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Being accountable, and finding a way to keep the (journalistic) lights on

by Gordon Campbell
Don’t know how you feel about it, but the selective unavailability of Ministers and senior public servants for media scrutiny seems to be a growing concern.

Regularly on RNZ – which usefully reports when this occurs – an issue will arise that begs for a response or where ministerial/departmental accountability is at stake, but the relevant politician/bureaucrat will not be available for comment. Yet often and tellingly, they’re not so beyond-radio-contact that they can’t find time to authorise and email a statement unilaterally stating their position. Which indicates that it is the questioning of the party line that they’re choosing to avoid.

Now, I’m not saying that these busy, important people should be available for comment 24/7 on any issue whatsoever that the media – which is allegedly insatiable – feels inclined to ask. But c’mon, this is the state broadcaster. If you can diary in an appearance on Breakfast TV, surely Morning Report isn’t too much of a stretch. It comes down to a matter of balance. And while I may be wrong on this, it seems as though the balance is tilting increasingly towards politicians
(a) picking the interviewers/outlets to which they deign to make themselves available, while
(b) dodging those they don’t like and
(c) choosing to go AWOL when they land themselves in hot water.

Whatever is driving this trend, it is eroding democratic accountability. Surely the decision to front up shouldn’t depend on the calculated potential for a messaging upside. Ultimately, it shuts down the discourse…and journalists can’t speak truth to power if the powerful have taken the phone off the hook.

It seems to be so easy to get on the blacklist, too. Personally, it has always been a surprise to find just how thin-skinned so many politicians can be. With great power comes great epidermal sensitivity. Queries of the official line are routinely seen as (a) vexing (b) impertinent (c) motivated by malice and/or ideology and thus (d) to be shunned wherever possible….

Being willing (and able) to ask hard questions is one thing. Being willing and able to analyse government policy is another aspect of the journalism trade. Identifying the values driving the policies of those in power – and then gauging the likely winners and losers of that policy – may be even more crucial than simply reporting what the policy is, or claims to do. Scoop has been around for over 15 years now, trying to play that role. It is an independent, New Zealand owned operation. And by ‘independent’ I mean it can be safely relied on to bite the hand of who-ever is in power, as necessary.

I can’t claim that having Scoop – or journalism per se – is more essential to society than anything else. Good mental health care is essential. Students shouldn’t have to pile up mountains of debt to have a chance of getting a halfway decent job. Their parents certainly shouldn’t be being squeezed so badly, either. Right now, they face caring for their ageing boomer Mums and Dads, while their own kids are still living in the basement because they can’t afford to leave home. Schools need more funds, especially for kids with special needs. The health system is collapsing under the weight of unmet need.

I don’t think quality journalism is a more pressing need than any of those things. But here’s the rub: if we don’t have the likes of Scoop or its ilk around anymore, we risk losing the ability of informing each other about all of those other, arguably more important things. That’s the risk. Once the lights go out, those in power can do whatever they like in the dark. Somehow, we have to find a way to keep the journalistic lights on.

That’s why Scoop is running a crowd funding campaign right now. In the current climate, the news that matters – ie, the stuff that isn’t just thinly disguised advertorial or infotainment – needs your financial support. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is – if the kind of journalism that we care about is going to live to fight another day. It needs subscribers. Oh and besides, think how pleased some scumbags will be if Scoop isn’t around anymore. Let’s not give them that pleasure. The details of how you can lend your support to Scoop – along with a more extensive explanation as to why good journalism is in crisis – can be found here.

Pledge now – Click here

This is part of an article published yesterday by Gordon Campbell. The complete version is here.

5 comments:

  1. ian, 6. November 2015, 13:04

    I totally agree. I remember the years back when Campbell Live would be able to get a politician or prime minister in to challenge them on an issue. In his final months he would go on and say the minister declined to comment and would not appear. Consistently this govt turned down invitations to discuss real issues with journalists when they know they are going to be challenged. That led to the demise of Campbell Live as the heated debates became one-sided complaints. How many times was Gerry B invited to discuss the lack of progress in Chch. How often did John Key decline to appear, only to be seen schmoozing on a breakfast show the next day or sharing a beer with Richie.

     
  2. Ian Apperley, 6. November 2015, 14:24

    It is getting worse, and it’s not just that tactic. Entire organisations have been known to black list certain commentators. Any interaction is heavily monitored. Government has learned not to have meetings and not to send email, because both are discoverable. The OIA process is abused frequently by agencies where part of the information is released, it is released late, or some spurious excuse is used that it can’t be fulfilled.

    As for thin skinned, tell me about it. The glass jaw on some politicians is incredible. How on earth they make it through the day is beyond me. Couple that with mainstream journalism and the pressure on them to produce click bait rather than journalism and the fourth estate is looking a little ill.

    Here’s hoping that Scoop can keep doing what it does, quality journalism.

     
  3. Rosamund, 8. November 2015, 16:41

    It appears to me that both local and central government politicians feel that to be elected gives then an entitlement to ignore the people generally. Our politicians are so “well prepared” by media advisors that they seem unable to make extempore comments and are fearful of being sanctioned if they fall “out of line”. The reality is that those we have elected are not able to perform. They seem to have no intellectual curiousity and consequently think little of consequences. Those who have the words do not have the necessary “tune” to know that they are lacking. Both the OIA and LGOIMA are easily stymied. We are rapidly losing our democracy when we, the people, are rarely heard and our submissions rarely taken into account.
    I agree with Gordon and Ian. Hopefully others will speak out too.

     
  4. Michael Gibson, 9. November 2015, 8:26

    I agree entirely with Rosamund & the above.
    Recently I obtained from WCC as “official information” an email which supposedly advised councillors about a decision which had gone against the Council in Court. It was complete P.R. claptrap with the following words from the decision carefully avoided: “the appeals are upheld”.
    Apart from this deception, one would expect such “advice” to be given openly at a meeting where the public could go along and see for themselves – & be reported by the likes of the admirable Gordon Campbell & Wellington.Scoop.
    Unfortunately, as Rosamund says, today’s councillors seek to justify their pay – four-people’s-living-wage – relying only on P.R. of the sort illustrated above.

     
  5. Nora, 9. November 2015, 16:22

    The democratic process is working at a low ebb when concerted, dogged and expensive effort is required by the ratepayers to protect their rights. We vote for the Mayor and councillors not the Town Clerk and council officers.