Friday, August 14, 2009

Feeding the hungry dog


The role of the media in shaping public policy

I will preface my comments today by saying that I assume it’s taken as a given that democracy cannot function without a free and vigorous news media. Having got that out of the way, I want to focus specifically on how the behaviour of the media has fundamentally changed in the past decade or two, how the relationship between journalists and politicians has also changed, and the implications for public policy.

I’d like to talk about the model of journalistic objectivity and how it’s under threat, and how that is fundamentally altering the role of the media in public life.

I’ll start by quoting from a speech Tony Blair gave in June 2007, just before he stepped down as British prime minister. Some commentators saw this speech as Blair getting his own back on a hostile British media, but many of the points he made are almost as pertinent here as in the UK.

Blair referred to the revolutionary changes in communications technology and how they were changing the relationship between politics, public life and the media. He thought this change had a seriously adverse impact on the way public is conducted.

He had the decency to acknowledge that New Labour, by paying inordinate attention to courting and persuading the media, had been complicit in this.

Blair noted that the relationship between politicians and the media had always been fraught but went on to say that he believed it was now qualitatively and quantitatively different from anything that had gone before.

He talked about the proliferation and fragmentation of the media. The main BBC and ITV nightly news bulletins used to have audiences of eight to ten million. Now the average was half that. Viewers now had the option of watching 24-hour news programmes that covered events as they unfolded.

In 1982, Britain had three TV networks. Now there were hundreds. Newspapers were fighting for a share of a shrinking market. Many were read online, not the next day.

There were roughly 70 million blogs in existence, with 120,000 more being created every day. (Remember, Blair was talking in 2007. If anything, the pace has quickened since then.) Younger people in particular were getting less and less of their news from traditional outlets.

The forms of communication were merging and interchanging: the BBC website was crucial to the modern BBC and newspapers provided podcasts and material on the web. “News,” Blair said, “is becoming increasingly a free good, provided online without charge.”

The news schedule now ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “It moves in real time”, Blair said. “Papers don’t give you up-to-date news – that’s already out there. They have to break stories, try to lead the schedules. Or they give a commentary – and it all happens with outstanding speed.”

He recalled that when New Labour fought the 1997 election, it tackled an issue a day. By 2005 the party strategists had to have one for the morning and another for the afternoon, and by the evening the agenda had already moved on.

“Make a mistake,” Blair said, “and you frequently transfer from drama to crisis. Things harden within minutes.”

Now here’s what I consider a significant quote, and it echoed my own thoughts about what was going on in New Zealand. Blair said: “I am going to say something that few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: a vast aspect of our jobs today – as big as anything else, outside of the really major decisions – is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms.”

Not having a proper press operation to cope with media demands, he observed, was like asking a batsman to face bodyline bowling without pads or headgear. (It should be noted here that New Labour itself helped ramp up the ferocity by creating a spin factory under Alastair Campbell that was unprecedented in the history of British politics.)

Blair also talked about how Parliament was reported, or rather not reported.

“Tell me how many maiden speeches are listened to; how many excellent second reading speeches or committee speeches are covered. Except when they generate major controversy, they aren't. If you are a backbench MP today, you learn to give a press release first and a good Parliamentary speech second.”

He observed that as a result of the intense competitive pressure, the media was now driven to a dangerous degree by “impact”.

“Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamour, can get noticed.

“Impact gives competitive edge. Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact. It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unravelling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else.

“The audience needs to be arrested, held and their emotions engaged. Something that is interesting is less powerful than something that makes you angry or shocked. The consequences of this are acute. First, scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down. News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light.

“The fear of missing out means today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no-one dares miss out.”

Blair complained that commentary on the news had become as important as, if not more important than, the news itself. There was often as much interpretation of what politicians were saying as there was coverage of them saying it.

He went on to talk about the confusion of news and commentary. Comment is a perfectly respectable part of journalism, Blair noted, but it is supposed to be separate. “Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible. The truth is a large part of the media today not merely elides the two but does so now as a matter of course.”

He talked about the British media’s tendency to see everything in terms of black and white. Life's usual grey, Blair said, was almost entirely absent.

The notion that some things were good, some bad, that some things went right and some went wrong, was alien to today's reporting. “It’s a triumph or a disaster. A problem is ‘a crisis’. A setback is a policy ‘in tatters’. A criticism becomes ‘a savage attack’.”

Was it becoming worse? Blair asked. His answer was yes.

There was a time when he thought new forms of communication (I presume he meant blogs) might provide a means of bypassing the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media, but he said these new outlets could be even more pernicious, less balanced, and more intent on the latest conspiracy theory.

Blair thought that politicians and journalists alike were being dragged down by the way media and public life interacted. He made the point that trust in journalists was not much above that in politicians. But he felt there was still a market in providing serious, balanced news and a desire for impartiality. There was still a thirst for the news being real news. He felt the media needed to re-assert its own selling point, namely the distinction between news and comment.

I thought he ruined things a bit at the end of his speech by hinting that perhaps the solution to all this lay in tighter regulation. Giving more power to politicians and bureaucrats is rarely a good solution for anything. But that aside, much of what he said was valid.

I’d like to turn now to the New Zealand situation and see how much of what Blair said about Britain also applies here. In my view, quite a lot.

In the past couple of decades we have seen the function of the news media change from that of an essentially passive reporter and observer of politics to that of an active player, using its considerable power to shape and drive political events.

In effect, as I wrote in a recent column, journalists have become choreographers of the political ballet. Politicians dance to the media’s tune because they can’t risk losing control of the news agenda.

How did this come about? Well, it probably started innocently enough, with political correspondents writing weekly columns in which they sought to interpret the week’s events for the benefit of the reader.

These columns were typically restrained and cautious, even timid by today’s standards, and rarely crossed the line between interpretation and comment. Statements of opinion remained the preserve of the newspaper editorial.

Political journalists were deferential toward politicians and took care not to say anything too provocative. Apart from anything else, they worried that this might cut off their sources of information.

As time went by, however, political correspondents shed their modesty. Some commentators have attributed this to the emergence, from the late 1960s onwards, of the byline.

Political writers who had previously hidden beyond the anonymity of titles such as Political Writer or Parliamentary Correspondent now began writing under their own names, sometimes with their photos alongside. They came to be viewed as people of influence whose opinions were noted and respected by those in power.

Columnists with the right political contacts were fed inside information. Their columns served as platforms from which ideas or initiatives could be floated without disclosing where they came from. It’s been suggested that this was the point at which some political journalists started seeing themselves as players on the political stage rather than mere observers.

It was at this point too that the nature of the relationship between politicians and journalists began to change. As the media became bolder and more aggressive, the balance of power in the relationship shifted.

Politicians realised they could no longer control the flow of information as they used to, or keep the media at bay with the occasional formal press statement or stage-managed press conference. David Lange acknowledged this in 1994 when he noted that the global reach of information now meant the voters often knew as much as the politicians.

Meanwhile the press gallery, which had traditionally been dominated by a handful of savvy senior journalists who operated very much as lone wolves, learned the benefits of hunting as a pack. Nowhere is that better illustrated than by the media scrum that waits to ambush politicians on their way to and from the debating chamber in Parliament.

John Tamihere a few years ago described politicians and journalists as having the ultimate in co-dependent abusive relationships. I actually think it’s moved beyond that. It’s no longer a relationship between equals but one in which the balance of power probably now lies with the journalists.

We now have a political climate in which both the tempo and the temperature of media coverage have increased enormously.

I’ve always compared the news business with having to feed a hungry dog. The difference is that 20 years ago you needed to feed the dog only twice a day. Now the pressure of the news cycle is such that the dog demands to be fed around the clock. And it’s a big ugly dog now, not just a goofy, good-natured labrador.

Newspapers used to come out in the morning and the evening. They still do, but now there’s pressure on reporters to constantly update their websites. TV and radio have discovered this thing called “Breaking News” to create an aura of drama and excitement.

The ridiculous insistence on TV journalists reporting live from the scene, even if they’re incapable of coherently stringing three words together, is part of the same phenomenon.

The story must never be allowed to go cold or solidify. It must be driven on with new angles. The pressure to be ahead of the competition is intense, which is why we saw the extraordinary spectacle of TVNZ newsreader Wendy Petrie triumphantly punching the air when she reported live from outside the Christchurch High Court while waiting for the David Bain verdict.

She didn’t even have anything to report, for God’s sake; she was just saying, “Here we are waiting for the verdict”. But the fact that she got this piece of non-information to air ahead of TV3 was apparently cause for jubilation. This is how bad it’s got.

During the course of my 40 years in journalism the media have moved from being essentially reactive – by which I mean the media respectfully waited for the politicians to announce things – to the point where they now call the shots.

The political agenda is largely driven by the beat-up du jour – the political story of the moment, as determined by political reporters and editors. Political news has become just another spectator sport.

Last week it was Paula Bennett and Roger Douglas’s holiday in Britain. The week before that it was Clayton Weatherston and the government’s decision to strike the defence of provocation from the statute books. This week, who knows?

Politicians feel they have to respond to whatever crisis or firestorm the media create. As a result I suspect a lot of policy decisions are made on the trot, largely to extinguish the latest media bushfire.

I mentioned Simon Power’s recent announcement that provocation would no longer be available as a defence in murder cases. He said that move had been under consideration by National since 2007, but who couldn’t be struck by the coincidence that it was announced in the very week that the nation was outraged by saturation media coverage of the Weatherston trial? Was it a carefully considered decision, or was it an opportunistic one driven by the media focus on a sensational murder case?

This might sound odd coming from a journalist, but I believe politicians spend far too much time reacting to media pressure

No politicians in New Zealand history have spent more time talking to journalists than Helen Clark and John Key. Key seems to be on tap virtually 24/7, as Clark was. Politicians used to be distant and aloof; political reporters would go for weeks without an opportunity to question the prime minister. Now journalists consider it their right to accost politicians at all times and in all places and thrust a microphone in their faces.

Part of me applauds this, because democracy can’t function properly if politicians aren’t held accountable by the media. But as with so many issues, it’s a matter of getting the balance right. And I believe we’ve gone from one extreme to the other; from the timid, deferential media of 40 years ago to the aggressive, impatient and even arrogant media of today.

I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy over the past 20 years to defending freedom of the press. No one believes more firmly than I do in a bold and robust news media. But as well as being a journalist I’m also a citizen, a taxpayer and a voter, and I don’t elect politicians to spend so much of their precious time dancing to a tune called by the media. We live in a country that is desperately in need of courageous, far-sighted government, and I don’t believe we can get it while our leaders are preoccupied with responding to the demands of the daily news cycle.

I’d like to turn now to the sorts of stories that drive the political agenda.

Political journalists and their editors have always determined what is news – there’s nothing new there. But as competition for viewers and readers has intensified, the underlying values and priorities considered in making those judgments have changed.

If you go back three or four decades, political journalism was largely about nuts-and-bolts stuff: select committee hearings, parliamentary debates, speeches and other set pieces. It was dull but worthy. Now the nightly TV news bulletin has morphed into another form of entertainment, complete with its own celebrities in the form of newsreaders and reporters.

Across all the news media, but on TV in particular, news is selected not so much on the basis of what matters most but rather what is most likely to provoke outrage, fear, anger, sympathy, disgust or anxiety. Tony Blair mentioned this too.

Stories that are likely to evoke strong emotional responses or tug on the viewers’ heartstrings – items about tragedy or crime, for example, or stories with clearly identifiable heroes and villains – are played up to the max, complete with cues as to how we should react to them. Judy Bailey was perfectly suited to this approach, reading the news in the manner of a teacher addressing a classroom of slow learners, and using facial expressions or tone of voice to indicate how we should respond emotionally. Brian Edwards called it the coochie-coo news.

In terms of political journalism, stories involving conflict and personalities will always make the cut ahead of others that may have deeper and more significant implications. Politicians are often reduced to stamping out bushfires fanned by the media when there may be more crucial issues requiring their attention.

And of course nothing excites the press gallery more than the scent of blood from a wounded politician. Gaffes and minor indiscretions that in a previous era would have passed unnoticed or been smoothed over are now mercilessly exploited by journalists eager to claim a scalp. Just ask National MP Melissa Lee, who must still be licking her wounds after the punishment she took during the Mt Albert by election. Or Don Brash, who was made an object of ridicule by endless TV replays of him teetering on a narrow gangplank, as if this rendered him unfit for office.

Another feature of television, in particular, is the low regard it has for the public intellect. One of the reasons why easily digestible news stories crowd out more complex, nuanced ones is that TV editors are convinced viewers have the attention span of goldfish. They worry about losing their audience if any item runs longer than two minutes – unless of course it happens to be about Michael Jackson or the new GI Joe movie.

Tony Blair also mentioned the confusion of news and commentary. That too applies in New Zealand.

One of the fundamental tenets of journalistic objectivity is that a clear separation should be maintained between news and comment, but we have seen a gradual blurring of what was once a sharp line that divided the two.

It’s now routine for political news and opinion to be so intermingled that it’s impossible to disentangle one from the other. TV3’s political editor Duncan Garner typically spends as much time commenting on what has happened as he does reporting it.

To me there is an element of disrespect for democracy here. The role of the journalist as I see it is to tell people what’s happening, to the best of your ability, but not to tell them what to make of it. They are smart enough to make up their own minds about that. As someone once put it, the role of the journalist is to be the eyes and ears of the people – not their brains.

I don’t want to single out Duncan Garner. It used to be the norm for print journalists to write straight political news stories during the week and then write a column on Saturday or Monday in which they felt free to interpret what was happening and even offer cautious comment.

The virtue of that practice was that the readers knew which was news and which was comment. But political reporters in the print media as well as in broadcasting now routinely combine news with comment in the same article, to the extent that it’s sometimes difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. And the trend has been exacerbated by blogs in which political editors are encouraged to tell us what they think.

So what’s happening is that the model of the journalist as passive observer is under threat. Many journalists, particularly in the political sphere, now see themselves as active players in the political process.

Some see it as part of their function to make things happen. That’s not my idea of how democracy is to supposed to work. Journalists are unelected and unaccountable to anyone but their editors; it’s a perversion of the democratic model for them to be actively driving the political process.

We have also seen an increasing tendency for current affairs hosts and interviewers to take a partisan line. It seems Paul Holmes is incapable of interviewing anyone on Q + A – whether it’s on folic acid in bread or the smacking of children – without letting us know what he thinks. When you’re a celebrity, as Holmes is, it’s no longer enough to conduct an interview with the aim of extracting information or illuminating an issue; you’re entitled to consider yourself an opinion leader.

We’re also seeing more advocacy journalism – journalists pushing issues, taking sides and getting directly involved in the controversies they’re covering. Again, it’s most noticeable on television, probably because that’s where the competition is fiercest.

One recent example was John Campbell and his crew attending the after-trial party for David Bain. It just looked too chummy for comfort. Knowing how carefully Joe Karam controlled the publicity surrounding Bain you can’t help but wonder what sort of conditions were imposed.

So, to wrap up. Are journalists exerting too much influence on the political agenda? Yes, I think they are. Politicians spend too much of their time responding to the demands of an increasingly intense and competitive news machine, and we have to ask whether that’s a proper use of their energy and talents.

We need to remind ourselves that political journalists are driven more than ever by the need to win ratings and readership. They are not, as a rule, concerned with pursuing sound, long-term policy objectives. Politicians, however, need to be. That’s what we elect them for.

I’m not suggesting we regress to an earlier era when politicians treated the media with contempt and talked to them only when it suited them to do so. As with so many things, it’s all a question of balance.

What’s the solution? Well, I think Tony Blair was getting close to it before he got sidetracked by the temptation of regulatory intervention.

The model that has underpinned journalistic practice in liberal western democracies for the past hundred years is journalistic objectivity.

This means journalists are supposed to report the news accurately, fairly and impartially. It requires that we strive for balance in the way we report issues – in other words, that we fairly represent the views of all parties with a significant interest in whatever issue we are covering. It means journalists are supposed to keep their own views out of their work, unless what they are writing is clearly identified as opinion or comment. And it stresses the importance of keeping news and comment separate, so that there’s no chance of the news being contaminated by the journalist’s own views.

Objectivity also calls for a certain detachment. It sees the journalist not as an active participant in affairs but as an observer and reporter. I should emphasise that this doesn’t preclude bold and vigorous reporting. The Washington Post’s exposure of the Watergate scandal was completely in line with the principles of objectivity; so was the Dominion Post’s reporting on Donna Awatere Huata, Clint Rickards and his mates, Winston Peters and his secret donors, the Urewera terrorism raids and Tony Veitch.

All these stories were based on verifiable facts and in every case there was a compelling public interest in knowing about them. So it’s wrong to suggest, as some people do, that an objective media is somehow tame and timid.

I would suggest that another great virtue of objectivity is that it respects the right and the ability of readers – or listeners or viewers, as the case may be – to consider the facts and make up their own minds. It is not the function of journalism to usurp people’s ability to figure things out for themselves. In fact I would suggest that political reporters based in the hothouse of the Parliamentary Press Gallery are almost uniquely ill-qualified to know what people in places like Timaru or Hastings or Whangarei make of politics.

I believe that whatever credibility and public confidence the news media enjoy is largely dependent on the extent to which we play by those rules of journalistic objectivity. It follows that we bend the rules at our peril. Thank you.

1 comment:

PaulL said...

Very good speech, and an interesting read.

As a free market liberal, I tend to think of market based solutions to problems. If people value objectivity, then surely there must be a market for people to provide it. The question is whether people really value it.

I know I buy the economist because they provide clear commentary and opinion. They are also reasonably clear in their writing as to what is news and what is opinion. I know quite a few other people who also buy the economist - so clearly there is a market.

In the NZ political context, what market is there? It seems to me there is a market for an online service that provides three things:
1. News. Just the facts, what happened, who did what

2. Analysis that looks at both sides. Pros and cons, alternatives that others have offered. What authorities have said. Something reasonably dispassionate, that provides information without straying into opinion.

3. Opinion. Is this good or bad? Will it work? What does it mean?

Farrar is still the largest political blogger in NZ, and I think that is partly because he offers reasonably dispassionate news. Yes, he is clearly partisan, but he does often do a reasonably good job of looking at both sides, and not just follow the beat up. The question is whether someone more overtly even handed could make a site more powerful than kiwiblog? And, if so, what this would be worth in commercial terms - could you make money out of it?