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Cablegate: Political Objectivity of Nz Media Questioned

VZCZCXRO9779
RR RUEHDT RUEHPB
DE RUEHWL #0105/01 0792329
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 192329Z MAR 08
FM AMEMBASSY WELLINGTON
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 5153
INFO RUEHNZ/AMCONSUL AUCKLAND 1640
RUEHBY/AMEMBASSY CANBERRA 5146
RUEHDN/AMCONSUL SYDNEY 0654
RHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI
RUCNARF/ASEAN REGIONAL FORUM COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 WELLINGTON 000105

SIPDIS

SIPDIS
SENSITIVE

STATE FOR STATE FOR EAP/ANP
PACOM FOR J01E/J2/J233/J5/SJFHQ

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM KDEM NZ
SUBJECT: POLITICAL OBJECTIVITY OF NZ MEDIA QUESTIONED

WELLINGTON 00000105 001.2 OF 003


1. (SBU) Summary. The Labour Government's relationship with the
New Zealand media has become increasingly tense and prompted Prime
Minister Clark to call into question its behaviour and political
objectivity. At the same time, opposition National Party leader
John Key has received lighter press criticism, with Labour's dive in
the February polls given front-page headlines and endless op-ed
commentary suggesting the 2008 election is already over and Key has
won. Political analysts (and some media) admit that Labour simply
produces more grist for media comment than the opposition or minor
parties. Once National begins to unveil more policy and a sense of
how it will govern if elected, the media will provide greater
scrutiny and any perceived notion of uneven media attention will
dissipate. End Summary.

NZ Media Objectivity Called into Question
-----------------------------------------

2. (SBU) Since the start of 2008 election year, the Labour
Government and Prime Minister Clark have been regularly subjected to
intense analysis and criticism by New Zealand's media. Conversely,
the opposition National Party and its leader John Key have had far
less scrutiny during this period. In response, the Government has
lashed out repeatedly at the press, characterising the media as less
than well-informed and calling into question journalists'
objectivity. One of the country's most seasoned and well-respected
journalists, Richard Harman, dismissed suggestions of media bias and
offered that this was "par for the course." He noted that in the
run-up to every election since the early 1970s he has been accused
of bias by both major parties.

Fissure in the Labour-Press Relationship
----------------------------------------

3. (SBU) Since coming to power in 1999, Labour's relationship with
the press has been reasonably good. However, in 2007 two pivotal
events signalled that the character of this relationship was headed
for a downturn. The first was the introduction of the highly
contentious Electoral Finance Bill legislation, which sought to cap
political campaign spending by an individual or organisation. The
Bill sparked uniform, and often acerbic, press criticism of Clark
and her Government; the media argued it was an abuse of power which
unfairly restricted free speech. Leading the charge was The New
Zealand Herald, the country's most widely read newspaper, which
launched a visceral front-page campaign against Labour for
introducing the Bill. Even though the Bill became law on December
19, 2007, the Herald's campaign continues unabated. The Herald
publishes a monthly 'name and shame' graphic of the Labour MPs who
voted for the Bill.

4. (SBU) The second event was a speech Clark gave shortly before
the Electoral Finance legislation became law. Embattled by the
steady diet of press condemnation about the Bill, Clark questioned
the quality and judgment of New Zealand journalism. She asserted
that Kiwi journalists lack general knowledge and are too young to
remember seminal events in New Zealand's history. Citing the
Herald's anti-Electoral Finance bill campaign as an example, Clark
questioned whether journalists are upholding their professional
duties to be truthful, fair and balanced. The Herald was not alone
at the receiving end of Clark's wrath. She also singled out New
Zealand's second largest newspaper, The Dominion Post and the
Political Editor for TV3 News for criticism.

Clark Detects Right-Wing Bias in Some Publications
--------------------------------------------- -----

5. (SBU) In addition to questioning the professionalism of some
journalists, Clark also suggested that Labour's difficulty in
attracting positive press reviews in recent times was the result of
an ideological bias against Labour. She believes that The New
Zealand Herald, in particular, lacks objectivity and has a long-held
political prejudice against Labour. On February 27, Clark accused
The Herald of running "a silly campaign" against the Electoral
Finance legislation and added that "it was a Tory paper which has
shown no charity to Labour in the party's 91 years of existence."
The paper rejected claims that its campaign is ideologically driven
and maintained that it is simply fulfilling its role in questioning
authority and meeting its obligation to guard against the outright
abuse of power and constrictions against the freedom of speak.

6. (SBU) Clark's assertion of right-wing bias was not limited to
the mainstream publications. In the March edition of the New
Zealand Law Journal, its editor questioned whether free and fair
elections could be held under new election funding rules. The
editor also characterized present conditions in New Zealand under
the new funding rules as "Putinesque." Clark responded by saying

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that such comments came as no surprise, given the editor was "at the
opposite end of the political spectrum" from her. (Comment: Clark's
remark is accurate regarding Law Journal editor Bernard Robertson.
End Comment)

Liberal Media Also Critical of Clark
------------------------------------

7. (SBU) Clark's assessment that competing ideology is behind some
of the media's lack of enthusiasm towards her and Labour can,
however, be challenged by the recent writings of Chris Trotter, New
Zealand's most identifiable left-wing political commentator. Over
the past month, Trotter has been sharply critical of Clark's ability
to lead her party to victory in this year's election. In light of
successive polls showing Labour well behind National in the party
vote and Clark consistently coming in second to Key in preferred PM
polling, Trotter has argued that Labour's only hope of winning the
election is for Defence Minister Phil Goff to replace Clark as party
leader. Another openly left-friendly writer, Matt MacCarten, has
also been as critical of Labour and Clark in recent columns.

Journalist: Boredom Causing Uneven Media interest
--------------------------------------------- ----

8. (SBU) An Australian journalist who once reported on NZ politics
for a major Australian newspaper and who also worked for The New
Zealand Herald does believe that there exists an uneven balance of
critical attention towards Clark and her Government at the expense
of Key and his National Party. But according to Australian
journalist Claire Harvey, this bias is not based on ideology. In a
radio interview on March 9, Harvey opined that any bias against
Clark and Labour is largely based on the NZ media's fondness for
political novelty, with John Key representing a fresh face.
Additionally, Harvey posits that NZ reporters implicitly yearn for a
change in political management because they do not want to spend the
next three years continuing to report of yet another Labour
government consisting of many of the some personalities from
previous years. She believes that the NZ press are simply bored
with Clark and Labour and claimed that "everything that needs to be
written about this Labour Government has already been written."

Clark Finds Disfavor, Key Gets a Waiver
---------------------------------------

9. (SBU) Whereas the media appear to be relishing the problems
facing Clark and Labour, with front-page banner headlines trumpeting
its recent poor poll results, they seem to be savoring Key and his
party's ascendancy in the polls. Notably, two of New Zealand most
distinguished political commentators have all but anointed Key as
the election victor. In his recent columns, The Herald's John
Armstrong has referenced Key as the "Prime Minister-in-waiting."
His Herald stable mate Colin James, normally seen to be relatively
Labour-friendly, has been found to using "when" when talking about
Key as Prime Minister, not "if." Moreover, in an address to the New
Zealand Institute of International Affairs on March 11, James
forecast that "Clark will likely give way to Key" at this year's
general election. When asked by post to comment on perceived
notions of media bias, James rejected the suggestion that he writes
from one particular ideological perspective.

10. (SBU) Key has not been completely free from critical media
scrutiny in recent times. In the week of March 3, Key received
media criticism for a succession of gaffes he made relating to his
misinterpretations of his party's policy and a lack of clarity on
the issue of state asset sales. Some of this criticism from
columnists, however, resembled advice rather than censure. Tracey
Watkins of The Dominion Post, for example, appeared to warn Key that
if he does not lift his game he would wear Labour's "slippery John"
label. Journalists have told Post's Media Specialist that they are
becoming very frustrated with National's lack of stated policy and
its unwillingness to take positions on issues of public interest.
They have noted that Key sometimes has reacted angrily to their
desire to pin down his position on issues and they have wondered
aloud how he will stand up to the rigour of an election campaign.

The NZ Media's Political Influence
----------------------------------

11. (SBU) The degree to which mainstream media in New Zealand
influence voting patterns is not fully defined. There is little
capacity for editors and publishers to become political kingmakers
nor is there great receptivity among the New Zealand public. Unlike
in the United States, it is not customary for the mainstream media
to explicitly endorse a candidate for political office. Moreover,
the tighter controls on publishing political opinion, as a result of

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the new campaign funding rules, give the press little leeway to take
a biased position. There does exist in New Zealand authentic
political bias in the country's blogosphere, where some of New
Zealand's main political pundits have their own blogs where they
voice a more jaundiced perspective in contrast to their mainstream
media reporting. However, the ability of the Internet to influence
the political landscape is limited because in New Zealand its viral
reach falls far behind that of the mainstream media.

Comment
-------

12. (SBU) Clark is no different from most politicians who are
predisposed to blame their political woes on the press.
Nonetheless, her criticism that the media are pacing public opinion
rather that simply reporting it has some validity and has raised
questions from more neutral observers. However, Clark's hypothesis
that the lack of positive stories on Labour and herself is
ideologically motivated is excessive. The media's true bias is
often conflict and political drama, which is most compelling to the
general public - and Labour has provided a series of bad news
stories since late last year that make for good copy and sell
papers. One of Key's advisors also discounts that National is
getting a free ride and has told us that the media can be just as
vicious with National; he anticipates the press will be just as
tough on a National Government, should it win, as they are with
Labour. End Comment.

McCormick

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