As an example, take the political news headlines of November 29. They were strikingly similar. Almost without exception, the mainstream media pounced on the new government’s decision to axe Labour’s ambitious (but possibly unworkable) plan to make New Zealand smokefree.
Not only did the major media outlets agree, as if by consensus, on what should be played up as the big story of the day. Even the wording of the headlines was often virtually identical.
And so we got Health experts furious over government’s plan to scrap smokefree measures (Newshub): Government’s smokefree law repeal ‘a massive step back’ – health orgs (1 News); Disbelief as a smokefree generation slips away (The Detail, RNZ); Top Pasifika doctor Collin Tukuitonga slams plans to repeal smokefree laws – says most vulnerable will suffer (NZ Herald); Government defending the indefensible in scrapping smokefree efforts – health leader (RNZ); Experts warn health system will bear burden of government abandoning smokefree regulations (Newshub again).
There was also a predictable anxiety attack over what the rest of the world might think. Smoking laws: what international media is [sic] saying about NZ’s scrapping (the Herald); Smokefree laws: what the world is saying about NZ’s ‘shock reversal’ (1 News); What the world’s media says [sic] about new government’s plan to scrap smokefree laws (Newshub). In other words some overseas media disapproved, therefore the governing coalition must have got it hideously wrong. How embarrassing for New Zealand; how shameful.
True, the BBC, Time magazine and America’s National Public Radio all took the line that the new government was foolishly (or callously) snuffing out progressive laws that had been passed by Jacinda Ardern’s enlightened administration - laws that were seen as a blueprint for the rest of the world, or so the journalists pronounced. How could anyone take such a retrograde step? That was the dominant tone of the overseas coverage. To be fair, though, the overseas stories were nuanced, balanced and contextualised in a way that was generally lacking locally. New Zealanders reading them would have been considerably better informed than by their own domestic media.
The following day, November 30, brought an even more striking example of media groupthink. A selection of headlines: Luxon honeymoon rained on by Peters and cigarettes (Toby Manhire, The Spinoff); Winston Peters killed Christopher Luxon’s honeymoon with anti-media antics (Jenna Lynch, Newshub); Christopher Luxon tries to get his plan and honeymoon back on track without Winston Peters butting in (Claire Trevett, the Herald); Winston Peters making it look like Chris Luxon has lost control (Tova O’Brien, Stuff); Winston Peters’ bad behaviour overshadowing Christopher Luxon, David Seymour (Audrey Young, the Herald); Christopher Luxon refuses to pull Winston Peters into line over anti-media comments, laughs it off (Jenna Lynch again, taking a second swipe).
This time two themes were competing for the excitable journalists’ attention. One was that Peters was hijacking Luxon’s moment in the spotlight; the other was that the deputy prime minister was defaming the media with false claims that they had been bribed by the previous government’s $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund, and Luxon was doing nothing to rein him in. Why wasn’t the PM defending the media, or at least telling Peters to pull his horns in? (As if ...)
How do we know Peters’ statements about the media were false? Because Jenna Lynch told us so, more than once. She didn’t explain how they were false; they just were. We were supposed to take her word for it.
The NZ media now automatically insert that word “false” in every story about Peters’ accusations about the PIJF, just as the US media inserted the word “false” in every story about Donald Trump complaining the 2020 presidential election had been stolen. (We can now be reasonably confident those claims were false after several courts ruled they were. But that wasn’t the case when the US media, almost without exception, began using the word. They took upon themselves the right to assert it as an established fact.)
A previous generation of journalists, both here and in the US, would have said the claims were alleged to be false or had been condemned as false. They would have explained who was alleging they were false and why, then left the public to make up its own mind. The court of public opinion was the ultimate arbiter.
Not anymore. The media decide what’s false and what can be regarded as credible. As with Lynch, we’re expected to take their word for it.
The claims about the PIJF may indeed be false, as was the case with Trump. But the media have taken a dangerous leap into new territory by acting as if contentious issues are definitively settled when in the public mind they may not be. In effect, they have assumed a mantle of omniscience.
Climate change is another case where the mainstream media have decreed there’s no room for dispute and that, accordingly, no contrary views will be given space or air time. I’ve been a journalist for 55 years and I can’t recall any previous issue on which the media arrogantly asserted the right to shut down all public debate on the basis that an issue was “settled”. But this is the new normal.
It’s an attitude that flows from the emergence of a new priestly caste of university-educated journalists who reject the idea of objectivity, contemptuously dismissing it as “bothsidesism”. Former generations of journalists were trained to present both sides of a story, but to the priestly journalistic caste now in control, this risks giving an aura of legitimacy to opinions and ideas they fear and despise. They have therefore taken upon themselves the right to determine what the public can safely be allowed to read or hear, and thus to proscribe modern heresies such as climate change scepticism or Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy.
Journalists seem to think that simply by baldly asserting that statements they disagree with are false, they will convince the public. Certainly some of the public, such as RNZ’s steadily diminishing number of rusted-on devotees, will need little persuading. However it’s more likely the media will simply get a lot of people’s backs up. What many journalists don’t grasp is that most of the public no longer trust them and wonder, quite reasonably, why they should believe them – a state of affairs made worse by the media’s rush to sign up to the Ardern government’s Public Interest Journalism Fund, which brings us back to Peters’ claims of bribery.
Was it “bribery” to accept government money in return for a commitment to a highly politicised interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi, as Peters says? At worst, his use of the word could be described as hyperbole. But the indignant chorus of howls from the media can’t disguise the fact that by taking the money, they laid themselves open to the accusation that the government had bought their support.
That the PIJF was at heart a propaganda exercise (I called it the Pravda Project) is not in any doubt. Raewyn Rasch, who ran the fund on behalf of NZ on Air – and who, for the fund’s duration, became one of the most powerful figures in the New Zealand media – admitted as much on RNZ’s Mediawatch. In an interview with Colin Peacock after the first funding round in 2021, she said NZ on Air wanted to encourage conversations about the Treaty, but those conversations had to “come from an understanding of what the Treaty is about”. And who decided what the correct “understanding” was? Why, Rasch and NZ on Air, that's who.
Rasch argued that this didn’t preclude anyone from taking a critical view of Treaty issues – but if you’re dictating how the Treaty is to be interpreted, and therefore limiting the parameters of the “conversation”, to use Rasch’s cute term, you’re choking off the scope for legitimate debate and automatically excluding most, if not all, dissenting opinion.
Some of what Rasch said in that interview was nonsensical and contradictory. She said the fund didn’t dictate how applicants should cover Treaty issues, but then almost immediately and quite unabashedly told of a PIJF-funded documentary about the South Island Alpine Fault that fell short of the fund’s expectations because it included no Maori input. Rasch’s team “went back and had a chat” – how chilling those words can sound – with the documentary makers, as a result of which they then “engaged” with Ngai Tahu. Even Peacock, an apologist for the Pravda Project, seemed surprised that a documentary about seismology had to pay homage to NZ on Air’s idea of the Treaty principles. But oh, yes: “Te Tiriti comes into everything,” Rasch declared. So there you are.
Now, back to that remarkable media consensus on the story of the day. On November 29, it was the scrapping of Labour’s idealistic but impractical anti-smoking legislation; on November 30, the focus was on Peters’ attacks on the media, and the implied weakness of Luxon for not silencing him.
The election of any new government almost invariably precipitates an avalanche of news – this one more so than most because it brought together three parties which, despite often incompatible ideologies, agreed on an ambitious programme of change.
There were 49 items on the 100-day plan announced by the government on November 29. The media latched onto one – the smokefree reversal – and almost ignored the other 48. Why?
The same uniformity was notable the following day in the coverage of Peters’ bribery claims - a story of importance primarily to self-absorbed, hyper-sensitive journalists.
I wonder, do parliamentary press gallery reporters confer among themselves to decide which subjects to cover and what line to take? The homogenous tone of the coverage suggests so, but I doubt it. Conspiracy is too strong a word, implying some sort of secret agreement. However it surely says something that so many journalists come away from an announcement and all spin it the same way. If that doesn’t suggest groupthink, I don’t know what does.
Fortunately there remain a few thoughtful, independently minded press gallery journalists who don’t hunt with the pack and who develop their own angles. I won’t put them in a difficult position by naming them.
All this took place against a backdrop of wall-to-wall weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth over the election of a government that the priestly media caste doesn’t approve of. I can’t recall any new government being confronted with such intense, naked hostility from people whom the public expect to be fair, neutral and balanced.
State-owned media are some of the worst offenders. Throughout last week, RNZ’s Morning Report featured a daily parade of the aggrieved and disaffected: renters, unionists, public transport lobbyists, climate activists, teachers, academics, health and disability advocates, Treaty crusaders and environmentalists, all beating their breasts in despair – egged on by sympathetic interviewers – at the depredations wrought by a government of barbarians. As Richard Prebble perceptively wrote in a column, “power and privilege are never surrendered voluntarily”.
TVNZ is no better, giving more air time to politicians the electorate rejected than to ones who were elected – and often needling the latter and trying to trap them with “Gotcha!” questions. The state TV network also makes space on its website for whiny opinion pieces by the nation’s Hand-Wringer in Chief, John Campbell. Make no mistake, the media will ensure that the coalition parties are punished for their electoral success.
Note too the deafening media silence over incendiary statements from Maori politicians – among them, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer’s allegations of “systemic genocide” and “state-sponsored terrorism”, which bordered on unhinged, and Willie Jackson’s threats of “war” and civil unrest “five times worse” than the 1981 Springbok tour, which were tantamount to an incitement to violence.
These intemperate verbal eruptions pass unremarked by the media high priests, as did the circus at the swearing-in of MPs yesterday when the Maori Party wilfully made a mockery of parliamentary procedure. Those same Maori MPs would not take it well – and neither should they – if visitors to a marae refused to honour protocol and tradition. Why do they not show the same respect for the institution to which they have been elected? And why do media commentators appear united in their determination not to denounce the debasement of the House of Representatives that sits at the heart of New Zealand’s system of government?
All this follows six years during which the mainstream media gave a free pass to probably the most extremist government in New Zealand history. Time and again under Ardern, dodgy law changes went unreported and issues that reflected badly on the government were either treated as invisible or played down until exposure by online platforms made them impossible to ignore. Now journalists have suddenly and miraculously rediscovered the critical scrutiny mechanism that inexplicably lay dormant for two terms under Labour.
To finish, three points:
1. I didn’t vote for this government (I didn’t cast a party vote at all) so can’t be considered blindly loyal to any of the parties in the coalition. I did, however, welcome the ousting of the former government and believe that its successors, who were legitimately elected under the system the country voted for in 1993, are entitled to a fair shake.
2. Where are the boards of directors and CEOs of media organisations? Directors are rightly reluctant to interfere in editorial decisions, but the unprecedented media animosity toward an elected government is unhealthy for the body politic. Hubristic presenters and political journalists are out of control and intoxicated by their own imagined power. It has reached a point where more senior figures need to step in for the sake of democracy, to say nothing of their sagging corporate reputations. This is especially true of the state-owned media companies TVNZ and RNZ. If those boards allow things to continue as they are, they should be shown the door on the assumption they are hostile to the government that employs them. (The boards are politically appointed, of course, and we can't discount the possibility that at least some directors were chosen because they were on board with Labour's agenda.) I never imagined myself advocating boardroom intervention in newsroom decisions, still less political appointments to media organisations, but this is what we’ve come to.
3. Ultimately, it all comes down to democracy and respect for the will of the people. For six years New Zealand had a government the media approved of. Voters emphatically signalled on October 14 that they wanted a change, but the priestly media caste is tone-deaf to the public mood and can’t bring itself to accept the decision. The petulant media campaign of resistance against the coalition government is, above all, a massive gesture of contempt for the voters. Or should I say the deplorables?