• The Health of the Public Debate

    In a Westminster-style, parliamentary democracy such as ours – and one that, despite MMP, remains essentially a two-party contest – it is inevitable that many of us will choose a side and then see nothing but good in our preferred party and nothing but bad in their opponents – rather like supporters of a football team.

    Such allegiances are often more tribal than individual. My own family, for example, saw themselves as naturally National supporters – it was in their DNA – and they were shocked when I chose not to follow suit.

    Political commentators are no different – it would be surprising to find many who had not taken sides and were genuinely free from preconception and prejudice. But, for those who want to be taken seriously, it is important that they are seen to be balanced in their comments and ready to acknowledge merit, when they see it, in the views and policies of the party they don’t support, as well as errors and deficiencies in those of the party they favour.

    A political commentator who recognises no such duty and prefers to take on the role of an “attack dog” for a preferred party is in danger of not only losing credibility – on the ground that every statement and opinion is potentially invalidated by bias and must therefore be disregarded – but also runs the risk of doing a disservice to the party whose cause he is trying to serve by linking it to his own unappealing exhibition of inaccuracy, prejudice, bile and aggression.

    Why do I make this point? Because I think we currently have instances of precisely this phenomenon in the pages of some of our leading papers and in our broadcast media.

    I have in mind one or two commentators whose keenness to promote the cause of a particular party and to denigrate other parties leads them to express themselves with scant regard for differing views or recognition of constraints (such as the law) under which politicians operate, and who exhibit over-the-top and unpleasant attitudes – derision for those who disagree, a lack of compassion for those who look to government or society for help, a readiness to bad-mouth those of our fellow-citizens who are doing it tough.

    Not only is the quality of our democracy damaged by the display of such attitudes, (since we should be able to handle our differences without impugning the competence or good faith of those with whom we disagree); but we all suffer if we can no longer trust the accuracy of what we are told and conclude accordingly that no one in public life can be trusted.

    The Americans, saddled as they are with a Trump presidency, are in course of discovering just how damaging to a functioning democracy a constant diet of lies and loss of trust in the media can be.

    In the New Zealand context, the irony is that it is not just our pubic life in general that will be the casualty; the fortunes of the party favoured by the commentator can also be adversely affected. Many readers and listeners will conclude that the distasteful views and opinions expressed do not just spring unbidden from the mind of the commentator, but faithfully reflect those of the party being supported; and, accordingly, an unfavourable reaction will inevitably rub off on the party which is the intended beneficiary of the “attack dog’s” supposed help.

    It may be that the party supposedly “favoured” in this way may have very little to do with what is essentially just a piece of “free enterprise” and self-promotion on the part of a self-appointed champion. The lesson is that political parties should take even more care in selecting their supposed friends than they do in identifying and opposing their enemies.

    The proprietors of our media are also in obvious danger of being tarred with the same brush as the commentators to whom they give a platform – a decision that they alone take and for which they must take responsibility. They, too, need to recognise their duty to maintain the health of the public debate. If that debate is damaged, they – as well as their readers, viewers and listeners – will be the losers.

    Bryan Gould
    12 March 2019