There’s been a debate on twitter over the last couple of days about the issue of political commentators and conflicts of interest, and Bryce Edward’s asked me to articulate my thoughts on the matter so here they are.
I’ve said before that I think Matthew Hooton is currently our best political commentator, even though our ideologies are very different. That’s partly because Hooton is articulate and very smart, but mostly because of his unique position in the New Zealand political landscape. He’s a long-time National Party insider, which means he understands how the governing party works, but he’s also engaged in a very bitter feud – driven partly by ideology, partly personality and partly commercial interest – with several powerful people in the National hierarchy, which means he uses his insight and acumen to openly critique his own team.
Which is awesome. But doesn’t that create a massive conflict of interest? I don’t think so. No more than someone like Michelle Boag, undyingly loyal National cheerleader, who is motivated to comment to promote National rather than critique it because it advances her interests and those of her allies. All of these people have agendas, and I think Hooton’s law would go something like:
The more insight an insider has into the political process, the more calculated their agenda in disseminating those insights
I’m more concerned about commercial conflicts of interest among commentators and other media figures. There’s a wildly lucrative and very shadowy marketplace out there where journalists and commentators provide ‘media training’ or ‘communications consulting’ for politicians and their parties, and then pop up on TV or radio speaking as advocates for them without disclosing that. This would be very easy for media outlets to fix. All it takes is a disclosure statement, and if the commentator can’t make one because their relationship with their political clients is ‘commercial in confidence’ then they shouldn’t be given a platform. Hooton quite often discloses a conflict of interest when he’s talking on Nine To Noon, but it’s not something you hear very often from any other pundits. And there are big, big conflicts-of-interest out there.