Politicians depend on journalists for publicity, while journalists rely on politicians and politics to provide them with news. Journalists can inflict damage on reputations, with sometimes devastating effects for the electoral prospects of politicians or parties. Disgruntled politicians can withhold information from journalists. The government can also alter the economic, legislative and regulatory environment within which the media operate.
Parliamentary press gallery
The press gallery provides coverage and analysis of political and parliamentary news. Members of the press gallery attend Parliament and select committee hearings, and report on proceedings. The speaker of the House approves membership on the recommendation of the press gallery executive. Privileges include a press gallery seat overlooking the debating chamber, an office in Parliament and access to many restricted areas.
Out, damn Scott!
In October 1980 Prime Minister Robert Muldoon refused to answer a question from journalist Tom Scott during a post-cabinet press conference, before ordering a member of his staff to ‘take him away will you?’1 Muldoon’s reputation for terrifying journalists was bolstered by the fact that none of the other journalists present at the press conference protested as Scott was led away.
Managing public opinion
With the introduction of television in New Zealand in 1960, the media’s power to influence public opinion intensified. Robert Muldoon’s rise to power as National Party finance minister and then prime minister coincided with the advent of television. Muldoon quickly learned to use television to his advantage. He appealed directly to his supporters, while attacking his opponents. His combative approach to interviews and interviewers polarised television audiences but made compelling viewing.
Television’s pervasive power led politicians and corporations to develop increasingly sophisticated image-management strategies. It has become common for senior politicians and government departments to employ press secretaries, often former journalists, to manage their relationship with the media. Richard Griffin, a former Radio New Zealand political editor, became National Prime Minister Jim Bolger’s press secretary, while Kathryn Street, formerly a Radio New Zealand chief political reporter, was Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark’s chief press secretary.
The advent of the internet, with the associated growth of blogging and social networking sites, has dispersed the power to influence public opinion more widely across society.
The news media plays a particularly important role during election campaigns. Voters need information about the parties’ programmes, the candidates and possible coalition arrangements after an election. The media also provide critical analysis of the policies and past performance of parties and candidates.
In the 1950s and 1960s many print journalists were required to measure with a ruler the amount of space dedicated to politicians’ statements, ensuring each party was given equal space. The statutory requirement that the media give balanced coverage of political issues during an election campaign continues to be carefully scrutinised.
New Zealand has broadcast televised leaders’ debates since 1969. There have been at least two of these per election campaign since 1975, with the number rising significantly from the 1990s onwards. Minor-party leaders have increasingly appeared alongside National and Labour Party leaders during at least some of these debates.
Leaders left out
In 2005 TV3 decided to host a leaders’ debate that was to feature leaders of only six of the eight parties then represented in Parliament. The two excluded leaders, Peter Dunne of UnitedFuture and Jim Anderton of the Progressive Party, sought an interim injunction in the High Court against TV3’s broadcast. Justice Ron Young ruled that TV3 ought to include Dunne and Anderton. TV3 complied, but the judge was criticised for intruding on media freedom.
The Broadcasting Act 1989 provides for public funding to be allocated for party advertising during election campaigns. It requires public broadcasters to allocate free air time for parties to present their opening and closing addresses. Parties are prohibited from spending their own funds on broadcast advertising. Parties and their candidates must keep their spending within official campaign spending limits.
These rules were designed to ensure that all registered political parties have the opportunity to present their policies and candidates to the public during election periods. They prevent a situation where only the wealthiest political parties and candidates can afford to run for political office. Countries such as the United States do not have these limits on election advertisement spending. This makes the cost of running an election campaign beyond the reach of those without access to large funds.
Concern about the ability of third-party groups such as the Exclusive Brethren to circumvent electoral finance laws led the Labour Government to pass the Electoral Finance Act in 2007. This met significant political resistance, being considered by some opponents to limit freedom of expression. Difficulties with the act led to its repeal in 2009.