First up, a disclaimer. I am not, and never have been, a National Party supporter. While there have been rare occasions in the past 50 years when I’ve voted National, they are outnumbered by the times I’ve supported Labour. National won’t be getting my party vote next week, though I may yet decide to support the party’s Wairarapa candidate. (For the record, I voted for Labour’s Kieran McAnulty last time.)
It’s important that I get that declaration out of the way,
because otherwise what I’m about to write will be dismissed by Labour camp
followers as sour grapes from a disgruntled Tory. (That’s bound to happen
anyway, but I need to spell out my position regardless.)
Now, to the point of this post. In recent weeks I’ve watched
with mounting disbelief as the network formerly known as TV3 has conducted what
appears to be a sustained offensive against the National Party.
Initially I gave Newshub and its political reporters the
benefit of the doubt, thinking perhaps the run of events was against National
and over time the playing field would be levelled. But that hasn’t happened,
leaving me convinced that Newshub is functioning as Labour’s unofficial propaganda
I shouldn’t be completely surprised, because it’s happened
before (I wrote about it here). But nine years on, the bias is even more
explicit and infinitely more mischievous.
No one who believes in the importance of fair and impartial news media can accept this is right. Fair, accurate and impartial journalism is never more important than during an election campaign. Some of us can remember when in every newspaper newsroom, someone was assigned to tot up the daily column inches given to each of the major parties to ensure no one was given an unfair advantage. But Newshub doesn’t appear to care about maintaining even a pretence of neutrality.
You could choose virtually any night at random to illustrate
this, but let’s examine Tuesday night’s bulletin. It started with political
reporter Jenna Lynch – eager-beaver apprentice to chief stirrer Tova O’Brien – asserting
that National was in crisis mode following leaks to Newshub by MPs reportedly
unhappy with Judith Collins’ leadership.
Taken in isolation this would be unexceptionable, but
context is everything – and this story meshed neatly with an ongoing Newshub
narrative portraying National as a party in disarray – a “death spiral”, in
O’Brien’s words – and not fit to govern. A write-off, in other words, and not
worth wasting a vote on.
“The cracks are getting wider and the wisecracks nastier,” opined
Lynch – except that the wisecracks she was referring to appeared to relate not
to the election campaign or Collins, but to totally unrelated grudges dating from
the National leadership takeover by Todd Muller five months ago.
There was also a sneering reference to “fawning MPs” clustering
around Collins on the campaign trail. But fawning MPs are a staple on the political
circuit, and certainly not confined to National. Why should Collins be singled
out for derision when it’s long been a bizarre convention that when party
leaders appear on camera, they must be surrounded by sycophantic MPs and
ministers furiously nodding in agreement at whatever the boss is saying?
Because it fits the Newshub narrative, that’s why.
Lynch went on to make the unsubstantiated claim that Collins
was “on the ropes”, then linked this supposed crisis to a bitchy Twitter
exchange (is there any other kind?) between Muller’s former PR adviser Matthew
Hooton and deposed deputy leader Paula Bennett. But the Twitter sniping
appeared to have nothing to do with Collins; it was about the circumstances in
which the ill-fated Muller took control back in May.
It apparently didn’t matter that there was no connection,
because it served the purpose of providing a pretext to cross to Winston
Peters, who wisecracked that it explained why Collins had been shown praying (which,
in turn, served as a cue for Lynch to remind us that Collins was accused of politicising
her faith); and then to Ardern on the campaign trail, so that we could observe
for ourselves the stark contrast between the National leader – white-anted by
disloyal caucus members, according to Lynch, and looking defensive in the face
of Lynch’s insistent questioning – and a relaxed and smiling prime minister untroubled
by caucus disloyalty or awkward questions from hectoring reporters, surrounded by adoring fans, posing for selfies, accepting
gifts from awe-struck children (“Oh, is that for me?”) and patting dogs.
I mean to say, who would you prefer as the country’s leader:
Agatha Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda
or Glinda, the Good Witch of the South from The
Wizard of Oz? No contest.
Newshub invited Ardern to put the boot into her opponents
over their internal friction but she declined. After all, why
risk being seen as indulging in petty schadenfreude when Lynch was doing the job
But Newshub hadn’t finished with Collins and National. Next
we crossed to political editor O’Brien, who pronounced the
party was in turmoil (hadn’t we just spent three minutes hearing Lynch say much
the same thing?) and that the writing would be on the wall for Collins if
National lost the election (as it is for most major party leaders who lose
elections, but hey, here’s a radical suggestion: why don’t we just wait and
We then segued into an unrelated item about politicians
criticising the media, the main purpose of which seemed to be for Newshub’s
political journalists to pat themselves on the back for irritating people like
Peters, David Seymour and Gerry Brownlee, as if getting up the noses of
politicians is how the efficacy of journalism should be measured.
Since it was stripped of any explanatory context, the item would
have made no sense to anyone other than the most obsessive political junkie. In
most cases it wasn’t clear what the politicians were talking about, or to whom.
This was not about imparting useful information to the public, which is
supposedly the purpose of journalism. The purpose seemed to be to satisfy some
other agenda known only to those involved.
The item included a brief clip of Brownlee, who in July was
the target of repeated Newshub attacks accusing him of indulging in conspiracy
theories over the government’s response to Covid-19, delivering an
extraordinary rant to someone off-camera in which he said: “Your [presumably
meaning Newshub’s] people give me the shits. You’re bloody lazy as buggery.”
Again, there was no explanation of what this was about. It
doesn’t matter, apparently, that the audience is left out of the loop; it’s all
about point-scoring. But the item did serve as the cue for yet another cross, this
time to Greens co-leader James Shaw, who was presented as the voice of
moderation and reason. Politicians on the campaign trail get tired, intoned Shaw solemnly,
“but that’s no excuse for rudeness”. The take-home message: there are wise and civilised
politicians like Shaw, and then there are feral bullies like Brownlee.
Oh, and we shouldn’t forget the long-suffering journalists
who bear the brunt of these nasty attacks by politicians when all the heroic hacks
are doing is trying to get to the truth of things. “Political journalists get
used to it,” said O’Brien (oh, nail me to the cross), before noting with
satisfaction that Brownlee had apologised “unreservedly” for swearing at the unnamed
Newshub reporter. Vindication, then, and shame on the politicians for getting down
in the mud, where high-minded journalists refuse to go.
O’Brien’s patronising advice to the politicians: “Chill,
guys, just chill.” Not surprisingly, she said nothing about the endless baiting
and provocation politicians have to put up with from scalp-hunting reporters.
Politicians are not an easy class of people to feel sorry for, but political
journalists sometimes make it possible.
Whatever this is, it’s not journalism as I understand it. It’s
a continuation of a long-standing trend whereby journalists see themselves not
as mere observers and reporters of the political process, but as active players
Duncan Garner pioneered this style of journalism at TV3 when
he was political editor and each of his successors – first Paddy Gower, now
O’Brien – has taken the approach a step further. O’Brien is the worst, constantly
setting out to generate conflict and controversy by catching politicians out, goading them, tripping them up and asking loaded questions that she hopes will generate
headlines for the six o’clock bulletin.
There was a good example of her approach recently when Newshub led its bulletin with a story quoting Ardern as promising a
crackdown on hate speech. This wasn’t a pre-planned policy statement on the government’s
part; rather, O’Brien used Ardern’s unveiling of a memorial plaque at the Al
Noor mosque, and an emotive statement from the local imam, to press the prime
minister for an impromptu commitment on whether hate speech would be outlawed
if Labour won a second term unencumbered by the killjoys of New Zealand First (who
previously vetoed it).
On one level, this was an enterprising journalist seizing
the moment, but it was also a significant breakthrough for the woke agenda –
one that O’Brien immediately took a step further by encouraging Ardern to agree
that as well as outlawing hate speech against religious groups, Labour would also
apply the law to speech relating to sexual orientation (which could make it
illegal to say mean things about trans-gender people), age and disability. It
seemed a prime case of journalism intersecting with ideological activism.
Intriguingly, the same Newshub that sanctimoniously took Collins
to task this week for supposedly making up policy “on the fly” over a promised review
of Auckland Council apparently thought it quite unexceptionable that Ardern did
precisely the same on hate speech, despite it being an issue with infinitely
graver implications for democracy. Make of that what you will.
There was more in similar vein in last night’s bulletin. We
saw Ardern being mobbed by rapturous fans in Dunedin (O’Brien, without a hint
of sarcasm, called it Ardern's people’s princess vibe) and we were again invited to
contrast this with scenes of Collins getting a distinctly cool response, other
than from obvious National Party plants, in the forlornly empty streets of Ponsonby.
(But hang on: what party doesn’t attempt to ensure a few strategically placed sympathetic
faces when the leader goes out in public? Ardern’s handlers did it too when she
was in the Wairarapa recently.)
It’s impossible to convey in words the striking disparity in
this coverage. It’s relentlessly positive toward Ardern – fawning isn’t too
strong a word – but strives tirelessly to nobble her main rival with stories of
caucus disloyalty and belittling scenes from the campaign trail. On top of all
this, O’Brien had the chutzpah last night to make sympathetic noises about the ordeal
Collins is being put through. To paraphrase a quotation from Robert Muldoon
when talking about his bete noire The Dominion: with friends like O’Brien, who needs enemies?
I detest this style of journalism. It attempts to place
journalists at the centre of the action rather than on the periphery, where
they belong. They abuse their power by seeking to influence events rather than
simply reporting them in a fair and balanced way and allowing the public to
make up their own minds. They are every bit as guilty of abuse of power as the
most despised press baron.
And while some journalists insist on seeing themselves as
morally superior to politicians, it can be argued that the reverse is
true. As devious and self-serving as some politicians may be, they can still claim
the moral high ground because ultimately they are accountable to someone:
namely, the voters, to whom they must answer every three years. No journalists
have to submit to that judgment.
I’ll finish this post by repeating what I said at the start.
I’m not a National supporter and it won’t concern me in the slightest if
National loses the election. In fact I’d go further and say they’ve done
nothing to justify winning it.
It's no help to National that there’s a whiff of desperation in the
way Collins is conducting her campaign, as evidenced by the cheesy shots of her
praying, presumably in a late play for support from the Christian right. But it’s
hardly surprising that she’s looking desperate when she has journalists like O’Brien
and Lynch enthusiastically charting every stumble and writing her off before
the voters – the only people whose opinions ultimately count for anything – have
had their say. Collins isn’t competing with just the Labour Party; she also has
to reckon with journalists who are clearly willing her to fail.