Keith Ng has a post up about what he feels was poor media coverage of the Dirty Politics saga. I thought the reporting of Hager’s book was mostly pretty great. National didn’t get re-elected because ‘the media failed’. It got re-elected because the wider public didn’t think that the revelations in Dirty Politics were important enough to get rid of a Prime Minister that they feel is performing well and replace him with a bunch of maniacs.
What isn’t great is that the book exposed problems with the media and how adept the right is at manipulating it which don’t seem like they’re being addressed or even being acknowledged. So here are a couple of quick, off-the-top-of-my-head proposals into how I think political media can redeem themselves in the aftermath of Dirty Politics:
- If political commentators have a commercial relationship with a political party then they should be described as a ‘National Party Operative’, or a ‘Labour Party Operative’. David Farrar isn’t a ‘blogger’, or ‘political commentator’, or even ‘right-wing blogger’ or ‘right-wing commentator’ who can then turn around and grin and say ‘Shucks! I don’t make any secret of the fact that I support National!’ when someone challenges him about his links with the party. He’s a National Party Operative, and so are the rest of National’s eager little helpers who do ‘media training’ or ‘communications consultancy’ for National and then run around the radio stations and political shows advocating for the National Party. Same goes for Labour, obviously, and the Greens and every other party out there. And if someone can’t comment on their political clients because their work is ‘commercial in confidence’ then they shouldn’t be a public commentator
- Anonymous sources for stories should be described as accurately as possible without compromising the anonymity of the source. No more ‘insiders’ or ‘party sources’. Tell us if something came from an MP or the leader’s office. That gets to the heart of the ‘two tier’ technique described in Dirty Politics. If the National Party wants to smear Labour or some other enemy then by all means, let em – but the story needs to be attributed. If the New Zealand Herald’s story on Donghua Liu came from the Prime Minister’s Office then the New Zealand public should know that. No more completely anonymous sources attacking their political enemies without attribution. And if an anonymous source lies to the media then that source’s identity should be revealed. Journalists should protect the identity of their sources but they don’t owe anything to a source that deliberately tricks them into publishing a false story smearing their enemies. Again, looking at you New Zealand Herald and Donghua Liu reporters.
- Journalists will balk at that. ‘If they don’t let parties smear each other anonymously then they’ll lose the story to another media outlet who will!’ The problem with that is that it means that the ethics of the entire industry are held to the standard of the least ethical people in it. I think political parties will still leak to you under these conditions – especially if there’s a consensus on this issue – it’ll just mean that our politics is a little bit less scummy and awful than it was during Slater’s reign.