Posts Tagged ‘Herald on Sunday’
I recently tore into Chris Trotter’s argument that polls are deployed to promote a “spiral of silence”, to demoralise those holding non-majority views, and to deter them from political speech and action. I stand by that post, and I still don’t think the argument holds in the general case, but this morning I think we saw an example where polling data was used in just such a way.
National campaign chair Steven Joyce appeared on Morning Report defending the party’s handling of the “teapot tapes” strategy. Joyce came to his Morning Report interview armed with overnight polling data that he says shows 81% of people are sick of the coverage of the teapot tapes, only 13% think the issue is a big deal, and that some in the media ought to take a long, hard look at themselves. Russell Brown covers the topic in more detail; this post began as a comment there).
Leaving aside questions about the veracity of these figures (they could be utterly fabricated and we’d be none the wiser; Bomber reckons they’re bollocks), this actually is a case of a politician deploying polling data to send a message, not only to the media, but to the public: If you care about this you’re out of touch, disconnected, in the minority, obsessed with trivia, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. While I disagree with his assessment, what’s more interesting is how he framed that assessment: as a normative argument about what election campaigns ought to be about, and what “real New Zealanders” care about; echoing John Key’s “issues that really matter” rhetoric, which is precisely what all the National supporters I’m in touch with have been saying: nothing to see here, it’s a sideshow, can we get back to the substance, and all that.
Which is pretty ironic given that the Nats have done extremely well for most of the preceding five years by staying the hell away from policy arguments wherever possible. It’s a pretty remarkable position from a National party whose strategic success has been largely founded on a ruthless commitment to campaign realism, expressed by avoiding “noble” pursuits such as the robust policy focus and appearances in the hard-news media in favour of what is effective — personality and brand-focused campaigns, point-scoring, agenda domination, and routine appearances in sympathetic forums, for example. It’s even more remarkable since Joyce himself has been the architect of this strategy since the 2008 campaign.
So I am cynical about National’s sudden love for the “real issues”. They have touched on them before — the election-year launch of the privatisation policy that I wrote about in February is the best recent example — but this has hardly been their preferred route. What seems more likely is the “spiral of silence” imperative — marginalise, shame and heap scorn upon those who genuinely see a substantial public interest in the way the teapot tapes episode has played out, not out of a prurient interest in the contents of those tapes but because — as Danyl notes, it “keys into a huge range of really substantive issues: the Prime Minister’s integrity; media ethics; surveillance”. This deployment of normally-secret polling data — probably collected for this exact purpose using carefully-framed questions — seems like an attempt to bully into silence those who aren’t willing to ignore an unprecedented breakdown in the relationship between the Prime Minister and the media, and a nearly-unprecedented glimpse into the internal workings and political culture of the National party and its leader.
It has had the desired effect on other political parties — Phil Goff and Peter Dunne have sung from the same songsheet today, leaving only Winston Peters to reap the electoral harvest from these events. Given that, it is not unlikely that it would have a similar effect on voters, especially in Epsom. Of course, there may not be an electoral harvest; the polling data might be accurate and it may genuinely be perceived as a “Bowen Triangle” sideshow. I don’t think so, but then, I would say that.
Update: Since writing this, Fairfax has released a poll of their own that suggests the public are over the teapot tapes. Its numbers are considerably more ambivalent than those released by Steven Joyce, however; the strongest result was for the obviously-correct proposition that politicians should be able to discuss controversial topics privately (63%). On this basis Matthew Hooton is now praising the strategy as “genius”. It’s also important to realise that this isn’t a pure popularity contest, but a balance of complex factors — the intensity of sentiment on either side matters. As Danyl remarked in the Public Address thread, “If 4% of National supporters switch their vote over to Winston Peters on the basis of this affair, then that’s a strategic catastrophe for Joyce’s party, no matter what the other 96% do.” There’s no indication that this has happened, of course, but there’s no really definitive indication of the fallout from these events at all. The Herald on Sunday tomorrow will be fascinating.
… for why civilised societies which hope to remain civilised don’t lock violent children up with hardened criminals in the hope that they’ll magically reform into model citizens.
I’m talking about Bailey Junior Kurariki, whose latest offences, according to criminologist John Pratt, are a sign he has become institutionalised. Of course, his victim’s mother doesn’t think so, and neither do the usual reactionaries. The other lot aren’t all that much better. But perhaps that’s to be expected: when the only tool your populist justice positioning allows you to wield is a hammer, even a screwed-up 12 year-old kid looks like a nail to be smacked down as hard as possible.
I’m not a big-city lawyer either, but Paula Bennett might have done well to consult one here.
In response to a parliamentary question from Charles Chauvel asking whether she’d taken advice as to whether the two women whose details she revealed after they questioned the government’s decision to cut the Training Incentive Allowance could be deemed to have given consent for the rest of their details to be released by going to the medias. Her answer was, more or less, “I looked at the guidelines that were on the Privacy Commissioner’s website” and a wee bit of misdirection about the previous Labour government.
The guidelines specify that a minister “need only believe, on reasonable grounds, that the individual has authorised the disclosure”, and later admitting that she did not make enquiries of “her officials or anyone else” as to the details she released. Without checking precedent or taking legal or policy advice, how can she claim “reasonable grounds” for implicit consent from a few brief and specific quotes in the Herald on Sunday?
The problem her stance raises – and perhaps the very reason for her taking it – is its chilling effect on political speech. If anyone who is dependent on the government for any part of their income (or other services) is liable to have the details of their cases made public for criticising the department upon which they rely, then that department is very effectively insulated from criticism. Being insulated from criticism means not being held to account for failings, and not being held to account for failings leads to a culture of impunity, a central plank of National’s election campaign against the former government.
I expect there will be a few smart privacy lawyers who’ll offer their services to the two women in question for a nominal fee, and the government would do very well to sharpen up. This is political gold for the opposition if the minister does not immediately back down and offer mea culpas of some sort. If the Prime Minister is required to pick sides, this is an important juncture for the government. She didn’t take advice. She can’t know what reasonable grounds are. Being a cabinet minister requires high standards of conduct and certainty. An employer would never get away with ‘I checked the website and then fired him’. If this goes to court, it won’t matter who wins or loses the case – the government will lose a bit of its shine, and so will its beleaguered Minister of Social Development.
Edit: Eddie has done some further digging to nail this down, too.
Edit 2: Woah, simultaneous linkage. There is no cabal, really.
Edit 3: It occurs to me that this is a political n00b’s monkey-see-monkey-do response to the Burgess case, where Labour and the media released some but not all details, and National used the remainder of the details to invalidate the political points being made. The differences with this case are that someone’s property holdings are a matter of public record, not information held by the government; and even if they were, property holdings are directly relevant (implied consent clearly applies) since the issue at hand hinged on the Burgesses losing their house, a matter which they brought into the public sphere.
I reckon Bennett saw what a big win the government had with the Burgess case, figured she’d do the same with this case, and overreached. Schoolgirl mistake. But I think it’s giving far too much credit to call this a rope-a-dope by Labour.
This is my first try at a press complaint, so I’d appreciate suggestions and feedback before it goes in the mail next week. As you can see I’m struggling to address only the issue of coverage of the actions of the mentally ill.
The process is that I have to complain to the editors first, so this will go to all three sunday papers.
Complaint: exploitation of mentally ill individual
On Sunday 19 April 2009 <paper> ran a story about the actions of an mentally ill man titled <title>. This story included personal details including details of a suicide attempt and communication with the media when his thinking was clearly disordered and altered by his mental illness. I believe the publication of this article was unethical, is inconsistent with the principles of the New Zealand Press Council, and sets an unacceptable precedent for media coverage of the actions of the mentally ill. It is also damaging for other mentally ill New Zealanders by diminishing the privacy which they can expect to be provided.
The principles of the New Zealand Press Council not only identify privacy as a core principle, but also touch on issues such as individuals suffering from trauma or grief and children and young people. They provide clear guidance that vulnerable people must be protected from unnecessary scrutiny and from exploitation by the media.
While, in this particular case, the mentally ill individual has clearly voluntarily previously engaged with the media over his personal life, no reasonable person could be sure he was capable of genuine consent given the state of his mental health described in the article. The article, therefore, significantly breached his privacy. It may be possible to argue that this case was exceptional, but the underpinning principles of privacy and fairness are not exclusive to people who have no previous media engagement. People in New Zealand have a right to have their privacy protected, particularly when they are vulnerable or suffering from disordered or delusional thinking which prevents them from actively protecting their own privacy.
Stories like this have two important negative impacts on mentally ill people in New Zealand. Firstly they set a precedent that the media may freely publish information either about the disordered actions of mentally ill individuals, or information they may disclose while disordered or delusional. Secondly they create a culture in which the expectation of privacy of the mentally ill is diminished and increases expectation that the stories of mental illness should be made public for the titillation and curiosity of acquaintances, strangers and colleagues.
I am requesting three remedies to balance the damage done by the article:
If you or your staff would like to get in touch to discuss…