Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Communicating politics - the good, the bad, and the 'f&%d'

File photo / NZ Herald
File photo / NZ Herald

Politics is all about communication. The messages are conveyed by a huge variety of means these days, and from Twitter through to the Parliamentary Press Gallery, they're of varying quality and importance. The standout political communication from last week's Budget debate was Green MP Jan Logie's tweet to say 'John key says Bill English has produced as many budgets as children ... Begs the question who he has f&%d to produce it'. While the tweet would have been only seen by a relatively small number of Logie's direct followers (at time of writing, 1,793), retweeting and above all crossover into the traditional media has amplified Logie's statement. Items discussing Logie's tweet include John Armstrong's 'Nasty party' tweets in era of new lows, TVNZ's MPs told off over Twitter behaviour, and Claire Trevett's MPs' Twitter use under the spotlight.

Twitter regulation in the House?

Jan Logie is, of course, only the latest in a long list of MPs and other figures to generate discussion and debate on the use of Twitter. Just a fortnight ago, National minister Judith Collins was in the news after giving up tweeting. Labour MP Trevor Mallard has joined Logie in having his tweets picked up by traditional media outlets, after he compared Parliament's speaker to a 'Mafia don' - see Claire Trevett's MPs sledging, tweeting - it's just, er, cricket, and House Speaker defends his performance.

The Mallard tweet prompted Parliament's speaker, David Carter, to refer criticism-by-tweet of the speaker to Parliament's privileges committee. Opinions differ on the merits of restricting MPs' use of Twitter in the House. National blogger and prolific tweeter David Farrar believes a balance needs to be struck: 'I think that generally what an MP says on Twitter should not an issue for the House. But I do think it is unacceptable to have MPs live tweeting from the House, making extremely derogatory comments about the Speaker, in response to his rulings. The place to interact with the Speaker is in the House - not to character assassinate him in Twitter - see: MPs tweeting and privilege.

A more forceful view and one that is against any restrictions is put forward by leftwing blogger No Right Turn: 'What MPs tweeting from the Chamber does do is give us a direct line into our democracy. Its immediate, its informal, and its responsive - and therefore hugely valuable in terms of citizen engagement. We also get to see our MPs warts and all - Judith Collins' bullying and vindictiveness, Tau Henare's humour, Jan Logie's over-extended simile - and judge them accordingly. And by threatening it, Carter is undermining a key part of our democratic conversation. And that's not something we should let him get away with' - see: Twitter in Parliament.

Further analyses of the issue are provided by social media expert Matthew Beveridge in The Speaker, The House, and Twitter and Labour-friendly blog The Standard's "Twitter sent to the Privileges Committee".

Journalistic political bias under scrutiny

It is not just the relatively new domain of social media that is generating debate over political communication. The rejection of former TVNZ broadcaster Shane Taurima as a potential candidate for Labour has prompted a wider discussion about journalists' political affiliations. Herald media writer John Drinnan has some sympathy for TVNZ's increased scrutiny of its journalists' affiliations, but also some words of warning: 'TVNZ checking on its staff and contractors' politics has undertones of McCarthyism. Some staff are irritated that their careers could be affected if they choose not to respond' - see: TVNZ checks staff politics.

The New Zealand Herald takes a clear standpoint in an editorial on journalists' political links: 'The Herald does not allow its editorial staff to participate in community or political activities that could compromise their work. This means not only membership of political parties but taking part in public campaigns that they could have to cover. Preserving this distance from politics is not an onerous restriction for those whose credibility is paramount. They have the privilege of observing, reporting and commenting on public affairs. Once they cross the line to partisan participation, there is no coming back' - see: Credibility before politics for journalists.

A slightly different perspective is provided by Tim Watkin, who worked with Taurima at TVNZ and is now a producer for TV3's The Nation. He considers the tightrope that journalists walk with conflicts of interest: 'In Taurima's case, he was a host and interviewer, which carries a much greater weight of impartiality than a commentator and he clearly went too far. But the rest of us live in this grey-zone every day and try to draw lines as consistently as possible, all the while knowing that a hard and fast rule is impossible' - see: The Taurima affair: when good reports go bad.

Other interesting viewpoints can be found in left-wing commentator Chris Trotter's Declare your bias and let the audience decide, blogger Tim Selwyn's Taurima excuse for TVNZ purge, and former Dominion editor Karl du Fresne's Rules won't eliminate the most troubling bias.

For details on the Taurima report, see the Herald's TVNZ report: No bias, but 'unacceptable' activities and TV3 political editor Patrick Gower's Despite report, Taurima keeps political ambitions.

Kiwiblog's David Farrar provides a useful bullet-point summary of some of the more interesting points revealed in the report - see The Taurima report. A legal perspective on the report's legitimacy is provided by lawyer Mai Chen - see: Courts unlikely to overrule Labour's Taurima decision.

Pundit bias?

The issue of media 'neutrality' widened beyond the Taurima affair last week with questions being asked over whether former TVNZ political editor - and now lawyer - Linda Clark, has been providing media training to Labour leader David Cunliffe while simultaneously appearing as a pundit on TV3's The Nation. For a summary of the issue, see Fairfax journalist Stacy Kirk's Key questions broadcaster's Labour link.

Veteran broadcaster Brian Edwards finds Linda Clark's role as commentator for TV3 untenable: 'Now I want to make it clear that I'm not suggesting that Linda Clark would be influenced in such a way. I'm not questioning her honesty or integrity. But conflicts of interest aren't just about reality; they're also about perception. And it isn't a good look for someone who is media training a political leader to be involved in any way as a neutral moderator or commentator on a news or current affairs programme. Unless there is an outright denial of Key's accusation, Clark should not be fulfilling any role in TV3's current affairs or election coverage' - see: On Shane Taurima, Linda Clark and Conflicts of Interest Left, Right and Centre.

But Karl du Fresne, a veteran of the print media, warns that the net would need to be cast much wider than Clark if all conflicts of interest were to be revealed: 'If what I hear is correct, quite a few high-profile media figures have nice little undisclosed earners providing advice to politicians. In fact it's an odd quirk of New Zealand politics that many of the commentators provided with media platforms for their supposedly objective views are hopelessly compromised. If it's fair to unmask Clark for grazing on both sides of the fence, then let's complete the job by exposing all the others who are on the take. This could get very interesting' - see: This could get interesting.

If all these media conflict of interest issues seem to be linked, perhaps they are. Herald media writer John Drinnan suggests that the motives behind the Linda Clark story may be nefarious: 'In my opinion, Clark is caught in the crossfire between the Government and TV3, over its coverage of the Oravida scandal. The channel's political team has taken a high-profile approach in that coverage, aggravating relations between National and TV3. Key ticked off Judith Collins for allegations against TVNZ journalist Katie Bradford, but with the attack on Clark, it seems he has taken up the cudgels on her behalf' - see: Don't ask don't tell.

Soft coverage of politicians

If the relationship between media and politicians appears to have become more aggressive in election year, it's worth pointing out that not all coverage is adversarial. A lot can be learned about MPs' views in 'soft' pieces, something that TV3's Campbell Live has been producing in recent weeks with its 'At home with' series. These are must-watch items - see: the 24-minute: John and Bronagh Key, the 10-minute Hone Harawira and his wife Hilda, the 12-minute: Russel Norman and his partner Katya, and the 20-minute: David Cunliffe and his wife Karen.

Critiques of the reportages are provided in centrist blogger Pete George's Cunliffe genuine at home, disappointing in Q & A, and broadcaster Kerre McIvor's Behind the scenes with political leaders. Politicians are also becoming more adept at producing their own soft video coverage - see social media commentator Matthew Beveridge's analysis of John Key's "behind the scenes" video of budget day.

Political humour

Political humour and satire provides an antidote to more serious coverage, yet can be just as effective in making a point. The Herald's Toby Manhire imagines what politicians might be writing in their e-mails - see: Okay, that's the plan ... now don't let it get about.

Fairfax's Brittany Mann profiles political cartoonist Sharon Murdoch, who shares how she comes up with the ideas for her submissions: 'Murdoch says she spends most of her time in a state of panic. To spark the creative process, she trawls news websites, political columns and social media, particularly Twitter. From there, she sketches and scribbles lots of notes. Then she goes for a walk' - see: Cartoonist doubts 'glass ceiling' tales.

Finally, satirical commentary site The Civilian has also been active - see Ben Uffindell's John Campbell shocks nation by reading politicians' Wednesday schedules to eerie music. The Civilian is also making the news for the launch of The Civilian Party - see the summary at Kiwiblog's The Civilian.

- 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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