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What price an election?

What price an election?

Mike Smith

Back in the day, one that my editors at the National Business Review instigated a policy that no stories were to be published from press releases. Warren Berryman, the investigative reporter-turned editor, was such a tyrant about this rule that the consequences were dire if we were ever found to have based a story on a press release.

I had a chat to “some people” at the Rotorua Daily Post the other day. We were talking about the newspaper’s policies surrounding publicity and the forthcoming local body elections.

My interest was piqued because an elector (who is also a prospective candidate) had raised a petition calling on the Daily Post to overturn a policy it has effectively banning candidates from writing letters to the editor. The elector had in one day raised 100 signatures for her petition, which in the light of how some people find local elections a total bore was an interesting result.

The upshot of our conversation is that the Daily Post will only take press releases from candidates and publish them on their news value as determined by the editorial staff. Readers might think “that’s fair enough, after all: why would you want your valuable news pages cluttered up with letters from all and sundry standing for election?”

The problem is: how else are electors going to readily find out the thinking behind candidates? The 200-word or so profile provided via the electoral process may help but it is limited as far as real insight is concerned.

In reality this conundrum forces candidates into taking up the advertising packages to be offered by both the Daily Post and its Fairfax counterpart, the Rotorua Review. Cynical bystanders can be forgiven for seeing this as simply a money-raising enterprise on behalf of a cash-strapped media.

We have observed the outcry over the allegations around how the Prime Minister John Key’s office and various offshoots obtained information about Fairfax journalist Andrea Vance and former Minister Peter Dunne. Quite right too that there should be questions around this practice, with many declaring it unconstitutional.

Candidates for local election could be forgiven for wondering if a double-standard isn’t at play here, however. They are not allowed to write letters to the editor for publication in a free and open forum. Letters to the editor from candidates could easily be accommodated and edited in the pages of any newspaper – online or otherwise. Is democracy best served by squeezing out open discussion to the untrammelled depths of paid advertisements and press releases?

A section for letters to the editor on the campaign would surely quite easily allow candidates to air their views (and electors the opportunity to measure the value of those views) all under the careful moderation of skilled editors. It might even be interesting

It might also be quite a bit more work, and loss of advertising revenue, but preferable to reducing our local elections to a dollar approach. Warren Berryman wouldn’t be very impressed and neither is The Mud.

END

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