Thursday, May 5, 2022

Simon Bridges' parting shot at the press gallery

I’ve never known quite what to make of Simon Bridges; he always struck me as a bit of a political shape-shifter. But I was pleased that he gave political reporters a serve in his valedictory.

In comments addressed to the press gallery, but which you may not see reported, Bridges said:

I love you all, and Claire Trevett [New Zealand Herald] you're my favourite, although your story this last weekend certainly tested that favouritism. But I do despair how narrow the viewpoints are here, as opposed to in the UK, the United States, and even Australia. More viewpoints are tolerated, actually encouraged, in their deeper media environments. Our press gallery can hunt as a pack — OK, then there's Barry [Soper] — but basically, as a pack. And I say to you, if every one of you has the same basic position on a complex matter, you are probably all engaged in group thinking, quite probably wrong. Go spend some time in the provinces or one of our bigger cities that's not this one to recalibrate, and get a fresh view.

And then this: While I'm on my friends in the press gallery, your most important job is to hold the powerful to account, and let me give you a clue: it's the Government that has the power.

I imagine many politicians regularly bristle with fury and resentment at their treatment by the gallery but bite their tongues because they think they dare not risk making enemies of the media. (Winston Peters was a notable exception, often going out of his way to provoke fights with reporters in the manner of his model, Robert Muldoon, and it didn’t seem to harm him. Unlike most politicians, Peters grasped that the public don’t like the media much either.)

On his last day in Parliament, Bridges obviously felt freed from any restraint, although I would have admired him more if he’d taken a whack at his tormentors when he was still a serving MP and therefore had something to lose. Getting his own back on his last day in the House was a bit like giving the fingers to someone you don't like from the safety of a passing car.

There’s nothing new in his statement about the press gallery hunting as a pack. That’s been the case for decades. There’s courage in numbers. (I wrote about the bizarre antics of the gallery pack here and here.)

But Bridges identified other concerns, such as the uniformity of their views (it’s reassuring when everyone thinks the same way) and their tendency to highlight the supposed failings of opposition parties rather than hold the government's feet to the fire - a tendency never better demonstrated than by Tova O'Brien's vicious hounding of a stricken Judith Collins.

Bridges also alluded to another occupational hazard among political journalists - namely, the conceit that working in the press gallery and rarely venturing outside Wellington tells them all they need to know about politics. In fact they exist in an artificial bubble where they are largely insulated from the real world.

They may have some grasp of the machinery of politics, but politics is about much more than what happens in Wellington. Ultimately what counts most in a democracy is what the public thinks and why people vote the way they do, and there can be few people more poorly qualified to assess the public mood than press gallery journalists. The narrow world they’re exposed to is simply not the world most New Zealanders live in.

It would be a useful grounding exercise for them to listen to talkback radio for an hour or so each day. I wouldn’t pretend that’s the key to understanding what real New Zealanders are thinking, but it would expose press gallery reporters to a more authentic world than the one they inhabit, which is largely populated by fellow members of the political class. (Of course it wouldn’t happen, because the typical political journalist probably regards talkback callers as the untermenschen.)

There’s another problem that Bridges didn’t specifically mention, namely the apparent homogeneity of the gallery. A bit more diversity of age, background and life experience might be helpful.

A few more mature political journalists are still active – Soper, Audrey Young, Brent Edwards, Jane Clifton, Peter Wilson, Luke Malpass, to name a few – but most of the press pack have the disconcerting appearance of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed idealists, eager to avoid (as Bridges intimated) making things too difficult for a government that they are ideologically sympathetic with. Soper must sometimes feel like a grizzled old bulldog confined in a pen with a lot of over-excited young poodles.

If this seems a rather sweeping condemnation of the entire gallery, I plead guilty. I acknowledge there are capable political journalists who make an honest attempt to do the job well. It's just unfortunate that they are tainted by association with others who come across as self-absorbed, over-confident and, dare I say it, sometimes not very bright. 

If you want to read Bridges’ valedictory in full (it’s worth it), you can do so here:


Andy Espersen said...

Thanks, Karl – for your comments and for the link to Bridges’ speech. As you say, it is well worth reading. I was intrigued and impressed – more so when I came to his concluding remarks (I copy and paste) :

“I accept, as a conservative conviction politician, I'm somewhat out of favour these days—a young fogey, maybe. But politics ebbs and flows, and, as with other things, maybe views like mine will move back into vogue one day. Conservatism to me is simply an instinct or a disposition”.

National is no longer our conservative party – and the traditional difference between Left and Right in NZ politics no longer exists. All our controversial problems these days (Covid 19, climate change, social justice, gender-decisions, etc.) are not traditional Left/Right problems. We should accept that we are now back to Conservatives and Liberals (plus hangers-on!). ACT is now our only conservative party. Bridges thinks that : “......maybe views like [his] will move back into vogue one day”.

I would like to see Bridges come back to politics and stand for ACT in 2023 – as a truly conservative MP.

Andy Espersen said...

Further to my input above : here I wrote that we are “...back to Conservatives and Liberals”. A better description would be that we are now, generally speaking, represented as the two groups Thomas Sowell in his seminary 1987 book “A Conflict of Visions” thinks dominated by folks following either a constrained or an unconstrained political vision.

Doug Longmire said...

Thanks Karl, for another excellent, balanced and perceptive article. I have quoted part of it below, as I think your words here have summed it up so well:-
"working in the press gallery and rarely venturing outside Wellington tells them all they need to know about politics. In fact they exist in an artificial bubble where they are largely insulated from the real world."
"The narrow world they’re exposed to is simply not the world most New Zealanders live in."
I say "Exactly!"

R Singers said...

Political reporting is not helped in New Zealand by their being very little difference say someone like Guyon Espiner and Brian Tamaki. I wouldn't choose either to minister to my moral well being, yet both think it's their role in life.