Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: January 18

Bryan Bruce's documentary on child poverty was aired just four days before the general election. Photo / Supplied
Bryan Bruce's documentary on child poverty was aired just four days before the general election. Photo / Supplied

When TV3 chose to broadcast a documentary about poverty just four days before last year's general election, it must have known it was being controversial. Such heavily political documentaries are rare in New Zealand, and it's not surprising to find that there's been a backlash from those who feel the programme may have influenced voting behaviour. The question of whether this is a good or bad thing is now being debated thanks to Tom Frewen's uncovering of the behind the scenes story - see his item: NZ on Air Spooked by Political Interference. Frewen reveals that the state broadcasting funding agency NZ On Air was very displeased with TV3's timing and it's now investigating how it might prevent the political programmes it funds from being screened during elections.

The political response to this has been very strong, and is best covered in Claire Trevett's item NZ on Air to stop docos in election lead-up.

The agency's moves are labeled as 'heavy-handed', 'worrying', and 'censorship'. Attention is also being focused on the fact that the state agency includes political appointees, such as John Key's electorate secretary, Stephen McElrea. Hence NZ On Air, which worried about its reputation for political impartiality being tarnished by its funding for the Inside Child Poverty programme by Bryan Bruce, is now ironically being accused of being National Party cronies.

The debate about preventing the media from broadcasting political items during an election campaign is an important one. In many ways it's a re-run of the same issues about freedom of speech, democracy discourse, and state regulation of politics that we saw during the fight over the Electoral Finance Act in 2007. Only this time around, the (generally leftwing) proponents of state intervention and regulation of political discourse appear to have swapped sides and are now arguing for a more lassez faire approach. Clare Curran, for example, sums up a sensible position on the issue in her statement that 'Surely it's a good thing that during an election campaign for there to be robust political discussion about issues' - see: RNZ's Film maker angered at NZOA pre-election move (http://bit.ly/yT5GNo). So rather than having less political programmes during the election, perhaps we actually need a lot more. This is a point well made in Tim Watkin's excellent blog post, NZ on Air gets it back-to-front on political docos.

In general, Curran and other critics of NZ On Air's intentions - such as Steven Price, The Standard, and Bomber Bradbury, are making very good and principled critiques of the proposals from NZ On Air. But you have to wonder if those same principled arguments would be made if the tables were turned, and TV3 had broadcast a documentary about, say, 'welfare dependency' a few days before the election. There can be little doubt that the Bryan Bruce poverty documentary - which should be seen as a welcome addition to electoral debate - was heavily political. This is a point well made in Karl du Fresne's most recent blog post on the matter.

Also worth reading are David Farrar's Defence of NZ On Air and John Pagani's call for the 'political cronies' in the agency to be sacked. For a humourous - but insightful - take on the topic, see Denis Welch's Loose talk.

David Shearer has finally broken his silence over the Ports of Auckland industrial dispute, only to say that the Labour Party intends to remain silent. Essentially Shearer has chosen to re-adopt Labour's infamous 1951 political position of being 'neither for nor against the watersiders'. Similarly, one of Labour's industrial spokespeople, Darien Fenton, continues to insist that her party is not taking a side in the class struggle on the wharves, but nonetheless elaborates on her concerns in a very carefully worded Red Alert blog post Labour and the POA. No Right Turn is less than impressed with Labour's neutrality - see: Useless. Adam Bennett usefully reports on Shearer's stance, along with that of other political parties in Big parties keep distance in port dispute. Other important items on the dispute are by Jenny Keown (Auckland wharfies find friends on city's boards) and Brian Rudman (The big issue behind port dispute).

Finally, other good items today include Fran O'Sullivan's Shearer needs a slicker response on oil, Simon Collins' Rich or poor? Poverty trap set at birth, study reveals in which it is shown New Zealand has very low social mobility, Ben Heather's Red-zoners 'bullied' in Govt buyout, and Vernon Small's Labour cuts staff numbers - which explains that Labour's parliamentary state funding has been reduced 'from $3.5m before the election to about $2.8m now' leading to a downsizing in the number of spindoctors employed, and details are provided about other staff changes.

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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