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.