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Howard's End: Society & State Disconnected

The defensive posture taken by the Higher Salaries Commission over public criticism of politicians pay rises, suggests a disconnect and a tension between society and the modern state, such that the political party who can reconcile that and provide a new vision of community will become the next natural party of Government. Maree Howard writes.

If we are to turn around an epidemic of public cynicism with politicians and "the system", the exchange between the rulers and the ruled has to be reversed.

For example, earlier this year there was some political discussion about the ending of juries for civil trials on the basis that their abolition would be cheaper and more efficient. The same discourse is taking place in Australia.

Last week, NSW Court of Appeal Justice, Brian Priestly, retired after a lifetime's work and he made a comment about the political reasons for ending juries for civil trials.

He said; " It misses the main point of juries: which is the spreading of power within the community."

" The more widely spread the exercise of power is, the healthier it seems to me to be. However, I simply watched the trend go the wrong way without being able to do anything about it," he said.

Here was a powerful man in the community suggesting losing some of that power for the health of the society he loves. He was giving wisdom not only for the judicial system, but also for politics, the media, and big business.

Too often in New Zealand, power is devolved in the form of what is called consultation, but which is not consultation at all, rather it is persuasion. Attempts are made to persuade us to a pre-conceived view.

In other countries the top-down exercise of power has been well recognised as old fashioned and there is a growing trend, particularly in some media, to bring the public back into the mainstream debate.

The Sydney Morning Herald has introduced a Heckler column, The Australian pioneered the people's voice series and the ABC has introduced into its weekly Stateline programme, a dissent feature going inside community protests.

Unfortunately the media in New Zealand, particularly television, acts as a censor rather than facilitator of public debate and, therefore, public understanding and public power.

Television talking heads sometimes take positions against politicians criticising them for honest ideas which often the public sees as common sense. Rather than facilitate public debate for an idea, the television media often tends to pull down and destroy an idea.

Yet the media exists for the opposite purpose, surely: to praise the honest man or woman, not bury them, and to use their honesty as a springboard for public debate.

Last weekend, the Sunday Star-Times reported that State-owned TV One news was facing difficulties with haemorrhaging audience and advertisers. Given that television is seen to be the royalty of the media, that's a disturbing disconnect. But I'm not surprised because they don't seem to recognise they even have a problem.

It seems to me that someone has to say "Look, you're losing audience, you're losing customers, you seem to have contempt for your customers."

Television news and current affairs needs to be told it's not what it does that is the product which sells. The product is the audience - that's what's being sold.

If they were selling shoes instead of news, they'd be out of business by now.

Equally as bad is perhaps not news bias, although there is some of that - but cultural bias. Overwhelmingly the television executives and press gallery journalists live in the main centres, particularly Auckland and Wellington.

They go to dinner and cocktail parties with the power-brokers in the cities and naturally end up taking the position as people in the cities do.

It's time for television to start reporting the micro story from the ground up and trickling up the questions, logjams and ideas from the community at large to the lobby groups, the bureaucrats and the politicians.

Years ago I suggested a current affairs programme called "Eye to Eye" but that wasn't taken up.

Of course, politics is often played out in terms of ego, personal advancement, compliance to interests of core constituencies and often unexamined ideological positions. But all of that is merely the overlay to decisions which affect New Zealand voters and will ultimately affect their children and grandchildren.

Too often politicians and the media engage in a point scoring game. Once convinced that it is not about point scoring, politicians might agree to properly debate the issues and answer the questions. The discourse must ultimately be about the relationship between community and state.

Old paradigms are shifting. The poet Robert Bly once wrote, " The world will break up into small communities of the saved."

There are big challenges ahead for our power centres - political parties, big business, the law and the media - and the winners will be those who connect best with the people. We're all on notice.

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