One of the least surprising things I’ve read lately is that journalists have been getting a hard time from protesters. I mean, who’d have thought?
Bryce Edwards reported that broadcaster Mihingarangi Forbes tweeted last week: “As a journo I have always felt safe at protests, most understand we have a job to do but the ‘Freedom and Choice’ protests feel different. ‘F*ck the Media’ is the new catch phrase. It's dangerous.”
NewstalkZB political reporter Jason Walls struck a similar tone in an article headlined: Attacks on the media are escalating and look like they’ll only get worse. Noting that there had been “a stark and worrying change in the level of animosity directed at journalists”, Walls wrote that a 1News cameraman had been attacked at an anti-vaccination event in Greymouth and a Newshub reporter was heckled.
According to Walls, anti-vaccination protesters are united by distrust of the government and hatred of the mainstream media. When Jacinda Ardern disappointed protesters by not turning up as expected at a vaccination clinic in Whanganui, “the mob turned on reporters”. Police had to intervene as protesters “loudly yelled [sorry to be pedantic, but have you ever known anyone to yell quietly?] about how journalists’ salaries were paid by the Government”.
Last Tuesday, a Stuff photographer was reportedly grabbed and pushed at the Freedom and Rights Coalition rally outside Parliament and protesters threw tennis balls at journalists (which sounds a charmingly gentle protest gesture, except that one claimed a ball was hurled at her head).
As depressing as this apparent trend is, it should surprise no one. I deplore attacks on journalists, just as I deplore attacks on anyone lawfully doing their job (supermarket checkout operators and parking meter wardens come to mind). But the media’s air of wounded innocence isn’t wholly convincing.
The first thing to acknowledge here is that journalists have never been popular. For as long as opinion polls have been conducted, journalists have jostled with politicians, car salesmen and real estate agents at the bottom of the “most trusted” rankings.
This is no mystery. It’s partly the “shoot the messenger” syndrome, where the bearers of bad news (and news tends to be bad; a fatal plane crash is news, but no one wants to read about a plane that has arrived safely) end up copping collateral blame for it. Journalists are associated in the public mind with adverse events and can serve as a convenient lightning rod for public resentment and anger.
They are seen, sometimes with justification, as exploiting human tragedy and being obnoxiously intrusive. (They do themselves no favours, for example, by harassing accused people outside courthouses, pursuing them down the street and shouting questions that they know won’t be answered, all for a bit of drama on the evening news bulletin.) Small wonder that in films and TV dramas – rare exceptions such as Spotlight or The Post aside – journalists are almost always portrayed negatively.
For all that, they have generally been tolerated. Even in the rage and heat of the 1981 Springbok tour protests, I don’t recall reporters or photographers being targeted for abuse beyond the occasional sotto-voce curse from rugby fans. It seemed to be accepted that they were performing a necessary function.
So if the impressions of people like Mihingarangi Forbes and Jason Walls are correct and something different really is happening now, then perhaps the media should be asking why.
Part of the explanation, but only part, probably lies in the unusually brittle mood of the times. Covid-19 has set the country on edge and social media channels haven’t helped (do they ever?) by providing platforms for the extreme views of the paranoid and the perpetually enraged. Protest rallies like the one outside parliament bring together disparate groups whose grievances aren’t always easy to discern but who are united, as Walls says, by distrust of the government.
Traditionally the function of the media has been to stand back and report these events dispassionately. By sticking to their role as neutral observers and reporters of news, journalists generally managed to protect themselves against public acrimony. But in recent years the media have made themselves active participants in the culture wars and in doing so, have stoked the fires of polarisation.
For decades, New Zealand had what was often described as a “broad church” media – one that catered to and reflected a wide range of political views. Comment was generally restricted to editorials, letters to the editor and clearly delineated opinion columns.
News pages were apolitical and any reporter presumptuous enough to express a personal view was likely to be quickly reined in. No journalists dreamed that they had a licence to moralise; that phenomenon would come later, when training shifted from the newsroom to the lecture room – from on-the-job learning (which, admittedly, was sometimes less than adequate) to a more academic grounding, often coloured by ideology and sociological theory.
Not so now. Today’s media are overtly and vigorously politicised. Identity politics is relentlessly promoted; journalists have become polemicists, using their privileged position to lecture readers, listeners and viewers and to put their own spin on events. “Consumers” of news, to use a ghastly contemporary expression, are bombarded with a barrage of ideological propaganda in place of straight news. (In fact many of today’s journalists have been indoctrinated with the notion that there’s no such thing as “straight” news; that it’s a mere “construct” created to serve the interests of those in power. But that’s another story.)
Some newspapers have taken the extraordinary step of placing themselves at odds with much of their readership by adopting political and ideological positions that they must know many of their readers don’t share. They are, in effect, alienating the people on whom they depend for support. Often their stance is one of moral superiority, implying to readers that they need to get on board or be dismissed as bigots and dinosaurs.
One obvious but telling example is the routine usage of Maori terms and place names that most readers, listeners and viewers are unfamiliar with. Usage of te reo has become both an ostentatious form of virtue-signalling and an ideological shibboleth, marking people as either enlightened or beyond the pale.
This is new. Many Maori words have long been adopted by Pakeha New Zealanders: for example, whanau, hui, iwi, kai, mana and taonga. They have been absorbed naturally and organically into New Zealand English over time and are used widely and unselfconsciously.
The difference now is that previously unfamiliar names and terms (Tamaki Makaurau for Auckland, motu for nation, mahi for work) are being used so routinely by those in positions of authority and influence – including journalists – that many New Zealanders feel their language has been taken from them without consultation, still less permission. It’s the difference between adopting Maori terms gradually through popular usage and social consensus, as in the past, and having them imposed by an elite and used as a test of ideological conformity.
On a broader level, bias that was once confined to editorials, where it was legitimate, now permeates the whole paper. It’s evident in the subjects that papers choose to cover and in how they report them (or don’t report them, as in the case of any heretical opinions on the subject of climate change, which are excluded as a matter of editorial policy). Newspapers and other media have become platforms for the promotion of ideological agendas. Stories are often written in highly judgmental tones; just note the frequency with which loaded words like “racist”, "misogynistic" and ”transphobic” occur, as if these have agreed and settled meanings.
The response has been a massive cancellation of subscriptions by the people most in the habit of reading newspapers, as confirmed by circulation figures which show a decline of about 16 per cent since 2019 for The Dominion Post and the Christchurch Press. (No figures are reported for the New Zealand Herald, which may in itself be significant). Depressingly, figures are no better for many provincial papers – although the ones least affected by the decline, significantly, are those that remain truly independent and locally owned, and which have tried to stick to their knitting.
In recent months the media have given the public even less reason to trust them by eagerly lining up to take ideologically contaminated money from the government’s so-called Public Interest Journalism Fund – or as I prefer to call it, the Pravda Project. No one is convinced by newspapers’ protestations that their integrity and independence are not compromised by signing up to a thinly disguised propaganda exercise; I’m not even sure they convince themselves. Well might protesters complain that journalists are paid by the state, because it’s almost true. Authoritarian governments overseas deal with the media by shutting down troublesome radio stations and newspapers, assassinating journalists or putting them in jail, but Labour under Ardern has realised there are less messy ways to ensure media loyalty.
What makes things even worse is the tiresome sameness of the prevalent ideology. With the notable exception of commercial radio (and more specifically Newstalk ZB), there’s virtually no ideological contest within the New Zealand media. It is overwhelmingly homogeneous in its embrace of left-leaning orthodoxies.
The net effect is that trust in the media, never high even at the best of times, continues to decline, and I suspect more sharply than ever in the past few years. A survey by the Auckland University of Technology suggests that in 2021, only 48 percent of New Zealanders trust news in general, down from 53 percent last year.
To be fair, the same is true worldwide. The international Edelman Trust Barometer reports that trust in information sources has plunged to a record low, with trust in traditional media down from 65 percent in 2019 to 53 percent this year.
People no longer look to our journalistic institutions to reflect the society they live in. The crucial nexus between media institutions and the community they purport to serve has been strained to breaking point. In fact the media often seem implacably opposed to the society they live in and determined to re-shape it, whether people want it or not.
And there has been a change in the nature of that distrust. The old media were distrusted because they were seen (usually unfairly, I believe) as unethical and prepared to do anything to get “the story”. Now the media are widely seen as an institution that has squandered its democratic mandate because it no longer reflects – and in fact often actively disparages – mainstream community views and values. To many, the media have become an enemy of the people.
This is not to say journalism no longer performs a valuable and necessary function. There’s still plenty of quality journalism being produced in New Zealand, a recent example of which was an article on Stuff by Philip Matthews (not a journalist I have always seen eye-to-eye with in the past, as he would attest) on the complicated ethics of vaccination mandates. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but I sometimes get the feeling that some editors are now making a conscious effort to revert to traditional journalistic strengths and values, in which case I just hope they haven’t left it too late.
On that note, I’ve seen left-wing media commentators sneering at the notion that the late 20th century was a golden age of journalism – but it was. It was a time when the media made a genuine effort to be fair and even-handed, when they conscientiously reported events and issues that mattered to the community, and yet had the guts and resources to investigate wrongdoing and expose abuses of power. What’s more, they were profitable enough to be strong and independent.
I now barely recognise the media that I spent more than half a century working in. Rather than expressing hurt and surprise at the ugly backlash that has recently become apparent, perhaps journalists should ask themselves why it’s happening and how they might start rebuilding faith with the public.