Despite the most chaotic election campaign in recent history the incumbent ruling party in New Zealand's government won this month's election by a landslide, a triumph that some media experts have attributed to a lurch towards sensationalism by local news outlets. In the weeks leading up to the September 20 election a series of events unfolded that seemed likely to shake the foundations of the centre-right National Party, which had already held two steady terms in parliament under the helm of Prime Minister John Key.
The pre-poll spectacle started just one month out from the election with the unveiling of Dirty Politics by investigative journalist Nicky Hager, a book that used a series of hacked conversations to detail an alleged dirty tricks campaigns run out of the Prime Minister's office over several years. It purports that the campaign used blogs and manipulated the media to make Key's political opponents look bad, while the PM himself maintained the jovial facade that has kept him riding high in the polls over the last six years. Following the book's release, Key accused Hagar, a renowned journalist, of being a "screaming left-wing conspiracy theorist". However, the subsequent fallout saw the resignation of one of the National Party's top cabinet ministers, Judith Collins, a key player in Hager's book.
The kerfuffle caused by Dirty Politics was soon followed by a highly-touted event called "The Moment Of Truth" hosted by Megaupload founder and media magnate Kim Dotcom. Dotcom has made no secret of his which to change the government, bankrolling the newly formed Internet Party to the tune of around $4 million. The event gathered together top international whistleblowers Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, who was labelled Dotcom's "henchman" by the Prime Minister shortly after his arrival in the country.
The three men took turns addressing the public, Snowden and Assange by video-link, and outlined their beliefs that New Zealand citizens are subjects of mass surveillance, contrary to governmental reassurances. However, despite any gravitas brought by the big name trio, the Moment of Truth was described by many reporters as a flop, and chalked up as a sideshow by the larger-than-life and widely-disliked Dotcom, ultimately giving the Prime Minister a boost. The cherry on top of the spectacle was when the music publishers for Eminem moved to sue the National Party for unauthorised use of the track 'Lose Yourself' in their rowing-themed television advertisement, just days out from the election.
In the face of all this, the National Party still managed to gain 48 percent of the vote, equating to 61 of the 121 seats, enough for an outright majority in the house. The opposition party, the left-wing Labour led by David Cunliffe, who has since stepped down, garnered only 25 percent of the vote, the worst result for the party in 92 years. Labour's long time coalition partner, the Greens, gained only 10 percent of the vote, despite polling at around 15 percent ahead of the election. Meanwhile minor parties like the Internet-Mana coalition and the Conservative party didn't even get a look in.
Myles Thomas, chief executive for lobby group Coalition For Better Broadcasting says the election lead-up was portrayed as a "presidential-style punching match", whereby discussion around pivotal subjects like policy get shoved aside. In turn many people, especially young people, get put off voting. His theory is supported by the fact that just over 77 percent of enrolled voters took to the polls - a trifling rise from 74 percent in 2011, which was the worst turnout since 1893. To put that in perspective, that's nearly one million enrolled citizens who didn't vote this year, in a country with a total population of 4.5 million. "It's a real shame because young people are affected by politics as much as anybody, and yet they're not voting, so they're just shooting themselves in the foot really," Thomas says.
Among the sensationalised headlines and reactionary stories that dominated election coverage, were some poor editorial choices, according to Thomas. These include positioning prime-time broadcaster Mike Hoskings, who is has been openly sympathetic to John Key, as moderator for a televised leader's debate. "We've got a lot of reporters who are delivering very right wing views," Thomas says. "I think what's happened in New Zealand is that a lot of reporters have become pundits and they feel they have to give a strong opinion, and to be able to cut through and get a headline you've often got to be quite reactionary". He says an underlying right-wing rhetoric in the media can make a huge difference to whom people choose to vote for, if they bother to show up to the polls at all.
Since 2010 the coalition have been pushing for stronger publicly-funded media presence in New Zealand. Currently there are two core media outlets in New Zealand that are non-commercial, Radio New Zealand and Maori TV. However, the highly regarded Radio New Zealand network is already operating on a shoestring after having it's budget frozen indefinitely in 2008.
Thomas says the irony is that publicly funded news entities have more independence, in spite being funded by the government. "They are independent of corporations and commercial news agenda, which is all about ratings, all about sensationalism and not necessarily about getting to the nub of the story or providing balance," he says. "It's just about getting eyeballs and earholes and rating and clicks. The strength of non-commercial public service broadcasting is that you get a more balanced, more intelligent more thoughtful product, which is more useful. You can think about policy and get a better idea of what's going on rather than this reactionary, crazy sensationalist drivel."
In the foreseeable future, there is no cash on the table for more publicly-funded news outlets in New Zealand. Instead, John Key has kicked off his next three years as the country's leader by resurrecting the potential for a referendum to change the country's flag, an issue that was seen to have the lowest importance out of 11 topics polled earlier this year, falling far behind serious issues such as child poverty, education, health and jobs.
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