While delving into the details of how Simon Bridges got hold of Budget 2019 details can bring out partisan nastiness and seem like nothing compared to the lives of real people, process matters and it‘s good someone is keeping watch

This column by Bernard Hickey was interesting and, as a friend put it, is getting a lot of online love. There is a lot in it to agree with (for example, the degrading atavisms cultivated by social media). Its essential thesis, however, is that the focus on things like the budget leak is very inside Wellington and something that nobody outside the bubble really cares about and beside the point. We care less about the controversy of the week and focus more on the substantive outcomes of politics. 

On one level - an important one - I get it and agree. For years during the Key era, I wrote about the way the dozens of little contretemps touted as “game changers” were anything but since they didn’t really touch on people’s overall confidence in the government’s economic management. Those pieces were never heralded for their wisdom, quite naturally, since they argued against the always prophesied Watergating of John Key. 

But something I don’t think I ever wrote (and think I was careful to try to avoid implying) was that those small eruptions, while not decisive in terms of the overall picture, were not worthy of coverage. The framing of those things as being important for the horse-race or the overall wellbeing of the country was incorrect. That didn’t mean they weren’t bona fide matters for the Opposition to oppose and the press to air and debate.*

Think about the upcoming re-election campaign of the US President which, at this stage, is likely to focus on the roaring economy. With full employment rates in sight and growth at levels much higher than were under the graceful Obama, the vulgar Trump will argue that all the scandals plaguing his administration are distractions. And it looks like the people tend to agree, given that by some measures Trump has better approval ratings than Obama did at this point in their respective presidencies.  

This is not too surprising, of course, given that we all know that the economy is always uppermost in the minds of voters.  

So, if you asked some schoolchildren in America about what they thought was important, do you think they would nominate Attorney-General William Barr’s refusal to release the full, unredacted Mueller report to Congress? If not, does that mean that organisations like The Washington Post should call off scrutinising the potential administrative sins of the Trump administration?  If the answer to that question is no, why shouldn’t those interested in politics engage in a vigorous debate about the possibly partisan shenanigans of the most powerful organ in what is supposed to be a neutral public service? 

Is it simply a question of situational ethics? It’s hard to see what else it is, when the same types of questions are threats to the realm in 2016 but distractions in 2019. 

Those who engage with political minutiae are a bit like the timberwolves of the political eco-system. Few people in the town think about what happens in the wooded hills on a day-to-day basis and when they do pay attention, pack-hunting might not be the prettiest thing to watch. Take the wolves out the food-chain, however, and the cascading effects will be felt soon enough. It won’t be long before you have deer stripping the bark from the trees in your backyard. 

If the smaller fiascos and debacles (over which reporters and commentators actually have some influence) are set to one side to allow more focus on the big, substantive issues (over which they really have none), then we risk inviting vice into the country. By that, I don’t mean the occasional thing which is blessedly treated as a big deal in our quiet country today. I refer instead to the insidious, systematic subversion that occurs when people know there will be no pressure for adverse consequences (the absence of which can actually ruin a country).

It was true under National and it is true under Labour. That may be inconvenient to you when your side is in power, but that doesn't make it any less true.

* This isn't to say that horse-race and (especially) substantive policy coverage are pointless either, of course. There is a place for all three and writing about one does not preclude you from also writing about the other.

Comments (6)

by Lee Churchman on June 04, 2019
Lee Churchman

the insidious, systematic subversion that occurs when people know there will be no pressure for adverse consequences

You mean like in the UK?

by Tim Watkin on June 04, 2019
Tim Watkin

Quite true. I loved what Bernard wrote, but it's only part of the picture. It's too easy to just say 'stop the politics, talk about the Budget'. Both matter. Because how we do things is as important as what we do.

by Gavan O'Farrell on June 04, 2019
Gavan O'Farrell

I agree it's important to prioritise issues on their merits.

Instead of doing this, the media often go out of their way to overemphasise less important issues at the expense of the more important, according to who is involved rather than according to the actual importance of the issues. 

Not that I wish to suggest that anyone in particluar can tell us what's important and what isn't.  For example, some stories about the behaviour of politicians reveal their character, which (some elements of it, anyway) can be very important.  

Some of the media seem very dedicated to keeping the present Govt in power.  And I've been very disappointed in some dealings I've had with the Media Council, which reveal that the reference in Principle #5 to fairness and balance is empty.

Principle #5 is here:

https://www.mediacouncil.org.nz/principles

Instead, their position on Principle #5 is that, when it comes to letters and online commentary, editors have complete discretion:

https://www.mediacouncil.org.nz/rulings/gavan-ofarrell-against-stuff

A Govt agency would never get away with ignoring its own decision-making criteria.  

by Tim Watkin on June 04, 2019
Tim Watkin

Hi Gavan, as the online rep on the Media Council, perhaps I can help with any confusion over the principles? Principle 1 deals with fairness, balance and accuracy, which mostly applies to news coverage. Principle 5 is about opinion pieces, which by definition don't have to be balanced. You're allowed to express a strong opinion without having to give equal consideration/space/a right of reply to balancing views (something that is required in news stories). That principle ensures media display opinion as distinct from news. As per letters to the editors, it says papers should include a wide range of views. 

News organisations get submissions from huge numbers of people and are under no obligation to print everything... or indeed anything. I mean, it would obviously be impossible to publish everything, even if they wanted to. So then it has to be a matter of discretion, and a free press means editors should judge how to serve their communities, as per the principles (always within the bounds of laws and standards). Reasonable people can disagree with what is fair (and we often do at the Council), but there's further guidance in the preamble if that helps. 

by Gavan O'Farrell on June 05, 2019
Gavan O'Farrell

Hi Tim, thanks very much for commenting.  I accept the problem of inundation and selection and I accept that an individual opinion (incl letters and online comments) needn't be required to be fair and balanced. 

My beef is with publications that present an unfair or unbalanced array of opinions.  This is the aspect of Principle 5 which the Media Council didn't mention in its decision and appears reluctant to discuss.

I can see that, for a panel to agree about a lack of balance, it would need to be bad enough to be obvious.  Still, I think it is sometimes obvious.  For example, if comments are posted that are, say, gratuitously mocking of religious belief while a courteous but direct response by a religious commenter, calling out the mockery, is blocked.  A frequent occurrence.

by Gregor W on June 05, 2019
Gregor W

I refer instead to the insidious, systematic subversion that occurs when people know there will be no pressure for adverse consequences (the absence of which can actually ruin a country).

Spot on.

It's the 'death of a thousand cuts' that destroys the institutions of good goverenance. That's the wellspring of corruption. 

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