Friday, September 28, 2007

Guest Column: Election Funding: What's National up to?

By Nicky Hager

The great weakness of much journalism is a process-worker approach to assembling quotation-based stories. It often feels as if the journalist just holds a tape recorder up to the politician or other 'newsmaker' and says, "please give me your two sentences of spin on X subject now". The sentences are then inserted virtually unchanged into formulaic news stories or news bulletins, giving the status of news to what is really more in the nature of a press release. News would mean asking real questions, such as "what about such and such?", "when exactly did it happen?" and "what's your basis for saying that?" National's campaign against the Electoral Finance Bill has been aided greatly by this style of journalism.

For instance, John Key told the National Press Club that the bill is "a dangerous bill. It is dangerous for all of us as individuals, it is dangerous for our democracy, and it is dangerous for New Zealand." It is "an assault on what it means to be a New Zealander" and "an abuse of the trust we have in the government to protect the institutions that make us proud to call this country home." Good strong quotable quotes. There have been many more like them.

But does he really think this? Isn't that the first, crucial question to ask? Key and Bill English look more pleased with themselves than scared for the country when they talk about the Electoral Finance Bill. What's going on?

As has been well discussed by No Right Turn and others, the Electoral Finance Bill has some poorly drafted sections. In its effort to be broad in its definition of election advertising – so as not to leave loopholes for unregulated election spending – it became too broad. The wording of the sections covering election activities by 'third parties' (Exclusive Brethren-type campaigns) can, at a stretch, be seen as limiting legitimate political activity in an election year.

But I think that no reasonable person can believe that the Labour Government was actually trying to close down democratic debate in New Zealand under the cover of an electoral finance bill. This was not the first move before the Army moved in to close down television stations and newspapers. It was a simply a drafting error and was inevitably going to be fixed once the officials and politicians realised they had got it wrong.

From a publicity-hungry opposition party point of view, there was a small and totally legitimate point to be scored. This was clumsy drafting. Didn't the politicians read and understand those parts of the bill before introducing it to Parliament? Who was sleeping at the wheel that day?

That is, it deserved some “do-your-job-properly” criticism from the opposition parties. It warranted some news stories on clumsy drafting, how the Government had got it wrong and hopefully some comment on how best to fix the bill.

Instead we have got the current prolonged and strident campaign from the National Party. But I don't think for a second they really believe that democracy is in peril from this bill. It is laughable to argue that it is "an assault on what it means to be a New Zealander". They have spotted real faults in the wording of the bill that other people pointed out as well. But beyond that the campaign is insincere game playing.

What is going on? First and obviously, National has found an issue with which to batter the Government. This is about politics, not policy. By hyping the issue week after week, by making a mountain out of a molehill and dancing triumphantly on top of it, they look strong and the government looks weak.

Secondly, there is the benefit for National of having an issue to agitate about that has nothing to do with tricky things like health, education and privatisation – issues that might raise questions National prefers to play down. Thirdly, and most satisfyingly for National, it allows them to be taking the moral high ground in an area where they should be chastened and apologetic.

Here we come to the point. By focussing attention on the deficiencies of the bill's third-party wording, National has deflected attention away from the reasons why this bill was needed and promoted in the first place. This includes National's secret collaboration with the Exclusive Brethren, who pumped nearly $1,500,000 into advertising to try to get National elected, and National's subsequent untruthful denials over this collaboration. This is what the bill's third-party rules are about: stopping wealthy interests getting too much influence in a supposedly one-person one-vote election.

The bill's opponents don't acknowledge it (and some may not understand), but what's fundamentally at issue is the 'right' of very wealthy people and lobbies to use their financial power to gain disproportionate influence. The bill is designed to control only those who have many tens of thousands of dollars to spend promoting their preferred party or candidates. This is fundamentally different to freedom of speech. It is more like the freedom to speak louder than or even drown out ordinary people. Once the drafting errors affecting ordinary political activity are corrected, the remaining objections are not about human rights or democracy. To the contrary, they are about the opposite: about preserving the power of the very wealthy to gain an undue and undemocratic influence over the political process.

By stridently fighting drafting errors that are going to be fixed anyway, National has been able to look principled when actually it is acting out of self interest. Lost in the commotion is the fact that they are fighting worthwhile parts of the bill that are designed to reduce big money in elections, money that is most likely to be supporting National. Please notice what is going on. They are deliberately blurring their opposition to the drafting errors together with opposition to the good and important parts of the bill. Far from admitting past dishonesty and helping to stop this stuff in future, they are using their defence-of-democracy campaign to try to stop important democratic measures in the bill – measures they claim to support at the same time as calling for the whole bill to be torn up.

National has got away with this cynical and highly successful campaign because of too much uncritical journalism. All that seems to matter is that they are 'newsmakers' providing juicy quotations. Never mind that it is artifice and cynicism. It works if enough of the media don't ask challenging questions and pass on each successive set of contrived quotations uncritically to the public. That National has got away with this campaign to date is evidence of where some of the genuine problems of our democracy lie.


Matthew Hooton: ‘You usually have to communicate through a cynical or even hostile press gallery [and] that demands constant strong messages to keep them busy’. The key is constant repetition of the main ideas. ‘The perception the [journalists] have of you will quickly be how the public also perceives you: the perception becomes the reality.’ (The Hollow Men, p.42)

Murray McCully: 'The big media coverage is always devoted to situations where there is a game on. Media invest most heavily in stories which will go somewhere, providing them with ongoing opportunity .... That means ensuring that we roll a story out over several days or weeks.... The media will provide good coverage when they are convinced that there will be follow-through from us (and therefore good stories and interesting column fodder for them). This process is important because the subliminal message is that we are earning our success, not having it gifted to us. It is in the nature of creating such a game that there must be debate and contest. In order to achieve the above, we need to be clear about the issues on which we wish to have those debates, and where we wish to avoid them. (The Hollow Men, p.129)