Locked Out: Of Free Press and Free Economics

Listener 26 May 2001

Keywords Political Economy & History

In front of me as I write this, is a 1990 circular to journalists by a media chief, who reports being approached by a public relations consultant complaining that too much space was being given to opponents of rogernomics (the euphemism is ‘continue to use the same small group of commentators’), and suggesting that other economists should be used. Attached was the consultant’s suggestions. The circular does not mention which interests the lobbyist represented, nor that a goodly number of those proposed were employees or advisors to the consultant’s clients.

I also have a letter from another media chief explaining why, about the same time, certain opponents of rogernomics were banned from their media outlet. (The concern was they were too vocal and represented only one side of the argument.) Shortly after, a number of journalists told me they were subject to various pressures not to use critics of the government’s policies. (Some, bless them – including this magazine’s – ignored the pressures, or found ways to get round any ban.)

One consequence of this limiting of public debate was the public was misled. Journalist Karl du Fresne wrote in a 1998 Evening Post column that the New Zealand economy was ‘stuffed’, and that ‘too many ordinary New Zealanders are still waiting for the dividend promised by Rogernomics. Those, like me, who gave the economic reform process the benefit of the doubt are taken to the reluctant and unhappy conclusion we have been taken for a ride.’ But who took them for a ride? Those who argued the case for the rogernomes? Those who lobbied on their behalf to silence the alternative view? The media chiefs and journalists who caved in?

There was an even more insidious consequence for the economy. The development of quality economic policy requires open public debate. By closing off a part, the professional debate became distorted, particularly by the suppression of analyses which subsequently proved correct. (Of course, journalists could not know who would be right. Which is one of the reasons they should report the professional debate in its entirety, rather than censoring it in response to political pressures.) Even today, with – to quote du Fresne in a later article – ‘the New Right revolution hav[ing] become thoroughly discredited’, Rogernomic analysis continues to influence public policy out of proportion to its intellectual or empirical strength, while the government continues to appoint Rogernomes because there are no alternatives available. Alternative views were suppressed in the public service, while the dissenters missed contracts, and younger economists had reduced opportunities to hear them or their alternative analyses. In the universities, academics were misled as to the policy relevance of the new ideas and promoted the pro-Rogernomes to the more senior positions where they are still influential.

The result is the level of economic analysis in New Zealand is stunted, and ideas which are a part of the normal overseas discourse are hardly ever discussed here, so policy is often misdirected. The claim of the Rogernomes that they won the policy debates because of the strength of their analysis is simply absurd, given they were at the same time actively encouraging the media to suppress those who pointed out the weakness in the Rogernomic arguments.

Today some journalists continue to rely on economic commentators who regularly got things wrong in the past (presumably on the basis that some time in the future they must get things right). More worryingly they present as ‘independent’, commentators who have a financial relationship with those who will benefit from their advocacy (employees, funding recipients, consultant advisers), although such linkages are often not mentioned. I would regret greatly were those contributions to be suppressed, but the not-so-informed reader is entitled to be told of any connections.

I do not know whether the various directions by the media chiefs remain in force. Maybe some journalists who participated in the past are too embarrassed today to approach the independent commentators who were banned. And younger journalists may not know who are the alternative commentators. Readers, viewers, and listeners deserve better. So does economic policy.