Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Devil's Advocate

Advocatus Diaboli: The Nation's Lisa Owen takes on the role of Promoter of the Neoliberal Faith in her interview with Dr Russell Wills, a Promoter of the Cause of ending child poverty in New Zealand.

IT IS VERY DIFFICULT sometimes to identify exactly where a journalist is coming from. This is especially true of those journalists tasked with interviewing politicians on radio and television. To elicit information from the interviewee it is often necessary for the interviewer to adopt an adversarial – sometimes even a prosecutorial – stance. To become, in effect, the “Devil’s Advocate”.
The origins of the advocatus diaboli may be traced back to the Catholic Church of the  Renaissance. Known officially as the “Promoter of the Faith”, this officer’s role was to subject the claims of those wishing to create a new saint to the closest scrutiny. Acting on behalf of the Church, his job was to pick holes and expose discrepancies in the prospective saint’s case, as set forth by the “Promoter of the Cause” – the Devil’s Advocate’s opposite number.
The metaphor as applied to broadcast journalism is, therefore, very apt. The latter’s role, like that of the Promoter of the Faith’s, is to act on behalf of the viewers and listeners by subjecting the claims of all kinds of causes promoters – most especially politicians – to the closest scrutiny. Requiring them to demonstrate that their case is a sound one.
For this to happen, however, the interviewer must first allow the promoter of the cause to state their case. If this is not permitted, then viewers and listeners will have no clear idea of what the interview is about. When this occurs what follows is little more than a verbal brawl generating considerably more heat than light.
Of even less use to viewers and listeners is the interviewer who plunges into the interview brandishing a whole series of assumptions about the causes, effects and solutions to the problem under discussion and then attempts to extract some form of concurrence from the hapless interviewee.
A disturbing example of this interviewing style was evident in last Saturday’s edition of The Nation on TV3. The interviewer, Lisa Owen, had been tasked with interviewing the Children’s Commissioner, Dr Russell Wills, on the subject of child poverty.
Rather than allow Dr Wills to make his case, Ms Owen proceeded to make her own. The problem, as she saw it, was that New Zealand’s elderly citizens currently had it too good, and that, in the zero sum game she clearly assumed social resource allocation to be, the amelioration of child poverty could only be effected by transferring resources from the old to the young. Or, to use Ms Owen’s own grim formulation, by the elderly being required to “take a hit”.
Fortunately, and in spite of Ms Owen’s clear intention of cornering him into calling for a wholesale shift of resources away from the very old to the very young, Dr Wills proved sufficiently well-informed, quick-witted and forthright to seize control of the discussion and make out the case for additional public spending on behalf of New Zealand’s poorest children.
And what a bold case it was.
“We need to decide as a society what an adequate standard of living is for children. Not just to be fed, but to participate, particularly for our youngest kids because that’s when they’re most vulnerable. So what the science tells us is it’s about where it was when I was delivering Dad’s scripts around the poor part of Maraenui, back in the late 80s and 90s. So that’s roughly half as much again as it is now. So let’s restore it back to where it was when we were kids. I don’t think that’s unachievable.”
Yes, the Children’s Commissioner was proposing a 50 percent-plus increase in payments for our most deprived children, and proposing it be paid for by increasing taxes on the wealthy. Or, as Dr Wills explained it, gesturing to include the clearly sceptical Ms Owen: “People like us.” What’s more, he challenged the National and Labour parties to reach a consensus on the elimination of child poverty – just as they had on maintaining the living standards of the elderly.
Thinking about the interview afterwards I kept coming back to Ms Owen’s line of questioning. To her strenuous attempts to frame the argument as one between the needs of the young and the needs of the old. About why she tried to trap the Children’s Commissioner into becoming the Elderly’s persecutor?
Ms Owen was someone’s advocate last Saturday – an unmistakeable “Promoter of the Faith”. The question is: Whose faith? Most certainly not the faith of Pope Francis who has made himself the advocate for the world’s poor and the hungry. And not the faith of egalitarian New Zealand which remembers proudly its world leadership in social welfare provision.
Sadly, the “faith” Ms Owen seemed to be promoting was the belief system known as Neoliberalism: the reigning religion among those for whom charity is a zero-sum game.
The Devil’s advocate indeed.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 June 2014.


Yoza said...

This is the link to the Jonathan Boston & Russell Wills interview.

Brendan McNeill said...


Dr Wills is also a 'promoter of the faith' namely that poverty can be cured by means of appropriate wealth transfer.

This ignores the research conducted by the Centre for Social Justice in the UK that published the five pathways to poverty that included:

Family breakdown
Educational failure
Economic dependency and worklessness
Serious personal debt

We all accept there is poverty, what we disagree upon is the best way to reduce it. Ignoring the choices made by individuals along the way, and focusing solely upon wealth redistribution is unhelpful at best.

Michael Herman said...

Yes, Brendan, because most infants and children living in poverty clearly chose one, several or all of those pathways as preferred vectors to their ultimate goal of living in poverty. Sigh.

Oh, and in the interest of disclosure, The Centre for Social Justice is a think tank established Conservative Party politician Iain Duncan Smith.

And let's not forget that Smith's 2001 bid for leadership of the Conservative Party was endorsed by England's champion of neoliberalism and agent of multiple crimes against social justice, the dead witch Lady Thatcher. Sign.

Let's also not forget that many, if not most, think tanks are tainted by the corporate interests they rely on and are engaged in a gear other than neutral.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Funny Brendan, how we only seem to blame the poor for their children going off the rails. Of course, rich people can afford fancy lawyers to cover up much of their children's misadventures.

How are you going to make sure that poor people bring up their children properly? Are you going to fine them? :-) That'll do a lot of good. Most of the things you mention and part of ALL the things you mention stem from poverty, both in childhood and adulthood. Family breakdown is often happen over lack of money – educational failure often comes from lack of money, with listeners usually stems from government policy, addiction is poor people's way of dealing with poverty, and serious personal debt often occurs because people borrow to try to ensure the kids have what everyone else has. Not to mention the fact that they have to borrow from sharks. Jesus Brendan, why don't you explain what you would do about child poverty instead of hitting us with the same old bullshit every time.

Mark Unsworth said...

Hi Chris
I thought exactly the same when I watched the interview but I felt that Jonathan Boston got an even worse hearing than Wills did.Boston was trying bravely to promote the findings of his new book and all Owens could do was rant on about the elderly under the silly assumption that this was a zero sum game .
Last week anyone who didn't want to throw John Banks to the lions was hit with a venomous " so you believe we should be soft on white collar crime do you "
Owen can be better than that but her task isn't helped by having to do up to 3 serious interviews in one session .Its a serious task and in the lead up to an election we need our TV bosses to accept that

Brendan McNeill said...

And here was me thinking that having children was a choice between consenting adults.

How does it work for you guys?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"with listeners"

Dunno how my dictation software did this even less how I failed to see it. "unemployment" :-). A case of Brendanitis I suspect. Too pissed off to edit.

Anonymous said...


Family breakdown
Educational failure
Economic dependency and worklessness
Serious personal debt

Unless of course you have a job or can afford otherwise.

Jigsaw said...

Well G&S for a start you hold parents responsible for their children. In my experience money hasn't a lot to do with it, its the care and enthusiasm that parents have for their children's education that is the difference between success and failure. People don't intend to fail as individuals or as parents but consistently making the wrong choices-and the selfish choices is the main reason. Telling them it isn't their fault and that more money would cure their ills is simply wrong.
G&S - I am sure that you are pissed off that world doesn't see things your way - seems you should get used to it.

Nic the NZer said...

Seems thats all Brendan has to offer? No interest in doing anything about the problem (of poverty) but just more moralising and a good ticking off for those who experience it (of course to reinforce the message of its all there own fault). Just the kind of thing that used to lead to hundreds of children burried in a cess tank by nuns (thankyou good old fashioned catholic traditions).

wild katipo said...

I often wonder why we bother will all this slanted pontification of the right wing. The facts are there. Weve got serious problems that will only get moreso.
We aint quite where Batista was, but we sure as hell seem to be heading in that general direction ...give a few more generations of angry young people growing up under these conditions and all the neo liberal dogma in the world wont avail them.

Time to take these issues seriously instead of hiding your head down a deep dark sandpit.

wild katipo said...

I wonder why we spend so much time pontificating on suchlike. The facts are there. We have serious poverty now in this country that wasn't before.

All the evasiveness and diversion from attention in the world will not alleviate the reality that in this country we have a serious issues with poverty - incredible that there are those ideologues and their advocates who continue to try to mask up and deny the smell of a rotting corpse in their own living room.

We sure aint as far down the line as Batista was but give or take a few more angry generations of young people as these children grow up and we might be seeing the final fruits of impoverishment -and all the interviews and doublespeak will count for nought.

Best we move now with an intact voting system to rid ourselves of this virulence from the Mont Pelerin exclusive club.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

So you'd stop poor people from breeding Brendan? There was a great fad for that in the nineteenth century – eugenics, and we all know how that ends up. Anyway, what about those people who have children when they have a job but then lose their job? What about those women who have children but whose husbands die or leave? Are we going to retrospectively abort them? Sorry – facile

Jigsaw said...

There is little point in comparing calls for people to have the number of the children that they can afford to bring up -without huge state support with another time. Talking about the 19C is a waste of time! They didn't have the pill then-the whole point of birth control was that women could control their fertility. Having one unintended child is one thing-having a series of children that cannot be afforded points to something else entirely! Of coursed people make errors-that's human-a series of the same errors is something else. can't you see the difference?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Ah poor people – whip them and send them on to the next parish. Sterilise them. Euthanase them? No we probably shouldn't go that far, perhaps we just find them and make them even poorer.

Of course we must hold parents responsible for their children. But simply telling them they're bad people without giving them any help to become better people doesn't do a great deal of good.

And I must say having had more to do with poor parents than most people here, most parents try to be good. But it's a damn site more difficult being good if you are poor.

And we still haven't covered the problem of those good parents who just simply can't manage, not because of bad choices, but because bad things happen to good people.

You see jigsaw you and your ilk go on and on about people making bad choices, but you don't seem to have any ideas on how to get them to make better ones. You just want to punish them or slag them off.

In any large enough group of people, there will be people who make bad choices. Mostly that's down to luck. I've made a few bad choices in my time, but at the time I thought they were the best available. I was wrong. Luckily it didn't throw me into poverty.

The other thing you guys seem to ignore is the fact that they are children. They didn't choose their parents, and something needs to be done about them. Tut-tutting about their parents choices doesn't quite hack it.
And of course bad choices as such tend to be handed down generation to generation. I don't see any ideas from the right about breaking the cycle. All you are doing is storing up pain for the future.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Nope jigsaw not annoyed at the rest of the world. Many of them do in fact agree with me :-). Just annoyed at the predictable, banal, ideological response that we get from Brendan. Every time. Though sometimes with help from you. Perhaps Brendan you would grace us with the best way to reduce poverty? So we could all know.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Jigsaw, you really should read some history. Women were controlling the fertility as far back as the twelfth century, fewer children in times of dearth more in times of plenty. We are dealing with a fairly primal drive here, but even so, the number of people who continue to have children they can't afford is not that high. And you still crapping on about it but what are you going to do about it? Capping families has been tried in a number of American States, and now they're giving up on it. Not to mention that it's unconstitutional :-).

Jigsaw said...

Oh I have plenty of ideas of how to encourage people to make better choices and that starts with education-where I worked for nearly 40 years but whereas people of my parents generation (without modern contraception I would add) acted more responsibly- many today do not. Mostly that's because they see little disadvantage in not bothering to adhere to some basic rules - the state will provide. Generally my parent's generation-largely without education knew that education was the answer for their children's progress but today many parents think its too much effort to get a useful education or feel that others will think they are putting on 'airs'. I agree its not the children's fault but neither is it the fault of the people who must pick up the cost-the poor taxpayer-often a working person who resents their tax being spent in such a way. Most parents do want the best for their children but there are a lot who don't give a damn-or do you not notice them? Some have a great line in bullsh** that they have learnt well.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

You can educate them all you like jigsaw, but without jobs it's all turning to custard. But I suppose they could then all go overseas and relieve us of the financial burden. Education is very helpful but it doesn't necessarily provide jobs