Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Blurred lines are making a joke of election spending

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For a study in the absurdity of American election campaign spending laws, we need go no further than the entertaining shenanigans of comedian Stephen Colbert.

Colbert has been making a mockery of campaign financing loopholes since the controversial US Supreme Court decision (Citizens United), which has been widely condemned as opening the floodgates to unlimited campaign funding by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.

Colbert announced he was forming a super PAC (political action committee), as allowed by Citizens United, to raise unlimited cash from his fans so that he might sway elections.

In June, the Federal Election Commission gave him permission to launch his super PAC, and start hauling in the cash. It's already funded "attack ads", including a satirical one that aired last month, labelling presidential hopeful Mitt Romney a "serial killer" for having bought and gutted a number of ailing companies. ("If you believe that corporations are people, do your duty and protect them ... stop Mitt the Ripper before he kills again.") Beneath Colbert's comic antics lurks a serious purpose, as Jason Zinoman pointed out in the New York Times last month. "Mr Colbert is a serious performer playing a silly character, while the media and political world are deeply silly but pretending to be serious."

Indeed, Colbert seems to be doing a better job of exposing the insanity of campaign finance laws than the supposedly serious media.

As the spokesman of one watchdog group told USA Today, Colbert's super PAC could result in a "radical evisceration" of campaign finance rules and the blurring of lines between politics and media.

Their concern is that politicians who appear on TV - such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, both on the Fox News payroll - could use the resources of their networks to set up their own super PACs.

But it's the more insidious blurring of the roles of journalists/commentators and politicians that is perhaps more worrying for many journalists.

As Eric Alterman noted in the Nation last year, even Fox's full-time journalists sometimes moonlight as Republican fundraisers, and at least 20 Fox News personalities have endorsed, raised money for or campaigned for Republican candidates or causes. But while "Fox may be the most brazen in its refusal to observe any useful distinction between journalist and everyone else, ... the difference between the two labels is everywhere becoming increasingly difficult to discern".

As the boundaries between entertainment and journalism, and the media and politicians, become less clear-cut, it seems almost old-fashioned to insist on a clear separation between the politicians and its old watchdog.

So, I, for one, am pleased to see the line being drawn more clearly here with the Electoral Commission's finding that the Prime Minister's hour-long show on RadioLive two months before the November general election was an election programme, in breach of the Broadcasting Act.

As the Commission explained: "The legislation imposes strict restrictions on the broadcast of election programmes because of the supposed power and influence of broadcasting compared to other media.

"The objective is first, to provide candidates and parties with a fair opportunity to present themselves to the electorate and secondly, to avoid candidates, parties and third parties, particular those with deep pockets, obtaining unfair levels of access through the broadcast media."

The show provided "an opportunity for Mr Key to raise his personal profile unfettered by the questioning or challenge typically present in a news, comment or current affairs programme. Moreover, the show involved an opportunity for Mr Key to associate himself on a friendly basis with high profile individuals of whom many New Zealanders would have high opinions.

"In all the circumstances it is reasonable to conclude listeners would regard the show as appearing to encourage or persuade voters to vote for Mr Key's party and for him."

So, was the Broadcasting Standards Authority wrong? In the end, no.

The BSA decided the show wasn't an election programme, and even if one disagrees with its reasoning, the result would have been the same. Election programme or not, the BSA's ambit is limited to specific broadcasting standards, none of which were breached as far as I can see.

Two more things. The Electoral Commission never gave the programme the all-clear, as implied by the station management before it aired. It was asked for an urgent advisory opinion two days before the programme, and its advice, though "necessarily general", contained plenty of red flags.

And Labour's contention that Phil Goff should have been given his own hour on RadioLive misses the point.

This wasn't a news or current affairs programme required to observe the requirements of balance - and if it was wrong for Key to have been given such unfettered access to the radiowaves so close to an election - and I agree it was - then it was certainly wrong for Goff or any other candidate.

Tapu.Misa@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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