I have been appalled by our media’s casual approach to the tragedy in Tonga, where latest reports indicate as many as 62 people may have drowned following the sinking of the ferry Princess Ashika.
In radio news bulletins yesterday the sinking was generally ranked about fourth or fifth in terms of news significance, although even then it was clear the death toll was likely to be catastrophic. Freeloading politicians were the story of the day and nothing was going to displace it.
Tonga is one of our nearest neighbours and there are more than 50,000 Tongans living in New Zealand. The links could hardly be closer.
To gauge the scale of this disaster, consider this: Tonga has a population of 120,000. I’m no mathematician, but by my calculation 64 deaths in a country that size is the equivalent of more than 2000 deaths in New Zealand. In other words, this is a tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions. Tonga will be stunned.
In a speech in Auckland earlier this week I joked about the sliding scale by which news editors (and I used to be one) judge the news impact of disasters. A crowded train crashing into a ravine in Bangladesh killing 200 people is probably rated as having the same news value in New Zealand as a bus crash on a Sydney freeway that kills three, which in turn merits about the same amount of newspaper space as a house fire in Blenheim that kills the family dog. I exaggerate, of course, but you get the idea.
Even by this cynical journalistic yardstick, I think the Tongan tragedy has been grossly underplayed.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the coverage – and it’s all too typical of the way we react to overseas disasters – was TV3’s report last night in which the main interest was whether there was a New Zealander on board the doomed ship. If not – ah well, no story.
I note that today's New Zealand Herald devoted an entire story to Daniel McMillan, the New Zealand-based Scotsman who apparently died in the sinking. Mr McMillan also took up a big chunk of the Dominion Post's report of the tragedy, which ran on page 3.
What does this say about us? It's almost as if death matters only when it happens to New Zealanders - or in this case, to a white man who happened to be living here temporarily.