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Upton-on-line October 27th

Biting the Hand that Used to Feed

The mental space normally reserved for putting upton-on-line to bed was gobbled up this week by a speaking engagement – addressing the curiously named National Press Club. With the exception of Frank Haden, upton-on-line couldn’t see any members of the guild present in an audience that made upton-on-line feel still full of youth and vigour. But the requested topic – something to do with the media – was irresistible and upton-on-line went live to deliver a slightly-too-long speech entitled Is the Media Helping Drive New Zealanders Overseas? The Press Club is duly thanked for its indulgence.

In his callow political youth, upton-on-line would never have dared to bite the pens that offered infamy and profile at the drop of a press statement. But with the end of the political road in sight, it seemed time to offer some reasonably robust reflections on where some revered NZ media institutions seem headed. And given that the internet now enables us to avoid the filtering effect of the mass media, it is a hand that feeds less coercively than it used to. Whatever, here are some extracts.

Can’t readers or viewers cope with more than info-bites?

“This seems to be the New Zealand Herald’s judgement as it has undergone its conversion from a serious, if slightly pompous paper to a cross between a tabloid and USA Today. The front page invariably juxtaposes a picture story (covering a third of the page), a bust-up in the world of sports and ego, a small dose of amusing lifestyle trivia and (leading from the top left) a single news story, preferably a scam. The almost one-to-one mapping onto the Holmes show format evidences either an overwhelming public preference for pap or a determination to avoid substance.

The one section of the public that is believed to want in-depth analysis is the business community. And here I have to take my hat off to the Business Herald which, stylistically, could be a wholly different paper. It is a vast improvement over what tried to pass itself off as business coverage in the Wilson & Horton era and, alongside the NBR and The Independent, and some other business reporting in metropolitan dailies, gives business readers a better deal than they’ve previously had.

But for the politician hoping for an informed debate in electronic or print media, it’s lean pickings outside the ranks of the business reporters. Few journalists are specialised enough to get under the surface of an issue. Many cabinet ministers (regardless of political colour) often find themselves having to play an educative role with journalists who, for whatever reason, just haven’t done the background reading to conduct a sensible interview.

One of the reasons for this may be that editors have concluded that their audiences either aren’t interested or can’t make judgements for themselves so it is better to provide large amounts of pre-packaged opinion, some of it provided for free by those with barrows to push, some of it from syndicated opinion pushers. Viewers or readers can then simply immerse themselves comfortably in the prejudices of their choice and believe they’ve added to their understanding of the human condition. Having faceless staff journalists beavering away on the issues probably is apparently not worth the trouble compared with having a cynical old columnist (like myself possibly) on tap.”

Making one’s own news: the Pyongyang/Pravda model

“Much more disturbing is the tendency of all news services to star in their own news and in some cases to become active participants in campaigns of their own choosing. The Evening Post decided last year that it was going to throw its weight behind the Transmission Gully motorway as a token of solidarity with its readers. Harmless enough you might think, but what about readers with environmental or other reasons to oppose it? The New Zealand Herald has committed itself to a much more grandiose quest – “The Jobs Challenge”, in which it has committed itself to “promote a new sense of economic, social and cultural well-being in New Zealand”.

It’s an ideal formula for the populist tabloid model that the Herald aspires to. It ostentatiously takes the people’s side (whatever that is) and also allows the paper to publish adulatory comments from its readership. The edition of the 11th October reported an “overwhelming response” from readers who apparently said all the right things. Correspondents applauded the Herald’s ‘leadership’. Letters of support had “poured in”. These are the sorts of sycophantic comments that used to adorn official party newspapers in the Eastern Bloc countries and still do in Pyongyang. Having secured such a supportive base, the paper felt confident to ordain one of its very own readers as the voice of truth: “Lisa Er of Titirangi put it best: 'Attitude can transcend political parties, ethnicity and beliefs'.”

But hold on a minute. The Herald claims it is promoting “a national conversation about our economic future”. What sort of a ‘conversation’ is it when the Herald has decided to weigh in as chief cheer-leader? And does it really think something called ‘attitude’ is the key to everything? The judgement approvingly quoted by the Herald could support any political creed including some pretty unsavoury ones. I am reminded that much popular sympathy for fascism in its early days was built round its rejection of rationalism and pluralism, and a yearning for national and political transcendence of the woes and divisions of the age. It is instructive to cite Mussolini’s Doctrine of Fascism (1932) in which he predicted the end of liberalism because “the peoples feel that its agnosticism in economics, its indifferentism in politics and morals, would lead … to certain ruin”.

Now I don’t for a moment suggest that anyone in the Herald is remotely engaged in a proto-fascist recourse to the anti-rational, emotive collectivism of early 20th century fascism. But that in a way underscores my point. The Herald seems to be oblivious of history or the role of the serious media as a source of detached, sceptical commentary in a pluralistic society. It is precisely that indifferent, agnostic role that has traditionally marked out the Fourth Estate’s serious mission as a conduit for national debate.

Starring in One’s Own News: Things that happen in the Green Room

“Lest I single out unfairly the Herald’s new role as a cheerleader in its own news generation, let me remind you of TVNZ’s repeated use of its own news service to market other programmes it is screening. It is not unusual for TVNZ to produce a documentary that then leads off its news bulletin as a way of building its viewing audience for the evening. Even more remarkable has been its practice of having key journalists star in their own reportage. The most blatant example was Linda Clark’s infamous involvement in reporting off-the-cuff comments by Jenny Shipley after a Crossfire interview in which Shipley made allegations about the sums TVNZ was contemplating spending on extricating itself from the Hawkesby fiasco.

I have never discussed the matter with Jenny but, knowing her as I do, I would take her side any day. She is a Presbyterian Minister’s daughter and it shows. If she said anything that could have been construed as Clark construed it, it would have been firmly tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I can just about hear her saying “I made it up – just like you do” with a cheeky inflection and an “I’m not telling you” defiance in her voice. Whatever the case, it was incredible that someone at TVNZ should have let the comment get into the public arena thereby enabling it to report the incident with its own reporter starring as key witness.

I don’t know how damaging the affair was for Shipley but it certainly didn’t dent Clark’s upward trajectory. She now fronts her own televised inquisition – Face the Nation – which is a good format and could be a genuinely important part of national debate. But once again it’s clear that the inquisitor hasn’t read enough. Time after time devastating holes in arguments are not pursued as Clark shifts to another tranche of pre-prepared questions. In common with almost all television and radio interviewers she is also far too much a protagonist in her own right.”

It’s who you know, not what you’ve researched

“When some of New Zealand’s most respected –and senior – journalists measure their success in terms of who can gain the most privileged access to Ministers (and one has started putting the hallowed words from on high in italics to emphasise their 24 carat status) you know we’re conducting a small town debate. Such practices are hugely corrosive of public trust in both politicians and journalists. Why should we trust people whose access to information could at any time be jeopardised by critical reporting? Why should we trust news outlets that star in their own news reporting or who organise campaigns any more than we trust politicians who arrange good news stories to gild the electoral lily?”

An Exegesis on Ideology

“It is the failure to understand ideas and ambiguities that I find so desiccating in political reporting. It is often manifested in a dismissal of anything principled as “ideology”. Whether it’s the Business Round Table, the Treasury, Margaret Wilson on employment law or Michael Cullen on ACC, arguments of a philosophical nature are frequently dismissed as ‘ideological’. And in this, politicians are every bit as guilty as journalists. If you don’t agree with a coherently argued position or you can’t be bothered getting your mind around it, it seems that labelling it as ‘ideological’ is the easiest way of disposing of it. No-one seems even to be aware of what ideology is.

At the risk of delivering a lecture, can I point out that an ideological view is one that seeks to harness ideas to the pursuit of power. It is an idea rooted in Marxist theory which holds that the institutions of society – laws, property, social relations, customs – must always be understood in terms of the interests of those who advance them. As such, it is an inherently cynical term. Its application has traditionally been linked to the doctrinal basis of the political left. And while the collapse of the socialist/communist project may have swept away those foundations the term ‘ideological’ continues to be applied liberally to any body of thought that rises above the wholly pragmatic and seeks to ground its premises in some sort of world view.

While its intellectual pedigree may be all but obliterated, ideology’s provenance as a cynical term lives on. Yet those who strive to order their thinking according to some coherent principles are surely worth at least passing interest. If their approach to ideas is narrow and mechanical, and this can be so of left and right, then the sense of slavish dogma associated with the term ‘ideological’ may be justified. But if politicians and commentators are relating their ideas thoughtfully to different traditions of thinking – and being candid about where the hard corners are – that seems to me to be a debate worth illuminating.

This was never more so the case than the debate that is raging around the Treaty of Waitangi. I find myself utterly depressed by the skin deep analysis that is being applied by most journalists (and in fairness many politicians) to the most troubling debate of our time here in New Zealand. Tariana Turia’s comments have been fascinating – and through upton-on-line I have been examining their lineage. Turia (or her speech writer) are hooked into some pretty heavy-duty theory. But journalists – and politicians – seem to have fallen for the ‘h’ word because it’s easy copy.

The gap between Tariana’s endorsement of post-colonial theory and the book commissioned from Kenneth Minogue by the Business Round Table couldn’t be wider – and the potential for fruitful political debate couldn’t be deeper. But the impression I get is that most commentators haven’t bothered to read anything much. Ideas don’t trouble them. So allegations of ideology are a complacent way of papering over the deficiencies.”

Is the media helping drive kiwis abroad?

“Perhaps, then, the absence of a public debate that goes beyond the phenomena of ratings-driven crusades and cult-presenters has played its part in the exodus from our shores? Could wildly gyrating public sentiment be a symptom of the lack of depth and substance in national discourse? People have always left because we are small, peripheral and seriously over-preoccupied with our own importance. A lack of confidence in the quality of public debate – by politicians and the journalists who report them - could be one of the unspoken sources of despair that take root from time to time. I’ve commented on many occasions that we are the last bus-stop on the planet. No other developed country is trying to make it, economically and socially, from a position of such political, economic and physical isolation and with such a small skill base.

The absence of a sustained, reflective debate through the mass media means that we tend to over-react to crises and find ourselves prey to all sorts of intellectual cargo cults. Ideas often arrive here late and are then applied in undiluted form. In a small society they can wreak quick havoc. But lacking home-grown roots they are quickly supplanted by the next cargo of ideas to arrive.

You know the sort of thing I mean. Last year we were pursuing nirvana in Ireland and Finland. I wonder which country is next? I’m picking Israel on the knowledge economy trail. Watch this space. But in between shipments we drift into a vortex of introspection. Now I don’t say the media alone can solve this problem any more than politicians can. But surely editors and proprietors could think about investing in something a bit more sustaining than the analytical gruel we’re presently surviving on.

It’s all symptomatic of a small country with an even smaller skill base. It may be that we can’t sustain more. But to my way of thinking, there’s much that could be improved with a little more reading and a little less latching on to instant conclusions. Failing that, I suggest we get up a subscription to persuade the owners of The Australian to invest in a weekly New Zealand edition. That at least would be worth lying in for on Saturday mornings.”

But some bouquets have been earned

“There are individuals who rise above their peers and make a major contribution to how we understand ourselves as a nation. I’d like to pay tribute … to Colin James whose doggedly cerebral engagement with issues and pretty impeccable even-handedness has given him an authority that is rare in this country. He does the reading, he does the thinking and he’s always willing to think again.

In a totally different vein I’d like to pay tribute to Chris Trotter who kept left wing journalism alive through the most atrocious times in an engaging and always thoughtful way – and who continues to explain what motivates the current government better than most in the government caucuses. And in a different vein again I’d like to pay tribute to Jane Clifton and Denis Welch who, in their very different ways, have a sense of the ridiculous that is such a powerful part of the English-speaking political tradition. Clifton, in my view, is a seriously funny writer who could dominate parliamentary sketch writing in any country she chose. Imitators should give up now.

The full text of the speech can be found on the web at

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