One of the most striking aspects of the drama surrounding the Act leadership has been the venomous nature of much of the media coverage.
I can’t think of any political party that has aroused more naked hostility from journalists. Even when the press gallery was gunning for Winston Peters, there was a tendency to cut him some slack because … well, because he was Winston Peters, and everyone expected him to be shifty, evasive and generally behave disgracefully.
No such tolerance is exercised when it comes to Act. The media malice is undisguised and unrelenting.
Admittedly, Rodney Hide and Don Brash have at times invited ridicule. I like Hide, but I struggled to take him seriously as a politician from the time he demeaned himself by taking part in Dancing With the Stars (in my book, an even more lamentable lapse of judgment than globe-trotting with his girlfriend at the taxpayers’ expense). And I wonder whether Brash still lies awake at night rueing the fact that he was talked into a series of silly photo opportunities during the 2005 election campaign.
But do these follies justify endless recycling of news footage showing Hide dropping his dancing partner, or of Brash clumsily trying to insert himself into the cramped driver’s compartment of a stock car? There is a point at which constant repetition of those scenes – and we saw them several times during the TV news last week – becomes more than simply gratuitous. The unmistakeable message it conveys is that these men are clowns, and we’d be mugs to think that either of them should be worthy of anyone’s support.
This, in the same week as we were expected to swallow mad John Minto’s straight-faced assertion on the national news that the new party formed by Hone Harawira for a tiny minority of the bitter, the angry and the vengeful represents “mainstream” New Zealand. I note that this flat-earth pronouncement passed without so much as an involuntary gasp of disbelief on the part of the reporter.
Interesting, that. Radical parties on the Left are treated with kid gloves; radical parties on the Right, on the other hand, are fair game for vilification.
We are, of course, now well accustomed to being told what to think by political journalists, especially on television, but TV3’s Patrick Gower takes things to a new level. Gower revels in his role as TV3’s hatchet man and seems to regard political journalism as some sort of gladiatorial spectator sport in which the spoils go to whichever reporter can perfect the most contemptuous sneer. I can’t watch him without being reminded of Stanley Baldwin’s famous description of the British press: “power without responsibility … the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”. (The line actually came from his cousin Rudyard Kipling, but Baldwin made it his own.)
Recalling a time when people who got beyond themselves were said to be too big for their boots, I call this big-boots journalism. It’s a deeply unattractive phenomenon in which journalists make the mistake of thinking they deserve to be more than mere reporters or observers. They consider themselves key players, positioned at the centre of the action and with the power – and, what’s more, the right – to influence events. The tragedy is that many politicians, fearful of the power of television, encourage them in this belief.
This is a distortion not just of the journalist’s traditional role, but of democracy itself. It shows a telling lack of respect for the ability of ordinary people to decide for themselves which politicians might be worthy of their support.
Journalists overstep the mark when they tell us what to think. As long as they do their basic job properly, which is simply to tell us what’s going on, their viewers and readers are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves what to make of it all. They don’t need smug, preening journalists making lofty pronouncements about who might be fit or unfit for office.
And here’s something else that journalists too often overlook. They like to think of themselves as somehow morally superior to devious, venal politicians. I suspect many of them genuinely believe the American journalist Frank H Simonds’ famous line that there’s only one way for a journalist to look at a politician, and that’s down. But in fact politicians in a democracy will always have one huge moral advantage over the journalists who pass judgment on them. That is that ultimately, they must subject themselves to the public’s judgment. I can think of more than a few journalists whose overweening self-confidence would rapidly evaporate if they had to submit to a similar test.