Who holds the media to account?

It’s good to see the Minister of Broadcasting asking questions about TVNZ boss Rick Ellis’s credit card spending.  After weeks of ‘revelations’ about the use of credit cards and expense claims by Members of Parliament and Mayors, finally the spotlight has been turned on the media itself.

It is unlikely, however, that  reporters at APN News and Media, John Fairfax Holdings, Sky TelevisionMediaworks, or The Radio Network will reveal the credit card expenditure of their senior management teams.

Which is a pity, because these five companies, between them, own and operate almost the entirety of the Print, Television and Radio industries in New Zealand.  Along with the state-owned broadcasters, TVNZ and Radio New Zealand, they are the fourth estate. It is their role to act as the watchdog for democracy, to hold to account the public and private elites who govern this country.  They are an essential part of New Zealand’s system of democratic government.

But who holds the fourth estate to account? Whose role is it to question, assess and judge whether these companies are, individually and collectively, serving the public interest and not just their own self-interest?  My answer to that question is “nobody”.  Their answer to that question would be “everybody”. And we would both be right, sort of.

The credit card story makes an interesting case study. The story itself is trivial, of course. The spending habits of elected representatives and public sector chief executives tell us a little about their personal qualities and integrity, but less about the rules they are supposed to follow or how well these are monitored and enforced, and absolutely nothing about the quality of the work they do in governing our society and its economy.

The focus of attention and energy in this story is, almost perfectly, in inverse proportion to the importance of its content.  The media failed to ask the really hard questions about the performance of our social and economic leadership, seemingly incapable of making good stories out of complex information, so instead they have fed us a story that was cheap to research, easy to report, and just barely interesting enough to capture our attention so they could sell some advertising.

There is a simple reason for this inversion of their priorities.  In a highly privatised and competitive media market, each outlet must strive to gain the attention of an audience at the lowest possible cost. To win an audience they have to indulge in “attention seeking behaviour”. This can be positive – giving the best of themselves and offering us what we want and need to gain our approval.  However it can also be negative, consisting of showing off, constant interruptions, whinging and tantrums. And at the extreme end of the spectrum, it can be sociopathic:  sexually inappropriate, hysterical, bullying and harmful to others. The economics of a highly competitive (and therefore low-cost and  low-wage), media tends to push the quality of political reporting toward the negative and destructive end of the spectrum.

The credit card story makes a good case study because it is partly, but only superficially, about holding our political leadership to account.  It can also be seen as the collective bullying of New Zealand’s political elite by a self-interested economic elite of private media companies.

Most media interviews of politicians these days consist of attention-seeking behaviour (“showing off, constant interruptions, whinging and tantrums”) on the part of the interviewers.  Politicians are regularly and systematically disparaged, or bullied, in the name of of “holding them to account”. The standard recipe is to them on the spot and make them squirm, generating as much drama and conflict as possible, but often at the expense of shedding any real light on motives, ideas or performance in their governance role.

The systematic disparagement of politics and politicians eventually brings democracy itself into disrepute. The audience of citizens is enthralled with sport, celebrities, reality TV and infotainment. Politics is merely a variation on one or more of those categories.  We come to expect little of our political leadership, and they begin to live down to our expectations.  People of good will, ability and integrity refuse to play the game and won’t put themselves forward for election.  Politicians adapt to the game. Those who rise to the top can fill in expenses claims and keep their noses clean, and they are good at dealing with the media’s bullying tactics. But if they were hopeless at governing the country, we would never hear about it. And we don’t.

Knowing little about our politicians (and occasionally knowing far too much), we stay away from the ballot box. Because we either don’t know who to vote for, or we come to believe that voting will only encourage them. Disenchanted and disengaged, we come to disbelieve in the whole project of democracy, and democracy suffers as a result.

The journalists themselves are mere pawns in this game: they have too little time and resources, and often too little experience or expertise, to do real investigative journalism.  The media companies will point to the competitive environment and claim, quite correctly, that they are only doing what the must to survive and make a profit for their shareholders. The government has a broadcasting standards authority, which can only deals with complaints when things get really out of hand. And the audience is so overwhelmed and distracted, by the cornucopia of the mental junk food on offer, that it just switches off or switches over.

So that’s the way things are: the world is on track for profound and irreversible climate change. The oil, which is the life-blood of our high-carbon economy, is rapidly running out. The oceans are dying.  But the fourth estate is too busy making a buck to tell us about these problems, or help us learn and decide what to do to tackle them.

And nobody is holding them to account.