Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Media bias and election coverage

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Patrick Gower in the Press Gallery at Parliament, Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Patrick Gower in the Press Gallery at Parliament, Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Is the media guilty of biased coverage of politicians and parties? Certainly there are a lot of allegations flying around at the moment about the lack of impartiality on the part of various media organisations and political journalists. In an election year the sensitivities that partisans hold towards the coverage of politics in the media are particularly heightened.

Patrick Gower under fire

The latest political journalist in the firing line for alleged bias is TV3's Patrick Gower. His Monday night report - Cunliffe's poll numbers slide after trust issue - was taken to task by Brian Edwards, who briefly asked Is this journalism or a party political broadcast on behalf of the National Party?. (Edwards also bemoans media presidentialisation in "Tricky versus Shifty" - Coming to your TV soon!).

This challenge to Gower's impartiality comes after another tough interview he gave Labour leader David Cunliffe on The Nation a few weeks ago, which had some leftwing blogs up in arms over his alleged bias. For the most scathing critiques, see The Standard's Well Done Paddy and Tricky Patrick Gower in NZHouse of Cards, and Martyn Bradbury's The Patrick Gower Hour of Power and Tricky Patrick Gower.

Leftwing blogger Scott Yorke, however, had a good time parodying such complaints in his very funny blog post An open letter to 3 News.

Jane Clifton also sarcastically parodies the left complaint about media bias in her latest Listener column: 'The right-wing news media and its fellow travellers in the blogosphere are aligned against the left. You can see that from the complete news blackout of any information about the Oravida affair, the dearth of coverage of Parata's kohanga reo fiasco, the fact that no one has even mentioned the donations to the National Party from Chinese businesspeople now facing various charges, the limp asset sales programme and the interest-rates spiral. It's a conspiracy of silence' - see: Ballot boxes and biscuit tins (paywalled).

Despite Gower's hard interview with Cunliffe in March, the following week Gower had an interview with John Key on The Nation that was even more damaging for Key than the previous week had been for Labour. As a result, the left critics were fans again (The Patrick Gower Hour of Power - The Nation review), and it was the turn of the right to claim Gower's leftwing bias was showing.

Tabloidisation and collusion?

There have also been complaints about TV3's recent coverage of Kim Dotcom - especially over its handling of revelations that Dotcom owns a copy of Mein Kampf. For instance, Radio NZ TV reviewer Phil Wallington claimed on Tuesday that the TV3's reporting on this was 'something straight out of the sewer. It came from the Whaleoil blog, and it appears to me that there is a very nasty collusion between TV3 News management and the political reporters and Whaleoil. And it goes back into Key's office, because Key says that he often talks to Whaleoil, they exchange confidences, and they get stories going either way' - listen to the 15-minute item, TV review with Phil Wallington.

The Herald's John Drinnan has also made some similarly strong claims about the way that politicians are influencing bloggers and journalists: 'National has developed a media network incorporating the Whale Oil website, Kiwiblog and commentators Matthew Hooton and Michelle Boag' - see Drinnan's very interesting Labour view left right out.

Chris Trotter is also concerned that the media is being manipulated by the political right in terms of Dotcom and the Internet Party. He explains this in his blog post, The Orchestration Of Hate: Why are the elites so afraid of Kim Dotcom?.

Trotter has also written much more lately on the role of the media in covering politics. He addresses the issue of media quality in a very interesting post, Meeting The Enemy: What's Behind the Tabloidization of Television News?. He wonders if the public isn't to blame for the poor state of the media.

And why does Trotter - possibly the leading leftwing political commentator in the country - often criticise his own side in the media? He explains the need to apply equal scrutiny towards the left in his thoughtful post, The Journalist's First Obligation: Learning the Difference between Information and Propaganda. Essentially he says that it's the role of commentators to 'speak truth to power' even when you're on the same team.

One political commentator that is probably very happy to be labeled biased - yet open-minded - is the rightwing Matthew Hooton, who is profiled by Michele Hewitson in her Interview: Matthew Hooton. Hooton is reported as saying that after reading Nicky Hager's Hollow Men book, he spent 'a weekend in the fetal position, feeling sorry for myself'. And he argues that Hager is a better PR spin-doctor than himself.

Much of the increased debate about a partisan media has been fueled by the Shane Taurima scandal in which TVNZ's reputation was tarnished by the idea that staff had conflicts of interests due to their activities with the Labour Party. In response, the broadcaster has looked to clampdown on the disclosure of party membership amongst staff, which hasn't gone down well with many - see Vernon Small's State servant political register 'not appropriate'.

The bias of media opinion polls

A perennial complaint about the media and alleged bias relates to the publication of political opinion polls. There's a useful discussion of the media's reporting of poll results and how the pollsters can improve their polls in the most recent Radio NZ Mediawatch for 30 March 2014.

Media expert Russell Brown has also taken to the subject with some important questions about the television reporting of such opinion polls in two important blog post: Polls: news you can own and Poll Day 2: Queasy. But even more importantly, Brown has followed this up with his post, Gower Speaks, which records the response of TV3's political editor. This provides an interesting insight into how the media is covering election year.

The polling companies themselves have also just announced that they've come to agreement on some protocols on polling and how the results should be communicated - see David Farrar's The New Zealand Political Polling Code.

For some other recent critiques of the role of polling, see Danyl McLauchlan's Why are MSM poll stories bivariate?, and Pete George's Polling 101 and kudos for Colmar Brunton.

Regulating bloggers as part of the media

Is any political bias in the media going to be countered by the blogosphere? And will regulating the blogosphere improve its legitimacy? Those are some of the questions being discussed with the news that the Press Council is about to invite bloggers to join their stable of mainstream newspaper members - see John Drinnan's Press Council embraces the bloggers. Some of the issues for bloggers are discussed by Russell Brown in Members of the Press.

Both David Farrar and Cameron Slater have expressed a willingness to join the Press Council, but both are also concerned about the Labour-affiliated EPMU having a strong influence on Council decisions - see: Press Council to include blogs.

The Standard has expressed some major reservations about joining the Press Council, suggesting that 'Either the Press Council does not understand blogs, or they want to try to control them' - see: Press want to control political blogs?. One concern is that the Council's focus on media transparency 'could work to undermine pseudonyms', which is an important part of The Standard.

Related to all of this are the on going questions about whether 1) bloggers are journalists and 2) whether blogs are news sites - see Marika Hill's Whale Oil blogger considers himself a journalist, and Ian Steward's Judge seeks help in Whale Oil appeal.

The Politics of Maori TV

The power of Maori TV to hold politicians and the 'Maori Establishment' to account is allegedly in question at the moment. Recently the Native Affairs news programme has been scrutinising the powers that exist within Maoridom, and this is not going down well with many. According to John Drinnan, many politicians - especially from National and the Maori parties - are keen reverse the so-called 'Pakeha-fication' of the Maori TV - see Drinnan's must-read column, Maori TV rejects change. The recent appointment of new CEO, Paora Maxwell, is seen as a key part of returning Maori TV to a more traditional, less challenging role.

The TV station is now ten years old. For strong tributes to Maori TV, see Grant Smithies' The little station that could and Dave Armstrong's Maori Television keeps others honest.

Changes at Radio NZ

Politicians will be closely listening to Radio New Zealand National to see how the major changes of this week will affect is coverage of politics in this election year. Obviously the major change is bringing in political heavyweight Guyon Espiner to Morning Report, along with Susie Ferguson. The first reviews of the new lineup are in - see John Drinnan's Good start for revamped Morning Report and Stuff's The new Morning Report.

For an even better backgrounder on the overall changes to Radio New Zealand, and including in depth interviews with Espiner as well as new Sunday host, Wallace Chapman, see Karl du Fresne's excellent Listener feature, All change at the station. See also du Fresne's interview with the other Morning Report co-host, Susie Ferguson: Steady under fire, and also his in-depth explanation of the just-conclude media court case: RNZ, its CEO, the journo & her husband.

For the best coverage of the 'end of an era' departure of Geoff Robinson from Morning Report this week, see Brendan Manning's Geoff Robinson signs off Morning Report for the last time. And for other RNZ-related opinions, see Sue Kedgley's Make Radio NZ an election issue, and Sparrowhawk's Why RNZ's 'The Panel' annoys me, but I keep listening anyway.

Finally, for humour on today's issues, see Brian Edwards' TVNZ Introduces 'Political Arousal Test' for Journos, Ben Uffindell's Broadcasters consider running election night coverage next week 'just to get it over with' and Cunliffe dismisses poll as scientific data point realistically evaluating his chances at victory; and Scott Yorke's No more polling pundit and My blogging code of conduct.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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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