The government’s media managers play the press like a violin. Just look at how giddily excited reporters got at the novelty of Chris Hipkins conducting a press conference in a nature reserve.
How cute! The Covid-19 Response Minister was on holiday with his family on the Kapiti Coast, so briefed the gaggle of journos in plein air. Even better, he sent his Mum out to apologise for the delay while he rushed home to get a suit.
(Er, a question: why bother to put on a suit when he’s on holiday? Wouldn’t boxer shorts and jandals have been more in keeping with the beachy vibe? And if he really felt it necessary to get dressed up, why didn’t he have a suit on hand, given it was always on the cards that he’d be speaking to the media while on holiday?)
No, this had the unmistakeable appearance of a PR stunt. It was all of a kind with the media’s depiction of this government as laid-back, sweet-as Kiwi. (Think Jacinda Ardern’s folksy night-time address to the nation on Facebook being interrupted by 3-year-old Neve, which played to the carefully crafted Ardern stereotypes and caused The Guardian to wet itself with excitement.)
Oh, and something else I almost forgot to mention about the Hipkins presser: his two young kids emerged right on cue for a heart-warming photo of them cuddling their dad.
Call me a sceptic (a label apparently unfamiliar to the current generation of press gallery reporters, though it’s one that all journalists should wear proudly), but I have a nagging suspicion these things don’t happen by accident. The management of the media is carefully orchestrated – and the thing is, it works every time. The journos cooed with delight at the sight of Hipkins emerging from the trees in white shirt, suit pants and tie.
The characteristically mature – one might almost say cerebral – reaction of the assembled reporters was captured by Katrina Bennett, Wellington Head of News for NZME, who gushed on Twitter: “Nice thing about working at this time of year, is that rather than a horde of political minders at today's Covid presser, @chrishipkins' mum came & apologised to us for her son running late [here Bennett inserted a tears of joy emoji]. She didn't need to, but mums will be mums. Such a treat.”
The Herald went on to quote Bennett as saying of Hipkins’ mother: “She was so lovely, it was a really nice gesture to come and apologise. Big Mum energy coming down to apologise, mums are the best.”
Good grief. It reads as if written by an over-stimulated teenager. Jason Walls from NewstalkZB took a similarly grown-up line, tweeting over a video of Hipkins emerging from the trees: “I’m so here for these ‘spotting him in the wild’ Bigfoot-esque photos of Chris Hipkins making his way to the press conference today.”
Double good grief. Clearly, the government’s communications advisers don’t need to get up super-early to come up with ways of impressing the media pack. The assembled reporters were so mesmerised by the gimmickry of the occasion that their stories neglected to tell us what Hipkins actually said (which may have been the intention – who knows?).
Stuff’s coverage struck a similarly effusive note, informing readers that after a delay of 10 minutes, “the minister finally appeared at the top of a nearby hill [almost like a biblical vision, one supposes]. Camera crews zeroed in and filmed him gracefully strolling his way down a path as the grass, flowers and trees blew in the breeze.
“It was the intro New Zealanders didn’t realise they needed, and caused great delight online. Memes, gifs and light-hearted quips quickly popped up on Kiwi news feeds, with one journalist saying it appeared Hipkins was speaking from ‘The Shire’.”
Does anyone notice something else about the reportage of the Hipkins press conference, apart from its breathless credulity and awe-struck tone? That’s right, it’s appallingly written. “Gracefully strolling his way down a path as the grass, flowers and trees blew in the breeze” – really?? Surely the unnamed reporter could have said something about the birds too? Oh, that’s right, he/she/they did: “In the background, birds were chirping, adults were laughing and children could be heard playing on the playground nearby.”
I used to broadly divide journalists into two categories: those who were great at digging up useful information and those who had a facility for stringing words together. Some could do both. We now see acutely depressing daily evidence of reporters who can do neither.
All the puerile silliness outlined above is explained when you see a photograph of the current crop of political reporters. Almost invariably they are young, bright-eyed with idealism, woke, self-absorbed (you can see that from their social media posts) and besotted with the government and the excitement of their proximity to it. They learned their journalism in lecture theatres and never experienced the bracing humility of having their work hurled back at them by an irascible, hard-nosed boss (not all of whom were male, incidentally) and being told it was crap.
Happy New Year, everyone. I wish 2022 held the promise of an improvement in the quality of New Zealand journalism, but I can’t see it happening.