(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 16.)
A conservative friend remonstrated with me recently for listening to Radio New Zealand. He couldn’t understand why I would subject myself to what he clearly regarded as left-wing propaganda, especially when I could listen to conservative talkback hosts such as Leighton Smith and Michael Laws on commercial stations.
There were so many possible answers to this that I hardly knew where to start, but I explained first of all that I wasn’t a fan of either Smith or Laws, even though I might agree with them on some issues.
I also pointed out that since my taxes helped pay for Radio New Zealand, I insisted on asserting my right to listen to it. This seemed to him an act of pointless self-punishment, but all public institutions need people to keep an eye on them – to keep the bastards honest, in the famous words of the Australian politician Don Chipp.
I expect Radio New Zealand to provide me and my fellow taxpayers with a range of programmes that cater for – and reflect – our diverse tastes and opinions, and I reserve the right to criticise the organisation when it fails to measure up to its obligations as a publicly funded broadcaster. If the 4.2 million people who own Radio New Zealand stop caring about it, they must share the blame if it ends up being captured by an elitist coterie of lefties.
But as it happens, I don’t listen to Radio New Zealand purely out of a stoic sense of public duty. Most of the time I listen to it because I enjoy it and learn from it.
Of course it has always had a left-wing bias. It shares this with every public broadcaster I know of, including the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Left-leaning broadcasters and journalists naturally gravitate to public broadcasting because they regard private enterprise as ideologically distasteful and impure; incurably tainted by the profit motive. This becomes self-perpetuating because those in charge tend to hire people like themselves. Over time, a left-wing bias becomes part of the organisation’s DNA,
No one will ever die wondering about the political leanings of Chris Laidlaw or Kim Hill, for example. And when Radio New Zealand broadcasts a “debate” about the Treaty of Waitangi, you can be pretty confident it won’t include any Treaty debunkers.
But having said that, the institutional lean to the left, while still clearly discernible, isn’t as pronounced as it used to be. For the most part, Radio New Zealand offers an admirably balanced, diverse and stimulating range of programmes that not only enhance our quality of life but also perform the crucial function of creating an informed public.
To be fair, even Hill and Laidlaw interview interesting people and explore important issues. And even when their guests are people whose views I find repugnant, it’s still information – which brings me back to my friend’s recommendation that I switch over to Smith or Laws.
One of the consequences of the digital revolution is that people can pick and choose their sources of information and opinion as never before. Previous generations of New Zealanders formed most of their views from what they read in the daily paper, and daily papers in this country, unlike those in countries like Britain, have traditionally been “broad church”: in other words, containing a wide range of information and opinion, reflecting and catering to all shades of political belief.
But now people can go online, and inevitably they gravitate toward the sources they find most compatible with their own views. Thus left-leaning people read Britain’s Guardian online and Auckland blogger Russell Brown’s Public Address blog, while conservatives might opt for the Daily Telegraph or National Party-aligned David Farrar’s popular Kiwiblog.
The danger in such circumstances is that the group mindset is rarely challenged, since people are interested only in having their prejudices confirmed.
One reason American politics has become so polarised and overheated is that the hard Republican right gets all its information and opinion from unashamedly partisan sources such as Fox News. Closed minds have no interest in hearing what the other side thinks.
But there’s a lot to be said for exposing yourself to ideas and opinions you find challenging. It helps you to pick holes in them and may even force you to consider whether they have some merit.
Besides, even if I agreed with whatever Smith and Laws say, what could be more boring than listening to people expressing the same views as your own? This is known as the echo chamber effect, where the same opinions are heard and repeated over and over again.
It’s not only tedious, it’s bad for democracy, because democracy depends on a degree of tolerance and understanding of other people’s positions. That’s why I continue to listen to Radio New Zealand, much to my friend’s puzzlement, even though I sometimes fume and splutter at the views being expressed.
I don’t want to be bombarded with ideas that I’m comfortable with. All I insist is that the state broadcaster presents us with information and opinion that fully reflects the diversity of the population it ostensibly serves.