Hooton on media regulation

Matthew Hooton writes in the SST about the prospects of media regulation if Helen Clark wins a fourth term. First he looks at why we have the Electoral Finance Bill:

If she wins a fourth term, Helen Clark’s next move will be to regulate what can and cannot be written in our newspapers or broadcast on our radios and TVs.

Back in the 90s, it was the unions that first became accustomed to running anti-government advertisements.

The teacher unions were prolific. Billboards lampooned ministers while newspaper advertisements said “vote public education”. Mysteriously, these would coincide with Labour prattling on about “privatisation”. Leftist health groups ran similar campaigns.

Even though these campaigns clearly benefited Labour, no action was taken against them by the Bolger government.

For the first time, Clark’s government came under the sort of concerted attack that National governments had always tolerated. Clark was determined that such criticism not be allowed to happen again.

Clark’s answer was the Electoral Finance Bill, written secretly by Cullen and Labour’s election strategist, Pete Hodgson, specifically to silence dissent. They took the most draconian parts of Canadian law and merged them with the most draconian parts of British law to create a monstrosity unknown in any genuine democracy.

While the initial draft of the legislation was an outrageous attack on free speech, the revised version is arguably worse in that it recklessly risks next year’s election being decided by the courts. Every newspaper in the country, whether left- or right-leaning, has condemned the bill and the government that dreamed it up.

Media criticism of the government is likely to only get worse next year. The extraordinary arrogance and unpleasantness of key ministers, combined with clear failure across a range of policy areas, including health, mean that Labour is likely to face a media next year that is more sceptical of Clark, and perhaps even hostile, than any she has experienced before.

If she wins, Clark will be more determined that such criticism never be allowed to happen again.

The same arguments used to suppress criticism by paid advertising will be used to suppress criticism by the media. We will be told the media has been guilty of trying to influence public opinion “unduly”, whatever that means. Criticism of the government will be called “attack journalism” by “right-wing hacks”. It will be necessary to take “a closer look” at what is written and broadcast to stop the media “rorting” the next election.

Now you might think that this is all silly, that the Government would never try to control what the media can say. Well look at these warning signs:

Already, the threats have begun. Last year, Clark slammed this newspaper for giving me “endless column space”. This week, she broadened her attack to the media generally. Her foreign affairs minister, Winston Peters, has threatened darkly that he has news for the media, and “it’s all bad”. My colleague Chris Trotter, New Zealand’s most reliable harbinger of emerging leftist thought, says media policy has been a “sleeping dog” of this administration. He warned the media this week to “think long and hard before kicking them into snarling wakefulness” by editorialising against Labour.

It is difficult to believe that Clark, a former social democrat, would take us down this road. But, then again, it is difficult to believe how far she has already travelled. She is not taking us to North Korea, but she is heading to Singapore, where free speech and a free media are tolerated as long as they support the objectives of the ruling party, and where dissent is OK as long as no one hears it.

This gets pretty close to it.  Clark sees criticism of her and her Government as criticism of New Zealand.  Anyone who criticises her must have disloyal motives. They must be in the pay of wealthy or foreign interests, it is concluded.

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