Editorial: the media pack and politics as blood sport

by The Listener / 27 May, 2013
The shame heaped on errant politicians by the media should be proportional to the offence.

It seems almost inconceivable now, but there was a time in living memory when New Zealand politicians were accessible to the media only on the politicians’ terms. A prime ministerial press conference was rare, and when it happened the questions were deferential. Journalists were told what those in power wanted them to know; no more.

Such a one-sided relationship was hardly good for democracy and would be unthinkable today. Television programmes such as Gallery helped redefine the balance of power between politicians and the media, forcing those in government to accept that in a liberal democracy, politicians had an obligation to explain and justify what they were up to.

But as in so many areas of human behaviour, the pendulum tends to swing from one extreme to the other. It’s now possible to argue not only that the power in the relationship between politicians and journalists lies with the media (a point made by David Lange as long ago as 1994), but that the political agenda is increasingly driven by the demands of an intensely competitive news industry hungry for drama and sensation. This may be only marginally better for democracy than the carefully controlled drip-feeding of information that characterised government in the 1950s and 60s.

The new style of political journalism is insistent, confrontational and highly opinionated. Digital platforms such as Twitter and news websites demand to be replenished constantly. The political controversy du jour becomes a “breaking” story, unfolding hour by hour and requiring regular comment from whichever politician happens to be at its epicentre.

The tone of the political interview has changed, too, as media commentator Brian Edwards observes elsewhere in this issue. Often the objective is not so much to elicit information as to catch the subject out.

Paradoxically, although the pressure to beat the competition has never been greater, the parliamentary press gallery is more inclined than ever to hunt as a pack, thereby ensuring no journalist is privy to revelations or quotes not available to others. In such situations, competitive advantage lies in the way the story is presented; hence the increasing tendency for journalists to embellish reportage with personal opinion and even distasteful hyperbole, as in the case of TV3’s reference to former National MP Aaron Gilmore as “the most unwelcome dinner guest since Hannibal Lecter”.

The Gilmore affair was arguably an example of the new approach to political journalism at its least edifying. Politicians who behave badly need to be exposed. That’s true not only of Gilmore but also of Labour MPs Chris Carter and Darren Hughes and Act’s David Garrett, who were similarly chased from office largely as a result of relentless media pressure. But the shame heaped on errant politicians should be proportional to the offence, and the gravity of Gilmore’s misbehaviour could hardly be said to have warranted the media frenzy that ensued. Unfortunately for the MP, he not only was politically inconsequential but seemed bereft of friends, which made it easy for National to abandon him to his fate and for the media to claim moral justification in running him out of town. It was a spectacle that encouraged the most cynical view of politics.

The standard argument from journalists, and it holds true in most circumstances, is that holding politicians accountable is vital for democracy. But that argument is weakened if the media are so fixated on sensation that the pursuit of a wounded MP takes priority over the examination of important policy issues, or the dull but worthy business of reporting parliamentary debates and select committee hearings. These are matters of public interest that the media tend to ignore unless there’s a prospect of blood being spilt.

There’s also a risk that, far from enhancing democracy, brutal media treatment of politicians will deter people from putting themselves forward for election to Parliament. Some parties already struggle to attract good candidates – a challenge unlikely to be made easier by the sight of politicians being eviscerated on 6.00pm news bulletins.

Holding politicians to account is one thing; treating politics as a form of blood sport is quite another. The Gilmore affair suggests some in the media have yet to grasp the distinction.

Related content: Press gang - the parliamentary press pack is out of control, some say, as it focuses on the trivial and hounds MPs out of office, by Karl du Fresne Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content
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