• Who Is To Blame?

    As the true scale and nature of the global crisis becomes apparent, the blame game is under way with a vengeance. Not surprisingly, those who find that it is their jobs and homes that are now at risk are keen to identify those who can be held responsible.

    It isn’t just those – like Bernard Madoff – who have now been unmasked as criminal fraudsters that they have in mind. They want to dig deeper for answers to the question reportedly put by the Queen – why did no one see it coming?

    Politicians, as usual and with some justice, are the first in the firing line. Even those, like the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who have apparently experienced an overnight conversion to policies they had scorned for 25 years, do not seem to have earned forgiveness for their recantation. And If George W. Bush were still in office, one shudders to think how low his already abysmal approval rating would have fallen by now.

    Internationally, much of the anger felt by ordinary citizens is of course directed at the banks and at the unbelievable stupidity and greed shown by senior executives who are still paying themselves huge bonuses and pensions at the same time as receiving billions of taxpayer dollars to save their institutions from bankruptcy.

    Economists, too, or at least some of them, are being held accountable for propagating and endorsing doctrines which even Alan Greenspan now says were fatally flawed. Accountants who failed to audit, and lawyers who turned blind eyes, also come in for their share of bitter criticism.

    One group, however, who have so far escaped relatively unscathed are the media. In a democracy, as the media themselves frequently tell us, we should be able to rely on reporters and commentators to ferret out wrongdoing and to warn about unsafe and destructive policies and practices. So, where were the media over thirty years, while the excesses and stupidities of an unregulated market moved to their inevitable conclusion?

    There have been honourable exceptions, of course, but the media have too often been the loudest voices in support of the whole ramshackle structure of greed and irresponsibility that has now come crashing down. We can only conclude that they have been so keen to promote their own prejudices – or at least those of their owners – that they have allowed judgment to fly out the window.

    One of the most prominent cheerleaders has been The Economist – a weekly journal enjoying an enviable reputation for sound judgment and insightful commentary. Yet, for The Economist, no reward has been too great, no excess too outrageous, as long as it was ordained by the “free” market.

    The broadcast media have been just as bad. CNBC, a business channel claiming to be the only channel “with the information and experience you need”, has gone one better – or worse. Its so-called “experts” advised investors to trust – in turn – Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and General Motors just weeks and months before they demanded billions from taxpayers as the price for staying afloat.

    Little wonder that, with “expert” advice like this, the ordinary investor was led astray. But the failure of the media was more often of the “head-in-the-sand” variety, offering assurance that the authorities had everything under control. Add to that the constant treatment of the rich as demi-gods who could do no wrong and we can begin to see the responsibility that the media must bear for the failure to sound the alarm.

    And they are still at it. We were treated a week ago to an article in the Asian edition of The Wall Street Journal, reporting an interview with our Prime Minister, John Key, conducted by one Mary Kissell. Ms Kissell was given generous air-time by our broadcast media and was widely reported in our press. The Prime Minister cannot be held responsible for the views of his interviewer but he may have jibbed a little at the cold water she poured on the efforts made by governments around the world to restore a broken financial system and to help the global economy re-establish a level of demand that had dropped like a stone.

    The value of Ms Kissell’s views may be judged by the potted history she gave her readers of New Zealand’s recent economic history. Our “island nation”, we were told, “grew smartly” following the “reforms” of Rogernomics. Growth had, however, stagnated in the last nine years when “free” market policies were not maintained.

    Even a cursory examination of our GDP statistics would reveal what a gross misrepresentation this is. New Zealand GDP growth was virtually non-existent in the seven years following 1984, and reached its highest sustained level from 1999 to 2008. Where were the New Zealand commentators who could surely have pointed this out, and judged the Wall Street Journal article for what it was – a piece of special pleading by a mouthpiece for institutions that had been thoroughly discredited by recent events?

    Bryan Gould

    13 March 2009

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