Family Man: Labour's president, Nigel Haworth, wants key debates and discussions at this year's Labour Party Conference kept "in the family". As a consequence, all but a handful of set-piece speeches and "Challenge Sessions" will be "Closed to the Media". But to ban the media from the constitutional and policy debates of a party’s annual conference is insupportable. Political parties are – by definition – creatures of the public sphere. As such, the presumption must always be that the media, as the voters’ eyes and ears, will be granted free access to as much of their proceedings as possible.
PROFESSOR NIGEL HAWORTH has a peculiar view of the Labour Party. Justifying the exclusion of the news media from most of its annual conference to the NZ Herald’s Claire Trevett, the party’s president explained that its proceedings needed to be kept “in the family”. Putting to one side the obvious fact that a political party is nothing like a family, the professor’s words raise some pretty alarming issues. Families that shut their doors and draw their curtains against the outside world are often trying to hide something. So, what is it that Labour is trying to hide, Professor? Something shameful? Something ugly? Both?
Paradoxically, what Haworth and the Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Little, are trying to hide isn’t in the least bit shameful or ugly. Free and frank political debate is the declared objective of the media ban. “We want people to be able to speak freely and frankly and be reported appropriately”, was the way Haworth put it to Trevett.
Curiously, the Herald journalist did not challenge Haworth’s implication that she and her colleagues would not report the delegates’ statements “appropriately”. Nor did Trevett point out to the Herald’s readers that with the news media excluded from important debates party leaders can crack down hard on dissident delegates with impunity.
This is no small consideration. At the 2012 annual conference, held in the Auckland suburb of Ellerslie, journalists were able to report the extraordinary vitriol hurled at disobedient delegates by Labour MPs. The latter were furious that the conference had voted contrary to their instruction. They were probably even more furious that their behaviour was reported. (See here and here.)
Free and frank discussion is actually much more likely when the whole world’s watching. Absent the television lights, anyone daring to challenge the top table is likely to be flayed alive by individuals who throw insults for a living.
Another of Haworth’s claims that went unchallenged by Trevett was his attempt to paint media access to Labour conferences as something rare and exceptional. He claimed that the media had been permitted access in 2013 because the party was introducing a new policy platform structure: “We felt at the time it was important for media to see that process. When we go into the revisions of it, these are debates we want to keep in the family.”
This is pure bullshit. For most of its 99-year history Labour’s conferences have been freely reported by the news media. Back in the 1970s, for example, a TV outside broadcast unit would set up shop outside the conference venue and broadcast a 20-minute News Special at the end of every day the conference was in session. The often riveting policy debates were beamed into the nation’s living rooms without let or hindrance.
It was the same in the 1980s, when the party’s resistance to Rogernomics was dramatically broadcast to the electorate. As Jim Anderton once boasted to journalists gathered to report a crucial debate on GST at a regional Labour conference on the West Coast: “This is the real Opposition!”
And it is here that we come to the nub of Haworth’s objection to the news media’s presence at Palmerston North this weekend. He and Little’s staffers are terrified that if journalists are afforded free access to the most important conference sessions they will discover that, on issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the leader and his tight inner-circle do not speak for the party as a whole. Words and images conveying any other message than the Labour “family’s” complete and utter unity are, therefore, being prevented from reaching the public.
This kind of blatant media manipulation runs counter to everything a trustworthy political party should stand for. In democratic societies, political parties are where the nation’s future leaders are first recognised and readied for public office. They are the places where ideologically motivated citizens gather to debate and refine a broad range of economic and social policies intended to shape the nation’s future. As such, they cannot possibly lay claim to being “private” organisations.
Certainly, there are aspects of party activity which are justifiably kept confidential. Financial reports; personnel issues; discussions of election tactics and strategy: no one expects a party to permit the media to report these events. But to ban the media from the constitutional and policy debates of a party’s annual conference is insupportable. Political parties are – by definition – creatures of the public sphere. As such, the presumption must always be that the media, as the voters’ eyes and ears, will be granted free access to as much of their proceedings as possible.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 5 November 2015.
Well said. And not only is it unusual by NZ standards, but also internationally. In all the countries I try to stay up with - the UK, US, Ireland, France, Australia - the policymaking conference process is fully public.
Does NZ Labour feel the chill wind of activist membership demanding as in UK to be heard? Oer is there something else to hide? Now we will not hear from "objective" journalists what was said...but courtesy of the blogs it will all come out.
They obviously have something to hide, they are playing fast and loose with the voting public of New Zealand, dirty clothing and skeletons will be vanquished and a bright eyed and shiny new Labour party will emerge. Labour leader Andrew Little will be presented as a knight in shining armour with a crusading agenda. A few people may get excited. Unfortunately the 'facts' will be that the leader is not anything but a 'bob each way' leader. Old and tired seat warmers will still be in place. Man-ban and equality gender will determine leadership positions. Kelvin Davis and Peeni Henare will have to drop charter school courtship with a promise of high list for Willow Jean Prime. Economic plagiarist Grant Robertson will keep the charades game going. Andrew Little will continue to look for a safe seat (Rongotai did not want him). Phil Twyford will state he is not a racist. Party finances ( which are dire ) will be discussed as will the replacement for Tim Barnett, (I am picking some-one connected to the unions). The TPPA will be agreed though Little and some caucus will state their grave fears and reluctance (play-acting at its finest) Behind the scenes some people will be politicking for the Mt Roskill seat in the event that Goff gets the Auckland mayoralty. The self servers will quash dissent and all the self-servers will be served. The whole circus is to do with safe seats, jobs for life, pensions and a cushy life-style in opposition. Risk taking and fighting is not in the air. Labour will prove to be the National Lite party.
Labour's a party of anonymous faces; they come out of a room where blood runs down races (I.e you don't know what you're getting/got).
several posters with the same handle as you have turned out to be concern trolls, but then who is to cast aspersions?
I think the wall is brilliant. There is nothing so delicious as the media hacks getting their knickers in a twist.
"This kind of blatant media manipulation runs counter to everything a trustworthy political party should stand for."
Everything presented to us is blatant media manipulation. The numbers of lies and implications in headlines in mainstream media in recent years could even be described as 'blatant media manipulation running counter to everything a trustworthy mainstream media should stand for.'
I don't know about the political and electoral ramifications. The nuances are infinite. There will be chortling though from those who see the paradox of a party needing the media yet distancing the media. The way things work I look forward to the main media companies having competitions like, 'Guess what's going on behind Closed Labour Doors.'
They can then build headlines and stories around what the entries suggest. The biggie is out there already - "They obviously have something to hide." Jacinda Ardern leaving the main room on a toilet visit will be "Ardern storms out" and Phil Twyford carrying a bottle of water in or out will be "Twyford accepts $1000,000 bottle of wine from real estate company."
Policy? Who cares? We won the cup, the boys are home, Charlies here and the flag thing's coming up.
Anonymous 16:55, the facts are LABOUR-FRIGHTENED, National relaxed.
Tiger Mountain,1628. Not you, dispute the facts.
I won't deny that at least some of what you claim are indeed risks of closed conferences. But while I can't speak for Labour, as a Green Party member, I prefer it when our debates occur away from the media glare. There is far greater pressure to watch what one says when the media is present and why wouldn't there be? Most in the media wouldn't know nuance if they fell over it and aren't interested in policy debates despite protestations. They want to report controversy and personal animosity and are happy to invent it when there is not enough on offer. Rank and file members are very aware that what they read in the papers often bears little resemblance to what they experienced, and it pisses them off. And as for your attempt at high principle in claiming the internal workings of a party are the property of the entire public rather than the party's members, that is just journalistic self interest. What a party owes the public is a clear statement of it's principles, it's policies and it's priorities, plus a commitment to stick with all three in return for a vote. It cannot ask for more.
What a party owes the public is a clear statement of it's principles, it's policies and it's priorities, plus a commitment to stick with all three in return for a vote. It cannot ask for more.
No. Because it is the assumptions and discussion that people need to know.
For example: "New Zealand needs a bigger population "
"It is wrong for a country to be made up predominantly of one group (decedent's of settlers from British Isles)"
These were two assumptions the Labour Party hid from the public.
The media are the other politicians. They select what the people hear and ignore (eg) the crisis in German society as refugees rend the middle asunder (as it doesn’t fit the narrative). No body watches Media Watch .
That sounds sweeping 'no body'. Do you mean 'Neither I, nor anybody I talk to, watches Media Watch.'
Anonymous (Reference 5/11 20.22)
Interesting point on whether the media are a game worth the candle. And its true that much reportage is about as clear as my remark. But it isn't wise to exclude the media so much if a Party wishes to impress that it is alive and can kick useful ideas and policy around. It's a bit like the TPPA system isn't it - let the people know what they are landed with at a time that suits. But has the detail already been leaked to the puppet masters in the background?
Your concern is legitimate, but requiring a party to have open conferences won't keep them from hiding assumptions if they want to. At worst, the real discussions just get held elsewhere and conferences become media set pieces, like National Party conferences are. It is the job of the media to ask questions about assumptions that parties don't want to state. In the case of your examples, the media didn't do so largely because they weren't interested, which is an entirely separate matter as even an open conference won't bring such assumptions to light if the media doesn't care to report on them.
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