in time to reverse the outcome, but having read the Anderton/Dunne decision, it seemed to suffer form the haste with which it was made. A more sober appeals process may have established some more helpful precedent for broadcasters even the decision came a year after the fact. Just a thought for 2020 :)

by Julian Ang on September 07, 2017
Julian Ang

Gareth is your atypical politician and this can be witnessed in his facebook newsfeeds where he occassionally dishes out the odd opprobrious comment to people who have expressed dissenting views - not a winning formula to sell one's message! However, his policies, especially in terms of much needed tax reform is really good and will go someway to addressing fairness and imbalance in our tax system. Yes, I agree that the curtailing of editorial freedoms through judicial intervention is not a good thing. However, I agree with Simon's comment that showcasing a political debate (even for a private broadcaster) in election year is a public and social good. Hence the need to uphold democratic participation and principles need to trump logistical (no matter how inconvenient) and fairly arbitrary criteria imposed. TOP may not meet the criteria but his party is the only one so far to my mind, that is actually painting a viable alternative to address imbalances in our system. His policies may be a bridge too far for the mainstream electorate (eg wealth taxes including the family home) but is worth a good sounding nonetheless. I agree with Iain that Act may meet the criteria but it is ultimately a token party and plaything for the incumbent and its absurdly low polling over a long period of time calls into question why it needs to be given any airtime as it doesn't have anything new to bring to the table - it's all the same old neoliberalism ideology whose foundations stem from the theme "tax is theft".

by Simon Papps on September 07, 2017
Simon Papps

The error around polling of marginal parties is huge. It is more than the margin of error. The small parties are also more likely to be affected by polling bias. TOP could be sitting closer to 5% than pollsters realise. At least TOP has a logically consistent suite of formally costed policies, which is not something that can be said about the major parties which seem to make policy up on the fly based upon the latest poll results.

by James Green on September 08, 2017
James Green

Damien Light, who didn't even have a wikipedia page until last week, has been invited to this debate, but Gareth Morgan, who leads the 5th most popular party, has been excluded. That is some grade A bullshit right there. You can try and justify it as much as you want but at the end of the day if it doesn't make sense then your justifications are wrong and you need to re-examine them.

by Katharine Moody on September 08, 2017
Katharine Moody

Given Winston Peters gave up his place, surely TVNZ should simply ring Gareth up and offer him that place - for the sake of their own ratings if nothing else. Having the UF person on is just plain dumb - and proves how irrelevent their self-imposed criteria are.

by Peter Tenby on September 09, 2017
Peter Tenby


Watched the debate last night and it was a total waste of time - a boring, irrelevant farce to be precise.

Vapid and uninspiring with most just rattling off the same old policy positions/ideologies - you could have guessed the answer to 100% of the questions before they opened their mouths. Fortunately, RNZ did an excellent book/doco launch of "the 9th floor" at the same time so the night was not a complete loss.

Seymour dominated the debate even though he is only a National party overhang seat at 0.1%. He is not even truly relevant in Epsom - a National member representing them would be more "honest" and just as effective. Apart from the occasional "joke" (he was the comedian only because everyone else was so dull), you could have replaced him with a free market conversation algorithm.

Fox was less rude and unaware of herself than she was on the RNZ and Spinoff debates so kudos to that. 

Shaw was just Shaw: A really nice, quiet, genuine guy who therefore had no place being in these debates. Marama Davidson does this schtick better and she should have been on this one - she shone in the spinoff debate despite its format and lack of moderation.

And the other guy summed up in a phrase: I pity the fool... 

Even if TVNZ were only interested in infotainment for ad breaks (and let's be honest, their management is), the addition of Morgan would have served that purpose well.

There is no possible rational defence of this decision. Simply saying "dems da rulz" is not good enough. If the "rules" lead to this sort of situation, the rules are wrong and need to be changed immediately - but perhaps that's just the anarchist in me talking?

The fact TVNZ is a public broadcaster makes this much worse. The appeals to the authority of "the rules" are just weak and so obviously self-serving nonsense. And they should look up "self-fulfilling prophecy" while they are at it with their other arguments.

A better rule would be something like having the top 4 polling minor parties that actually turn up.

Just be honest about it - there is only room for a certain number on stage for entertainment/interest reasons and that is the number. No major parties, no deputy substitutes. (like the Spinoff) No creating weird and patently unfair rules that can be gamed (i.e. Act/National) or made to look farcical. (i.e. UF)

Democratically chosen, not arbitrarily based on rules designed at a fixed point in time to select personalities.

And while we are at it, the top 4-5 should be in the main debates. I think NZ deserves better than 3 presidential debates to one minor. It's MMP now and minor parties matter more than ever!

But Infotainment is the actual goal and thus this will never happen.

So at the very least lets at least be honest about that...

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