Thursday, January 25, 2018

Jacinda Ardern and the Trudeau effect

It’s natural that journalists are attracted to Jacinda Ardern. For a start, she’s of the same generation as most people working at the front line of the media, and the same sex as a large proportion of them. It’s fair to say that her political views probably mirror those of many, if not most, journalists too. To put it simply, she’s like them.

Besides, journalism thrives on newness and novelty, and Ardern represents what many journalists see as an exhilarating and overdue generational change in the Beehive. For nine years we were governed by middle-aged men in suits – men who, moreover, were nominally on the conservative side of politics, even if their policies didn’t always reflect that. Ardern is still in her 30s. She’s fresh, spontaneous, personable, accessible and seems effortlessly in control of things. To use a silly popular expression, what’s not to like?

Call it the Trudeau effect. Admittedly Pierre Trudeau was a lot older, at 48, when he became prime minister of Canada in 1968, but the media reaction was similar. The press were mesmerised by the charismatic, left-leaning lawyer – a phenomenon replicated more recently by his youthful-looking son Justin.

It happened under John F Kennedy too, and anyone who was in Australia in the 1960s and 70s will remember South Australian premier Don Dunstan having a similar effect. Dunstan was another suave lawyer and intellectual whose relative youth and liberal views set him apart from the crusty old reactionaries – such as Queensland’s Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Victoria’s Sir Henry Bolte – who then dominated Australian politics. The Australian media loved him.

There’s an obvious professional hazard here, because it’s hard to write critically about someone you like. Journalists should be aware of this trap – women journalists especially, since they are more likely than men to identify with Ardern. They should recognise their affinity with her and offset it by making an extra effort to be hard-headed in the way they report her, but there’s not much evidence of that happening. You have to search hard in the mainstream media for any comment pieces that are critical of Ardern, or that even ask awkward questions about her leadership. I believe most of the journalists covering her want her to succeed and, consciously or otherwise, shy away from writing anything that might shatter her golden halo. But democracy depends on politicians being held accountable – and for that, we need journalists to be professionally sceptical, regardless of how they might feel personally.

The golden halo effect has been obvious – you might say almost nauseatingly so – in the way the media covered the announcement of Ardern’s pregnancy.  The political scientist Bryce Edwards compiles a very useful daily compendium of virtually everything written about New Zealand politics in the mainstream media and the better-known blogs. Monday’s summary contained nearly 100 news stories and comment pieces on the Jacinda Ardern-Clarke Gayford baby, many of them written in  fawning tones more appropriate to the women’s magazines. Even a few veteran, hard-nosed hacks in the Press Gallery seemed to have been reduced to jelly by an attack of Woman’s Weekly-style baby fever.

The coverage rarely failed to rise above facile, superficial slogans and feel-good clichés. Amid all the gushing, a few commentators seized the opportunity to push ideological barrows or score points in the gender war. But almost without exception, it was cheerleader journalism. Conspicuously absent was any cool, detached analysis of the announcement, its timing or its political implications. No one wanted to break ranks and suggest that Ardern giving birth while running the country might be anything but a resounding triumph for New Zealand womanhood.

Bizarrely, you had to turn to the sport section in Stuff today to read a clear-eyed piece – by columnist Mark Reason – asking some of the questions that need to be asked. Reason used tennis star Serena Williams’ struggles with the demands of motherhood as the basis for a thoughtful and courageous analysis of the reasons why we shouldn’t necessarily be ecstatic about Ardern’s pregnancy. His reasoning (pun not intended) was probably summed up when he wrote: “Being a mother is one of the greatest and most demanding jobs a human being will ever do. So is being a prime minister. Do we seriously expect anyone to fully function in both at the same time?” It’s a question no political commentators dared ask because we’re told that girls can do anything. But not all can, as the experiences of some first-time mothers show.

Reason’s piece is important because he’s a dissenting voice at the back of the room breaking through the excited chatter and saying, “Okay, but hang on a minute”. An informed democracy needs such voices. It makes me very uneasy when media opinion runs so overwhelmingly one way that people become frightened to express a contrary view.

Before I finish, one more point about the prime minister’s pregnancy. Ardern believes in a woman’s right to have an abortion and it’s a fair bet that most, if not all, the people applauding the news of her pregnancy do too. I imagine most would support moves to liberalise the abortion laws, which are likely under this government.

What mystifies me is that the same people can be enraptured about the impending birth of a baby in one set of circumstances, yet believe that in a different situation, it can be disposed of without qualms. Pro-choice activists will say the crucial difference is whether the mother wants the baby or not, and Ardern clearly does. But how can a baby be regarded as a source of immense joy in one situation and as an inconvenient lump of tissue to be got rid of – flushed down the toilet, in effect – in another?  After all, the intrinsic worth of the baby doesn’t change from one situation to the other; it’s still the same human being in the making. Can someone please explain?

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