Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Greens and Parliamentary coverage

Reading the Herald's report on Parliament's "backdown", I was quite surprised to see that the Greens appear to support the exclusion of independent cameras:

Greens co-leader Rod Donald accused the other parties of "extraordinary hypocrisy" and "caving in" to network pressure.

The Greens' test blog (found through Technorati) provides some context to these remarks. The Greens view the entire thing as self-interested reporting (which it is), but the chief target of their criticism is the other parties. As they (and the Herald) point out, Parliament's Standing Orders Committee unanimously agreed that having "physically intrusive" independent cameras cluttering the galleries was "unacceptable". To have parties which endorsed that view now posing as defenders of press freedom and trying to cast the restrictions as being the idea of the government is extraordinarily hypocritical on their part - and it is something the media should be exposing. This is not about the government or the Speaker, but the (previously) shared interest of all our elected representatives in stymie-ing democratic oversight.

The Greens are also right in pointing out that the opposition's sudden change of heart is a result of media pressure; on Agenda this morning, one of the media commentators mentioned that the media had threatened a boycott of Parliament. The opposition would lose far more from this than the government (just think of where their profile would be without daily footage of Bill English or ken Shirley crucifying the government in the House over NCEA or tertiary funding), so its hardly surprising that they've changed their minds.

Finally, the Greens point out that the issue of who films is mostly a red herring. What really matters is the standing orders relating to what is allowed to be filmed - not who is behind the camera. Where they're wrong is in alleging that these rules have been unquestioned by the media up until now. The media has complained in the past about Parliamentary censorship; what's different this time is that those complaints have got some traction. And I can't really blame them for exploiting it to the fullest (and attempting to leverage a repeal of those restrictive standing orders) when the opportunity presents itself.

But before anyone gets the idea that I'm complaing that the Greens have been unfairly misrepresented, I'm not. Because what is clear from all of the above is that the Greens support the restrictions - and I'm at a complete loss as to why. The Greens have generally taken a strong stand on democracy and accountability (particularly with regard to introducing better electoral systems which make it easier for voters to hold their representatives accountable), so its a bit of a surprise to see them opposing the transparency which is an essential precondition for the above.

Perhaps Rod Donald or someone else from the Greens would care to explain...?

Update: as mentioned in the comments, the Greens' test-blog has been taken down, presumably because they didn't expect other people to be reading it. Which is a shame, because it had some very interesting content...


Interestingly, when I visited that Green blog, the only thing on display was: "Welcome to Green Party dev Web Server

Thanks for your interest. This is just a test and development web server. We'll let you know when there is something to view. Email to register your interest and we'll let you know when our blog goes live."

Have they removed content since you visited?

Posted by Nick : 3/20/2005 12:20:00 AM

Apparantly so. I guess they didn't expect other people to be reading it.

I have a cached version. here's the bit relating to the Standing Orders Committee:

A review of Parliament’s Standing Orders was conducted by the Standing Orders Select Committee in 2003. It presented a report to the House in December that year. Its recommendations were unanimous. Members of that committee included representatives of NZ First (Peter Brown), Act (Richard Prebble), and National (Gerry Brownless [sic] and John Carter). The Select Committee report was unambiguous on this matter. It reads:

The Parliamentary Press Gallery suggested to us that even if the in-house facility is established, television companies should still retain their free access to the Chamber to film proceedings. We consider this unacceptable. Having multiple sets of camera equipment in the galleries is physically intrusive. It has been tolerated only because the House has not produced its own feed until now. We are aware of no other Parliament that broadcasts its proceeding and, in addition, allows television companies to set up their own facilities in its galleries. We would not contemplate allowing that to continue once a feed is being provided to broadcasters.

To now allow Brash, Peters, and Hide to pose as being on the side of freedom of speech against the awful Labour censors is an abominable deriliction of duty on the part of the broadcasters and those in the press who have followed in their stead. National and NZ First’s deputy leaders Act’s then-leader were all part of the committee which made the above statement. How do you spell flip-flop?

Hopefully they'll put the site back up; it was a pretty good blog.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/20/2005 01:38:00 AM

Don’t despair: the Greens remain committed to politicians being held accountable. We support transparency, including public access to what happens in Parliament, without voters having to turn up in the public gallery themselves to see what’s going on. That’s why we strongly support the broadcasting of Parliament on free-to-air television, even though this will cost the taxpayer a considerable sum of money.

We also signed up to the unanimous select committee decision that it’d be unnecessary for broadcasters to have their own cameras in the public gallery once a commercial-quality feed was available. Clearly, the broadcasters are unhappy with this and are running a less-than-honest campaign about politicians trying to censor what will be screened.

There are a few questions which need to be properly considered before jumping to conclusions on this issue.

Firstly, the contract for broadcasting Parliament will be let to a commercial broadcaster, e.g. Sky. So, politicians will not be editing what is broadcast.

Secondly, there are already rules that apply to what can and can’t be broadcast. In our view, these rules need to be liberalised, but not in such a way that allows distorted impressions to be conveyed; e.g. using cutaways that have nothing to do with the previous images in a story. To give one example, when NZ First MPs were shown laughing in a story about MPs’ pay rises, this was inappropriate because the laughing had nothing to do with the pay rises. However, if MPs are sleeping in the House, the public do deserve to know, and that’s why we support a liberalisation of the rules. But this is a separate issue from the cameras in Parliament debate.

On reflection, I’m willing to consider arguments from the broadcasters that they should each be allowed to have a single camera in the press gallery area. But I do not support the growing forest of cameras in the public gallery, because that space is meant to be for the public who make the effort to turn up. The broadcasters can then negotiate with their radio and print colleagues about how much space they can have for this purpose. However – providing that all six feeds from the commercially-run Parliamentary broadcast are available free-of-charge to the networks – I can’t see many of them having their own cameras in the House for more than a short period each day.

Which takes us back to the beginning: the reality is that broadcasters do not convey a fair impression of what happens in Parliament right now, because they usually only turn up to the circus at Question Time. That’s why a commercially-funded Parliamentary broadcast is necessary for providing the public with complete access to what happens in Parliament.

In closing, it’s worth noting that all media, including the radio networks that compete with Radio New Zealand, are happy to take the single audio feed currently provided by Parliament, under contract from RNZ. That isn’t considered an issue of media freedom. Neither have there been calls from the two competing networks to position their own microphones on our desks. Nor has anyone complained about Today in Parliament or This Week in Parliament – broadcast on National Radio – being "censored", even though these programmes are funded by the Office of the Clerk, in the way the new television service will be.

As for the blog, thanks for the interest. We're currently test-driving it, and you can look forward to it being launched into cyperspace soon.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/21/2005 11:44:00 AM

P.S. I've also proposed to the Clerk of the House that all of the networks have access to all six camera feeds, instead of getting one, edited feed. This will enable each network to put together their own news package rather than broadcasting generic pictures. This would give them significant editorial discretion, within the rules set out in the standing orders.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/21/2005 01:39:00 PM

Thanks for the comments. I'm glad to see that the Greens support a liberalisation of the rules, though I am still troubled that you think Parliament should have the power to prevent "distortions" from being aired. It's very easy to imagine that power being abused for political purposes, and given the very real requirement for transparency in order for MPs to be held accountable, I think open slather is safer. Besides, the rest of us don't have such power; all we can do is complain to the BSA. Why should MPs get any special treatment in that regard?

I'm very much in favour of full, free-to-air coverage of Parliament, but given the possibility of abuse, I think independent cameras must be allowed to act as a check and a balance. Providing the raw feed to the networks eases some concerns, but an alternative must be available to keep it honest. Of course, I am also concerned that TV networks could be effectively censored by commercial concerns - that a desire to gain or retain the contract to broadcast Parliament may lead to them censoring themselves - but that's really a seperate question (and a problem that applies generally, rather than just to Parliament).

As for radio, I think no-one objects because MPs have not attempted to exercise control in the same way that they have for TV. Though if its taken straight off the internal PA system, it'd be far more difficult to do so anyway.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/26/2005 05:34:00 PM