Family Man: Labour's president, Nigel Haworth, wants key debates and discussions at this year's Labour Party Conference kept "in the family". As a consequence, all but a handful of set-piece speeches and "Challenge Sessions" will be "Closed to the Media". But to ban the media from the constitutional and policy debates of a party’s annual conference is insupportable. Political parties are – by definition – creatures of the public sphere. As such, the presumption must always be that the media, as the voters’ eyes and ears, will be granted free access to as much of their proceedings as possible.
PROFESSOR NIGEL HAWORTH has a peculiar view of the Labour Party. Justifying the exclusion of the news media from most of its annual conference to the NZ Herald’s Claire Trevett, the party’s president explained that its proceedings needed to be kept “in the family”. Putting to one side the obvious fact that a political party is nothing like a family, the professor’s words raise some pretty alarming issues. Families that shut their doors and draw their curtains against the outside world are often trying to hide something. So, what is it that Labour is trying to hide, Professor? Something shameful? Something ugly? Both?
Paradoxically, what Haworth and the Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Little, are trying to hide isn’t in the least bit shameful or ugly. Free and frank political debate is the declared objective of the media ban. “We want people to be able to speak freely and frankly and be reported appropriately”, was the way Haworth put it to Trevett.
Curiously, the Herald journalist did not challenge Haworth’s implication that she and her colleagues would not report the delegates’ statements “appropriately”. Nor did Trevett point out to the Herald’s readers that with the news media excluded from important debates party leaders can crack down hard on dissident delegates with impunity.
This is no small consideration. At the 2012 annual conference, held in the Auckland suburb of Ellerslie, journalists were able to report the extraordinary vitriol hurled at disobedient delegates by Labour MPs. The latter were furious that the conference had voted contrary to their instruction. They were probably even more furious that their behaviour was reported. (See here and here.)
Free and frank discussion is actually much more likely when the whole world’s watching. Absent the television lights, anyone daring to challenge the top table is likely to be flayed alive by individuals who throw insults for a living.
Another of Haworth’s claims that went unchallenged by Trevett was his attempt to paint media access to Labour conferences as something rare and exceptional. He claimed that the media had been permitted access in 2013 because the party was introducing a new policy platform structure: “We felt at the time it was important for media to see that process. When we go into the revisions of it, these are debates we want to keep in the family.”
This is pure bullshit. For most of its 99-year history Labour’s conferences have been freely reported by the news media. Back in the 1970s, for example, a TV outside broadcast unit would set up shop outside the conference venue and broadcast a 20-minute News Special at the end of every day the conference was in session. The often riveting policy debates were beamed into the nation’s living rooms without let or hindrance.
It was the same in the 1980s, when the party’s resistance to Rogernomics was dramatically broadcast to the electorate. As Jim Anderton once boasted to journalists gathered to report a crucial debate on GST at a regional Labour conference on the West Coast: “This is the real Opposition!”
And it is here that we come to the nub of Haworth’s objection to the news media’s presence at Palmerston North this weekend. He and Little’s staffers are terrified that if journalists are afforded free access to the most important conference sessions they will discover that, on issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the leader and his tight inner-circle do not speak for the party as a whole. Words and images conveying any other message than the Labour “family’s” complete and utter unity are, therefore, being prevented from reaching the public.
This kind of blatant media manipulation runs counter to everything a trustworthy political party should stand for. In democratic societies, political parties are where the nation’s future leaders are first recognised and readied for public office. They are the places where ideologically motivated citizens gather to debate and refine a broad range of economic and social policies intended to shape the nation’s future. As such, they cannot possibly lay claim to being “private” organisations.
Certainly, there are aspects of party activity which are justifiably kept confidential. Financial reports; personnel issues; discussions of election tactics and strategy: no one expects a party to permit the media to report these events. But to ban the media from the constitutional and policy debates of a party’s annual conference is insupportable. Political parties are – by definition – creatures of the public sphere. As such, the presumption must always be that the media, as the voters’ eyes and ears, will be granted free access to as much of their proceedings as possible.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 5 November 2015.