Many readers will have seen this picture. It shows three political journalists sprinting across the forecourt at Parliament.
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 before.
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 them.
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.