Monday, February 22, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“POLITICS AND THE MEDIA – Second Edition” edited by Geoff Kemp, Babak Bahador, Kate McMillan and Chris Rudd (Auckland University Press, $59:99)

One of the things I thought I would never do on this blog would be to review a textbook. Textbooks are designed for a specific audience, are basically exposition and explanation, and are not noted for the fireworks of their prose. Textbooks, by their very nature, are sober, clear, direct and (unless they are very unreliable textbooks) balanced in their views on any controversial issue. They are intended to guide students through an academic subject in the most helpful way possible. In short, they are generally dull.
But I could not resist reading and reviewing the new Second Edition (the First Edition came out in 2013) of Kemp, Bahador, McMillan and Rudd’s Politics and the Media first, because the subject interests me, and second, because it is a New Zealand book which gives some specifically New Zealand perspectives on its subject as well as global perspectives.
Let’s take as read the tell-tale signs that it is a textbook, its intended audience being fresher or sophomore students in Political Studies or Media Studies departments at any New Zealand tertiary institution.  At the end of each chapter there is a neat paragraph labelled “Conclusion”, allowing students to review the main arguments of the chapter they have just read. There are no illustrations or other distractions from the text – besides, I am sure the compilers of this text are savvy enough to know that nothing dates more quickly than a topical photograph related to the media, and they would not want their book to date too quickly. It should serve as a textbook for a few years at least. There is a brief bibliography at the end of each chapter (students have to be encouraged to do further reading). The binding is sturdy (the book will be thrust in and out of student bags and will suffer more than average ill usage). The print of its 350 pages is larger-than-average for easier reading.
So it’s a textbook.
Sixteen Media Studies and Political Studies academics (including the four editors) have written the book’s 20 chapters. The first twelve chapters deal with generic and global perspectives on media and politics. The last eight chapters deal specifically with the New Zealand scene. 10 of the 20 chapters were written by the editors.
Because they deal with the global scene, the first twelve chapters tend to be more general in what they say, but many of their observations can be translated into New Zealand terms. Take Geoff Kemp in his two opening chapters (on media and politics in general and on the history of media). He observes that: “The under-30s are viewing less and less linear (real-time) television, a change in media use that invites us to think about how it may change politics too.” (Geoff Kemp, Chap. 1, p.7) This statement is clearly as true of Wadestown as it is of Yonkers. Ditto the observation that: “Clearly the media operates at multiple levels – from the grassroots to the global – in its organisation, content and distribution, but the nation-state and national media remain at the core of political decision-making, though an increasingly globalised media is a challenge facing traditional nation-states.” (Geoff Kemp, Chap. 1, p.7) There is the odd but pervasive paradox that global interests dominate the media, but that audiences, readers and viewers are often attracted first to stories of what is national and/or local. Kemp also reminds us that modern media (“modern” meaning in the last 200 years or so) have altered radically the “imagined communities” which our minds inhabit, but that specific media technologies and delivery platforms are always changing. It is fashionable to see “broadcast” television and radio as being on the way out, but as Kemp remarks: “While history may one day confirm that the age of broadcasting has given way to a ‘narrowcasting’ new media era, for the moment television remains relatively young in media history terms and still relatively dominant as a political mass medium.” (Geoff Kemp, Chap. 2, p.36) There is still a lot of kick to radio and television, despite the rise of the internet, blogs, twitter and other social media. I appreciate also Kemp’s chapter on journalism and journalists in general, especially on journalists’ changing status “as traditional newsrooms shrink while the digital realm grows.” (Geoff Kemp, Chap. 5, p.72) While this chapter is a very general survey, and a little bland, it does at least give space to Robert Fisk’s thesis that there is always a tension between the desire for “balance” in journalism (which can often mean blandness or a lack of commitment) and the journalist’s desire to take a stand or be partisan.
In this part of the textbook concerned with general principles and the global scene, Babak Bahador weighs in with a chapter (Chap. 4, “The State and Propaganda”) which presents the very Chomskyite thesis [familiar to viewers of the long documentary Manufacturing Consent] that in a capitalist free market economy, the media become propaganda for capitalism by means of their ownership, their advertising, the sources that use, the organised “flak” they get from interest groups and their own implicit ideology. Having presented this view, however, Bahador has the balance to list all the objections of Chomsky’s critics. In his chapter (Chapter 7) on the media and foreign policy, Bahador notes that once upon a time, where international affairs were concerned, media generally tended to support the national interest – especially in times of war. Now, however, with the rise of 24-hour live coverage TV (“the CNN effect”), presentation of foreign affairs is much more dramatized and less likely to be so firmly in the national interest. Or is it? The question leads to the quandary of whether news services themselves set agendas or are simply the messengers of power elites. When he discusses (Chapter 8) the effect of the media upon issues of war and peace, Bahador notes the big effect the Vietnam War had in making American and other media less automatically patriotic; but, alas, there has been the rise of “militainment”, the fetishisation of military hardware and the tendency to present the combat of war as some sort of real-time computer game. On top of this, there is now the greater sophistication of the military in controlling media outlets or limiting relevant information, and the special problem of reporters “embedded” with the military and thus tending to view events as their friends the soldiers do. According to one media theorist whom Bahador cites “there is an inherent compatibility between news values and war and an incompatibility with peace processes. This is because the news media are attracted to stories characterised by immediacy, drama, simplicity and ethnocentrism.” (Babak Bahador, Chap.8, p.131).
I did take heed of the other chapters in Part One – Chris Rudd on how media research is undertaken (i.e. the problem of sources); Chris Rudd on the effect of media on citizens and politicians (i.e. the shift to a more fragmented media where the audience for any given platform is likely to be more limited and more partisan); and Maria Armoudian on how news stories are “framed” (i.e. into what narrative category the media choose to fit news stories). In the textbook’s global and generic section, however, the three most essential chapters seemed to me to be the following:
* Chris Rudd on the hard facts of media ownership and control (“Political Economy of the Media”, Chapter 3). His essential thesis is that: “Deregulation, privatisation and commercialisation – the touchstones of neoliberalism – have placed the production and distribution of information into the hands of few companies, with all the implications that has for the functioning of a modern democracy.” (Chris Rudd, Chap.3, p.40). He reports, for example, that four companies dominate New Zealand news media . In the print media are “NZME (New Zealand Media and Entertainment) and Fairfax Media. Together they account for nearly 90% of the daily circulation of New Zealand’s provincial and metropolitan newspapers. A similar situation exists in radio, with NZME, owners of the Radio Network (New Zealand’s largest radio broadcaster), and MediaWorks, owner of nearly a dozen radio stations.” (Chris Rudd, Chap.3, p.42) Further, economic imperatives mean “…the free market is likely to under-produce news about current affairs, government and public policies. It produces political news that tends towards soft news, focusing on the drama and entertainment of politics – for example, the personalisation and celebrification of political leaders in talk shows and political satires such as The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight in the United States, and 7 Days in New Zealand. This is not to say that soft news cannot inform; but the danger is it may come to overshadow or displace hard news rather than complement it.” (Chris Rudd, Chap.3, p.47) It is certainly displacing hard news in the New Zealand media.
* Then there is Geoffrey Craig (Chapter 6) on the matter of spin and of politicians’ techniques (often covert) for containing and controlling the media. The rise of media trainers coaching politicians on how to answer questions, how to avoid tricky subjects and how to evade really capable interviewers is discussed in detail: “Spin doctors will, for example, coach politicians to stay on message regardless of the nature of journalistic enquiries. They will also put pressure on journalists through persuasion, bullying and hectoring to try to influence the reportage of the journalist, and either raise or lower expectations about providing information. In addition, spin doctors seek to set and maintain the news agenda through a range of measures: planting stories, timing the release of information to maximise news coverage, diverting journalists from positive news about political opponents or unfavourable news about their charges, promoting political personalities, and kite-flying, where proposals are informally floated in order to gauge journalistic and public reaction before final decisions are made about a formal public release of information.” (Geoffrey Craig, Chap.6, p.96) Craig does, however, set some limitations on this. When the spin doctor himself becomes the centre of the story (as happened with Tony Blair’s Svengali, Alastair Campbell), then his effectiveness is limited. Moreover, even after the most assiduous application of spin, it will still be journalists who “frame” and prioritise stories.
* As for the third of the most impressive chapters in Part One, it is Donald Matheson discussing (Chapter 12) “The Power of Online Politics” – that is, how social media, often framed as a counter-force to traditional media, have an impact on political processes. Again, like other contributors, Matheson notes the current fragmentation of media: “… the traditional, professional media’s power is weakening. The economics of current affairs has become marginal as advertisers drift towards social media and online search advertising, leaving entertainment-style formats such as TVNZ’s Seven Sharp best able to justify their costs. In New Zealand, as in many Western media systems, the mass audience has fragmented, as has the power of old media to claim to convene the public. Moreover, these media are now held accountable themselves by emerging media. MediaWorks, which runs TV3, faced a campaign run through Facebook and the petitions site, Action Station, to save the current affairs show Campbell Live in 2015. Television’s long-held power to speak in behalf of the public has become more fragile.” (Donald Matheson, Chap. 12, p.188) Yet Matheson does not really see a totally new political environment arising from cyberspace, because much blogging is connected intimately to existing political elites: “Much of the critical enthusiasm for blogging since it emerged in the early 2000s focused on its potential to widen the space of public debate. Two major points were made: that there are more voices to be heard now in public life and that there is a better quality of debate. Examples such as the Whale Oil blog, as well as the weight of research, show that new forms of media such as blogging are far from [being] independent of existing structures of power.” (Donald Matheson, Chap. 12, p.190) In other words, familiar political games continue to be played in the blogosphere.
When we reach Part Two of Politics and the Media, the part of that deals specifically with New Zealand media, we have some necessary but worthy chapters such as the dry statistical analysis of how much time, and how much sympathetic reportage, the media have given to different political parties in the last three general elections (Chapter 13). I do not doubt the truth of the book’s last two chapters. Sue Abel speaks on Maori in political media (Chap.19) and says Maori history and concerns are distorted by the media. Susan Foutaine and Margie Comrie say that women politicians are trivialised or sexualised in New Zealand media (Chap.20). Unfortunately neither of these contentions is news.
I found myself more drawn to Bryce Edwards’ account (Chapter 14) of “party professionals” and the New Zealand media. In introducing his subject, Edwards remarks: “Occasionally… the public gets a glimpse of how the spin doctors and party professionals operate and this can be controversial as shown by the publication of Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics during the 2014 general election. This chapter looks at such controversies and other details of how politicians attempt to manage the media and information. It explains how the media strategies of politicians are becoming more covert and sophisticated, and suggests that the story told in Dirty Politics is merely a continuation of trends that have been apparent for decades.” (Bryce Edwards, Chap. 14, p.219) [Emphasis added.] In New Zealand, we too suffer from the plague or PR people and media trainers programming politicians to avoid, or divert attention from, hard questions; and of “focus groups” which coach politicians in selling themselves to the electorate without disclosing real policy details.
When Gavin Ellis (Chapter 15) examines the political role of newspapers, he gives a potted history of newspapers in New Zealand, which began with 19th century newspapers being set up specifically to promote the political views of their proprietors. Gradually, newspapers changed into vehicles of information which tried to be more subtle, and less overtly partisan, in their political preferences. Then came neoliberalism and: “There is ample evidence that [New Zealand newspapers] have enthusiastically embraced the marketing command to ‘give the people what they want’ (or what will induce them to buy the newspaper). The New Zealand Herald’s move to a tabloid format in 2012 has been accompanied by more tabloid content and front-page lead stories with headlines such as ‘My Shame’ (about a man convicted for surreptitiously photographing women) and ‘Body Falls From Hearse’. Good journalism appears as oases amid populist news stories. Other newspapers have followed suit with more entertainment-driven content and there has been a broad shift toward the British tabloid mantra ‘if it bleeds, it leads’.”(Gavin Ellis, Chap.15, p.244)
Kate McMillan’s account of “Radio and Politics in New Zealand” (Chapter 16) correctly notes how commercial formats allow politicians to appear on air without having to face hard political questioning which the likes of Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report and Checkpoint would subject them to. While she endorses the diversity of deregulation, she again notes how impoverished New Zealand political discourse would be without a credible and independent public radio system. Seasoned journalist Joe Atkinson says something similar in his chapter on politics and television (Chapter 17). When Ashley Murchison examines New Zealand’s online media (Chap.18), he issues the familiar warning that this does not herald a brave new world of informed, diverse and independent political commentary, but is as riddled with bias and partisanship as the more traditional media. Indeed the online commentariat is often more zealous in its partisanship than old mainstream media would dare to be: “Some of the more well-recognised and popular New Zealand blogs include Whale Oil, Kiwiblog, The Standard, The Daily Blog, The Dim Post, No Minister and Public Address…. The traditional left-right divide operates within this domain. Accordingly, while the blogs serve to provide basic information about contentious political issues, they also operate as a platform to encourage support for a particular side of the political spectrum… As such, it is not uncommon for prominent political bloggers to have well-established and sometimes controversial affiliations with political parties.” (Ashley Murchison, Chap.18, p.304)
Because it more directly affects you and me, I found most of the essays of Part Two to be more stimulating than those of Part One. Even so, I was constantly reminded that this is a textbook. When making a contentious or controversial statement, the collective authors tend to be measured and even in tone. I was hoping for a full-scale, no-holds-barred attack on the progressive trivialisation of New Zealand’s news services, to the point where only a few Radio New Zealand programmes offer genuine political analysis. A further thing I did not find in this stately tome was a systematic analysis of the education levels and social classes of the readers, viewer and listeners of mainstream New Zealand media (and the partakers in New Zealand social media), especially when the authors are discussing the impact of specific platforms. Perhaps such sociological analysis will be available in the Third Edition.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that a full-frontal attack on NZ's news services would have been more truthful and more satisfying. How many people in this country have noticed that our TV news networks are resembling Fox news by the day. It is deemed necessary (by whom?) to praise the leader regularly, to demean public protest (the TPPA was presented as an unkempt bunch of ignoramuses) and to plunge us into almost every aspect of American life - their gridiron, their celebs, their car crashes, their cyclones, etc. Where is the coverage of Bhutan and Paraguay? The 'news,' presented by overgroomed, colour-coordinated husband and wife autocue readers, is designed to tell us how to think, and when the material is right-wing propaganda, infotainment and crisis of the day, it's easy to imagine what gets discussed around the water cooler by the sheeple the next day at work. Why has no-one asked why John Campbell's investigative show was dumped, when its last broadcast gleaned 500,000 viewers? If programmes are all about advertising revenue, Campbell's demise was an aberration. Hosking, the National party's stooge, has been installed instead. Go figure. Left wing journalists have been sacked and replaced with those who toe the party line ('whores' might be a more apt description) and no mention can ever be made that this government has run up a (National!) debt of 104 billion dollars, nor that the political fulcrum both here and in the UK and Australia has shifted well to the right. To stay credible, Labour must be right wing. To get even a smidgeon of respect, the Greens have to nudge the centre line.. It is heartening at least to see that more people are going online for news and information, where there's a choice.