Democratic politics depends on the existence of a healthy 'public sphere' in which debate, ideas and information flows freely.
Traditionally the media is seen as the vehicle for this 'public sphere'. Currently, however, there are a number of important debates about the state of the media and public debate, and the blogosphere which bring into question the health of democratic politics in New Zealand.
The blogosphere in bloom and contention
In many ways the New Zealand blogosphere is in full bloom at the moment, with diverse voices greatly adding to the public sphere. This is heralded today in Martyn Bradbury's idiosyncratic NZ Blogger Alignment Awards 2013. His awards go to: Marama Davidson, Ben Uffindel, Idiot/Savant (No Right Turn), Bryce Edwards, Graeme Edgeler, Queen of Thorns (Ideologically Impure), Stephen Cook, Matthew Cook, and Cameron Slater. Note also, that Bradbury himself is now claiming a new title: The Daily Blog now largest left wing blog in NZ.
In the last few days the legal battles of notorious blogger Cameron Slater of the Whale Oil blog have brought to the fore the question of whether the blogosphere is part of the wider media - see Rebecca Quilliam's Cameron Slater 'incredulous' over ruling.
The issue is about much more than just one blogger, with the implications of the judge's ruling potentially far-reaching for New Zealand's fast-changing media. At the heart of the issue is categorising media forms that are outside of traditional sources such as newspapers, radio and television.
The blogosphere itself seems to be divided over the question of whether Cameron Slater can be considered a journalist. Possibly the best discussion of the issue comes from media law specialist - and blogger - Steven Price in his blog post, Is Whale Oil a journalist?. Price thinks the judge has got it wrong, but isn't convinced it matters that much. Other bloggers aren't so sure. Russell Brown says the decision is 'alarming', and he relays his own experience as a blogger and how it might negatively impact on his rights - see: The judge is not helping.
Paul Buchanan says the judge's ruling 'establishes a dangerous precedent with a chilling effect on freedoms of speech and press in electronic media' - see: Trawling the depths and finding trouble. Buchanan argues that 'The judge clearly does not understand what blogging has become, and has failed to distinguish between freedom of the press and defamation'. Buchanan also comes down on Slater's side, with the usual caveats: 'Although I am no fan of sociopathic bullying bigots with partisan agendas and populist delusions, I think that the particular blog in question can be rightly considered to be a news medium with overt editorial content. Much like Fox News'.
On The Standard, Greg Presland argues similarly, and says the ruling has important implications for all bloggers: 'This puts the traditional media at a significant advantage over the blogs, and one for which there is no justification in my humble opinion. And the prospect of being required to provide the identifies of sources for a story would have a chilling effect on the ability of blogs to break stories' - see: Cameron Slater and the protection of journalistic sources.
But perhaps the most thoughtful and interesting contribution comes from Gordon Campbell - see: On asset sales, and the Cameron Slater case. He argues against the drawing of artificial lines between proper journalism and what bloggers do, and he says that blogs have improved public debate and the media.
Others in the blogosphere are less convinced. Also on The Standard, Lynn Prentice says I think Justice Blackie got it right. His argument essentially rests on the following assertion: 'It has been clear for a number of years that the Whaleoil site "demands" money from interested parties for whom it is writing advertorials for'.
Martyn Bradbury appears to be enjoying the legal challenge faced by his blogging nemesis - see Bradbury's posts, Why Slater isn't news media and doesn't deserve protecting and Whaleoil hoisted by his own harpoon. For another view against Slater being seen as part of the media, see Ideologically Impure's News media and blogs: where's the line?.
The position of those bloggers against Slater is parodied by Scott Yorke, who says he has 'a simple test' for determining whether he is part of the media: 'A journalist has to be someone I like or respect. I neither like nor respect Cameron Slater. Therefore Cameron Slater is no journalist' - see: Is Cameron Slater a journalist?.
Slater himself is dealing with the issue on his blog - see, for instance, his initial reaction to the story being published: Oh look I'm making the news again, HOS only tells half the story.
What does the mainstream media think? Two newspaper editorials today come down on Slater's side: The Herald says that 'News comes in many and varied forms and the courts should recognise it when they see it' - see: Court's refusal to see Slater's blog as news out of touch. The Press argues that 'The problem lies with the Evidence Act, which was passed when blogs were in their infancy', and that what is required now is 'A new definition of news medium, to clarify who is protected by the law' - see: New definition of media needed.
For more on why some are less enamoured with the Whaleoil blogger, see Gay NZ's Slater's Robertson jibe cleared by BSA and David Williams' Ports of Auckland privacy complaints quietly resolved.
The state of the media
This renewed focus on the role of the blogosphere makes last week's report on the state of the media by AUT's Merja Myllylahti's even more relevant - you can download her report: New Zealand Ownership Report 2013. Myllylahti emphasises the rise of new media, and says 'it is good to see that the New Zealand media is looking for new ways to raise issues, and bloggers are gaining in prominence'. Myllylahti's report also outlines recent changes in the media landscape, and details 'state threats to media freedom and democracy'.
And for the latest on the state of public service television, see David Beatson's Our Digital Switchover creates the Marginalised Majority. He argues that the Government's digital strategy has left 'the free-to-air television market into the hands of the commercially-focused networks'.
Two interesting items this week raise important issues about the relationship between the media and politicians. Michael Fox reports on the demise of the Beehive bar, where journalists and politicians used to mingle - see: Parliamentary watering hole faces axe. He reports the views of an ex-MP and ex-parliamentary journalist both of whom believe that this mingling improved the media's coverage of politics. In contrast, radio broadcaster Leighton Smith has just published his book, Behind the Microphone, in which he laments that he got too socially close to Helen Clark, which softened his coverage of her as prime minister. You can read the full extract of his book in which he traverses his dealings with politicians: In the cross fire: Helen Clark, Winston Peters, Rob Muldoon and me.
The coverage of law and order has become almost an obsession for parts of the New Zealand media, and so it's no surprise that a new survey shows that despite crime being at 33-year low, most New Zealanders think that crime is actually rising. The public has an obsession with crime, as well as a distorted picture of it, which is partly fueled by excessive media coverage. That's the message from Vernon Small's Crime - it doesn't pay to worry. And where is the crime happening? Most people think it's happening in South Auckland. Yet those in South Auckland think it's actually happening in Wellington and Christchurch. And who's most likely to be a victim of crime? Not women, not pakeha - but 'young Maori males in our urban centres'.
Will the media be a worse place due to the retirement of Morning Report's Geoff Robinson? Many seem to think so - see John Roughan's We lose a calm, gentle voice. Meanwhile Steve Braunias has The secret diary of Geoff Robinson's co-hosts.
The NBR is currently running a poll for subscribers about, Who should replace Geoff Robinson on Morning Report?, with the frontrunners being Sean Plunket (42%) followed by Rachel Smalley (30%). The NBR also reports that 'Janika ter Ellen will be the news anchor for The Paul Henry Show, which starts early in 2014, replacing Nightline' - see: TV3 names Paul Henry sidekick.
If the media is playing a reduced role in New Zealand's 'public sphere', what about other institutions? For example, how well do New Zealand's universities help foster public debate? According to the newly-established group Academic Freedom Aotearoa, the universities' traditional role as critic and conscience is being eroded. The group has been formed to fight back against the Government's alleged neoliberal goal of making tertiary institutions more business-friendly - see Philip Matthews' in-depth feature: Will sweeping changes improve university?. It is argued that the market model is killing off the social functions of New Zealand universities.
Media, sexual abuse and creating offence
The sensitive topic of sexual abuse is still proving difficult for the media to navigate. Following on from Willie Jackson and John Tamihere's RadioLive debacle, Metro magazine has been fending off criticism over a satirical joke it made in its recent edition - a joke aimed at those who blame the victims of rape: 'After the Roast Busters saga, should there be a new criminal charge: "Drunk in charge of a vagina?"' Negative feedback lead editor Simon Wilson to publish a blog, On Satire and Rape, and then eventually apologise - see Russell Blackstock's Metro apologises for rape 'joke'. This hasn't satisfied everyone - see Jessie Hume's post on the Daily Blog: Metro Magazine Reminds Us All How Hilarious Rape Actually Is.
Bob Jones is one columnist who continues to cause regular offence, including on issues of sexual abuse. He's back today to say, Lighten up, you're offending the rest of us. Jones argues that 'We live in an unprecedented age of offence-seeking', and points the finger particularly at Judith Collins because she recently 'whined about sexism' in reaction to a joke on the blog from David Cunliffe.
And now, consumer boycott blogger, Giovanni Tiso (@gtiso) is focusing on the Herald for publishing the columns of Bob Jones. And for a parody of curmudgeonly columnists, see Scott Yorke's Uncle Ernie's 20 questions.
University student clubs, too, have become embroiled in the debate about what is permissible in terms of discussing sexual abuse, with one debating club facing strong criticism - see Aimee Gulliver's Sex assault debate theme slammed. Two bloggers put forward the case against the debating club - see Rob Salmond's Debating topic poorly chosen and Ideologically Impure's University debating supports patriarchy. In contrast David Farrar has blogged to say that Debating is meant to cover controversial topics.
Green Party internal democracy
Democracy within political parties is a vital foundation of electoral politics, which is why there is such strong interest in the case involving Green Party dissident and candidate David Hays. His latest blogposts are worth reading to get his side of the story - see J'Accuse: bullying in the Green Party. He accuses individuals in the Greens leadership of 'bullying' and suggests that the party has been hi-jacked by a power-hungry leftwing faction. See also his blogpost, Leadership challenge FECs (frequently expressed concerns). Hay is calling on fellow party activists to boycott all work for the party, and is pointing the finger at Metiria Turei for what has happened - see Adam Bennett's Greens leadership challenger calls for 'strike'.
Hay's example has David Farrar questioning the true degree of the Greens' internal democracy. He criticises the party for over-reacting to the issue, when it could have been dealt with by the individual electorates and party members - see: The Green Party suppression of dissent. Similarly, John Armstrong says that the Greens' 'holier-than-thou attitude to almost everything' will be causing 'much glee around Parliament' now that their own 'dirty laundry' is being aired in public - see: Greens' rebel on path to obscurity. However, Armstrong suggests that Hay is somewhat deluded in thinking that his campaign will work out in any way, and that he'll soon be forgotten. See also Laura McQuillan's David Hay's challenge a pointless exercise.
For a defense of how the Green Party has dealt with the issue, see Marama Davidson's Fair democracy let David Hay speak and put his hand up. She concludes, 'Nothing to see here, move along'. Yet there is some interesting discussion and challenges to this in the comments section.
Danyl Mclauchlan blogs on the issue - from an insider's point of view, due to the fact that his wife is the Greens' Political Director and let him know the 'real story' - see: Inside outside upside down. In contrast, see Pete George's Why Greens dumped David Hay.
Is the Green Party really doing as poorly in Auckland as David Hay has been alleging? Green candidate and blogger, David Kennedy puts forward a different view in Auckland and the Green Party.
Democracy or farce? The asset sales referendum
The Greens' democratic credentials have also been questioned in relation to their role in the anti-asset sales referendum. A Herald editorial accuses the party of both discrediting and corrupting the referendum process - see: Referendum on asset sales misuses system. The Herald says, 'When the Greens couldn't get their own way in Parliament they were wrong to use a device for citizens who can't be heard in the House'.
This is unfair, according to The Standard - see: NZ Herald editorial smears the Referendum. Meanwhile, Liam Hehir makes the argument that referendums are best used for constitutional issues, not for making economic policy, which is best determined by political parties campaigning on such platforms at elections - see: The whole exercise is a farce.
Finally, for some pointed, but amusing, blog coverage of the Greens internal democracy issues, see Rob Salmond's post, Shorter: David Hay's campaign and Scott York's David Hay: the All Blacks need me.