The Role Of A Free Press In Defending & Fostering Democracy
& How Donald Trump's Election Provides An Opportunity To Try To Heal It
For the 2017 General Election, Scoop.co.nz's 7th, and our first as a charitable media company, we have decided we want to do something different. We have launched what we are calling the "Open News Project" and its first outing is a crowd-funded and crowd-sourced effort to open the 2017 NZ general election up to meaningful voter participation.
But why are we doing this?
The election of Trump has proved that Democracy doesn't just happen, it needs to be fostered and defended, and it's the responsibility of the Fourth Estate to do so. So that's what we're doing.
All over the world there is talk of a Political Revolution taking place due to the public being increasingly disengaged with democracy. Somehow barely a century after the universal franchise was established (albeit only for a small fraction of the world's population), the gloss has already come off beloved institutions that millions died to establish and defend. The Brexit vote in the U.K. and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. have arguably taken confidence in Democracy to an all time low.
But as Scoop's ex-Founder and editor Alastair Thompson argues in this – part one of a two part op-ed this week – The arrival of Trump is a wake-up call – not just to the Anglosphere and the developed world - but to our entire planet: Democracy, it turns out, is much more fragile than we thought.
1. The Longest 100 Days Ever
2. A Cartoon Villain and the End of Neutrality
3. So What Went Wrong?
4. Post-Truth Politics Comes To NZ
5. An Explanation for our Democratic Dysfunction
6. The New Zealand Experience
Sean Spicer presents alternative facts about the size of President Trump's inauguration crowd
The first 100 days of Donald J. Trump 45th Presidency must be the longest 100 days in history. The entire planet was transfixed well before it started, and today we are just half way through. It's been a learning experience.
Democracy, the Rule of Law, the role of the Fourth Estate and all the constitutional checks and balances are getting a thorough work out. And if we are honest about it, so far these mechanisms haven't worked out that well. The protections which are supposed to prevent a slide into fascism are barely keeping pace with the Trumpening, slowing it a little maybe.
But already one thing is abundantly clear. Without a free press fighting in the corner of democracy and the rule of law, odds are the battle to preserve the freedoms won over the past three centuries might already be all but lost.
In the month's ahead many more lessons will be learned, but for now there is this.
Truth is important. So much so, that in the absence of responsible, independent, truth seeking news journalism and news publishers, we now know that democracy will certainly wither and die. 2016 and 2017 have showed us how fake news, alternative facts and post-truth politics is much more than a matter of academic interest – it’s a disaster.
And by extension we can but hope that the people with the chequebooks are learning that quality news services need secure funding streams. And that if, as a society, we allow quality journalism to disappear through inattention we risk calamities far greater than simple ignorance.
This isn't funny anymore.
I expect that there are lots of people like me who like me watched the rise of Trump through 2016 and were amused – and yes, horrified at times - but mostly amused. Afterall he wasn't supposed to win.
But for me now, the fun is over. I feel like a bystander to a battle where the opposing sides don't know what they are fighting over – and consequently are both more than a little blindsided.
The alt-right think they are fighting the elites. The elites think they are fighting the unfortunate outcome of an ignorant and angry voting public, either that or a combination of Russians, billionaires, Islamophobic extremists, patriarchal misogynists, racists and Nazis.
But the truth is this is not what is happening. It wasn't the voters fault, and it still isn't, it turns out that the system of Democracy that we thought was bullet proof has failed. And this system now needs to be healed if a future containing human dignity and freedom, on a liveable planet, is to remain within our collective grasp.
Fortunately with a Cartoon Villain installed as commander in chief of the most dominant global armed force in human history, everybody is now paying attention. And as the unthinkable unfolds, the once fashionable idea of political neutrality is increasingly no-longer viable.
Trump and his team are in the process of dismembering what they call "administrative government" and what we call civilisation.
Trump and his enablers claim to have a democratic mandate to pursue based on his winning an election. But the math of Trump's democractic mandate doesn't support his taking an axe to the vital organs of Govt. like the State Dept. and the EPA. Trump's 62,984,835 votes is only 19.4% of the U.S. Population of 324,677,591.
Answers to the question of what has gone wrong with democracy are legion, but in recent years some clarity has emerged.
For me the starting point is the role of inequality, money and self-interest in the polarisation of politics. This is best explained in Robert Reich's excellent recent documentary "Inequality for All" (Noam Chomsky's "Requiem for an American Dream" makes a good follow up).
Inquality for All traces the beginning of the rot setting in back to the 1970s and the election of Ronald Regan who promptly set about destroying labour unions, and through doing so severed the link between productivity growth and wages growth.
Image Source: New York Times Graphic
Whether you agree with his economic conclusion or not, Reich's argument about democracy concerns a side effect of the incontrovertible increase in inequality. Rising inequality means lots of millionaires with time on their hands and plans to become ever richer, in both the 1920s-30s and the 80s-90s this meant an abundance of loose money to influence politicians, and that in turn led to political polarisation.
The Citizens United Supreme Court Decision obviously didn't help, but by the time that came along the rot had already well and truly set in, and in fact the outcome in that case was probably caused by the polarisation that was already so far advanced.
Image Source: Mother Jones
NZ's levels of political polarisation are not yet at U.S. levels but we do experience similar high levels of income and wealth inequality, driven most probably by similar drivers [OECD comparative inequality data ranks the U.S. #3, the U.K. #7, Australia #13 and NZ #14 out of 35]. In addition the cultural affinity within the Anglosphere political world leads to a significant level of political mimicry, if not among the voting public, certainly among the politically activists.
The Dirty Politics revelations in the leadup to the 2014 election, the aftermath, were deeply shocking to many NZers, myself included, in part because of what they said about how polarised the Government of John Key had become.
And one only needs to glance at Cameron Slater's blog to discover that many of the political ideas of the American Alt-Right are strongly influential for him and his ilk.
The rising levels of political polarisation in NZ can also be seen through the prism of Australian political tacticians Crosby Textor's engagement in NZ 2008 general election (see also Stuff.co.nz). Arguably these were a precursor to the data driven voter manipulation tactics fine tuned by billionaire Robert Mercer's Cambridge Analytica during the Brexit vote and then deployed to assist the Trump campaign.
The 2014 election was a watershed for post-truth politics in NZ. Then incumbent PM John Key, seeking his third term, was arguably the most polarising politician in NZ since Muldoon. His association with both Slater and Crosby Textor indicated his willingness to engage in the darker arts of the political game – but even so what happened in 2014 was shocking in the extreme.
After the election Keith Ng at Public Address wrote a very telling commentary on what happened during the campaign. It is worth quoting from at length as the NZ Press Gallery's experience in 2014 was in many ways a prequel to the problems faced by the mainstream U.S. media during the 2016 campaign.
In both campaigns the media discovered that not only could they not get straight answers from, or expose untruths told by a charismatic politcian, but the public were didn't listen when they did.
Journalists haven’t been
lazy this election, nor have they been biased. They hit
Dirty Politics hard for weeks, and they’re pretty
indignant at people heaping scorn on them. I feel for you,
guys, but you need to look at this from the outside.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant” is supposed to be a
description of your job, your role in the democratic
And you have failed. It might not be your fault, but nonetheless, you have failed.
“Asking the hard questions” is a means, not an end. People hold up Guyon Espiner’s interview with Key as a fantastic piece of political journalism. It was certainly engaging. But (to borrow a phrase) at the end of the day, it was just Espiner yelling at Key for not answering any goddamn questions. And while Key sounded like a dick, he won – no amount of yelling could make Key say anything apart from his scripted lines. Despite continual pressure over the following weeks, Key successfully avoided questions about how much he knew about Ede’s involvement with Slater and delivered his lines to discredit Hager and distance himself from Slater.
“Key sounding evasive in an interview” is not meaningful success; but failing to get a single honest answer is meaningful, abject failure. We are so used to never getting a straight answer out of politicians, we don’t even see it as the point of interviews anymore!
To get some perspective of how bad things are, we virtually considered it a victory when he declared Judith Collins to be “unwise”. A minister who legislated against cyberbullying conspired to send a mob of cyberbullies towards a civil servant, lied about it then got found out. “Unwise.” That was the closest journalism got to holding anyone accountable this election.
The rise of Trump has led to a level of soul searching among believers in democracy the world over.
One of the many deep thinkers considering the subject is pod-caster Dan Carlin of "Hardcore History" fame. His latest Common-Sense podcast (No. 313 – "Get me a glass of water" Feb 14th 2017) contains an insightful reflection on the nature of the democratic dysfunction we presently face.
While his observations concern the U.S. there are clear parallels in N.Z.
While the podcast is quite long but Carlin's central idea is again relatively simple.
He points to the fact that over an extended period of years – several decades - there has been a gradual dismantling of the checks and balances which protect the functions of the state from executive power over-reach – legally and constitutionally.
For Carlin the Trump situation we face is the consequence not of a single electoral cycle, but of decades of erosion of the things that would – if the system worked – protect democracy from a demagogue like Trump.
In the United States for example we have seen:
- The erosion of Congress's sole authority to authorise war – the "War on Terror" now having been underway for 16 years post 9/11;
- Increasingly creative use of Executive Orders under several administrations to end-run dysfunctional and partisan Houses of Congress. These were controversial when implemented by George Bush II, but became far less so when Barack Obama followed suit;
- The erosion of the independence of the Department of Justice – first by Bill Clinton's AG in 1993 who replaced all the Federal Attorney's of George Bush I. George Bush II repaid the favour in 2006 dismissing seven United States Attorneys mid-term in controversial circumstances;
- The rise of a ubiquitous and all-seeing U.S. surveillance superstructure– which now spies on the entire world – initially conceived by Dick Cheney under George Bush II following 9/11, but which expanded massively under Barack Obama;
- The development of a drone program and "Presidential Kill List" to carry out a massive program of extra-judicial aerial assassination in the War on Terror;
- The expiry of the Special Prosecutor statute which was introduced Post Watergate to address precisely the situation that is now facing the U.S. Congress.
Trump has inherited this basket of enhanced executive powers along with a Republican Party which is so Partisan as to apparently be willing to blindly follow even a clearly unhinged President if it means fulfilling some long held ambitions and promises made to important parts of the voting base and donors.
Carlin makes no bones about pointing out that even if Trump were removed or neutralised by Congress, the democratic deficit accumulated over decades would remain.
And how this operates in practice is all to plain to see.
Given the precedent set by both Bill Clinton and George Bush II on removing U.S. Attorneys, complaints about Trump's latest scary decision, on Friday, to summarily dismiss all 46 remaining Obama era Federal Prosecutors will receive short shrift.
While NZ's far smaller democracy hasn't either the complexity or challenges of the U.S. the touch points for constitutional back-sliding are the same, and there are some obvious parallels with the U.S. experience. I cite several examples below of erosion of NZ's checks and balances:
1. In recent years there have been rising concerns about the (apparently voluntary) politicisation of NZ's police force – the most alarming example of which was the botched and intimidating police raid on investigative journalist and "Dirty Politics" author Nicky Hager mounted just after the 2014 election.
2. The Treasury led State Sector reforms of 1986-1989, which provided for the creation of State Owned Enterprises and replaced departmental and ministerial Permanent Heads with CEOs with three to five year contracts – creating officials who were as a result far more sensitive to the desires of their ministers. This compares with the strictly non-political Permanent Head framework which remains in place in the U.K. In the U.K. all public statements are made by "responsible ministers", whereas in NZ when there is bad news to announce department CEOs are often left to shoulder responsibility.
3. Increasing politicisation of the handling of Official Information Act requests are described in detail in this speech by renowned NZ Herald investigative journalist David Fisher delivered in October 2014 to an audience of NZ Public Officials.
4. The past two decades has also seen re-interpretation of the convention around the appointment of the most senior legal and security officials serving in the NZ Government.
At law the Police Commissioner, Solicitor General, SIS & GCSB Bosses and Chief of the Defence Force serve "at the pleasure" of the Prime Minister. Technically this means the Prime Minister gets to make the final call on who gets appointed and can dismiss them when they wish. But by long-held convention these roles, which are by their nature non-political, were usually made on the recommendation of the State Services Commission and its forebears.
Labour PM Helen Clark arguably began the erosion of this convention shortly after assuming office in 1999. In 2005 she was accused of leaking information about a traffic officer stoping the commissioner which led to Police Commissioner Peter Doone resigning in 2000.
Then while Clark was facing ongoing scrutiny for the Doone matter in 2006, Clark intervened in the appointment process for Solicitor General. She ended up appointing David Collins, a personal friend/acquaintance, to the role.
Given all this it's not that surprising that National PM John Key thought it OK to ring a "childhood friend of his brother" Ian Fletcher and suggest he apply to be the new GCSB chief in 2011. The appointment was later hotly debated in the media, and reported particularly extensively by Campbell Live (whose reports on the matter have sadly disappeared from the Internet). In the end Fletcher resigned before the end of his term in the job for family reasons.
In part two of this two part op–ed Alastair Thompson will continue the discussion by addressing the impact of digital disruption of the news media on its ability to protect and heal democratic institutions. He will also survey the present state of NZ's news media and explain how Scoop's "Open News Project" intends to address it.
In the meantime you are invited to find out more about Scoop's "Opening The Election" project HERE on Pledgeme – and pledge your support and also to participate in the first part of our "Opening The Election"|HiveMind process to identify the issues you would like us to dig deeper into during our coming election coverage.