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Ian Lind • Online daily from Kaaawa, Hawaii

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A look at journalism in New Zealand

December 3rd, 2012 · 3 Comments · Media

Last week, a reader asked about the state of journalism in New Zealand.

I have to say that I’ve got only the minimal exposure while visiting for a week, so I don’t have much to contribute.

Television is much the same as here in the U.S., only perhaps with even less hard reporting in the typical newscast.

The focus, not surprisingly, is New Zealand and, not far behind, Australia. But not far behind them is news from London and the UK. That did surprise me. News of the U.S. was almost wholly absent.

We were told the idea of the New Zealand being “more like the NY Times than the British tabloids” is out of date. Like U.S. newspapers, the Herald is struggling to stay afloat and going “down-market” in a desperate search for new readers. During the week we were in Auckland, the paper was hit with another round of layoffs, the latest in more than a decade of ongoing cutbacks.

I was pointed to a recent assessment of NZ journalism by investigative reporter Nicky Hager, “Investigative journalism in the age of media meltdown: from National Party Headquarters to Afghanistan.”

That link will take you to an online version. You can also download it as a pdf.

It’s quite an insightful piece and a definite must read.

Hager first takes on the public relations industry and its transformation of journalism.

The public space in which politics can occur is crowded with huge numbers of well paid PR and “communications” staff. The news media can sometimes do independent and even spectacular work, but most of the time, on nearly every issue, the PR people are better resourced and more numerous. Most news, and often the angle, timing and quotes, do not come from journalists’ observations or journalists’ questions, but from the calculated efforts of PR and marketing people, media advisors, professional speech writers, ad agencies and so on, with journalists racing to rewrite the materials pouring in hour after hour in time for deadline.

He goes on:

We live in an era where the public spaces are cluttered with paid spokespeople and commercial agendas: where lobbyists for foreign-owned banks are more likely to be heard commenting on economic news than community groups, where legions of other PR people vie to promote their clients’ interests and where the public spaces available for real democratic activity are shrinking. This is about the cumulative impact of an ever-growing, professionalised industry for political and media manipulation: more and more paid manufacturing of news, more and more paid voices in so-called public discussion, greater influence of corporate election donations, fake community groups, more scripting of politicians by unseen advisers and so on; all of it tending to crowd out ordinary people or citizen groups that don’t have a PR company and a large advertising budget.

He also traces the long-term trends in NZ politics and the media’s failure to clearly and accurately assess and communicate what is happening.

He has clear ideas of the future of investigative journalism as community based.

I believe that the best way to have more investigative journalism in New Zealand and other countries is to broaden the idea of who can do it. The main people who do good investigative journalism already, without using the term, are documentary makers and authors. I look forward to the day when they are better linked, sharing skills, support and a sense of mission. What about academics? Or accountants, the perfect investigators for many subjects? And scientists, the perfect investigators for other sorts of subjects? What about the environment group researchers who do better research on fisheries or forest logging than the news media, and the human rights researchers who have done the best work uncovering and documenting human rights abuses? Part time, occasional, in retirement or when the kids have gone to bed: society needs investigative journalism and we need an inclusive enough definition so that there are enough people to do it.
As the economics of journalism change, media of the future need to be receptive to high quality investigative work by people who don’t happen to have done a journalism degree. The employment conditions of all academics and scientists, and even public servants, of the future should include encouragement to produce socially important writing aimed at mass media.

In other words, investigative journalism should be defined by what it is and how it is done, not by who does it.

Rather than grabbing additional long quotes, I’ll just give this another enthusiastic recommendation. Read it!

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  • cwd

    Mahalo – Ian. Sounds just like what we read and hear in the US and other First World countries.

  • Patty

    New Zealand and Australia were once colonies of England, so it is not surprising the source of news. In Otorohanga, I met a lady with the same maiden name from Scotland. We were I Invited to their farm for lunch. Later they visited us on the Mainland while on a self tour of Canada and US. I would imagine that NZ has more in common with British football than American.

  • compare and decide

    By the way, the word ‘public relations’ was thought up by Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew and the first public relations guru. The original term used in the American business world for their public relations efforts was ‘propaganda’, but the public hated the term.

    There is a four-hour BBC documentary, “Century of the Self”, on the way Freud’s ideas were appropriated by western governments and corporations. You can see it here free:

    http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-century-of-the-self/

    From the wiki:

    The Century of the Self is an award-winning British television documentary series by Adam Curtis. It focuses on how the work of Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and Edward Bernays influenced the way corporations and governments have analyzed,? dealt with, and controlled ?people.

    “This series is about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.” —Adam Curtis’ introduction to the first episode.

    Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, changed the perception of the human mind and its workings. His influence on the twentieth century is generally considered profound. The series describes the propaganda that Western governments and corporations have utilized stemming from Freud’s theories.

    Freud himself and his nephew Edward Bernays, who was the first to use psychological techniques in public relations, are discussed. Freud’s daughter Anna Freud, a pioneer of child psychology, is mentioned in the second part, as is one of the main opponents of Freud’s theories, Wilhelm Reich, in the third part.

    Along these general themes, The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of modern consumerism, representative democracy, commodification and its implications. It also questions the modern way we see ourselves, the attitudes to fashion and superficiality.

    The business and political world uses psychological techniques to read, create and fulfill our desires, to make their products or speeches as pleasing as possible to us. Curtis raises the question of the intentions and roots of this fact. Where once the political process was about engaging people’s rational, conscious minds, as well as facilitating their needs as a society, the documentary shows how by employing the tactics of psychoanalysis, politicians appeal to irrational, primitive impulses that have little apparent bearing on issues outside of the narrow self-interest of a consumer population.

    Paul Mazur, a Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers in the 1930s, is cited as declaring “We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. [...] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs”.

    Episodes

    1. Happiness Machines (17 March 2002)
    2. The Engineering of Consent (24 March 2002)
    3. There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed (31 March 2002)
    4. Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering (7 April 2002)

    In Episode 4 the main subjects are Philip Gould and Matthew Freud, the great grandson of Sigmund, a PR consultant. They were part of the efforts during the nineties to bring the Democrats in the US and New Labour in the United Kingdom back into power. Adam Curtis explores the psychological methods they have now massively introduced into politics. He also argues that the eventual outcome strongly resembles Edward Bernays vision for the “Democracity” during the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It is widely believed that the series was inspired and informed by a book written by the American historian, Stuart Ewen, “PR! A Social History of Spin”.

    So public relations extends beyond consumerism. In fact, one might argue that Hawaii has always been on the cutting edge of corporate/political public relations. Tom Coffman’s book “Catch a Wave”, about the public relations campaign that kept Governor John Burns in power in 1972 against a lieutenant governor who was more popular than he, documents a public relations campaign that was studied nationally after the election. (I believe more money was spent on the 1972 Hawaii gubernatorial primary election than on the national primaries of that year.) Someone writes in an Amazon review of the book:

    For anyone interested in modern Hawaii politics or image-making in political campaigns this one’s a must-read. Catch A Wave is focused primarily around the rise and final political victory of Hawaii’s first elected governor after statehood, John Burns. Many factors unique to Hawaii’s changing society are laid out in an easy to read and somewhat dramatic fashion. The real climax of this book for me was Burns’ 1970 primary victory over Gary Gill [sic], his idealistic & rather sharp-tongued lt. governor who had significant leads weeks and months before the primary election day. What led to his victory was a highly organized (with longtime support) and expensive media campaign using advertising consultants near and far to promote the greatest attributes of ‘The Great Stone Face’. This may not seem like anything really significant now, but back in the late 1960′s and 1970 the research and campaign of the Burns camp was ahead of it’s time. The American Association of Political Consultants reviewed Burns’ campaign along with five others following the general election. The International Association of Political Consultants chose the Burns campaign (the only American campaign) as one of two to be reviewed. His sixty-second collage testimonials won top honors at the fourth annual International Film Festival.

    This all might sound familiar after a certain mayoral campaign on Oahu in 2012.

    How does all this advanced public relations in Hawaii affect the local culture? I have had mainlanders remark to me on how slick and polished Hawaii’s TV advertising is, whereas local ads on TV elsewhere, even in Los Angeles, are rather simple and primitive. (I thought that perhaps tourism might be an influence on the slickness of advertising in Hawaii, but Los Angeles has tourism and Hollywood.) What makes this more remarkable is that Hawaii’s local culture is not slick. However, there could be an Asian influence, like when it comes to wedding photos, which are much more artistic in Asia and Hawaii as opposed to the US in general.

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