By Gavin Ellis 

In an extract from his new book Complacent Nation, former New Zealand Herald editor-in-chief Gavin Ellis explores whether New Zealand really is a complacent nation.

The letter looked innocuous enough at first glance. It sat in a filing cabinet in the office of the editor of the New Zealand Herald and, as the new occupant in 1996, one of my first duties was to familiarise myself with the correspondence. I saw that it was on a New Zealand Government letterhead and contained a single sentence. The date indicated it had sat in those files for more than four decades and I was about to pass it by when the brief heading caught my attention: D-Notice.

The D-Notice or defence advisory notice dates back to 1912 when, during the arms race that preceded the First World War, the British government created an informal system to warn the press when it was getting too close to matters ‘prejudicial to the national interest’. It has no standing in law but for more than a century has remained a potent weapon that Britain’s media ignore at their peril.1

I was well aware of the British system and vaguely aware that Australia had such a system during the Cold War. I had no idea that the system also operated in New Zealand – and I had been working in newspapers for more than thirty years.

Why had the letter remained in the correspondence files since the early 1950s? After all, it related merely to British heavy-water experiments that were a part of nuclear weapons development long consigned to history. Perhaps it was an oversight. Perhaps it was a reflection of the fact that although the system had fallen into disuse only a few years after it was established in 1952, nothing stood in the way of its resurrection. In fact I learned recently that my predecessor had made the same discovery and left it in the file to serve as a reminder to his successors that the power of the state to control the flow of information can extend well beyond the statute books and into mechanisms of which the public has no knowledge.

I recalled the letter when I sat down to write this work. My motivation has been a growing sense of paradox. On the one hand we are in a digital age where the ability to communicate is – in the developed world at least – greater than at any other time in human history. Yet, on the other, we are seeing barriers to the flow of information that seem, to me at least, important in a fully functioning democracy. If New Zealanders are not living in a fool’s paradise, we are certainly residents of a country where it is all too easy to hide information from public gaze, or to have it subsumed by commercially driven media ‘infotainment’ and ‘click-bait’ that may reflect their audience’s disengagement from civic affairs. To set the context for the book I will briefly outline my overarching concerns.

Restricting the flow of official information is not a manifestation of some right-wing neo-con conspiracy that can be overturned as soon as the country is ‘returned to reason’ by a left-wing government. It exists whichever political party is in power. There are numerous examples of restriction, some of which I have included as an unhealthy representative range. I have done so not only as a record of past acts but also as a warning of the consequences of further limitations. Why is such a warning necessary? It is needed because the New Zealand public has generally accepted inroads into this fundamental democratic right with not so much as a whimper. And the effects are cumulative. The Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations are an example of what can be done under a veil of secrecy. Extrapolate that to other government and commercial activities and you may have an inkling of what could lie ahead.

A former United States Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, earned himself the Plain English Campaign’s Foot in Mouth Award for the following statement:2

… as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

It was plainly not Mr Rumsfeld’s intention to speak on behalf of the general public, but his statement also untidily describes the state of knowledge in a society subjected to inhibited flows of information.

As I outlined in the Introduction, society, with good reason, places limits on communication that can harm individuals or the security of the state. It also respects the right of individuals to live their private lives shielded from public scrutiny. Outside those narrowly defined limits, society has a right to expect a free flow of information.

There was a time when the expectation was lower. When I worked in the parliamentary Press Gallery in the late 1960s, for example, there was a degree of deference to politicians that largely determined what would be made public. Relationships began to change in the Muldoon era – witness Simon Walker’s 1976 confrontation with Prime Minister Robert Muldoon on the Tonight current affairs television programme – and by the time the OIA was passed in 1982 there was recognition of the principle that the information would be made available unless there was good reason for withholding it.

So why, in the first decades of the twenty-first century, has society lowered that expectation? Why has society accepted, on one hand, an increasing ability by the powerful to control what and how it is informed and, on the other hand, the erosion of news media systems on which it had relied to hold the powerful to account? In short, it is the result of a perfect storm or the convergence of three weather systems: a financially weakened mainstream media driven by economic rather than editorial imperatives, executive government served by a politically conditioned bureaucracy, and a public so affected by social and economic change that it instinctively concentrates on its own immediate needs and desires. The result is public acceptance and complacency that will allow hard-won freedom of expression to be diminished both by design and by unintended consequence.

If I seem over-sensitive on the matter I make no apology. I have been conditioned by both my experiences as a journalist and editor, and by academic pursuits that include a study of propaganda. For some years I have taught courses on the history of propaganda and that has required a study of the Nazi era in Germany and the part played by national acquiescence. Researching this book drew me back to the chilling conclusion to a speech by Pastor Martin Niemöller, who was interned in Nazi concentration camps from 1938 to 1945. It was translated, in various versions, as a poem.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—

And there was no one left to speak for me.

We do not face a threat on a scale with Hitler and fascism. However, I remain drawn to Niemöller’s verse because it is a compelling example of another of my over-arching themes: the relative ease with which normal people accept inroads on freedom because they do not believe it affects them. It is also to suggest that if cowardice is a term reserved for the most exacting circumstances, acceptance and complacency are its all-too-acceptable everyday equivalents where ‘free speech’ is concerned.

Niemöller’s early support of Hitler’s National Socialism as a potential defender of the Church against Communism tarnished his post-war anti-Nazi reputation but he has left us an enduring reminder of where our responsibilities lie. If we recognise the need to shake ourselves free of our towering complacency, we might retain the ability to know when our rights and wellbeing are under threat and to ensure we have the means to make our outrage heard.

If complacency is an affliction of the New Zealand public, pernicious anaemia is an illness that has infected the country’s news media. Mainstream media’s newsrooms have been subjected to the equivalent of the Chinese torture known as lingchi or ‘death of a thousand cuts’. Census data shows that the number of print, radio and television journalists was cut almost in half in seven years – from 2,214 in 2006 to 1,170 in 2013. Newsroom budgets have similarly been cut and the demands for individual journalistic output has increased as newsrooms now feed multiple print, broadcasting and digital platforms. Audiences, meanwhile, are being drawn to emotion-laden news or lifestyle and entertainment stories in an environment conditioned by digital analytics that convince editors they are meeting the desires of an audience that may be doing no more than responding to what is served up to them. Together, media and audience have created an infernal dumbing down machine that is allowed to keep running because demands for improvement lack the commercial or political force to throw a spanner into the works.

Ironic though it may be in the age of burgeoning digital communication, society is struggling to maintain the distribution of democratically significant information and meaningful debate to large-scale audiences. Without the ability to disseminate information and opinion, we may as well be shouting in the vacuum of deep space.

The digital age offers the prospect of connected citizenry but that may be as illusory as the belief that we are all active and informed participants in our democratic state. It also offers the opportunity to become a publisher without the financial restrictions of a printing press or broadcast studio – but that does not guarantee reaching an audience large enough to matter. As the market for traditional outlets such as newspapers decline, they are not being replaced by digital outlets that deliver the same information to similar-sized audiences.

In whatever form the future may dictate, we need news media – professional organisations charged with the dissemination of information and opinions to audiences large enough to generate consensus on matters of local, regional and national significance. The responsibility for that lies with state-owned and private commercial media alike. It also falls to the public to demand media systems that contribute to its ability to fully function in a democracy.

We face a future where news media limit their commitment to serious civic journalism to a few oases in a desert of ‘infotainment’, and allow self-interested government to control information at the expense of free speech. Both encourage inhabitants to conflate ‘consumer’ and ‘citizen’ to the point where buying power is mistaken for political power.

However, the problems that we face are not limited to the effects of market forces. As a country we have also accepted a weak legal infrastructure surrounding free expression. Existing laws are capable of amendment, self-serving interpretation, and even revocation. There is potential for repressive new laws passed in the name of national security to seriously impinge upon our free speech rights and the rights of media to hold power to account. This is not doomsday theorising. Both rights have already been eroded by anti-terrorism laws in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. Given the legislative inroads into free speech in those countries, what guarantees do New Zealanders have that future restrictions to ensure the security of citizens and state are fit for purpose and proportionate?

We have become a society where we place insufficient value on democratic rights because we have taken them for granted for longer than is safe. It is time for New Zealanders to affirm these rights – and the right of free expression is at the forefront. If they fail to do so, they will find themselves resident at the shoddy end of the market in a discount democracy. Yet, as matters stand, we are faced with a dangerous paradox: the greater the inroads made into freedom of speech, the less concerned the general public seems to be. New Zealand is the complacent nation.

Extract from Ellis, Gavin, Complacent Nation, 2016, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, pp.15-24. 

Gavin Ellis is a former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald. He is currently a journalist, honorary academic and senior lecturer in media and communication at the University of Auckland.

Link to book:

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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