Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


Journalists and Campaigning

17/07/2008




How many people have wakened to the assistance that is being given to the Labour Party by state-paid broadcasters and a collection of Labour supporters within the print media? For months they have been crying for the National Party to release its policies. We've had editorials and speeches from them accusing National of being a "me too" party, with suggestions that John Key is too scared to front up. However, those cries are now being revealed as nothing more than strategic ploys by Labour and a swag of sympathetic reporters in the media. The position is becoming so serious that some might find themselves caught up under the Electoral Finance Act unless they mend their ways.

Of recent weeks National has been releasing policy on a variety of subjects. This week it's been early childhood education, the arts and ACC. But before the policies appear, Labour seems to have primed media types with headlines and slogans to attack those policies, no matter their merits. I have been watching the way the media handled National's plan for early childhood education and ACC. The first thing to remember about early childhood education is that Labour's new scheme is not working as promised. In other parts of the papers there is evidence that many providers don't qualify for government subsidies, especially in Auckland. But in the Herald and on TV1 the headlines attached to National's plans were Labour's negative comments rather than the proposals themselves. The Nats, they say, will "destroy" Labour's "free" scheme. Hello there? If people aren't benefiting, how can change "destroy" that scheme? Why has no journalist been able to put these facts together and expose Labour's claims for the fraudulence that they are?

It's the same with ACC. For perfectly sensible reasons National has suggested that they would "investigate" opening the area to competition. They want to scrutinize the components of the existing scheme, and in particular investigate cross subsidies that usually occur everywhere in monopoly arrangements. And in particular, the Nats want to have an independent disputes tribunal so that ACC isn't judge and jury on disputed claims. Perfectly sensible, I'd have thought. The present system is certainly open to the charge that lack of competition enables it to work in that way.

But no, a collection of doom merchants with slogans that bore little relationship to the most important parts of the Nats' announcement, received prominent coverage in radio, on TV, and in the print media. Only Geoff Robinson of Radio NZ this morning made a valiant effort to sort the wheat from the chaff, and the lines coming from Helen Kelly and Hazel Armstrong of the CTU were quickly revealed as being the latter. After Armstrong had been reminded on air that National's policy made no reference to any intention to "privatize" all ACC, she went on using the word, presumably because her minister Maryann Street had told her to do so.

My plea to the media is not to ignore criticism of National policy. But journalists most certainly need more guts if they are to avoid being labeled "biased". Surely they have an obligation to do what Geoff Robinson did and try to get beneath the patch protection that underlines so much of the primeval protests from Labour's piteous parade of privileged people?

Before 1984, and during the years of reform that followed, the same sorts of interest groups wailed about the erosion of their privileges. The then Labour government sought to sift genuine concern from the bleats of people like Kelly and Armstrong. What eventually resulted from those years was an economy where inflation, never a friend of the worker, was reduced, and the country's economy started being competitive with the wider world. It is impossible ever to freeze any economy for long periods of time. Entrenching inadequate people in privileged positions is a sure fire way to make New Zealand an irrelevant backwater.

Let's hear some more National policy. And let's also demand higher standards from the journalists dealing with it.