Saturday, 7 November 2009

Plain English and Plain Wrong

Public Broadcasting? What's that? It’s hard to decide which is worse: TVNZ’s decision to broadcast the "Plain English" promo, or its curious inability to understand why it shouldn’t.

EXPLAINING THE ECONOMY, in Plain English. "Plain English" – geddit?

It’s a pun – don’t you see? A play on words.

TVNZ 7 is putting together a month-long documentary series about the economy in "plain English" – so the viewers won’t feel intimidated by a whole lot of complex, pointy-headed jargon. And then – guess what? Someone in the Marketing Department discovers that the Finance Minister is called Bill English.

Who knew!

Instantly, the whole promotional exercise becomes a no-brainer. TVNZ’s Marketing Department not only persuades English to front a promo for the first programme of the series – it hands him the script.


YOU JUST COULDN’T make this stuff up. In fact, if you sat down and thought for a week, it would be difficult to come up with a more compelling demonstration of everything that’s wrong with our publicly-owned television network.

First, there’s the network’s deeply ingrained anti-intellectualism: its reflexive hostility towards anything resembling a complex idea.

Then there’s the obvious, and very troubling, disconnection between TVNZ’s news and current affairs producers, and the people responsible for marketing their product.

That disconnection is amplified by the quite breath-taking inability of TVNZ’s senior management to recognise that scheduling a promo featuring the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Bill English, delivering an up-beat assessment of the Government’s handling of the economy, screened across four channels in prime time, might – just possibly – be construed as a "party political broadcast".

Lastly, and this is where the "Plain English" imbroglio gets really serious: it demonstrates just how deeply the whole neoliberal ideological agenda has become embedded in TVNZ’s institutional culture.

A media organisation in which "politics" can be neatly separated-off from "economics" is one in which anything resembling critical and conscientious thinking has stopped.

And nowhere was this intellectual and moral vacuity more clearly demonstrated than in the statements of TVNZ’s spokesperson, Andi Brotherston.

Insisting that the promotion had "nothing to do with news and current affairs" – a statement directly contradicted by the all-too-obvious fact that she was responding to a major news story about current affairs – Brotherston compounded her error by suggesting that TVNZ’s obligation to provide fair and balanced coverage of political events only applied in the run-up to a general election: "We are not within an election time frame so there isn’t a requirement on us to give equal time to specific parties."

So, let’s get this straight: the governing party can be given sixty-five 45-second spots, in prime time, to polish its image before the voting public; the Opposition gets nothing; and that’s just fine – because "we are not within an election time frame".

Any notion that by favouring the governing party so blatantly, the state-owned television network might be influencing the outcome of the next election, was clearly much too fanciful an idea to deserve even an atom of Brotherston’s brain-power.

"The other thing is", Brotherston breezily continued, "while other parties might think it’s an ad for Bill English, if we consider it from the viewers’ point of view, they see it as the Finance Minister.

"The series is about demystifying the economy. Viewers might see it differently and they’re the people we have in mind.

"Those people may not care about the other politicians and the time they have on television."

Consider what Brotherston is saying here: that TVNZ has taken on the role of the people’s tribune; that it possesses both the right and the mandate to speak confidently on behalf of the millions of citizen-viewers who comprise its audience; and that, whilst acting in this capacity, it enjoys a status far superior to that of any democratically-elected politician or party.

These are quite extraordinary claims – and they’re just plain wrong.

In the last election the voting public divided itself almost evenly between the Centre- Right and the Centre-Left. Even if one discards the 2008 election-night figures, and uses only the latest opinion poll results, the inescapable fact remains that a huge number of New Zealanders oppose the policies – especially the economic policies – of the National-led Government. These citizens quite rightly expect the public broadcaster to reflect the reality of their opposition in its daily political coverage.

But, Brotherston’s statements blithely ignore this expectation. As far as she’s concerned TVNZ’s "viewers" are of a single mind. Bill English is not a National Party politician, he is the Finance Minister: a figure without politics; dispassionate, disinterested – entirely above the fray.

Equally disturbing is Brotherston’s claim that TVNZ not only can, but has, "demystified" the economy. This suggests that the network sees economics as an essentially simple and straightforward discipline: one whose precepts can be readily simplified and presented in "plain English" to a mass audience.

But only an ideologue could make such a boast. Because only ideologues regard economics – the ground upon which nearly all of modern politics is fought out – as something indisputable and unproblematic.

For those of us not yet enthralled to some ideological system, economics cannot be anything but difficult, complex and "mysterious". If it were otherwise, there would be no need for a series called Focus on the Economy.

My guess is that the economics TVNZ is "demystifying" will turn out to be neoliberal economics. Only neoliberals believe it’s possible to break up the discipline of political-economy into its component parts. A public broadcaster uninfected by neoliberal certitude would be attempting the opposite – trying to put politics and economics back together.

Brotherston’s saddest statement, however, is the one in which she assures the public that the "Plain English" promo went through all of TVNZ’s internal approval channels. These "consider all aspects" of the programmes which go to air.

That such a blatant breach of public broadcasting norms and ethics could have been signed-off without demure is astonishing.

Is there no one left in TVNZ who understands that its role as the "national town hall" forbids it from taking sides? That there’s a crucial moral distinction to be drawn between a public television network which provides a forum for complex, multi-faceted and contentious civic debate, and one which serves up only such "debate" as it believes its viewers ought to be watching?

The broadcast of the "Plain English" promo sets the seal on TVNZ’s existence as an neutral public broadcaster.

In Putin’s Russia, state television delivers its master’s voice. Here in New Zealand, it puts the words in his mouth.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 5 November 2009.


Steelykc said...

Well written Chris, I'm certainly not holding my breath waiting for a counter balance programme from TVNZ showing 'The cause and effect of current government policies on low income families'. Its totally gobsmacking that they are so ho hum about this..... It is very very wrong.

Anonymous said...

An excellent piece of work, Chris.

Putin uses the SFB to bring the media into line. Berlusconi owns it. In New Zealand, neither police pressure nor the prerogatives of personal ownership are required to ensure a degree of compliance incompatible with the norms of pluralist democracy.

This is a very serious matter but, inevitably, it has an amusing side. The Herald's description of the original TVNZ promo script, contained such gems as:

"It's time to give the snip snap to the zip zap plastic fantastic"


"Keep a few bob in the bank and Bob will be your uncle."

I'm not sure what either statement means. But they sure ain't 'Plain English'!