Posts Tagged ‘Media’

Cruel irony: partisans and the media

datePosted on 21:25, November 5th, 2011 by Lew

Here’s a thing I don’t get. Lefty partisans (in New Zealand and elsewhere) are overwhelmingly convinced that the Main Stream Media is:

  • Run by a shadowy cabal of Dr Evil types whose main goal is to bring the political right to power and keep them there;
  • Obsessed with prurience, trivia, conflict (falsified or trumped-up if necessary), outrage and scandal to the total exclusion of “serious” topics like policy;
  • So credulous as to be unable (or so captured as to be unwilling) to distinguish between competing accounts of differing veracity, reporting all opinions as nominally equal;
  • Selective, punishing the left more harshly than the right; and
  • All of the above is strongly contributing to the decline of civilisation as we know it.

The right believes much the same, just with a different polarity.

And yet, despite these deeply-held beliefs, partisans on both sides react with shock and dismay whenever the terrible old Emm Ess Emm lives up to these expectations. They wail and they gnash their teeth, but they don’t adopt (and don’t require their political representatives to adopt) strategies to deny the Emm Ess Emm the opportunity to fulfil this brief, or to force it into “responsible coverage” mode, and they refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for giving the Emm Ess Emm exactly what it needs to do exactly what it does.

Seriously. As a political movement, the more you believe all of that list — and in general, the lower your opinion of the media — the more you should be obsessed with ensuring that your strategy is freaking watertight so you don’t fall foul of it. Moreover, if you believe the last point (that it’s hastening the end of the world) you should be all the more committed to getting into power so as to implement reforms that will change this state of affairs.

But enthusiastic adherence to these beliefs correlates strongly with a poor understanding of the function of the media and how it works in reality. So those most exercised by the media’s obvious bias against their team are those least able to remedy it. Because they don’t understand the system, they tend to misdiagnose the problem. Having misunderstood the problem they are unable to respond strategically, and the typical result is inchoate fury.

L

Winning matters

datePosted on 20:01, November 4th, 2011 by Lew

I’ve been absent for a while, and am still pretty busy but will endeavour to write more often through the election cycle.

This post is just to correct a misunderstanding that persists in some circles about the debate between John Key and Phil Goff, hosted by The Press in Christchurch (highlights here). The conventional wisdom, with which I agree, is that Goff performed very strongly through the first half (re Christchurch), and into the second half (on more general topics) up until the point at which Key challenged him on Labour’s costing, at which point he lost it because he simply couldn’t rebut the allegation that there was a $14 billion deficit hole in Labour’s policy platform. Labourites, however, have complained that this was unfair, that Key’s numbers were made up, that Goff couldn’t produce figures that hadn’t been properly worked out, or that nobody watches the debates anyhow so it doesn’t matter. These claims might be right; some of them certainly are. But it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference: the task was to win the debate, and Goff did not win the debate.

This is the point, though: it doesn’t matter if a leader’s debate is watched by only 100 people if as one of those people is the political editor of a major news outlet.

Winning a leader’s debate in itself doesn’t change people’s minds. Few people watch them, and most who do have already made up their minds and will interpret even the most epic fails as wins (go back and read the Daily Kos response to the ‘Dean Scream’; or for a more immediate example, see John Pagani). There’s a bunch of research been done on this, and the headline finding is that debates have a significant influence only on the politically naïve. For the most part, leader’s debates are about arousing the true believers and persuading the pundits, who will then report the outcome of the debate, which in turn provides signals to the voters about who has advantage, momentum, mad chops, political competence, and so on — including but not limited to who has the better policies. By failing to show John Key (and the rest of the nation) the money, Goff lost the debate, which puts him on the losing side in terms of all those factors — compounding an existing and well-documented leadership deficit. It doesn’t matter if he’s right — if he can’t demonstrate he’s right we’re entitled to believe he’s not. It’s not as if Key shut him down — he was afforded very generous opportunities to make his case, and he failed (or refused) to do so.

What has happened with the “$14 billion” over the past 48 hours is the system working as intended, filtering our presumptive leaders for basic political and institutional competence. Because we are entitled to demand basic political and institutional competence from our leaders. Not only that, we should demand it; and the fact that people — Labour activists in particular — have not demanded it this past 3 years is part of why we’re looking at another three years of John Key as PM.

John (and Jordan Carter, the MPs, Phil himself) and others who have picked apart Key’s back-of-the-envelope figures, insisted that it was more responsible to check and recheck the PREFU numbers before saying anything miss the point of a debate — it’s about winning under the hot lights of the public glare, not about being technically correct in the cool light of the following Friday. You have to be right enough that you don’t look as if you won on false pretences, but the task is to win, and to maintain the momentum of the campaign, the aura of leadership.

Goff failed. Barring some massive set of exigencies, that’s probably the election.

L

A reality TV window on the US.

datePosted on 08:01, September 20th, 2011 by Pablo

Some say that reality TV is a stained-glass window on society. In the US the concept began with the show “Cops,” now in its gadzillionth year. It gave rise to the Survivor and Amazing Race series, singing and dancing shows, celebrity this and that, cooking  disasters of various sorts, adventure and survival programs,  motorcycle and automobile customizers, the antics of sexual deviants, cheaters and lumpenproletiarians of various ethnicities (e.g. “Jersey Shore”), Bridezillas and vapid Housewives from various places, dumb and dumber idiots doing an assortment of Darwin Award misadventures, animal attacks, plus a variety other examinations of the detritus of US life. However, the recent turn in reality programming offers a dark reflection of the economic malaise gripping the country.

In recent months the reality concept has focused on the impact of economic misery, albeit from a tangental angle. The most popular shows, led by those on a channel called “True TV–not reality, but actuality”–are those that cover the flow-on effects of econonic hardship. These are led by several shows about vehicle repossession agents, but also include shows dedicated to pawn shops, gun dealers, auctioneers, hoarders and down on their luck gold prospectors. The television angle is not on the economic condition of the participants but on the behavioural effects produced by the consequences of personal economic misfortune: fights, tears, breakdowns and other human drama. Like watching train wrecks, these shows cater to morbid interest and pervese delight in other’s misfortune, which may say something about the state of US social cohesion. I confess to finding some of those involved strangely fascinating, and there is some dark humor involved, but my overall sense is that these shows are a bit too close to the truth to be entirely easy to watch. 

I am not sure what to make of all this, but it could do conservative US policy makers some good to watch these shows, simply for them to see, should they wish to, the human face of the negative impact of the feral economic policies of the last decade.

NB: I am winding up my tour in the US this week, and other than one mention of the US-Russia game have seen and heard zero in the US media  about the RWC. What I did read is thatWayne Mapp said that the SAS was “sort of” involved in the latest terrorism incident in Kabul. Note to “Dr.” Mapp: that is  like being “sort of” pregnant.

Otherwise, and in spite of the RWC, it will be great to be home.

Under fire

datePosted on 22:52, July 10th, 2011 by Lew

Just one semi-randomly chosen article, on the Otago Daily Times website, but here are some numbers from it:

A. Don Brash denying allegations or refusing to comment: 4
B. Don Brash distancing himself from views of senior ACT people (incl former): 4
C. Mentions of Don Brash’s failed 2005 campaign: 3
D. Don Brash making an open statement of his position (incl the ad): 2
E. Don Brash attacked by ministers in the government of which ACT is a part: 2
F. Don Brash attacking ministers in the government of which ACT is a part: 1

That, right there, is a party leader under fire.

A is a problem because it shows Brash as weak and evasive.
B is a problem because the fact is that these people are or were his party and its brand — they are what people think they know about ACT. If it turns out they don’t actually speak for ACT, something has to fill that vacuum. This is also indecisive, and because of the nature of the views he is backing away from, weak.
C is a problem because it reminds everyone that they got rid of him six years ago, and why.
D is a problem because Brash hasn’t filled the vacuum caused by B.
E and F are problems because they threaten the integrity of John Key’s National government during an election campaign framed by narratives of unity: the Stadium Of Four Million narrative of the Rugby World Cup, and the Spirit Of The Blitz narrative mandated by the Canterbury earthquakes.

For my money, it’s the last one which is most likely to sink ACT. If Brash doesn’t pull his head in sharpish, Key will be justified in cutting it off. And I reckon he would, sharpish. He’s not called the Smiling Assassin because of his gentle nature and tolerance toward poor performers. And even if Key doesn’t, Brash is up against some powerful stuff in those unity narratives. Nobody wants to back a splitter at a time when Aotearoa is supposed to be thinking and feeling and hoping as one.

L

Today has been a remarkable day. Rarely do we see such an epic failure of communication as we have seen from Alasdair Thompson. Because these events have played out mostly in public, they also present an unusually transparent example.

What follows is ten specific strategic communication lessons which are clearly evident from these events. My analysis isn’t political — I have political and ideological views on this matter, and I intend to write these up after some reflection, but the purpose here is to look at things dispassionately and pragmatically and consider what was done wrong, and what might have been done differently. They are framed quite generically and can be pretty widely applied. This is a long post, so I’ve hidden most of it below the fold.

Everything here is presented on an “in my opinion, for what it’s worth” basis, and should under no circumstances be interpreted as reflecting the views of my employer, or anyone other than me personally.

Read the rest of this entry »

Helen Clark understood well the axiom that in politics the best defense is a good offense. She was a master of the art of character assassination and discrediting the opponent. This was particularly true when the opponent was not a politician but someone from outside of the partisan divide who pointed out a dubious policy decision or raised ethical questions about the behavior of her government. I know this first-hand, because I was the subject of one of her attacks (with regard to the role of former ambassador Richard Wood, then director of the SIS, in the Ahmed Zaoui case). She also knew the value of having everyone in her government play off of the same sheet of music when it comes to cover-ups, hence the “lying in unison” refrain. Love her or hate her, Ms. Clark knew how to play dirty.

When National came to office it argued that it was going to end the sort of practices Ms. Clark was so adept at. But as it turns out, it has done exactly the opposite and instead deepened the dark “art” of shooting the bearer of bad news. The latest instance of this is its treatment of independent war correspondent Jon Stephenson. Mr. Stephenson is by all objective accounts a remarkably brave and serious journalist. He is also a thorn in the side of the NZDF. The reason is because he travels independently to conflict zones in which the NZDF is deployed, foregoes the embedded journalist niceties that accrue to the likes of TV talking heads, and asks hard questions about the actions of Kiwi soldiers as well as the polices and rules of engagement under which they operate. That line of inquiry does not conform to the scripted narrative that the NZDF would prefer that NZ audiences consume, so it makes the Defence brass uncomfortable.  As a result some of the NZDF and Defence leadership are antagonistic towards Mr. Stephenson. The irony is that such antagonism does not extend down to the rank and file troops, many of who candidly share their views with Mr. Stephenson under conditions of anonymity. In fact, they are often the source of his insights into how the NZDF operates in combat environments. For his part Mr. Stephenson has repeatedly voiced his high regard for the integrity and professionalism of Kiwi soldiers, those in the SAS in particular. The animus, in other words, is not mutual.

In April Mr. Stephenson published an article in Metro magazine titled “Eyes Wide Shut.” In it he writes that in its previous and current deployments in Afghanistan the SAS transferred and continues to transfer prisoners to US and Afghan forces that have been implicated in abuses of the Geneva Convention. He makes very clear that the SAS does not abuse prisoners, although–contrary to the National government’s initial assertions–the SAS takes a lead role in counter-terrorism and search and destroy missions, kills adversaries as a matter of course (some of whom it turns out were not hostile but either misidentified or the victims of faulty intelligence), and detains and transfers prisoners to Afghan and US custody as part of its standard operating procedures. The trouble for the government is that after Labour withdrew the SAS from Afghanistan in 2005 in part because of concerns about the treatment of prisoners initially detained by the elite force, National turned around and re-deployed them in 2009 without getting ironclad assurances from either the US or the Karzai regime that prisoners detained by the SAS would be treated in strict accordance with the Geneva Convention. The lack of such assurances are what have forced UK forces serving in Afghanistan to refuse to hand over prisoners to the Afghan government and played a part in the Danish decision to withdraw their special forces from ISAF, so the concerns are wide-spread and well known. Yet, rather than wrestle with the ethical dilemmas involved, it appears that the NZ government has repeatedly misrepresented what the SAS is actually doing in Afghanistan, and on at least one occasion has played loose with the truth when asked about that role, to include, specifically, whether the SAS leads combat missions and takes prisoners on its own.

Mr. Stephenson’s article raises all of these troublesome points. Its well researched account of incidents in 2002 and 2010 raises questions about what National agreed to in 2009 that Labour could not stomach in 2005. It specifically questions General Jerry Mateparae, former NZDF head, current GCSB director and Governor-General-designate over his statements to parliament in 2010 that the SAS does not detain prisoners and does not lead combat engagements. It is damning stuff that should be the subject of an independent inquiry.

The government response has been to take a page out of Helen Clark’s book on character assassination, and then attempt to write it more crudely. Prime Minister John Key, current head of the NZDF Lieutenant General Richard Rhys-Jones and Minister of Defense “Dr.” Wayne Mapp have all attacked Mr. Stephenson as being “non-credible” and of having an anti-NZDF bias. Military sycophants like Ron Smith of Waikato University (who is reported to have a personal connection to General Mateparae) have accused Mr. Stephenson of having a “hidden agenda,” with the insinuation that the agenda is pro-Taliban as well as anti-NZDF. Although General Rhys-Jones has disputed some facts in the Metro article, Mr. Mapp has been forced to admit under questioning in parliament that the SAS does in fact lead combat missions, does detain prisoners and does indeed hand them over to Afghan or US authorities without proper follow up monitoring (worse yet, Mr. Mapp initially claimed that the NZ government has an arrangement with the Red Cross for the latter to monitor prisoners captured by NZDF forces once they are handed over to the Afghan authorities, but the Red Cross denies any such agreement exists, among other things because it only signs agreements with the governments holding prisoners, not with those who may have initially captured them).  

The result of Mr. Stephenson’s reporting and its follow ups reveals that in effect, the National government re-committed the SAS either ignorant of what its operations would entail or fully cognizant of them, but then lied to the NZ public rather than admit the truth (or has the NZDF lie on its behalf). Either way it is not a good look.

Rather than own up to what was agreed to in 2009, the government is pursuing a campaign of character assassination against Mr. Stephenson. It cannot argue his facts so it is playing him instead. It is not surprising that a money-changer like Mr. Key would not have a strong ethical compass, or that a career politician like the good “Dr.” Mapp would weasel rather than front on the ethical dilemmas involved in the deployment. But it is unfortunate that the top military brass have joined in the campaign, regardless of whether or not they are simply trying to close ranks around General Mateparae. They of all people should know that the integrity of the force should come before politician’s political machinations.

If there are reasons of state behind the decision to commit the SAS back into Afghanistan under less than optimal ROEs (at least with regard to the treatment of prisoners), then they should be stated clearly and openly. It is quite possible that a majority of New Zealander’s would have no problem with the mistreatment of prisoners initially captured or detained by the SAS. However, if there are domestic political considerations behind the government’s apparently duplicitous approach to revealing the considerations involved and the terms under which the SAS was re-deployed, then the NZDF should not carry the water for it. Responsibility for the decision lies with the civilian command authority to which the uniformed crowd are ultimately subordinated, and if the NZDF has been asked to misrepresent the terms and conditions of the re-deployment, that is unethical as well as injurious to morale. Troops do not like to be pawns in some political game played by people with no experience in soldiering and no regard for their individual fate, which is why the NZDF leadership should come clean on what it has been asked to do and not do when it comes to its commitment of troops abroad.

In reporting on what the SAS does in Afghanistan, Jon Stephenson was just doing his job, in the time-honoured fashion of war correspondents. In that he is a rare bird in NZ, where flak-jacketed and helmeted media figures “report” in hostile theaters from “sanitised” positions miles away from the action that are surrounded by layers of armed security (i.e. these journalistic poseurs are kept away from real harm and instead are the guests of government-orchestrated field trips in the proximity of battle zones). It is because he adopts the independent, non-scripted line that Mr. Stephenson is being attacked, and in the measure that a democracy is only as good as the free flow of information allows it to be, the actions of this government against him are not only despicable, but a clear sign of the ingrained authoritarian (some would say bullying) ethos that permeates the NZ political elite.

The Greens have called for an independent inquiry and sensing a chance to wound National, Labour has joined them (since it can now use its 2005 decision to not continue the SAS deployment and objection to the 2009 re-deployment as ammunition against the government). Mr. Key has refused to agree to the demands, insisting that he is satisfied with NZDF explanations about the incidents Mr. Stephenson has reported on. What he really means is that he is applying the first rule of bureaucracy when it comes to handling prickly issues: CYA (Cover Yer A**e).

As a political community we should not allow the government to get away with such a cynical response, nor allow its slander of Jon Stephenson to go unchallenged. After all, basic principles of democratic accountability and NZ’s international reputation as a defender of human rights are at stake, as is Mr. Stephenson’s career.

NZPA no more

datePosted on 22:04, April 6th, 2011 by Lew

Fairfax has killed the New Zealand Press Association, after more than 130 years of service providing straightforward, unsensational, generally independent bread-and-butter journalism to news outlets around the country. I’ve no heart to give a lecture on the importance of the role the agency played or the circumstances of its demise, so just read Karl du Fresne’s excellent backgrounder to this move, written last year. If you want an approximation of my views on the matter, reread some of my recent commentary on the NZ media — particularly the bits where I argue for competition through diversity — and then imagine a future without anyone to do the ‘heavy lifting’ of day-to-day news reporting, as Patrick Gower put it earlier today.

But I want to say a few things about the future. The fact is that something like the NZPA — some primary source for raw news — is needed. Press releases will continue to fulfil the role that they always have, and one immediate consequence of the end of NZPA is that journalists will now have to comprehend, research and rewrite PRs themselves or — depressingly — just publish them more or less verbatim. Either way, that means a decline in news quality and more churnalism.

So the media execs behind this decision who, in Danyl’s perceptive words, “probably don’t realise quite what they’ve destroyed” know this to an extent — they know at least that the stories have to come from somewhere. I assume that they are aiming to leverage the endless horizon of social media, which has the considerable advantage of being free. Twitter, I fear, will be the major replacement for NZPA in the immediate New Zealand context. Journalists already do this to an extent — probably a greater extent than they should. While social media is important, and its role in news production is a live topic worthy of considerable discussion, it’s not any sort of substitute for a rigorous newsmaking system.

For another thing, Fairfax is an Australian company. As well as owning a large chunk of the New Zealand newspaper market (and enthusiastically presenting syndicated Australian content in its titles here), it is almost-half owner of the Australian Associated Press, a newswire service whose core business is rather like that of the NZPA (though AAP has in recent years expanded its role). If the gap in the New Zealand media market is sufficient that remaining independent content-provision agencies — such as Scoop and BusinessDesk — are unable to comprehensively fill it, it seems likely that AAP will do so. Given the pressure already exerted by overseas — and particularly Australian — newsmaking imperatives on our media ecology in New Zealand, I can’t see AAP’s potential involvement as anything but deleterious.

L

Disclosure: I work for Media Monitors, which competes with AAP in the Australian market (though not in the provision of wire content). The views expressed here are very emphatically my own.

Off the hook

datePosted on 19:29, March 27th, 2011 by Lew

On Red Alert, Clare Curran has a hapless pro-forma whinge about the standard of media coverage in New Zealand vis-a-vis in the UK, where a quarter million people are presently engaging in running battles with police; compared with here, where the media are obsessed with Darren Hughes.

Excuse me if I sound like a broken record, but the fundamental issue here isn’t exactly uncharted territory, and the fact that Clare has a lower opinion of the media than I do should make it easier to accept my advice, which is this: If you want the media to talk about something, Clare, give them a reason to talk about it. Make a stink, cause a scene, do something which makes not talking about it impossible. As a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin says: write a book, or do something worth writing a book about.

If you don’t give the media a compelling reason to care, don’t be surprised if they don’t. If you don’t provide them with something powerful to cover, they’ll go with scandal and innuendo every time. In the fable of the scorpion and the frog, the scorpion stings the frog. Why? To do so is in its nature. Frogs, while unable to prevent scorpions from stinging, would at least be wise to deny them the opportunity.

With that in mind, some of the following in this case might also have helped:

  • Have frontbench MPs not do stupid stuff which appeals to the public (not the media) sense of scandalous voyeurism;
  • Have your party leader do more than the absolute minimum possible in response to said scandal;
  • In doing more than the absolute minimum, have the party leader respond in just one move rather than in several successive ineffectual steps which maximise the coverage across several news cycles, including a weekend leading into a Parliamentary recess when political news is going to be thin on the ground anyway;
  • Ensure the party president is sufficiently apprised of said scandal that he finds out about it by some means other than reading the papers;
  • Even in the incredibly unlikely event that you can’t do the preceding, at least have your party leader and president sit down together for long enough to agree on a unified position, so as not to give credence to rumours of a leadership challenge.

It’s not that Labour didn’t give the media something to cover, so the media covered the Darren Hughes scandal by default: it’s that Labour gave the media the Darren Hughes scandal to cover, covered in juicy scandal juice, and then didn’t give them anything more compelling to cover instead. (As if there is something more compelling than a sexual investigation into a male frontbench MP’s alleged dalliance with a teenaged male youth MP in the house of the deputy leader after a Parliamentary function, which was covered up for two weeks by the party leader.)

Let me be crystal clear: the issue here is not about right and wrong, or about justice. Perhaps it should be, but electoral politics is not about what should be; it’s about what is. If you choose to privilege ‘justice’ over ‘politics’, as Phil Goff claimed on Q+A this morning, there’s a political cost to doing so; a political cost which, while it might be regrettable, isn’t something to whinge about. After all: if you made the choice you’re presumably better off than if you’d chosen differently. To behave as if it were otherwise, and to blame the media for their role in exacting that price is to blame the scorpion for having a sting in its tail.

Anyone to whom this dynamic isn’t clear has no business running strategy for a Sunday book club, much less a political party which aspires to government. As long as Labour continue to fail at this, one of the most basic tasks of politics, the phone will remain off the hook.

L

Put it out of its misery

datePosted on 23:12, March 11th, 2011 by Lew

After defending New Zealand’s broadcast news media in recent weeks, and bemoaning the lack of funding for public service broadcasting in particular, TVNZ has tonight hit rock-bottom. The so-called national broadcaster has been comprehensively shamed by TV3, and in the battle for news credibility it has capitulated having barely fired a shot.

John Campbell announced the Sendai Earthquake live on Campbell Live, and TV3 interrupted its broadcast of the high-rating Glee with micro-bulletins (leading the ad breaks) not long afterwards, and eventually ditched the show altogether to show live coverage from Japan’s English-language NHK network. TV One, in contrast, let MasterChef play to the end before switching to NHK. The digital-only channel TVNZ7 was also broadcasting coverage from NHK.

Both commercial channels continued to play ads, but other than that, did a pretty good job of balancing raw foreign coverage, context provided by their local presenters, and important updates for New Zealanders (tsunami alert status, etc.). And then, after broadcasting quake coverage for about an hour, One switched back to its regular programming, showing “Pineapple Dance Studios”, a reality TV show about “the larger-than-life exploits” of the dancers at said London studio. TVNZ’s other channel, TV2, was broadcasting American Idol. At some point (I haven’t been watching it) TVNZ 7 switched back to its regular programming: a book show of some sort. TV3, apparently without a second thought, cancelled the rest of its scheduled programming, and continues to carry the NHK feed, interspersed with relevant original content, including reports from New Zealand expats in Japan.

The contrast could not be more stark: while both One and TV3 remain general-purpose TV channels with a bolt-on news component, TV3 thinks of itself as and actually behaves like a bona fide news outlet, while for all its big talk TVNZ has revealed itself to be just another vehicle for empty escapism. TV3 demonstrated considerably better newscasting chops than TVNZ during the Canterbury earthquake of 22 February, but the comparison was unfair because TVNZ’s live broadcast infrastructure was more or less destroyed in the earthquake, so they had considerably less capacity to respond, for reasons outside their control. It is true that, given the volume of disaster coverage we have had recently, there is a need for an escapist bolt-hole — not least, for the traumatised survivors of the Canterbury earthquakes. But that’s what TV2 and American Idol are for. Make no mistake: given our current disaster awareness, the relatively strong links between New Zealand and Japan — including the presence of Japanese USAR teams still in Christchurch — that country’s broad and deep experience of coping with events such as these, and the fact that the tsunami waves are predicted to submerge entire islands in the Pacific, including, presumably some of our protectorates — this is of legitimate news interest to New Zealanders. It is apparently the largest earthquake recorded in Japan in the past century, and one of the ten largest earthquakes ever recorded. By any meaningful metric it is an important news story worthy of our attention.

At the heart of my defence of public service broadcasting lately has been the argument that public service broadcaster raise the bar of competition, forcing commercial broadcasters to sharpen their game. To quote myself (from a comment on Red Alert the other day):

The British broadcast media are very good indeed, and the main reason for this is the BBC. Yes, the BBC itself makes up a lot of the broadcast media environment there, but more importantly, it forces commercial competitors to compete with something other than lowest-common-denominator mass-market ratings. The same dynamic exists in the two other major media markets with strong and well-provisioned PSBs: Canada and Australia, where the CBC and ABC respectively set an enormously high standard for commercial competitors to meet. This is one of the major roles of public service broadcasting, especially in news: to set a high bar for competition.
If you want to solve the problems within New Zealand’s media environment, if you want to raise the bar: make the commercial media outlets compete with something that hasn’t been gutted and hamstrung. Fund TVNZ and Radio NZ properly, give it freedom to hire and retain the best people, buy the best content, and generally do what it does, and let the others work to match them. Everyone wins.

To give just one tiny example of how this might have worked: TV3 may have reconsidered its decision to air advertisements for fast food and outboard motors between shots of buildings and fleeing vehicles being swept away by ten metre waves, if there had been a viable ad-free newscast in competition with it. To give another: perhaps, if there was some competition prepared to put up the NHK feed overnight for those whose family members and friends are in Japan, TV3 might not have cut to Sports Tonight after Nightline had aired. But there wasn’t any competition. When governments underfund public service broadcasters or hamstring them by imposing the contradictory roles of a public service mandate and the need to return a profit to the consolidated fund, both roles are weakened. We get the worst of both worlds: as taxpayers, we pay public money to fund public service broadcasting, provision of which is undermined by the channel’s need to remain obedient to market imperatives, and in exchange for putting up with ads we end up with a pale imitation of a commercial broadcaster as well. One News — and to an even greater extent TVNZ 7 — supposedly a dedicated ‘factual content’ channel — disgraced themselves and failed New Zealanders tonight. The tagline “New Zealand’s news. Anywhere. Anytime” should perhaps be revised to “Anywhere. Anytime. Except when there’s third-rate reality programming to air instead.”

TVNZ, by waving the white flag tonight, has demonstrated that it’s all but worthless as a public service broadcaster. The market is doing its job for it. If the government isn’t going to fund it well enough to turn it into a proper public service broadcaster, they might as well sell it, if they can find anyone who’ll pay anything for it. If they can’t, perhaps they can just take it out behind the shed and put it out of its misery.

L

Triangulating News Sources.

datePosted on 14:57, March 5th, 2011 by Pablo

One of the simple yet key concepts in intelligence gathering is triangulation: try to receive information from at least three independent sources about a given subject or target in order to avoid selection bias, erroneous reporting, disinformation or content manipulation. It is the mark of the intelligence professional that s/he avoids making value judgements or offering assessments until source triangulation has confirmed the accuracy or veracity of reporting from the field or in intelligence streams provided by informants, contract assets, liaison partners and open sources.

I write this not as a preamble to a discussion about how the NZSIS does not do this as a matter of course. Instead, I mention triangulation because it is a principle that seems to me to be a requirement for news-gathering in the present media context. Let me briefly explain why.

I am about to return permanently to NZ after a 3.5 year sojourn in a small SE Asian state. Although the country I am about to leave is authoritarian and places restrictions on freedoms of speech and association, it has a fairly lively media community that includes cable providers that offer a variety of news channels from around the world. As a result, I have had the luxury of watching news channels from Australia (ABC), Russia (RT), China (CCTV in English), the UK (BBC and Sky), the US (Fox and CNN), the Singapore-based Asia News Channel, and a host on Malaysian and Indonesian outlets (which I do not understand but whose images demonstrate their emphasis). I read the local paper (the Straits Times), which even if a government-supportive outlet has very good coverage of Asian news and offers insight into the mindset of the regime and society. I spend way too much time digesting a variety of on-line news providers, ranging from the NZ Herald, Stuff and Scoop to the NYT, Washington Post, Miami Herald, Buenos Aires Herald, La Prensa, Clarin (Argentina), A Folha do Sao Paulo (Brazil) , El Mercurio and La Segunda (Chile), Gramna (Cuba), The Guardian and Independent (UK), the International Herald Tribune, Economist, Christian Science Monitor and various sports outlets. The range is indicative of who I am and where my interests lie. The only major video outlet I cannot watch is al-Jazeera because it is prohibited in my country of residence over fears that it will incite the minority Malay population. So I link to it on-line via third parties.

The variety in representation of the same events is amazing. I often sit in utter wonder at the different takes RT, CCTV and al-Jazeera have on subjects such as the Middle East uprisings when compared to CNN, the BBC, Sky or the ranting chickenhawks on Faux News. Sometimes it is as if I am moving through parallel universes, and my only lament is that I cannot do a multiple split screen in real time to see all of the alternative takes simultaneously. What is unmentionable on US channels is front and centre for the Russians and al-Jazeera. The CCVT propaganda gets its counter in Channel News Asia. I am overwhelmed by choice when forming opinions about current events.

That brings me to my only concern in returning to NZ: the lack of variety in news provision. Although Stratos is an excellent provider of alternative views, as is Maori TV (I am not sure if Triangle TV is still on air), and there is plenty of the usual US and UK news channels on Sky cable, the hard fact is that in NZ there is a paucity of choice when it comes to news gathering. Although I can still use web surfing to access alternative sources of information, the problem of limited choice in news gathering is acute for those who do not have access to cable TV or computers with internet connections (i.e. the underclass). Couple this with the idiocy and vapid “human interest” stories that occupy a large part of NZ newscasts and you get a situation ripe for content manipulation by corporate broadcasters and government, whose line on a range of issues often dovetail in very neat ways. For example, little mainstream coverage has been devoted to the upcoming Urewera 18 trials (held in front of a judge rather than a jury and held in Auckland rather than closer to the site of the raids or the places where most of the defendants live, nearly 4 years after the raids were carried out), which follow one of the more outrageous abuses of anti-terrorism legislation and police authority in recent years. The story is highly important for anyone interested in civil liberties, due process, judicial independence, Maori sovereignty, social and political activism, and the nature of democracy itself. But it is nearly invisible in the corporate media.

That is why I return to NZ with my one concern: the difficulties in maintaining good triangulation in news gathering. It says a lot about NZ’s media culture that I have more choice here in the authoritarian red dot than I do in Aotearoa. Some might argue that is a function of market size, but the hard fact is that where I currently live has almost exactly the same population numbers as NZ in a much smaller land mass, with similar GDP and education levels, and equal if not more access to news sources even though all cable TV and internet provision is in the hands of two state-controlled monopolies. Hence the answer for the lack of choice in news-gathering in NZ either lies outside the market or rests on a particularly Kiwi media market dynamic that prefers ignorance over choice and spoon-feeding over triangulation. Which is it?

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