Corruption of political media

Far more important than the Campbell Live campaign is the widespread corruption of media power in politics. Media are theoretically supposed to be public watchdogs but the attractions of power corrupts the democratic process.

The Northland by-election was a prime example. Winston Peters is a canny campaigner but he was given a huge boost by the free media attention he was given, which seemed far less critical than the crumbs given to the other ten candidates.

Media chose a winner and at least helped make a resounding win happen for Peters.

Bryce Edwards looks at the political corruption of the so-called fourth estate. Money attracts journalists to work as PR merchants for politicians. And power. And that power is often abused.

The headline Bryce Edwards: Is the media turning on John Key? is an example of editorial messaging. His analysis mentions a bit of Key related stuff but it’s about far more then the Prime Minister.

Spin-doctors helping the politicians

In the relationship between politicians and the media, a crucial role is played by the taxpayer-funded media managers in Parliament. It’s the role of these spin doctors to do battle with, and attempt to manipulate, the media in order to get their desired message across, as well as combat negative messages. These communications managers and press officers are always attempting to manipulate and massage public opinion.

I’ve written about this in an academic chapter on spin doctors and political manipulation – which you can read on my blog: Politicians, Party Professionals and the Media in New Zealand. As this chapter discusses, most communications managers and press officers actually come from jobs in the media, and the shift from watchdog to lapdog is normally referred to within media circles as “crossing over to the dark side”.

But they also maintain friendships and relationships with journalists in the ‘mainstream’ media. They are all complicit in the gaming of politics and power.

Journalists still do an important job in our democracy, but they often look compromised, agenda driven and attention seeking.

Du Fresne is worth quoting at length: “I know that freelance journalism is a precarious way to make a living, and that there’s a powerful temptation to take work wherever you can get it. But conflict of issues arise when people who comment on matters of public interest (Cohen is National Business Review’s media columnist) are simultaneously involved in political work behind the scenes. I suspect this goes on much more than we know. Cohen has come out in the open because he was understandably pissed off at not being paid. Otherwise his relationship with Labour would probably have remained secret. How many other notionally independent commentators, I wonder, are potentially compromised by connections we don’t know about?”

The increasing number of spin doctors in government is also explored by Claire Trevett in her December article PR staff numbers up despite promises, which reports that government departments are hiring more communications professionals, including “about 35 press secretaries for the Prime Minister and Government ministers” out of 288 across government departments. Trevett says “There has been increasing focus on the relationship between spin doctors, media and bloggers after Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics“.

So it looks like it has become a very uneven playing field. Political PR numbers keep increasing while journalists and serious political coverage in mainstream media keeps diminishing.

Political journalists and pundits

The media’s engagement with politicians and their spin-doctors is normally undertaken by the parliamentary press gallery. For a fantastic insight into how some of these journalists think and deal with politicians, its worth reading four interviews that freelance journalist Gavin Bertram carried out last year – see his series on “Asking the Right Questions” with Brent Edwards, Tracy Watkins, Corin Dann and Patrick Gower.

But a few people having doesn’t address the problems.

Does the Internet offer an alternative to hold politicians to account? Monetary and media are stacked against it.

And often the biggest noises online have bigger agendas than traditional media. Abuse of alternate opinions, smearing campaigns, vindictiveness and trying to shut up ‘enemies’ seems to get far more emphasis than fearless examination of politics and politicians.

The methods are more extreme but tend to happen in small bubbles that are ignored by most of the population.

The most visible online politics often looks very ugly.

There are ways of have small amounts of influence but social political media is not filling the big void left be diminishing and (often) compromised mainstream coverage.

Can a number of small voices online be harnessed into a strong collective voice? There’s no sign of anyone coming up with a way to do that. I’ve suggested ways of trying this and been attacked and the ideas discredited because political activists online generally are far more interested in trying to advance their own agendas than considering the greater democratic good.

With the increasing merge of journalism and politics it certainly hasn’t lifted politicians to a better level. Journalism has become more politically corrupted.

Do we try and combat this? Or do we shrug our shoulders and join the masses who are largely oblivious to the mess?

Leave a comment


  1. Mike C

     /  10th April 2015

    Long gone are the days when the Media told “The Truth … the whole Truth … and nothing but the Truth”.

    Makes you wonder how many Journalists get paper bags full of cash in exchange for writing an “opinion” that isn’t their own.

  2. Concerned Kiwi

     /  10th April 2015

    It will only get worse when a unionist, who controlled media employees for years is leader of Labour. Try to get an anti-Labour comment on Stuff or The Herald . . . very hard.

  3. duperez

     /  10th April 2015

    “…Media are theoretically supposed to be public watchdogs … ”

    Theoretically, meaning traditional views had it that the media were supposed to have that role. Well that’s gone. Why is someone “supposed” to be the public watchdog? The media is supposed to be whatever IT wants to be with individual parts assuming its own particular role. Companies run the media, are the media, and their role is to make money for the owners.
    The views and perspectives mean that the public that they are watchdogs for, are those owners. And they are watching the bottom line.

  4. duperez

     /  10th April 2015

    It is easy to say “media chose a winner and at least helped make a resounding win happen for Peters.” Helped? To what extent? A tiny smidgeon or had a massive impact?

    That Peters was boosted by the media attention is undeniable but there were most unusual circumstances for a by-election and (as the results suggest) a political phenomenon was happening.

    The media beamed out from the few people at the top of the country to the mass outside the area but did the impression created outside through that coverage affect who put their tick where?

    The absolute “localness” of the election was important through the towns, districts and villages. Although the electorate is long, wide, disparate and dispersed, the direct and contiguous exposure to the candidates meant that that immediacy (I suggest) was far more important and powerful than what the masses in the big southern cities claim of media influence. Certainly people looked at news coverage on tv to see who they knew in the background.

    Media chose a winner? No, the people of Northland did.

    • While it’s impossible to measure how much I think the media made Winston’s job easier for him, in some ways they virtually campaigned for him, giving him hugely disproportionate coverage and failing to hold him to account for ‘promises’ he has no way of delivering on.

      Media were willing participants in a political circus.

  5. I think ‘team key’ has the most to thank for Tory media support (even ex-party Members/MPs dominating it.. )

    yes the idea, that the media is ‘unbiased’ went out the window, with the increase in privatisation of nearly everything in Aotearoa/NZ.
    Does anyone remember TVNZ7 (shortlived on freeview.. before it went nationwide)


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