• The Dangers of Dominance

    In 1980, I brought my young family for the first time to New Zealand to visit my homeland for a holiday. At the time, I had recently lost my marginal seat in the House of Commons and was working in current affairs television.

    One of my clearest memories of that enjoyable holiday was the shock of discovering how much New Zealand was in thrall to a powerful – not to say domineering – Prime Minister. Robert Muldoon was at the height of his powers – and, as a student of both politics and the media, I was amazed to observe the excessive deference with which he was treated by the New Zealand media.

    I particularly remember seeing him being interviewed in a television studio. One camera showed the interviewer addressing a question to him, and a second focused on the Prime Minister who answered the question by speaking directly into the camera – and therefore directly to each individual viewer – thereby ignoring the interviewer altogether.

    No self-respecting studio director would have allowed a politician to get away with this. A simple two-shot would have shown the Prime Minister looking ridiculous as he talked to an empty space – at right angles to the person with whom he was supposedly having a conversation.

    Muldoon was of course unusual in his ability apparently to terrify colleagues and opponents alike. But, how do we fare in 2011, when we have a Prime Minister who is, by virtue of his constant presence in the media, in some ways equally dominant?

    John Key is of course a very different personality from Robert Muldoon. He is by nature a conciliator and seeker of consensus. But – just because he is nicer – that does not mean that he does not in his own way pose an equally serious threat to a full reflection of what should be a serious political debate.

    There are times when it seems that nothing can happen, either internationally or domestically, so far as our media are concerned, unless the Prime Minister is on hand to comment on it or otherwise certify by his presence that it is indeed news. He seems to serve the roles, variously, of national leader, moral guide, social commentator, sports journalist, pub drinking companion, comedian – and even politician. There is scarcely a television news bulletin which does not feature his appearance at some point in one or other of these roles.

    New Zealand is of course a small country with nothing like the range of media enjoyed by a larger country like Britain. When I was a senior British politician, the number of media outlets was so large and their appetite for comment and interviews so voracious, that I would habitually do two or three significant interviews every day – and many more as an election approached.

    We cannot hope to have the depth and coverage of news and analysis they provide. But New Zealand’s political media have compounded the problems arising from their small numbers and limited resources by treating the Prime Minister as virtually their sole determinant of what is news.

    Surprisingly, it may seem, the Prime Minister’s own colleagues may be among those who share that concern. As the Herald pointed out last week, his Cabinet colleagues have difficulty in shining when the Prime Minister is constantly available to take over anything newsworthy from them.

    The consequences for our political system are more extensive than may be thought. It is not just members of the government who suffer from being denied a voice in the media. In a properly functioning democracy, politicians from all sides need to feel that they have a well-tried and reliable way of getting heard.

    If that access is available only occasionally, both sides of the transaction get used to doing without it. Expectations are lowered. Understandings of what might be newsworthy are adversely affected by both media and politicians. Those who find that they are not regarded as worth listening to give up trying.

    My own experience in the year or two before a general election in Britain was that I would be involved almost daily in a press conference – not just commenting on the news but trying to set the agenda and make the news as well. Both media and politicians got used to this. The result was a rich and varied diet of political news and views that helped to promote a healthy political climate.

    With three months to go before our own election, I look in vain for that kind of debate. The deficiency is likely to get worse during the World Cup. It is not good enough to say that opposition politicians are not heard because they have nothing to say. How do we know?

    No one can blame John Key for using his charm and likeability to the best advantage. The concern is whether the media have become so used to it that they are now constrained by it as well.

    No one needs persuading of John Key’s value to his party and government, and it is inevitable and right that he should play a major part. But a strong and effective government needs more than a single foundation stone. The Prime Minister’s dominance, paradoxically, weakens his government and – by constraining the scope of the political debate – diminishes our democracy as well.

    Bryan Gould

    27 August 2011

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 30 August.

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