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?