One of the more intriguing features of New Zealand politics and political debate in recent years is, to my mind, the preparedness of appointed and self-appointed gate keepers to shut down any opportunity for informed political debate.
The gate keepers can range from the editors of suburban news-sheets who, in the 1970s and early 80s were ready to seize the chance to open their pages up to robust debate and exchanges of viewpoints by local political party activists regardless of persuasion. I can recall the local suburban papers offering regular columns to the local Political Parties and insisting on getting copy each fortnight on a contentious issue be it on a local, regional or national issue.
The same papers ran regular and, often quite large letters to the editor pages that encouraged an-imated discussion of political issues. In fact, if memory serves, the vitality of the letters to the editor writers to one regional newspaper (the Evening Standard of PN) was such that the paper managed to print an entire edition made up purely of such commentary when their journalists went on strike!!
A colleague has recently had occasion to search through the back issues of several suburban news-sheets published in Auckland from 1970 through to the present and noted that from the mid 1990s these papers had shed all pretence of encouraging local debate and had reduced their let-ters to the editor columns to one or two (on a good day four) innocuous letters and had removed the opinion columns offered to the Political Parties.
But, now, in 2014,the Editors appear to have lost that sense of local responsibility and involvement and have crept into a shelter of remarks like: “ We live in a very sensitive area so we must be cautious about what we publish…. if there is space left after we’ve placed our advertorial we may publish the story you so very kindly sent us… but you must realise…” The nett result is that in much of suburban New Zealand the chances of the local election campaign being reported will be little or none.
The gate keeping of debate and public interest discourse also extends into the local “Service Clubs” which were, once, organisations that actively encouraged discussion and debate amongst their members and community. One can recall a Rotary Club in the lower North Island hosting contentious speakers like J.K.Baxter, Nuclear Free Campaigners and other similarly vocal groups at their monthly meetings. But, it appears, not any longer.
While the following exchange may not be representative of the attitudes of Service Clubs in other parts of New Zealand the following example of the gate keeping and censorship of informed debate and discourse is anything to go by then the concept of informed debate and involvement in the community, particularly suburban communities, has long gone.
The newly selected Labour Candidate wrote to the different organisations in the electorate informing them of his selection and readiness to meet with them and, perhaps, address the members.
Dear Mr XXXXX (the Chair of the organisation),
My name is xxxxxx xxxx. I have been chosen by The New Zealand Labour Party to represent the xxxxxxxx Electorate to Parliament. The New Zealand Labour Party has a whole new team with some innovative new ideas to return the focus of government back on the business of serving the people of this country and their needs.
In the last two years that I have been living in xxxxxxx I’ve noticed that the conversation in our community has been one sided. As the New Zealand Labour Party candidate I am bringing the balance back to the conversation in our community, by discussing the role the Labour Party can play in solving the problems facing our country and our community.
If you and your organisation would like to join in on this conversation please contact my Campaign Secretary to book a time:
The internal correspondence within the local Rotary Club was inadvertently sent to the writer of the letter and read:
Well, as a bunch of socialistically minded people, we should embrace this opportunity! (Yeah Right!!!)
Who wouldn’t want to vote for David Cunliffe, Matt McCarten, The Union Movement, and an $18+ minimum wage, not to mention prospective deputy prime minister Dr Russell Norman?
I will leave it to you to ponder this difficult decision and to respond to Comrade xxxxxxxx.
Needless to say no response to the candidate was ever received as a follow up to the internal commentary.
One is, therefore, forced to wonder if there has developed both a climate of fear among local suburban news-sheet editors that their advertorial providers will withdraw their sponsorship if the News-Sheet dares to report contentious political issues and, if the self-appointed gatekeepers of local “Service Clubs” are unwilling to allow their membership the chance to engage in the political discussion and debate that would and does make for a vibrant and involved local community.
One cannot help but regard the bigotry of the writer of the “internal memo” from the local Rotary Club as being indicative of a malaise that has infected New Zealand much to the detriment of its democracy and informed debate on issues of importance to many New Zealanders.
Old Irascible blogs at The Irascible Curmudgeon