Political lessons in a small country

ADDRESS TO REMUERA ROTARY 6 NOVEMBER 2017

I covered my first New Zealand general election half a century ago.

I was a cadet reporter on the Auckland Star and the chief reporter realised I couldn’t get into too much trouble covering election campaign gatherings in Arthur Faulkner’s safe Roskill seat and Hugh Watt’s equally safe Onehunga seat. They were – by today’s standards – surprisingly well attended and my first lesson was that politicians develop a sense of entitlement in safe seats.

Three years later I was in the parliamentary press gallery and traveling with Norman Kirk on his unsuccessful ’69 election campaign. Keith Holyoake was still firmly holding the Treasury benches and we members of the Press Gallery were suitably deferential to a man who had been Prime Minister since 1960 (leaving aside a short stint in 1957). This appeared to be the ultimate in status quo. Three years later, however, Holyoake and his dogged conservatism were out of favour, the party had removed from him office and went on to be defeated by Kirk.  The lesson here was that, in politics, there’s no such thing as an immovable object.

I went off on a brief foray into public relations. I returned to journalism just as things were about to change.

On the last day of August 1974, I was in the newsroom of the Sunday Herald – a short-lived foray into the weekend market by Wilson & Horton. It was a quiet Saturday night and the paper would shortly be ‘put to bed’. The phone rang. “Muldoon here. Have you heard about the Prime Minister?” Kirk had been ill and was in hospital. I asked Rob Muldoon if Kirk’s condition had deteriorated. There was genuine upset in his voice. “I am very sorry to have to tell you that Prime Minister Kirk is dead.” Norman Kirk was one of the few – perhaps the only – political adversaries that he regarded as his equal and I had witnessed a rare display of humanity from the man who was making an indelible mark on the way politics in New Zealand was conducted. The lesson here was that respect was not bestowed by office but had to be earned.

The following year Muldoon was prime minister and the age of adversarial politics had well and truly arrived. Muldoon took no political prisoners – I had to interview a distraught Colin Moyle during the so-called Moyle Affair when Muldoon accused the labour MP of homosexual activities.

I hope Muldoon came to regret that episode…but I doubt it. However, that rare display of humanity at Kirk’s death was not a one-off.

For several years I had the task of going to Hatfield’s Beach to interview Muldoon for an end-of-year story. On several occasions, he told me off the record about things that displayed a surprising level of compassion. It was never, however, directed at his political opponents. Only at ordinary members of the public. He quietly arranged to help a number of common folk beyond the glare of publicity. Perhaps he didn’t want to weaken a fearsome reputation. The lesson I learned from Muldoon is that politicians are very complex beings and should not be taken at face value.

I was out of the Herald for much of the Lange era involved in non-journalistic activities for Wilson & Horton. I had known David quite well when he was a lawyer working in the Magistrate’s Court, where he was helpful and affable and was regarded as something of a champion of the downtrodden. Lange the politician was a different kettle-of-fish. Once back in the editorial department I had the unedifying experience of hearing him support then labour leader Bill Rowling in public only to criticise him in private. That episode told me that politics can change a man.

I was well-and-truly in the thick of it with the next three prime ministers as editor and editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald.  I feel immense pride in the fact that Jim Bolger, Jenny Shipley, and Helen Clark each referred to the paper (and to me) as “the opposition”. It meant we were doing our job, holding them to account irrespective of the colours on their mast. And we had some interesting face-to-face encounters.

I recall Bolger stabbing his finger at the lead story in the Herald on my desk one day when he came to visit. No greeting or preamble. He simply walked in and declared: “That story’s wrong!” Every time I said the story was correct, he repeated “That story’s wrong!” We had to agree to disagree. The story was, in fact, confirmed as correct and the lesson I learned was that the politician’s default position is to never admit they’re wrong.

In December 2001 the Labour government attempted to use an omnibus bill to push through legislation that would have seriously eroded freedom of expression. I convened a meeting of all mainstream media and effectively we told Helen Clark that we – press, radio, television and magazines — would be unable to cover the next general election if her government proceeded with provisions to reintroduce criminal libel laws. It was signed by 14 editors and heads of news.

The provision was removed, the Prime Minister said, “in the spirit of Christmas”. The lesson here was that politicians can be made to see sense by appealing to their self-interest…or by putting them a corner.

Since the Clark years I have been able to take a more detached view of politics. I spent most of my working life hostage to the reporter’s Five –Ws: Who, what, when, where and why. In 2005, I retired from the Herald and, as an academic at Auckland University, my emphasis has been less on the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ and more on the ‘why’. My excursions into theory have been tempered, however, by that exposure to politics and politicians for half a century.

That theory tries to keep pace with rapidly changing dynamics in both politics and the media. However, over time a number of ‘givens’ have emerged in relation to elections and the way the media cover them.

The most obvious is the way elections are characterised. Almost invariably the analogy is a sporting one. Elections are races, often horse races: fields of competing entries, a gruelling distance, the winning post.

Yet again we found these metaphors in the 2017 election coverage and … as it turned out after Winston Peters’ lengthy deliberations …the racing analogy ended with a trifecta payout. Had Bill English faced Andrew Little we also would have seen it characterised as a boxing match, probably with two old sluggers – one with a weight and reach advantage – battling it out.  The late withdrawal of Little robbed the media of the boxing analogy. Somehow it would be unseemly to put a woman in the ring with Battler Bill.

Political theory also states that media will engage in agenda-setting – telling the public what is should regard as most important. The media did that in relation to housing and mental health. Today, however, an army of communications people and spin doctors are determined to put the shoe on the other foot and dictate terms to media. I think that happened in at least one instance that I’ll return to shortly.

Agenda-setting is one of a number of news frames that political scientists have identified. There are also what are known as thematic frames that help people to understand and contextualise campaign messages.

I think our newspapers did a better job this time in setting out and comparing party policies utilising this form of framing but they also indulged in strategic framing which attempts to depict the motivation and personal traits of the players. This was certainly to the fore in the seemingly endless commentary on possible coalition partners and Winston the King (or Queen) maker.

These are characteristics that we have come to expect from media coverage of our elections but this was an unusual election in a number of respects: First we had Greens co-leader Metiria Turei scoring an own-goal over benefit payments. I refuse to lay blame for her demise at anyone’s feet but her own and certainly not the media’s. It did, however, force media to recalibrate their thinking on coalitions.

Then Peter Dunne saw the writing on the wall and probably consigned the United Future Party to history. Ohariu was now in play. However, it was Jacinda Ardern’s 11th hour elevation to the leadership that was the game changer that breathed new life into media coverage. It had the element of surprise, her youth, her gender, the inevitable comparisons with ‘Aunty Helen’ Clark, then some policy shifts and a sense among media that Labour was going through a rejuvenation. I think it’s fair to say the media responded predictably.

However, there were two aspects that I was particular interested in monitoring and neither was directly related to Jacindamania. In fact, what I was looking for was the possible repetition of events that had occurred in the Northern Hemisphere.

Three elections last year – the US presidential election, the Brexit referendum in the UK and the French presidential election – produced characteristics that caught both participants and observers off-guard. One phenomenon was the appearance of fake news and its close relation ‘alternative facts’ and the other was the failure of polls to accurately predict the outcome of either vote.

Let’s briefly recall what happened, beginning with fake news and alternative facts.

In the U.S. presidential primaries and the election this took three forms:

  • Misinformation at the hands of the Trump camp ranging from implicating a primary candidate’s father in the assassination of John Kennedy to raising doubts about Hilary Clinton’s health.
  • Revenue-generating click bait (sourced out of Macedonia and similar locations) such as the claim that the Democrats were running a paedophile ring from a Washington pizza parlour. These posts were financially motivated and attracted programmatic or computer-organised advertising and payments from the likes of Facebook and Google to their originators. One perpetrator made $US60,000 in six months and he lived in a village where the average annual income was $4800.
  • Facebook and other social media disinformation posts and advertisements created by Russian-based accounts, particularly around election day – reaching, in the case of Facebook, some 126 million Americans. This included false information about vote casting.

In the Brexit referendum, a false claim than Britain was sending £350 million a week to the EU – money that could be spent on the National Health Service – survived the most forthright denials. It was one of the most-cited ‘facts’ of the campaign. In France within days of the election Marine Le Pen’s National Front allegedly spread false stories about so-called secret offshore accounts held by Emmanuelle Macron. That one failed in its aim.

In the weeks leading up to the US election, fake news outperformed real news. Why? Because the purpose of fake news is to appeal to pre-existing attitudes. People believed what they wanted to be true.

Hence, in the aftermath of the election, Trump supporters accepted the Trump camp’s claim that he mustered the largest inauguration crowd in history in spite of demonstrable photographic evidence to the contrary. Trump supporters convinced themselves that the Obama inauguration photos must have been doctored and, in any event, they preferred Sean Spicer’s ‘alternative facts’. The same applied to Brexit supporters and France’s far right in this post-truth environment.

‘Post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016. It defined it as: ‘… circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

Why fake news and alternative facts are effective is fairly obvious. It reinforces beliefs, biases and – at times – bigotry. Acceptance is much more comforting than critical analysis and objective appraisal that might disprove pre-existing beliefs.

I wanted to see, therefore, whether fake news, alternative facts and post-truth manifested themselves in our election and whether our media was able to remedy the misinformation. But before I go there, let me mention the other phenomenon – the failure of public opinion polls to accurately predict the outcome.

In both the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election the polls were wrong.

In the case of the former, researchers believe it was due to the failure of younger voters (whose ‘stay’ preferences had been captured by pollsters) to actually get out and vote. In the U.S. the pollsters are still trying to get to the bottom of their ‘failure’. Possible reasons offered so far include the possibility that the weighting could be wrong, that the undecided element went for Trump at the last moment, that telephone polling is flawed, that the Rust Belt was inadequately polled…the list goes on.  So, my second focus of interest was on how well the polls performed here.

But for the moment let’s return to fake news.

I didn’t think we would see the sort of fake news that we saw coming out of Macedonia in the U.S. election. No aberrant pizza parlours, no endorsement of a candidate by the Pope. There wasn’t enough money in a small country like this. Nor did I think we would see the Kremlin cast its dark shadow. Again, we are small fry.  I was right. Neither was apparent in the New Zealand campaign.

But we did have instances of fake news, although one politician will probably go to his grave maintaining it was the truth.

I found only one example of third party fake news – and I’m discounting the hermetically sealed ravings of social media users to their ‘friends’ that did not get outside their silos into the mainstream. The example I did find was unfortunate.

It was a misguided attempt by a Down’s Syndrome support group to shout down Labour’s abortion policy by claiming erroneously that the party supported full-term abortion. Media correctly reported that Labour’s policy was to remove abortion from the Crimes Act and have it put within a regulated context that made sure it was safe – not to alter the laws relating to termination periods. The criticism of the support group was valid but sad.

There were, however, two examples of what I might charitably call ‘alternative facts’. One was Stephen Joyce’s claim of an $11.7 billion ‘hole’ in Labour’s costings of its policies. The other was claims by National ministers that labour’s proposed water tax would add up to $100,000 a year to farmers’ costs, push the cost of a bottle of wine to $75 and see cabbages sold for $18 each.

In both cases media organisations moved quickly to subject the claims to fact-checking processing. In the case of the deficit, journalists consulted a wide range of economists none of whom could find Mr Joyce’s black hole. In the case of the water levies the sums showed that they would have much lower impact.

The experts’ rejection of the $11.7 billion deficit largely took the wind out of Mr Joyce’s sails and Bill English, while supporting his minister, did not allow himself to be drawn into the issue in the televised debates.  As the old maps used to say: There be dragons.

However, in spite of media attempts to use their fact-checking to similarly debunk the water tax assertions, this one stuck…with the rural community at least. Labour did not help itself by failing to produce irrefutable financial analysis and by waffling on tax policy generally. However, here was an example of the underlying reason why fake news and alternative facts are persuasive: The rural community wanted to believe the alarm bells. Combine the word ‘tax’ (not Labour’s ‘levy’) and a degree of uncertainty and those potentially affected wanted to believe it would be the death of them. The spin doctors kept the water issue on the agenda, beating the media in the agenda-setting role and applying strategic frames to question the motives and integrity of Labour and the Greens. And they managed to keep the attention squarely on poor honest farmers and the spectre of a tax-hungry labour Party — not on the more widely acceptable royalty on water exports.

I think the media had the best of intentions in applying fact-checking to claims made during the election. In doing so they were following in the laudable footsteps of American institutions like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Politico. Unfortunately, the meagre and diminishing resources of New Zealand media meant they applied the process at irregular intervals.

They were, however, supplemented by the digital news start-ups that have usurped blogs that have generally failed to understand the distinction between fact and comment. Newsroom.co.nz and The Spinoff made positive contributions during the election campaign. Newsroom’s Bernard Hickey was at the forefront of questioning Joyce’s fiscal hole and the website combined forces with the Financial Times to investigate the background of National list MP Jian Yang and his connections with Chinese intelligence organisations. For its part, The Spinoff brought a necessary younger perspective and edgy analysis to the campaign. I no longer see outlets like this – and Richard Harman’s Politik website – as optional extras. They have proven themselves valuable members of the media mix.

They are valuable because our newspapers and particularly their websites have developed a predisposition toward substituting emotion-riddled leads-that-bleed for public interest journalism…even during an election campaign. Crime and serious injury could still push politics off the front page and particularly from the top of the website homepage. There was a time when those stories would merit a tragic but proportionate brief on page three

Let me now come back to the polls.

I have to admit I went into the election fearful that our pollsters would suffer the same fate as their American and British counterparts. I don’t get overly excited by individual polls which, at best, are single snapshots, some of which have made blurred by reduced sample sizes. I have more faith in the aggregations of figures to provide an averaging of forecasts – the poll of polls. However, if our polls largely followed their foreign counterparts they could all be wrong and such averaging would stand for nothing.

In the event the poll of polls calculation was remarkably accurate in forecasting the election outcome of the two major parties. The public were well-served by media producing these averages across several polls. The final Radio NZ poll of polls before election day put National on 45.1% and Labour on 37.2%. The final count was National 44.4% and Labour 36.9% — close enough for me to say that our pollsters came through unblemished…on average.

I was also interested to see whether the much-vaunted leaders debates on television influenced the polls. Controversy, of course, surrounded these debates before they even took place. TVNZ received a petition signed by 76,000 people ‘demanding’ that Mike Hosking did not moderate their two leaders debates.

My view was that, although Hosking was capable of behaving in a professional manner, his undisguised support for the Right could give Bill English a hometown advantage and I felt that unfair. In the event, Hosking moderated the TVNZ debates and did so in a thoroughly professional manner. And I don’t think either produced a clear winner. The fear with the TV3 debate was that political editor Patrick Gower would be too over-the-top for sensible debate. That did not eventuate either but, again, there was no killer outcome. In fact, the most informative leaders debate, I thought, was a town hall gathering organised by The Press in Christchurch and televised on its Stuff website. It was level-headed, well-moderated and informative.

Did the debates affect the polls and the outcome? I doubt it. Did ‘alternative facts’ have an effect on the outcome? I suspect the water levy could have confirmed pre-existing preferences. Why didn’t ‘fake news’ turn things on their head? Why did the polls get it right when they could be so wrong elsewhere?

I think the answer lies in the fact that New Zealand is not a deeply polarised society. Our political leanings are toward the centre and not the extremes of the spectrum. And, in spite of what you might think, our media are not deeply partisan (oppositional perhaps, but not the implacable flag-wavers of the Right or Left that we see elsewhere).

And we are a small country where the stakes are not as high as they might be elsewhere. And being a small country may make poll samples and the application of scientific weighting more accurate. The average size of poll sample in the US is 1000 people (among a population of 200 million and a land mass of almost 10 million square kilometres). Sample sizes in New Zealand are typically 800 to 1000 (in a population of less than 5 million and a land mass of less than 270,000 square kilometres). Both assume a margin of error of ± 3%. Perhaps our pollsters benefitted from lack of scale.

Finally, how influential were the media? I suspect this was one election where the media had less influence than nine years of government – successful stewardship or time for a change – and a fresh young face that took overall voter turnout to almost 80% and the 18 to 29-year-old voter turnout up by more than 10%. And, at the end of the day, it was an election where neither the media nor 2,591,896 voters had as much influence on the formation of the present government as New Zealand First leader Winston Peters – the Queenmaker.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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