Leaders’ debates should be more than just entertainment

Dr Matthew Birchall
NZ Herald
12 October, 2023

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, the American cultural critic and media commentator Neil Postman argued that television had debased public discourse.

His central thesis rested on the idea that television, with its emphasis on soundbites and sensationalism, reduced even the weightiest of matters to mere trivialities. According to Postman, this shallow approach to communication stripped public debate of the depth and nuance it desperately needed.

Now, if you are reading this column, it is safe to say that you haven’t succumbed to amusement just yet.

After all, Election 2023 hasn’t exactly been a barrel of laughs. While Shane Jones has valiantly attempted to brighten the mood on TikTok, singing teachers might be the only ones grinning from ear to ear. And let’s not even get started on sausage rolls and the unseemly sight of politicians dressing up as pirates.

That said, Postman’s theory about modern media's corrosive influence on public discourse appears to hold true. He just failed to foresee how bad the politicos’ jokes would be.

Last week, I grumbled in this column about the state of New Zealand’s leaders’ debates.

In revisiting the 1984 debate between incumbent Prime Minister Robert Muldoon and a young David Lange, I was struck by the gulf in class between then and now. The two leaders spoke eloquently about everything from Anzus to industrial relations, Think Big to food prices and inflation. And they did so with a conviction and frisson that makes today’s televised debates look like a pale imitation in comparison.

The debates I have endured this election season have left me feeling drained rather than invigorated about our democratic process. And it is not hard to see why. Fiscal holes have hogged the limelight in place of serious economic analysis; education policy has been waylaid by a tit-for-tat over a seemingly sensible ban on mobile phones in the classroom; and the discussion over tax has somehow winded up revolving around the price of beans and carrots. I could go on, but I will spare you the trauma.

This week, I want to explore why our political discourse has become so beleaguered. What are the structural reasons for the decline in standards?

Postman is undoubtedly a good guide, but larger-scale shifts in the media landscape also help to explain why we are where we are.

In 1984, when Muldoon and Lange stared one another down from across a small wooden table, punters did not have the luxury of shopping around for political commentary. New Zealand had two main television stations, TV One and TV2. These were publicly-owned television channels operated by the state broadcaster, the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC), which later became Television New Zealand (TVNZ).

Aside from radio and print, the NZBC’s leaders’ debate was the only game in town. This lack of competition meant that the state broadcaster could effectively bank on a sizeable audience, something that today’s media executives can only dream of.

2023’s more fractured media environment means a Muldoon vs. Lange debate is far less likely. Commercial TV stations derive the lion’s share of their income from advertising revenue, meaning that viewership matters regarding their bottom line. That same logic does not apply in the case of a captured market, as was the case in 1984.

Because TV stations must compete with alternative forms of media, from streaming services such as Netflix to long-form political podcasts, they are strongly incentivised to package up their product in a way that maximises eyeballs. This competitive landscape has led Professor Timothy Wu of Colombia Law School to characterise modern media companies as “attention merchants.” In essence, they actively seek to capture and monetise the limited resource of human attention in our information-saturated age.

Given that the revenue of New Zealand’s television stations depends on harvesting Kiwis’ attention, there is little reason to second guess the debate format they have settled upon. Indeed, it is reasonable to assume that it is the model that secures the highest ratings for the simple reason that their self-interest compels them to put on the best show possible.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with competition – the more choice, the better is a good general rule when it comes to the provision of goods and services.

However, there are some downsides when it comes to political discourse. Folk like me who consider watching all New Zealand’s historic leaders’ debates a weekend well spent are probably few in number, and that is likely for the better. But I do wonder whether we risk short-changing ourselves if we think our democracy is best served by treating our leaders’ debates as just another form of entertainment.

This brings me back to Postman – and to the elusive spectre that is culture.

Postman’s analysis of the impact of television on public discourse speaks to a culture that treats everything as entertainment. Even the most pressing concerns, if mentioned at all, can be distilled into soundbite-driven policy points or social media posts. And even the most complex issues can be shorn of substance when framed by well-rehearsed talking points.

That may be shrewd politics, but it does not make for sound policy.

Nor does it make for informed citizens. Research by the New Zealand Initiative shows that civics knowledge in New Zealand is already woeful. The 2020 research report Democracy in the Dark found that only one in eight Kiwis could identify all three branches of government, for example.

New Zealanders are fortunate to have the right to cast their vote every three years, so the least we can do is insist on high-quality political debate. In an era where entertainment often eclipses enlightenment, we must do all we can to create a public discourse that promotes good government.

Our democracy is not a show. It is the cornerstone of New Zealand’s free and open society, and it deserves to be treated as such.

To view the article on the NZ Herald website, click here.

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