`I’m comfortable with that’ A review of Gavin Ellis` ‘Complacent Nation’

By   /   September 29, 2016  /   14 Comments

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Census figures reveal that the number of print, radio and television journalists fell from 2,214 to 1,170 between 2006 and 2013. Ellis notes that remaining journalists must respond to print, broadcasting and digital platforms as news budgets contract. Unsurprisingly, tabloid news values have predominated. Ellis` front page,weekday survey of five metropolitan dailies (during January 2014) showed that 60 per cent of the New Zealand Herald`s lead stories were about crime or emergencies.

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I remain haunted by the Havelock North water poisoning debacle.

Thousands of people ill, some with chronic conditions. A brief flame of controversy, political handwringing everywhere, inquiries promised, then….nothing.

As the news cycle moves on no-one seems to care about this abject failure of public health and local body governance. Does no-one worry about the prospect of another water poisoning event amidst hyper-intensive dairying, nitrogen run- off , waterway pollution, massive irrigation schemes and water acquafer depletion?

Are New Zealanders generally, too accepting of preventable disasters such as Cave Creek, leaky apartment complexes, the Rena grounding and Pike River?

In the same vein one might also ask whether news media, politicians and the public appreciate the fragility of our democratic freedoms? Gavin Ellis in `Complacent Nation` answers this question in the negative.

Public access to official information has declined, government control over information flow has increased, public relations and communication management swamps inquiring journalism. Across financially weakening news organisations infotainment colonises news content, weak legal infrastructures compromise freedom of expression just as executive state agencies frustrate and intimidate investigative journalists.

These criticisms are well documented.

We discover that the progressive intentions of the 1982 Official Information Act (OIA) have been subverted by the obstructions of government ministries and senior service officials. Obviously, Robert Muldoon as Prime Minister and Minister of Finance could frustrate individual OIA requests within the letter of the law. Ellis argues that today this subversion is institutionalised. When government ministries assess OIA requests the caveats of national security, public safety and maintenance of the law are supplemented, quite routinely, by political risk assessments. Will this release of official information reflect badly on the government? Cause the Minister embarrassment? Or provide ammunition for opposition parties? Within each department the Minister can intervene personally under the guise of presenting an opinion. Information requests often elicit written official replies which are bland, hard to follow and/or slow to arrive.

Furthermore commercial as well as bureaucratic filters prevail; Treasury and the Reserve Bank typically charge for access to released documents. Meanwhile public scrutiny of government ministries, state owned enterprises and local government authorities is curtailed as news coverage diminishes.

Census figures reveal that the number of print, radio and television journalists fell from 2,214 to 1,170 between 2006 and 2013. Ellis notes that remaining journalists must respond to print, broadcasting and digital platforms as news budgets contract. Unsurprisingly, tabloid news values have predominated. Ellis` front page,weekday survey of five metropolitan dailies (during January 2014) showed that 60 per cent of the New Zealand Herald`s lead stories were about crime or emergencies. The figures for the Dominion Post, the Waikato Times and Otago Daily Times were 52,56 and 40 per cent respectively. Christchurch`s Press devoted 35 per cent of the front page to such content (understandably, earthquake recovery stories were prominent).

According to a 2015 survey of 1900 television news bulletins undertaken by on-line news service Newsroom Plus, 24 per cent of TV One stories were devoted to crime and punishment;the figure for TV 3 was 32 per cent. (see civicsandmediaprojectnz.org). Ellis asks whether non crime-related news events of relevance to New Zealanders were adequately covered. He generally concludes that `society is struggling to maintain the distribution of democratically significant information and meaningful debate to large scale audiences` (p22).

The rapid growth of public relations professionals worsens the problem.

As of 2015 they outnumbered print, radio and television journalists 3 to 1. And, as news room resources declined journalists became more dependent upon public relations material for stories. Government ministries and other organisations insist upon written contact with the media. Ellis refers here to the Auckland District Health Board`s media manual. Only designated people can speak to the media and such statements must be checked in advance by communication managers.

Local bodies behave in a similar way.

Massey University researcher Catherine Strong found that of the 43 city and district councils sampled almost 25 per cent had codes of conduct which prevented elected councillors from publicly criticising their council (p74).

Within Crown Research Organisations Ellis notes that that contract law provisions discourage scientists from speaking out. During the 2012 Fonterra botulism scare for example, all communication was channelled through the senior Fonterra executives,the head of Agresearch and the director-general of the Ministry for Primary Industries. Journalists could not get to scientists and they were discouraged from commenting publicly.

For investigative journalists freedom of expression is always under threat. Here, Ellis recounts an attempt by the New Zealand Defence Force to undermine the credibility of Jon Stephenson who had reported on New Zealand`s military activity in Afghanistan. After publication of his Auckland Metro article `Eyes Wide Shut` the Ministry falsely claimed that a key interview was fabricated and Prime Minister John Key attacked the journalist. Eventually, after Stephenson bought defamation proceedings against the New Zealand Defence Force and its then Commander in Chief Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, an out of court settlement was reached. Ellis asks whether `the episode will have a chilling effect on other journalists who wish to report on our military and its operations` (p86).

Equally concerning was the ten-hour police search of author Nicky Hager`s residence following the publication of `Dirty Politics`. In an attempt to identify a confidential source, documents and computer equipment were seized. Hager`s bank ,telecommunications and on-line records were surveilled. Ellis argued at the time that the police actions would act as a disincentive to potential sources and encourage journalists to limit their dealings with whistleblowers. Disturbingly, he noted that journalists working at home on sensitive topics may feel `they are putting the well being of their families at risk` (p89).

Overall, Ellis`s concerns are entirely valid and well explained. I think though that our predicament maybe worse than he suggests.

Let me explain.

From the mid 1980s the Fourth Labour government and the 1990 National government destroyed Keynesian social democracy and damaged the principles of liberal democracy. Key events here included the elevation of Treasury to super-ministry status and the insulation of the Reserve Bank from party-political scrutiny .

The 1989 Reserve Bank Act substituted monetarist for Keynesian macro-economics without any electoral mandate. The same can be said of the dismantling of the old public service,this is when cynicism toward the OIA really became entrenched.

The privatisation agenda between 1989 and 1993 was not openly discussed with the electorate either. The deregulation of broadcasting and the removal of foreign restrictions on media ownership sharply increased commercial pressures on news and current affairs content . And, it was during this era that public relations and communications management began to spread like a disease throughout the country.

The introduction of MMP was the only countervailing trend. In retrospect it is clear that Helen Clark`s government after 1999 did not really challenge the fundamentals of neo-liberal economics; the Reserve Bank Act remained and so called `free trade` agreements were enthusiastically endorsed despite their threats to New Zealand`s economic sovereignty. On macro-economic matters there was no real dispute between the National and Labour parties. And, crucially, when National gained office in 2008 there were no institutional impediments to the further erosion of liberal democracy.

Ellis catalogues this erosion without providing the necessary historical context. Neither does he address the contributions of the Prime Minister. If New Zealand is a complacent nation then John Key himself is a paragon of complacency -`I’m comfortable with that`. His leadership of the country is premised on a complete lack of interest in democratic niceties; just get the deal done and let the academics argue over the consequences.

One should also acknowledge that the actions against John Stephenson and Nicky Hager do not just threaten journalistic autonomy; they also reflect the workings of an executive state apparatus with distinct authoritarian tendencies.

This brings me back to the Havelock North water poisoning. The sheer lack of public accountability from health authorities, the general passivity of the government and the lack of practical know-how about the basics of water reticulation within the Hastings council raises a bleak prospect. If the poisoning of thousands happens again it will not slow the demise of liberal democracy in New Zealand.

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14 Comments

  1. Mike the Lefty says:

    Also relevant is the definition of “journalist”.
    Journalist now is a kind of a compound term for anyone involved in the production or presentation of news copy but arguably its definition has changed over the last few decades, new technology being a large reason why.
    Before the advent of computers, internet, etc. “journalist” was a term used almost exclusively for reporters and sub-editors (who have almost vanished completely now) either in print, radio or TV. People who wrote gossip columns, editorials and regular opinion pieces were usually not regarded as journalists, at least by other journalists. Journalists were a bit of a snobby lot – they liked to keep standards high and gossip columns were not seen as high standard.
    Nowadays “journalist” seems to be a label slapped on anyone who picks up a pen or taps on a keyboard, with little regard for the standard of copy that they produce. Real journalists regarded being politically biased with horror – doing that was the quickest way to attaining zero credibility in the industry.
    Compare that with now, the self-styled journalists don’t think their day is complete unless they have licked John Key’s boots clean or reminded everyone how much they hate gays and women who have been raped.
    Are there any real journalists left?
    Possibly, but they are a dying breed increasinly shut out and reliant on the dwindling independent publications for their daily bread.
    If you want to work for the great Fairfax organisation – you must be right ring and sincerely believe that John Key is the best thing since sliced bread. If you don’t then forget about your career in the industry, it isn’t going to happen unless you happen to be an extraordinarily determined soul (like Nicky Hager).
    Good democratic government is reliant on a media willing to challenge them and keep them honest.
    Our MSM has failed to do this and the result is lazy, corrupt, incompetent government.

  2. bert says:

    And Claire Tevett was at it again in today’s Herald. Attacking Andrew Little with insults like “Chicken”. Why continual attacks on Labour? Is she not able to be a neutral observer. Key and National have given ample ammunition for Tevett to opine about but sadly she is a wet blanket for this sad Government.The Mood of The Boardroom has clearly outlined that this is a tired Government and time to let some appalling ministers go. Yet Ms Tevett remains silent.
    One must also be critical of Paul Henry. Fair kudos for holding Steve Tew to account. But why the fluff pastry interviews with Key? Can he not hold Key to the same standards whilst on his show. There is a clear disparity between Key interviews and anyone else

  3. Afewknowthetruth says:

    The misrepresentation, propaganda, brainwashing and outright lying that has taken place over the past few decades has been extremely effective: international banks, corporations and their local agents now have almost complete control of NZ society, and there is now no accountability nor any mechanism for challenging their destructive and unsustainable agendas. And the bulk of the populace doesn’t know, doesn’t want to know, and doesn’t care.

    ‘If New Zealand is a complacent nation then John Key himself is a paragon of complacency -`I’m comfortable with that`.’

    No, it’s much more sinister than that; I’m sure John Key is not complacent. I’m sure he currently the prime agent of destruction of NZ society and ruination of the future, the smiling assassin, put into the position by international bankers to deliberately mislead the masses, facilitate looting and polluting, and establish an overtly fascistic police state.

  4. I think it is well known a war on journalism has been waged over the last 30 years. The rise in infotainment has been equally well documented, though the common man on the street is probably none the wiser in all that time about the how and why of its rise.

    http://penguin.co.nz/books/the-war-on-journalism-9780857986849

    Andrew Fowler’s book didn’t have all the answers (before I lost my copy overseas last year), but it was enough to remind me that “The war on journalism” is a bit more than a phrase. And if one considers the decline that I have just mentioned and which you discuss, yes, there probably IS a “War on journalism”.

  5. LOSTRELIC says:

    Excellent post Wayne. Thank you.

    Your mentioning of Havelock North’s water poisoning reminded me of two things. Mainly it reminds me of the book by Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves To Death”.

    It also reminds me of the fictional film Hotel Rwanda, the African man Paul Rusesabagina played by Don Cheadle, in the midst of genocide, mentions to a white journalist “I am glad that you have shot this footage and that the world will see it. It is the only way we have a chance that people might intervene.” The journalist responds, “I think if people see this footage they’ll say, “oh my God that’s horrible,” and then go on eating their dinners.”

    • Geoff Lye says:

      Actually Hotel Rwanda was actually about a real person during the real event.

      The hotel manager risked his life to save everyone in that hotel during the actual Rwandan crisis.

  6. Michelle says:

    Beware Don Brash and his Hobsons choice racist team are here

  7. wanafli says:

    Well said.

  8. brian says:

    Thailand is struggling with the same problem, their solution is for out of work reporters to retrain as cricket farmers, feed the masses. I think our government would like to go the same way. wiil we soon see our own form of lese mageste
    http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/special-reports/1094393/struggling-industry-leaves-reporters-squirming-for-survival

    • CLEANGREEN says:

      “Census figures reveal that the number of print, radio and television journalists fell from 2,214 to 1,170 between 2006 and 2013”

      This while our population growth and media networks is increasing????

      All without Journalists to conduct adequate public affairs’ programs, that is sad, making us all dumbed down is the plan right?

  9. Helena says:

    I think jonkey and his cronies have deliberately led this country down a road marked “to destruction” earmarking for saving only those things of use to his Cabal buddies (who are even now being arrested, taken down and taken out). But there is a new paradigm coming into the light and I can’t see how jonkey et al will fit into the new model. Here’s one surprising revelation out today : Volume + Vision = Victory http://inteldinarchronicles.blogspot.co.nz/2016/09/volume-vision-victory-rv-op-ed.html
    Who would have thought Mugabe would be his country’s saviour working quietly with the BRICS?!!
    We are mushrooms, fed the appropriate food by our media. Do our media/journalists really know what’s going on. Probably not and probably they just carry the bags of “food” for the mushrooms obeying their orders. Key serves his overlords and the press serve theirs.
    I wonder who our Mugabe is?

  10. Groucho Marxist says:

    A complacent nation controlled from Orwellington.

  11. Mike in Auckland says:

    Yes, yes, yes and yes again, I share the same, all of the concerns, and the book only confirms what I have observed myself over the years, and what I experience and read and see every day.

    This is what I call the “most sophisticated virtual dictatorship” that one could ever have designed, the ones living in it do in their vast majority not even see it as such, they are mostly blissfully ignorant.

    While we read here, there will be hundreds of thousands, mostly young, many middle aged, some also older, gazing at their lit screens on smart phones, tablets and other devices, and be fully absorbed into click bait and other shallow “information” that keeps them busy 24/7.

    But much is also in the form of endless “apps” now available, to “help” them read the weather, do the right kind of shopping, filter out the commercial ad promoted “news” they are supposed to deem important, to measure their blood pressure, to guide them through traffic, to lead them to the nearest hotel, to check this that and the other.

    Metadata and user profiles are gathered by the billions in single data traces, and sorted, filtered and re-arranged, and sold to advertisers, so they know how to further brainwash the herd like consumers to look at what they are expected to look at.

    News are just another “consumer product” now, designed to fit the taste or “need” of the “reader”.

    Look at the NZ Herald website, and you get a taste of what we have now, it will get worse, and most are too ignorant, or casual about it, they simply let it happen. Well we are all somehow tied into the system, as workers, employees, as business operators and even those dependent on state support.

    We will in the majority not dare bite the hand that feeds us and put up with the Orwellianisation of society.

    I hear that such departments like MSD do not even send emails with names or identifiers of individuals answering to email enquiries and so anymore. If you are lucky you may get a number at the bottom. We will have a faceless society of hidden operators and string pullers, sorters and thus manipulators, who will allow us to get what we are supposed to get, and withhold all else.

    As most will not even learn anymore what there is, what is done, and how it is done, they will in their ignorance ask no questions, as it is hard to question things that one has no idea about.

    The dictatorship is working, the idiots are too busy shopping now:
    http://www.hm.com/nz/inspiration/fashion/ladies/nz-opening-campaign-2

    https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/new-zealand/more-than-1000-shoppers-rush-h-m-opening-in-auckland-after-long-wait-queue

    And Facebook is in on it also! Social media to dumb down people into consumerism and other forms of hunter gatherer excess idiocy.