It’s been a longish break, but it’s time to start blogging again.
I had been looking for a new topic to start the year with, but as it happens the only discussion thus far this year to capture my interest sufficiently to break my lazy retreat is a continuation of a discussion from last year – namely Brian Bruce’s stupid child poverty documentary.
It’s in the news again because John Key’s electorate chairman Stephen McElrea has, in his capacity as a member of the NZ on Air board, raised concerns within NZ on Air regarding the timing of the documentary, which led to NZ on Air, who funded the documentary, complaining to TV3.
McElrea (and plenty of others) believe that the documentary was politically biased and when shown so close to an election was, in effect, propaganda for National’s opponents. For their part, the Labour Party believe that it is National who are now guilty of political interference via a vis NZ on Air.
I read with interest John Pagani’s Stuff blog on the subject. Pagani showed some brief flashes of sanity toward the end of last year, and so when I saw the headline “No Political Interference in TV”, I rather hoped that his newfound good sense would hold. Alas, it appears to have deserted him in the same way that voters deserted his party.
Pagani could have recalled Labour’s fight to exclude outside interference in political debate during elections that culminated in the ill-considered Electoral Finance Act, and suggested that, regardless of one’s views on the merits of the documentary, it was inappropriate for it to be screened so close to the election.
Instead, drawing on the analytical skills that have made him a regular in Auckland University’s Stat of the Week awards, he labelled McElrea’s complaint ‘dodgy as’.
Reading through the comments on Pagani’s post, I was reminded that, for the most part, the rule of thumb in determining whether something is ‘objective and factual’, or ‘biased and innaccurate’, is whether you agree with it or not.
I suspect this is inevitable. I doubt it would be possible to make a documentary both interesting and objective. As soon as a documentary maker selects people to interview, she or she biases the documentary. For anything other than the most narrow of subjects, it’s not realistic for documentary makers to meaningfully represent the full range of opinion. Even if they try, the documentary will usually favour speakers given the final say on any given matter. Meanwhile, even a purely ‘factual’ documentary will be biased in one direction or other through the selection of facts, seeing as it’s hardly likely that any documentary would be able to faithfully report every potentially relevant fact.
Every documentary will be a summary of sorts, and every summary knowingly omits facts that the makers consider less important or relevant than others. Those on the Left perceive Bruce’s documentary as ‘balanced’ because the facts that he ignores are not among the facts they consider important. Those disinclined to believe that the solution to poverty is more welfare, are likely to take issue with the fact that Bruce ignored the large-screen TVs, Nintendo Wiis and expensive surround sound systems in the houses he visited.
Given that this is an intractable problem, I think the only approach is to stop expecting documentaries to be balanced and accept that any documentary on any subject will have a slant of some sort.
That being the case, I think that concerns expressed about the documentary’s screening are entirely legitimate, given that it was funded by NZ on Air. Any documentary on poverty in New Zealand made from whatever perspective could reasonably be expected to influence voters when screened immediately before an election. Having fought so hard to limit the input of third parties into elections when they passed the Electoral Finance Act, you would think Labour and their supporters might be a little circumspect when defending the use of taxpayer funds for a documentary on a subject clearly relevant to an election two days later.
Pagani et al pretending that the documentary was entirely ‘factual’, and therefore ‘balanced’ is naive in the extreme. Pagani notes that the documentary discussed solutions to poverty, but he cannot be blind to the fact that there is more than one opinion on how to best alleviate poverty, and I doubt even he would claim that the documentary seriously engaged with options beyond spending more money on state houses and benefits.
What’s more concerning is the suggestion that ‘poverty’ shouldn’t even be a political issue. Pagani doesn’t make that position explicit, but I think it’s implied by his comment that “Steven Joyce defam[ed] the documentary … calling it left wing. By this he means it discussed poverty and solutions to it.” So what Pagani is saying is that a documentary advocating in favour of a much larger welfare state shouldn’t necessarily be considered left wing. It’s not right wing, so the alternative Pagani leaves is that a massive expansion of the welfare state is apolitical. Various commenters were much more explicit, arguing outright that “poverty should not be a political issue”. Which is to say that expanding the welfare state to alleviate the latest definition of poverty shouldn’t be up for debate. Lindsay Mitchell points out a similar line of reasoning from a Herald columnist regarding child abuse.
If you believe that 50 per cent of the population plus one have the right to forcibly acquire wealth and from the other 50 per cent minus one, you cannot then plausibly argue that 50 per cent plus one don’t have the right vote against having their money taken. It’s a worrying demonstration of how thin their commitment is to democracy. It’s not enough that a system that allows people to vote themselves wads of other people’s money will inherently favour left-wing policies, but if the electorate demonstrate too much restraint in their acquisitiveness, then debate should be shut down.
Rather than shutting down debate, I think we should accept that there’s no such thing as unbiased commentary. I don’t think we should restrict the publication of politically charged material at any time. Nor, however, do I think the taxpayer should fund either side of the debate. That’s what I would call ‘no political interference in TV’.