Posts Tagged ‘Media’
The decision by a district court judge to deny a rightwing blogger the right to protect his sources because he is not a “news medium” under the definition of the Evidence Act has been greeted with glee by many on the Left but is utterly wrong. The judge clearly does not understand what blogging has become, and has failed to distinguish between freedom of the press and defamation.
There are many types of blogging, and some of it is clearly news-focused in nature. The Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Foreign Policy blog and many others of that type are news outlets, sometimes with editorial content. Blogs like The Onion are clearly satirical and should be treated as such. Blogs like David Farrar’s are personal, partisan and cut and paste editorial in nature. Blogs like this one are personal and opinion focused, not news breaking. There are tons of personal, music, cinema, food and other types of blog that are not news mediums but it should be obvious that there are also many news-breaking and news focused blogs that fall well within the definition of “news medium.”
Blogs that are news focused can have a heavy editorial or partisan content. When evaluating stories on such outlets one has to distinguish whether the author wrote in a news breaking capacity or as an editorial or partisan opinion. That really is not that hard.
When considering either capacity, one should focus on whether what is said on a blog is a lie, untrue or otherwise deliberately false in nature. If what is said is injurious to another party, then it can be considered defamatory.
Although I am no fan of sociopathic bullying bigots with partisan agendas and populist delusions, I think that the particular blog in question can be rightly considered to be a news medium with overt editorial content. Much like Fox News or RT and the blogs they operate.
The plaintiff in the defamation case against the blogger in question only need demonstrate what parts of the blogposts authored by the defendant are untrue or deliberately misleading. I have not read the entire opinion but it seems to me that being called a “cocksmoker” may be insulting depending on one’s perspective, but not necessarily defamatory. Ascertaining the source of the leaks to the blogger is immaterial: either what was posted was false and deliberately written to harm the plaintiff or it was not. Seeking to identify the source only serves punitive purposes and does not assist in establishing malicious intent (which is what the plaintiff is claiming is his objective under discovery).
Given who the blogger is, malicious intent is pretty much a given. The question is: was what he wrote a lie or deliberately misleading so as to harm the reputation of the plaintiff?
The district court decision should be appealed and overruled. That is important because it protects the sources of that part of the electronic media, including social media, that has a news-generating orientation. Doing so in no way prevents defamation cases from being brought because the proof of such cases is what was deliberately said or written, not the source for what was said or written.
If the source was consciously involved in deliberately disseminating false and misleading content via the blogger, then the latter has to decide whether to reveal the source or shoulder sole responsibility. That should be enough to make even citizen journalists and news bloggers cautious.
The point is that with news source protection privileges comes the journalistic responsibility to ascertain that the information provided from a source is not deliberately false or malicious. If that responsibility is shirked, then the news outlet, be it a blog, newspaper, radio or television program can be held accountable for disseminating falsehoods that are defamatory or libelous. If the blogger in this case used material that he knew to be false and damaging, then he should be liable. If he did not know the information was false and damaging and published without verifying, he is liable anyway. Whether or not he choses to reveal his source, he ultimately is responsible for what was written on his blog and therefore accountable for what was written. That is how journalism operates.
The bottom line is that the district court judge’s decision is very poorly thought out and wrong. As many have mentioned, it establishes a dangerous precedent with a chilling effect on freedoms of speech and press in electronic media.
The Left should not be so gleeful because the silencing of one opens the door to the silencing of many.
National has to be delighted about the coverage of their drunken bully boy last on the list MP, Aaron Gilmore. Coalition partner John Banks is in court on issues of political corruption. National is trying to ram through under urgency a gross expansion of domestic espionage courtesy of the amendments to the GCSB Act. What does the media focus on? Not-so-happy Gilmore. If I were the PM, I would milk the Gilmore story for all its worth, always looking chagrined.
There are very serious issues being discussed this week. US Attorney General Eric Holder is currently in the country. This is the person who authorized the FBI extradition pursuit of Kim Dotcom that resulted in the over the top raid on Dotcom’s home and subsequent legal debacle that is the case against him and which resulted in the Kitteridge report that recommended the organizational and legal changes now being proposed. As I allude to in the immediately previous post, the findings of a military inquiry about major failures in command and training in Afghan deployments have been released but not made public (huh?). The Green/Labour attempt to disrupt asset sales could be a watershed political moment.
Yet all of these take a back seat to the habitual escapades of a dolt working hard at being a lout.
Note to the media: although the salacious details of an inconsequential politician’s idiocy might seem worth mining, especially if it seems that he could wound the government, the real stories are dead and centre in front of you. Smelling shallow blood in the water is not akin to developing real critiques of the way power is exercised.
Note to the PM and the media that take his ignorance or obfuscation at face value: the problem of Gilmore’s unwillingness to resign stems not from MMP but from political party charters regarding their lists in an MMP environment. The two things are quite different.
Contrary to what the government would hope and TVNZ would like to believe, Seven Sharp is an idiot echo chamber, not a news aggregator, and therefore should not be used as a model for selecting which stories deserve emphasis.
Time to get off of the shellacked curly-cued imp and onto the issues that actually matter.
Late last year a friend of mine who works in the media said to me that the press had turned on John Key over the Teapot Tape affair. Key’s attempt to have the photographer prosecuted, following on his defamatory and/or contemptuous treatment of individual members of the press corps, was seen as the last straw. My friend noted that the press had generally been kind to Mr. Key during his first term and had avoided digging into a veritable trove of scandal and mischief simply because Mr. Key was riding high in the polls and they did not want to get off-side of a popular PM. That, my friend said, changed after the election, and the press would take a more critical stance with regard to Mr. Key and his government.
To my mind that was welcome news, because it seemed to me that Mr. Key had been treated with kid gloves during his first term and I felt that he needed to be pushed a bit on matters of National policy as well the behavior of some of his party entourage.
In the first quarter of 2012 a number of questions have been raised to Mr. Key that appear to support my friend’s prediction. None of these questions are particularly damaging by themselves, but a pattern has emerged in Mr. Key’s responses. Slowly but surely, as each new mini-scandal or crisis was revealed, Mr. Key began to drop his smile and wave optimism and replaced it with a surly, if not seething disdain for his questioners. Although he keeps his nice persona sharp for staged interviews on TV and radio, his guard drops when doing the impromptu stand-up Q&A with the press gallery. This was very evident when he was asked on one such occasion about the No Asset Sales hikoi, where he clearly struggled to reign in his contempt before saying that he did not concern himself with the opinion of 1000 people.
Now it appears he has had enough with the press in general and the NZH (and to a lesser extent the SST) in particular. He complained to a rightwing talkback microphone jockey that the press was aggressive and sensationalistic and singled out the NZH as scandal-mongering in its treatment of him and his government in order to raise flagging sales of newsprint.
I do not have any particular affection for the NZH, SST or the NZ MSM in general–in fact, just yesterday the TVNZ evening news borrowed without attribution a phrase I had used in a discussion about drones with Chris Laidlaw the day before(a phrase I did not coin or copyright but which I nevertheless introduced to the NZ discussion of the subject, which just happened to be the subject of the news item in the TVNZ One broadcast). Since such behavior is increasingly the norm in the NZ MSM, the standard of NZ journalistic training and ethics is, in my opinion, in the main less than optimal (needless to say there are some exceptions to the rule). But I find it ludicrous that Mr. Key is upset about the “aggressive” and “antagonistic” nature of the press approach towards him as of late. Shoot, he got the press equivalent of a free pass for the first three years in spite of often equivocal, deceptive or disingenuous answers to anything other than patsy questions. Why should he get upset when the questions begin to develop a harder edge? Does he not think such questioning comes with the job? Does he think that he is entitled to be treated differently than other politicians?
Of course, all politicians complain about their treatment in the media and past NZ prime ministers have not been above attacking the messenger or interrogator. But it seems to me that Mr. Key is being very rich when he complains about his recent treatment in the press. It may not be the solicitous if not supplicant posture of the first term, but the press approach to Mr. Key is also not anywhere close to the hostile negativity and contrariness of press corps in a wide range of democracies (I think of the partisan jousting that goes on in places like Argentina, the Philippines, the US, Spain, Taiwan and Italy, where the relationship between sections of the press corps and government executives is often very strained, if not toxic).
Thus I have come to the conclusion, following on previous posts about Mr. Key’s demeanor and attitude, that he is a pampered whiner with a royal’s sense of entitlement. He simply does not see himself as having to be accountable to a critical press, and as a result complains to the lapdog press that he is being treated unfairly. Not only is his accusation untrue. It is also politically stupid because it now has the media dissecting his complaint in public. If he thought he was going to win sympathy from anything other than his diehard base, he needs to think again.
Whatever calculus he may or may not be employing, I have one thing to say to him: harden up and do your friggin’ job, which includes fronting up to hard questions from time to time. After all, you do not get the big bucks just to smile and wave.
Posted on 13:11, May 12th, 2012 by Pablo
This may sound mean but having bank economists talk about global macro-and political economics on major NZ news outlets is like having pedophiles talking about childcare. Having them speak authoritatively on the “news” skews public perceptions of economic matters towards the preferred constructs of finance capital. Leaving aside the matter of finance capital’s interest in deregulation of capital flows and currency manipulation, using bank economists may be fine when discussing banking take-overs or interest rates in local markets. But there are many other economic interests at play that deserve mention when it comes to issues of political and macro economy and bank economists are ill-suited for a robust discussion of them. To the contrary, their “expert”opinions masquerading as informed commentary in the news media are often poisonous to the integrity of public debate on economic matters.
Is there not a single non-banker economist in NZ who could be used instead? Are all the Economics, Business and Management departments in local universities full of useless PBRF worshippers devoid of real world experience? Are there no economists in research centers, institutes or government agencies who could present a dispassionate and non-vested perspective on the state of global economic play? I find it hard to believe that is the case.
After some consideration of my sanity, I watched the first episode of The GC. It was more or less as I expected. I’ll probably never watch another minute of it, but it’s not a show for me. Nor is it a show for all those other high- and middlebrow honkeys (including Mike Hosking, TV reviewers, and 10,000 Facebookers) who are wringing hands and clutching pearls about how it’s empty trash that glorifies superficial extravagance and shallow excess at the expense of what is “real” or “authentic”, how it’s exploitative and demeaning to Māori, or whatever.
There’s some merit in these critiques, and in the complaints about NZ On Air funding, which it seems to have been allocated to a slightly different show than what ended up actually getting made. But ultimately I don’t think it matters. The GC tells us important things, not only about the beaches, bods and booze society it portrays, but the society from which its participants originated. The most legitimate object of critique is not the show, or its cast, but the system that makes such a bizarre phenomenon not only viable, but compelling.
Tame (pronounced “Tommy”) was talking about aunties, but the statement expresses the main reason many young Māori leave school and go to The GC and places like it in the first place: because they’re places where there always is bound to be something that’s better than nothing; you take your opportunities as they come up, and eventually you’ll be ka pai. Aotearoa, for many young Māori, is not such a place: the release of employment data showing that Māori unemployment is twice the national average will be no news to anyone who’s been paying attention, and the trans-Tasman wage disparity for those who are employed remains broad. If a kid like Tame can roll like a wideboy property investor on a scaffolder’s coin in The GC, and the counterfactual is minimum wage, gangs and prison back home in Timberlea, why not? As Annabelle Lee-Harris, a producer for Māori Television’s Native Affairs, said on Twitter:
Stay in NZ with the other 83 k unemployed youth or go to the GC where everyone has $ and lives in bikinis? Seems like a no brainer #TheGC … You can’t deny Maori have a far better quality of life on #TheGC. It may seem shallow but actually their kids aint gonna get glue ear etc.
Returning to the question: is this what we, as a society, have come to admire? The answer is yes; this is the neoliberal reality in which we all live. The truth is we always did admire it; it’s only the nouveau-riche cosmetics we cringe at. When our hereditary nobles and “real” celebrities live their extravagant, idiotic lives in public we celebrate them. When a bunch of brown kids do it, all of a sudden they’re an embarrassment; they’re abandoning their heritage, dishonouring their ancestors, should get real jobs and get back in their place.
But it’s all very well for snooty middle-class (and, I suspect, largely middle-aged) white folks to peer down their noses and mutter about how much of a shame it is. It’s easy to do when you’ve got options, mobility and capital (both financial and social). It’s easy to do when you’re not forced to choose between keeping your ahi kā burning, staying with your people and trying to preserve (or find) your place in society on the one hand, and earning a decent wage and staying out of prison on the other. It’s all very well to mythologise and romanticise Māori as a noble people, beyond wealth, if you don’t have to live their reality. And the Māori reality is not static. NZ On Air funding was sought and granted to examine aspects of the contemporary Māori reality. If you look beyond the caricature, the phenomenon examined by The GC is an aspect of the contemporary Māori reality. This goes some way to mitigating the criticism. Former TVNZ CEO Rick Ellis was completely serious (if wrong) when he cited Police Ten-7 as a legitimate portrayal of Māori on TV; there are few outside the niche market occupied by Maori Television, and like the shows on that underrated network The GC at least has the benefit of being made by, for and starring Māori. You don’t have to be very cynical to conclude that there’s a racial motive, however unconscious, behind calls for The GC to be cancelled and its funding redirected to saving TVNZ7, which Paul Casserly recently called “Pākehā TV“.
Maybe the “I’ve got mine” flight to material wealth is simply neoliberalism dragging people away from their values and further into its clutches, but at some point it stops mattering. Māori have had enough generations of being told to be patient, to make do, to play nice and they’ll get what’s good for them. Those who do the telling are are far from impartial. How long are Māori supposed to wait for the Pākehā justice system to make things right, to repair the alienation and dysfunction and reverse the discrimination that still affects them? And even when the system does finally deliver, it’s no sure thing: emerging Māori business leaders are mocked as fools when their ventures fail and abused as fat-cat tribal oligarchs when they succeed. As far as Pākehā society is concerned, Māori can do very little right, so the only surprise about the Mozzie phenomenon is that there are still so many young Māori who haven’t given up waiting for the NZ system to work, and set about making the Australian one work for them. We expect them to act in their own self-interest, and we construct economic and political mechanisms to that end. This is our system, not theirs: if you don’t like their rational responses, don’t blame them: blame yourself, and your part in making it so.
And now NZ On Air board member Stephen McElrea (who, in Tom Frewen’s marvellously dry turn of phrase, “also happens to be John Key’s electorate chairman and the National Party’s northern region deputy chairman”) has used his dual position of authority to demand answers from the funding body and, simultaneously, make implicit but forceful statements about what constitutes “appropriate” policy material for such a funding body to support.
There has been some outrage on the tweets about the obvious propaganda imperative here — agenda-control is pretty crucial to a government, never more so than during election campaigns — and I agree with Sav that this shows a need for NZOA to be more independent, more clearly decoupled from the government, not less so. Stephen McElrea, after all, is not simply a disinterested member of a crown funding agency — he is a Key-government appointee to the NZOA board, a political actor in his own right, and has a history of advocating for broadcasting policies curiously similar to those being enacted by the present government, such as in a 2006 column titled “Scrap the charter and get TVNZ back to business”.
I may write more about this as it develops, although it seems likely that the ground will be better covered by people much more qualified than I am. But what I will do is return to my initial point, to wit:
I still haven’t heard that peep. Given the fact that the National party leader feels at liberty to dismiss attempts by David Shearer and others to make child poverty alleviation a matter of bipartisan consensus, and that a senior National party official so close to the leader feels at liberty to throw his weight around in this professional capacity, I rather despair of hearing it.
There is a fund raiser for Jon Stephenson, the journalist, on Tuesday December 13 in Auckland. Jon is preparing to head back to Afghanistan to continue his work on the conflict and New Zealand’s role in it. He also has some other irons in the fire. In order to do this work he needs funding because the mainstream media outlets are too cheap or too scared of what he may bring back by way of reports. After all, look at how the government responded to his previous stories about NZDF involvement in the Afghan occupation–defamatory personal attacks coupled with a blacklisting from official sources of information even though, as it turns out, pretty much everything he has written has turned out to be true. The hard truth is that governments do not like being exposed and corporate media players do not like being off-side of governments, certainly not when the government is popular and recently re-elected. That means that the NZ MSM shy away from funding Jon’s projects (I could write an entire post on how the SST has handled Jon’s reports in the face of government threats and pressure, but the point about MSM timidity has been made).
Given the sad truth about NZ journalism and the logics that underpin it, a group of interested parties has decided to step in and organize a pub fund raiser for Jon that will allow him to return to Afghanistan. It will include entertainment and a silent auction (I am not involved in the organization of the event so am not completely up on the details). Because journalists of integrity and persistence such as Jon do not come along that often, I am going to break from my Waitakere cover and head into town to attend the event. Should Auckland-based readers be interested in attending, the details are as follows:
Gone by Christmas
I don’t know who’s set up wewantdavidcunliffe.co.nz to lobby for his leadership of the Labour party, but I’m pretty sure David Cunliffe won’t be thanking them, despite their obvious enthusiasm. Click the image below for a full size version.
All the information is broadly accurate (except for the idiotic scaremongering of “Don’t let the right-wing bloggers hijack your party’s Leadership election. Submit the form now!”). Cunliffe is a strong candidate with many good qualities. But I doubt many people will read that far because the site is offensive to the eye. The layout is horrible, and I know colour-blocking is meant to be in right now, but seriously — the dominant red is too much. Contrast with the text is poor, and the faux-script headings and such give the whole thing a 1990s Geocities-Angelfire feel that has no place in the 21st Century interwebs.
Worst of all is the banner — it tells us that grey, faceless bobble-headed people want David Cunliffe as leader. As a friend of mine, a graphic designer by training, said (after “MY EYEEEES”) — aren’t grey bobble-heads the New Zealand First brand?
The use of such symbolism is a slander on David Cunliffe that even a member of Team Shearer like me can’t support.
Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged isn’t a work with universal appeal, but it interests me as a work of propaganda. It is a powerful text, and one that has had an enduring influence on Western politics. While my disdain for Objectivism and the sanity of most of its adherents is pretty well documented, I do, at least to an extent, get the appeal.
There are some things that were inevitably going to be bad about the recent movie adaptation Atlas Shrugged: Part I, the first in a trilogy: the utopian pseudo-philosophy at its core; unlovable heroes and pantomime villains; the absurdity of a mysterious stranger going about making zillionaires offers they can’t refuse to leave it all behind, and so on. This is all the usual stuff of Atlas Shrugged criticism and while fair enough, it’s not really pertinent to criticism of the movie, because the movie couldn’t have been made authentically without it. (The question of whether it should have been made authentically at all is another one; I think it should.) So this review isn’t a critique of the novel, or Rand’s philosophy; it’s a critique of the film.
There’s a scene early on in the story where Paul Larkin, a business-courtier of sorts, counsels Hank Rearden about the importance of public opinion. The movie plays it pretty straight and is much shorter than the novel text, so the dialogue is transcribed here:
This theme — to hell with what the peasants think, only quality matters — it central to Rand’s work, and the filmmakers here have taken it entirely to heart. They have made a film that is almost incomprehensible to those who aren’t familiar with Rand’s text, presumably on the premise that anyone who matters will know the story already, or will be able to divine the work’s innate and self-evident quality for themselves.* The result is a simplistic, primary retelling of Atlas Shrugged: a film without cinematic appeal or narrative cohesion, and that doesn’t effectively convey Rand’s milieu, her ideas, or her ideology, and consequentially fails to live up to her vision.
The first and most immediately evident failure is that the film is talky to a fault. Before it was released I expressed concerns that a production team of Objectivist True Believers would lack the necessary courage to take the red pen to the hallowed text. This fear has been fully borne out. What works on the page — and what worked on the page in the 1950s — does not always work on-screen. The iron law of the moving picture is show me, don’t tell me, and it is not unfaithful to cut an author’s prose to suit the needs of a new medium. Yet it seems every cut, every edit (and of course there are many; it’s a long book) has been made reluctantly.
Seriously: as Hank and Dagny retire to their rooms after celebrating the John Galt Line’s maiden run, we don’t need Hank to confide in a stage-whisper to Dagny that he wants to kiss her, or for her to say “what’s stopping you?”. Earlier, after about 40 minutes of wondering when the hell the movie is going to start, we got a brief conversation about dessert, banana or chocolate? In other cases Rand’s phraseology intrudes: the introduction of John Galt — the first meaningful piece of dialogue in the film — comes almost verbatim from the novel: he introduces himself as “someone who knows what it’s like to work for himself, and not let others feed off the profits of his energy”. Come again? Rand’s hackneyed ideological tropes (“Anti Dog Eat Dog Act” &c) are retained without the benefit of the novel’s context, in which they make sense. The screenplay manages to fail both the tasks of good exposition: convey a vivid sense of milieu, and do so efficiently and with congruence. While you could argue it sets the scene, it’s still not entirely clear what that scene is, or why so many words were needed to set it.
Casting and direction is poor, as is to be expected from a first-time director possessed of sufficient (and archetypically-Randian) hubris to cast himself as John Galt. There is an utter dearth of chemistry between the characters; the actors do a mostly serviceable job, but they are given precious little to work with. Rand’s heroes are notable for their severity, but also for their passion, and while the emotional top-note of severity is overplayed, the undertone of passion for the most part just fails to cut through. There are, in this film based on a very emotionally-intense novel, about four moments of genuine emotional intensity. The first is about half-way through, when Ellis Wyatt shouts at Dagny in her office. It is a jarring moment, and not in a good way — the first moment in the film where anyone on-scene is speaking above a low conversational tone, and is totally off-register. It comes out of nowhere — in the novel, again, it was cushioned by exposition — and confuses the relationships between the characters. This is a particular problem in a film where it is already unclear who are supposed to be the “good guys” and who the “bad” (again, a lack of effective exposition).
At other times, despite remaining slavishly faithful to Rand’s dialogue, the film alters the register of a scene so utterly that it is unrecognisable. The sex scene between Hank and Dagny is one of the central events of the first part of the novel: two kindred spirits, having previously thought themselves alone in the world, consummating their relationship with violent intensity. Her “highest achievement”, Dagny calls it, in the novel; in the film we are treated to a slow-motion desaturated montage of soft fades, arched backs and half-open mouths. Its only redeeming feature is its brevity. I mentioned that there were about four moments of genuinely intense emotion in the film: this was not one of them. Going to such lengths to retain Rand’s words while neglecting to retain the tone and sense of her narrative is penny-wise and pound-foolish, as far as authenticity goes.
Deeper than the failure of narrative, though, is the film’s failure to deliver its ideological payload. The expression of Rand’s ideology is garbled, the narrative itself is poorly explicated. Nor is it carried by structure, or image or performance, or anything, really. Signature scenes that conveyed this material vividly and at tiresome length in the novel are all but absent — such as the encounter with Hugh Akston, which becomes a trivial footnote in a weird road-trip montage — while other aspects, such as Rearden’s sell-down and the implementation of various acts and regulations, are bogged down in irrelevant technical detail. We learn a lot about the structure of the steel and railroad industries in Rand’s America, but very little about why these things matter to the story.
So although the filmmakers have remained quite true to the text this is not a film that is true to Rand’s vision. It’s barely a film — it’s more like an illustrated audiobook, badly abridged. Rand was a screenwriter whose work was produced on Broadway; someone who understood drama, who wanted Clint Eastwood and Farrah Fawcett to play the leads in the movie of Atlas Shrugged. She worked to have it produced twice, as a film, and then as an eight-hour miniseries; both failed. At the time of her death she was (re)writing the screenplay herself. She had great ambitions for the movie. As an ideologue and a propagandist she knew and understood deeply the power of words and images, of ideas and argumentation, to move people, and for all their faults her novels — or this one, at least — did that.
Film’s use as a propaganda medium was by no means alien to her. Early Soviet Russia had the best-developed ideological film tradition of its time, and Rand was also said to have caught what Lev Kuleshov referred to as “Americanitis”, infatuation with America, from watching the Hollywood films that so eloquently portrayed the bourgeois individualism of American life. The films of the Soviet tradition in which she grew up, no less than those of the classical Hollywood system in which Rand later worked, were profoundly cinematic works, used quite purposively to convey ideological material in every cut, every frame, every note. It was not a tradition of simplistic, literal narrative adaptations, but works of political art in their own right.
Like the exponents of Soviet montage, Rand tirelessly inferred ideological symbolism into arbitrary works of art. She was not afraid to challenge readers, to shock or outrage them. For all it may be nominally faithful to the text, this film fails to use the aesthetic tools of the medium to convey its message. It fails to challenge, or shock, or outrage. It fails to do anything, really. This movie of a novel about the primacy of action over inaction, preoccupied with the most immense mechanical and ideological forces, literally about the engines that drive humanity, is shamefully static.
The film’s dearth of cinematic character means that not only has it failed to make money (an Objectivist KPI), but it also fails to fulfil the purpose of an ideological text: to engage, to inspire, to move people. Other than those for whom the text is sacred, who overlook the faults of the adaptation out of fawning affection for the source material, nobody is watching Atlas Shrugged: Part I; there were no queues, there is no buzz. At a time of deep and divisive public debate about the nature of the relationships between business and government, between the state and the individual, at a time when Rand’s latter-day apostles are so fond of declaring that her work has never been more relevant, and that her ideas are enjoying a renaissance, there isn’t even any outrage about this film. In this regard it is no better than the preachy Bible films, full of hollow, lazy sentimentality, that get replayed to captive audiences of bored children every Easter and Christmas. The Gospel According to St Matthew this ain’t.
For all I disagree with her philosophy, Rand’s novel deserved better. As noted, her work is packed with references to the expression of ideology and exaltation in the everyday — in the structure of a building, a person’s voice or bearing; or most notoriously, in their approach to sex. This film is no such expression of any innate excellence. Echoing the conversation between Hank Rearden and Paul Larkin, a motif of Atlas Shrugged is frequent reference to the composer Richard Halley, one of the “strikers”, whose work is described as so profound that it is misunderstood and mocked by the ordinary workaday folks, the leeches and moochers and second-handers, and by the time they come around to appreciating it Halley has decided they are not worthy.** Objectivists certainly consider Halley’s work as being analogous to Rand’s, and I get the sense that the principals of Atlas Shrugged: Part I fancy themselves as having created such a work — one that can only be properly appreciated by those of a nobler character. That they, as Galtian Übermenschen, would succeed where everyone else had failed by sheer force of will, and in spite of the doubts and limitations placed upon them by the second-handers. Their conceit could hardly be greater.
Perhaps those of us who are not Objectivists should be grateful; Atlas Shrugged made to Eisenstein, DeMille, Capra or Pasolini’s standards would be a mighty work of propaganda indeed.
* Fitting irony: this review also assumes readers are familiar with the story.
Chris Trotter suggests that frequent and heavily-publicised polls favour the right and result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, depressing support for the left. Bomber Bradbury has made similar arguments in the past.
There are two parts to this: first, the question of whether polls are inaccurate vis-a-vis the actual views of the electorate, and if so whether they do in fact favour the right; and second, whether this, on its own, has a substantive impact on actual real-world support.
I am aware of no robust research on this topic in the NZ context (which isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist; although if it did I’d expect the many proponents of this line of argument to be citing it all day long.) So to kick off, let me concede that if there was a significant ideological bias to the polls it certainly could have an impact on voter behaviour. But I suspect any impact would be more complicated than the simple “low showing for a party causes low turnout and/or low support” reading of the “spiral of silence” model Chris cites (which is nevertheless a useful model). For one thing, it’s not clear that the impact is very strong in case of a secret ballot; also, the argument doesn’t take into account New Zealanders’ oft-cited peeriness about single-party majority governments in the wake of Muldoon, Lange and Bolger which could have a moderating effect, and it doesn’t take into consideration the usual “narrowing” that occurs in the latter stages of an election campaign as wavering voters begin to make up their minds. So I doubt the size of this effect on Labour’s polling at least; any shift should not be large, and certainly not sufficient to change the election outcome. However where NZ First is concerned it’s different — a percentage point or two makes all the difference in the world there, and whether NZ First returns to parliament or not rests on the collective spirit of Winston’s faithful. Assuming they still make up fiveish per cent of the voting population they must not waver, and must cast their votes together regardless of what they are told about the polls. If they fail to do so NZ First is out, and all those votes are wasted, and that is certainly an outcome that could result from widespread reporting of polls that show NZ First under the threshold (and one that could change the election outcome).
Note, however, that all that is contingent on those polls showing NZ First to be under the threshold actually being wrong. I’m not persuaded of this, and I’m also dubious about the contention that polls favour the right. As Bomber is fond of pointing out, the polls run in the leadup to the Auckland Supercity election favoured John Banks, while in the election Len Brown won handsomely. That’s important to remember, but it’s only one data point so I’m hesitant to draw meaningful conclusions from it, and if it’s evidence of anything, it’s against the simple reading of the “Spiral of Silence” thesis, according to which Brown’s demoralised supporters should have stayed home.
There is also some evidence out of the US to suggest that landline-only polls favour the Republican party over the Democrats (when compared to polling samples that include cellphones). It’s not clear is that this trend is also in effect in New Zealand. Based on no data, I think it has some influence, but our situation here differs in important ways; most notably, we have more than two parties so variance of this sort is more dilute and less zero-sum. And the likely effect would be ambivalent — if landline-only polls tend to exclude the young and the poor and tech-savvy urban liberals, they should overstate support for NZ First, not understate it.
The matter of bias isn’t readily testable because, as an Australian poll analyst put it recently when looking at bias between pollsters in that market, “we just don’t have elections every week to determine the true state of public opinion“.* There is also evidence to suggest that people’s voting behaviour differs in important ways from how they answer opinion polls. So we need to rely on other forms of measurement; proxies being measured against proxies. There are focus-groups, vox pop interviews and 75c text-polls and coffee-bean polls, and the Horizon poll with its radically different weighting system, but I see no firm grounds to believe any of these would be any more reliable than the major phone poll companies. One very strong point in favour of the usual sort of phone-based opinion polling is that it has remained more or less methodologically consistent for a very long time. This gives us extremely large, continuous datasets that we can plot against real-world events including policy releases, major speeches, current events and elections. In this regard they are much like audience/circulation ratings in the media. The utility of these well-established systems isn’t that they have no flaws — they certainly do, and much of the criticism is valid — it’s that they have a reasonably well-known set of flaws that are consistent over time, and we can use the historical record to make inferences about the present day (too few people, I think, are actually doing this, but that’s a different matter). By contrast other systems — Horizon, in particular — are less well-known, and serious questions need to be asked about the quality of their results. They’re worth watching, but they are not as yet a substitute for what we already have.
Returning to the argument. So if the polls systematically favour the right, and if they do so in such a way as doesn’t also favour NZ First’s older, wealthier and more conservative demographic, and if the extent of that bias is significant enough to have a significant zero-sum election night impact despite all the confounding variables of voter behaviour, then Chris might be right.
But that’s a lot of ifs, and a claim as bold as “polling companies and the media steal elections from the left” demands extremely robust evidence to be given credence. I’m open to the argument, but what we have here isn’t evidence, much less the robust kind; it’s supposition, and what’s more it’s supposition derived from partisan loyalty. The argument is unfalsifiable — if the election does deliver a substantial defeat to Labour and NZ First they will take that as proof-positive that they were right all along and the voters were robbed; if it doesn’t no doubt they will cheer those who battled valiantly and overcame the oppressive regime imposed by the forces of evil. In this regard the argument is nearly indistinguishable from that made in 2008 by the Free Speech Coalition who, despite their howls about Stalinist restrictions on political marketing, managed to help their political representatives to a handy win.
My view of Chris and Bomber’s general line of argument is that it’s more of the usual excuse-making and blame-shifting that I see from lefties who can’t bear that their tribe is staring down the barrel of a(nother) heavy defeat. It’s an attempt to make the evil media cabal responsible for poor performance, and to minimise the effect of weak leadership, institutional incompetence, lacklustre campaign and — in Peters’ case — public self-immolation during the last term. It’s a myth; something to keep the faithful warm at night, in the absence of actual victory. Myths certainly have a kernel of essential truth, but they should not be mistaken for evidence. Moreover, as regards Chris’ concerns about the election accurately reflecting voters’ wishes; these would have more credibility if his own history of respecting the solemn integrity of electoral politics was itself less one-eyed. He thunders:
This would ring less hollow if, following the 2005 election, he had not so cravenly excused the Labour party’s own admitted breach of electoral law as being “acceptable corruption” inasmuch as it served the greater ideological purpose of preventing National from being elected. Given that history, his complaints about polling and media conduct look like nothing more than an appeal to ideological tribalism with a bright red smear of electoral integrity lipstick on.
And yet, he has a strong point: if NZ First’s share of the party vote on November 26 comes in fractionally below the 5% threshold, democracy will have been poorly served in 2011, as it was in 2008. My personal views of that party aside, as a matter of natural justice anyone commanding a twentieth of the vote should be entitled to roughly a twentieth of the representation in Parliament. But however unsexy it might be, the solution to this isn’t injustice to attack the pollsters or the media. The argument isn’t supported by the evidence; even if it was nobody’s going to change on Chris and Bomber’s say-so, and we all saw what happened to the Clark government’s regulatory overreach. The pragmatic response here is to work towards reducing or removing the electoral threshold so as to ensure that natural justice is served and variance is less likely to simply exclude a party from representation, and to turn back to the process of returning political rigour to the political left by building competence, vision and leadership so it can succeed despite the obstacles before it. Less myth, more reality.
* Pollytics’ analysis plots polling companies against each other, measuring each pollster’s bias from the other polling companies. David Winter has had a go at doing something similar for the NZ context, though he has much less data to work with. While interesting, it’s important to reiterate that none of this addresses the concerns about poll accuracy vis-a-vis the electorate.)