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Gould on protecting freedom of the press

Written By: - Date published: 8:09 am, January 24th, 2012 - 46 comments
Categories: accountability, democracy under attack, Media - Tags:

The high point of John Key’s popularity came about 3 weeks before the election. Then the tea tapes meant a spectacle that was meant to be a show of his power became a media storm with him at the centre.

National lost 5% in those last few weeks of the campaign – Key went from being able to govern alone comfortably to having a one seat majority for his rightwing policies, including asset sales.

Key blamed the media. Bryan Gould looks at the war he has been waging against the press ever since.

..New Zealand enjoys, of course, an enviable record, in international terms, in matters of freedom of expression. It would be ridiculous to claim that a New Zealand government might pose a direct threat – through censorship or the abuse of executive power – to our press and broadcast media and their freedom to publish what they wish.

But threats to press freedom can come in much more insidious forms – and two recent instances make the point clearly.

Many will recall the extraordinary episode of the Prime Minister’s conversation over a cup of tea with John Banks during the election campaign. The Prime Minister was clearly very keen that the contents of that conversation should not be made public.

When it became clear that a record of that conversation was in the hands of the media, and that they saw no legal problem in publishing it, the Prime Minister’s reaction was very instructive.

He did not go to court to seek an injunction and assert his right to privacy. Instead, he laid a complaint with the police and asked them to investigate what he maintained might be a criminal offence.

The police were quick to comply.

They not only initiated an investigation but also warned the media that they, too, could be criminally liable if they published the recording. This warning was sufficient to frighten the media into silence.

Two months later, we are still waiting for the outcome of the police investigation. No criminal offence, it seems, has yet been established. The only legal outcome so far is that the Attorney-General, acting for the Government, has declared his intention to seek substantial costs from the cameraman who had the temerity to try to establish if he had committed no offence.

The police investigation, while so far inconclusive on the issue of criminality, has nevertheless been successful in another respect; it has fully met the Prime Minister’s requirements by keeping the conversation secret till beyond – well beyond – the election.

The message is clear. The police will support threats issued by the executive to deter the media from publishing material that as far as we know was lawfully obtained and that was of substantial public interest.

And just to make sure, the Attorney-General’s threat to the cameraman is a warning to others that they cross the executive at their peril.

Some of the same features are shown by the issue that became public last week. New Zealand On Air has expressed concern that a programme on child poverty it had funded was broadcast in the days leading up to the election.

It has announced that it may seek legal advice on obtaining a law change that would give it the power to delay until after an election a broadcast that might embarrass politicians.

What is worrying about this episode is that an expression of concern from the Prime Minister (in this case, through his electorate chairman who is a board member of NZ On Air) about a perfectly lawful broadcast was enough to induce the body that has a public duty to fund such programmes to seek to limit the freedom of the broadcasters.

Again, it is not any direct threat or interference that is of concern; rather, it is the threat that the executive is ready to act against anything that displeases the Prime Minister.

Who can doubt that broadcasters will in future make sure their programmes do not attract prime ministerial displeasure and risk losing the necessary funding? And others in the media will also learn the lesson – if they want to get on, they must stay on the right side of the Prime Minister. To make these points is not to attack the Prime Minister. He is doing what many politicians in government around the world would do if they could get away with it. It is, rather, a clarion call to journalists and to the public to stand up for press freedom and the independence of the media…

Unfortunately, Key has a long history of attacking journalists, going right back to the reporter who broke his “we would love to see wages drop” quote. Back then, however, he was the PM in waiting taking on a small-town journo and the big media players decided to side with him and refused to run the story. Now, Key is past his apex and taking on the biggest media outlets in the country. Not a smart move.

46 comments on “Gould on protecting freedom of the press ”

  1. Bunji 1

    And now Key’s man McIlrea, not content with controlling the purse strings for documentaries is hoping to be Censor-in-Chief

    Will that finally be so blatant as to get the NBR’s crony-watch back in business? There’s never been political appointees to the chair of NZOnAir (just the board…).

  2. Gosman 2

    Yet many lefties would have us believe the MSM is in the pockets of the right and do their bidding. How are these two, seemingly contradictory, positions reconciled?

    • Easy.  The media is appalling.  Key is insisting that they be even worse.

      • Gosman 2.1.1

        Bollocks. You don’t get away with it that easily mickeysavage. You are all going on about how good John Key is as a media manipulator, in fact that is pretty much all you think he has got as a political operator. So why, if the media really does dance to National’s tune, wouldn’t the National party simply have a word in the air of Media Works bigwigs about the scheduling of the documentary rather than make official complaints via NZOA? Why wouldn’t they simply pull strings with the NZ Herald senior management, (who are obviously all pro-National according to many of you lot), instead of going to the police? Much, much cleaner than what actually happened.

        • Lanthanide

          His actions have certainly instilled doubt in your mind about his control over the media, haven’t they? Despite the fact that he still got exactly the outcome he wanted…

          • Gosman

            Ahhhh! So it is part of some complex plan to make it look like National needs to intimidate the media to get what they want to hide the fact that they actually could just get the same result with a nod and a wink to those they are buddy buds with. A classic double bluff play.

            Now you have solved this one you can go and play with Travellerev in open mike and discuss why an orange proves that September the 11th was an inside job.

            • Lanthanide

              “Ahhhh! So it is part of some complex plan to make it look like National needs to intimidate the media to get what they want to hide the fact that they actually could just get the same result with a nod and a wink to those they are buddy buds with. A classic double bluff play.”

              No, it’s just controlling the media through any means necessary. Trust you to leap to conspiracy theories.

              It’s the outcome that matters, not the way in which the outcome was achieved.

              • Gosman

                You don’t control the media by getting them offside with you especially if you can manage the same thing via sweet talking them or by using your contacts. All you do by threatening them is make them more likely in future to give you negative press. I believe there was even a post on that very topic on this site when it was stating that John Key’s long honeymoon with the press may finally be over.

            • McFlock

              It’s very simple, really. Media are corporate business in NZ. So they like tory politicians, and (to greater or lesser degrees) have an innate bias in that directiction. Even the ones who don’t consciously play favourites look at things from the perspective of corporate and upper middle class priviledge.
              In the last few months, Key has spoiled it. By trying to knobble the media to an extent that it begins to impact their revenue and make them look like dicks (collectively as an industry, individually as a company and even personally), he is biting the hand that feeds him. Some in the media are beginning to bite back. That’s what we call “how do you fuck that up?!”.
              Personally, I think it is akin to what the imperial Japanese army called “victory disease”. Key and his coterie assumed that their success in the polls was a deserved product of brilliance, rather than largely a gift from the media and the previous Labour govt (if Labour had left the country in the state that the nats left it for labour, the beehive would have a “mortgagee sale” sign in front of it). 
              They thought they were invulnerable. It’ll get worse for them before it gets better. The question is how much of the house they’ll burn down around them. But after a while the bickering will cool down and they’ll regain their happy relationship.

              • Populuxe1

                I think almost right. It would be more accurate to say that the people who make the decisions about what gets published – the editors, as chosen by the owners, and the owners themselves – are upper middle class or billionaires and think in terms of upper middle class or billionaire privilege. It would be unfair to cast aspersions on the poor lowly reporters, who even if they break a story, may not see it published. That was one of the reasons for the great explosion of current affairs blogs in the first place – disgruntled, frustrated journos.

                • Colonial Viper

                  Yeah its the owners and editors who are the major problem, not the journalists (in the main).

                  Any journalist who gets blacklisted by stepping out of established editorial line – will never get a job with APN, Fairfax, Mediaworks, TVNZ or National Radio again.

                  So you’re left with writing for the school newsletter.

                  • jbc

                    Journalists are 99% crappy spin artists trying to construct hype where it is not due. Mr Gould included. They would not have a job if they simply told it as it happens.

                    The few direct encounters with journalists I’ve had the misfortune of making led me to that conclusion. You only need to pick up the next Herald to figure it out for yourself.

                    Out of 5 or so encounters since 1996 I have noticed the printed article bears little resemblance to the interview, and the facts (numbers, statistics, etc) are likely to be wrong. This even when the journo is quoting from a factually correct news release.

                    In the last encounter with the Herald I was selectively quoted to suit the journalist’s own idea for his article – along with several other victims. This was all in line with a constructed theme that had been running in the media at the time. When the journalist was later interviewed on radio he admitted that the views he portrayed were not representative of most people – they were anomalous. The patsy interviewer did not ask the obvious question: why did the journalist constructed a series of over-hyped headlines based on a falsehood?.

                    Journalists struggle to tell us straight with something as cut and dried as a car accident. It’s a competitive industry with most outlets falling over themselves trying to spice up ordinariness to make it appealing to their mostly ADHD readers.

                    • Populuxe1

                      “The few direct encounters with journalists I’ve had the misfortune of making ”

                      So you’re an expert then?

                    • jbc

                      Between my own experiences, those of others, and the shoddy crap that poses for news every day I do have some confidence in my conclusions, yes.

                      I see the same ‘making news out of nothing’ regularly when the media decides to jump on a theme and out-do each other in hyperbole.

                      Doesn’t everyone see that?

                      I’ve lost count of the number of times I have read an article in an NZ paper where the body of the report does not substantiate the claims made in the opening paragraph. It is almost par for the course.

                    • Colonial Viper

                      Bryan Gould is on the money mate. Further he’s not an MSM journalist.

                      And don’t deflect from who has the power in this industry – the editors and the owners. Journos are just hired labour.

  3. shorts 3

    the media can never be free when profit trumps everything else as the worlds big media companies have shown over and over and over again

    its about time, we, the public caught up and realised they’ve been duped and can never trust the media without fact checking themselves from a variety of sources (including that very same media) and then to determine their own opinion on what is actually factual and what is opinionated poppycock

    I wonder if the herald has a shark story today

    • Gosman 3.1

      So all media should be non-profit?

      Having the BBC as a a largely non-profit media organisation hasn’t stopped it being accused of media bias.

      • shorts 3.1.1

        if thats what it takes for a fair and unbiased media then yes

        unfortunately this wouldn’t be enough for the media to not be corrupt, unfair, biased and very firmly cheerleaders for the side of the fence they sit

        as citizens and humans we deserve better than the current market driven profit model has produced

        and the non profits too as the BBC has shown in the past 10+ years, as you say 

        wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to trust the media – something I was taught to do by both my parents and my educators (me = middle aged) 

        • Gosman

          Good to see you acknowledge that even a not for profit media doesn’t automatically remove bias.

          The point is people will see bias in media whatever happens. It is just the nature of the beast.

          • shorts

            most people don’t pick up on bias and blindly accept what they are feed

            again this is universal, its not a one side trumps the other affair


          • Draco T Bastard

            Good to see you acknowledge that even a not for profit media doesn’t automatically remove bias.

            The way to remove bias is regulation. Have it so that the media can’t propagate lies or misinformation and bias tends to go away. National won’t like that though as nearly everything they say is either lies or misinformation.

            • Blue

              Come on Bastard, neither will the left, the hysterical tears were flowing every time Goff fucked up during the election campaign and it was, shock horror, reported. You cannot regulate our own perception of bias and truth in politics onto others because it suits you. Its just fucking lame and undemocratic to want it and expect it. Otherwise we will have North Korea style reporting, even Fiji style, but without the unintentional humour.

              • Draco T Bastard

                Goff fucking up is human, John Key saying that people are lining up for free food because of their bad choices is John Key spreading lies and misinformation and should have been reported as such. Instead it was reported as gospel.

                • Gosman

                  Ummmmm… it was reported factually as in ‘The PM stated the following’. To try and argue that it is beholden on the media to determine the accuracy of people’s opinions, (which is what John Key is expressing here), and then to include them in a report is rather disturbing. I am reminded of Zanu-PF demanding any reporting of the ongoing land invasions in that country post 2000 needed to be couched in terms of ‘righting historical injustices’ and were keen on setting up essentially what you are calling for here, a media standards agency.

                  • Draco T Bastard

                    If the media don’t report the facts then people are misinformed. So, yes, it was beholden of the media to investigate John Key’s claim especially when the person making such bold and unsubstantiated claims happens to be the PM.

      • Like much of government media, BBC is vulnerable to supporting the status quo, and not rocking the boat in case they upset their funders.

        Have you ever listened to Democracy Now? You can have member-supported media that is only accountable to its audience, which reduces bias to the institutional ethic of the media outlet.

  4. ianmac 4

    “But threats to press freedom can come in much more insidious forms – and two recent instances make the point clearly.”
    That is the essence of the mode of operations of the Key machinations.

  5. randal 5

    what about the piss weak leader in yesterdays dompost about noise from appliances in the weekends.
    now who has a vested interest in selling noisy and basically useless goods to nincompoops?
    think how much worse it is when the whole system of patronage and social control is at stake then you will see the msm at their best.

  6. Uturn 6

    The “media” can combat Key’s clumsy blunderings in the blink of an eye, but as shorts states above, they are too self interested. If one outlet took a stand for freedom of press (and why shouldn’t they have the obligation to stand up for themselves?) the others would do their best to profit from it and the loss of face would be unbearable to them. And why would they take a stand? Drama is their product. Anyone arguing for the poor oppressed Press are arguing for the retention of the ruling classes favourite whore.

    Who here saw an article last week on the news about psychopaths in the workplace where the nation was tucked up in bed by soundbites from a company director assuring us that no companies had psychopaths on their boards. No one had even asked if boards of directors were psychopathic. And besides, they said, doesn’t it sound like the vague description of psychopathy offered describes everyone? Why, it would be ridiculous to even try to do identify anything anywhere. Oh gosh thank god for that.

    Then last night, the outcome of a trial yet to happen was decided by claims of the defendent living a “lavish lifestyle”. I guess that makes John Key a criminal too. And just this morning, a Herald story used here was so shallow in it’s research that it became lies of omission.

    There is nothing in the media that isn’t about maintaining or forwarding the interests of the status quo.

  7. stever 7

    Here’s an example of where a journalist doing their job would have said, to John Banks’ claim to have forgotten giving a reference to Mr Dotcom, “Surely your office keeps copies of letters you write? Can you ask and let me know whether you sent a copy if you can’t remember?”


    That’s just such an obvious thing to ask if you’re genuinely curious and want hold the powerful to account. (Why else be a journalist???).

    • Fortran 7.1

      A journalist is a person who works for money
      In order to “earn” that money they must sell advertising.
      So facts do not really matter whether they are left or right wing biased or pure crap as usual..
      Sell – otherwise you do not have a job.

  8. randal 8

    anyway the goal is to keep the nashnil party appointees out of the mix and letting them get their grubby little fingers on the programming.
    they have a nastly habit of beleiveing that they and only they know what is good for everybody else.

    • Gosman 8.1

      “they have a nastly habit of beleiveing that they and only they know what is good for everybody else.”

      That actully reads like a lot of lefty people on here. Of course I am sure the people on here saying it think that because it is ‘true’ it is okay though.

  9. Yes now John Key and the men in grey are back they will start making use of all those law changes made under urgency to suppress our freedoms through all forms of media so they are able to carry on with their plans to sell our country with as little opposition as possible.

    Did David Shearer say he would march to stop asset sales, I hope so because I will march as well.

    We saw how they overcame the problem of it being illegal to use a megaphone at marches at the Wall St gatherings, with success in creating great camaraderie, could be an interesting year. I wonder how long before we start seeing the new riot gear appearing to intimidate us, because Our Dear Leader has been displeased.

  10. Anne 10

    To make these points is not to attack the Prime Minister… It is, rather, a clarion call to journalists and to the public to stand up for press freedom and the independence of the media.

    The threat is always there, and it is particularly acute in the case of this Prime Minister – not because he is especially unprincipled or autocratic, but because his very popularity might encourage him to think he can get away with more than he should.

    I think that sums up the reason why John Key thinks he can attack (Gould is being diplomatic) the media and get away with it. Bluntly put, he’s suffering from a badly bloated head. Long may it remain so… because it will eventually bring him down with an almighty crash.

  11. Eduardo Kawak 11

    I love the internet. Many more sides to a story on here than in any brown-nosing, corporatised media outlet. Everybody knows the PM abused his power to stifle the teapot tapes and that now one of his lackeys is suggesting a law change to NZ On Air. But how do we know – unfortunately it’s those brown-nosing, corporatised media outlets that broke both stories.

    • Draco T Bastard 11.1

      Not sure if Scoop classifies as being a “brown-nosing, corporatised media outlet” yet.

    • Jum 11.2

      Eduardo Kawak,

      Considering the poor job the media have done from 2004 onwards to research Key properly, and his financial background, it’s about bloody time they were a bit more objective in watching a leader’s behaviour and how he has controlled both media and government to achieve an end that will end in tears for most New Zealanders.

      No instead it was a sickening love-in. I’ve never been so disgusted with the way Key was raised to god status in the media, all the while attacking first Clark, then Goff.

      I suggest you read the newspapers back a couple of decades Eduardo Kawak and realise that when media is privately owned it does the bidding of its owner and the journalists are equally owned. Some of them like it…

  12. Jum 12

    one of the comments: …Key Jong Il’… very appropriate – LOL. Wait for the secret police and the helicopters and the disappearances from blogsights of regular posters…

    Once I would have said I was kidding youse…

  13. Eduardo Kawak 13

    Too true about Scoop. That’s why I love the internet.

  14. Eduardo Kawak 14

    The dumbing down of NZ mainstream media is unfortunate as it the fact that it is primarily owned by foreign entities. But I don’t believe that democracy is at stake here, just quality journalism, which will still be an issue even after JK has left the building for Hawaii.

  15. ChrisH 15

    Here’s a stunningly good Dim Post blog (especially the comments actually) on the suppression of “For the Public Good” back in 1990: http://dimpost.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/bleg-2/ . Le plus ca change in the Banana Dominion.

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