7 Feb 2024

Democracy in danger when lies go unchecked

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 7 February 2024

Calling out disinformation is becoming increasingly difficult as it reverberates on social media. That's enough of a problem, but when faulty public perceptions are used to formulate government policy, democracy is in trouble

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Politicians and journalists have always had a combative relationship ... but blaming the media for everything now seems to be a national pastime. 

The rise, rise and rise of social media; a deputy Prime Minister who's virtually declared war on journalists; and the failure of government MPs to call out lies; it's all helping to further deteriorate the levels of trust in the Fourth Estate. 

Last year the AUT research centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy published its fourth Trust in News report, recording a downward trend that was already evident in 2020. General trust in news in 2023 declined from 45 percent the year before, to 42 percent. About 69 percent of us avoid news often, sometimes or occasionally. 

Today on The Detail we're calling in a couple of media experts - our executive producer and Newsroom's media journalist Mark Jennings, who talks to Victoria University communications lecturer Peter Thompson. 

They look at the effects of the deteriorating lack of faith in main stream media, including the effects on government policy.

"In my 22 years as head of TV3 news and seven years as co-editor of Newsroom I've seen the public trust in the media decline to a point where it is impacting our democracy," says Jennings. 

Thompson, who has spent most of his working life observing the media, agrees. 

"I think there's always been a degree of scepticism of media of all varieties," he says. 

"What we're seeing now is a deep-seated cynicism towards any kind of media, and particularly so-called mainstream media, and I think that's been exacerbated by the huge quantities of disinformation, or at least dubious information, that circulates through social media."

Jennings says mainstream media plays a really important role in democracy, "yet we see some of the most important figures in democracy - politicians - attacking the media." 

Thompson describes that as corrosive. 

"I think it's quite problematic that politicians often try to score points on issues related to media by attacking the opposition's policy - often they're cheap shots and not well thought out." 

The most egregious example recently has been Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters' claims that journalists are corrupt, and that Labour's $55 million pot of money to prop up struggling journalism, the Public Interest Journalism Fund, was a bribe*. 

The lie was shrugged off by government politicians - as National's Nicola Willis put it, it was "Winston being Winston." But should there have been something more definitive from them? 

The Detail also talks to former MP turned political pundit Peter Dunne, who was surprised there wasn't a stronger reaction from Peters' colleagues. 

"When you think about it, it was a much more sinister attack than just some cavalier lines thrown around. This was an attempt to intimidate, to set an agenda that was clearly, 'we're in charge now and you people aren't going to tell us what to do and what to say'. 

"I suspect their view was, 'well if you just sort of shut up about it, it will all go away'. The problem is, what it does if it's not challenged, is it creates the impression in some people's minds that there might be some substance in what's being said.  

"That's not healthy for our democracy." 

Peter Thompson says trying to correct the lie now is just about impossible. 

"This is one of the reasons why I think it's so dangerous. If people in significant positions of responsibility such as these government ministers perpetuate these myths that somehow none of the media can be trusted at all  ... it's harmful and corrosive to all forms of democratic politics.

"Trying to engage people and correct disinformation in this environment is proving really difficult. Once people seem to get it fixed in their minds that the media are all biased ... no amount of rational information or persuasion seems to get them to budge from that position. 

"I think that the problem here is that those misperceptions start to translate into the sorts of policies that government thinks are viable."  

In other words, there's a trend from politicians worldwide to use the rhetoric of "public perception" - a lot of it circulating through social media - to say there is an issue that must be dealt with. 

"It plays into the idea that public perceptions are always valid. Sometimes you have to call public perceptions out and correct them." 

*The Detail was last year funded by the PIJF, and continues to be funded by New Zealand on Air and RNZ. 

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The left logo reads "RNZ, Te Reo Irirangi o Aotearoa", the middle logo reads "Newsroom" and the right one reads "NZ On Air"

Photo: RNZ