Bryan Gould
Bryan Gould, CNZM, writes an occasional column on current events

Bryan Gould: Press cannot start something then not finish it

The exports of kiwifruit to China were halted for up to a fortnight. Photo / Alan Gibson
The exports of kiwifruit to China were halted for up to a fortnight. Photo / Alan Gibson

Politicians and political journalists enjoy (if that is the right word) a symbiotic relationship. A state of respectful and mutual dependence is not always easy to maintain - I should know, since I have been both.

Journalists depend on politicians to make the news - or at least part of it. The politicians are glad to oblige but are often displeased by what they see as the slant put upon what they do and say by the journalists. They depend on the journalists, on the other hand, to disseminate the news, while the journalists in turn are inclined to doubt that they are always given access to the full or truthful story.

Politicians are often inclined to agree with Stanley Baldwin, who famously described the role of the press as "power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages" - a stinging remark he is said to have borrowed from his cousin, Rudyard Kipling.

Whatever the finer points of this somewhat testy relationship, we can surely agree that a free, fair and effective press is an essential element in a properly functioning democracy. And we should not accept Baldwin's judgment that the power of the press can or should be exercised without responsibility. In particular, the role of the press is not just to raise issues, but to pursue them and explain them satisfactorily to the public.

A case in point is the story that recently hit the headlines. New Zealand steelmakers were reported as complaining that the Chinese were dumping substandard steel in our market, and thereby unfairly undercutting New Zealand producers.

We were not alone in raising this issue; similar complaints have been made in a number of other countries.

"Dumping" is a practice that is outlawed by most trade agreements - both bilateral and multilateral. It is not hard to see why, since it means that a supposed trade "partner" can inflict great damage on another country's industry by selling its product in that country at lower than the cost of production.

The Chinese reacted adversely to this criticism and threatened that they would retaliate by imposing sanctions on New Zealand exports to China if the criticism were pursued - at least, we were told that that threat had been made, although it was initially denied by the Government and the Prime Minister. The media did their job, however, and it was eventually conceded that the threat had been made; this was confirmed by the agencies - such as Zespri - whose products had been mentioned as being vulnerable.

The next step in this saga was that exports of kiwifruit to China were halted for up to a fortnight. It seems that a fungus was discovered in a shipment of kiwifruit and Zespri decided to suspend exports until procedures for checking for the fungus had been improved and they could assure the Chinese there would be no repeat - and, presumably, deny the Chinese any excuse to stop the trade themselves.

Any connection between this development and the earlier Chinese threats of retaliation were of course immediately denied, and it may be that there is indeed no connection. But the story seems to have died and the trail has gone cold. That means, one assumes, that - quite coincidentally - there has been no action by the Government to deal with the dumping issue. If there had been, we would surely have heard about it and know something of the outcome.

We are entitled to ask whether the Chinese threat, whether or not followed up by the hiatus in our kiwifruit trade, was enough to deter our Government (which never seems very keen to take on powerful interlocutors) from acting to investigate the complaints and protect the interests of New Zealand steelmakers? And, if no action has been taken, even just to investigate, why not, and why has this not been reported? Why, in other words, has the story been left hanging in the air?

The media, which did such a good job in bringing an important story to public attention, cannot duck out now. We need to know whether our most important trading partner is prepared to use threats of retaliation to deter even an investigation into, let alone action on, allegations of dumping; and we need to know whether our Government will allow us to be bullied in this way. The responsibility of the press extends beyond simply reporting; we need investigation and explanation as well if we are to make sense of what is being done in our name.

- NZ Herald

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