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Hon Winston Peters to the New Zealand Press Club

25 September 2001

Speech by Rt Hon Winston Peters to the New Zealand Press Club Breakfast, Member’s Lounge, Beehive, 7:30am 26 September 2001.

- Media Independence?
- Business Incompetence
- Foreign Policy on the Hoof
- Refugees?

You don’t often get a chance to talk back to the media in this country. It’s good to know that a speech won’t be edited out to suit the whims of some producer.

Like politics, journalism is one of those professions which if done well is a service to society, but if done improperly is a serious bane.

The media is a crucial part of a democracy, ideally fulfilling a role inside the circle of society and objectively looking into the circle from the outside. In ancient and modern times kings and despots could hold court and wield enormous power mainly because there was no free press.

Sadly, I think that too many journalists in this country underestimate their importance to the democratic system and see their job in far too cavalier terms. They have been encouraged into this paradigm by media outlets who are less interested in hard news, than in titillation and triviality.

Dealing with the future of this country is not a trivial pursuit.

This state of affairs is not simply an irritation but a direct threat to democracy when the emphasis is on trifling frivolity with regard to politics. It is not only unprofessional. It is downright dangerous because the media not only have a job of objective reporting of events, but also to act as scrutineers of the actions of those in power.

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If you don’t think that Journalists have an enormous role in democracy consider this: on June 16th 1972 five men were arrested for burgling the head quarters of the Democratic party in Washington. On the 9th August 1974 President Nixon resigned. What happened in that two year period?

The answer is that a few in the media in the United States performed their role in a democracy and were prepared to do their job, objectively, fairly find the facts, and let the public decide what the outcome should be.

The media in the Watergate saga showed that they have a de-facto constitutional role in a democracy; one which transcends titillation, and one which can never be taken lightly.

But it didn’t come easily. In the interim period Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post wrote 58 features and 132 normal articles. They conducted 1011 interviews on 394 people.

The Watergate affair was perhaps American politics’ nadir, and journalism’s zenith. There is no doubt that if it had not been for the Pulitzer prize winning efforts of Woodward and Bernstein President Nixon would have finished his term in 1977.

Perhaps the Watergate example is simply the most well known, but it illustrates the fact that when the media are strong then democracy is strong, and if they are weak then democracy is weak.

I wonder what might happen if a similar event was to occur in this country. What might happen if the Labour Party were to break into the headquarters of the National party.

We would have three second sound bites from the party leaders. Richard Prebble would say that he saw it coming, and claim that this proves you should vote for ACT. The Greens would say that it was the doing of the SIS. The Herald and Radio News Zealand would say that it was in fact National’s fault. Labour’s spin doctors would hold a big barbecue for the media, take some out for lunch and the event would be forgotten. The burglars would get ACC for pain and suffering.

Compare the famous Watergate coverage to that of the recent New Zealand Superannuation Fund debate.

The fund is perhaps the biggest decision the current government will make this term. It involves the safeguarding of Billions of dollars into a pooled fund. It will have an enduring effect on New Zealand’s economy and on government’s ability to balance the books. It will have a direct effect on people’s retirement for years to come.

Consequently one could have been forgiven for thinking that such an issue would have been treated with the seriousness it deserved--for expecting an in-depth analysis would be conducted by the media.

Instead we were treated to shallow reporting and two second soundbites of the opposition saying that this was a back-room deal between New Zealand First and Labour.

One journalist in the press gallery called my office, not to ask about costs, not to ask about financial projections, but whether or not the Minister of Finance and myself were going to be eating sausage rolls or sandwiches in our meeting, and whether we were going to be having tea or coffee.

That’s a true story. If it wasn’t such a serious matter it would be risible.

They say that youth is wasted on the young. Well I often think that journalism is too important to be left to journalists.

That is why groups such as the press club, a society actively engaged with journalistic professionalism are much needed in New Zealand.

Is it possible to have too much analysis? The answer is no. the public has a right to professional, objective and fair reporting. For democracy to function the public must have confidence in their news agencies.

That is all they ask for. The winner in politics should always be the one with the best ideas articulated the best. Not the person who takes the most journalists out to lunch, or whose political views are most prevalent on an editorial board.

Now it is true that political opinions are like heads—everyone’s got one-- journalists included. But if journalists cannot leave their political opinions at the door of the newsroom then they should not be in journalism.

Moreover, it is absolutely essential that there be a Chinese wall between the decision makers and those who decide what to report on them.

New Zealand is a small country, unlike many other western nations where because of their size a reader can purchase the newspaper of their political choice. New Zealand is too small for that which is why independence and professionalism in our media is so important here.

It was disturbing to note recent reports from senior reporters in the press gallery that the Prime Minister has their personal number and that she actively held counsel with them and took advice from them—not just after the election, but also in the months immediately before it.

And these journalists were proud of this fact! As if one could be a fire-fighter and an arsonist at the same time.

In any other western country a journalist who compromised themselves by giving active media advice to the prime minister would be removed from their job. In this country they have bragging rights that they are on “Helen’s list”.

It was equally shocking to read recently when the Herald considered dumping three of its most senior journalists out of the press gallery that Helen Clark called the editor and demanded that they stay.

That said, perhaps it is apt that you hear some of New Zealand First’s thoughts about New Zealand today.

Without doubt the biggest domestic issue at present is the Air New Zealand debacle.

It is my belief that today we are seeing Air New Zealand as we know it being given its last rites. There is no doubt that even if the national carrier manages to survive it will not be able to continue in its present form.

The Air New Zealand affair cannot be seen in isolation. It is the latest in a long line of corporate disasters that have been inflicted on this country in recent years.

Since 1984 we have seen three distinct trends in New Zealand’s corporate mentality. The first being a zealous “business knows best” attitude with regards to our strategic assets. The second trend has been for those same businesses run by the anointed to fail miserably. And the third trend is for many of those same people who previously called for the market knows-best-model to call for a tinkering around the edges solution.

Air New Zealand is just one example, but it is a good example.

We have seen the same thing with railways. We have seen the same thing with the BNZ, DFC, and other right wing triumphs ad nauseum.

Remember in 1984 when the ‘great experiment’ began? There were at that time very few commentators who criticised or even analyzed the future ramifications of this great experiment.

This should have been a key role of the media but they were woefully lacking and still are.

While there has been justified, but minimalist criticism of the Air New Zealand Board, the Government is also clearly culpable.

The Government has simply not got the experience or has refused to learn the lessons in the interests of ideological purity.

They have rather cleverly diverted gaze away from their errors of the past and present and have instead chosen to make the Airline Board the scapegoat in this mire of bad investment decisions.

The net effect is that those very same people who cried that they knew best are now waiting with their hands out. The effects of any rescue package will be that: the private (and now foreign) company, Brierley Investments, will have again been bailed out by New Zealand taxpayers; the cap on foreign ownership in our national airline will be no more; and, taxpayers' funds will have been risked without any of the benefits of ownership or control.

And disgracefully a number of small investors who were asked to invest in their national airline will have been robbed of all their savings.

But you simply won’t hear that being reported.

Remember, Air New Zealand was hocked off by Labour in 1989, along with the rest of the country's assets, for $660m.

Now more than that is being risked with one more throw of the dice by a government that has fiddled while Ansett, Air New Zealand, and the nation's tourism and trade have burned. And worst of all our international reputation lies in tatters, which will make the turn around of Air New Zealand in international markets even more difficult.

Brierley Investments should have been required to divest its shareholding. They have long failed to satisfy any reasonable test of New Zealand ownership. Its convoluted trust arrangements are a device contrary to the spirit and intention of the law.

Brierley’s seem to have the Midas touch—in reverse. Everything they touch turns to custard. The reason of course is because they are not managers, but investors who think they are managers. Their entire raison d’etre is to buy companies, bleed them dry and then sell them off for what they can get.

There is no public good or altruism here, but why does this not get reported?

For months now the Government has had the opportunity to make a stand for Air New Zealand, to secure the future of our world class carrier, and to protect it from foreign raiders.

Our nation has a serious balance of payments crisis exacerbated by the repatriation of dividends overseas and by high interest payments to overseas lenders.

A second-rate option has already been taken by a second-rate Government whose inaction and belated decisions have undermined the credibility of our country and its institutions. Like New Zealand Rail they are about to take the option that has the effect of socialising the losses and privatising the profits. It is an option that demonstrates that this Government has not learned any lessons from our turbulent economic past.

It begs the question, why is the Government bailing out another private company for the umpteenth time - and what is it that these businesses have over both National and Labour for them to act so contrary to the public interest?

Let us compare the treatment that Air New Zealand’s board and the Government have enjoyed to that which was dished up to the Tainui by the media.

Some of the decisions that Air New Zealand have made make Tainui seem like financial whizs. So why does Tainui get roasted in the media, but the Air New Zealand board escape such scrutiny?

We have seen in the last 18 months Air New Zealand’s asset base being stripped through incompetence of over $1.7billion—more than 15 times more than Tainui lost in its deals.

But we saw fraud inquiries into Tainui, liquidation of assets and massive media scrutiny. The NBR has written no less than 250 stories about Tainui’s waste. But nothing near that sort of scrutiny for Air New Zealand.

Do we have to wonder why exactly that is.

The last two months have not been good ones for the Prime Minister.

First: her comments on statutory management of Air New Zealand showed a glaring naivety about business matters and of sharemarket confidence, particularly when it is recognised that they portend a potential loss of all investment.

Second: when put to the test by the recent acts of terrorism in the United States, the Prime Minister fell back to making policy on the hoof, with little regard for history or the facts.

12 years after David Lange’s “ANZUS is a dead letter” speech at Yale University, Helen Clark repeated the same mistake when she said that ANZUS had “not been operational for some time”. The Prime Minister’s ill-chosen words are evidence that she doesn’t understand the difference between operational--meaning still in existence and operations-- meaning operations carried out under ANZUS on an on going basis, including Military and Intelligence exercises.

ANZUS requires consultation between the signatory parties and if any of the parties come under attack then the other parties are required to come to its aid. To the best of my knowledge none of those provisions have been revoked and it ill behoves the Prime Minister to put New Zealand further at risk.

The Prime Minister deliberately at a time of international crisis, increasing by the day, abandoned New Zealand’s interests by immediately invoking the United Nations as some sort of security blanket.

That option has a superficial appeal until one remembers that it took the United Nations 25 years to come to the aid of East Timor.

Third: in the last month the Prime Minister announced, in the face of Australian objections and their own experience with refugees that we would take an unlimited number of refugees, now restricted to 150.

She has no idea what she is getting this country into, nor who she is dealing with.

The truth is that there were many UN signatory countries closer to the Tampa than New Zealand. She did not admit at the time, with respect to the UN quota of 750 per annum, that there were already in the last 2 years 3500 such applications, of which 1800 are still yet to be completed.

In short, our UN quota is already full, twice over, and she knows that those queue jumpers who fail processing will never be sent back.

For make no mistake about it, queue jumpers they are, many with a record of virtually highjacking a captain at sea, and now refusing to disembark in Nauru.
I for one, am sick to death with this woolly approach to serious international matters that go to the core of this country’s long term security.

Moreover, when I see New Zealanders who have been here, ancestrally speaking for hundreds and thousands of years, unemployed and living in third world conditions I frankly think we should get off our bureaucratic and governmental high-horse and start for the first time in a long time putting the interests of New Zealanders first.

We have an obligation to our own people, our own emerging culture and our own creeds, first, before that of any Tom, Dick, Harry, Mustaq or bin Laden who wants to come here.


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