The tragedy in Ukraine illustrates with striking clarity the importance of a free and independent press.
People frequently express the naïve hope that the Russian people will rise up and depose the fascist war criminal Vladimir Putin, but that won’t happen as long as he exerts almost total control of the media.
Even in the digital age, most Russians get their information from state-controlled sources – mostly the TV news. That enables Putin and his apparatchiks to manipulate public opinion by bombarding the country with misinformation.
As a result, most Russians are convinced the invasion of Ukraine is a “special military operation” undertaken with the noble purpose of liberating the country from Nazis, drug-runners and terrorists. Or, as an alternative justification, that the Ukrainian government is a puppet regime of Western powers hostile to the beloved motherland. Failing that, there’s the rationale that the invasion was necessary to protect the Russian-speaking minority from genocide at the hands of Ukrainian nationalists. Or how about the argument that Ukraine is rightly part of Russia anyway? Take your pick.
Allusions to the Second World War, when some Ukrainians fought for Nazi Germany, feed into the sabre-rattling rhetoric. Reminders of the Soviet Union’s desperate struggle against Nazism make potent propaganda.
Russians have been fed the line that the invaders have been welcomed in Ukraine as heroes, much as the Allied armies were when they set about reclaiming Europe from the Nazis in 1944. But we know, although most Russians don’t, that the Ukrainians despise their supposed liberators, much to the invading army’s surprise and dismay.
As for the scenes of carnage and ample evidence of civilian deaths, Russian audiences don’t see them. Or if they do, Russian TV reports that Ukrainian forces launched strikes against their own cities to make the invaders look bad. This is the propaganda technique known as the Big Lie – the use of an untruth so colossal and audacious that people believe it because it seems inconceivable that someone would invent it.
No doubt the Ukrainians have used propaganda tactics themselves, astutely playing on Western sympathy for the underdog – and who could blame them? But Putin has a couple of distinct advantages in the battle for hearts and minds. One is the Russian people’s historic admiration for authoritarian leaders (think Stalin, whom many Russians revere) and the other is their extraordinary stoicism in the face of hardship. Harsh economic sanctions such as the Russians are now experiencing must seem a minor inconvenience when compared with the Soviet Union’s agonies in the Second World War.
The barrage of Russian misinformation is so persuasive that even people in New Zealand have fallen for it. In the dead of night I’ve heard radio talkback callers argue vehemently that Putin has right on his side. One of Kim Hill’s listeners a couple of weeks ago took a similar line in an email challenging one of her interviewees.
These strange Putin cultists have uncritically bought the line that the invasion was launched for the Ukrainians’ own good and that Putin is justified in believing Russia is militarily threatened by Ukraine’s alignment with the West. What’s more, they think we’re the ones being bombarded with misinformation about what’s happening in Ukraine and that the nightly scenes of carnage on our TV screens are bogus.
While it would be comforting to report that Putin’s New Zealand supporters are mentally deficient, they’re not. The ones I’ve heard are articulate and obviously intelligent. They’ve dived deep into Ukraine’s complicated past and are able to cite all manner of historical justifications for the invasion, including Putin’s line that Ukraine was a Russian creation in the first place and therefore has no legitimate claim to independent statehood.
But theirs is a highly selective reading of history. It’s true, for example, that some Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis in the Second World War; my late Polish mother-in-law remembered them well from the atrocities they perpetrated in Warsaw. But Russians did too – most notably in the notorious Kaminski Brigade. For that matter so did Dutch, Scandinavian and Belgian fascists. Yet no one brands those countries as Nazi.
God alone knows where Putin’s antipodean sympathisers get their information, but it’s evidence of the insidious reach of online mischief – and proof that there’s always someone ready to believe it.
More importantly, though, the Russian state’s brazen manipulation of information should stand as a stark reminder of the importance of press freedom. Strict control of what the public is told is an essential part of every tyrant’s playbook, and it’s enforced by a variety of means from censorship to imprisonment, exile and even execution.
Conversely, liberal democracy depends on an informed public that is able to observe, judge and react to the actions of its leaders. New Zealanders forget this at their peril.
Media freedom is one of the crucial defining differences between a liberal democratic state and a totalitarian one. Put simply, it can be described as the right to know. It’s arguably at least as important as the right to vote, since a vote is pointless if it’s not an informed one.
So how are we doing in New Zealand? In the global index of press freedom compiled annually by Reporters Sans Frontieres, we’re in the top 10 – ahead of Canada, Australia, Britain and the US.
While such indexes should be viewed with a degree of scepticism, since they are only as reliable as the information fed into them by “expert” sources who may have their own biases, it’s true that journalists and publishers in New Zealand operate in an environment of relative freedom.
Complacency is a continuing hazard. When the Newspaper Publishers’ Association commissioned me in 1992 to write a slender book on press freedom in New Zealand, I assumed it would be a relatively straightforward job. All I had to do was pull together everything previously published on the subject.
Ha! More fool me. I could find nothing. I was effectively starting from scratch. I concluded that a free press is something New Zealanders take for granted. But as my book pointed out, a freedom that’s taken for granted is one that can easily be eroded. Press freedom was seriously compromised during the 1951 waterfront dispute, when newspapers were forbidden from publishing anything that could have been construed as sympathetic to the troublesome unions, and again during the prime ministership of Robert Muldoon. The 1990 Bill of Rights Act provided some much-needed protection, but media independence remains a surprisingly fragile right and depends very much on the goodwill of judges and politicians.
But here’s the extraordinary thing. In 2022 the independence of the New Zealand media is jeopardised not by threats or coercion emanating from the state, but by the media’s own behaviour. In this respect we may be unique.
Journalistic bias is rampant and overt. It’s evident not just in how the media report things, but just as crucially in what is not reported at all. New Zealanders wanting to be fully informed on matters of consequence need to monitor online news platforms such as Kiwiblog, the BFD and Muriel Newman’s Breaking Views – to name just three – that cover the issues the mainstream media ignore.
One notable example of media failure is the Three Waters project, coverage of which falls far short of reflecting substantial opposition to the scheme and almost completely overlooks the profound constitutional implications of 50-50 co-governance. Another is climate change, where dissenting voices are suppressed as a matter of editorial policy.
Generally speaking, news that reflects unfavourably on the government tends to be played down or ignored. Bias is apparent too in the lack of rigour in holding government politicians to account.
The prime minister in particular seems to enjoy a level of immunity from journalistic scrutiny that Muldoon would have envied. Jacinda Ardern is protected within a magic circle that the mainstream media almost never penetrates. Those who try to pierce it, as Mike Hosking did with his weekly interviews on NewstalkZB, are punished by the withdrawal of privileges.
After a lifetime as a journalist, I’m in the unfamiliar position of no longer trusting the New Zealand media to report matters of public interest fully, fairly, accurately and truthfully. This situation hasn’t arisen because of pressure from government communications czars or threats of imprisonment, as in authoritarian regimes such as Russia’s. It’s far more subtle than that.
The Labour government doesn’t have to tell the media what to report, or how, because most journalists, and especially those covering politics and important areas of public policy, are ideologically on board. They are sympathetic with the government and want it to stay in power. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that this means relinquishing the impartial status on which they depend for their credibility.
It follows that the $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund, ingenious though it may be as a means of co-opting the media as partners in a grand ideological project, may have been unnecessary.
Nonetheless I wonder whether the editors and publishers who lined up to accept the government’s tainted money stopped to consider the full implications. While they indignantly reject claims that they are ethically compromised, they appear not to understand that the public is entitled to suspect that the acceptance of state money has influenced reportage and media comment even when it hasn’t. The public perception of media independence has been irreparably harmed.
To put this another way, in Russia the media can’t be trusted because they are controlled by the state, but in New Zealand the media have spared the government the trouble.