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Communications Line: Number 35 of August 29 2006

Communications Line Number 35 of August 29 2006


With John Bishop

Over the line – constitutionally

One of the lines that the Labour Party has been running about its alleged overspending has been that the rules for spending the taxpayers’money are vague and unclear. This is nonsense. When I worked at Parliament in a party office it was made very clear that there were three things you could not do with the taxpayers’ dime - money from the Leader’s Fund. They were to solicit votes, money or membership. You could not say in any material published at the taxpayers’ expense, vote for X party, join X party, or send money to X party.

Those things were out: everything else was in. Come to this meeting. Hear MP ABC talk on this subject. Offering an opportunity to sign up for a newsletter on the activities of this MP or to get news releases about a subject is all legit. Sometimes people did inadvertently transgress. Mail outs at the taxpayers’ expense also had to carry the parliamentary crest. On one occasion I left it off, the most frequent mistake, Parliamentary Services told me at the time. We owned up, apologised and paid the money back, and no further action was taken.

The overspending issue has slowly been building a head of steam, with the New Zealand Herald leading the charge and with the Nats also now going hard on the issue. Conservative commentators Richard Long and Michael Bassett both attacked Labour on the matter in the DominionPost this morning.

I offer three thoughts. One is that the Auditor General and the Solicitor General are both independent officers. If, for whatever reason, they are unable or unwilling to fulfill their responsibilities as guardians of the public interest, how can we, the ordinary citizens, be protected from tyranny and from the criminal acts of those who govern us? I am speaking here in general terms, and I am not accusing anyone of criminal behaviour or any lack of integrity.

The Roman poet Juvenal asked Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guardians themselves (this was in the context of a discussion about the merits of having eunuchs guarding women). It is remarkable how much of our constitutional arrangements rely on decent people doing their duty and behaving honourably. There hardly seems to be any recourse if they don’t, can’t, or won’t carry out their obligations.

Secondly, if by some series of events, the Labour Party, Helen Clark or Heather Simpson were charged and convicted of some offence under the Electoral Act, then what happens to the result of the election? In the two previous cases - Wyatt Creech vs Reg Boorman in the Wairarapa seat in 1988, and Winston Peters vs Malcolm Douglas in Hunua in 1978 – the court overturned the original result (although Creech had won on a recount anyway). For the Electoral Court to order a whole new election would be a sweeping decision, but if (and that is a big if) it were to find that there had been cheating (or corrupt practices to use the language of the Act), what alternative would there be? It could hardly allow the result to stand – surely?

Finally if the overspending on the pledge card cannot be counted as Parliamentary spending, and the Auditor General says it can’t be counted as that, then it has to be party spending. That takes Labour over the limit for election spending. No one is expecting the police to revisit their decision not to prosecute (although many think that decision was wrong). But if there is no action, then a political party is allowed to break the law and get away with it. That can’t be right. So we come back to the original question. How can we hold our guardians to account when there is evidence of misbehaviour?

Who killed the newspaper?

The current issue of the Economist asks the question editorially, pronouncing that “in the rich world newspapers are now an endangered species. The business of selling words to readers, and readers to advertisers which has sustained their role in society, is falling apart.”

Classified ads are shifting on line. Newspapers in Switzerland and the Netherlands have lost half their classified ads to the internet. Jobs in the industry are falling and half the rich world’s general newspapers may fold in the next couple of decades, the Economist reports. The newspaper industry has responded in two ways. One is to cut costs, partly by spending less on journalism. “Many are trying to attract younger readers by shifting their stories towards entertainment, lifestyle and subjects that may seem more relevant to people’s lives than international affairs and politics.” The second response is to create free daily papers “which do not use up meagre editorial resources uncovering political corruption or corporate fraud.” It bodes ill for the public role of the Fourth Estate, the paper concludes.

Free newspapers

Free papers now account for one in five papers read in France, and publishers of paid-for dailies are considering free editions of their own, a report in the New York Times says. Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd is bringing forward plans to launch a free newspaper in London, it was reported this week.

The situation in France “reflects a broader shift across Europe, as upstart free papers continue their rapid growth and publishers of existing papers, casting about for any way to retain readers, increasingly turn to giveaways,” the New York Times says.

In New Zealand, free weeklies are already a significant feature of city media. In Wellington, the Capital Times dominates the arts and cultural scene, particularly among the young inner city dwellers. It’s seen off City Voice, a radical paper which was ridden into the ground by factional strife.

The publisher of most importance is Fairfax. With its four weeklies (Wellingtonian, Upper Hutt Leader, Hutt News and Kapi Mana News) it can reach every home in the greater Wellington region at least once a week, regardless of whether those homes subscribe to a Fairfax publication (DominionPost Sunday StarTimes or Sunday News.) So they reinforce Fairfax’s dominance in Wellington. That strategy also makes it harder for the APN owned Wilson & Horton media to get traction in Wellington. So far their papers are smaller in size and less attractive to readers and advertisers.

In Auckland Wilson & Horton have applied the same approach to keep Fairfax at bay. The Aucklander is a weekly tabloid style publication with rather less news that the Wellingtonian, but it is published in nine versions for each area within the greater Auckland area. It complements the New Zealand Herald and rivals the Fairfax stable of twelve community papers which also cover most of greater Auckland.

The Aucklander stable of papers recently featured former All Black and Samoan prop Peter Fatialofa in his work as a piano mover on the front page, and each edition is promoting the Aucklander of the year competition. Inside many stories are duplicated through each edition, with some locally oriented copy as well. It’s a city wide but local approach at the same time, and very much driven by the same commercial imperative as the Fairfax papers: deliver audiences to advertisers.

Beware of Bloggers

If you’re somewhat nervous about the journalistic credentials of the bloggers who cover your industry or company, maybe you have reason to be, Ragan’s Media Relations Report warns in its August edition.

“When The Washington Post announced with much fanfare the hiring of Ben Domenech as a conservative blogger in March, the assumption by the general public was that Domenech had the chops to do the job. After all, why would the Post hire some poser who knew nothing of journalistic standards and practices—even though Domenech was hired by the paper’s Web site, a separate entity?

Turns out Domenech, who was brought in to provide a “social conservative voice” to Washingtonpost.com, turned out to be a “serial plagiarist,” as the Los Angeles Times put it. Liberal bloggers dug up the dirt on Domenech, who’d apparently been swiping copy since his college days, and forwarded the examples to the Web site’s editors.

When Jim Brady, executive editor of Washingtonpost.com, announced that he was launching an investigation into the plagiarism charges, Domenech resigned. The advice from Ragan: “Don’t assume that a blogger with ties to a media outlet has a degree in journalism, simply because he or she is blogging under a respected media umbrella.”

Loyalty to Bush rewarded

Connie Lawn, long time Radio NZ Washington correspondent now with Radio Live, was in NZ recently to receive a life time achievement award from the National Press Club (an interesting organisation remarkably unpopulated by journalists, but that’s another story). In her acceptance speech she remarked that at George W Bush’s press conferences, he had a strict schedule of reporters he called to ask questions, “and he doesn’t depart from that.” They were the ones who had travelled with him most frequently.

The US government charges journalists the price of first class air travel plus a margin to travel with the President, and she said a recent trip to Asia set back news organisations more than US$25,000 a head. The ones picked to ask questions, according to Lawn, represented organisations that spent over $1million a year travelling with the President. Lends new meaning to airline loyalty schemes I suppose. She noted that at the news conferences there was no point in waving, yelling or making other moves to attract attention. The President asked whomever he wanted and he wanted only the small coterie of reporters he trusted.

A small world- more proof

Proof – if it were needed - that this is indeed a small world came to me after the last issue of this newsletter. In it I had written about Dr Bruce Newman, a political marketing expert who had been brought from Washington to Wellington via Otago to give a lecture. I attended and reported some of his remarks. Always eager to expand my readership, and ever courteous, I flicked a copy of the newsletter to Phil Harris at Otago University, the man who had brought Newman to Wellington. Harris flicked the whole thing on to his list with the annotation “For list members a useful New Zealand alert on political matters.”

A couple of days later one Alejadnro Claps replies and becomes a subscriber. He has a Swedish email address. I duly reply welcoming him as a subscriber, and ask about what he does and why he is interested in my stuff. Turns out he is a freelance political writer in Sweden and also in Spain and he is on Phil Harris’s list. How many degrees of separation did that involve?

Six degrees of separation is the hypothesis that anyone on Earth can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances with no more than five intermediaries. According to Wikipedia, the hypothesis was first proposed in 1929 by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy and in the 1950s, Ithiel de Sola Pool (MIT) and Manfred Kochen (IBM) set out to prove the theory mathematically, but gave up after 20 years of trying.

In 1967, American social psychologist Stanley Milgram tried a different method. He randomly selected people from various places in the United States to send postcards to one of two targets: one in Massachusetts and one in the American Midwest. The senders knew the recipient's name, occupation, and general location. They were instructed to send the card to a person they knew on a first-name basis who they thought was most likely, out of all their friends, to know the target personally. That person would do the same, and so on, until it was delivered to the target. 80% of the successfully delivered packages were delivered after four or fewer steps. Almost all the chains were fewer than six steps. Milgram's findings inspired the phrase six degrees of separation.

Getting old

For many years I had a private definition of getting old. I would be old I told myself, when the Rolling Stones were played on the National Programme. That was in the 1980’s when the National Programme was a very stuffy station indeed. Well one morning Kim Hill, who had the Nine to Noon Show at the time, played Satisfaction and said something like, there I have done it, I have always wanted to do that, and now I have, and if you don’t like it, too bad. I recounted the story on Jim Mora’s Show a week or so ago, and got a response from a man who empathized with my situation. He said he had solved the problem this way: anyone younger than him was young, and anyone older than him was old. ” Such a moving target means age is no longer an issue,” he says.

Developing a media relations strategy that suits your organisation

I am leading a half day workshop in Wellington on 13 September. It follows the Media Relations Conference. See
http://www.conferenz.co.nz/2006/events/conferences/september/L027/L027.htm

Spelling on Sunday

Congratulations to the National Programme’s Jim Mora for winning The Great NZ Spelling Bee, a champion speller and a fine chap. In the final face off between Mora and Raybon Kan, the lexicographers reached for the utterly obscure. Given the word “pantagreulian" (which I freely admit I had never heard of), Kan quipped to Mark Leischman, “now you are making them up.” The word comes from Rabelais' play Pantagruel – the character is the “huge son of Gargantua”, and the character is presented as “dealing with serious matters in a spirit of broad and somewhat cynical good humor” – according to dictionary.com. And then there was “epithalamium” (which tripped up actor Peter Elliott). It is a lyric ode in honor of a bride and bridegroom.

I am sure we are all better off for knowing these things. It was good to see intelligent people on television for a change, contesting hard for their various causes, but I did think some of the words came close to being in the “who cares how they are spelled” category.

In the language mangler

The Tile Palace in Auckland was offering 'boarders' at the bargain price of $1.99; they are 200mm x 70mm, the size of leprechauns, my ever vigilant northern correspondent suggests.

I spotted a bottle of “red whine” on sale in a café in Fiji last week. Admittedly it was an Australian wine, so the description might have been true to label.

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Communications Line deals with media, marketing, political and management issues. It's free to subscribers. Please feel free to pass it on to friends and colleagues.
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