Monday, December 15, 2014

Tending fascist


It is no fun being a critic in New Zealand. I’ve known this for quite some time, yet I’m not always prepared for the sharpness of the periodical reminders. Latest among these: Matthew Hooton, who in this week’s NBR takes me and Mandy Hager to task for objecting to Judith Collins being hired as a columnist by the Sunday Star Times. Quoth Hooton:
The left-wing response, led by Giovanni Tiso and Nicky Hager’s sister Mandy was typically vicious. It was near-universally agreed that it was “unacceptable,” “unsuitable” and “completely unethical” for Ms Collins to write for a newspaper.
According to Ms Hager, Ms Collins “has already been outed as actively manipulating news stories for her own and her party’s political advantage.” God forbid!
At least as damning, according to Ms Hager, “there are an increasing number of right-wing commentators being given air time or column length.”
The media, she said, was “playing a part in perpetuating government propaganda.” 
For his part, Mr Tiso hissed that Ms Collins had “poisoned the political conversation” and having her as a columnist was not “within the bounds of ethical journalism.”
Fond as I am of Hooton describing words like unsuitable and unethical as ‘vicious’ and of his colourful characterisation of my ‘hissing’, I’m less inclined to see the humour in the claim – encapsulated by the title of the piece – that these criticisms reflect ‘the fascist tendencies of the left’. And not just because being called a fascist by the guy who gave out Nicky Hager’s address in the hope that he would be assaulted by thugs threatens to extinguish the world’s reserves of irony. Fascism was an authoritarian project that relied on systematic intimidation – both physical and psychological – and on gross ridicule to marginalise and silence its critics. This may be a good time for us to reflect on what that means and to whom the word might apply, so long as we're obviously so keen to keep using it.

(There is, besides, the crass ignorance of the comment. When she was seven years old, my mother was made to line up along the train tracks outside her village and salute Hitler’s train as it passed at speed on its way to Rome. This is my history, you pathetic fool.)

***


Patrick Gower spent most of last week goading his Twitter critics. Some might opine that he was simply giving as good as he’s been getting for some time. However, this is no equal, symmetrical relationship: when it is the powerful who do the goading, it means something else – it is a form of Reaction. The spectacle was a little sad, but mostly galling (which is how Paddy wanted it, I’m sure). In the meantime, Jane Clifton used her column in The Listener to reiterate her post-Dirty Politics claim that Cameron Slater and Nicky Hager are two sides of the same coin, by humorously declaring them joint winners of politician of the year:
Widely portrayed as a God vs Devil Old-Testament showdown, theirs was in reality a joint project, Dirty Politics. It is generally credited with consolidating National's victory beyond what the most generous pundit had predicted and is a collaboration assured of immortality in our political canon. That's a feat for any pair of activists, but an especial achievement for two unelected and mostly amateur politicians.
Such humour.
As senior political journalists who failed to uncover the scandal of their careers, Gower and Clifton may have a vested professional interest in arguing that it wasn’t in fact a real scandal, or that it wasn’t worth uncovering if one couldn’t also uncover what the Left has undoubtedly been doing. But theirs is also part of the continuing and increasingly brazen attempt to normalise dirty politics, which is also the overt significance of the hiring of Collins (and the reason why Phil Goff provides no balance – although to be fair Goff would struggle to drag leftward a panel with Tomás de Torquemada).

There is no role of the media establishment to re-examine, no collective conscience to interrogate: just old prerogatives to re-establish and a fragile status quo to defend.

Pondering the likely business model of Freed, the new media venture of Messrs Slater and Lentino, John Drinnan wrote this over the weekend:
One advertising consultant said Freed – whether or not it used advertiser-funded copy – was unlikely to have a big effect on influencing opinion or have commercial value as a direct media source. Its biggest effect would be if it was picked up by other journalists, and that's what would give it value as a public relations outlet.
Indeed, despite negative publicity about Graham and Slater and their ethics, media are still flocking to their side.
Graham – once a second-rung public relations player in the lobbying business – was recently described in media as a "supremo" and public relations guru, and he was unabashed about saying the sort of practices he was known for were here to stay.

If this is an accurate picture of an industry in which the ability to fund good reporting looks set to depend more and more on the functions of the fourth estate being auctioned off, then it would explain the peculiarly virulent reaction that my call for people to stop buying the Sunday Star Times provoked. We are, it seems, hostage to this once great power in crisis, which is so fragile as to demand our continued support even when it taunts us.

***

As for Nicky Hager, he has always been careful to aim his critique at the structural weaknesses of the journalism industry, as opposed to the real or perceived failings of individual journalists. It is a useful lesson: this isn’t about Gower or Clifton or Hooton, who are infinitely replaceable. This isn't about the good journalist who greatly outnumber the bad ones, either. It is about the conditions in which they work, and whether or not they are compatible with meaningful notions of the public good.

Another reality we need to face is that ‘alternative media’ alone – whether in the form of blogs or other kinds of citizen and volunteer journalism – isn’t about to save us, and if anything is even more open to manipulation (and manipulating), than the mainstream. Investigative journalism remains a very expensive activity to sustain, not least in terms of the constant threat of legal action. So while I am by no means nostalgic of a ‘golden age’ of journalism that likely never was, and I greatly value the fact that more (and more diverse) people are allowed to speak and be critical of our institutions than in the past, we need to reflect on that essential function – providing us with reliable information about the world we live in – and on how best it can be delivered not thirty years ago, but right now and in the future.

I believe this is a unique moment, and that we may find in dirty politics the motivation to push for reforms and create new spaces in which to do the journalism we need. While I realise the notice is shockingly short, I’ll be discussing this with Jan Rivers of Public Good Aotearoa / New Zealand and Marianne Elliott today (Tuesday 16 December) at St Andrew’s on The Terrace at 10.30 am, along with other topics raised at the Step It Up conference that Marianne and I attended in Auckland last month. Come along if you can.



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