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“But the Morioris were here first” and other cries of the ignorant by underground

I’ve long thought that in order for democracy to work effectively, it is not enough only to have a free press functioning as a fourth estate “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”. In order for democracy to not be corrupted by an uninformed majority, the voting public must be educated and aware of the intricate details of the issues at hand. Or else a marauding tyrannical mob will pervert the system into a populist “idol-style” sound bite driven circus devoid of intellectual debate, serious discussion and a detailed analyse of the issues that we face as a nation. Unfortunately, the way I see it, public debate is already hindered by the ignorance of many and the misinformation that plagues the opinions of even the most well-meaning people. Of course this sounds arrogant, and I may even be guilty of holding my own misconceptions about things, but I still maintain that it is vital for politics not to be clouded by misinformation. The question that remains is, whose duty is it to ensure that the public is correctly informed?

I ask this because it would be widely assumed that it would either the media’s or the education system’s responsibility to keep the public informed. However both fail to do this adequately at the moment.

The education system has enough on its plate. Through school children must learn the basics as part of the curriculum and can choose to opt into various other disciplines in later years. As a result, the amount of social sciences a child may learn are limited. And most parents value other disciplines above history and the like, so demanding students learn about their countries social and political history would likely meet resistance. Besides, adults are as guilty as any of not knowing the full story behind public debates.

The media, on the other hand, simply does not have the time and space. News broadcasts have their alloted time, and cannot give the adequate background needed to fully understand news stories. Therefore television news is often guilty of opting for the easy path, and covering complex stories lightly, not with the detail they probably deserve. This occurs daily. Documentaries are the best opportunity for broadcast media to counter this problem. There are, of course, many fantastic documentaries on most nights on some channel somewhere, but this requires the audience to actively seek them. And people opt often for entertainment over information, and there is little that can be done about this in our societies current state. Newspapers are not immune from this problem. Like TV and Radios limited amount of time, papers have a limited amount of space. So a story must be succinctly written in order to tell the reader all the important details, in a limited space. There just may not be the space required to adequately inform the reader of the background to the story. So either the reader seeks it themselves, or base their opinion on the window into time that the article provides. So apart from the occasional feature, a news story may not be presented in a paper in a way that ensures the reader knows the full story. News for this reason tends to be overly focused on “spot” news stories, or celebrity stories, or any other news that the audience does not require knowledge of background events to understand.

On countless occasions I have had discussions with people who staunchly hold a position that is founded on fallacious claims or complete ignorance. The best frequent case is the Iraq War and Middle Eastern politics in general. Everyone seems to have a position on the issues, yet most appear wildly ignorant of even the basic facts. People still believe the Bush pre-war lies, despite having been acknowledged as false by almost all concerned. Others are completely unaware of the history that has preceded this current quagmire and are therefore unable to recognise the West’s responsibility for the mess. And those misinformed will have opinions skewed as a result, and, as we have seen, governments will be able to obtain the public mandate to indulge in reckless policy. The obvious example is Iraq, but closer to home we have our own cases of a mislead public supporting flawed policy.

How can we debate Treaty of Waitangi issues when the public is so terribly misinformed? How many people in this country do not know what is in the Treaty, the status of the Treaty under international law, or any of the grievances Iwi have with the Crown? How many still hold misconceptions that still cloud their opinions, such as my favourite, “the Maori killed off the Moriori, so why are they complaining!” When people still hold such opinions, how can we engage in vital public debates?

Does the media have the responcibility to not just inform us of current news, but also of the background knowledge that is vital to our understanding of current events?

I thought the New Zealand Herald did a great job addressing these sorts of problems with educational inserts in their daily paper. I hope this is something they will continue to do in the future. The Herald published series on Treaty history, Auckland’s geology, and World War One, and perhaps others that I cannot recall. Without appearing overly childish, the inserts were accessible to New Zealanders of all ages and gave sufficient background knowledge on issues. It would be good to see a non-partisan political and social New Zealand history insert published as part of the election coverage, because peoples lack of knowledge in this area is astounding. I remember arguing with a woman who hated Helen Clark because of a law her government passed in the 1990’s. I cannot remember the law, but I knew it to have been a law passed under National. Considering that she will not vote Labour, because of a law under National she did not like, it is evident how important education is to democracy.

Perhaps if every New Zealander had to read Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand, this would not be an issue. However, every time a major events diverts our attention overseas we will require an appropriate text to inform the nation as to the background information, before we make up our minds on what to do. Hell, I’ve got a headache!

(This blog was originally part of my “The other side of Aotearoa” blog post. After somehow losing part of that post, I have rewritten the gist of what was there and extended on the initial ideas.)

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1 Comment so far
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Good points. I’ve been blogging about pre-Maori for some time – they’re a real problem:
http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2008/06/pseudo-history-in-onehunga.html
http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2008/01/good-bookshop-lousy-book.html
etc etc

Comment by Scott




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