We live in excitable times. It’s hard to recall a time when politics was more febrile and overheated.
I don’t mean in Parliament, where it’s more or less business as usual (in fact surprisingly civilised, considering the intensity of the debates raging outside), but around the fringes – in the mainstream media, and more particularly in online forums – on issues that include race, gender, sexual identity, equality, climate change, women’s rights, freedom of speech, immigration and poverty.
For this we can blame several factors, all of which are inter-connected and feed into each other.
One is the sheer multiplicity of voices clamouring to be heard, which is a direct consequence of the digital revolution. For evidence of this you need only look at the daily online summary of political news and comment compiled by Victoria University political scientist Bryce Edwards, which has grown to the point where it’s almost indigestible. New commentators and hitherto unknown online platforms seem to emerge by the day.
Some people welcome this as true democracy in action, since access to public platforms is no longer controlled by a handful of gatekeepers as in the old “legacy” media. But it’s a very raucous, divisive form of democracy, and I question whether it’s representative of society as whole, since the loudest voices tend to represent extremes of opinion. We should never make the mistake of assuming that the voices given most prominence in mainstream and online media reflect what most New Zealanders are thinking. By definition, it’s the zealots who are most motivated to promulgate their ideas.
Another factor is the polarising effect of computer algorithms that herd people into online echo chambers on both left and right, where they reinforce each other’s prejudices and are comfortably insulated against competing ideas.
In the process, the middle ground gets lost. The moderating function of the old “broad-church” mainstream media, where people were exposed to a range of opinions that could sway the open-minded, has greatly diminished.
A third potent factor is the ascendancy of identity politics and neo-Marxist ideology which magnifies minority grievances and promotes a view of society as bitterly divided between privileged classes (typically white, older and male-dominated) and disadvantaged minorities demanding redress. This corrosive, Marxist-influenced view of society as a competitive arena where interest groups are intractably at odds with each other is hardly new, but it’s only in recent years that it has become a dominant narrative in public discourse.
On top of all this, we’ve seen a profound change in the character of the mainstream media. Many journalists no longer see themselves as dispassionate chroniclers of events and disseminators of opinions held by others, but as active agents of political, social and economic change in their own right.
The professional scepticism that journalists once cultivated has largely vanished as older hands have retired or been purged. The younger journalists who have succeeded them are like blotting paper, uncritically absorbing fashionable ideological views. The more emotive the cause and the more passionate the rhetoric of its advocates, the more eagerly it’s embraced.
The explanation for this change is simple. It dates from the time several decades ago when the media industry decided that the training of journalists – previously done “on the job” – should be handed to tertiary education institutes, many of them staffed by ideologues who saw the media as part of the capitalist power structure and therefore ripe for subversion. Journalism students were encouraged to think their primary purpose was to challenge that power structure. The result – not immediate, but gradual and insidious – was the politicisation of a profession that previously took pride in neutrality and balance.
In this homogeneous environment, certain things are accepted as given. It’s assumed that anyone with a shred of intelligence or morality despises Donald Trump and his knuckle-dragging supporters. Commentators demonstrate their impeccably woke credentials by the vehemence with which they attack Trump, never pausing to think that they are preaching to the converted or that the message loses its potency with constant repetition, no matter how florid the denunciation. Meanwhile, ironically, a second Trump term looks increasingly likely as his would-be Democratic Party challengers tear each other apart.
Brexit is another touchstone of fashionable political sensibilities, being generally portrayed as the last desperate flailing of fossilised British reactionaries rather than as a legitimate attempt by a country to re-assert sovereignty over its own affairs.
Media bias is all-pervasive in print and electronic media but reaches its peak on shows like TV3’s The Project, whose smug, self-reinforcing groupthink and fondness for carefully selected, like-minded guest panellists verges on nauseating. But pockets of resistance remain, and they are mainly to be found in commercial radio.
I have no doubt that hosts such as Mike Hosking, Sean Plunket and Heather du Plessis-Allan are more in tune with mainstream public opinion than the left-leaning commentators who tend to prevail in most media outlets. Opinion polls and general elections consistently show, after all, that New Zealand generally leans to the centre-right – something a visitor from another galaxy would never guess from a sampling of media opinion.
One casualty of this bias is the old-fashioned idea that there are two sides to every story. If it looks like an injustice, it must be one. If an aggrieved party presents an emotionally compelling story, it should be accepted as true. No need to dig further.
We can see this in the overwhelmingly sympathetic media coverage of the Ihumatao occupation and Oranga Tamariki child uplifts, where the voices of those bold enough to defend the status quo have largely been crowded out.
It took quite some time for the media to acknowledge that the lawful Maori owners of the disputed land at Ihumatao were happy with their deal with Fletcher Residential and wanted the proposed housing development to proceed. That fact was conveniently obscured.
Ihumatao is not another Bastion Point or Moutoa Gardens, where the protesting occupiers wanted to reclaim land that was historically theirs but had been taken away. Many, if not most, of the protesters occupying the Ihumatao site appear to have no direct ancestral link with the land (busloads came from Northland and Taranaki) and can be seen as be usurping the rights of the Maori owners. NZ First’s Shane Jones derisively referred to them as “yoga pants” protesters and said they didn’t speak for the mana whenua. Yet it seems to have suited the media to characterise the dispute as a contest between greedy developers and dispossessed iwi, which it’s not.
The narrative has largely been dictated by the articulate and media-savvy young Maori lawyer Pania Newton, leader of the protest occupation. You had to feel sorry for poor Te Warena Taua, spokesman for the land’s owners, who barely got a look in. No one seemed terribly interested in his protestation that Te Kawerau a Maki, the iwi authority that owns the land, supports the development, or that Fletcher had given back eight hectares and made special provision for Maori housing. These facts got in the way of a much more appealing story about racism and injustice. (That Taua happens to be Newton’s uncle demonstrates how tortuously tangled these affairs can be.)
And now, to complicate what was already a messy but essentially intra-Maori schism, Jacinda Ardern’s government – panicked by all the negative coverage and unnerved by demands that Ardern get involved – has clumsily crashed into the dispute and in doing so, has undermined the Treaty settlement process, property rights and the rule of law.
As with Ihumatao, so also for the emotive and largely one-sided media coverage of the uplifts issue. Oranga Tamariki’s practice of removing mostly Maori newborn babies from situations where their safety was considered to be at risk has been portrayed as cruel and culturally insensitive. A protest rally at Parliament, with angry denunciations of supposedly callous, racist social workers, led the 6pm news on TV3.
But hang on. Earlier that day on Duncan Garner’s AM Show on the same channel, Northland GP Lance O’Sullivan, a Maori and a former New Zealander of the Year, said he supported uplifts and moreover believed that Oranga Tamariki deserved more resources. He recalled being traumatised by the death of a two-year-old girl killed by her mother and insisted that children must be safe, “whatever that takes”.
“When I had this child die in Kaitaia two years ago I would have loved to have a rally,” O’Sullivan said pointedly. “I would love to have had a hui and had all the leading names of Maori come along to protest and cry out about the death of another Maori child, [but] there was no such thing.”
It was a clear rebuke of those organising the march on Parliament. But again, no prizes for guessing which opinion got maximum prime-time exposure. O’Sullivan was seen only by the relatively small breakfast audience (and then largely by accident, since he had gone on the show to talk about something else).
Winston Peters also supports Oranga Tamariki. He told a press conference that three Maori children had died since the uplifts controversy flared in May. “I don’t see many headlines about that and that’s a tragedy.”
Even Peters gets some things right. Yet the media continue to highlight emotive and misleading phrases such as “Our babies are taken” (1News) and “stolen children” (Reuters).
There was another reminder this week that child uplifts might not be altogether a bad thing. A story in the New Zealand Herald revealed that 16-month-old Malcolm Bell, who died in Starship Hospital after being admitted with suspected non-accidental injuries, was one of six children and that all his older siblings had been taken from his mother, Savanna Bell.
The story didn’t specifically mention uplifts and it wasn’t clear whether Malcolm was in the care of his mother or his wider whanau when he died. (A man has been charged with his murder.) But it did reveal that Oranga Tamariki had received calls from people who were concerned about the little boy’s welfare. The Herald also disclosed that Savanna Bell is the sister of the notorious murderer William Bell, who killed three people while robbing the Mt Wellington Panmure RSA in 2001.
Add all this together and it seems plain that Malcolm was born into a high-risk family. People say uplifts are racist, but the statistics show that Maori children are grossly over-represented in abuse statistics. Savanna Bell kept having children despite obviously being considered unfit as a mother. In such situations, uplifts would seem to be the safest, if not the only, option. It has been shown too often that faith in the nurturing care of the whanau can be tragically misplaced.
As for those terrible abuse statistics, we’re repeatedly told that they’re a consequence of colonisation – another claim uncritically parroted by credulous journalists. There’s never a mention of the horrific endemic violence practised in pre-colonial Maoridom, or acknowledgment of the manifold benefits that colonisation brought.
Journalistic balance is what’s missing here, but balance is no longer the editorial requirement that it used to be. That was never better demonstrated than when Stuff announced last year that it would no longer give space to the views of climate-change sceptics.
Is there an over-arching ideological agenda here? That might be going too far. I don’t believe there are neo-Marxist cells in newsrooms. But it’s fair to ask whether the purpose of much alarmist journalism and overheated media comment is to induce a mood of national anxiety and shame, and thereby to soften the country up for the radical social and political change favoured by noisy activists. We can only hope the public is smart enough not to fall for it.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of the Dominion-Post. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.