Media Muse May 2016

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News is local — or it is entertainment.    Local news is news you can use. News about a traffic jam in Auckland, for example, is only useful if it helps you to avoid it. If you’re already stuck in it, it’s local but obviously it’s not news.

What is news? As we once knew it, news in the form of information about some recent event or previously unknown fact is fast disappearing. Much of what is being sold to us as News should really be called Olds. Mutton dressed up as lamb, today’s news is written under yesterday’s headlines.

Fairfax, the Australian media company that owns about half of our newspapers, started linking sales to headlines around 15 years ago. Front pages went up on newsroom walls beside the number of copies sold. Plotted on a graph over time, sales figures were interpreted as a guide to what readers wanted to read. Naturally they wanted to read about sex and celebrities.

If the news itself is seldom more than a rough first draft of history, the headlines are frequently a blatant fairy tale. More than anything, the failure of stories to live up to the claims of their headlines is a major cause of newspaper reader disappointment and dissatisfaction.

Headlines over recent weeks would have you believe that this country is a popular tax haven where the world’s wealthy stash their ill-gotten gains. We were told that the 11.5 million documents leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca revealed that some 11,000 foreign trusts had been set up in New Zealand, now apparently a well-known tax haven and a “nice front for criminals” according to Gerard Ryle, director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

But the Tax Justice Network (TJN), another independent research organisation which specialises in investigating tax dodges and dodgers, ranks New Zealand 54th of nearly 100 countries in its latest  (2015) financial secrecy index. The top 10 are: Switzerland, Hong Kong, the United States, Singapore, Cayman Islands, Luxembourg, Lebanon, Germany, Bahrain and Dubai. According to the TJN, New Zealand accounts for slightly over 0.1% of the global market for offshore financial services.

So what’s really going on here? Well, a fortnight of headlines, talkback, newspaper editorials, magazine features and wittering panel discussions is just another instance of how politicians and journalists collaborate to keep each other in work. 

The media are actually reality-averse when reality doesn’t match their preconceived blockbuster action movie plots. The fact that New Zealand is just a minor bit player in the global off-shore financial services market is of no use to news media in a country where a missing octopus can make headlines as a “Great Escape” story.

Opposition politicians are in constant need of issues with which to attack the government. No allegation is too wild for a backbench spokesman desperate for exposure in Question Time. Government ministers, meanwhile, have the government’s massive PR machine to make their own headlines and gain automatic access to television and radio studios. 

All politicians, government and opposition, need the media to promote them as people of importance, not just at home but around the globe, leaders of a plucky little country punching above its weight.

New Zealand’s absurd belief in the importance of its role on the world stage, fiercely held in the teeth of its small size and remote location, stems from being on the winning side in the two world wars of the last century. Decades later, golfing with the President, hobnobbing with the Queen, our leaders roam the globe dispensing advice and cheap bottled water.

The minister of foreign affairs, Murray McCully, looking like a small forest creature caught in the act of doing something grubby, is at the United Nations berating the Security Council on its failure to even discuss the Israeli-Palestinian issue in recent times. Are they bothered?

The Prime Minister is in Beijing accompanied by two thugs who stand menacingly close behind him during TV interviews. Turns out they are two of his ministers, Nathan Guy and Todd McClay. According to the public broadcasting network formerly known as Radio New Zealand, the PM is holding NZ’s line on the South China Sea.

Personally, I was surprised to learn that we even had a line on the South China Sea and that it was firmly held by the PM unlike, for instance, his line in the sand on medicinal cannabis. 

I’ve tried to find out more about our position on the South China Sea, apart from being well south of it. But the Chinese warned Key to button his lip. He said he was holding his line. They deleted their warning from the internet. Three headlines.

All of which goes to prove that the South China Sea, like tax havens, is just another way for politicians and journalists to generate the headlines they both need to stay in work.