Many readers will have seen this
picture. It shows three political journalists sprinting across the forecourt at
My first thought on seeing the
photo was that something or someone very frightening must have been chasing
them. But no, the three women were themselves the chasers. They were in pursuit
of Christopher Luxon's hired car as he arrived at Parliament for the first time
as National leader.
Apparently the reporters were
taken by surprise when Luxon was driven to Parliament from his apartment across
the street rather than walking, thus presumably thwarting their plans to
waylay him. They then had to take to their [high] heels to keep up, something
for which they were clearly ill-prepared.
My second thought was: do they
realise how ridiculous they look? Admittedly it probably didn’t occur to them
that the moment would be caught on camera, but the photo reminded me why I've made it a lifelong rule
never to run unless my physical safety is in imminent danger. I've missed a few
trains and buses as a result, but I'd like to think I've avoided the indignity
of being seen doing something for which I'm clearly not suited. This photo
reinforced the soundness of that rule, though I must say the reporter on the
left (whom I couldn't identify) ran quite elegantly despite wearing
inappropriate footwear, which suggests she may have done this sort of thing
The question remains: why were
they running, exactly? Luxon's limo would be pulling to a halt in a few
seconds, giving them a chance to do what political journalists typically do in
such situations, which is ask trite and pointless questions that they have no
real expectation of being answered in any meaningful way.
Perhaps the three runners share
the same instinct as sheep and cattle, whereby if one starts running, even when
there's no obvious reason, all the others do too, as if by some mysterious trigger. Or to use another animal comparison,
maybe, like dogs, they just can't resist the urge to chase anything that
appears to be trying to get away from them.
Chasing cars, of course, is a common
canine sport, though the dog never quite knows what to do if and when the car
stops. But let’s not take that analogy any further.
Setting aside these possible
explanations, my guess is that the journalists were running because of that
well-recognised psychological disorder common among press gallery journalists:
FOMO, or fear of missing out.
In the few seconds between Luxon
getting out of his car and disappearing inside Parliament Buildings, hounded by
a scrum of over-stimulated reporters all asking questions that were unlikely to
reveal anything even if they were answered, there might have lurked a
sound-bite. Who knows? It might have been as trivial as Luxon commenting on the
weather, but hey – with skilled editing, any meaningless remark has the
potential to be stitched into a package for the 6pm bulletin that conveys a
sense of intense political drama and momentous events unfolding even when
nothing much is happening. Newshub
does it almost every night.
And what, say, if Luxon had
tripped and fallen as he tried to fight his way through the media pack? What
would Jessica Mutch McKay (that's her on the right) have said to her bosses if
TV3 had captured the moment and TVNZ didn't, and her only excuse was that she
and her camera person were five seconds late getting there? There's big-time professional
humiliation, right there.
The photo, then, tells us quite a
lot about the state of political journalism. It's less concerned with
the substance of politics than it is with the excitement of the chase and the
ambush, the irrational, adrenalin-charged excitement of the media scrum and
the desire to bail politicians up, catch them out, trip them up and trap
them into saying things that will backfire on them; the “Gotcha!” moment.
Not all these elements are
present in the picture, of course, but nonetheless it encapsulates the sense
that coverage of politics, for broadcasting journalists especially, has become
an infantile game in which almost all sight has been lost of journalism's key
purpose, which is to inform the public about things that actually matter to
Media coverage of politics has
become a circus in which the media themselves act as ringmasters. To their
shame, politicians are complicit in this, allowing alpha journalists such as
Tova O'Brien to bully and goad them. Politicians are thus instrumental in
trivialising politics and demeaning themselves. They should remind themselves
that they at least have the honour of being elected and publicly accountable (those
who represent actual electorates, that is – list MPs not so much), which is
more than can be said for journalists. In that sense politicians have the moral
high ground over their tormentors. They need to remember this and stand up for themselves.
A friend of mine who has
experienced political journalism from both sides recently suggested, not
entirely jokingly, that we need a politician like the late Robert Muldoon to
put egotistical reporters in their place. Neither my friend nor I were
admirers of Muldoon and his take-no-prisoners attitude toward journalists, but the
relationship between politicians and reporters today is just as unhealthy as it
was then – albeit with the roles reversed.
What makes things worse is that
the media have almost entirely abandoned coverage of parliamentary proceedings
– that is to say, debates and select committee hearings where important issues
are debated and decided, and where our laws are shaped. This stuff is way too
dry and tedious for the media, who prefer to confront MPs outside the debating
chamber and pepper them with questions about the latest confected controversy-du-jour.
Parliamentary proceedings appear
to interest the media only when there’s blood on the floor or when (as happened
yesterday) there’s the tantalising prospect of a showdown or shootout. As a
result, we sometimes learn about new laws months after they have been passed,
by which time they have taken effect and are starting to bite – often to the
complete surprise of those affected by them. I often wonder whether there's
anyone even sitting in the press gallery, that section of Parliament that
Edmund Burke honoured by labelling it the Fourth Estate – one he described as "more
important [by] far" than everyone else sitting there.
Where, for example, was the press
gallery last month when Parliament quietly changed the law to allow “iwi
representatives” – for which read nominees of unelected vigilante Hone Harawira,
a politician booted out of Parliament by the very people he purports to speak
for – to obstruct people going about their lawful business on public
roads? Was there no one in the gallery that day? (It was a Saturday, after all –
sleep-in day for exhausted hacks.) Or were the journalists obligingly looking the other way?
Nearly two weeks passed before
news of the law change filtered out. Inexplicably, National and Act were
silent; missing in action. Winston Peters issued a statement, but it was
ignored. Despite saturation media coverage of Covid-19, this unprecedented interference
with New Zealanders’ common law rights strangely went unreported. It was only
when Police Commissioner Andrew Coster was interviewed by Mike Hosking that the
public became aware of the law change.
Hosking’s fellow NewstalkZB
presenter Heather du Plessis-Allen subsequently ripped into the government for going
to ground and refusing to answer questions once the news got out about iwi-manned
roadblocks, but she let her media colleagues off the hook. They were complicit
too, either though dereliction, laziness, incompetence or connivance.
The government’s action might
have been “shady as all hell”, as du Plessis-Allan says, but governments get
away with these things only if the media let them. And as long as cynical
politicians can rely on the mainstream media being distracted by sideshows and political
soap operas, they will continue to escape tough scrutiny on things that really matter.