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.