When is bias no longer bias? When it’s everything.

A biased game?

A biased game?

Is Mike Hosking politically biased?

I think the answer is ‘yes’.

Is our media politically biased?

I think the answer is also  ‘yes’.

Is our society politically biased?

That’s not quite so easy to answer. But for a more worrying reason than many critics of media bias might think.

Let’s track political bias from the specifics right through to the general insight that lies behind complaints of bias (whether the complainers realise it or not).

Is Mike Hosking Politically Biased?

There’s been plenty written about media bias lately and it was kicked off by the leader of New Zealand First who took aim at Mike Hosking because of a particular column he wrote titled ‘Misery peddlers are milking a crisis‘.

According to Winston Peters, Mike Hosking is a “National Party stooge” and “his show should be counted against National’s electoral advertising“.

That’s fairly plain speaking – but is it fair?

The best place to look is presumably in Mike Hosking’s words. And it turns out that even a cursory examination of those words makes it pretty plain that Hosking is politically biased.

In the ‘Misery’ column, Hosking’s main argument was that those talking about a crisis were not ‘experts’ about what’s happening down on the farm. He had had a chat with a ‘head’ from Federated Farmers, for example:

But what I admire so much about the farming community is they’re realists.

I was reminded of this the other morning in talking to one of the Federated Farmers heads. I was asking why we weren’t buying all the milk and clearing the shelves and tipping it down the drains like the Poms? Why weren’t we blocking roads and throwing poo all over the place like the French?

He said because we’ve got better things to do and the farm still has to be run and we live in the real world and we know how these things work.

Bravo. In that is the simple truth that we have been here before and we will be here again.

Federated Farmers, it has to be said, is renowned for having swallowed the neoliberal tackle hook, line and sinker right from the early days in the 1980s – despite most farmers at the time suffering markedly as Supplementary Minimum Prices and many other subsidies were removed and the sector was opened up to the world market.

Here’s a ‘think piece’ (for want of a better phrase) from Federated Farmers in 2005, reflecting upon twenty years since subsidies were removed. It reads as a paean to the Douglas years, expressed in worshipful tributes to farmers’ “independence” and how they are now “earning their living by their own efforts without interference“.

It begins:

FARMERS in many countries are facing radical change. They are confronted with the reduction or elimination of government subsidies. Farmers and their supporters fear for the future of those who work on the land, their families, and for the communities in which they live. The fear of the long-term destruction of the traditional family farm haunts many farmers’ dreams.

Yet, the truth is otherwise. For family farming, there is life after subsidies. Indeed, life after subsidies is better than farming that is dependent upon government handouts.

The article goes on to outline the economic advances made in the agricultural sector, and they sound impressive:

The total agricultural sector remains as important to the economy as it was twenty years ago. Its contribution to the New Zealand economy has risen from 14.2% of GDP in 1986–87 to nearly 20 percent in 2005. Economic growth in the agricultural sector has outpaced growth in the New Zealand economy as a whole. [Of course, this may not necessarily be seen as a good thing in terms of a diversified economy.]

The removal of farm subsidies has proven to be a catalyst for productivity gains. Since 1986, productivity in New Zealand’s agricultural sector has improved by an average of 5.9% per year. By comparison, the period before the removal of farm subsidies saw agricultural productivity languish at an annual growth rate of 1%.

It does admit, however, that:

Real farm profits are not as high as they were under subsidies. Nonetheless, farming in New Zealand continues to offer an income high enough to provide a return on capital similar to other countries and a good standard of living.

So the productivity gains have not translated into increased profits for farming (and, I’m guessing, not into increased on-farm wages either) but the “return on capital” is “similar to other countries” – presumably countries that did not go through such drastic economic reforms.

Oh, well – not quite the ‘gain’ from the ‘pain’ that many farmers might have expected from such rapid and deep-cutting reforms, but at least the ‘heads’ at Federated Farmers are gung-ho so I guess that’s something.

Indeed, despite the fact that profits have gone backwards, the article concludes that:

The long-term damage to agriculture in New Zealand by subsidies was significant. The subsidies restricted innovation, diversification and productivity by corrupting market signals and new ideas. This led to wasteful use of resources, with a consequently negative impact upon the environment. Many farmers were, in fact, farming for subsidies.

In the early 1980s, New Zealand produced thirty-nine million lambs for export. Yet in one year, a proportion of these had to be rendered down and used as blood and bone fertiliser because there was no market for them. Now, such occurrences are inconceivable.

The removal of subsidies in New Zealand has given birth to a vibrant, diversified, and sustainable rural economy. Farmers in New Zealand are proud of their independence and are determined never again to be dependent upon government subsidies.

Bracing stuff! A group huddle of Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Rodney Hide and – I’m guessing – David Seymour would have been stretching to have said it better themselves or in phrases that rang quite so much with the blessed incantations of the neoliberal creed.

However, in the short ten years since that ringing endorsement of the vanquishing of subsidised farming, a retrospective puts such comments in quite an interesting light.

The fabled “diversification” somehow has transformed into the – now far trendier – word ‘conversion‘ (to dairy).

Putting all one’s eggs into the milk churn, at least in some parts of the country, has passed muster, so far, as a hard to resist business model. And the stampede to dairy in ‘them there parts’ has cast more than a little doubt upon utopian notions of a “sustainable rural economy” (financially or environmentally).

Then there’s the claim that the move away from subsidies entailed a move away from “negative impact upon the environment“.

Ahem!!

From today’s perspective – and however rapidly the farming sector may, in the past, have thought it was moving away from environmental harm by being ‘freed’ of subsidies – post-subsidy farmers seem now to have landed in the no doubt irritating position of being identified as one of the most serious polluters of waterways and aquifer water (the link concerns a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment report on the science around water quality).

Despite the tut-tutting in the 2005 article over the negative impacts on the environment from subsidised farming, in 2013 the President of Federated Farmers seemed to think environmental impacts of farming had actually been quite bad a decade previously (i.e., when the 2005 article was written):

President [of Federated Farmers] Bruce Wills said the figures [on waterway pollution] showed that over a decade, 90 per cent of the sites tested were either stable or improving.

“In recent years, farmers and communities have really stepped up their efforts [which implies that efforts were not good prior to ‘recent years’] but we know we can and must do better. This latest report shows we are heading in the right direction and we need to take this as encouragement to further step up our collective effort.”

And see here where it is claimed that “Calls to limit dairy conversions are being made in the wake of a new report confirming fears dairying is polluting waterways.

Yes, the 2005 article from Federated Farmers is a fascinating read and amply demonstrates the boots-and-all commitment by that organisation to what can only be called a radically neoliberal worldview.

No wonder that when Mike Hosking found himself chatting with one of the ‘heads’ at Federated Farmers the conversation became a redux of this invigorating ‘pull your socks up and get on with it’ rhetorical tour de force.

The second ‘head’ Hosking ranks highly as an ‘expert’ whose advice we should heed is Theo Spierings, ‘head’ of Fonterra:

The head of Fonterra says quite clearly, yes, volatility is here to stay, but the price will recover. They’re predicting $6 after this season. Why are all those who peddle the misery refusing the expert advice of those who actually might know something?

But not all ‘heads’ are created equal in Mike Hosking’s world.

Another ‘head’ mentioned by Mike Hosking was the “head of Landcorp“. Apparently this ‘head’ – unlike the Federated Farmers ‘head’ and the Fonterra ‘head’ – was no expert:

The head of Landcorp the other day in an article in this paper said the whole dairy model was broken – is it? Where was he when the price was $8.40? And, more importantly, he didn’t go on to say what the answer was if it was broken.

Strangely, Landcorp claims that it “has 140 farms the length and breadth of New Zealand” and, on another page of their website, that:

Our dairy cows are naturally raised on lush pastures throughout New Zealand. We have over 55,000 dairy cows providing quality milk for all ages to enjoy.

So managing 140 farms and over 55,000 dairy cows I guess doesn’t qualify the Landcorp ‘head’ as the kind of expert whose comments we should take much notice of?

Yes, if Mike Hosking doesn’t like what a ‘head’ says then what more evidence do we need that the person is no expert? After all, Hosking has other experts he can find us.

To summarise: according to Hosking the ‘heads’ of (a) an organisation wedded to the neoliberal prescription for farming and the economy in general and (b) an organisation that has been comprehensively under the gun for its overall strategy (of “world domination“), dividend pay-out and not acting sooner when dairy prices began to slump are, supposedly, objective ‘experts’ whose disinterested analyses of the current crisis come with gold-plated credibility.

By contrast, to think that someone actually in charge of running 140 farms and 55,000 head of cattle is possibly an ‘expert’ on dairy farming is just too risible to be worth Hosking’s precious thought-time.

In fact, to consider and contemplate diversity in expert opinion would no doubt just clutter his slick, stream-lined mind which, as he points out, has to be used on a daily basis to fire out opinions at one helluva rate.

Who are we to slow that tumult of opinion-making by asking for a bit of cognitive quality control? PC gone mad!

There’s pretty good evidence, then, for Winston Peters’ claim of bias in Hosking’s commentary – certainly in this piece.

Hosking’s opinion piece shows bias in both the selection of the ‘experts’ he recommends we should listen to – “those who know what they’re talking about” – and in the de-selection of those who, apparently, aren’t “farmers [who] get it” or “global leaders in what they do” (despite owning 140 farms and managing 55,000 dairy cows).

But is this just singling out a particular commentary? Is there, as Winston Peters claims, something of the National Party “stooge” in Hosking’s general approach?

Well, here’s an interesting insight into a possible answer to that question.

In the piece that offended Winston Peters, Hosking is repeatedly highly critical of both Peters and Andrew Little for their “alarmist” ways:

Andrew Little and Winston Peters both tell us it’s a crisis. How come they can see something farmers can’t? What rural dairy magic do they have that the head of Fonterra doesn’t?

But heaven forbid Little should let the facts get in the way of a good alarmist headline.

Add Andrew Little and Winston Peters into the mix preaching doom and catastrophe and you’re left with the feeling that these people just sit quietly on the sidelines during the good times hoping desperately for something bad to happen so they can unleash the negative headline-grabbing one-liners.

What’s interesting about this concerted portrayal of Little and Peters as being “alarmist” and “preaching doom and catastrophe” in order to “unleash the negative headline-grabbing one-liners” is that you almost get the sense that Hosking suspects they may have been following some bad PR advice to leverage ‘crises‘ in order to ‘gain traction‘ against Key’s government.

Were they?

Who knows, but there was this other opinion piece by Hosking back on the 5th of June in which he wistfully considers why Andrew Little’s ‘preferred PM’ numbers were “equal with Winston“:

Then we come to poor old Andrew, who now on 9 per cent is equal with Winston.

Being equal to Winston is never good.

It leads to comparisons, the comparisons this time being how come the leader of the so-called Opposition can’t get a bigger number than that old bloke who keeps causing trouble.

It’s true that Hosking has some kind words for Little in that same piece, admittedly of the backhanded, ‘best of a bad bunch’ variety:

Little has time, but not huge amounts. He, like his predecessors, has made no impact whatsoever. I like the way he looks, I like his performance in the House, I like the way he deals with the media.

I think most of us would conclude that of recent leaders since Helen Clark, he is far and away the best.

But once the platitudes are done with, you actually need traction and he doesn’t have any.

Apparently, Little’s good performance in the House, ability to deal with the media and – oddly – the “way he looks” are, in sober truth, little more than generous “platitudes” doled out by Mike.

In stark contrast, comments about John Key’s “political genius” and that he is “popular and successful” are presumably indicative of genuine substance in National’s leader and go well beyond mere “platitudes“.

But here’s the really interesting bit in the opinion piece:

This is a Government with a surplus that was missed, a housing issue in Auckland a lot of people argue is a crisis, they’ve got milk prices round their ankles – there is a lot there to work on if you’re looking for weak links, and yet he’s seemingly unable to make a dent.

Perhaps I’m missing something, but was that advice to Andrew Little, courtesy of Mike Hosking himself, that Little should look for “weak links” such as “milk prices round their ankles“?

I think it was.

Mike Hosking – way, way back in the now nearly-forgotten dim, dark past (i.e., 5 June, 2015) – was apparently advising Little to ‘get stuck in’ to those Achilles’ heel topics such as “milk prices round their ankles” and, by doing so, “make a dent” in the government’s popularity. This, then, was Hosking’s suggested way for Little to “gain traction“.

But, then, when Little (and “that old bloke” Peters) do just that, oddly, there’s Mike Hosking giving the “misery peddlers” both barrels of his haranguing skills.

If you’re Andrew Little (or any leader of an opposition party presumably) when it comes to exploiting the government’s weaknesses you are damned by Mike Hoskings if you do and damned by Mike Hoskings if you don’t.

‘Right wing bias’? Of course – it takes very little effort to spot it.

So if that’s the easy bit – identifying political bias in Hosking – what about the news media itself (in its political reporting and commentary)? Is that also inherently politically biased?

I think it can’t fail to be.

Is Our Media Politically Biased?

The reasons go back to the deregulation of media. This account of ‘New Zealand Radio communications History‘ hosted at the government’s Radio Spectrum Management website covers the important developments.

From that link, in the 1920s and 1930s, apparently, “[p]rivate stations flourished in the 1920s and 30s, until the Broadcasting Act 1936, and the resultant National Broadcasting Service saw the Government purchase all but two private stations by the beginning of World War II.

The 1936 Broadcasting Act was in keeping with the public policy shift from the deregulated ‘roaring twenties’ to the less joyous period of the Great Depression which worked out to be quite bad press for unregulated markets.

For those New Zealanders who grew up between that time and the 1980s radio was largely a public affair – The YA, YC, ZB and ZM networks were geographically spread around New Zealand (here in Christchurch, for example, were 3YA, 3YC, 3ZB and 3ZM – the ‘3’ representing the third region, heading from the north to the south, of the overall networks).

Radio spectrum management was administered by the New Zealand Post Office, but that was to change in 1987:

  • This all changed in 1987, when the NZPO was split into three state-owned enterprises and its regulatory functions, including radio spectrum management, were transferred to the Department of Trade and Industry, and administrated under the Telecommunications Act 1987.

  • Late in 1987 a report by the Business Roundtable recommended substantial reform of telecommunications, this lead [sic] the Government to remove the statutory prohibition on competition with Telecoms network, and to request a review of policy options to ensure best use of the spectrum.

  • As a result a report was commissioned. The report, prepared by NERA, made 20 specific proposals, the key issues which can be downloaded in our detailed overview ‘Radiocommunications History in New Zealand’.

  • In considering the report Cabinet agreed to adopt in principle a spectrum management regime providing for ‘a mixture of administrated licences and the creation of property rights in the form of both spectrum products and spectrum bands enforceable by statute’. As a result the Radiocommunications Act came into effect in 1989.

The auctioning off of the radio spectrum opened up radio frequencies to the current networks, dominated by MediaWorks and New Zealand Media and Entertainment (NZME) Radio:

New Zealand radio is dominated by twenty-seven networks and station-groups …

Two companies have a staunch rivalry in the commercial radio market. NZME Radio operates music station Coast, hip-hop station Flava, rock station Radio Hauraki, 80s and 90s station Mix 98.2, talk network Newstalk ZB, sports network Radio Sport, pop station The Hits and youth station ZM. MediaWorks New Zealand operates sport network LiveSport, dance station George FM, New Zealand music station Kiwi FM, Māori station Mai FM, pop station More FM, talk station Radio Live, oldies station The Sound, easy-listening station The Breeze, youth station The Edge and rock station The Rock.

This proliferation of stations yet domination by major radio networks has characterised the post-neoliberal reform era of the 1980s. This competitive environment also led to the now taken-for-granted pursuit of ratings for the simple reason that ratings means advertising income.

In this kind of deregulated media environment it is entirely predictable that not only ‘entertainment’ but also news programming and political journalism will deeply reflect the values that emanate from this over-riding need to pursue audience share (ratings).

The careers of today’s leading (in the sense of ubiquitous and establishment) political journalists and commentators such as Duncan Garner, Patrick Gower, Mike Hoskings (clearly a commentator and not a journalist as he has repeatedly emphasised himself) and Sean Plunket have presumably been successful largely due to their ability to meet this over-riding need of their employers.

They themselves are also, like John Key, people whose career advancement has coincided with, and therefore been entirely dependent upon, their ability to operate within the deregulated neoliberal world, complete with its labile ethics, appetite for spectacle over substance and a hyper-intolerance of considered analysis.

They presumably have all had what it took to reach the heights they now occupy in a media landscape engineered back in the 1980s under the prompting and guidance of right-wing groups such as the Business Roundtable (full report – Radiocommunications History in New Zealand, p. 8):

Late in 1987 a report by the Business Roundtable recommended substantial reform of telecommunications. In essence it proposed that the monopoly of the new SOE, Telecom Corporation of New Zealand (TCNZ), should be removed with competition regulation by a body such as the Commerce Commission. The report also recommended the introduction of “a system for allocating and pricing the radio frequency system on a competitive tendering basis”

The rest, as they say, is history.

To succeed in any culture requires a deep imbibing of the operative values of that culture.

Those values, inevitably, are deeply reflective of the ideology of that same culture. And ideology is inherently political in form and intent.

The reason, then, that much of our political commentary (and journalists and commentators) slips so readily into the basic – now ‘common sense’ – neoliberal assumptions on any political issue is that no-one who could survive in such a system – let alone succeed – could do so without internalising those values. Debate and discourse will then readily reflect back the ideological and political values of the culture.

In effect, media values – and those of political journalists – have been privatised.

Such values now conform to those required by the purchaser (and hence, in a market system, the true owner) of them. The value of competition (especially as it is ‘cashed out’ in market share), for example, will dominate political analysis and commentary as much as it does in any other commercial domain.

Unless a political journalist or commentator working for the new media outlets created by the 1980s deregulation has been recently beamed down from some alien world we can expect that they will reflect the values underpinning those same reforms. It is inevitable that those journalists and commentators we come to see on our screens and hear on our radios will overwhelmingly lean – sometimes no doubt without even realising it – towards the ideology that structures their careers and their daily world of work.

Of course, this ‘leaning’ will be done with more or less enthusiasm and involve a lesser or greater degree of cognitive dissonance from person to person but the overall effect is the same: Our politicians and their actions will primarily be judged by such journalists and commentators using the yardstick handed to them by the dominant ideology.

Given that the dominant ideology for the past 30 years has been neoliberalism it’s no wonder that ‘the left’ will continually fall short of the gold standard of ‘common sense’, ‘sensible’, ‘moderate’ and ‘centrist’ policies and views. And it doesn’t help that dominant ideologies are, for many people, as unseen as water is by fish – it just feels ‘right’.

So much should be uncontroversial.

After all, anyone who has ever worked for an employer will be familiar with the interesting process by which we all take on – to one degree or another – the underpinning worldview and values of those who employ us. We become part of the very structures that constrain us.

So, yes, the media landscape in New Zealand is indeed politically biased and that bias weaves itself into political journalism and commentary as sure as night follows day.

Put simply, even the so-called ‘probing questions’ and ‘analysis’ a political journalist may pride themselves on crafting will be predicated on the assumptions that neoliberalism has planted into the ‘realities’ of today’s New Zealand and which therefore form the warp and woof of public debate.

And now we’ve arrived at the third and final question I posed at the beginning …

Is our society biased?

A recent column by Chris Trotter get’s to the heart of this question:

The sad fact is that Hosking is not the problem, merely its artfully tousled personification. His high ratings among 18-35 year-olds is explicable only if we accept that, in the eyes of those who have grown up under neoliberalism, being rich and famous is the indisputable desideratum of twenty-first century life.

If this is “right-wing bias”, then the whole era through which we are living must be adjudged in precisely the same terms. Hosking is not a megaphone for neoliberalism, he is its bright and shining mirror.

When something just is what it is perhaps we shouldn’t call it ‘biased’.

To suggest a ‘bias’ is to imply that something could, conceivably, act differently with a little more effort, a little bit more ‘counterweight’ or a tad more ‘good faith’ on the part of the right people.

Yet, if – as social scientists would phrase it – the problem is structural then changing team members or tweaking the rules of the game isn’t going to reverse or even halt the tendencies inherent in the structures.

When something is ‘designed’ to roll one way rather than another – like a lawn bowl – it’s just misleading to say that it is ‘biased’. Instead, it just does what it does – by design.

Societies (and cultures) are expressions of an overall system and an operative ideology. That ideology penetrates everything from the fabric of the entrenched and dominant institutions in a society to the ordinary routines of everyday life and even the popularity of certain expressions in language (e.g., ‘accountability’, ‘fiscally responsible’, ‘win-win’, ‘welfare dependency’, ‘consumers’, ‘bludgers’, ‘aspiration’).

Looked at in that way, a society can no more be ‘biased’ than a tree could be accused of being ‘biased’ because it produces leaves rather than, say, money.

Just as everything about the tree is set up to produce leaves (amongst other things) everything about a society can be set up to produce – in proliferation – the kind of commentary that Mike Hosking euphemistically refers to as his ‘ideas’.

The reforms of the 1980s and 1990s entirely remodelled the institutional structures and economic and social ‘realities’ in much the same way that the First Labour Government’s reforms established a welfare state.

To put it bluntly, the 1980s and 1990s reforms were a massive and quite deliberate effort in social engineering. And they have worked. They have re-engineered not just New Zealand society but New Zealand people.

Well, if not ‘biased’ then what should we call a society that produces (amongst other things) Mike Hosking’s personal political bias and the media’s more institutionalised bias?

How about calling it ‘wrong’?

 

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3 Responses to When is bias no longer bias? When it’s everything.

  1. Thankfully I made a new years resolution to listen to or watch news and mass media as little as possible 2 years ago and I’ve kept it up and am happier for it. Has there been a celebration in the media about the 30 years of Rogernomics as a success story like the 100 years of Anzac mythology we’ve been inundated with? Has anyone put there neck out and really tallied the stats and seen it as a great new Reich, 3 decades of the pinnacle of humanity, a grand suit and tie affair of individualism and rising boats and freedom and unfettered creative genius?
    If so, could you point me to it, I seem to hear a resounding silence, though admittedly under the radar as i stated.
    Always enjoy your empathetic and nuanced writings.

    • Puddleglum says:

      HI WarlockofFiretopMountain,

      I remember there was a bit of a commemoration in 2004 of twenty years since the start of the reforms complete with those angled photos of Labour Party leaders then and since. It wasn’t entirely adulatory at the time but my sense of the media consensus was ‘hard decisions that had to be made – and now we’re all the better for it, overall’.

      I stopped watching television in 1996 so I’m approaching an important anniversary too :-). As a result I’ve done quite a bit of reading (and chatting with my partner).

      Thanks for the comment and the feedback – always appreciated.

      Regards,
      Puddleglum

  2. ropata says:

    We live in a society dominated by a set of cultural myths that are beyond question, and invisible to most of us because we’re swimming in it.
    Sadly, many people are like Hosking, unable to enjoy the fruits of higher education or establish some basic skills of critical thinking.
    If we are lucky, a new generation of artists and philosophers will change these myths into something a little more human and empathetic.
    If we are unlucky, the laws of nature will eliminate those societies that do not live in the real world.

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