Democracy under attack

Written By: - Date published: 3:02 pm, July 6th, 2008 - 27 comments
Categories: election 2008, same old national, spin - Tags: , , ,

Ruth Laugesen’s got a piece in the SST today entitled “How National’s spin doctors operate“. She points out that Crosby/Textor’s methods, contrary to the opinion of many other journalists here, do differ from what are considered standard focus group and polling methodologies.

Auckland University political studies senior lecturer Jennifer Lees-Marshment suggests that C/T are different specifically because “[t]hey use a technique called insights marketing, where communication is developed in response to understanding people’s deepest values and fears”. If Granny Herald is looking for a real attack on democracy here it is. Hager made the point forcefully in his book and Laugeson’s article reiterates it:

…[this kind of political] advertising can be so simple, and so powerful, that it can stir up fears without offering any solutions. Do too much of that, [Lees-Marshment] says, and you are well on the way to stirring up political disillusionment and disengagement.

And it gets worse. As if this weren’t enough, Crosby/Textor are experts at what’s called “message discipline”. From Laugerson’s article, “They emphasise restricting messages from the party to a few key lines repeated with monotonous regularity”. Sound familiar?

While it’s true that to some extent all parties do this – in a competitive media environment some repetition is required in order to get a point across – taken to extremes simplifying a political platform down to a handful of bullet points, repeated ad nauseum, dumbs down democracy. The electorate has the right to demand a comprehensive policy manifesto from each of the parties. A couple of A4 pages doesn’t cut it. It’s an insult. No doubt we’ll see a few more ‘big ticket’ policy announcements from the Nats before the election but my money’s on “short, sweet, and favouring style over substance”. The second coming of The Hollow Men. No wonder Hager’s still on the case – nothing’s changed.

It’s a shame that publications like The Herald have for months foisted the tired line that the EFA is the end of democracy here while turning a blind eye to the true threat – the continuing influence of Crosby/Textor-style politics.

27 comments on “Democracy under attack”

  1. MonkeyKing 1

    Maybe if you keep saying it enough we’ll start to believe it…

  2. Stephen 2

    Probably worth reading the actual article than the commentary MonkeyKing.

  3. outofbed 3

    monkey
    I have no problem with National winning the election if they win the battle of ideas.
    If they put over what they truly believe and people vote for that, then fair enough.
    But say if J Key had a heart attack and died tomorrow, where would National be ? what direction would they follow ? I can’t imagine that Ryall Brownlee or Mc cully would following the same line as Key can you ?
    Contrast this to the same scenario of the LAb Green or Moari party loosing their leader .. the direction of those parties would be broadly be the same.
    The marketing of one man to say as little as possible and smile a lot is a very dishonest and unprincipled. No wonder K Rich left the National party
    I was amused earlier this week by senior Nats being pissed off about receiving postcards urging them not to privatise anything, when supposedly their policy is not to privatise anything, more dishonesty.
    I have faith in Nz’ers though and,in the end they will see through this deceit

  4. The rank hypocrisy exhibited at the standard is astonishing.
    We have already seen the PSA under the direction of the ninth floor using push polling through UMR to announce kiwis don’t want tax cuts if it means cuts in the civil service . And who can forget the labour party stooges at housing new zealand with their fake eviction notices at the last election.
    I know a balanced view on this web site is as likely as your leader ever saying sorry but COME ON……
    Try to lose the faux sanctimonious outrage until such time as your team are playing fair.

  5. MacDoctor 5

    Let me get this straight, AYB, are you really saying that addressing New Zealander’s deepest values and fears is a bad thing? Or that the technique of “staying on the message” is NEW??

  6. Draco TB 6

    …that addressing New Zealander’s deepest values and fears is a bad thing?

    But National aren’t addressing them. They’re targeting them to bring about an emotional, unreasoned response without having any solutions.

  7. Billy 7

    I do not remember Labour announcing that it was their policy to nationalise the railway before the last election. This has been a deceitful policy of nationalisation by stealth. Why did Labour not come clean before the election?

  8. MacDoctor 8

    Draco TB: A valid point, but not one you can make with any certainty until you’ve actually seen some policy.

  9. MacDoc – I think you’ll find that Helen Clark pretty much “stayed on the message” through her first two terms. But since 2006, either Clark has strayed from the message, or the message has become very garbled. Right at the moment, Clark could do worse than spend a few bucks on a session with C/T to get her “back on the message”. But somehow, I don’t think that’s likley to happen any time soon!!

  10. Liam Rutherford 10

    Billy,

    what is up with saying that Labour brought back the railway on the sly.

    This taken straight off the Labour website website
    ” Increase funding for public transport, rail network maintenance and development”

    please back up your ideas if you are going to state them, otherwise you make yourself sound silly, Billy.

  11. Oliver 11

    It makes perfect tactical sense for National to keep their powder dry; Labour likes to nick their policies otherwise.

  12. Gooner 12

    “Democracy Under Attack”!

    What was that song from Peking Man? Room That Echoes wasn’t it.

    How very prescient of an 80’s band to think of a 2008 website!

  13. Felix 13

    Gooner, you’re so right – mostly all I hear is the echoing of banal right-wing soundbites and talking points.

    Oliver, I assume that’s a joke. On a serious note though, why do you righties seem to actually approve of being spun and lied to?

  14. From the looks of all of these attacks that Clark is playing plus the ones you echo it looks like it is you guys who are playing from the C/T playbook.

  15. it hasn’t stopped the PSA using UMR to push poll though has it?

  16. Draco TB 16

    A valid point, but not one you can make with any certainty until you’ve actually seen some policy.

    Actually, it’s the lack of policy that makes what I said a certainty. Sure, National may release some policy later but that won’t detract from the emotional and unreasoned response that they’re brewing up now.

  17. Billy 17

    Hello Liam Rutherford,

    That’s right, saying that they propose to ‘Increase funding for public transport, rail network maintenance and development’ amounts to putting to NZers a policy of spending nearly a billion on buying the railways.

    Do you think that was what we supposed to understand by “increase”?

  18. The only thing the Herald wants to attack is Labour. John Roughan’s column defending the Straussian approach to subverting democracy was pathetic. James Edwards, commenting on my blog, sent me the following quote:

    National appears to have signed up for a particularly ugly and arrogant sort of conservatism.

    Leo Strauss, the father of the neoconservative movement in the United States:

    “A second fundamental belief of Strauss’s ancients has to do with their insistence on the need for secrecy and the necessity of lies. In his book Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss outlines why secrecy is necessary. He argues that the wise must conceal their views for two reasons to spare the people’s feelings and to protect the elite from possible reprisals.”

  19. all_your_base 19

    If Key didn’t know deep down that C/T are dodgy, he’d come clean and admit the relationship openly to the public. The fact he won’t suggests he sees doing so as a risk. Nobody buys the hollow “vindictive” line he’s been running. I’ll post properly on this tomorrow if I get a chance.

  20. Oliver 20

    AYB,

    Cullen threatened APN with a tax hike because of the NZ Herald’s coverage, do you consider that vindictive.

    Gooner,

    I’m not joking about stolen policies the first one off the top of my head is spending all petrol tax on transport. Annette King used that to argue against the Road Users Lobby.

    To all at the Standard and their supporters,

    Crosby/Textor are absolute tiddly-winks next to the Electoral Finance Act and legislating Darnton v Clark out of the water. It certainly isn’t an issue that will generate enough steam to save the election for Helen and her greedy cohorts

  21. Pascal's bookie 21

    “Cullen threatened APN with a tax hike because of the NZ Herald’s coverage, do you consider that vindictive.”

    I assume that you have been misinformed. He said that if he was to apply the Herald’s reasoning then he would have to send them a tax bill. He wouldn’t apply that reasoning though.

    He was making a not too subtle rhetorical argument Oliver. Perhaps too subtle for some though as various trolls have been making fools of themselves over it ever since, which is where you may have heard that version of it.

  22. Lew 22

    While I broadly agree with Laugesen’s arguments here, the fundamental issue remains: if it provides an electoral advantage, political actors will keep doing it. The fact that such techniques seem immoral or unethical, or that they have deleterious effects upon democracy, is irrelevant except inasmuch as it harms a party’s electoral chances, and currently it’s having the opposite effect. Political scientists, journalists and talking heads can disapprove as much as they like, but as long as the message resonates for voters, it will continue to be promulgated in this way, because nobody can, or should, prevent it from being promulgated.

    As far as I’m concerned Labour (and the left in general) is at a crossroads: they need to choose whether to fight fire with fire and adopt a disciplined, focussed symbolic propaganda strategy, as National have done (and as exemplified by Steve’s `On Freedom’ post of Saturday); or they need to actively take the moral high ground and speak against this effect. I suspect they’ll do the latter; I would in their position do the former. (I use the word `propaganda’ without the negative connotations most people associate with it, as `a systematic attempt by an interested individual (or individuals) to control the attitudes of groups of individuals through the use of suggestion’ per Leonard Doob.) A strong symbolic campaign emphasising the government’s achievements could square the ledger, at which point the side with the strongest policy agenda would in principle have an advantage.

    “Let me get this straight, AYB, are you really saying that addressing New Zealander’s deepest values and fears is a bad thing? Or that the technique of “staying on the message’ is NEW??”

    MacDoctor is dead right here, but this is rhetorical. The danger for the Left is that National are allowed to set the political agenda based on peoples’ worst fears, to the exclusion of more positive issues. You can’t fight a symbolic campaign on policy: no amount of good statistics or happy outcomes can trump a person’s worst fears, by definition. To combat that, you need a symbolic campaign.

    As far as message discipline goes, it’s a tricky game to play since if messages are too disciplined, the media will treat them with cynicism. We’ve only recently begun to see this about National, briefly with the Kate-gate thing, but as the campaign continues I think we’ll see much less tolerance. National will have to show some cards eventually.

    L

  23. Pascal's bookie 23

    National will have to show some cards eventually.

    Err yeah, the cards. Wasn’t Godot ‘sposed to bring them?

  24. Pablo 24

    “Cullen threatened APN with a tax hike because of the NZ Herald’s coverage, do you consider that vindictive?”

    That is bullshit:

    “APN will not be liable for goods and services tax related to the masthead sale and leaseback arrangement it established when it acquired New Zealand Herald’s then owner Wilson & Horton in 2001.

    Changes to GST rules outlined in the tax legislation now before Parliament mean an APN subsidiary set up to facilitate the sale of its mastheads to US investment bank JPMorgan in 2001, and subsequent lease back to the company, will not be liable for GST.

    APN could potentially have been liable for $137.5 million in GST plus substantial interest costs on the transaction which was valued at $1.1 billion.

    APN chief financial officer Peter Myers said the company had been discussing its leaseback arrangement with Inland Revenue for some time.”

    This legislation was enacted specifically for this transaction, & Cullen was suggesting that if the government was wrong in retrospectively validating spending at the 2005 election (for all parties) then he was wrong to retrospectively change the rules for APN.

    As a colleague of mine said at the time (now a partner at Deloitte): “if you’re gonna fuck up, fuck up big”.

  25. Nick C 25

    “communication is developed in response to understanding people’s deepest values and fears’

    Really, you mean like telling someone that if the opposition gets in they will be kicked out of their house. Almost like a fake eviction notice.

    Perhaps when National actually starts using these attack campaigns you should post about it. But I suspect that the only party using negative attack campaigns at this election will be Labour. The fact that they are using the same people who they have been using for over ten years isnt news, stop dressing it up in the same league as taking away the right of organisations that represent their members to run campaigns.

  26. Oliver 26

    The diference between a threat and a none too sutle rhetroical argument depend on whether you’re talking or listening.

    But this is all still tiddly-winks next to the Electoral Finance Act and legislating to block Darnton v Clark

  27. Pascal's bookie 27

    The difference between a threat and a none too subtle rhetorical argument depends on whether you’re talking or listening.

    No it doesn’t. Why don’t you be a good commenter and track down the actual quote (since you brought it up), and we’ll have a wee talk about context, and then compare it to how you characterised it.

    Fair enough?

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