Election 2014: ethical standards

Media coverage of the election campaign so far has been dominated by allegations and revelations of unsavoury behaviour by various politicians and hangers-on.

The recent revelations by Nicky Hager  were shocking to me. I don’t believe that “everyone is doing it”, as some commentators and political actors claim; the sooner the people involved are flushed out of the system, the better. However, unless we do something to change the practice of politics, it is likely to happen again (with more secrecy, making it even more damaging).

Several commentators have called for more focus on policy, and less on people. In general, I agree with this. However, maybe this is misguided (I also suspect that in many cases it is self-serving, because “their” side is on the receiving end for once). Trust and ethical issues are certainly important in politics, and one can even argue that they are increasingly important, as more and more government decisions are made in a less than transparent way, and become technically difficult and hard for voters to understand. No amount of policy discussion will be useful if those charged with making major decisions on our behalf have ethical standards as low as have been revealed recently.

Debates about ethics in politics are often hijacked by spurious arguments about aspects of morality that are largely irrelevant. The Len Brown saga showed that politicians can behave poorly in their “private” lives. However salacious media coverage of his affair failed to follow up some important questions. Some small irregularities involving free hotel rooms were all that came out of the weeks (months?) of coverage. Despite complaining to the NZ Herald, I never saw any satisfactory investigative journalism or commentary on what I saw as a key issue: a candidate for local government with a recent conviction for dishonesty was put forward by her party without disclosing her past to the voters, and the media didn’t find out until after she became (in)famous for other reasons. As someone who voted for her, I feel completely taken advantage of.

In every profession (medicine, teaching, engineering, …) there are ethical standards, which carry severe penalties if broken. I am not sure whether there can be a more prescriptive code of ethics for politicians, for one reason because it is not supposed to be a profession (although at national level it largely is). An alternative to having to trust is to use greater transparency. We should have more information about what our representatives are doing, so as to judge their performance better. However I don’t see how the kind of behaviour that has been revealed recently can be prevented by increasing transparency.

This is why we have the press, the “fourth branch of government”. Recently it has become abundantly clear just how low the NZ mass media have sunk in the area of news and current affairs, and how intellectually weak their reporting is. Without a serious commitment (backed up by real money) to public service broadcasting, it is unlikely to improve. I am really surprised that this is not a bigger election issue. In the short term, issues such as the electoral system, public broadcasting, free speech and even education may not seem the most essential. In the long term, unless they are dealt with properly, everything else degrades because the quality of decision-making goes down. If I am reading the financial statement correctly, Radio NZ and TVNZ receive at most 1/4 of the government funding per capita of the ABC in Australia.

The reaction to a satirical column  by Toby Manhire shocked me. I thought I had some idea of the intellectual level of New Zealanders, or at least those who comment online. The fact that such a large percentage of readers did not recognize the article as satire was extremely depressing. Manhire’s columns are always worth reading, and almost always satirical, so this reaction was really unexpected. New Zealand culture has many very good features, but critical thinking and introspection have never been among them. Without help from high quality journalism, it becomes even more difficult for the public to concentrate on important issues. I must add that the weak tradition of public intellectuals in NZ, acting as the “critic and conscience of society” as universities are supposed to by law, exacerbates the situation.

We need to pay attention to the part of the body above the neck if this country is to thrive.

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