If you want a great example of why people in this country are disillusioned with politics and the media, look no further than Patrick Gower’s latest effort on TV3 to manufacture some heat, to try and provoke some conflict and a good headline out of Internet-Mana’s cannabis reform policy. Gower is breathtaking in his cynicism but he is not alone in the press gallery. The inane habit of Gower and co. to latch on to the smallest of personal disagreements and present it as a an election news item, at the expense of reasoned policy analysis, is a primary reason so many kiwis have switched off politics. Yes its been going on for years but it gets worse every election. It’s pure tabloid journalism masquerading as political editorial.
This latest missive of Gower comes at the end of a couple of weeks of Dirty Politics coverage that has blocked out any publicity surrounding policy from all points of the political spectrum. I’m not going to argue that Nicky Hager’s revelations weren’t important. They were. But surely there was room for policy announcements and Dirty Politics. The press went into a frenzy over Collins and Slater’s machinations because it was sensational and salacious but also because they were trying hard to deflect attention from their own complicity, and in the process exhibited the very modus operandi that had Slater manipulating them in the first place with pre packaged gossip and innuendo, perfect for lazy or under resourced journalists with deadlines and competitive for a “scoop”. Nick Davies could make a great case study of the New Zealand media. At the risk of being pompous, have they even read Flat Earth News? Or what about Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent? Davies criticises journalism in the UK but don’t the same issues apply here? Davies here in The Guardian in 2008.
There never was a time when news media were perfect. Journalists have always worked with too little time and too little certainty; with interference from owners and governments; with laws that intimidate and inhibit the search for truth. But the evidence I found in researching my new book, Flat Earth News, suggests our tendency to recycle ignorance is far worse than it was.
I commissioned research from specialists at Cardiff University, who surveyed more than 2,000 UK news stories from the four quality dailies (Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Independent) and the Daily Mail. They found two striking things. First, when they tried to trace the origins of their “facts”, they discovered that only 12% of the stories were wholly composed of material researched by reporters. With 8% of the stories, they just couldn’t be sure. The remaining 80%, they found, were wholly, mainly or partially constructed from second-hand material, provided by news agencies and by the public relations industry. Second, when they looked for evidence that these “facts” had been thoroughly checked, they found this was happening in only 12% of the stories.
The implication of those two findings is truly alarming. Where once journalists were active gatherers of news, now they have generally become mere passive processors of unchecked, second-hand material, much of it contrived by PR to serve some political or commercial interest. Not journalists, but churnalists. An industry whose primary task is to filter out falsehood has become so vulnerable to manipulation that it is now involved in the mass production of falsehood, distortion and propaganda.
At least a couple of journalists here had a mea culpa over their involvement with Cameron Slater, David Fisher in particular, but the editors of the New Zealand Herald, Jared Savage and Fran O’Sullivan were forced to deny that they had been played, willingly or by default, churning the story lines started by Whale Oil or fed to them by Slater or someone else. Indeed Whale Oil is a case study for the “flak” filter discussed by Chomsky and Herman as part of their propaganda model.
This brings me back to the Gower story and interview I lead with. I don’t think Patrick Gower is particularly biased, certainly not as openly partisan as many of the shills in the media. He is a competitive, ambitious reporter though and his actions are defined by the media system he works for. What I took exception too was the storm in a teacup over marijuana reform, a trivial issue in the election, and how instead of asking Harre and Harawira about their poverty policies or the great unspoken, their full employment policy, he trivialised both their party and the important issues kiwis should be thinking about. That’s not an elitist view. The reason so many have turned off politics is because they are fed a constant diet of trivial crap, manufactured disputes and minor conflicts. (Remarkably the interview that preceded Gower’s on The Nation, Lisa Owen’s debate with Bill English and David Parker, was a glaring exception, almost a model effort given the time restraint, with both men being asked sensible questions and being allowed to answer without interruption.) Gower is an exemplary product of the elite propaganda system the media operates under in a western democracy. I doubt he is even aware of it. He’s just playing the “game” in a slightly more acceptable way than Slater but neither are doing the public or democracy a service. As Chomsky and Herman put it;
The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda….
The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results from the operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose and interpret the news “objectively” and on the basis of professional news values. Within the limits of the filter constraints they often are objective; the constraints are so powerful, and are built into the system in such a fundamental way, that alternative bases of news choices are hardly imaginable.
God knows the major opposition parties struggle to get their message across in the MSM. The minor parties are reduced to kooky individuals and “extreme” policies. Ironically Mana’s current policies are closer to Labour and National pre 1984 than the current iterations of those two parties. Yet so pervasive is mainstream framing of the issues that they are marginalised, ridiculed or ignored. As David Cromwell described it;
Its particular relevance here is that it explains how and why the status quo of corporate power is maintained in modern society, the dominance of the neoliberal agenda of free trade with its automatic rejection of alternatives (Margaret Thatcher’s ‘There Is No Alternative’), and the emasculation of dissident viewpoints which are variously labelled as ‘biased’, ‘ideological’ or ‘extreme’. How likely is it that anyone calling for radical change in society – whether environmentalists, human-rights activists or opponents of the arms trade – will be consistently and fairly reported by corporate news organisations?
Hone, Laila, Colin and even Winston and Russel are reduced to bit players, there for a bit of personality “colour” but not for serious policy consideration. Shame on you Patrick. I wish you and your colleagues would reflect on your model, your concern for access over accountability and “harden up”, face your bosses and do your job as a proper fourth estate. As long as you just treat it as a game, people will continue to switch off.