Judith Collins – poor, poor pitiful me. Good news! There is no news

July 30, 2010

The National’s police minister is crying foul about negative coverage of the cops in the New Zealand media. I’m sorry Judith, but this is pathetic on your part.

The cops have also stopped giving information about routine crime to the Gisborne Herald. Ostensibly so that the city’s reputation doesn’t suffer from over-reporting of minor crime.

What an interesting juxtaposition.

I was on The Wire today talking about this.


Gisborne Herald editor Jeremy Muir said that the police ban on supplying information to the paper was like something “straight out of a Communist handbook”. I’m not sure which handbook Mr Muir is referring to, but I’ve checked my extensive library of such materials and I can’t find a reference that supports this claim.

But, Muir is right that the effect of the policy change will further entrench the news media’s role as a “propaganda mouthpiece” for the cops.

I say ‘further entrench’ because the news media is effectively such a mouthpiece already. That’s why Judith Collins’ comments are so ill-considered and actually counter-productive for the National-ACT government which relies on the news media to promote its love affair with Laura Norder.

Conservative politicians (including those in the Labour Party) benefit from a climate of fear in the community. If public perceptions that crime is out of control are allowed to fester and an ill-founded fear of crime is established as a ‘common sense’ idea then it is easier for politicians and the cops to argue for more stuff – guns, tazers prisons, staff and increased powers of search, arrest and surveillance – even when the actual crime figures don’t support such arguments.

I have long argued that the news media’s obsession with crime reporting is unhealthy; but do you remember just a few months ago when high-ranking cops were clamouring for more “name and shame” coverage of drunk-drivers and other petty criminals in the news?

This is the “symbiotic” relationship that editors like Jeremy Muir and others say is what they want.Often there is benefit to both sides – an interest is served in each case. The news media fills the newshole and remains profitable – crime is cheap to cover; and the police get their sympathetic hearing and promote their efforts to ‘make society safer’.

But the confused and confusing justifications put forward in this debate do little to shed light on the issue; rather they just generate more wasted heat. Take this line from Muir’s Gisbone Herald editorial on the topic:

In the debate over media coverage of crime and the effect it has on perceptions of crime, it is important to differentiate between media.

Many studies do not separate violent television drama or crime shows, which have been found to have a greater influence on fear of crime than news coverage.

It is also important to have this debate.

Gisborne police have issued a decree that they will no longer report a lot of the crime going on in our communities.

But proper analysis, informed by the significant body of research on this topic, would lead to better reporting policies that would benefit everyone.

The debate itself will also leave people with a better appreciation of what influences their personal safety concerns, and whether those might be overblown.

The relationship between fear of crime and mass media is difficult to pin down — do people fear crime because they see a lot of it on television, or does television provide lots of footage about crimes because people fear crime and want to see what’s going on?

A point made in much of the research is that the heavy media coverage of violent crime skews perceptions of the risks associated with crime — which seems to argue for more reporting of minor crimes.

Another is that it is in the public interest to report crime in context.

For example, regular reporting of burglaries could be accompanied by a monthly analysis of burglary trends in different areas, perhaps compared to trends elsewhere, along with information about the police success rate in solving property crimes and tips on how to avoid becoming a victim.

While it is useful for police to communicate effectively with media, reporters must have a good knowledge of media law and crime-reporting guidelines. They should also examine the complex nature of offending, as well as crime prevention and justice.

Considering all the research on this, it is nonsensical for police to drive media policy based on gut feelings and a flimsy survey.

What does Mr Muir actually want?

He asks an important question:

Do people fear crime because they see a lot of it on television, or does television provide a lot of footage about crimes because people fear crime and want to see what’s going on?

But, he does not provide an answer. Perhaps it’s not surprising though: this is a conundrum, wrapped in a paradox and stuffed up the arse of an Enigma.

The relationship between the reporting of crime, perceptions of crime and police ‘efforts’ to ‘do away’ with criminal behaviour is complex and the motivations of both sides are not so easy to tease out. Have you ever stuck your head or your hand up the arse of an Enigma? It will take more than a forensic colonoscopy to sort out this issue.

There is no doubt that media coverage of crime and the dramatisation of what I call ‘forensic pornography’ on shows such as CSI:SVU and so on does play on people’s minds and does add to the sum of irrational fear. But this is a broader cultural and psychogical issue.

the real issue is media generation of “moral panics“:

The media act as agents and conductors of moral indignation – they create media ‘fantasies’ or a criminal ‘hyper-reality’ of produced and consumed images (Baudrillard). They create ‘social censure’.

They investigate, muck rake then point the finger via gross cases that challenge the publics tolerance – scapegoating The effect is to create disquiet, worry, fear and anxiety – then a desire for security, for order to be returned. This is their constructed reality. So is the corollary of a mythical law abiding and orderly past – to return to and envy.

Amplification raises the tension demanding release by authoritarian measures, law and order, swift justice and harsh punishment
A public end up calling for their own repression, they desire and demand ‘get tough’ action created by panics
The media can quickly move on to other vulnerable targets.
[MediaMonkey – Scrib’d]

No doubt media executives in both news and drama would argue that by covering crime and making forensic porn they are merely catering to a public need. That is production is driven by audience demand for this stuff.

And normally we might think that the cops welcome coverage because (as noted above) by coating their message in Laura Norder’s heady musk they arouse public sentiment and therefore support for what they do.

So why then would Judith Collins tazer her own arguments with her comments this week that the news media actually damages the reputation of police through negative coverage?

“I think it’s very important to acknowledge that over the last decade or so there have been numerous attacks (in the media) on the police. There have been the reports into police conduct, all those sorts of things, none of which have actually encouraged people to increase their respect for the police.”

[Collins: Media to blame for fall in police respect, NZ Herald]

Numerous attacks on the police by the media. Isn’t that actually a good thing? If we look at what the minister is talking about, we could argue quite convincingly that by attacking police misconduct, the news media is acting in the public interest.

Then again, is the minister firing a shot across the bows here? There are several important public debates at the moment about greater police powers; the routine arming of police officers; the role of police in dangerous pursuits at high speed; the controversial introduction of tazers into the New Zealand police service.

Perhaps Collins is sending a sinister warning: if the news media persists in critical analysis and reporting of these issues, there access to the ‘bread and butter’ of petty crime information will be withheld.

That is a dangerous thought.


Geting the good oil – Exxon Mobil and sponsored journalism

July 30, 2010

My friend and colleague, Wendy Bacon, who is the director of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), is circulating this open letter to journalists and supporters of journalism about Exxon-Mobil’s sponsorship of the Australian journalism awards, the Walkleys.

Wendy’s concerns are valid and in this open letter she, and other signatories are calling on the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (the Australian journalists’ union) to ditch Exxon-Mobil as a sponsor because of the way the company works to suborn independent journalism and because it funds climate change denial.

July 29, 2010

Open Letter

Chris Warren
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance

Dear Chris and organisers of the Walkley Media Conference,

We have recently become aware that Exxon Mobil is the Gold Sponsor of the 2010 Walkley Media Conference.  As journalists and others with an interest in media, we ask you to reconsider this decision and remove its sponsorship.

The MEAA Code of Ethics emphasises the central importance of striving for the truth and the responsibilities of media in a democracy. While we can understand the need for sponsorship, we consider that Exxon Mobil, a transnational oil corporation with a strong record of funding climate skeptic groups is an inappropriate choice. These groups promote confusion and ignorance in the community. They also protect fossil fuel interests threatened by policies aimed at meeting the grave challenge of climate change. Not only does Exxon Mobil fund these groups but it has been neither open nor honest about it.

In addition, Exxon Mobil has a long record of funding groups, which continually attack and undermine media organizations and individual journalists, which they consider to be too liberal.

Exxon is sponsoring the conference in order to gain and enhance their credibility through association with the Australian media community.  We consider that whatever financial advantages have been gained by the MEAA in return for this sponsorship deal, the reputation of the MEAA and its credibility in protecting the role of journalists to seek the truth and the public right to know is too great a price to pay.

Therefore we the undersigned call on MEAA to withdraw from this sponsorship arrangement before the conference. If you would like to discuss this matter with a group of signatories, please contact us,

Wendy Bacon, Journalist, Director Australian Centre for Independent Journalism
Alan Knight – Professor, UTS
Chris Nash, Professor, Monash University
Phillip Chubb, Associate Professor, Monash Universit
Jenna Price – Academic, UTS
Martin Hirst – Associate Professor, Auckland University of Technology (MEAA member# 2731592)

If you would like to add your signature to this letter, contact Wendy Bacon [wendybacon1ATgmail.com]

The claims made in this open letter are easily verified, the following is a brief list of sources that you can check out if you wish to confirm any of this for yourself.

Nigerian journalists threaten to boycott Exxon Mobil

Uyo — Journalists in Akwa Ibom State have threatened to boycott activities of an American oil exploration and exploitation firm, ExxonMobil, saying the mode of operation of the oil giant in the state does not add value to the socio-economic well being of the state.

[AllAfrica.com Feb 2010]

Exxon Mobil’s poor record in Nigeria

OILWATCH Africa, an environmental group concerned with the underbelly activities of the petroleum industry, is currently pressing the Nigerian government to impose heavy sanctions on ExxonMobil, an American oil and gas major, for alleged frequent oil spills in some communities in Akwa Ibom and Rivers States.

[Scoop.co.nz June 2010]

Exxon Mobil ‘green’ company of the year according to Forbes magazine

What an eye-grabber! “ExxonMobil: Green Company of Year.” I mean, who woulda thunk it?

Too bad the provocative headline of Forbes’s current cover story is little more than cheap window dressing. Worse still, its unnecessary hyperbole detracts from what could have been an interesting piece about the oil giant’s high-risk, high-reward bets on natural gas. The article, by Christopher Helman, reasons that power plants will burn Exxon’s gas in the place of comparatively dirty coal, thereby offsetting tens of millions of tons of carbon-dioxide emissions each year.

[Columbia Journalism Review August 2009]

Exxon Mobil funding of climate change denial

Exxon continued to fund climate denial in 2009
Tue, 20 Jul 2010 04:36:45 +0000
ExxonMobil gave approximately $1.3 million to climate denial organizations last year.This has been reported by The Times (London) after being provided information by the Greenpeace Research Department. (The Times is unfortunately a subscription-only paper online, but a version of the story can be found syndicated at The Australian)

[ExxonSecrets – Greenpeace]