Posts Tagged ‘Public Address’

Teapot Tapes poll: political moral suasion

datePosted on 23:38, November 18th, 2011 by Lew

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.


What the media is for

datePosted on 13:03, February 28th, 2011 by Lew

There has been a lot of coverage about the coverage of the second Canterbury earthquake, and this is another post on that general topic. However rather than deal with the specifics — already superbly examined by Mediawatch (45 minute audio) and others — this is a comment on the purpose and functions of media in a society such as ours. It should be read in light of my previous post on the topic.

A commenter on Tim’s piece at Pundit makes the following objections about the media coverage of the most recent Canterbury earthquake:

I always thought the media collected news, let those involved explain the significance and do their best to give complete and balanced coverage.
It is not the media’s job to carry on carrying on “to show support.”
Media should be getting out the information to those affected and to the general public. Not manipulate us with their constructs of “courage” and “tenacity” but provide the important facts.

It is common, but this is just the sort of idealised notion of the media’s role which I referred to earlier in that comment thread when I said:

So the trend I’ve observed, here and in other discussions on the topic, is that a few of those who don’t really understand the media or its social role, or who have idealised notions of that role, or who are amateur ‘MSM’ critics with an ideological beef, just hate it all the more for doing more of what it does. On the other hand, those who work in or with the media, or have a broad understanding of its wider functions down here in the real world pretty much agree — with a few notable exceptions, like Steven Price — that there’s some sort of social purpose being served by all this additional coverage, even if it’s imperfect; and at least have some respect — if not awe — for the magnitude of the undertaking.
Haters gonna hate, I suppose.

The media’s job is not “just the facts, ma’am”. The media’s job is right there in the name: to mediate events for a society which, by and large, will never experience them firsthand but which nevertheless relies on a strong baseline of common experience. Most New Zealanders’ main exposure to the Canterbury earthquakes will be via the media. So their job is not simply to report the facts of a situation, but its essential truth, or — as usually happens — the various truths. It is incumbent upon the media to present more than a dessicated, dispassionate view of the Canterbury quake, for it is not a dessicated, dispassionate situation for those involved. As a matter of fairness to Cantabrians, if the events they cover speak to narratives of courage and tenacity, or loss or anguish or triumph or solidarity or whatever, then the media has a responsibility to convey those narratives more or less faithfully. And as a matter of national cohesion they need to convey a sense of the magnitude and intensity of it all to the rest of the nation. This is the rough-cut of history, after all, and history is neither dessicated nor dispassionate. So that’s a very open-ended task; incorporating also the functions Bruce mentions. These are non-exclusive.

There are other roles, also. Not least among the media’s other functions down here in the real world is to attract and hold audiences (without which they cannot survive), and to strengthen their newsmaking reputations (without which they cannot retain any credibility). In the case of disaster coverage, the former is almost totally subservient to the latter, since the cost of producing wall-to-wall coverage in trying conditions far outweighs the advertising return from doing so — especially since much of the resulting coverage has been shorn of commercials or aired in place of other, much more lucrative programming. But this is a rare example of a genuine crisis, an opportunity for the news media to put their worst-case-scenario plans into action These are (some of) the self-interested aspects of media conduct, and many of the media’s critics like to pretend (or wish) these imperatives don’t (or didn’t) exist; that the job of the media is simply to be altruistic without consideration of the cost, and without an eye to the benefits they might draw from their coverage. But all major media outlets in this country operate along essentially commercial lines (even those which are not commercially funded, such as Radio NZ, are benchmarked on ratings in ways similar to how commercial media are), so these imperatives apply almost as much to the ‘public service’ broadcasters as to those owned by foreign venture capital firms whose sole interest is shareholder returns.

I mention this because, right or wrong, it is a crucial link in the chain: without some sort of return accruing to media outlets (whether directly financial, or in terms of strengthening their brand, or the profile of their top people, or whatever) they won’t — can’t — dedicate resources to covering an event. As long as media outlets’ performance generally rests on attracting and retaining eyeballs and earholes, media outlets will engage in the sorts of behaviours which tend to maximise their attractiveness to those eyeballs and earholes. (I’d argue that even in the case of public service broadcasters like Radio NZ, this isn’t a bad state of affairs, since a medium not accountable to an audience basically enjoys impunity, and impunity is bad wherever it exists.)

Among the most crucial roles is the ‘fourth estate’ function of holding power to account. Without more than half of the country’s best journalists in Christchurch this past week, this most crucial democratic function would be severely atrophied. While the crisis response capacities of the media are stretched, those of wider civil society are far more so. It is crucial that the quality of the social response, and especially the elite response of the government, civil defence, police, emergency services and the military is adequately scrutinised. Wall-to-wall coverage makes it worthwhile for Mediaworks and Fairfax and TVNZ and APN and RNZ and TRN to give those journalists a reason to be there. Without that strong presence, those whose job it is to coordinate the response and recovery — during a state of national emergency, which gives them the legal authority to do very nearly anything they like, as long as it can be argued to serve the response — would be working with considerably less scrutiny than they are. Impunity, in other words. And that’s no good for anyone. There have been few, or perhaps even no ‘gotchas’ revealed so far. Absent strong media scrutiny this would give rise to suspicions that failures were being hidden. Because the scrutiny has been there — including the constant and often distasteful badgering for an updated death toll — it rather suggests a competent and transparently-run response. That’s something which is good for everyone.


MMP in NZ is safe

datePosted on 12:53, May 6th, 2010 by Lew

shirtcliffe ad

  • It has been found to work pretty well and all parliamentary parties except ACT support it.
  • The UK election is about to remind people how perverse FPP is.
  • Peter Shirtcliffe is spamming people in order to gain support for his anti-MMP campaign.
  • His google ad campaign looks like this ====>

Seriously. That’s him. A ranting white middle-aged elderly patrician of the sort New Zealand’s governments were almost exclusively composed before the change in electoral system — and on a soap-box, for goodness’ sake. A starker warning of what’s in store should the electoral system change is hard to envisage. Also: it’s visually busy and garish. The blue is neither National-party royal blue, nor ACT-party aqua-blue, nor flag-Navy; it’s nothing. The message is over-long and confused (campaign for an effective referendum? Don’t you mean to campaign against the electoral system? No? Ok then.) And the cartoon …

Thanks, Peter, you’re doing your country a great service.

(Thanks to Lyndon Hood in the comments to Russell’s thread linked above for the pic.)

[This line inserted to fill whitespace].


S59 referendum: a game theory approach

datePosted on 22:25, June 17th, 2009 by Lew

How* to vote: Yes, [null] or !#gh$u%WfG?

What’s a body to do, who thinks the S59 referendum question is absurd and yet supports the rights of children to be free from violence, even that perpetrated by their well-meaning parents?

Russell Brown asks the question, and elaborates on the options, but doesn’t provide an answer. Essentially, the question is about principle against pragmatism. This approach is pretty elementary (game theory isn’t a speciality) but it does enough to demonstrate my views on the matter. (It looks to me like a weird sort of Stag Hunt with a third quarry thrown in). There are also a few assumptions and assessments as to how the results will play, which I’m happy to argue. I apologise if it all seems a bit bleedin’ obvious.

mehStarting with the worst response, the third quarry or null vote. An argument of principle, advocated by Denis Welch, it holds that people should treat the s59 referendum with utter contempt and dispose of their share of the $9m expense in the circular file. This is possibly best characterised as the Ostrich Strategy, viz. “ignore it and it’ll go away”. Unfortunately, no cause which attracts signatures from the 10% of the electorate required to trigger a CIR will ever just go away on its own. Given that there are a hard core of people who are strongly motivated to vote “no” in this referendum, the adoption of this strategy will send the (incorrect) message that the bulk of the electorate doesn’t care either way, ceding the field to the “no” voters (hereafter “anti-anti-smacking” or “AAS”). We can call this “Lose For Sure”, because no matter what happens, the strategy can’t win.

chadThe main argument of principle, made most forcefully in the PAS thread by Craig Ranapia and Tom Semmens, is that the question is so badly worded that reading meaning into it and voting on the basis of that interpretation accords the question too much respect, and devalues the CIR system which should insist on properly-formed questions. This argument holds that one should respond to a meaningless question with a meaningless answer by invalidating the ballot and submitting it anyway, which I have characterised above as “!#gh$u%WfG”; in other words, leaving the chad hanging or writing something to the effect of “This question is meaningless” on the ballot and returning it. This has some history in previous referenda, and in principle if enough informal ballots were returned, could serve to discredit the question and the questioning lobby group. Which is what we want. We can call this “Win Big”, because if enough people take this approach, the anti-anti-smackers will be roundly shamed in a more thorough manner than simply losing the referendum. On the other hand, if not enough people do this and the votes are split between “yes” and “informal” the AASers will claim victory. We’ll call this “Lose”.

yesThe argument in pragmatic terms is most eloquently put by Judy Callingham: “I’m going to vote “yes” – as I see it if the bastards don’t lose we’ll never hear the end of them”. This illuminates a key aspect of the matter: the AAS lobby doesn’t have to win big, they just have to not lose in order to demonstrate that they represent the “average kiwi”. This means the primary goal of those opposed to the question or what it represents should be to win, regardless of the magnitude of the victory. Put like that it seems obvious, doesn’t it? This position is most strongly put by The Yes Vote, whose banners are currently up all around the progressive NZ blogosphere. Essentially, if enough people interpret the question in the way in which the AAS want people to interpret it and vote “yes” anyway, they will lose, and the outcome will be positive, viz. parents not being allowed to claim correction as a defence for beating their children. We’ll call this “Win”. Those so voting will have favoured the AAS with a formal answer to their ballot, thus granting them some sort of legitimacy, and if insufficient people vote this way such that it boosts turnout and the AAS still win, they will rightly be able to claim that they have a public mandate for their policy of allowing parents to assault children with legal protection. We’ll call this “Lose Big”.

So, how do things stack up? I’ve established five notional outcomes, as follows:

  • Lose For Sure: %No > %Yes > %Informal (low turnout). This would be caused by people who object to the question refusing to vote.
  • Win Big: %Informal > (%Yes or %No) > (%Yes or %No). This would be caused by enough people voting informally to outnumber those who vote any other way, rendering the referendum a public farce. This requires a great deal of work to convince those who would instinctively vote “yes” despite disagreeing with the question, out of native respect for the democratic process or for other reasons.
  • Lose: %No > (%Yes or % Informal) > (%Yes or % Informal). This would be caused by those objecting to the question being split between “yes” and “informal” such that “no” snuck through the gap, allowing the AAS to claim a plurality and thus victory. There would remain some defence in that the cumulative “yes” and “informal” votes might add up to a majority, but I don’t think this would be worth much.
  • Win: %Yes > (%No or %Informal) > (%No or %Informal). This would be caused by enough people voting “yes” to demonstrate that the AAS does not represent the “average Kiwi” as they claim. It seems likely that those who consider the question an affront to the democratic process and are inclined to vote informally or not vote at all would need to be convinced to vote “yes” instead.
  • Lose Big: %No > %Yes > %Informal (high turnout). This would be caused by enough people voting “yes” to demonstrate that those opposed to the AAS were taking them seriously, but were outnumbered by the AAS itself, thereby justifying the claim that they represent the “average kiwi” with the assertion having been properly tested. If some (but not enough) people are convinced that voting “yes” is the right idea, this will be the result. Thus there is danger in an incomplete adoption of the strategy.

So how should one vote? Well, it obviously rests on what other voters will do. Clearly the best outcome in the case of a split requires collusion – members of one group (either the “informal” voters or the “yes” voters) changing their vote. It looks to me like this:

  • Fail to vote: Many people will do this, but it won’t have any positive effect for anyone other than the AAS. P(Lose For Sure) > *
  • Vote informally: Some people will do this, but probably not enough to Win Big, and if the result isn’t Win Big, it’s more likely to be Lose. This rests on your judgement of whether the number of informal voters will be greater than the number of “no” voters. I don’t think they will. Thus in my assessment P(Lose) > P(Win Big) > *
  • Vote yes: If enough people do this, it will result in Win. If nearly enough people do this it will result in Lose Big. I think the natural tendency of voters is to vote according to what they think something means, rather than what it actually means in cold hard terms. In addition, I think voters are generally reluctant to vote informally out of respect for the institutions of democracy. In addition, I think The Yes Vote has been running a fairly good campaign – they’ve had a few mentions in the mainstream media, and their message is clear and forthright. Therefore in my assessment P(Win) > P(Lose Big) > *

So, essentially, my argument based on this is “vote yes, support campaigns to convince others to vote yes, and all those of you who are considering not voting or voting informally in protest – don’t, just vote yes, because the main danger of losing is in splitting the vote. And hope like hell the yes vote doesn’t fall short, because trying and failing will mean a worse loss than just plain old failing.”


* I have omitted the “no” vote. People who are going to vote thus have no need to consider the questions I raise in this post.