A system of segregation in the media coverage of New Zealand political parties has emerged and has been reinforced by mainstream media decisions over the last several election cycles.

An election debate is supposed to help inform voters about the choices they have in an election. Segregation of the political parties into “major” and “minor” classes defeats the purpose of providing a side-by-side comparison for the voter. When voters are trying to decide between parties that are not permitted to debate directly against each other, then these voters are denied precisely the information the media should be providing them. We have had a “minor party” debate, but who are the voters that this debate served?

Presumably many voters are trying to decide between one or more of the “minor” parties and one or more of the “major” parties. How are they supposed to make their decision without a side-by-side comparison? We had three “Leaders’ debates””between just two parties, despite the fact our country has a multi-party MMP political system that, in spirit, should favour no political party before the actual vote. The media serves us best when they are challenging power and orthodoxy rather than supporting it.

Sadly, it is not hard to see how this has happened. The two highest polling political parties in NZ are also the two oldest parties. The NZ Labour Party formed in 1910 and The National Party formed in 1936. The last thing these two political parties want is a public debate with upstart rivals. The reason is simple: being in a position of power based on strong historical support, there is a big downside risk to them losing the debate and leaking support to younger parties. The more the media segregates the political parties and restricts challenges to the two larger parties, the better for Labour and National.

The mainstream media organizes and delivers election debates each election cycle. They are well aware of the power dynamic at work and are therefore complicit in repeatedly offering favour to the two oldest parties by placing emphasis on undemocratic two-party debates. In the latest cycle they have maximized this institutionalized system of discrimination and segregation by failing to provide a single opportunity for challenging parties to directly debate against Labour and National. Obviously, this frustrates a full and fair competition of ideas and disproportionately benefits the two most established parties, especially as they already have substantially more resources and aging generations of dyed-in-the-wool supporters. It is not surprising that the “minor parties” debate was a debacle. I didn’t want to watch Greens competing with ACT, I wanted to watch Greens and The Opportunities Party (TOP) challenging Labour and National with some of their new ideas.

In the business world, start-ups frequently challenge multinational orthodoxy and occasionally these dynamic entrepreneurial challengers end up transforming all our lives for the better. Progressive countries know this and encourage innovation by investing in startups who frequently have to battle the status quo. Shouldn’t progressive countries also demand that their media provides at least equal opportunities to upstart political parties to give voice to new ideas that challenge powerful incumbents?

Media commentators have complained about Winston Peters’ no-show at the “minor party” debate. But it is the media that created the environment for such behaviour by devaluing multi-party debates, and by creating and reinforcing a class system in the media coverage of the political parties that does not provide a platform for a true competition of ideas between all parties that have significant support.

The New Zealand media, being responsible for providing a platform for political debate, is morally obligated to serve all voters as equally as possible and enable a full and fair competition of ideas. The media should not perpetuate a class system in their coverage that effectively segregates political parties and prevents the ideas of one political party from being challenged in a high profile debate by those of another party. The worst aspect of this problem is that the media are fully aware of how big a role they are playing in shaping the public’s access to comparisons of the parties, yet they don’t seem to take their moral responsibility as seriously as their responsibility to their shareholders. For the rest of the 3-year term this bias is fine, but when playing their role in our democratic processes they must do better!