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Winston Peters: “Democracy Or Media Conspiracy?”

“Democracy Or Media Conspiracy?”

An address by Rt Hon Winston Peters to Commonwealth Press Union Conference, Sheraton on the Park, Sydney, 6pm (NZ TIME) Friday 25 February 2005

Thank you for the invitation to address the Commonwealth Press Union.

As you can probably guess from the title of this speech – “Democracy or Media Conspiracy”– this will be a robust assessment about the role of the press in the democratic process.

Much of this speech addresses a New Zealand context, but the principles are universal.

Let us be clear at the outset that a free press is both an intrinsic and fundamental feature of an effective democracy.

As Thomas Jefferson said: ‘To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.’

A lofty achievement, but has it been so abused that Jefferson’s ideal has skewed to error and if not oppression, then suppression?

Exactly what role does the media play in contemporary society and is this helpful or detrimental to the democratic process? New Zealand will go to the polls at some stage in 2005, most likely in August or September.

Elections always focus the minds of politicians, particularly those who lead political parties.

This is because election campaigns for some time now in New Zealand have been run very much in a presidential style – pitting political leaders against each other.

One would assume that in these circumstances the relative impact of these political leaders on the electorate, their message and their policies, would ultimately determine the outcome of the election.

After all, elections are about ongoing accountability within the democratic process.

And this is ultimately how we hope the story of the election will be told – who succeeded in convincing the electorate and deserved the mandate to govern.

But to hold this view would be to accept a false reality because there is another group who will have the greatest say of all in determining the outcome of the next election.

Members of this group have never been elected or had to face the public scrutiny of others in the democratic process.

Yet they will act as arbiters in determining what is valid, who counts and who does not.

Most importantly, they will play a more significant and defining role in shaping public opinion during the formal election campaign than any other group.

This group is of course the media.

You may ask yourself what contribution can a politician make to an understanding of the media in the democratic process – surely his only contribution would be an exposition on how best to forward his own agenda?

Of course all politicians are always interested in prolonging their political careers and any who say otherwise are being loose with the truth.

But, as one who has been part of the political process for some time, it could be surmised that this has not occurred by accident or by being completely oblivious or ignorant of what those in the media industry or among the ranks of academia have had to say regarding developments in this field.

Indeed you might say that politicians have a vested interest in being abreast of such things.

So how exactly does the media influence the democratic process?

Two university studies conducted after the last election in New Zealand clearly demonstrated that the media (both television and print), shaped the electorate’s view during the campaign.

The media were well ahead of party political advertising and written material, or public meetings and candidates’ meetings when it came to influencing the electorate.

These same studies also showed that most voters actually made up their minds based on what was in the media.

Only a small minority were inclined to trawl though party manifestos and make a decision having weighed up all the alternatives.

It is also clear that between election campaigns many people disengage from politics, unless a particular issue or event stirs their interest.

During this period the media is essentially their sole source of political information.

Even a brief survey of the academic literature on the media’s influence on politics, shows there is unanimity that it does play a role.

The only argument is over the extent of this role.

Academics argue over the decline of party identification as a means of assessing voting behaviour versus sociological or economic modelling, but each of these models relies on a flow of information.

From Bill Clinton’s ‘soccer moms’ through to John Howard’s ‘Aussie battlers’, these decisive sector groups cannot be wooed without the media.

But we must remind ourselves in this context that ‘information’ is never ‘just information’, because it is unavoidably selective, enmeshed in stereotypes and in some cases the owners’ editorial preferences.

Further studies, from Australia, Britain, the U.S. and New Zealand clearly highlight that by understanding the basics of human psychology we can understand further how the media is able to influence voting behaviour.

You see we know that if a person becomes ‘cognitively engaged’ with information they are more likely to be receptive to it.

This relies on a combination of ‘what is said’, ‘who is saying it’, with ‘how it is presented’, which generates both interest and a favourable disposition to the information.

We also know that our cognitive faculties are structured to resist information that is inconsistent with established predispositions. This is called cognitive dissonance.

Hence, the tone and shaping of information will often serve to reinforce established prejudices and ideological persuasion.

There is also an accessibility factor in peoples’ memory that influences the media’s impact.

The more recent and more frequently information is presented, the more likely people are going to readily recall and engage with it.

This salient information is also more likely to be that called upon when forming an opinion during an election campaign.

In light of this, the media have the power to directly influence voting outcomes.

This power therefore must be balanced with social responsibility for the democratic process to flourish.

In representative democracies the press is central to the political decision making process. It is the primary purveyor of information between politicians and their citizens.

Such power creates a natural tension between politicians and the media, although the most appropriate description of the nature of the politician and the media interface is that they share a symbiotic relationship.

In other words, they need and feed off each other.

For the politician the media disseminates, but they also discriminate.

Indeed, where once upon a time the media would report what politicians said now journalists decide what is valid in a politician’s message and make their own judgement on its content. In brief they editorialise even before their work is seen by the Editor.

So before it can reach the electorate much has already been filtered and shaped or simply ignored.

Even more insidiously, the media often have the temerity to decide among themselves what issues they will cover during an election campaign without any reference to the public or the politicians.

How foolish many American and Australian journalists from the liberal left must have felt about their predictions regarding last year’s campaigns of President Bush and Prime Minister John Howard (who opened this conference).

But we have seen it before.

Those of you with long enough memories and a knowledge of U.S. politics will remember this same media cabal claiming in the period just prior to the 1992 U.S. election that the U.S. was facing a health and housing crisis.

And yet when Clinton was elected suddenly these voices dried up.

Did the so called crisis end? – no, in fact some would claim it worsened.

But what did end was the incessant coverage of it.

We had the same thing in New Zealand in 1999.

The liberal left media hammered on about student loans, and housing and health crises.

Again – these got worse, but the media flurry surrounding them simply faded away.

The democratic ideal of a true contest of ideas therefore has been undermined and replaced by an orchestrated artificial debate dictated by the whims of the media and their owners.

This movement toward a more subjective journalism carries with it many inherent dangers for democracy.

A recent example from New Zealand politics highlights just how distorting and influential the media can be in its portrayal of politics.

Let us call it the “Orewa Conspiracy”.

To understand this travesty of democracy some background is needed.

The key actor is a former central banker, who for some reason decided to enter politics at an age when most people consider retirement.

This banker quickly rose to lead a political party in terminal decline because it was out of touch with the New Zealand electorate.

Back in the 1990 election this party had won in a landslide, achieving just under 48 per cent of the total vote.

In four subsequent elections this party first froze, then panicked as it watched its share of the vote fall at each election, reaching a new low of just under 21 per cent of the vote in the 2002 election.

That is a fall of nearly thirty per cent in just 12 years.

Despite governing New Zealand for more than 38 of the last fifty years of the 20th century, the party was in a perilous state.

It seemed destined to follow its Canadian counterpart, the Progressive Conservatives, who had gone on election night in 1993 from governing to electoral oblivion due to its strict adherence to failed policy prescriptions.

With the rot well and truly set in, clearly the New Zealand electorate was looking for a new political force going into the 21st century.

Enter the former banker.

The media claimed upon his entry into politics that he would bring gravitas to his failing party.

Most of us though simply thought that political gravity would continue – after all he embodied the failed policies from the very era of his party’s demise.

When the incumbent leader showed no sign of being able to lift his party’s fortunes they turned to the banker, despite the fact that he had yet to display any aptitude for politics, apart from the experience he gained from two failed campaigns during the 1980s.

In January 2004 the banker delivered a speech which was quite unremarkable, said nothing new, and was generally uninspiring.

Yet, within a few short days, the media came to describe the speech as the ‘Orewa phenomenon’; Orewa being the location of the speech venue.

However, upon closer examination it is clear that it was neither the speech nor the deliverer that made the impact, but how the media reported it.

Now to explain how one knows this.

Two of New Zealand’s three major polling companies conducted polls directly in the aftermath of the speech.

Both showed similar results, a small fillip in the party’s fortunes

And yet the media, starved of any other news in the post-Christmas holiday period continued to obsessively promote the speech.

The banker and his speech received saturation coverage for almost a month. The result of this coverage was predictable – when there is nothing else being covered by the media it is simply a question of saliency.

The banker’s party then received a steep rise in the polls.

Suddenly he and his party were propelled from political oblivion to stardom.

This all happened before Parliament had even sat for the year.

Oh how those journalists got it so wrong.

This creation of the media was to suffer the fate of all of those artificially created by media hype – the political bubble burst.

You see, the banker could not sustain the false expectations the media had created for him.

The same flaws that were always there hadn’t gone away.

In fact, when Parliament began sitting and he was forced to confront the day to day dynamics of political life he was found so wanting that he simply stopped turning up to the House.

Can you imagine – here was the man aspiring to be Prime Minister and he was too scared to show up in the one place he is expected to perform.

By year’s end, in two of the three polls he was right back to where he started and in the third he was only slightly ahead.

The media had tried to breath life into this political corpse for several months after his speech, but many soon tired of this and by year’s end he had gone from being media darling to being lampooned and ridiculed.

Nothing much has changed this year. In January the banker again made his way back to Orewa.

The media again tried to breath new life into the corpse.



Just think about it. Teams of journalists predicting, previewing, calculating, assessing, analysing, reacting, and interviewing each other about a speech that had not yet been made.

This is incomprehensibly staggering.

This was saturation coverage of something that had still not happened!

This was the media at their worst.

Television New Zealand even went as far as crossing live to the function the banker was speaking at – to show glimpses of him eating his pre-speech dinner.

Tell me – was this news?

How does this fit in with the perceived role of the media in the democratic process.

Let us consider three brief criticisms and offer three brief solutions.

Criticism one, which again is from a New Zealand perspective, is that the media has become far too complacent in accepting the ‘spin’ politicians apply to information.

This may seem ironic coming from a politician – but I cut my political teeth during an era when the media were still concerned with finding the truth of a story rather than weighing it against how many extra copies it will sell.

One of the contributing factors to my criticism is the declining number of experienced journalists.

Young and inexperienced journalists, who lack institutional knowledge, insight, and often life experience as well, are easy prey to the spin-doctors within political ranks – many of whom are former journalists themselves.

Criticism two is the lack of independent thought or insightful reflection from among the media’s ranks.

Most journalists engage in a ‘pack mentality’. They become subsumed by ‘group think’ on a particular issue.

Too few have the courage or the insight to look at an issue from a different angle or to continue the search for that elusive value – the truth.

The media industry leaders and media owners are to blame for letting this happen.

Gone are the days when journalist pride and integrity meant that an attempt was at least made to unearth the truth and educate the public about the choices available.

Today they are willing to settle for the prevailing wisdom, without questioning it or challenging it.

Our democracy is poorer for their lack of any sense of inquiry.

It was interesting to note that following the 1999 election in New Zealand, one of our university’s academics conducted an independent detailed study of the media coverage of that campaign.

The results of this study were a scathing indictment of our media and its performance during the campaign. It highlighted many of the deficiencies I have alluded to here and pointed to where improvements were needed.
This should have set off a warning system within the media – but nothing happened.

Not only did the media not cover the results of this study so the wider public could see them, but sadly we held another election in 2002 and many of the same journalists made the same mistakes and delivered the same poor quality of journalism.

The final criticism is again a New Zealand-centred one, but again I am sure it will have some resonance with many of you.

It is to do with the blatant unacknowledged partisan bias displayed by some quarters of the media – who adopt a pious attitude whenever their political standing is questioned.

Those from within the ranks of academia who study and develop models for understanding systemic bias – stipulate that there are in fact four models that can be applied to the media.

The first is a pluralist model in which the media treats all actors equally and fairly.

The second is a market model in which actors are treated according to their capacity to enhance the profits of media organisations.

The third is called a ‘dominant ideology’ model in which the media, or sections of it, strongly convey a particular ideological bias in their reporting of the news.

The fourth and final model is a statist model, in which the media is simply an extension of the state’s hegemony.

Now, the core of my final concern is the notion that New Zealand’s media, as elsewhere, are primarily exhibiting the traits of the second and third models, while masquerading under the pretence of the first. We see it all the time.

A piece written to satisfy a particular agenda, with little regard for balance or the truth.

Now our friends from Britain and other larger democracies have an explicitly partisan media – but that is widely known and acknowledged.

You buy your newspaper according to your political leaning.

We can deal with that – we know whom we are dealing with; we know their motives, we are forewarned so therefore forearmed.

However, in a small democracy like New Zealand’s, we desperately need an unbiased media.

If we cannot achieve even this minimum expectation, then we at least deserve to know the political bias of those writing in the media.

Far too few of our journalists actually acknowledge their political leanings and most continue with the charade of impartiality.

So suggestion number one is this – let journalists and the media in general be honest about their political dispositions.

After all, politicians openly wear their colours for all to see, so if journalists can’t be balanced, they should at least be honest.

Suggestion two is directed at media owners. Don’t scrimp on how much you pay your journalists. That way we might just see an improvement in the quality of their work.

You see they often apply the saying to politicians that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys – well the same applies to journalism.

A final suggestion is that the media must seriously take stock of the damaging effects of distorting the democratic process.

The media has a vital role to play in the democratic process – but it must first acknowledge the power it has and then it must learn to act more responsibly.

As I noted previously, we now have good quality academic and industry based research on these matters – it is time we put it to good use.

We in New Zealand have a political anomaly in the form of a political party that was literally created in the final week of the last election campaign.

Following a leaders debate using “the worm” , where so-called uncommitted voters assess leader’s messages in live time, we witnessed a party go from less than one per cent to over six per cent simply because the media determined that the party leader won that debate and then gave him saturated coverage.

That determination was itself false and those who perpetrated it knew it.

Not only was the ‘worm debate’ a media creation, but so was the coverage that followed.

So we now have the farce of a party in parliament made up of MPs who had not expected to be there and who have consistently behaved accordingly.

But, ultimately, we should strive to be democratic idealists. We must seek to see Jefferson’s ethos of reason and humanity once more hold sway.

It is refreshing to have one’s faith in democracy restored several times over when despite media indifference in between elections, the paucity of coverage we receive at election time has been sufficient to ensure that we take our place as New Zealand’s third largest party.

With a team of dedicated party workers and skilful staff we have succeeded where many others have failed.

And on that note let us close these remarks with the words of the illustrious English philosopher John Stuart Mill:

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more those who hold it.

If the opinion is right, they are deprived the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

At stake is the integrity, glamour and occupational romance of an essential potentially wonderful profession.

It’s your call and good evening!


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