Posts Tagged ‘TVNZ’

Hearing no evil

datePosted on 22:25, January 17th, 2012 by Lew

A few days before the November 26 general election, TV3 aired Bryan Bruce’s documentary Inside Child Poverty, and I posted on the depressingly predictable response of the usual right-wing subjects.

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:

a documentary about child poverty, covering the appalling housing, health and nutritional outcomes borne by children in our society, and the immediate response is to launch a ideological defence of the National party and deride the work as nothing but partisan propaganda. … I haven’t heard a peep out of National about what they plan to do about the problems since it aired. Isn’t it more telling that National and its proxies immediately and reflexively go on the defensive, rather than acknowledging the problems of child poverty and renewing its commitment to resolving them?

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.

L

When the media says a woman is no more than a whore

datePosted on 21:42, December 14th, 2011 by Anita

A man moves in with his girlfriend. A few months later, in an argument over the rent, he strangles her to death.

Media coverage:

Nuttidar Vaikaew was killed by her partner, as many women are in our country. She wasn’t killed because she was a prostitute, she was killed because the man she lived with was angry and in his mind extreme physical violence was an acceptable way of reacting to his anger.

If she had been a cleaner, or a lawyer, or a consultant her profession wouldn’t be front and centre in the headlines because it would be her job, not her whole identity. It’s there because of a subtext about women who do sex work: they get themselves killed; they are not girlfriends, wives or mothers; they are no more than whores.

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

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.

L

Isolated

datePosted on 12:01, November 10th, 2010 by Lew

This brief report from Radio Waatea brings into crispish focus a few issues regarding the māori party’s support for the new Marine & Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill, and perceived collaboration with the National-led government against its constituents’ own interests:

Sharples upset at Maori Media Ingratitude
Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples says he’s disappointed at the heat coming on him from the Maori media over the Marine and Coastal Area Bill.
Criticism of the bill by iwi such as Ngai Tahu and Ngati Kahungunu and from Taitokerau MP Hone Harawira has been extensively reported.
But Dr Sharples says it’s better than the existing Foreshore and Seabed Act, and the Maori media should reflect that.
“They forget we’re there on their side to do stuff for them. Instead of sort of helping us knock down the barriers, they try to knock us down as the barrier. And yet without as it were the initiation of us in there, there would be no efforts at all and in the context of past Maoris in government, we have really achieved outstanding results,” he says.
Dr Sharples says the Maori Party hasn’t got enough credit the whanau ora welfare delivery model and for his rehabilitation units in prisons, which will open next year.

Sharples is right in several important respects. The role the māori party party has played in getting take Māori and tino rangatiratanga on the government agenda has been crucial. The māori party really does have a unique claim to an “authentic” kaupapa Māori politics, and this should make Māori media such as Waatea, Māori Television and TVNZ’s Māori programming division (which produces Te Karere and Marae) should be strongly sympathetic towards their policy programmes. Should, I say, if the end policy result was seen to be consistent with those kaupapa.

But these agencies do not owe the māori party any favours. As media outlets their job is not to shill for a party line but to present a considered view of current events in context, and by reporting the deep dissatisfaction within Māoridom regarding the MCA bill they are doing just that. Māori media have generally shown a strong commitment to independence and impartiality — which is a particularly tricky thing to do given their cultural focus — and their coverage of the māori party’s policy platform is simply an extension of that commitment. Long may it continue, and would that it were more broadly shared.

What this episode really illustrates is the extent to which the māori party is isolated from its support structures with regard to its position on the MCA bill. Just as the party has failed to persuade its own constituency, and indeed its own caucus, that the MCA bill is worth supporting, it has failed to persuade the only media establishment which might be sympathetic to its cause as to the merits of that cause. All this illustrates one of two things: either the party is way off base; the strategy of supporting the bill is bad for Māori and Māori know it; or that the strategy of supporting the bill is actually a great deal better than anyone knows, but the party has largely failed to articulate this.

I know which I’m tending toward, and I invite readers to argue their case. But no matter which you believe, I think it’s clear that attacking the media is neither a mature nor a useful response. Successful actors in modern democracy lead the media, like they lead their electors — in the knowledge that both must follow willingly, by consent (however grudging), or not at all. If, as a politician, you ever find yourself running a sustained campaign of trying to shove either the media or your constituents in a certain direction against their will, berating or harassing or whipping them for their stupidity or intransigence or for simply failing to follow instructions — then you have very probably already failed.

L

From the Department of Random Ideas

datePosted on 12:22, June 22nd, 2010 by Lew

How about Shane Taurima for Sean Plunket’s replacement on Morning Report?

A radically different style from Plunket, but he does have good interviewing chops, very extensive experience and strong credentials, especially in hard political news. His interviews with party leaders before the election were exceptional and demonstrated that he can’t be pigeonholed as a “brown issues” journalist. To my knowledge he has been scrupulously neutral with regard to politics, throughout both the present and previous governments. He is fluent in te reo, and has — dare I say — a deeper understanding of Māori issues than any other journalist who would be considered for the role. He would bring a marked change of style and perspective to the programme.

I am on record stating a preference for Radio NZ to elevate someone from within their existing journalistic ranks rather than head-hunting a star, but we sure could use some more Māori faces and voices in the mainstream broadcast news. There are a few: Julian Wilcox, Eru Rerekura, Willie Jackson, John Tamihere, Jenny-May Coffin and others all do good work, but at the fringes — on low-rating or niche channels, constricted bulletins and difficult timeslots, or in sports or talkback rather than proper news. There are a number of senior reporting and editorial/production staff — such as Duncan Garner, and Carol Hirschfeld’s departure from Campbell Live in particular is sorely missed — but all in all Mike McRoberts is the only Māori anchor of a mainstream news programme, and most people don’t think of him as such (which is in many ways a testament to his success).

Shane has just quit his job at Marae due to the impending format shift, and his role with TVNZ is apparently in doubt. John Bishara of Te Māngai Pāho says he must be “going to something better”, so I suppose one question is whether Morning Report is “something better”.

L

Cannabis bust news coverage bingo

datePosted on 17:57, April 27th, 2010 by Lew

Here’s a fun game. Watch tonight’s TV news (either channel) and count the following tropes.

Update: I did this — both channels, since they were conveniently on at separate times, and was pleasantly surprised by reasonably sober tone of coverage. Comments in italics.

  • Gratuitous display of cannabis leaf or other marijuana iconography
    Four times on One and thrice on 3. Mostly in the display of the “Switched On Gardener” signage.
  • Gratuitous display of drug porn (huge quantities of plants, or egregiously sticky buds, etc.)
    5 times each. TV3 used this as their studio backdrop, otherwise it was the same stock footage throughout, obviously supplied by the police. A distinct lack of additional file footage and High Times-style images of the sort which are usually stock-in-trade for this sort of coverage.
  • Police casually destroying huge quantities of same
    None! Only some police confiscating computers, other equipment in the TV3 footage.
  • Tenuous linkages of marijuana with other drugs, violence or terrorism
    None! Some passing mentions and image of other drugs, firearms and references to organised crime, but nothing tenuous or unjustified.
  • File footage of a shadowy person smoking a joint — None!
  • If it’s clear despite anonymisation that the person is brown-skinned
    None of these either.
  • Footage of people being arrested or detained
    No images of people being arrested. One shot of an unidentified (white) person walking down the street as the voiceover informed us that those arrested were appearing in court.
  • Footage of supposedly ill-gotten gains: flash cars, etc.
    Twice each, references to property being seized under proceeds of crime legislation. Nothing major.
  • Smug, serious middle-aged white people expressing deep concern.
    The only examples of this in both cases were press conference shots of the senior police officer.
  • Triumphal statements that this has broken the back of the cannabis industry, with no supporting evidence
    Again, just what the police told us. Reporters stuck generally to the facts.
  • Reporter looking smug and saying words to the effect of “we can’t reveal which garden centre at the moment …” with the clear implication that it’ll all become clear pretty soon, and anyone who’s anyone already knows
    Well, although National Radio didn’t report (and the police refused to say on-air) which gardening shop chain it was, it was no secret, so none of this.
  • Breathless revelations that people who aren’t beneficiaries or gang members are involved in cannabis production and consumption
    Mentioned twice on One and once (but more extensively) on 3 — the fact that “managers and directors” of the company were among those arrested. But in general, not a big deal made of this fact.
  • Implication that schoolchildren might have been in danger
    Not mentioned or implied at all.
  • No mention of the fact that alcohol causes orders of magnitude more harm by almost every indicator
    Not mentioned or implied either, but on both channels, the booze story took precedence, occupied considerably more screen time, and was covered in much more depth.

So, all in all, nothing much to separate the coverage on One and 3 news. Both items were characterised by a heavy (almost total) reliance on official source material and footage — although both did a field cross, TVNZ’s was the usual pointless live cross, while TV3’s reporter didn’t even make the screen, with the field shots showing police hauling stuff out of a building. Both used similar (probably supplied) footage and images as background, and emphasised the length of the investigation, the number of people involved, and the impact the bust would have on the cannabis industry. Neither report was journalist-centric, with both reporters essentially relaying facts with a minimum of editorialisation. Both reports showed a distinct lack of sensationalised narrative, imagery or suggestion, lacking the usual devices employed to propagandise and pad out this sort of topic matter.

So: well done One and 3 News :)

L

Bhadge

datePosted on 23:12, December 19th, 2009 by Lew

I’ve been very busy again this past week, and so the list of things I want to write about copiously exceeds my ability to write about them. My promised post about internecine disputes is in very early draft form but I’ll try and get it finished soon. I still have a post planned looking at the wider implications of the foreshore and seabed review, but I think that’ll have to wait until after I’ve painted the roof.

yep_im_a_redneck_button-p145980559379977550q37f_400I also wanted to write a lot about the final outcome of the h debate, but find that my views have already been pretty well encapsulated by Andrew Geddis and Idiot/Savant. You should also read Scott Hamilton’s latest on the wider topic of Pākehā separatism.

Given that the decision declares both ‘Wanganui’ and ‘Whanganui’ correct, but mandates crown usage of ‘Whanganui’, there’s as clear an implicit statement as can be that the latter is more correct than the former. This has been clearly understood by TVNZ and Radio NZ, who have adopted the latter usage as a matter of editorial policy. They are owned by the crown, after all, and both just happen to be in direct competition with Laws and his media employer. Permitting both spellings but making this declaration as to primacy was a move as shrewd as it was elegant by Maurice Williamson — similarly to John Key’s decision to permit the flying of a Māori flag if only Māori could agree on one. Michael Laws, Tariana Turia and Ken Mair have all claimed victory, so everyone with an actual stake is nominally happy. The Standardistas and the KBR are furious, which is a pretty good sign. It obviates the strongest symbolic position occupied by Laws, the idea that Wellington is coercing Wanganui into doing its PC bidding. Wellington need not — the rest of the country will do that, because the use of the no-h word will be an identity marker, a statement, like a badge; not quite “Yep, I’m a redneck” but something approaching it. The thing is that Laws and his rump of greying die-hards do not simply face a disorganised and discredited bunch of radical natives; they find themselves standing against the inexorable tide of civil society and its evolution, a youthful and browning population for whom biculturalism is the norm and separatism stopped being cool a generation ago (if it ever was).

Who knew that all Michael Laws wanted for his cause was an emasculating partial endorsement and a prolonged death sentence? He could have saved everyone (and his own reputation) a great deal of trouble by making this plain at the beginning. In other circumstances, I would be angry about everyone having been taken for a ride — but as it stands, I’m mostly just quietly pleased that civil society’s tendency toward self-correction will be left to do its thing.

L

Dreams and realities

datePosted on 22:18, October 29th, 2009 by Lew

This morning at The Standard, vto* questioned how anyone can figure that the TVNZ7 ad featuring Bill English could be political advertising, since it doesn’t contain any baldly partisan political statements.

What is party political about it? Nobody has come with anything specific to support the contention – merely, “it looks political” “I know political when I see it” etc etc. Specifics folks, specifics.

Although I tend to think vto is either being purposefully obdurate or is just simply oblivious, it’s a fair question. Since in my experience he is usually genuinely puzzled rather than just shilling for the blues,** I undertook to do an analysis of the clip for his edification (or ridicule). As I said in the comments thread, you don’t create this sort of thing by accident:

This is a form which has been finely tuned and crafted over half a century to serve a very specific set of purposes — it’s a complex and very challenging medium where every frame, every word, every note is loaded up with as much subtle meaning as possible. With apologies to Tolkien, one does not just walk into political advertising.

A few basics of political discourse, first. While in the case of video, a text is made up of sounds and images, this is different from the ‘words’ and ‘pictures’ vto talks about. There is also a temporal dimension to video: editing, mise-en-scene and lighting changes, camera and focal movement, etc. which I’ll lump in with ‘image’ for these purposes. Likewise, most of the sound is spoken words, but there is also music, which is non-trivial in terms of meaning. The point is that nothing is in there by accident. When you have a limited budget and the requirement to work within a 45 second ad slot, nothing is optional or discretionary.

Given that there are images and sounds, and that they’re all there for a reason, it should be clear that there’s more to analyse than just the words and pictures, and so an apparent absence of political meaning in the words and pictures doesn’t mean the text lacks political meaning; it just means that it’s not overt (or not overt to everyone). The meaning lurks in how the various parts of the text hang together as much as in the ‘words’ and ‘pictures’ themselves. This, also, is purposeful: people are natively suspicious of political messages, and it helps to be able to communicate them via means which people aren’t accustomed to analysing closely. People are very well accustomed to interpreting political speech (‘words’), but much less accustomed to parsing video texts and the subtexts which emerge when multiple texts are intercut with each other in a dense and coordinated fashion. This is what makes video such a strong medium for political communication; why Eisenstein and Riefenstahl and Capra were given such prominent positions in their respective regimes, and why practically every US presidential election since 1960 has been predicted by which candidate’s TV coverage was the stronger.

The clip in question presents a dual narrative which appeals simultaneously to peoples’ cautious, empirical, rational side and to their hopeful, nationalistic, emotional side in order to produce a sense of hope. It is composed of two separate video texts intercut: one featuring footage of Bill English, Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister; and the second of Bill English, kiwi bloke. The topic is the same, and the visual edit minimises the visual difference between the two narratives, while the voice remains constant throughout. This continuity of voice leads us to interpret the statements of Serious Bill and Chipper Bill as if they are uttered by the same person (which they are) and in the same role and context (which they certainly are not). The context is provided by the image, not the sound, and demonstrates that one person can (and should) hold both opinions simultaneously although the relationship between the two narratives is arguable. Of course, people can hold both views simultaneously (though whether they should is another matter).

The first, Serious Bill, establishes the Minister of Finance at a respectful social distance in a dark suit (with cut-ins to tie and face); the Sky Tower and the bright lights of NZ’s commercial capital in the background, a composition chosen to provide authority and credibility. This is a fairly soft form of the tycoon shot, a wealthy man overlooking his glistening domain. He speaks calmly and in technical terms, playing NZ’s economic problems with a straight bat. He uses the first person plural (“we”) throughout in order to include the audience in his statements. He looks the camera (audience) square in the face, talking directly to us.

The second, Chipper Bill, is established in a full-frame headshot, cut from a full-frame headshot of Serious Bill. This is what I mean by ‘minimising the visual distance’ between the Two Bills. He starts with “Y’know”, a commonplace employed more often to tell people what they (should) know than to genuinely appeal to shared common knowledge. This also marks a distinction between the complex, technical language used by Serious Bill and the colloquial, understandable terms and sentiments which follow. It is a relief to hear someone speaking ‘plain english’ after all that techno-jargon, right? Especially when he’s saying something we want to hear: good news about how “we can beat those Aussies”, after the bad news which Serious Bill was talking about, how our we’ve been “underperforming” when compared to them.

Chipper Bill — smiling and personable, an approachable everyman in a patriotically black polo shirt, continues to be intercut speaking in exhortative platitudes about how we just need to “back ourselves” (cut briefly to Chipper Bill gazing into the middle distance) and “apply some old-fashioned Kiwi can-do”, and so on, in response to Serious Bill’s authoritative but somewhat dry and gloomy facts. This use of “old-fashioned” is a hint of a dig at the previous government, the one responsible for “underperforming”; this dig is made a bit more explicit with the enthusiastic “we’re nearly through the tough times and things are looking up” — just leave it to good old National and everything will be well, not like that other lot, who were opposed to everything traditional, right?

The two narratives describe the reality of how things are (described by Serious Bill) and a dream of how things could be (described by Chipper Bill), as the music gradually rises in the background. The clincher, and the factor which makes this more a political advertisement than anything else, is that Bill English is the connection between the two narratives: if you accept the narrative line, he is the key to turning the dream into reality. This is essentially an overarching ‘hope’ narrative, a most powerful sort in troubled times, as Barack Obama realised, and as expressed by Drew Westen in the first chapter of his book The Political Brain, which opens with an analysis of two contrasting video advertisements for Democrat presidential candidates: one successful, for the Clinton campaign, and one unsuccessful, for the Kerry campaign. What was Clinton’s narrative? Hope.***

This ad was not about policy. Its sole purpose was to begin creating a set of positive associations to him and narrative about the Man from Hope — framed, from start to finish, in terms of hope and the American Dream. […] The ad created in viewers a vivid, multisensory network of associations — associations not only to the word hope but to the image of Hope in small-town America in an era gone by.

This “Two Bills” ad creates a similar hope narrative around the putative Kiwi Dream of “beating the Aussies” with “good old Kiwi can-do”. How could anyone not like that?

Just so you’re not starved of policy analysis, there are unstated, non-trivial National party assumptions about what’s important all through the ad too. The prime one among these is a focus on financial metrics (GDP growth, productivity growth) to the exclusion of other considerations. A Labour ad along these lines might have emphasised a balance between economic and environmental and other outcomes such as quality of life — the fact that this ad mentions no other metrics than wealth is not value-neutral or void of political meaning: it demonstrates the writer’s policy priorities and direction. As well as that, the “beating the Aussies” narrative is a core plank of the government’s current policy of “closing the gap” — it’s not policy-neutral either, but is a function of the government’s own preferences and their political strategy of measuring themselves against previous governments on metrics which favour them. And hang on a minute: are we really “through the tough times”, and are things really “looking up”? Depends who you ask; this is a matter of opinion and legitimate professional dispute among Those Who Know About Such Things, it’s not a slam-dunk even if the Finance Minister says so: after all, it’s his job to say so. And will “old-fashioned Kiwi can-do” on its own really be sufficient to bridge the significant productivity and GDP growth gaps between NZ and Australia? What the hell is “old-fashioned Kiwi can-do” anyhow, and if it were that easy, why haven’t we done it all before? The entire narrative is constructed of politically-charged assumptions, but it is formed in such a way as to discourage the audience from thinking too hard about it.

There’s one other thing, too: Plain English is Bill’s newsletter to his constituents, and it looks like the similarities don’t end there. It was a catch-cry of his 2002 election campaign. Perhaps if he’d had this production team working on that campaign he’d have won, or at least done well enough to prevent Don Brash from taking over.

So that’s a reasonably thorough teasing out of the political content of this seemingly-innocuous 45-second commercial. As I said in the comment thread at The Standard, the only thing more absurd than this ad getting made and screened with a straight face is Eric Kearley employing the Lebowski Defence when challenged on the fact that the ad quacks very much like a propaganda duck. Regardless of whether it was bought and paid for, as the more conspiratorial commentators think, or whether the use of the form was simply a (very successful) ploy to garner attention, it’s idiotic to pretend that this isn’t political advertising in function. While I tend to find industrial explanations for apparent media bias more compelling than political explanations, people like Kearley obstinately denying the bleeding obvious doesn’t make it especially easy to keep doing so.

L

* Stands for ‘Vote Them Out’, as I recall.
** What else this implies about vto I leave as an exercise to the reader :)
*** It helped that Bill Clinton was from the town of Hope, Arkansas.

The BSA has upheld a complaint against TVNZ’s Breakfast on the grounds of balance after it allowed Garth McVicar the free and unopposed opportunity to rant about sentencing.

Complainant Roger Brooking argued that the programme privileged “the reactionary views of an unqualified right wing individual as if he was the oracle on sentencing law”, and that the show’s hosts were unduly sympathetic toward him. The authority upheld the complaint on the grounds that Breakfast producers and interviewers failed to challenge or question McVicar’s “controversial” views, simply accepting them at face value, and internalising them for use as a frame for viewer responses.

This is an excellent decision, for a couple of reasons. First, it reinforces the expectation that the media have a responsibility not to naïvely accept the statements of their commentators or interviewees; that the interview process ought to be adversarial. Secondly, it provides a line in the sand as to what constitutes a controversial topic of public discourse, by implicitly agreeing with Brooking’s characterisation of McVicar and his pronouncements. It goes counter to some previous decisions, such as the rather alarming case last year in which the authority effectively declared that talkback was legitimately a balance-free zone.

L

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