Guilty As Charged!: The modern news media's seemingly insatiable appetite for instant verdicts - especially on political performance - risks reducing the citizen's serious civic responsibility of rendering democratic judgement to the level of participating in a television game show.
THE RUSH TO JUDGEMENT encouraged by the modern news media serves us very ill.
If you doubt this, try the following thought experiment.
Imagine that there were 24-hour news channels like CNN, Fox News and Al Jazeera covering the Battle of France in 1940. Imagine the breathless reports of Germany’s surprise attack through the Ardennes, and the journalists’ consternation at the speed of the Wehrmacht’s advance. Consider what the endless parade of pundits and military experts would’ve made of the French Government’s chances of survival. Or, how the British electorate would’ve responded when pollsters offered them the choice of pursuing the war under Churchill, or making peace under Sir Samuel Hoare. Who’s to say that a British Government, harried by the 1930s equivalent of the far-right Fox News channel, might not have bowed to the public fear of invasion and signed an armistice with Adolf Hitler?
All very well, you might say, but in wartime the news media would simply not behave so recklessly. And, if it did, the Government would, quite rightly, impose very tight restrictions on what it could and couldn’t say.
When ballots, not bullets, are in play, however, we are unwilling to even contemplate placing restrictions on press freedom. As a result, our politicians, journalists and commentators all fall prey to the news media’s insatiable demand for instant stories and instant judgements.
The Leader of the Opposition stumbles over his party’s fiscal projections in The Press’s “Leaders Debate” and the Prime Minister is more-or-less instantly proclaimed winner: not merely of the debate (which he was) but of the election itself.
Forty-eight hours later, the Labour Party releases its fiscal outlook, making nonsense of the National Party’s claims of a $14-17 billion “hole” in the Opposition’s numbers. What are the journalists supposed to say then? That their earlier call was incorrect? That the election is not, quite, a foregone conclusion? That the Prime Minister has been shown up as economically innumerate?
Hardly. One precipitate judgement is simply built upon another, until the electorate’s head begins to spin and the entire electoral contest becomes a shimmering mirage – as untrustworthy as it is alluring. Parched though the voters may be for clear, cold, facts, these hastily generated illusions will not quench their thirst.
Indeed, one of the results I’m most eagerly looking forward to on Election Night is how closely the public opinion polls’ “snap-shots” of the electorate’s preferences match up with the hard-and-fast electoral judgements finally deposited in the ballot-box. Will the National Party really receive more than 50 percent of the Party Vote? Or, will the Government’s tally much more closely replicate the 45-46 percent of the vote anticipated by the political “share-traders” investing their money on iPredict?
If iPredict’s numbers prove to be closer to the actual result than the result predicted by political journalists and commentators on the basis of the opinion polls, then the electorate is entitled to feel very annoyed.
The electoral effects produced by poll data which consistently reveals a huge gap between the principal contending parties’ levels of popular support are well attested in the academic literature. Voter perception of the political efficacy of their ballot may be influenced to the point where they forego participation in the election altogether. Alternatively, voters of more malleable political allegiances may be persuaded to abandon the “losers” and clamber aboard what has been repeatedly depicted as the “winner’s” bandwagon.
Pondering these issues, the question arises: Is it wise for the news media to devote so much effort to telling the voter who’s “ahead” and who’s “behind” – as if elections were indeed nothing more than horse-races? Surely, the most important democratic function of the media is to subject the various political contenders’ claims to the critical scrutiny of expert witnesses? Publishing dispassionate critiques of contending policy; broadcasting fair and balanced accounts of the candidates behaviour on the hustings; and then allowing the voters to make up their own minds. Isn’t this the media’s most important contribution to the electoral process?
In a country whose largest cities publish only one daily newspaper, political neutrality is even more essential. Commentators from Right and Left can provide readers with an indication of the mood of their respective patrons, but we should never forget the words of Guardian editor, C.P. Scott, who wisely reminded his readers that while “comment is free”, “facts are sacred.”
And is not the existence of Winston Peters and NZ First a fact? Why, then, has he been excluded by so many media outlets from the minor party debates? Yes, he’s contentious, and yes, a maverick. But then, so was his namesake in 1940. The world has reason to be grateful that the media organisations of 1940, fighting for the very life of democracy, knew better than to offer instant verdicts, or demand rushed judgements.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 November 2011.