Posts Tagged ‘Ethical Martini’

How well did the media do on the Napier siege?

datePosted on 23:59, May 12th, 2009 by Lew

Ethical Martini asked the question on Sunday. Out of largely professional interest I watched, read and listened to the coverage on the two main TV newses, National Radio, Stuff, the Herald online and their various dead-tree editions from Thursday to Monday so perhaps I’m too close to it, but I’ve been pondering the question since, unsure how to answer because it comes down to one’s assumptions about what the media is supposed to do in such a case. That’s a tricky question.

If it’s supposed to maximise value for its shareholders, then it sure as hell did that, with garish wall-to-wall coverage and plenty of breathless speculation, really hitting the spectacle out of the park in such a way as to ensure that the name of Jan Molenaar will long be remembered as shorthand for `paranoid survivalist with guns, dope and death-wish’; our own little Ruby Ridge (but without all that annoying moral/ethical/legal equivocation).

If it’s supposed to perform a civil defence or public order function, keeping those in immediate need of information informed for the purpose of ensuring their safety, security, peace of mind, etc, then I would have thought they did a pretty decent job – from Wellington, I thought I had a pretty clear picture of what was going on, despite not ever having been to the place in question or in such a situation. Comments from those in the local area, however, are mixed on this count – and those who know Napier express some frustration at the constant mangling of street names, landmarks, etc.

If it’s supposed to be keeping the wider public informed on a matter of national significance, then I think the media did an exceptional job of keeping everyone engaged and updated with massive amounts of information, although with the proviso that much of that information was speculative at best.

If it’s supposed to act as a communication medium from authority to gunman in the sense of megaphone diplomacy, then I think it failed miserably. Although this was largely down to police command not using it in such a way, the media also framed coverage of Molenaar in the third person and spoke to his family members in othering ways, hardly making it possible to reach out to him. I think the first broadcast message I heard which addressed him directly was on Friday night.

If it’s supposed to act as a balm for a shocked nation, then I think it did a pretty good job of that as well, bolstering public confidence in the Police by portraying them as calm and disciplined rather than vengeful and reactive, and local businesses, charities, schools, Civil Defence and local government as united in solidarity, working well together for the public good, as we might hope they would in what I hope it isn’t too churlish to term `a proper emergency’.

If it’s supposed to tell us who to cheer for and who to boo at, once again it did a cracking job. You know you’re dealing with a real villain when all the people who can’t go home for their own safety are classified as `victims’ and even the people who make cups of tea for them are `heroes’.

If it’s supposed to stimulate and inform public debate on the wider political and social issues which are germane to the case – drug law, gun law, alienation, the role of the coercive arm of the state in private affairs, police doctrine and posture, the complexities of entrenched tactical operations – then it gets a bit more complicated.

On the one hand, I’m inclined to think it did an execrable job. If I may cram a whole lot of mixed metaphors in here: the lobby groups, armchair experts and those with an axe to grind on such matters have played the media like a fiddle, and the media has tuned itself up and rosined the bow to allow it. We’re going to get an awful lot of heat and precious little light. Instantly we have people calling for more guns, less guns, more guns but only for some people, guns to be licensed like cars rather than owners being licensed, the absurd notion I heard on NatRad this morning that all privately-owned firearms should be stored at a central, secure facility and be checked out and back in again. The battle of the slogans is well underway – `if you’ve nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear’ counterposed against `when you outlaw guns, only the outlaws have guns’, for a start. And then there’s the debate about marijuana, with the frankly idiotic counterfactual that if the police didn’t prosecute minor drug crime then they wouldn’t have been in this sorry mess at all – possibly true, but only until something else brought the red mist down on Jan Molenaar.

On the other hand, the free flow of information around this case – the fact that every idiot on Your Views and talkback radio gets to listen to the so-called experts and decide what to think – should mean in principle that we have the basis for a good fact-based debate. Is not free expression via the media, with everyone putting their arguments up to be judged in a market of information, the most efficient means of determining which views have merit and which are bogus? If not, by what other means should we determine the relative merits of conflicting views and arguments?

I’m still no closer to an overall answer to the question Martin posed. I think it’s pollyanna-ish to say that the coverage did what it needed to do because everyone got a say, we all got our little reality TV fix and all the experts got a chance to climb up on their hind legs and argue the world to rights, but I think it’s curmudgeonly to decry the whole affair as a lurid farce.

What do you reckon?

L

Agenda setting

datePosted on 14:43, May 8th, 2009 by Lew

While I don’t intend to post on the substance of what has become known as the Napier siege, this sort of event happens rarely and has profound consequences for NZ’s political-media agenda. Maxwell McCombs’ view (based on a study of the 1968 US Presidential campaign) was that it wasn’t so much that the media tell you what to think as what to think about. Currently there’s only one game in town. How might stakeholders respond?

Under the radar: With wall-to-wall coverage (good commentary on its ghastly nature at Ethical Martini), now is the ideal time to sneak out news which must be released but which the releaser doesn’t want to receive wide coverage. Good comms managers will be instructing their minions to air all their dirty laundry this afternoon, before the black hole that is this weekend, and while the media agencies’ resources are stretched. Watch the Scoop wires; there might be some interesting releases.

Police image rehabilitation: Not that it’s intentional, and certainly not to imply that it’s somehow a beneficial thing to lose an officer in the line of duty, but this event and its coverage is manna from heaven for a police force beleaguered by public image problems and allegations of incompetence and corruption. From the facts which are available, it seems the police are 100% in the right here – they arrived unarmed and without intention to provoke any sort of conflict on a mundane policing matter and were met with deadly force. All their dealings with gunman, media and the public have been calm, patient and disciplined. If they succeed in their stated objective of ending this situation without further loss of life (including the life of Jan Molenaar) then they will rightly enjoy a huge resurgence of public sympathy.

Crime and punishment lobby: This looks to be a case which doesn’t tick too many hang’em-flog’em boxes, in that it’s a drug crime but (apparently) not a high-level drug crime; there is no gang involvement; committed by a middle-aged white man in a nice middle-class suburb. It may be difficult to turn this into an iconic crime case, although there are some ready angles: gun control for instance. That won’t stop the usual suspects from trying to make political capital of it – some commenters around the ‘sphere already are.

The future of NZ policing: This will undoubtedly have enormous implications for police doctrine and practice. It seems likely that, at a minimum, it will result in the Police Association calling for police to be better-armed and equipped, at least when conducting any sort of invasive operation. It will probably provide a basis for a more militaristic, less community-based approach to policing – in international relations terms, a more strongly realist law enforcement posture.

(Update 19:20: Stuff’s opinion poll has been updated to ask “Do you think all police should be armed?”, surprisingly not overwhelmingly in the affirmative (screenshot). Smart opportunistic stuff by the Fairfax Digital editors, in contrast to the Herald, who’re still asking for predictions on the Rugby League. Comments on the article are a fairly predictable mix of outrage, condolence, disbelief and armchair expertise.)

Whatever the case, we’re in for interesting times. I hope, as the police do, that the situation is resolved quickly, cleanly and without bloodshed.

There are plenty more possible issues in play here – feel free to discuss them in comments. But I won’t allow this to descend into ideological arguments about the specifics of the case, so please don’t try.

L