Monday, January 30, 2012

Media circus misses the point about child poverty

At his most partisan, documentary maker Bryan Bruce congratulates Sweden on its treatment of children.

The recent media circus over whether NZ On Air should scold problem child TV3 for their so-called political bias was a smokescreen, which largely missed the point, and was over as quickly as it started.

Of course TV3 is politically biased, it is a privately owned television network, but in this case they showed uncommon objectivity. It's amazing the documentary Inside Child Poverty by Bryan Bruce on New Zealand's child poverty problem was aired at all. He must have been very persistent.

So, some emails were leaked, and suddenly journalists (for want of a better word) start debating whether we need legislation to ban programming that criticises the government at election time. Yes, you heard right. Having gone through the motions of seeking legal advice after the fact, TV3 has been absolved. As if anyone expected anything else.

So many things are wrong with this picture; first off, the documentary doesn't take sides – it criticises both National and Labour-lead governments, both of which have stood idly by and let the problem continue, obfuscating and making excuses. At his most partisan, documentary maker Bryan Bruce congratulates Sweden on its treatment of children as precious and vulnerable members of society that need nurturing and protecting. He then urges all of New Zealand's political parties to work together to solve the problem. Tut tut.

Secondly, if you can't show programming that criticises the government at election time, when can you show it? Thirdly, if you can't have meaningful debate and cross-examination of those in power at election time, what can you have instead? Staged photo ops? Pre-masticated government press releases posing as reportage? Mind-numbing gossip sessions about Phil Goff 's hair dye and John Key's rugby attendance? 'Inside Child Poverty' was about the only thing of any substance to get traction on the airwaves coming up to the election.

By overflowing with drivel, New Zealand's mass media allows itself to be seen as harmlessly pappy infotainment. The truth is more sinister – by padding out pre-election airtime with rugby, celebrity scandals, sugar-coated assessments of the economy in geekspeak, and a storm in an Epsom teacup, the vast majority of New Zealand's mainstream media completely failed to do its job. To name a few examples of gross misconduct, they avoided doing their homework to expose empty promises made, such as John Key's explicit promise before he became prime minister, that he would not raise GST, only to do just that in his first term in government. They failed to question the National Party's misrepresentation that the Labour government spent irresponsibly on public services leaving behind them a budget deficit which National had to clean up*; they dodged having to ask John Key how he justifies giving himself and his cronies a large tax break while doing nothing about the eminently preventable problem of children living in damp, cramped houses and going to school hungry.

Now, having at last unearthed the truth about how we are treating our weakest citizens, we have the next petty distraction: the pretend obsession with being 'fair and balanced', as if a guilt-free news broadcaster would need to constantly reiterate how 'fair', 'balanced' and 'neutral' they are (just look at Fox News). It's like a priest going around insisting that God exists: you wonder who he's trying to convince. 'Balance' would be showing how the children of the richest New Zealanders live compared to those in poverty.

Documentaries that look at the ills of society are acceptable as long as they don't dig too deep, don't draw any conclusions about the causes, and above all, don't suggest any solutions, the latter being a cardinal sin of journalism.

Perhaps this has been a cynical publicity stunt on the part of TV3, in cahoots with NZOA, to make out that it has lefty tendencies that need to be curbed. Or perhaps they are just so out of touch with the New Zealand public that they all need to be sacked. Chair of NZ On Air, Neil Walter, doesn't "believe the New Zealand public would expect or want to see their funding put into a politically-charged scenario like that... We are barred by legislation from seeking to influence editorial content... but in this case we felt that we had been dropped in it... just three days out from voting..."

Actually, it was four days out from the election, but we can't expect or want Neil Walter to get his facts straight. Here are some facts: 385,900 New Zealanders watched the documentary when it premiered last November, according to Neilsen TAM, and it was the most watched programme in its timeslot. Hmmm... clearly New Zealanders aren't interested in watching 'politically-charged' documentaries. Over 14,000 more people watched it online in the next two days.

-Sian R., SA

*Labour more or less balanced the budget. National sent the country further into debt to cover the tax cuts to the rich, which they are now trying to pay for by selling bits of our country out from under us.

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