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Dr Muriel Newman

Technology Changes Democracy

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Internet3The IT revolution is dramatically changing how we live, in a way that is probably just as profound as the agrarian and industrial revolutions of previous ages.  This new revolution has given people control over the way they communicate – in a manner that few of us could have ever imagined.

As with all revolutions, change has casualties. Not so many years ago the Post Office was the central hub of most communities, but having access to email and Skype means that most of us don’t see the need to send letters or even Christmas cards anymore. As a result NZ Post is cutting back on services and no doubt Post Offices will close because they no longer satisfy consumer needs.

The changes are equally as dramatic in the newspaper industry. As readers switch from print to on-line editions, advertisers are looking for other ways to promote their businesses. The fall in revenue has caused newspapers to shed staff and cuts costs. The adverse effects of this dramatic downsizing of the print media industry are flowing onto paper mills, forestry, transport, and service towns.

The changes to democracy are equally profound – but more on that later.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist and former Editor of the Dominion newspaper. Karl has been following developments in the newspaper industry closely, and in his article Newspapers lose readers and revenue, examines the nature of the crisis:

Dismal financial results reported recently by the two big newspaper groups, APN News and Media and Fairfax Media, confirmed what had long been obvious: that the newspaper industry is reeling from the impact of the internet. Both companies are struggling with high debt and declining revenue. Like newspaper publishers worldwide, they are dealing with a crisis of a magnitude never before encountered and sometimes give the impression of having no clue what to do next. The industry is bleeding and morale could hardly be described as buoyant.

Karl believes that the Australian ownership of most of our newspapers has significantly contributed to the decline, but he also blames the ‘feminisation’ of media content. “Before the feminist lynch mobs assemble, I should explain … it’s not female journalists I’m concerned about – far from it – but the creeping feminisation of newspaper content. By this I mean the increasing proportion of newspaper space devoted to ‘soft’ topics – fluffy human interest stories, gossipy items and lifestyle-oriented content better suited to women’s magazines. Some call it latté journalism. In metropolitan papers especially, café reviews and profiles of celebrity chefs, fashion designers, baristas and TV personalities have displaced investigative reporting and traditional ‘hard’ news about events and issues of importance.” To read Karl’s excellent analysis, click HERE.

The consequence of this trend from investigation to fluff is far reaching. The free press has a crucial role to play in democratic affairs. As the Fourth Estate, the media should stand as the fourth pillar of a free democracy – alongside the Executive, Parliament, and the Judiciary – acting not only as a watchdog over government, but as a fearless defender of free speech.

But the problem is that as resources that once provided serious in-depth investigative journalism are re-directed into soft entertainment, the ability of mainstream media to fulfil its crucial Fourth Estate role is being compromised. One only needs to look at the changes in the crucial post-news 7pm slot at our state television broadcaster TVNZ to see the trend, as the highly regarded investigative Holmes Show morphed into the ‘lighter’ Closeup, which has now abandoned all pretence at serious investigation to become an unashamedly fluffy ‘Seven Sharp’.

These changes are leaving the public increasingly exposed to the spin of vested interest groups masquerading as news.

NZCPR reader Robin Grieve has taken exception to one such instance of this by lodging a complaint to TVNZ for incorporating Treaty propaganda into their Waitangi Day news coverage. The complaint involves the usage of the Treaty activists’ line that the Treaty of Waitangi is the Nation’s ‘founding document’ by a news reader who stated in her introduction: “… from the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi where the Nation’s founding document was first signed 173 years ago”.

In his letter Robin made the case that the Treaty is not the Nation’s founding document, but was simply an agreement between the British Government and the natives of New Zealand. He argues that it was the 1852 New Zealand Constitution Act that gave the country nationhood status through the right of self government and that it is this Act that should be described as our ‘founding document’.

Robin also asserted that the newsreader was promoting misinformation at a crucial time when political activists are pushing for a Treaty of Waitangi constitution: “The news reader’s words will elevate the Treaty in the minds of people who have not researched the facts beyond what it is. There is also debate over the importance of the Treaty and its significance and whether it should be included in any constitution.  Opinions vary and that is to be expected and news readers should play no role in shaping people’s opinions other than in presenting facts on which they can base them.”

In their reply, the Complaints Committee of TVNZ stated that they could not identify any errors of fact: “The Treaty of Waitangi is widely accepted and known as the founding document of New Zealand and it is therefore accurate to refer to it in this way in the ONE News item.”

The issue Robin has highlighted, of course, is that while something may be ‘widely accepted’ it may not in fact be correct – especially where that acceptance has been driven by a vested interest group with a political agenda and parroted by a media that is failing to uphold its responsibilities as the Fourth Estate.

Robin has yet to decide whether he wants to take this further and appeal to the Broadcasting Standards Authority. The full complaint and response from TVNZ can be found on Breaking Views HERE – Robin would welcome any constructive suggestions (through the blog comments) for countering the Treaty propaganda machine, which seems to have public broadcasters in its grip!

All of this brings to mind The Big Lie, a propaganda technique coined by Adolf Hitler and described in his 1925 book Mein Kampf, that if a lie, so ‘colossal’ that no one would believe that someone ‘could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously’ is repeated often enough, people will eventually come to believe it. The version, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth” was later attributed to his Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels.

That technique is certainly being used by Treaty activists, and New Zealanders like Robin Grieve, who are challenging such misinformation, should be encouraged.

While Karl du Fresne has pointed out the impact of the IT revolution on the media, the implications go much wider – to the heart of democracy itself.

In Italy last month, the political establishment was stunned to find that a brand new party run by a comedian had secured more votes than any of them. The movement won more than 8 million protest voters, a success seen by local analysts as a signal that Italians are deeply dissatisfied with the country’s political class. With a tsunami-like effect, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement swept away competitors, winning 25.5 percent of the votes.

The success of the Five Star Movement can be attributed to the Internet. Founded by Mr Grillo through his blog in 2009, the movement gathered momentum through a social media campaign that promoted the idea that politics belongs to everyone. He confronted the political ruling class head on and tapped into the mood of public discontent that was looking for a way to demand more responsive government. The IT revolution enabled Grillo to communicate directly that mood for change.

How all of this plays out in Italy is anyone’s guess, but what it does signal is that a profound change is now taking root in democracy itself and that New Zealand is not immune from its effects.

The reality is that here at home, MMP has forced the two major mainstream parties to have to rely on some of the more radical minor parties for coalition support in order to form a government . To the dismay of centre-right voters, National has been pushing the Maori Party’s Treaty supremacist agenda onto the country, while under Labour, the Greens’ environmental extremism was forced into law.  Maybe it is now time for a new way.

Using the power of the Internet, perhaps the time is right for a No Confidence Movement to be formed to return democracy to citizens. A movement that is neither left nor right but committed to some basic principles: respect for equal rights, for the rule of law, for private property rights, for community – economic, social, cultural and environmental – wellbeing, and for politicians to become the true servants of the people.

Again, thanks to the Internet, a public referendum process could be established that would enable citizens to state their preferences on the bills in front of Parliament. If Switzerland is anything to go by, the public would be eager to embrace the opportunity to have their voices reflected directly in the key public policy decisions of the day.

Unfortunately in New Zealand establishment politics is moving further away from citizens democracy. We now have the unacceptable situation where the government is allowing a radical coalition partner to move the country towards a race-based constitution, that would enshrine the privilege of one racial group over all others.  That the National Party would go along with such an abhorant and unbridled power grab is an indictment on our democracy and a sad reflection of the arrogance of the political class. This is especially the case when it is realised the politicians have left the way open for the final shape of any new constitution to be determined by a vote in Parliament rather than through a public referendum process.

The IT revolution has handed the public the power to reinstate a citizens democracy. But is New Zealand ready for it? Is it time for those with no confidence in the establishment to support a movement designed to shake up New Zealand politics by giving the the people a direct say in the affairs of government?  If you believe that time has come then please answer ‘Yes’ in the poll.