One of the moral assumptions generally agreed upon is the principle of universality; that you should apply to others the same moral standards that you would expect from yourself. Relating that idea to structures of power, like our government, illustrates how too often those with all the power dictate the rules. Take for example the recent rules by the Standing Orders Select Committee to ban publication of images of MPs in Parliament’s Debating Chamber if such pictures satirise, ridicule, and denigrate MPs. That’s a double standard if you consider some colourful examples politicians have provided of ridiculing each other and others in recent years.
In a bid to expose former NZ First MP Tuku Morgan to further embarrassment after buying $89 boxer shorts with tax funded Aotearoa Television Network resources, the Labour party benches lampooned similarly priced underpants to the amusement of MPs present in the House. The incident, which became known as ‘undiegate’ was considered acceptable behaviour. More recently the Exclusive Brethren started a petition asking that MPs stop “denigrating” them for their role in the 2005 election. The petition asked that “the House instruct its members to desist from denigrating a minority group known as the Exclusive Brethren because some of its members independently chose to lawfully participate in the 2005 election debate”. Despite this objection, Cabinet Ministers continued to use the Brethren for political jousting with Labour MPs, referring to them as a “weird, secretive religious sect”, “blatant liars” and “chinless scarf-wearers”. A further example includes Winston Peter’s comments in 2002 when he claimed that “half of the refugees are carrying HIV or third world diseases”, and that the Government was allowing in “murderers, rapists, and necrophiliacs”.
Under the new laws, would refugees have a chance to protect their image from the comments of MPs? Does this mean that satire, denigration and ridicule are only acceptable if it serves a political purpose?
If you considered the responses by media against the changes, you’d probably say “yes”. Most of these arguments are that the changes are unfair, not in the best interest of democracy and an attempt by MPs to control their image. Reacting against this, Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen – who is also deputy chair of the Standing Orders Committee – accused the Press Gallery of trying to portray the restrictions as “some sort of fascist state where the heroic media of New Zealand are being denied the right to lampoon politicians”. Well, if you consider that we are the only country of the 35 in the world that televise political debates that has this restriction (according to Tom Frewen), then Cullen could actually be closer to the truth than he realises. Cullen also said of the media, “I think you are taking yourself a bit too seriously.” But is it really the case that the prominent media stance (and Salient’s too) is earnest?
National Business Review Media Critic Tom Frewen thinks so. When interviewed on National Radio’s Mediawatch programme, Frewen said that in reporting on debates that “all that’s important is the person that is speaking and what they are saying.” When asked by interviewer Cushla Managh whether it is legitimate coverage if a particular MP was always asleep, Fruwen replied: “What is wrong with him being asleep? With some MPs the chamber functions better when they are asleep”. While that’s probably true in certain cases, Fruwen’s suggestion that parliamentary reporting should be bound to the words of the speakers and ignore the context of chamber, means that public perception of representation is narrowed.
When our MPs have a mandate to represent the interest of their constituents and in the interest of accountability, including such a filter means that the ability of the media to cast a light on public affairs has become dimmed. And while the media routinely censor themselves, such as refusing to screen swearing from Alinghi during the America’s Cup, self-censorship and state imposed censorship are two entirely different things. It’s in this spirit that members of the Aotearoa Student Press Association (ASPA) today have published pictures of banned photos of MPs in defiance of the new laws.
In the interest of democracy, the media should be allowed to do their job-act as a lighthouse-and report on public institutions with access all areas.