Be transparent about pundits' conflicts of interest

Wellington Beehive Parliament building

During Parliamentary question time yesterday, it emerged that a political communications adviser – i.e. a spin-doctor – working in the Prime Minister’s office was a participant on RNZ’s The Panel in February, under the guise of being an independent commentator. Tracey Bridges was introduced to listeners as being from the lobbying/PR firm Senate Communications. No mention was made of her role in the Beehive.

This was brought to light by a number of questions to the Minister of Communications. You can watch the five-minute exchange between National’s Melissa Lee and Clare Curran here.

The allegations were then confirmed by RNZ’s political editor Jane Patterson. RNZ says it was not aware Bridges is now working for the Beehive, and programme manager David Allan is quoted saying “It is a timely reminder for RNZ that we need to be fully transparent about any potential conflicts of interest.”

This is an important issue for anyone interested in the health of New Zealand’s democracy and political debate. It’s a problem for two main reasons.

PR pundits and a lack of transparency

Increasingly, the media’s coverage of politics involves analysis and commentary, rather than straight news reporting. This pundit commentary exists across all media – from the Sunday television politics shows, through to even this column – and embodies the bias, experience and perspectives of the author. That’s to be expected.

The key here is disclosure. The audience needs to know whose opinion they are receiving. This includes any significant financial arrangements – e.g. involving employment – and any other conflicts of interest the commentator has.

It’s not clear this ethical responsibility is always taken very seriously, either by commentators or the media hosting them. And when disclosure isn’t made, it makes it almost impossible for the public to know whether the views and information being imparted are simply some kind of PR exercise for a vested interest.

Of course, just because someone is financially linked to a certain institution or business, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are representing those parties in their views, although it would be naïve to assume it doesn’t have an impact. Nor does it mean their analysis isn’t robust, useful or interesting. But it should be up to the audience to make up their minds about that.

There is also a place for political insiders to have input into debate – after all, they bring their connections with both public and private sector organisations, and can be in a position to bring a perspective (and information) into the public domain that would not be available to more detached observers. But that needs to come with a real sense of responsibility, and those people – together with the media outlets themselves, and the audience – need to think carefully about these issues.

Yesterday’s example raises ethical questions, not only for RNZ and the media as a whole, but for the Prime Minister’s Office. The most obvious is: Was the Prime Minister aware that one of her spin doctors was appearing on RNZ to talk about government policies without declaring her relationship to the PM?

Lobbyists hired by the Beehive with potential conflicts of interest

An equally important question raised by this latest example of insider punditry is about Tracey Bridges’ lobbyist status. After all, this story follows on from revelations about the PM hiring lobbyist GJ Thompson as acting Chief of Staff, who then immediately returned to his lobbying business. What the PM’s office should be asked is: Has Bridges declared her other lobbying clients to Jacinda Ardern?

Ironically, this was raised by Bridges in her own defence. She told RNZ that, at the time of her involvement on The Panel, she was working for a number of clients of which the Beehive was only one. This potentially makes the situation much worse. If a lobbyist is working on the Ninth Floor, while also working for others, this raises obvious issues about potential conflicts of interest. It would also be interesting to know if she declared those other interests to RNZ before appearing.

Of course, Bridges isn’t the only PR, lobbyist, or partisan communications professional carrying out political commentary. There are numerous others, offering varying degrees of transparency about their work and potential conflicts of interest. The media, especially broadcast media, hosts a raft of paid professionals as pundits. And on the political right, there’s the prominent example of Matthew Hooton on shows such as RNZ’s Nine-to-Noon. The difference is that Hooton has a record of frequently declaring conflicts of interest, in terms of clients, and his affiliations with National are known.

But crucially, unlike Bridges, Hooton is not actually working for the Beehive. In this sense, the Bridges issue is more akin to some of the issues brought up by Nicky Hager in his Dirty Politics book – about the misuse of government power in political communications.

Surely, it’s time for a bigger conversation about the use of so many PR professionals in the media. Some of these pundits may well have earned their place as respected political commentators in their own right. But is it good for democracy that punditry is awash with people who are representing undeclared vested interests?

What about media trainers who advise politicians, and then turn up on radio or TV to evaluate their performance. Normally they are not accompanied by a satisfactory declaration of their conflicts of interests.

This might make for good TV, radio or column inches – after all these are often talented communications experts. And they obviously come to the broadcasters cheaply, or free. But this is the problem at the heart of all of this. At a time when the economics of media organisations are in crisis, demanding hugely increased levels of content with reducing revenue, the attraction of free entertaining content is obvious. But it could actually come at a very high cost – to the credibility of our media and the transparency of our government.

Let’s not accept the examination of politics being taken over by political insiders. At the very least, we have a right to see what is really behind any “informed political commentary”.

See the original article on Newsroom.co.nz