• Media v. Government?

    Why are the New Zealand media so hostile to the government – not just this government, but any government?

    The media I have in mind are not NZME-owned outlets like the Herald or Newstalk ZB, whose bias is overtly political and directed at getting rid of the current Labour government. No, the media whose anti-government hostility is worth remarking upon are the public service broadcast media, like TVNZ and Radio New Zealand.

    Journalists and interviewers on both of these channels seem to believe that a story is only worth reporting if it can be given an anti-government twist. Individual journalists and interviewers seem to think that, if they are to make a name for themselves, the best way to do so is to “take down” a government spokesperson.

    As a consequence, their daily news programmes are almost always dominated by stories that show the government in a bad light – and if, by chance, the story could be seen as commending the government for some step it has taken, the journalists seem to feel an obligation to find critical voices so as to take the gloss off anything that could otherwise be seen as showing the government in a good light.

    So, we find that, in a report on a major news story like the Budget, where the government could be seen to have taken a number of positive and helpful steps, there is a plethora of dissenting voices, and constant complaints that the measure “is too late”, or “does not go far enough” or “is misdirected” or “has left me or some other deserving person out”. And if a government spokesperson has the temerity to be interviewed on the subject, the interviewer will find it necessary to show their mettle by behaving in the most aggressive manner possible.

    What explains this extraordinary approach to the news? It is not a party-political bias, since it is a feature of news bulletins, whatever government is in power. No, the bias is against government itself, the very concept of government, rather than a particular government.

    Its origins seem to lie in a belief that the function of the media is to act as an offsetting force, so as to use their power to restrain what they believe would otherwise be the unchallenged and unchallengeable power of elected politicians. It is this view of the media’s role that has led to some describing it as “the fifth estate”.

    But this is to misunderstand how our democracy works. The people themselves decide, at election time, who should exercise the power of government. No one, on the other hand, has elected the media. Journalists, quite rightly, see their role as to “keep tabs” on what the government does – but that does not require them to be unremittingly critical; there could well be issues or occasions on which the government has faced unavoidable problems and has made a good fist of grappling with them. Shouldn’t responsible media, in that circumstance, see it as their role to help people understand what the issues are, and why they are difficult to resolve?

    Nobody is being done any favours if people form the view, by virtue of their intake of news programmes, that, as Ronald Reagan said, “government is not there to solve the problem – government is the problem.” This kind of nihilistic sentiment can do nothing but weaken our democracy.

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