15 June 2008

Democracy under threat is the slogan under which the APN media empire, publishers of the New Zealand Herald and New Zealand Listener have campaigned against the New Zealand government's Electoral Finance Act, and, implicitly, against the New Zealand Labour Party's attempt to secure a fourth term on the Treasury benches.

On the surface the problem appears to be one of conflict between a Labour-led government which is trying to limit the power of moneyed interests to dictate the outcome of the electoral process and a news media which is protecting its traditional right to publish whatever material it deems fit.   But at a fundamental level the conflict between the New Zealand Herald and Helen Clark's government is symptomatic of an ongoing power struggle between the two main pillars of a modern democratic regime, the elected executive authority on the one hand and the news media on the other.

The conflict between the Labour Party and APN  has implications for parties other than Labour and its allies in the House of Representatives, as the outcome will determine whether there will be  a shift in political power from the third to the fourth estate, or vice versa.   In a modern democracy political parties and the mass media have complementary roles.  Politicians need the support of the mass media, and the mass media needs the cooperation of politicians.   Politicians and the media must be partners in the political process, but they are not necessarily equal partners: one or other tends to be dominant, and as the membership of  political parties has inexorably waned, the influence of the mass media has waxed commensurately.   Press, radio and television journalists, sensing their increasingly dominant role in the political relationship, are no longer, as a rule, politely deferential to politicians.    Often hectoring, sometimes insulting, they contrive to give the impression that they, rather than the politicians, are the people's tribunes.  They arrogate to themselves the right to speak for the ordinary man and woman in the street, routinely employing  the word "we" to signify their claim to speak on behalf of all.   They intervene in judicial processes, through "trial by television" in which they conduct their own public investigations and interrogations of "suspects".   They selectively publish information from confidential police files in an attempt to prejudice the outcome of cases before the courts.   They institute their own blatantly biassed "public referenda" based on payment of a fee for the right to vote.

All in all, as the power of political parties declines, and the influence of the media grows, the media have become more assertive, more intrusive and more presumptuous in their relations to all other social institutions.   They have set up quasi-judicial and quasi-electoral systems which effectively undermine the sovereign authority of the state itself.   In the final analysis, the power of the media is limited by the fact that it is still the politicians, not the media, who enact law and administer the state, and it is still judges and juries, not the media, who determine judicial outcomes.   But the Australian media barons lack of direct access to political power in New Zealand (such as media magnate Silvio Berlusconi enjoys in Italy)  has only made them even more determined to enhance their ability to exercise indirect control over the political process.

This they are able to achieve to a large degree, thanks to the fact that they control virtually all daily newspapers in New Zealand, and most of the major radio stations.   Monopoly control of the news media provides the Australian media corporations (Fairfax and APN) with the power to manage the flow of information in New Zealand society.   Yet the basis of their power is a fragile one.   Just as absurdly small numbers of  "samizdat" or hand-printed, hand-circulated dissident news sheets managed to undermine and crack the regime's news media monopoly in the former Soviet Union, so the New Zealand media is at risk whenever any alternative source of news and information becomes accessible to even a small proportion of the general public.

This was the case around the orchestrated media campaign to "rehabilitate" the Vietnam war in the context of the government's "Tribute 08" campaign.   "Tribute 08" could only achieve its objectives by completely misrepresenting and obscuring the true causes and conduct of the war - in other words by adopting the technique of the "big lie".    The problem with the "big lie" is that it only works well where one can exercise absolute control over the provision of information to the public.   In an attempt to deny APN that privilege, and to provide information about the true character of the war which had been suppressed by APN, Fairfax, and the state media, I stationed myself on the public footpath outside APN's Auckland headquarters with a placard carrying quotes from seven New Zealand war veterans indicating New Zealand complicity in war crimes in Vietnam.   APN's reaction was to send out an executive who ordered me to move away from the vicinity of the APN building.   When I declined, APN sent a uniformed security guard in an attempt to move me on.  When that failed they sent three uniformed security guards.   When that also failed they called upon the New Zealand Police for assistance.    The New Zealand Police declined to intervene on behalf of APN, quite rightly recognising that to do so would be futile and counter-productive.

It might seem surprising that APN, fresh from waging its "democracy under threat" campaign  complete with symbolic representations of physically gagged New Zealand citizens, should go to such extraordinary lengths to try to prevent one individual from putting information to the public which would tend to undermine the "big lie" of "Tribute 08".    But it is also understandable.   APN is terrified that at some point its power to determine what the people of New Zealand see, hear, and know about what is going on in the world will be compromised by the emergence of inconvenient and uncontrollable sources of information.

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of particular issues, there is a problem inherent in the increasing power and presumption of the mass media, namely that, unlike the politicians of the third estate, the journalists of the fourth estate have no system of accountablility.   They are not elected.   They cannot be questioned as they question others.   They have no equivalent of parliamentary debating protocols.  They alone determine which voices shall be heard in the public forum, and which shall not.  They are pretty much a law unto themselves.

The real threat to democracy does not come from the Electoral Finance Act, which was nothing more than an impetuous, futile and misconceived attempt to cut out a gangrene which is already well established in the body politic.    Democracy in New Zealand, and throughout the western world, is in deep trouble for three main reasons, which are inter-related, and which are a product of the interaction of the democratic system with the economic, technological and social development of industrial capitalism.

The first factor is the growing power and influence of vested interests: corporations and lobby groups which provide the funding for political parties, and which have the potential to either facilitate or obstruct the economic and social aspirations of the state.

The second is the tendency of democratic governments to accede to the demands of those vested interests by introducing policies for which they have no public mandate.   For example the New Zealand Labour government's economic reforms of the nineteen eighties, and the British Labour government's participation in the Iraq war.

The third is the general unwillingness of the population of the western democracies to engage in the democratic process, as manifest in the miniscule numbers who are active members of political parties, and the large numbers, typically from 25% to 50% of eligible voters, who do not participate in general elections.

It seems safe to assume that Helen Clark's Labour government will be ousted at the next election, that the Electoral Finance Act will be repealed.    But regardless of whether the Act stays or goes, APN and Fairfax will continue to exercise a malign influence upon the electoral process,  and public trust in the democratic system of government will continue its inexorable downward slide.