Post-election thoughts…

by cliffhuxt

If you’re wondering what happened last night: NZ had a 77% voter turnout, slightly higher than in 2011 which was the lowest in a CENTURY. One thing we should all be able to agree on is that this is not the sign of a healthy democracy.

I think it was a few things that went wrong for the left, but I put a reasonably large chunk of the blame for an embarrassingly low voter turnout on our shameful, easily-manipulated media and its 3-year long one-sided, and particularly aggressive argument against anyone that challenged the Key government.

The bullshit polls, the pundits who have championed them for the last few years and the resulting self-fulfilling prophecy on election day – if you were only following the mainstream media this election you would think the left were a bunch of screaming, unreasonable liars using scaremongering to blow insignificant things completely out of proportion. The media have made sure to tell kiwis there was no point in voting left because National always had it in the bag in the latest polls, because child poverty and climate change don’t matter, because if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. Don’t bother voting for anyone but the Key Government because the “far-left” are unstable, David Cunliffe is “tricky” and “arrogant,” “even his own caucus don’t want him.” He has a red scarf is a massive socialist and forgot about an 11 year old letter, which is so bad he should resign. He also apologised for being a man. These are the narratives the mainstream media in NZ chose to run with, but they certainly read like they all originated directly from the National Party’s PR consultants. Stories that offered no insight and provided no evidence and that were constant and consistently negatively toned and clearly intended to defame and to smear. These “scoops” were repeated over and over again through the press.

It wasn’t until Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics was released that David Cunliffe’s election campaign actually started to gain some positive traction in the media, and it was because the constant slew of negative stories about him had seemingly come to an end. As someone that was watching this all unfold with great interest it was at least fairly clear to me that this had something to do with the sudden negative attention the media were now receiving over the conduct of some of their own – but for Cunliffe, Labour and the left-bloc, that sudden room to breathe was too little too late. The damage had been done. The perception of the Labour party and the NZ left among middle NZ was tarnished beyond repair. The narratives claimed they were marred with infighting, couldn’t find a good credible leader and had no chance whatsoever in securing an election victory. These accusations went unchallenged in the media despite a clear lack of any real evidence, and with just a vague mention of “party insiders” as sources. Contrast that with the overwhelming evidence implicating the Key government in all kinds of scandal and corruption and the reluctance of the media to meaningfully pursue any of it. The behaviour of the NZ media has been eyebrow-raising to say the least.

The bottom line is elections are fought through the media. That is the apparatus which informs the public. The bloggers, the television networks, the newspapers and websites tell us everything we know. Everything is filtered through their lenses. We watch a battle of ideas play out through those filters. In fact, one might say the battle of ideas that plays out in the media IS the election, defined.

The coverage of the political parties, how we as New Zealanders all collectively “feel” about certain political parties and their policies, and personalities, all of this is provided to us by the media. The media have such a defining role to play in the trajectory of our society that it is hard to fathom and even harder to articulate exactly the level of influence they have.

What they say and how they say it engages our conscious and our subconscious thoughts. The media represents New Zealand as a collective. It tells us all what New Zealand thinks, it is the platform for which our society’s hivemind makes its decisions. This makes the quality and standards of the media incredibly important. So very, very important. The healthiness of the debate playing out through the media during an election year is fundamentally integral to the health of our democracy.

From my perspective, as someone who has followed the political sphere with great, all-consuming interest over the last three years, I see the health of our media seriously in question. There is a strong argument that the journalistic standards of those that inform the largest portion of our society have dropped beyond the pale and that the ability and will to enforce or even acknowledge and respect those standards has been compromised. I propose that our major national media outlets have made it very clear over the last three years that they are no longer the public watchdog, but instead they are now a private guard dog.

Our fourth estate no longer has a responsibility to public good or journalistic integrity which means our power can no longer be effectively held accountable by the public. This can’t be just swept aside as another left vs right argument that has a middle ground and some give either way. This is about the apparatus that actually allows for us to have this spectrum of choice in the first place, and its ability to operate effectively and unimpinged by undue influence. Either we strive to have an honest debate or we aren’t a healthy democracy. There is no ‘centre ground’ on this.

I think some lefties are dealing with shock right now. All the things we know about the Key government. All the things, so many things. I’m not going to go through the list, we all know what it looks like. The Key government has given New Zealanders more reasons to vote them out after just two terms than arguably any other government in the history of this country… And yet we just watched them get voted in with a higher percentage than when they asked for a second term in 2011.

I think the shock on the left today is based on our perception and “feel” for the electorate leading up to the election. We had hope, because people appeared to be aware of all the National Party spin, we were sensitive to the persuasive rhetoric. The corruption, the cronyism, the scandals. Our experience through social media told us there was a change in the air, we read all the different blogs and knew all the points of views and arguments from all political stripes back to front, all this had mounted to the point that National appeared to be found out for the villains we knew they were. New Zealanders would boot them out. What happened? Why did none of that seemingly matter in the end?

Despite all the reasons we all perceived that New Zealand had to vote out this government we actually lost more voters than we had in 2011. People stayed home. That feeling of surprise among some on the left I think has a lot to do with the disparity of our media experience compared with the vaster swathes of mainstream New Zealand. We are informed one way, with a heavier lean on social media sources while middle New Zealand are informed another way, relying largely on the mainstream media machine to frame the debate for them. I see a problem with this, particularly.

The rich debate and battle of ideas that many kiwis are having online is not reaching middle New Zealand.

They get the governing party’s prewritten narratives in the form of soundbites and the conflation of massively complex issues into simplified, meaningless, black-and-white pull quotes and no real deep analysis. They get the party line with not much else to chew on, because for political journalists of the modern NZ mainstream media, once you hit a wall and a politician gives you his soundbite there is apparently no journalistic responsibility to pursue the issue any further.

We need media that wont just accept a government spokesperson or a prime minister’s well-spun deflection. The Key government have spent much money and resources on mastering the  art of spin and the media appear stumped by it. The National Party use the same right-wing PR company that helped the insane Abbot government secure a victory in Australia, which is not surprising. Crosby-Textor utilise the most cutting-edge advances in crowd-psychology. They are an international right-wing force that know how to outplay both the media and the public, and they are clearly very good teachers.

To me the most important outtake from this election was Nicky Hager’s book. This book pulled the curtain aside revealing the wizard, the innards of the National Party’s dirt department. We saw how important controlling public perception has been to the Key government. We saw how easily the media can be manipulated. We were shown how political news narratives are manufactured to do damage and how they are spread through the media. We were shown a glaring weakness – how journalists copy and paste each others’ stories, only offering the most shallow additional insights, allowing for misinformation to travel unchallenged through media networks from journo to journo, and for the smear to take hold by way of repetition to the point that the stories’ origin becomes cloudy and the credibility of the source irrelevant.

“We” saw all of this. “They,” as in middle-New Zealand, didn’t. They got Paul Henry, Mike Hosking, Duncan Garner, Paddy Gower, Corin Dann, John Armstrong, Tracey Watkins, Audrey Young and a slew of others defending the government. Instead of holding the Key government to account over these revelations they simply quoted directly the National Party defence which was that “all the political parties do it.” They’re all just as bad as each other. Middle-NZ has been fed overt tory punditry and it has been sold to them as if it were reasonable, rational, sensible and in all our best interests. Middle-NZ believe New Zealand’s collective beliefs are reflected back at them when they watch TV and read the newspaper and when they listen to these very influential people they assume they are hearing the status quo. If you are not politically engaged and aren’t exposed to those that are – this is all you are getting from your media experience – unflinchingly pro-government rhetoric.

The outcome last night was inevitable. We were lying to ourselves if we thought otherwise, but I don’t blame left-wing politicians. The policies were sound, they were all costed and credible, proposed and argued well. From an objective standpoint, and as someone with a great interest in our politics I simply can’t see anything wrong with how they proposed their argument or championed their side of the debate. It all made perfect sense to me, and I felt informed enough to confidently say so. So no, personally I don’t think it was a failure of the left-bloc to present themselves as a credible government in waiting. I don’t think kiwis have completely grasped what dirty politics revealed. I think the left “infighting” simply doesn’t exist in the way that the media presents it. I saw so much common ground between Labour, Green, Mana and even NZ First voters this year – there was far more baseless discussion of infighting coming from the mainstream media and the National Party pundits than there has been evidence of it actually going on publicly among the left, and the accusations of instability have been constant and sustained for at least the last 3 years.

If we agree that there is a clear bias favouring the National government among the mainstream media, and that they have been complicity involved in orchestrated smear attacks against the left then we should be acknowledging that many of the anti-left news story narratives we have been inundated with in the last 3 years have been utterly baseless. The perception of the left among middle-NZ is a far more clouded and confused perspective than what “we” get from our actively-informed, but fairly insulated left-leaning social media circles.

One only has to look back and remember that the mainstream media for the last 3 years has not had one positive thing to say about the Labour party, and especially about “tricky” David Cunliffe. The revelations in Dirty Politics have not hurt the Key government enough to dissuade them from continuing with the same tactics. They have been given 3 more years. Coverage of the fallout from the book has been appalling. The book revealed to NZ how smear campaigns are orchestrated by right-wing politicians and then used to baselessly discredit all opposing voices, counter-arguments and alternative points of view in the eyes of the public. This to me, alongside the death of the middle class and the seriously inadequate response to climate change is one of the biggest and gravest concerns our little open society faces. How we inform ourselves, how we deal with the extremely infectious manipulation by political punditry, how we return integrity and higher standards to our journalistic institutions so that we can demand accountability from our government, and so we can resist the power of their spin and deflections. The left need to take some time to regroup and then somehow figure out a more effective strategy to counter this heaving right-wing media behemoth, and they better get onto it soon – three more years for National mean this will get worse before it gets better.