My new book, Complacent Nation, about the erosion of our right to know and the politicising of official information disclosure is published on 12 August. I hope it will lead to broad public debate and demands for more robust processes to protect a basic human right. This is what the publisher’s media release says about the book:
Why has society accepted, on one hand, an increasing ability by the powerful to control what and how it is informed and, on the other hand, the erosion of news media systems on which it had relied to hold the powerful to account? In short, it is the result of a perfect storm or the convergence of three weather systems: a financially weakened mainstream media driven by economic rather than editorial imperatives, executive government served by a politically conditioned bureaucracy, and a public so affected by social and economic change that it instinctively concentrates on its own immediate needs and desires.
Such are the critical issues and questions at the heart of Gavin Ellis’s compelling addition to the BWB Text series. As both a warning and a plea from one of our most respected commentators, Complacent Nation should resonate with anyone who has ever contemplated the complex nexus of information flow and civil society – and be compulsory reading to anyone who has not. It comes with a stark warning: we continue to take for granted freedom of information and of expression at our peril.
Ellis’s challenge could not be more timely. In the realm of public information, Europe and America are coming to terms with a post-Brexit, Donald Trump universe in which truth as an essential currency of healthy democracy is being dangerously devalued. Here in New Zealand, as much as we might imagine immunity from a viral discourse that elevates fear above facts and places lies on footing equal to verifiable reality, Ellis unveils our own morbid symptoms.
Our traditional media are seriously compromised in their ability to maintain the time-honoured role of the Fourth Estate – holding power to account. As a former editor of the New Zealand Herald, Ellis is uniquely placed to describe this abrogation, charting the trajectories and associated conundrums at the heart of retreat from civic engagement.
Equally, his experience as both reporter and editor brings sharp insights into the political management of information – in particular the selective application of the Official Information Act by a compliant ministerial bureaucracy. He cites worrying instances of heavy-handedness against journalists by an establishment for which the very notion of freedom of expression seems to have disappeared off the radar.
Ellis also catalogues some of the impacts of social media on our ‘public commons’ – that place where citizens armed with common knowledge and verifiable information are able to reach compromise and consensus for the common good. However, all too often ‘opinions masquerading as facts tend to reinforce bias and prejudice rather than contribute to knowledge’.
What is needed, Ellis argues, is a national conversation that confronts and grapples with these issues. A loud public voice will be needed to provide robust safeguards for free speech and to ensure that politicians enshrine our Bill of Rights Act.
Complacent Nation is both a call to arms and an indispensable primer for that conversation.
Complacent Nation by Gavin Ellis
Bridget Williams Books, Wellington
RRP: $14.99 | 180 x 110mm
ISBN 9780947492946 | 152 pages
eBook ($4.99) available at bwb.co.nz