In a post on this blog site yesterday I mentioned my reluctance to accuse media organisations of political bias. I have seen those allegations hurled about far too often and far too loosely, invariably by politically aligned people frustrated that their side wasn’t the only one getting newspaper space or air time. But in the past couple of weeks I have begun to wonder seriously whether TV3 is running some sort of political agenda.
My suspicions were aroused by political coverage that in recent weeks has too often seemed slanted to discredit National. An example was Patrick Gower’s report last week about a supposedly hush-hush meeting between John Key and the head of the international oil exploration firm Anadarko. As only he can, Gower reported this in such a way as to suggest that there was something underhand going on. (“TV3 can reveal that Prime Minister John Key made time in his diary this week for a secretive meeting with the boss of an oil company that wants to undertake deep sea drilling off New Zealand’s coast.”) Never mind that prime ministers probably have meetings with international businessmen all the time without necessarily alerting the media. If there was something dodgy going on, it certainly wasn’t substantiated by the TV3 report. But never mind: Gower nonetheless raised dark connections with the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster in 2010 (Anadarko had a 25 percent share in the Deepwater Horizon rig) and generously gave Greens co-leader Metiria Turei an opportunity to link Key with “catastrophic oil spills”. In other words, the story was spun to put the worst possible complexion on what may have been an entirely innocent and legitimate meeting.
This technique appears to be something of a Gower specialty. On October 26 he reported: “3 News has learned that John Key has had a private meeting with a controversial right-wing British billionaire, Lord Michael Ashcroft.” Recognise the style? The loaded phrases “3 News has learned” and “TV3 can reveal” immediately create the impression that something sneaky is being covered up.
Gower went on to say that Ashcroft was “best known for pumping his time – and millions – into the British Conservative Party and right-wing politics.” Ah, so he’s a shadowy political manipulator, then. But hang on: Ashcroft is a former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party – hardly a secret society – and sits in the House of Lords as a life peer. Nothing overtly sinister there. He’s also a philanthropist who founded Crimestoppers, a crimefighting organisation now established in New Zealand, and he put up the reward money for the return of war medals stolen from the Waiouru army museum. All of these seem perfectly valid reasons why he and Key should get together while Ashcroft was in New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup. But Gower seemed more interested in the fact that the left-wing Guardian newspaper had reported a controversy over Ashcroft’s tax status – a shocking blot on his character that he shares with innumerable British rock stars.
Gower’s report concluded: “Mr Key is usually quite open when it comes to his meetings with the rich and famous. His critics will argue he kept this one on the quiet because of Lord Ashcroft’s controversial baggage.” So there we are, then: the two men were quite clearly up to no good. This style of reportage, where two and two are added together to make 22, relies on innuendo and loaded phraseology and is devoid of integrity.
Then there’s Duncan Garner. When Labour recently announced its welfare policy for beneficiary families, Garner found a South Auckland mother on the DPB with six children whose desperate plight was clearly meant to impress upon us the urgent need for more spending on benefits. They were living in a four-bedroomed state house and getting by on $560 a week which, under a Labour government, would increase by $60 – enough, Garner informed us, to fill their fridge and freezer.
The oldest of these six kids would have been about seven and the youngest were toddlers. I waited for Garner to ask a few pertinent questions such as who the fathers were, where they were, why they didn’t provide any support and why she continued to have children knowing the taxpayer would have to pick up the tab. But of course these questions weren’t asked; they never are. Instead we heard Garner ask a leading question about what she would like to see as a result of this election, to which her reply – hardly surprisingly – was “more money for beneficiaries”. We then cut to Phil Goff talking about Labour’s empathy with the downtrodden before ending with Garner’s line that “help is on the way, but Labour has to win the election first”. Take from that what you will. Only a brief reference was made to the estimated cost of Labour’s desperate bid to win more votes by promising to expand the welfare state.
There was more in a similar vein on 3 News last night. In a review of the day’s campaigning, Garner praised Goff’s performance in the leaders’ debate the previous night and said the Labour leader’s message on asset sales and the minimum wage went down well on the campaign trail in South Auckland (well, of course it would). National, on the other hand, was continuing its “scare tactics” over Winston Peters. Then, just in case we hadn’t got the message, Garner referred again to National’s “scaremongering”. He wrapped up his summary of the day by referring to National minister Steven Joyce’s latest cost estimate of Labour’s election promises ($25 billion), and quoted Greens leader Russel Norman as saying that Joyce should consider a career with the “bankrupted and discredited Lehman Brothers”. The way this was reported implied that Garner endorsed Norman’s cheap shot, or at the very least considered it the most newsworthy statement of the day. A balanced assessment on a national television network just three days out from the election? What do you think?
Speaking of that TV3 leaders’ debate, some critics have suggested that John Campbell’s questions highlighted issues where National was on the defensive. Whether they did – and if so, whether it was deliberate – I couldn’t say; but I do think TV3 has now got into itself into such a position that even when it does something in complete innocence, people will be looking for signs of bias.
I should state here that I am not a supporter of Key or the National Party (I’m certainly right of centre, but I’ve voted for Labour far more often than for National), and I repeat that I’m not in the habit of alleging institutional editorial bias based on one or two examples. Now and again a report may lean one way or the other, but generally things balance out in the long run. What worries me about 3 News is that a persistent pattern seems to have emerged. And what finally convinced me that the channel has abandoned all semblance of political neutrality was its screening last night of a pseudo-documentary entitled Inside Child Poverty, written and presented by Bryan Bruce.
I say pseudo- documentary because it was an undisguised, overwrought piece of hand-wringing political polemic that made no pretence of objectivity or balance. To screen it at any time would have courted controversy, but to show it in prime time just three days before a general election couldn’t be construed as anything but a deliberate attempt to tilt the political playing field in Labour’s favour.
That couldn’t have been clearer than when the host – who clearly aspires to be New Zealand’s answer to the sanctimonious John Pilger – genuflected, metaphorically speaking, before the Michael Joseph Savage monument and reminded us of Labour’s proud historical commitment to feed, clothe and house the poor. Another overtly political moment occurred when Bruce asked rhetorically: “Who builds state houses? Labour. Who sells them? National.”
I waited at the end for the announcement that this had been a party political broadcast. It never came.
Inside Child Poverty was disgracefully selective in the way it approached its subject and nauseatingly pious in the way it attempted to manipulate viewers’ emotions. Bruce sought to demonstrate that the poor in New Zealand had been systematically beaten down by heartless right-wing politicians (cue shots of Ruth Richardson and Roger Douglas) and called for a revival of what he called our “socialist” traditions to ensure there is food on every poor family’s table.
Lindsay Mitchell (www.lindsaymitchell.blogspot.com) has demolished some of Bruce’s flawed arguments more effectively than I could. Suffice it to say that he couldn’t even get basic historical facts right – recalling, for example, that he had grown up in "a socialist country". I grew up in New Zealand at the same time as Bruce and it was never socialist; a welfare state, yes, but not socialist. But why bother with such nitpicking distinctions? “Socialist” has such an uplifting, righteous ring.
He took us to Sweden to show his vision of a Utopian society where well-scrubbed, state-subsidised, middle-class Scandinavian fathers stay at home to look after their babies, and where doctors tut-tut when told of the incidence of scabies and school sores in New Zealand, but he ignored the huge cultural differences that make comparisons pointless (such as the fact that Sweden has no Pacific Island and Maori populations, the two groups that are grossly over-represented in New Zealand welfare statistics).
He didn’t bother to consider the capacity of the fragile New Zealand economy to fund the potentially limitless demands of the enlarged welfare state he seeks. He didn’t consider the probability that providing more generous welfare assistance will simply encourage more people to become dependent on it (the so-called moral hazard). He talked loftily about morality but didn’t consider the morality of having large families sired by multiple fathers and then expecting other people, working people with mortgages to pay and their own children to raise, to pick up the tab. All too inconvenient.
Instead he marshalled every half-baked assertion and catchy bumper-sticker slogan he could think of (example: “The we society became a me society”) to make his point, and he was careful to interview only people who agreed with him. (It was no surprise to see Gareth Morgan, who has positioned himself as New Zealand’s leading capitalist-with-a-conscience, pop up.) But here’s the thing: a film maker could just as easily produce a documentary proving the exact reverse of Bruce’s thesis – namely, that the welfare state and the culture of dependency, entitlement and helplessness it encourages are the cause of, rather than the solution to, the poverty and deprivation Bruce professes to despise. Trouble is, NZ On Air would never fund it.
This was the first Bryan Bruce documentary I had watched and I won’t be bothering with him again. I’m tired of being lectured by smug, self-righteous baby boomers (a generation of which I, unfortunately, am one, and which has largely created the unholy mess we’re now in).
But the bigger issue is why TV3 chose to show this particular programme, with its very explicit political message, in this particular week. I’m not entirely averse to the screening of ideologically one-eyed, intellectually dishonest and emotionally manipulative crap, but I think TV3 needs to explain the timing. Perhaps someone will complain to the Electoral Commission.