New Zealand Herald columnist Rachel Stewart recently fired a broadside at the critical state of New Zealand’s so-called “representative democracy’. Her views weren’t welcomed by conservative columnist Chris Trotter or by Professor Jack Vowles of Victoria University. While her views mirror what the left has been saying for many years, Rachel is saying it in New Zealand’s most widely read newspaper. And that makes her a threat to those would like to keep such views away from a wide audience.
THE WAY THAT two establishment figures, namely conservative columnist Chris Trotter and Professor Jack Vowles of Victoria University, both dumped on NZ Herald columnist Rachel Stewart recently was illuminating.
Both Trotter and Vowles are Labour Party supporters. They both though, I think, consider themselves to be mild liberals, sympathetic and generally supportive of some progressive causes. Certainly Chris Trotter likes to give that impression in what he writes. And when someone like Rodney Hide describes him as a ‘socialist’ on their regular Thursday afternoon chat on Radio Live, Trotter doesn’t admonish him and say that he is no such thing. In the corporate media Trotter likes to give the impression that he is ‘down’ with his many ‘comrades’ on the left.
I imagine that Trotter and Vowles would be among the first to subscribe to the Voltairean principle: “I wholly disapprove of what you say—and will defend to the death your right to say it.” Indeed, push them hard enough they might even have to grudgingly admit that revolutionary Marxist Rosa Luxemburg was right when she observed that “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.”
But, while they might subscribe to the theory, in practice they seem to be more ‘flexible’ and ‘pragmatic’. Suddenly large objections emerge when someone goes “too far” in expressing their opinions.
Rachel Stewart was winner of the ‘Opinion Writer of the Year’ at the Canon Media Awards last year. This accolade was based largely on the fine work she has done covering the dairy industry, including its pollution of our waterways. Trotter mentions this:
“Her column in the NZ Herald has quickly become one of those “must-read” contributions to the national conversation. She’s to be admired for her courage, too. Anyone who takes on Big Dairy in this country knows exactly what to expect – and it usually arrives.”
However when Rachel ventured away from the dairy farm and fired a considered and well-aimed broadside at the decrepit state of our democracy, Trotter’s bouquets quickly turned into brickbats. Her column, Headmaster Trotter wrote condescendingly, “was not one of her best.”
I imagine that Rachel would be the first to agree that she is not the first to say that our representative democracy is neither particularly representative or democratic. That view has been expressed elsewhere – on blogs like this, in the social media, on the websites of various political groups and left wing parties. Even Winston Peters, as I noted in a previous column, said pretty much the same thing way back in the 1990s.
The difference with Rachel Stewart is that she said it in the mainstream media and in New Zealand’s most widely read newspaper. She has a potential audience, I imagine, of tens of thousands.
In writing that column, she was firmly rejecting the unspoken consensus that sees progressive and radical views mostly shut out of the corporate media. So in Trotter's so -called “national conversation’ that occurs in the media you usually won’t hear or read any voices from the progressive or radical left . That’s not because we’re shy, retiring types or we have decided to boycott the corporate media in some infantile display of sectarian purity– its just that we’re normally never invited to join the conversation, other than the very occasional and largely tokenistic ’guest appearance’.
What Trotter likes to call ‘the national conversation’ is actually a closed chat shop featuring the political and business elite and its allies in the mainstream media.
While the corporate media might treat we on the left like lepers, we give voice to the concern of a great many people who are angry and dissatisfied with our current economic and political system. Nearly 750,000 New Zealanders no longer vote because they have worked out that the system does not represent them.
However when Rachel gives voice to that dissatisfaction in the NZ Herald , not only does she receive little support from within the corporate media itself, she is attacked by Chris Trotter and Jack Vowles. These two older gentlemen have dined well at the table of the political status quo for many years and don’t want the seating arrangements disrupted now.
They could of backed Rachel up. They could have expanded on her argument, opening up a new productive area of discussion and debate. Instead they have effectively sought to shut Rachel down.
Compare though the lack of visible coverage and support for Rachel’s column to the not inconsiderable media coverage that the virulently right wing views of ACT leader David Seymour receive.
The latest Newshub-Reid Research poll says that ACT has the support of just 0.4 percent of the population. Despite the fact that the party’s supporters could all meet quite comfortably in a large cupboard somewhere, he is still paraded in the media as part of the “national conversation” – something denied to the left. He’s in the newspapers all the time, and often on the radio and television. Not bad for Mr 0.4 percent.
However if you think that New Zealand’s political and economic system is a basket case and ‘representative democracy’ has failed ordinary New Zealanders and voice those concerns in a column for the NZ Herald, expect the stormtroopers of the political establishment to issue you with a stern warning not to do it again. You will be reminded that your role in the mainstream media is to manufacture consent, not upset it.