Friday, December 1, 2023

What's behind the media’s low-key treatment of the mosque shootings inquest?

Has anyone else been struck by the extraordinarily low-key media coverage of the inquest into the Christchurch mosque massacres?

Day after day, major news outlets have, at best, played down the proceedings. At worst they have ignored the inquest altogether. The coverage has been so conspicuously subdued that I can only conclude it’s deliberate.

RNZ is an honourable exception, but even there the coverage has been relatively light. Television has reported the inquest only spasmodically and you have to search the Stuff and NZME websites for any reference to it.

This is perplexing. March 15, 2019 was one of the most traumatic days in New Zealand history – arguably more so than previous tragedies such as Pike River, Mt Erebus or the Wahine sinking, because it was the result of a deliberate act. Only the Aramoana massacre of 1990, in which 13 people were shot dead compared with the 51 in Christchurch, comes close.

It follows that the nation has a vital interest in knowing not just how and why the mosque killings happened and whether they could have been avoided, but also in establishing whether the response by police and emergency services was adequate.

A royal commission of inquiry in 2020 dealt with those first questions, but it falls to the inquest under deputy chief coroner Brigitte Windley to investigate the latter issue.

What has emerged in evidence so far is not encouraging. Witnesses have told of confused, chaotic, slapdash and even heartless responses to the shootings; of indecision, communication breakdowns and rigid adherence to health and safety rules that meant medical help for the surviving victims was delayed.

Until yesterday, perhaps the most disheartening revelations were that paramedics didn’t enter the Deans Avenue mosque until 30 minutes after the killer had left and that surviving victims were abandoned altogether for 10 minutes after reports came through of the second outbreak of shootings and police left the scene to rush to Linwood.

Now it has emerged that distraught relatives of the victims at Deans Avenue were told to leave the scene and even threatened with arrest when they wanted to comfort the wounded. An American police expert on terror attacks told of “heartbreaking” witness statements and gave his opinion that people who were already inside the mosque should have been allowed to stay unless they were interfering. Another overseas counter-terrorism expert said there was no excuse for leaving the shooting victims alone.

No doubt the inquest has also been told, or will be told, of acts of heroism and compassion by first responders, including the two courageous and quick-thinking police officers who apprehended the killer. It’s likely too that the coroner, in her findings, will make the point that this was an unprecedented event and that confusion and errors of judgment were probably inevitable.

That Brenton Tarrant was arrested only 19 minutes after the shooting began, and before he could continue his murderous rampage at Ashburton, was remarkable. Failings by police and ambulance staff should never be allowed to overshadow or diminish that fact.

But at the same time, the public is entitled to know where the system failed and how it might be improved. That’s what makes the news media’s apparent lack of interest so puzzling.

In past eras, an event such as the Christchurch inquest would have been given saturation coverage. Reporters would have been present throughout and filed blow-by-blow accounts of every witness statement.

That this hasn’t happened is partly an inevitable result of the hollowing-out of newsrooms and the shrinkage of newspaper space. But the level of coverage also reflects editorial priorities.

Not so very long ago, news editors would have regarded the inquest as an essential “running” story – one that automatically commanded daily prominence. Now it has to compete for space with such essential news as why you should avoid French and Italian wines on aircraft and the $100 million wedding of a woman even Stuff admits no one has heard of.

Clearly reporters are present at the inquest for at least some of the time, and equally clearly the stories emerging from the inquest are a compelling matter of public interest.  Yet far from being highlighted in news columns and bulletins, those stories are given surprisingly subdued treatment. Why?

For once, I’m not suggesting there’s any ideological or political factor involved. More likely it’s a simple matter of editorial judgment, in which case I think it’s badly flawed.

I can’t help wondering whether the national memory of March 15, 2019 is considered so painful that media decision-makers decided we should be spared any unnecessary reminders. Or are the shootings regarded as a stain on the nation’s reputation that has now been made worse by the shame and embarrassment of an inept response, and therefore something to be reported grudgingly and reluctantly – if at all?

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The media's war on the new government

We are in an extraordinary situation where the mainstream media are openly at war with an elected government. This has never happened before in my lifetime, and to my knowledge never in New Zealand history.

Having adopted a nauseatingly sycophantic approach to the former government, consistently ignoring issues that showed it in a bad light and subjecting it to only the gentlest scrutiny while mercilessly savaging the opposition, the media are now in full-on attack mode.

The level of hostility toward the Luxon-led government is striking. All pretence of balance and neutrality has been abandoned.

The message is clear. The mainstream media are sulking because they think the voters elected the wrong government. They are angry and indignant that despite all their efforts, New Zealand swung right on October 14.

They are wilfully tone-deaf to the public mood because they think they know better. It means nothing to them that the voters had had enough of Labour’s ideological excesses. At best, the high priests of the media (or should I say high priestesses, since the worst offenders are female) are indifferent to democracy; at worst, they resent it because it gives power to the hoi-polloi – the deplorables, to use Hillary Clinton’s word.

In effect, the media are functioning as the opposition. A shattered and demoralised Labour Party has disappeared to lick its wounds, so the press gallery has loyally stepped into the vacuum.

War was declared on the day the coalition’s ministers were sworn in. The tone of the media coverage over the ensuing three days has been relentlessly carping, petty, quarrelsome and negative. We are seeing ministers baited and goaded in a way that never happened under Labour.

The sheer aggression is likely to rattle Luxon and his National ministers, none of whom have previously shown much spine in standing up for themselves against media hit-jobs. They will need to harden up fast.

David Seymour will cope far better and Winston Peters, of course, will revel in the combat. Peters is a graduate of the Robert Muldoon School of Media Relations and a lightning rod for the media's antagonism.

Government ministers and MPs must understand that they don’t need to ingratiate themselves with their press gallery tormentors. They should remind themselves that having been elected, they have a moral legitimacy the media can never enjoy. No one voted for the members of the press gallery and they are accountable to no one.

They are not even well-liked. I suspect that an opinion poll taken today would show that respect for the media has slumped to a new low, which would be quite some achievement. If their purpose is to hasten the mainstream media's descent into irrelevance and ultimate oblivion, they are going about it in exactly the right way.


Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The left-wing media needed a line of attack, and they found one

The left-wing media pack wasted no time identifying the new government’s weakest point.

Seething over an election result that they didn’t like, they have searched for a convenient line of attack and found one in the proposed repeal of Labour’s extremist smokefree legislation.

This has been a running story for the past two days. The media have collectively decided to frame the government’s proposal as an attack on the poor to benefit the rich. Even the BBC picked up on it.

National obligingly played into their hands when Nicola Willis acknowledged on Newshub Nation that money saved by scrapping the laws, and therefore restoring $1 billion worth of government revenue from tobacco sales, will go toward tax cuts that National previously hoped to fund with a tax on wealthy overseas home buyers – a plan vetoed by New Zealand First.

It will have been a sharp lesson for the inexperienced and possibly over-confident new Minister of Finance. Never give the media pack an opening.

Predictably conspicuous by its absence from the media furore is any consideration of the flaws in Labour’s legislative package, which would cut the number of tobacco outlets from 6000 to 600, ban sales to anyone born after 2008 and cut the amount of nicotine allowed in tobacco.

Retailers breaching the law would face fines of up to $150,000 and a lifetime ban. Regardless of your personal attitude toward tobacco, which I regard as a pernicious addiction, it’s a piece of legislation that uses the pretext of good intentions to justify authoritarian overkill. As C S Lewis wrote, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”

Who decides which corner dairies will be allowed to sell cigarettes and which won’t, and on what basis? What will be the impact on local communities if store owners, deprived of vital revenue from tobacco sales, go out of business? What are the risks of even more ram raids, given that tobacco will become an even more precious commodity? And how did Labour propose to counter the black market, doubtless controlled by gangs, that would inevitably flourish?

Obviously these are minor technicalities that must not be allowed to intrude on the dreamy idealistic vision of a tobacco-free New Zealand. Neither should they get in the way of the media’s determination to portray the new government as unfeeling and regressive.

Monday, November 27, 2023

A few random thoughts post-election

■ My friend and former boss Robin Bromby, long domiciled in Australia but still a keen observer of New Zealand affairs, makes an interesting point in an email.

He asks, “When has a Wellington MP led his party to an election win? The last Wellington area MP to become PM after an election was Walter Nash in 1957. But the job now seems to be taken mainly by Aucklanders.”

Robin’s right, of course. Auckland dominance of politics used to be a point of controversy; now it seems to be accepted as the natural order of things. Jim Bolger was the last elected PM not from Auckland.

Chris Hipkins is from the Hutt, but he wasn’t elected as prime minister. Bill English – Wellington-based, though originally from Southland – is another who became prime minister as a result of his predecessor’s resignation. The same was true of Jenny Shipley, another South Islander.

Metropolitan dominance continues in the newly formed government. Shane Reti (Whangarei) and Louise Upston (Taupo) are the only senior ministers from outside Auckland and Wellington. The days of political heavy hitters from the provinces such as Norm Kirk and Keith Holyoake are long gone.

■ On Morning Report this morning, RNZ deputy political editor Craig McCulloch described the new coalition government as “a much more right-wing government than New Zealand has seen for some time”.

It was a revealing choice of terminology. Technically it’s accurate – but who can recall RNZ political reporters (or any mainstream media journalists for that matter) referring to the former government as "left-wing", still less noting that it was arguably the most left-wing in the country’s history? 

In recent years the media have tended to favour the polite term “centre-right” for the National Party. Perhaps the inclusion of ACT and New Zealand First in the coalition means journalists will now feel justified in using “right-wing”, which carries unmistakeable connotations of disapproval. But why wasn’t the same labelling criterion applied to Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party? Is it, to paraphrase George Orwell, a case of left-wing good, right-wing bad?

To his credit, though, McCulloch made a point of highlighting the fact that seven of the 20 ministers in the new cabinet are of Maori descent – more than under Jacinda Ardern.

■ Later on the same show, Corin Dann interviewed James Shaw about the Green Party’s opposition to the proposed lifting of the ban on oil and gas exploration. The questioning could be described as friendly, gentle and polite. Shaw was allowed to speak virtually uninterrupted, as should be the case if you accept that the primary purpose of an interview is for the subject to get his or her points across.

That was followed by Ingrid Hipkiss interviewing oil and gas industry spokesman John Carnegie on the same issue. The tone was markedly different: more interruptions and generally more interrogative. Of course that may simply mean Hipkiss has a different interviewing style, but the contrast was noticeable.

Next up was the new prime minister, and this time Corin Dann adopted a much more adversarial approach than with Shaw – not hostile, exactly, but certainly a lot more aggressive, and with frequent interruptions. At times, especially on the subject of tobacco sales to minors, it was hard to avoid the impression that the rather excitable Dann was pushing a line of questioning driven by personal feelings.

At what point does an interview cross the line between being searching but neutral and one where personal opinion seems to get in the way? There’s no definitive answer to that question, but it’s worth recalling that Geoff Robinson spent nearly 40 years as host of Morning Report and never found it necessary to adopt a hectoring approach. He was never less than calm and polite and no one ever had a clue what his own feelings were. Were his listeners any less informed? I don’t think so.

More to the point, however: was Jacinda Ardern, in her regular appearances on Morning Report, subjected to the same robust treatment as Luxon this morning? I don’t recall it happening, but no doubt that’s my faulty memory.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Kim Hill's exit interview

Kim Hill signed off yesterday. Her legion of fans will be bereft.

I am not one of them. Hill is ferociously intelligent and can be an incisive interviewer. The problem is that she used her skills very selectively – purring with approval for people she liked, but occasionally eviscerating those she didn’t. Don Brash comes to mind.

Hill has a long memory. During the last segment of her final show, my name came up. (I didn’t hear this; a friend told me.)

The following is from RNZ’s account of Hill's exit interview with her colleague Bryan Crump:

"Her punchy and penetrating interviewing style has not been without critics, she says.

"The British writer Tony Parsons, who hung up on Kim during an interview before saying 'You've got your head up your arse' [I think that should have been after saying 'You've got your head up your arse'] and New Zealand journalist Karl du Fresne, who once called her [a] 'dominatrix', come to mind.

"'[du Fresne] hated me because I hadn't given a very nice interview with [former Australian prime minister] John Howard and also I say 'filum' [an Irish pronunciation of 'film'] ... Because he criticised me saying 'filum', I've never been able to stop in case he thinks he's won. So I do it all the time now.'"

I’m sure she didn’t mean to be taken literally when she said I hated her. Just for the record, I don’t hate anyone. But I think it says something about Hill that she still remembers something I wrote 13 years ago. I’ll take that as a back-handed compliment.

For what it's worth, my column about that 2010 Howard interview is here.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

There's no reason why this government shouldn't go the distance

Notwithstanding everything pessimistic that I’ve said over the past few weeks, I rather like the look of this new government.

At first glance, there are some extremely encouraging policy commitments (enough for my wife and me to punch the air several times while watching the news last night) and some promising ministerial appointments.

It’s especially pleasing to see ACT’s Nicole McKee in cabinet and Karen Chhour with a significant responsibility (children and family violence), albeit outside cabinet. Andrew Hoggard, too, should bring some useful real-world experience and insight to agriculture, although his responsibilities are narrow.

The solution to the deputy prime minister conundrum was, as Peter Dunne put it, elegant. David Seymour will be able to spend the first 18 months getting to grips with his ministerial priorities and Winston Peters, the Great Tuatara of New Zealand politics, will be able to wind down in the latter half of the triennium, perhaps with a view to retirement. (Ha! We shall see.)

The three parties have found enough in common to agree on a way forward. It’s reasonable to conclude that between them, ACT and New Zealand First have stiffened National’s spine and given Christopher Luxon’s party the moral courage it previously lacked to confront pernicious ideological issues.

The crucial thing now is for the three coalition partners to set egos aside and focus relentlessly on the imperative that brought them together: namely, the urgent need to undo the damage of the past six years. If they can do that - and I realise I'm eating my own words saying this - there’s no reason why this government shouldn’t go the distance.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

You call that a walk?


The Te Araroa website calls it “the walk of a lifetime”: Cape Reinga to Bluff, 3026 kilometres.

“Walk”? Don’t believe it. Walking is something you do to buy a bottle of milk from the corner dairy. But judging by Tim Pankhurst’s book Every Effing Inch, Te Araroa – “New Zealand’s Trail” – is a challenging, arduous trek that tests stamina and resilience to the limit. At times it can be life endangering.

It must test relationships too, but in this case the three protagonists were, miraculously, still on civil terms at the end.

Tim is a former colleague of mine. He and his wife Sue, with their good friend Kerry Prendergast, a former mayor of Wellington, completed Te Araroa in stages over two summers.

Tim, Sue and Kerry are all of pension age. True to the title, they covered every inch of the route. If they couldn’t complete a section because of snow or flooded rivers, they returned later and had a second crack.

I asked Tim a few days ago whether it was worth it. “Hell yes,” he replied. “The privations and strains on old bodies fade but the experiences and sense of achievement remain vivid.”

Tim records some of the vital statistics at the end of the book. Days on the trail: 141. Longest day: 13 hours. Longest distance in a day: 42km. Toenails lost: 7. Bones fractured: 4. Weight lost: 18kg (combined). Nightmares: frequent. He could have added falls: innumerable.

In places, they were pushed to the limit of their endurance and nerve. The Richmond Range, southeast of Nelson, was clearly an ordeal that bordered on traumatic. Yet one of the striking things about Every Effing Inch, for me, was that for every gut-busting climb, vertiginous descent and every breath-taking alpine or coastal vista, of which there were plenty, there also seemed to be periods of tedious slog through country that had little to commend it in terms of scenic value. In places, the three adventurers also had to share busy roads with fast-moving traffic that gave them little space.

Wherever possible, they treated themselves to luxury accommodation. Kerry’s husband Rex was often waiting patiently at the end of the day’s tramp to drive them to warm beds and hot showers. But on 38 nights in more remote places, they had no option but to stay in back-country huts, the standard of which varied wildly.

This served as a salutary reminder of why tramping has never appealed to me. The physical demands are manageable, but you have no control over the people you might end up sharing a hut with. My greatest dread, always, was the prospect of being confined with bores, but it seems that boors – noisy, selfish oafs who booze and play loud music when others are trying to sleep – are a greater hazard.

The journalist in Tim emerges when he augments his account by regaling the reader with sometimes dry background information about the places they pass through. These diversions can get in the way of the main narrative, but he also enriches the story with sketches of interesting and significant characters who pop up along the way.

The mere fact that he wrote the book at all – that he had the energy and commitment to record in detail each day’s experiences and observations – commands respect.

Similarly, it’s impossible to read Every Effing Inch and not be awed by the efforts of another journalist, Geoff Chapple, whose idea it was to create a walking route that ran the length of the country – not to mention the many thousands of nameless intrepid trailblazers, dating back to pre-European times, who created the network of tracks that made it possible.

Hang on - did I just say "walking" route?

Every Effing Inch is available from the Underground Bookstore for $40.