Saturday, October 10, 2020
Karl du Fresne: It's not just the Labour Party that Collins is fightingLabels: Election 2020, Karl du Fresne, media bias
First up, a disclaimer. I am not, and never have been, a National Party supporter. While there have been rare occasions in the past 50 years when I’ve voted National, they are outnumbered by the times I’ve supported Labour. National won’t be getting my party vote next week, though I may yet decide to support the party’s Wairarapa candidate. (For the record, I voted for Labour’s Kieran McAnulty last time.)
It’s important that I get that declaration out of the way, because otherwise what I’m about to write will be dismissed by Labour camp followers as sour grapes from a disgruntled Tory. (That’s bound to happen anyway, but I need to spell out my position regardless.)
Now, to the point of this post. In recent weeks I’ve watched with mounting disbelief as the network formerly known as TV3 has conducted what appears to be a sustained offensive against the National Party.
Initially I gave Newshub and its political reporters the benefit of the doubt, thinking perhaps the run of events was against National and over time the playing field would be levelled. But that hasn’t happened, leaving me convinced that Newshub is functioning as Labour’s unofficial propaganda arm.
I shouldn’t be completely surprised, because it’s happened before (I wrote about it here). But nine years on, the bias is even more explicit and infinitely more mischievous.
No one who believes in the importance of fair and impartial news media can accept this is right. Fair, accurate and impartial journalism is never more important than during an election campaign. Some of us can remember when in every newspaper newsroom, someone was assigned to tot up the daily column inches given to each of the major parties to ensure no one was given an unfair advantage. But Newshub doesn’t appear to care about maintaining even a pretence of neutrality.
You could choose virtually any night at random to illustrate this, but let’s examine Tuesday night’s bulletin. It started with political reporter Jenna Lynch – eager-beaver apprentice to chief stirrer Tova O’Brien – asserting that National was in crisis mode following leaks to Newshub by MPs reportedly unhappy with Judith Collins’ leadership.
Taken in isolation this would be unexceptionable, but context is everything – and this story meshed neatly with an ongoing Newshub narrative portraying National as a party in disarray – a “death spiral”, in O’Brien’s words – and not fit to govern. A write-off, in other words, and not worth wasting a vote on.
“The cracks are getting wider and the wisecracks nastier,” opined Lynch – except that the wisecracks she was referring to appeared to relate not to the election campaign or Collins, but to totally unrelated grudges dating from the National leadership takeover by Todd Muller five months ago.
There was also a sneering reference to “fawning MPs” clustering around Collins on the campaign trail. But fawning MPs are a staple on the political circuit, and certainly not confined to National. Why should Collins be singled out for derision when it’s long been a bizarre convention that when party leaders appear on camera, they must be surrounded by sycophantic MPs and ministers furiously nodding in agreement at whatever the boss is saying? Because it fits the Newshub narrative, that’s why.
Lynch went on to make the unsubstantiated claim that Collins was “on the ropes”, then linked this supposed crisis to a bitchy Twitter exchange (is there any other kind?) between Muller’s former PR adviser Matthew Hooton and deposed deputy leader Paula Bennett. But the Twitter sniping appeared to have nothing to do with Collins; it was about the circumstances in which the ill-fated Muller took control back in May.
It apparently didn’t matter that there was no connection, because it served the purpose of providing a pretext to cross to Winston Peters, who wisecracked that it explained why Collins had been shown praying (which, in turn, served as a cue for Lynch to remind us that Collins was accused of politicising her faith); and then to Ardern on the campaign trail, so that we could observe for ourselves the stark contrast between the National leader – white-anted by disloyal caucus members, according to Lynch, and looking defensive in the face of Lynch’s insistent questioning – and a relaxed and smiling prime minister untroubled by caucus disloyalty or awkward questions from hectoring reporters, surrounded by adoring fans, posing for selfies, accepting gifts from awe-struck children (“Oh, is that for me?”) and patting dogs.
I mean to say, who would you prefer as the country’s leader: Agatha Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda or Glinda, the Good Witch of the South from The Wizard of Oz? No contest.
Newshub invited Ardern to put the boot into her opponents over their internal friction but she declined. After all, why risk being seen as indulging in petty schadenfreude when Lynch was doing the job for her?
But Newshub hadn’t finished with Collins and National. Next we crossed to political editor O’Brien, who pronounced the party was in turmoil (hadn’t we just spent three minutes hearing Lynch say much the same thing?) and that the writing would be on the wall for Collins if National lost the election (as it is for most major party leaders who lose elections, but hey, here’s a radical suggestion: why don’t we just wait and see?).
We then segued into an unrelated item about politicians criticising the media, the main purpose of which seemed to be for Newshub’s political journalists to pat themselves on the back for irritating people like Peters, David Seymour and Gerry Brownlee, as if getting up the noses of politicians is how the efficacy of journalism should be measured.
Since it was stripped of any explanatory context, the item would have made no sense to anyone other than the most obsessive political junkie. In most cases it wasn’t clear what the politicians were talking about, or to whom. This was not about imparting useful information to the public, which is supposedly the purpose of journalism. The purpose seemed to be to satisfy some other agenda known only to those involved.
The item included a brief clip of Brownlee, who in July was the target of repeated Newshub attacks accusing him of indulging in conspiracy theories over the government’s response to Covid-19, delivering an extraordinary rant to someone off-camera in which he said: “Your [presumably meaning Newshub’s] people give me the shits. You’re bloody lazy as buggery.”
Again, there was no explanation of what this was about. It doesn’t matter, apparently, that the audience is left out of the loop; it’s all about point-scoring. But the item did serve as the cue for yet another cross, this time to Greens co-leader James Shaw, who was presented as the voice of moderation and reason. Politicians on the campaign trail get tired, intoned Shaw solemnly, “but that’s no excuse for rudeness”. The take-home message: there are wise and civilised politicians like Shaw, and then there are feral bullies like Brownlee.
Oh, and we shouldn’t forget the long-suffering journalists who bear the brunt of these nasty attacks by politicians when all the heroic hacks are doing is trying to get to the truth of things. “Political journalists get used to it,” said O’Brien (oh, nail me to the cross), before noting with satisfaction that Brownlee had apologised “unreservedly” for swearing at the unnamed Newshub reporter. Vindication, then, and shame on the politicians for getting down in the mud, where high-minded journalists refuse to go.
O’Brien’s patronising advice to the politicians: “Chill, guys, just chill.” Not surprisingly, she said nothing about the endless baiting and provocation politicians have to put up with from scalp-hunting reporters. Politicians are not an easy class of people to feel sorry for, but political journalists sometimes make it possible.
Whatever this is, it’s not journalism as I understand it. It’s a continuation of a long-standing trend whereby journalists see themselves not as mere observers and reporters of the political process, but as active players and agitators.
Duncan Garner pioneered this style of journalism at TV3 when he was political editor and each of his successors – first Paddy Gower, now O’Brien – has taken the approach a step further. O’Brien is the worst, constantly setting out to generate conflict and controversy by catching politicians out, goading them, tripping them up and asking loaded questions that she hopes will generate headlines for the six o’clock bulletin.
There was a good example of her approach recently when Newshub led its bulletin with a story quoting Ardern as promising a crackdown on hate speech. This wasn’t a pre-planned policy statement on the government’s part; rather, O’Brien used Ardern’s unveiling of a memorial plaque at the Al Noor mosque, and an emotive statement from the local imam, to press the prime minister for an impromptu commitment on whether hate speech would be outlawed if Labour won a second term unencumbered by the killjoys of New Zealand First (who previously vetoed it).
On one level, this was an enterprising journalist seizing the moment, but it was also a significant breakthrough for the woke agenda – one that O’Brien immediately took a step further by encouraging Ardern to agree that as well as outlawing hate speech against religious groups, Labour would also apply the law to speech relating to sexual orientation (which could make it illegal to say mean things about trans-gender people), age and disability. It seemed a prime case of journalism intersecting with ideological activism.
Intriguingly, the same Newshub that sanctimoniously took Collins to task this week for supposedly making up policy “on the fly” over a promised review of Auckland Council apparently thought it quite unexceptionable that Ardern did precisely the same on hate speech, despite it being an issue with infinitely graver implications for democracy. Make of that what you will.
There was more in similar vein in last night’s bulletin. We saw Ardern being mobbed by rapturous fans in Dunedin (O’Brien, without a hint of sarcasm, called it Ardern's people’s princess vibe) and we were again invited to contrast this with scenes of Collins getting a distinctly cool response, other than from obvious National Party plants, in the forlornly empty streets of Ponsonby. (But hang on: what party doesn’t attempt to ensure a few strategically placed sympathetic faces when the leader goes out in public? Ardern’s handlers did it too when she was in the Wairarapa recently.)
It’s impossible to convey in words the striking disparity in this coverage. It’s relentlessly positive toward Ardern – fawning isn’t too strong a word – but strives tirelessly to nobble her main rival with stories of caucus disloyalty and belittling scenes from the campaign trail. On top of all this, O’Brien had the chutzpah last night to make sympathetic noises about the ordeal Collins is being put through. To paraphrase a quotation from Robert Muldoon when talking about his bete noire The Dominion: with friends like O’Brien, who needs enemies?
I detest this style of journalism. It attempts to place journalists at the centre of the action rather than on the periphery, where they belong. They abuse their power by seeking to influence events rather than simply reporting them in a fair and balanced way and allowing the public to make up their own minds. They are every bit as guilty of abuse of power as the most despised press baron.
And while some journalists insist on seeing themselves as morally superior to politicians, it can be argued that the reverse is true. As devious and self-serving as some politicians may be, they can still claim the moral high ground because ultimately they are accountable to someone: namely, the voters, to whom they must answer every three years. No journalists have to submit to that judgment.
I’ll finish this post by repeating what I said at the start. I’m not a National supporter and it won’t concern me in the slightest if National loses the election. In fact I’d go further and say they’ve done nothing to justify winning it.
It's no help to National that there’s a whiff of desperation in the way Collins is conducting her campaign, as evidenced by the cheesy shots of her praying, presumably in a late play for support from the Christian right. But it’s hardly surprising that she’s looking desperate when she has journalists like O’Brien and Lynch enthusiastically charting every stumble and writing her off before the voters – the only people whose opinions ultimately count for anything – have had their say. Collins isn’t competing with just the Labour Party; she also has to reckon with journalists who are clearly willing her to fail.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.
at 8:53 PM