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Gordon Campbell on holding the powerful to account

Gordon Campbell on being accountable, and holding the powerful to account

Don’t know how you feel about it, but the selective unavailability of Ministers and senior public servants to media scrutiny seems to be a growing concern. Regularly on RNZ – which usefully reports when this occurs – an issue will arise that begs for a response or where ministerial/departmental accountability is at stake, but the relevant politician/bureaucrat will not be available for comment. Yet often and tellingly, they’re not so beyond-radio-contact that they can’t find time to authorise and email a statement unilaterally stating their position. Which indicates that it is the questioning of the party line that they’re choosing to avoid.

Now, I’m not saying that these busy, important people should be available for comment 24/7 on any issue whatsoever that the media – which is allegedly insatiable – feels inclined to ask. But c’mon, this is the state broadcaster. If you can diary in an appearance on Breakfast TV, surely Morning Report isn’t too much of a stretch. It comes down to a matter of balance. And while I may be wrong on this, it seems as though the balance is tilting increasingly towards politicians
(a) picking the interviewers/outlets to which they deign to make themselves available, while
(b) dodging those they don’t like and
(c) choosing to go AWOL when they land themselves in hot water.
Whatever is driving this trend, it is eroding democratic accountability. Surely the decision to front up shouldn’t depend on the calculated potential for a messaging upside. Ultimately, it shuts down the discourse… and journalists can’t speak truth to power if the powerful have taken the phone off the hook.

It seems to be so easy to get on the blacklist, too. Personally, it has always been a surprise to find just how thin-skinned so many politicians can be. With great power comes great epidermal sensitivity. Queries of the official line are routinely seen as (a) vexing (b) impertinent (c) motivated by malice and/or ideology and thus (d) to be shunned wherever possible.

Over time, this can easily harden into a pattern of total avoidance. For years it seemed, if and when RNZ’s recently departed Mary Wilson came knocking, fully grown Cabinet Ministers would hide behind the sofa until she went away again. To be fair, sometimes RNZ does itself no favours. This morning on RNZ for instance, Minister of all things Steven Joyce was cut off in the middle of an interview about the rise in the unemployment figures, so that Morning Report could switch to a five minute interview about how excited Christchurch is about All Blacks parade today, and whether one-eyed Cantabrians unduly support the local lads in the team. Sheesh.

This is not simply a New Zealand problem, of course. The gutting of news content is a global issue. Bashing the supposedly “liberal” media has also become a global sport. Allegedly, major media corporations are not owned by CBS, Time Warner, Viacom, News Corp, Disney and Comcast anymore but by cells of the Socialist Internationale and the sick friends of Sean Penn. During and after the CNBC debate last week, the fractious Republican presidential contenders finally found unity and a common cause… by attacking the journalists involved, and the questions they’d had the gall to ask. Briefly, there was talk of a signed letter of complaint by the candidates to the networks – but not to Fox – demanding better behaviour in future please, from journalists. Fox anchor Megyn Kelly ruthlessly mocked the attempt. Next time around, she asked, would they also want a foot massage and a neck rub?

Yesterday, US President Barack Obama joined in. While they talk tough, Obama pointed out, the Republican hopefuls evidently can’t even handle a few probing questions from journalists. How then, would they deal with Putin?

“Candidates tough talk about Putin,” Obama said, referring to Republican presidential contenders like Donald Trump, who has argued that his negotiation skills would lead to better U.S.-Russian relations. “They say, ‘When I talk to Putin, he’s going to straighten out,'” he said mocking the Republican slate, “and then it turns out they can’t handle a bunch of CNBC moderators. If you can’t handle those guys, I don’t think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you,” Obama joked.

Being willing (and able) to ask hard questions is one thing. Being willing and able to analyse government policy is another aspect of the journalism trade. Identifying the values driving the policies of those in power – and then gauging the likely winners and losers of that policy – may be even more crucial than simply reporting what the policy is, or claims to do. Scoop has been around for over 15 years now, trying to play that role. It is an independent, New Zealand owned operation. And by ‘independent’ I mean it can be safely relied on to bite the hand of who-ever is in power, as necessary.

I can’t claim that having Scoop – or journalism per se – is more essential to society than anything else. Good mental health care is essential. Students shouldn’t have to pile up mountains of debt to have a chance of getting a halfway decent job. Their parents certainly shouldn’t be being squeezed so badly, either. Right now, they face caring for their ageing boomer Mums and Dads, while their own kids are still living in the basement because they can’t afford to leave home. Schools need more funds, especially for kids with special needs. The health system is collapsing under the weight of unmet need. I don’t think quality journalism is a more pressing need than any of those things. But here’s the rub: if we don’t have the likes of Scoop or its ilk around anymore, we risk losing the ability of informing each other about all of those other, arguably more important things. That’s the risk. Once the lights go out, those in power can do whatever they like in the dark. Somehow, we have to find a way to keep the journalistic lights on.

That’s why Scoop is running a crowd funding campaign right now. In the current climate, the news that matters – ie, the stuff that isn’t just thinly disguised advertorial or infotainment – needs your financial support. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is – if the kind of journalism that we care about is going to live to fight another day. It needs subscribers. Oh and besides, think how pleased some scumbags will be if Scoop isn’t around anymore. Let’s not give them that pleasure. The details of how you can lend your support to Scoop – along with a more extensive explanation as to why good journalism is in crisis - can be found here.

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Talking About Keeping Things Going….

One of the best songs ever written about relative worth was the Creedence Clearwater Revival track “ Don’t Look Now (It Ain’t You Or Me) ” It was written in the late 1960s, when middle class whites were dropping out to find themselves, with little heed as to who might keep the basic functions of social life ticking over in the meantime. John Fogerty really was an unusually focussed guy when it came to the workings and contradictions of class privilege. From the same 1969 album… the great “Fortunate Son” took the different fate of the children of the elites in wartime, and contrasted them with what war does to the sons and daughters of the working poor. As Fogerty once explained : “I see things through lower class eyes.” One thing I like about the “Don’t Look Now” song is that he identifies himself – “it ain’t you or me” - as part of the problem.

Oh, and its always worth giving “Fortunate Son” a spin. In this dodgily recorded (but great) live clip from 15 years ago, Sleater-Kinney added a whole new dimension of gender politics / queer issues to the song…

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