The Person, Politician And Journalist


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Who controls the political agenda ?

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The Person, Politician And Journalist

  1. 1. In the history of New Zealand politics one of the more memorable political scandals in New Zealand has been ‘Paintergate’, in which the then Prime Minister Helen Clark signed her name on a piece of artwork that was then sold in a celebrity auction as her own work. Clark later stated in a media release that she admitted she had made a mistake and was deeply sorry, although she also stated that it was a “storm in a teacup” and that someone purposely withheld the information until the election year (TVNZ 2002). This political scandal shows how media can be used by individuals for political gains, however with political communication the media in theory is only there to transport messages from politicians and other political élite such as political think tanks to the public and vice-versa (Walker 2009: 4). The other role media is meant to play in politics is to provide an expansive independent and accurate source of relevant political information that an individual may require to make an informed decision in a democracy (Bowman & Willis 2003: 220). In the ‘Paintergate’ case, Clark questioned the nature of the release of the information, leading to the question on whether this was created by a rival politician, a journalist or an individual such as the buyer of the painting. This manipulation of communication to act favourably for ones own vendetta or course, by adding (and in part withholding) information to the ‘public sphere’ , is called ‘agenda setting’ (McLean & McMillan 2009). The political ‘public sphere’ is the place in which the behaviour of the political process is reported and debated by both journalists and by individuals at large (Habermas 1989: 231). This begs the question, who sets the political agenda in New Zealand: the politician, the individual or the journalist? This will be answered through the examination the roles that they the actors play in the ‘public sphere’, and will argue in favour of the politician and the journalist.<br />The politician and other political élite such as political parties, candidates and political think tanks create the majority of the political information that is passed onto other groups, and are likely to try to manipulate the continued sharing of it to a wider audience. The individual may be directly or indirectly presented with this political information in the ‘political public sphere’ via communication mediums. These mediums can include party manifestos, public speeches, blogs and websites which are directly spread, or political reporting, staged media events, leaders debates and television or newspaper interviews which are indirectly spread (Hayward & Rudd 2006: 479-80). Political parties see their websites as a place to store vast amounts of different types of information about their party, which can be at the same time, easily accessed by the public (Conway & Dorner 2004). An example of this is the National Party’s website prior to the 2008 election in which the site acted as a “central hub”, linking off to a multimedia site as well as to sub-sites for groups including the liberals, the 60 plus age group, overseas voters, and right-wing environmentalists (Sullivan 2008a). Here the political party can directly control not only how and in what light the political information is presented, but also control what political information should or should not be presented to individuals on their website and in other direct mediums. The political élite can control not only direct mediums in such a way but also indirect mediums, as these indirect mediums often rely on press releases created by media managers working for political parties, who can then in turn set the political agenda favourably (Hayward & Rudd 2006: 482). This can be seen in some of the comments made by Steve Maharey, a former Cabinet Minster in Clark’s 2000s government, in which he revealed how he or a member of his staff wrote most of the news stories about himself when he was a MP. In such cases the journalist would engage in plagiarism by simply adding their name to the by-line of the media release (Cross & Henderson 2004: 143). This control over the presentation of political information in both direct and indirect mediums, means that the political élite can set the agenda by creating favourable messages to be transported to individuals.<br />The individual and public groups have a diverse assortment of mediums at their disposal to politically communicate their mass will to politicians, which may help them to set the political agenda. The public can use direct mediums such as the political party websites to get in contact with politicians, some of which have the ability to leave public text, audio and video comments (Sullivan 2008a). Another option is letters to the editor, in which the public can get their messages printed in newspaper. This is where they report their take on issues that the newspaper may or may not have covered, thus giving the public a place to set the agenda (Hayward & Rudd 2006: 483). If an individual prefers impromptu communication then they can use talkback radio to also report their take on issues, which is monitored by some political parties to “sense the mood” of certain segments of society (Hayward & Rudd 2006: 484). Public groups can use political activism to increase the awareness of issues that they feel to be incorrectly covered by staging public demonstrations, that in turn will be reported by the media. These demonstrations along with related newsletters, leaflets, press releases and websites created by such groups are all mediums used to help alert politicians of strongly held beliefs, while also setting the political agenda (Weaver 2010: 37). This idea can be seen in the political activism of a New Zealand anti-genetic engineering group ‘Mothers Against Genetic Engineering’ (MAdGE). The group used the spectacle of demonstrations as “carnivals of resistance”, creating a scene that would attract the wider public, the media and politicians (p. 38). One of the demonstrations involved the group parading around a government building wearing “full headed cow masks” and traditional conservative feminine clothing. This spectacle was reported in the New Zealand Herald the next day on the front page under the title “Pull the Udder One, Minister”, it also included a close up photograph of 5 of the marked demonstrators that took up one third of the page (Weaver 2010: 40). This shows that individuals and the public at large have the ability to send political messages to politicians, who under democracy need to respond to public will, and thus give the public the ability to set the political agenda. <br />The journalist and the media at large, are the transporters of political information and in doing so they can engage in the manipulation of messages to fit their beliefs as well as having the power of deciding what is newsworthy. The media is used by the political élite to not only communicate with the public but also to communicate with other groups inside of the political élite; as shown before this is also true of the public in their use of the media. The political élite and the public do not have the resources to justify the creation of direct mediums that can rival the size and composition of the audiences that the news media has created that transverses the ‘public sphere’ (Comrie & Fountaine 2005: 29). Media commentary of politics may also effect audiences, the results from the New Zealand Election Study in 1999 showed that 90% of voters “always” or “sometimes” followed the election on the television news, while another study in 2007 suggested that television news may have “influenced voters” (Comrie et al 2005: 30). Media commentary of politics can also effect the behaviour of other media groups. An example is the analysis of Mark Sainsbury along with a group of freelance commentators in a post-debate discussion on TV One prior to the 2002 election. One study found that Sainsbury et al was “undoubtedly influential” not only on the formation of public opinion of those that saw the discussion, but also on other journalists who went on to help form the opinion of the majority of those that did not (Comrie et al 2005: 30). Likewise the news reports and political interviews on the ‘Morning Report’ broadcasted on Radio New Zealand National were also shown to influence the topics reported on both television and in newspapers as a key element in the daily “media food chain” that sets the agenda (Cross 2004: 144). Media can also negate helping to form opinion by simply stating their opinion, such as the Sunday News and the Sunday Star-Times, who in the 2005 election gave “editorial endorsement” to Labour (Hayward & Rudd 2006: 484). The New Zealand Herald in 2007 surpassed editorial endorsement by running a campaign against the Electoral Finance Bill, which was legislation for political finance reform. Hollie Hyndman argued that the New Zealand Herald “ignored traditional journalistic values of objectivity, neutrality, non-bias and balance” unlike other newspaper who simply questioned it. The New Zealand Herald however justified it “on the basis of upholding the public interest” (Hyndman 2008: 7). Media also chooses what news is important and newsworthy enough to transverses the ‘public sphere’, this has an effect on what issues are then reported. This decision on the issues importance also effects where in the medium the information is placed: at the front or last page of a newspaper, or at the beginning or end of a news broadcast (Hayward & Rudd 2006: 485). This allows the media to set the agenda by controlling whether an issue is reported and its status of importance when subsequently reported.<br />The political élite, media and the public all have limits in their ability to influence the political information that transverses the ‘public sphere’, thus limiting their ability to set the political agenda. In the case of politicians, they can be limited to certain mediums, both financially and by the form of media that their supporters use (Pedersen 2005: 116). <br />This can be seen when looking at the New Zealand First party which has mainly older supporters, and which as of 2008 according to the Internet Archive, has had the same website design since 2002. The website is a “throwback to the late 1990’s web style” and fit’s a style of website that is a merely a “phone book for journalists” and a source of material for academic study, rather than a website that campaigns the viewer to support their policies (Michelle 2008b; Pedersen 2005: 116). However political parties as a whole remain not very “web savvy” with poor internet strategies, this includes a reluctance by some to allow participation on their website in fear of negativity, which can also limit the political communication of the individual with the political élite(Michelle 2008b; Pedersen 2005: 112-3). The political élite also face another problem when setting the agenda, which is the ‘depoliticisation’ of the news, where higher rating trivial non-political news stories are covered rather than political news. For instance, politics declined from 15% of the news on TV One and TV3 in 2000, to 11.5% and 10.6% (respectively) in 2003. This means that political speeches and comments are reduced to ‘soundbites’ in an ‘infotainment’ format for a entertainment focused media (Comrie et al 2005: 34; Cross et al 2004: 143). The public also have limits on their ability to set the agenda, such as when the public uses indirect mediums, which as earlier mentioned is controlled by the media, who chooses just what news is important and newsworthy. In much the same way the ‘letters to the editor’ in newspapers are chosen by the newspaper staff, who may not publish a letter if they think it is part of a “orchestrated letter-writing campaign” (Hayward et al 2006: 483). The political élite, media and the public all have to some level of degree, limits to their ability to set the political agenda. <br />Conclusion.<br />The political élite creates the majority of political information, while also having in some cases the ability to shape this information while it transverses the ‘public sphere’ through the use of poor journalism, this gives them the ability to have issues that are in their interest in debate and in discussion. Whereas the public has an assortment of mediums that it can use to communicate issues which it believes others (namely the political élite) also ought to care about in a similar manner as themselves. However, the media are the transporters of political information, in which they choose what issues are important enough to transverse the ‘public sphere’ and the level of importance of those issues that do. Although all have limits to their ability to set the political agenda to some degree, the public do not have same ability to communicate on mass without the possible manipulation of either the political élite or more importantly the media. The political élite’s influence suffers from the manipulation of ‘Soundbites’ in entertainment focused media which means that the media has more influence to set the political agenda.<br />Bibliography<br />Bowman, Shayne and Willis, Chris 2003, We media: How audiences<br />are shaping the future of news and information, The Media Center, Reston, VA.<br />Comrie, Margie and Fountaine, Susan 2005, ‘On-Screen Politics: The TVNZ Charter and Coverage of Political News’, Political Science ,Vol. 57, No. 2, pp. 29-42.<br />Conway, Matthew and Dorner, Dan 2004, ‘An evaluation of New Zealand political party Websites’.   Information Research, Vol. 9,No. 4, paper 196, Retrieved 10 May, 2010, from <br /> <br />Cross, Simon and Henderson, John 2004, 'Public Images and Private Lives: The Media<br />and Politics in New Zealand', Parliamentary Affairs Vol. 57 No. 1, pp. 142–156.<br />Habermas, Jurgen 1989, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Culture. 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