‘Blame the messenger’ – that’s the approach of some politicians caught up in the recent ministerial credit card scandal. The defence of those politicians that have been caught misusing their credit cards has too often revolved around some sort of suggestion that political journalists are probably ‘just as bad’ in misusing their employers resources. This blog post outlines some of the criticisms made of political journalists recently over the scandal, and suggests that although journalists should indeed be subject to scrutiny about how well they perform in their role, such attacks on them are merely unacceptable and desperate attempts to evade political responsibility. [Read more below]
It’s not just the ex-ministers that have been attacking political journalists for applying the heat to ministerial credit card spending – various political apologists have used the desperate strategy of trying to turn the tables on the reporters. For instance, commenting on the issue on TVNZ’s Q+A, National’s Michelle Boag said the following: ‘I would like to see the credit card statements or the claims that some of these journalists who've been berating our politicians are making, how about they front up with their credit cards and their expenses’.
Labour’s Mike Williams and Mike Moore have been similar critical of the journalists, with Williams stating his opinion that, ‘The reality was that this was a massive outbreak of journalistic voyeurism’. Moore’s farewell opinion piece in the NZ Herald raised the possibility of him attempting to expose journalists’ employment details after he finishes his upcoming spell as a diplomat:
Perhaps on my return I should do a series on some of our media personalities - how much they earn (many are paid more to ask questions than you get to answer them), their arrogance, vanity and self-importance. How some moralisers smashed up rooms on ministerial travel, the commercial conflict of interest many have. And the lack of accountability their job entails. Only kidding. They are not elected, they have no public duty. So I won't.
Labour MP Clare Curran also tried to turn the tables on media, publishing a blog post, Who holds the media accountable? Danyl Mclauchlan’s Dim-Post published an excellent blog response entitled, They forget nothing and they learn nothing. In this Danyl Mclauchlan takes Labour to task for learning nothing from the various expenses scandals, and suggests that Labour’s anti-media orientation is rather dangerous:
there is only a limited amount of airtime available for political reporting and that last week the opposition used it all up by admitting to charging the public for porn movies, having public breakdowns in the halls of parliament and various other diversionary antics. So rather than looking for ways to make the media more accountable Labour might want to focus on attacking the government a little more, embarrassing themselves in public a little less.
It’s never their fault though, is it? If this current, degenerate form of Labour were to somehow blunder their way back into power I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a news censorship policy introduced to ‘hold the media accountable’; ie. punish or prevent reporters from writing mean stories about the Labour Party and it’s MPs when they disgrace themselves. It would be a natural progression for modern day Labour.
In fact Curran’s disdain for journalists is reminiscent of Helen Clark’s hostile approach. Towards the end of her reign, Clark strongly criticised the media – most notably in her speech to the Journalism Education Association in 2007.
Of course journalists should not be deemed beyond criticism, and when they too are profiting from the use of ministers’ credit card expenditure then that does actually make the journalists a legitimate target of criticism. After all it’s now becoming apparent that political journalists have frequently enjoyed the taxpayer-funded hospitality of Labour and National ministers. We learnt earlier in the year that Tim Groser had spent $247 on dinner at Wellington’s Matterhorn with Dominion Post journalist Paul Easton, and that Nick Smith paid back $84.50 for a dinner with two journalists at Bellamy's. More recently, with the release of Labour’s ministerial credit card details we seen lots of journalist winning and dinning – for example in March 2008 Lianne Dalziel spent $160 taking National Business Review reporters out for lunch in Auckland.
David Farrar has also had a go at the media in his post ‘The travel subsidy for journalists’. But in his case he actually raises some good questions, suggesting that journalists should be more transparent about their acceptance of taxpayer subsidies when they accompany ministers overseas:
The media had a field day reporting and condemning the travel subsidy for MPs. For weeks on end we had story after story. But there was one story the media forgot to cover. It was the one about their massive travel subsidy to attend CHOGM in Trinidad and Tobago. You see seven journalists flew to this lovely resort location on the PMs RNZAF aircraft. APN had one person attend, Fairfax one person, TVNZ and TV3 had two each and Getty Images also had one person. And they only had to pay $100 each. Now if these media companies had to pay themselves to send their journalists, it would costs at least $4,000 economy to get there (including stop over). So this is a 97.5% subsidy for their travel costs. Or a savings of around $27,000 for the owners of those media companies. If it is reprehensible that MPs get a 10% to 90% travel subsidy, then where has been the media outrage at this 97.5% travel subsidy?
There’s probably some good arguments in favour of such media subsidies being given and accepted, but nonetheless it might be good to have a bit of debate about the issue, and certainly when journalists accept such subsidies it’d be good if their subsequent stories disclosed that.
Former MP and journalist Deborah Coddington has also hit out at press gallery journalists exposing politicians while accepting parliamentary resources to report on politics:
There's a smell of hypocrisy in all of this. The largest taxpayer subsidy in Parliament is the press gallery. It measures roughly 200sq m which, in today's figures, would be worth around $90,000 plus GST a year in rent. Most reporters work for private organisations; some run their own little newspapers on the side, yet none pay rent. Taxpayers pay it all. So maybe press gallery expenses should be subject to the Official Information Act? Was that a pig I saw fly past? No, it was the Prime Minister off to Tonga, Samoa, Niue and the Cook Islands, accompanied by some of the press gallery, who each paid about $100 for tickets, plus accommodation. Why so cheap? The rest was paid by you and me, suckers, and it came out of the defence budget. Don't hold your breath waiting for that headline.
Another ‘rightwing Deborah’ – the ‘Hill Cone’ one, has also criticized political journalists:
This story about MPs' expenses says more about the media's arrogance than it does about MPs' profligacy. What riles the media is that politicians have insisted the expenses remain exempt from the Official Information Act. Journalists, already feeling as useful as stamp collectors, hate being told no. Put aside all the lofty posturing about transparency and public interest; journalists are simply looking for another Tuku's underpants-sized scoop that will sell some newspapers.
It seems that politicians and their apologists are attempting to capitalize on the public’s disdain for journalists (which is almost equal to their disdain for politicians – according to various polls). But in the context of the various scandals that the media are helping to bring to light, such an approach just looks desperate. The MPs implicated in the British expenses scandal tried to do the same thing, and it didn’t seem to work there either. Part of the reason is that journalists, as well as being relatively lowly-paid in general, are not in public office – they’re employees like most others, and as I’ve argued elsewhere, while we might expect and even approve of workers trying to get the most out of their employers via perks, this situation does not hold for politicians who are not supposed to be in it for the money.