Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Afghanistan? Remind me - where's that again?

One of the most dramatic news stories of my lifetime was unfolding yesterday. The collapse of Afghanistan is a massive human tragedy and a catastrophic foreign policy and military failure for the world’s most powerful country and its allies – one that’s at least as humiliating and ignoble as Vietnam.

International media have given Afghanistan saturation coverage, and rightly so. Few countries have endured greater agony, much of it inflicted by the clumsy, brutal and ultimately futile intervention of foreign powers.

But how much time did Newshub give this epic event in its 6 o’clock news bulletin? None, other than a passing introductory spiel that promised (but never delivered) “horrific scenes at Kabul”.

You see, there was a far more momentous story to cover. A man in Auckland had tested positive for Covid-19 and it was suspected (and has since been established) that he had the highly contagious Delta variant.

As far as we know, the man’s life wasn’t in imminent danger. Neither was anyone else's. But the government was about to make an announcement so important that Newshub was prepared to clear the decks of all extraneous material – including, as it turned out, coverage of the Taliban’s awful triumph in Afghanistan, which didn’t even squeak in at the tail end of the bulletin.

You read that correctly: Newshub devoted the entire news hour to Covid-19 and the announcement of the lockdown.

Fourteen minutes in, after a long preliminary buildup, the bulletin cut to the start of Jacinda Ardern’s press conference. Nothing gets TV editors’ juices flowing like the words “breaking news”. What followed, astonishingly, was nearly 48 minutes of live coverage from the stage of the Beehive Theatrette, complete with the prime minister’s now-familiar exhortations to the “team of five million” to defeat the pandemic and “be kind to one another”. (Well, it worked last time.)

On the face of it, there was some seriously warped news judgment at work here. Granted, the first infection with the Delta strain from an unknown community source was a big story. But no one had died, and as things stood, the worst we faced was being deprived of some of our liberties for a few days.

A sensible editorial decision, in the circumstances, would have been to wrap up the coverage once Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield finished their prepared pep talks. By then we were already more than 30 minutes into the bulletin, which still left time to cover some of the other news of the day – like, for example, that little sideshow in Kabul.

No such luck. Newshub decided we hadn’t had enough of Covid-19 and proceeded to cover reporters’ questions to Ardern and Bloomfield, which took up a further 23 minutes. For what purpose, exactly? The questions were barely audible and the answers added little to what we already knew.

Predictably, the reporters’ inquiries were mostly as soft as marshmallow (surprise!), and any that weren’t – such as one inquiring whether low vaccination rates might have left New Zealand exposed – were quickly kicked into the long grass.

All of which left me wondering whether the decision to give Ardern the entire bulletin, rather than being simply a case of bad news judgment, was another striking example of media capture by the government. Consider the following:

This is a government that’s floundering. Its support is waning with every poll and it would be in an even worse position if the National Party wasn’t firing on only one cylinder. The lockdown, then, has come at an ideal time for Ardern, enabling her to do what she does best – namely, deploy her achingly empathetic (some would say patronising) “Mother of the Nation” shtick.

Don’t forget that Ardern’s daily appearances on television during the last lockdown were cited as a crucial factor in her stonking election win. No one ever denied she was a good communicator. Last night was an opportunity to reclaim that mojo, and Newshub delivered it to her gift-wrapped, with bells on.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Ardern was in her happy place when announcing the nation was about to go back into lockdown, but she was certainly in her element. This was a stage-managed occasion that enabled her to command public attention in prime time and pretty much on her own terms – priceless exposure for a prime minister whose government is stumbling.

It was also an opportunity to reprise her line about the benefit of going hard and going early, in contrast to benighted New South Wales (a Liberal Party-controlled state whose predicament she repeatedly and pointedly reminded us of, while not once mentioning Labor-governed Victoria, though its Covid-19 statistics are infinitely more dire). And it must have come as a very welcome distraction from multiple intractable problems that even the Labour-friendly media can’t avoid reporting.

Covid-19 is a problem too, of course, but it’s one in which Ardern can present herself and her government as being decisive and on top of things, in contrast to all the others where it looks incompetent and bereft of ideas. Crucially, it’s also an issue on which Ardern can count on the vast majority of the public being on the government’s side, because who doesn’t want to stamp out a potentially lethal disease?

The question I’m asking myself is whether Newshub’s decision to devote the whole hour to the Ardern and Bloomfield Show wasn’t made on the basis of normal news criteria. By any yardstick, it was overkill. 

On any day, it would have been odd. On a day when the world’s attention was riveted by the drama unfolding in Afghanistan (to say nothing of the tragedy in Haiti and the multiple other events that would have normally competed for time in the bulletin), it was more than odd; it was incomprehensible. Unless, that is, Newshub has a political agenda.

A charitable explanation might be that Newshub was simply displaying the parochialism and insularity of a small, self-absorbed country at the bottom of the world, or alternatively that its over-stimulated journalists got carried away. But I don’t buy it. Political editor Tova O’Brien reinforced the impression that this was a political propaganda exercise by obligingly parroting the government’s message at the conclusion of the bulletin. She’s too experienced not to be aware of what she was doing.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist and I’ve been in journalism too long to cry “Bias!” every time I see or read something I object to. But how else do you explain last night’s weirdness, other than by facing up to the realisation that parts of the media are now so brazenly politicised that they’re beyond caring whether anyone notices?

Footnote: I don’t know how TVNZ handled the lockdown announcement. I could have watched it on demand, but there’s a limit to my masochism.



teh steve said...

One of my biggest beefs with NZ media in general is the paltry coverage of international news. Here in Australia, I find the main big channels are similar, with the exception of SBS which has actual international news.
In NZ, man-bites-dog type stories trump most big international news.

Nigel said...

Well how would petty tyrants survive with an objective media ?

oneblokesview said...

Having recently returned from a stint in Cambodia(Capital City Phnom Penh has vaccinated 99% of adults and is on a steam train to vaccinate all those over 12)

I find the NZ news bubble very frustrating.

To my cohort in the pub, they are woefully uninformed about the real world of Covid having been exposed daily to Arderns propaganda machine.

It seems that the successes in Singapore(Covid speaking) and other places dont exist?

David McLoughlin said...

We had TV One on, and it was the same. But we had Al Jazeera on before 6pm and from 7pm to keep following Afghanistan. We've had Al Jazeera on constantly for a week now for Afghanistan.

Al Jazeera did also cover the new NZ lockdown,but down its bulletins. The overseas media we follow closely also include the ABC and BBC; which expressed incredulity that NZ had locked down over finding one case!

Les said...

TVNZ was no better!

Unknown said...

Lance McEldowney: Very similar saturation coverage on TVNZ-1

Odysseus said...

I think Tova will discover there is a diminishing market for her pro-regime propaganda. People are starting to ask questions, for instance why were we last in the queue for the vaccine and why has the rollout been suspended when if anything it should be accelerated. The terrible collateral damage from these draconian lockdowns is also more apparent - suicides, untreated cancers, bankruptcies etc. Ardern will have to consider her next steps very carefully, another seven weeks of house arrest is not sustainable especially when people see the rest of the world beyond Australia reopening. As for Ardern telling us "not to talk to your neighbour", yesterday I received a Neighbourhood Support message asking that we check on the welfare and needs of our neighbours. That is the Kiwi way, not Ardern's knee-jerk Stalinism. When as many people who want the vaccine have received it, the avoidance of infection will need to become primarily an individual responsibility backed up by continuing public health surveillance and testing. Let us then say farewell to the "Pulpit of Truth".

Unknown said...

Good post Karl.
Pity we couldn't get a Youtube channel for comment on the days events. I don't think it would have to be flash technically just governed by some agreed editorial policy.

I think we need to start with the realisation the system is broken - they just like us to believe it is working. Twitter and Facebook are clusterf**ks - the wheat needs seperating from the chaff. I'm sure the talent is out there it just needs coordinating and training as an army (as it were).

We aren't just fighting the left either , it is corporate NZ :those whom immigration delivers the dream.

BTW I live in Christchurch. I am perhaps morbidly obsessive, but also I grew up in a single parent household with a father who suffered from narcissistic personality disorder so I grew up always fighting this distorted lense and I'm ultra sensitive to manipulation.

Consequently, in the aftermath of the earthquake I have been sensitive to "decolonisation" and it's messaging (e.g) being "gifted" Maori names. I bought Katie Pickles book Christchurch Ruptures - the central thesis makes no sense at all.

This caught my ear on RNZ - another fig leaf hiding a truth. We could turn this whole thing on it's head?

Andy Espersen said...

Yes Karl – New Zealand was conned into that war, purely out of loyalty to the US - in spite of warnings from wise souls against it. It had been known for two thousand years that Afghanistan cannot be beaten or subjugated. You lose count of how many attempts were made to conquer that country by outside powers - ever since Alexander the Great. In recent history both Britain and Russia were sent packing – our brave Russian soldiers somehow lost all appetite for going back to that front after Taliban sent their prisoners of war back to Mother Russia – after kindly castrating them! Against all pious, international agreed to rules of war - but very effective, one must admit!

The only means we have to our disposal to influence that country is to isolate them – stop trade with them – refuse to have anything to do with them.

Unknown said...

Tova Obrien and Cindy should get married

lawfuel said...

There's virtually no global news on either of our bulletins which make them redundant in my view with their endless Cindy-worshipping and Te Reo-correctness. Al Jazeera is the go-to channel for news about the world and often with Kiwi reporters like the plucky Charlotte Bellis. Our own news, if not COVID is vox pops of nonentities on irrelevancies and weather, traffic and of course sport. Sad and pathetic.

Unknown said...

From Alastair
Well said Karl. I have got to the stage where I cannot listen to any more Ardern/Hipkins/ Bloomfield announcements as Arden uses these moments to treat us like primary school children taking at least 10 minutes to tell us something that could have been said in 1 or 2 minutes. Worst PM in my lifetime. Someone please save us from this debacle of a government.

Doug Longmire said...

This is just one more display of how the media are now the well-paid propaganda arm of the government, doing the job that they are paid to do.
Comrade/Saint Jacksin-Dar is grabbing the chance to divert the attention away from her divisive, racist, apartheid plans to split our country into two factions. This Covid outbreak is tailor made for her.

transpress nz said...

I spare myself from watching this piffle, last year's Lockdown cured me from watching either channel. But in appalling fact is that together they are hugely influencial in diverting attention away from this government's failure to address important matters -- like housing and a decrepid health system -- and the divisive nature of its attacks on free speech, official racism (brown skin good, gets special privilges, pale skin bad). The two channels are also hugely influencial in promoting her as an idol, despite her (and most of her cabinet's) minimal understanding of how the real world works. Looking and sounding good is all that matters to the two TV channels, and to Jacinda. She has a big PM's department which concentrates on that.