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Fourth Estate or Unregistered Party?

Speech - Rt Hon Winston Peters

Northshore Public Meeting

Baptist Church Community Complex, 3 Dodson Avenue Milford, Auckland

12.30 pm, Friday, 19 April 2002

Fourth Estate or Unregistered Party: You Be The Judge

Let us start with a proposition:

- There will a party in the next election without candidates or constituencies

- That party will win no votes

- That party has no name

- That party will not be registered - or meet any other requirements of the Electoral Act

- That party will issue no manifesto

- And it certainly won’t be held to account by Paul Holmes!

And yet that party could determine the result of this year’s election

The proposition is not a riddle

As many will have guessed I am referring to the media

- and in particular the concerns New Zealand First has about the state of the media in this country, and its impact on the political process.

This topic is chosen for three reasons:

- First - there is growing disquiet in New Zealand with the media and how it is influencing the health of our democracy.

- Second - we are about to begin an election campaign in which the role of the media will be pivotal; and

- Third - because only New Zealand First dares to raise the issue - we will.

There is no better point to begin with than the great English politician and historian of Victorian times, Lord Macauley,

Macauley stood in the British Houses of Parliament and observed:

“The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm”

What he was drawing attention to was the immense power of the press in a Parliamentary democracy.

It was a power that he saw had the potential to both enlighten and, more ominously, mislead, deceive and distort.

Had he been able to see the state of New Zealand’s fourth estate - and our media as a whole - I do not think he would have been reassured.

His foreboding applies to our times.

For reasons that would have been abundantly clear to Macauley no other New Zealand politician will address the media as I am doing today.

Questioning the role of the media has become one of the great no-go areas of New Zealand politics

For to stand accused of “Media Bashing” is to run the risk of antagonising one of the most powerful forces in the land.

That is a risk other parties will not run.

In contrast the position of New Zealand First is clear - we are not interested in so-called media bashing but we will not cringe before the media either.

So what exactly is New Zealand First concerned about - and does it matter?

In our view it all comes back to what we as New Zealanders expect of the media - in its role as a key institution of our society

I believe there is a broad consensus on what those expectations are. They can be summed up in words like:

- Impartiality;

- Political neutrality;

- Fairness;

- Proportion;

- Objectivity; and

- Detachment

These are the qualities - the attributes - of an effective media in a free society.

For the dispassionate observer in New Zealand they are being eroded sometimes subtly and sometimes quite blatantly.

The limited capacity of the big city media means that they see only certain ideas as being “in good currency” -the arena in which opinions can be aired is very circumscribed.

In comparison, in the larger democracies such as Australia, the USA and the UK there is a diversity and depth of outlets in both print and electronic media in which political dialogue and discourse can take place.

As a consequence of our small population and limited media choice there is, in my view, an even greater responsibility facing the New Zealand media to maintain its objectivity and impartiality.

What we are actually seeing in the big city media is the drift into “dangerous liaisons’ where detachment is lost.

Certain favoured politicians and their friends in the media elite start to see the world through a shared and self-interested view

Instead of seeing their role as being to inform, with some members of the media you can almost hear the grinding of their personal axes.

Have you noticed how self-referencing the media is becoming?

Increasingly, when a political event occurs or an issue arises, rather than actually talking to a real politician, many in the media prefer to interview their own kind.

It is as though the views, opinions and musings of those who have never run for public office are somehow able to divine the public’s mood.

In effect, the media become surrogate politicians - the peoples’ representatives who never actually have to win a vote.

There is a risk of the mainstream media becoming a sort of informal club, a coterie, a fraternity whose members find that their political agendas coincide.

In other words, there is the danger in a small society such as New Zealand, where the circles of influence are often astonishingly narrow, of the media and the political establishment starting to hold hands

I believe there is evidence that that is starting to happen

Are we being alarmist?

Let me give you some examples as illustrations of our concerns.

This week the Attorney General Margaret Wilson announced that appeals to the Privy Council were to be abolished.

This is a major constitutional development.

It is not some incidental item of procedural detail - some arcane legal technicality.

Ending appeals to the Privy Council goes to the core of our legal system.

There ought to be a rigorous and informed debate on the pros and cons of such a profound step.

Ending the linkage to the Privy Council has implications for the future of our justice system -not the least of which is that we lose an external reference point - a benchmark - that has served New Zealand’s legal system well, at no cost to the New Zealand taxpayer.

One issue of concern is that no one seems to have worked out what this latest reform is going to cost us.

I know it is somehow considered impolite or in bad taste to mention cost and the law in the same breath but judges are not cheap to run.

By the time we get them installed in plush offices in Wellington with all the trappings and finery that have to accompany these distinguished people the taxpayer will have had an expensive day out.

What concerns New Zealand First - and should concern all New Zealanders - is that once again we are heading down a road that fits the progressive -politically correct - sentiments of the Government.

Who in 2002 would buy the line that axing of the Privy Council is the bold and courageous act of nationhood in casting off of the last vestige of our colonial past?

Now, I happen to be one of a very small number of New Zealand politicians who has actually been involved in a case before the Privy Council.

Most people would see that as a credential - an obvious reason to be interviewed on the basis of having “been there, done that”

But not so the media.

Was I interviewed or approached by any of the mainstream media on the Privy Council issue?

No.

And in fact on no issue this year have I been interviewed by either Morning Report or Checkpoint.

Another recent example of how poorly the media serves the public was in this Tuesday’s Herald.

- that esteemed newspaper that likes to see itself as a standard bearer of journalistic standards in New Zealand.

On Tuesday its lead political column carried the headline:

“Power to the people - in Tauranga”

This headline introduced an article by political commentator Colin James declaring that I would be the most important candidate in the coming election!

This was not intended as a compliment!

Accordingly to Mr James’ article both Labour and National want me out of Tauranga.

Surprise - Surprise!

What did take me aback was that the thrust of the article supported the Labour/National view and suggested that a Winston Peters victory would somehow be an affront to democracy.

Clearly, being elected to the Tauranga constituency - yet again - would somehow contravene the cosy post-election world envisaged by the two old parties.

- and such a horrible eventuality, for some remarkable reason, had to be portrayed as a sort of travesty of the electoral process.

Excuse me Colin James, but what is going on here?

Since when has being elected to Parliament constituted some kind of offence?

Why is the Herald - the self-appointed flagship of New Zealand’s print media - using its powers and influence to advocate snuffing out democratic choice?

There was not a word in that article about New Zealand First policies.

Not one sentence on the issues we try and put before the public.

Not a reference to the calibre of our candidates.

Not a hint that the electors of Tauranga are entitled to make their own choice.

- just the strong implication that a vote for Winston Peters is anti-democratic!

As the record shows I have never flinched from vigorous political debate but this kind of underhand attack, not overtly by declared political opponents - but by those who operate under the guise of being independent commentators brings no credit to the media.

If to be democratically elected for a minor party offends some sort of unspoken taboo known only to political commentators then I fear for our democracy.

Well I’m sorry to disappoint Colin James, Helen Clark, Bill English and friends but I will be returned as the member for Tauranga - with, I confidently predict, an increased majority.

Thankfully, the people of Tauranga will exercise their democratic rights as they see fit

- not as stitched up by an unholy alliance of media and the old guard parties.

Although the Colin James article represents a new angle of attack, I have to say that media attacks on myself and New Zealand First are nothing new.

Last night I delivered a speech about race relations in the Hawkes Bay. TVNZ’s late edition saw fit to say that “admitted” that it was little different from the speech I gave on the subject 14 years ago. That’s a lie. I admitted no such thing. I never spoke to TVNZ about the speech.

TVNZ went on to, in their inimitable fashion to point out it was election year. Good heavens, why did they say that? Mind you I suppose getting it right one time in three can’t be all bad.

But you get the point¡Xconstant editorializing comment on motive and reason for my speeches, as though I am engaging in illegitimate debate. Well frankly I’m not interested in the media’s interpretation of my speeches, and nor do I believe is the public. I believe the public has a right to get a fair view of what I am saying.

You may be interested to know that an independent Otago University study of five major New Zealand metropolitan dailies and their coverage of the last election found that their editorials displayed - and I quote:

“ A profound dislike for New Zealand First and Winston.”

Moreover, without exception the editorials were critical of MMP. The study went on to note that “coverage of New Zealand First and Winston Peters was largely negative’. “The Otago Daily Times and The Dominion had nearly twice as much coverage of Mr Peters as the other papers carried, which probably indicates antipathy towards, rather than endorsement of the New Zealand First Leader”.

Even the cartoonists had a go. The Otago University study concluded:

“The clearest messages from the cartoons were anti-Winston Peters and New Zealand First, and anti-MMP or the election generally”

“28% of the election cartoons were anti Winston Peters.” How many media outlets carried this independent study’s findings? The grand total of one.

So much for introspective examination and scrutiny.

So much for democracy!

My speech today is not a plea to be excused from fair comment and criticism.

New Zealand First believes firmly it is essential for New Zealand to have a robust media.

We expect the slings and arrows of media scrutiny. We expect to face fast balls.

But hold on - while we are being bombarded with a blanket of negative media coverage we see other parts of the political arena as criticism free zones

And that brings me to the strange case of the media treatment of the Prime Minister.

I happily acknowledge the Prime Minister as an accomplished, articulate and experienced politician.

But as you will have noticed, since the last election, you have had to look very hard in the mainstream New Zealand media to find any serious or substantial critical comment about Helen Clark.

So much so that the really interesting aspect of the forged art fiasco is that for many in the media this is a novelty - having to say something about the Prime Minister without undertones of adulation.

The media seems on occasion to treat Helen Clark more as a deity than a politician.

However, lest we forget, she is a politician - and she and her Cabinet colleagues are very adept at using the media for their own purposes.

My plea to the media therefore is simple -get real!

Start treating Helen Clark as the professional politician she is because the most fundamental media ground rule should be to treat all politicians the same - as fair game!

At times the sycophancy towards the Prime Minister is quite blatant. What lies behind the kid glove treatment? It was deeply disturbing to learn after the last election that the present Prime Minister and her senior press officer, in the lead up to the 1999 election, had many planned meetings and dinners with certain members of the news media. I am not challenging the media’s right to be at such dinners, but surely the public had a right to know that these meetings were going on.

Would it be too outrageously cynical to suggest that for some in the media their objectivity might be influenced or dulled by wanting to have access to:

“off the record briefings”;

“exclusive interviews”;

“seats on the VIP aircraft”;

“ a place in the PM’s entourage on an overseas trip”;

and any other little favours that a Government can bestow.

But when is this soft ride going to end -or do we see this up to the election?

There used to be a convention that an incoming Government would be given a period of grace -typically a 100 day honeymoon.

In the case of this Government that period of grace seems to have been extended indefinitely

The tendency for the New Zealand media to shallowly indulge the Government is of course hugely dangerous to the health of our democracy.

The “consensus” line that the media have been peddling about this year’s election is that a Labour victory is assured.

You know the script.

It’s all over - a done deal - an overwhelming Labour win - Helen returns triumphant - three more glorious years of people like us running the show.

With just a small footnote for New Zealand First that reads -

“Please disappear - we really don’t want mavericks like you around with the temerity and bad taste pointing out that all is not what it should be in our stage managed election.

Well I can assure you now that New Zealand First is not subscribing to that scenario.

We see the outcome of this election as about as much of a certainty as the battle of Agincourt was.

On that occasion, you may recall, the decimated English Army of Henry V confronted the full might of a vastly larger French force. No contest -there could be only one result.

However, on that memorable occasion what looked like a stroll in the park for the Gallic ended in lot of tears.

The media may want to think in stereotypes and straight lines but history has a way of confounding their thinking.

For example, who in the media a year ago foresaw the demise of the Alliance?

My point is that it’s time for the media to get into gear for the serious work ahead.

New Zealand First will certainly be putting its share of ideas into the election arena.

We are not looking for special treatment, favours, or any kind of immunity from fair comment.

Our case is for the public’s right to hear and compare what we have to offer.

However much the media would like to lull the public into a state of torpor prior to the election and see Labour sleepwalk to victory this has the prospects of being an exciting election.

For its part New Zealand First has plenty of issues that we see as needing to be debated in this election despite the media aversion to many of them.

To mention just three:

- immigration;

- the ongoing loss of strategic assets to overseas ownership; and

- the parlous state of New Zealand’s transport infrastructure

These are some key issues that have profound implications for the future of our country.

On any realistic and reasonable basis they should figure prominently on the election agenda.

New Zealand First intends to make sure they do.

To enliven the election we also intend to reveal stories that the media - in its timidity- seem incapable or unwilling to uncover.

In the course of the coming months I can promise the media some genuine opportunities to display their journalistic integrity.

For example, I intend soon to release evidence of the Airways Corporation fiasco that will confirm my allegations that Airways corporation officials were involved in deception, and still are involved in seriously illegal deception.

- and that the Ministry of Fisheries has been involved in corruption

And I hope that in the light of that evidence the NZ Herald will retract criticism it has directed at me for bringing the airways issue into the light of day. The New Zealand Herald wrote an editorial attacking me on the airways UK contract. They demanded that I apologise to the chairman of the airways corporation board. What they omitted to say and disgracefully so, was that this same man was the chairman of the board of the NZ Herald. Now what do you make of that?

I fully realise that in devoting a speech to the media I risk being branded a

“Media Basher”

So be it.

New Zealand First believes it is vital for the media to take stock and refresh its memory of whom it is supposed to serve -the New Zealand public -before the 2002 election gets underway

Let’s get some rigour back into reporting the true state of affairs in New Zealand and stop the mollycoddling of Helen Clark and her Government

And let the media restore some balance and perspective by giving a “fair go” to all parties.

And finally I would ask you - the public - be aware, be vigilant, be alert

You are not getting the full story.

ENDS


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