Friday, February 5, 2021

Karl du Fresne: Thrashing a lame dog

As 2021 gradually ramps up politically, Newshub’s 6pm news bulletin has pretty much picked up where it left off in 2020 – that is to say, functioning as the government’s unofficial propaganda arm.

An example was its 6pm news bulletin on Monday, which opened with a folksy announcement of “a challenge for the team of five million” – as if this was some exciting new version of Top Town – and an invitation to viewers to help “save the planet”. 

What followed was essentially an exhortation to get behind the Climate Change Commission’s proposals for reducing carbon emissions. We came together to save the country from Covid-19, the message went; now we can do it again. Government spin doctors must have danced with delight.

The supposed news item was presented in the form of a rallying call. It was couched in “let’s all do our bit” tones, rather as the BBC might have urged Londoners to keep their windows blacked out during the Blitz. We were told that while the heavy lifting in the fight against global warming would be done by government and business, “there are lots of changes we [i.e. ordinary people - the plebs] can make”. There was no mention of the potentially massive economic disruption and upheaval that’s likely to result from the commission’s proposals. That might have frightened the punters.

The item was interspersed with a familiar Newshub speciality: namely, video clips of experts (at least we must assume they were presented as experts) explaining the significance of the climate change proposals. This would have been all very well if the talking heads had been identified, so that we could assess the merit of what they were saying, but they weren’t. For all we know they could have been paper-hangers or herd testers.

One “expert” was identified, but wrongly. Professor Bronwyn Hayward of Canterbury University – a cheerleader for the commission’s recommendations – was described as a scientist. In fact she’s a political scientist, a nonsense term that seeks to confer an aura of authority on an academic discipline that’s rife with ideological bias and totally devoid of scientific certainty.

The item ended with reporter Laura Tupou urging us to support the “overall kaupapa” (which means principle or policy, although that wasn’t explained) of a “clean green future for Aotearoa”. This wasn’t journalism; it was a PR exercise, made worse by Newshub’s expectation that viewers should know the meaning of a Maori word that only a small minority would be familiar with. Perhaps you could call it PR with a side-dish of social engineering.

But wait, there was more. Further into the bulletin we found political editor Tova O’Brien indulging in her favourite sport: National-baiting. The tone of her item on National’s first caucus meeting of the year was sneering, her questions to Judith Collins (“How many Maori MPs are there in your caucus?”) and National MPs freighted with taunts and provocations.

I wonder whether Collins will eventually adopt a strategy for dealing with O’Brien’s mischief. “Bugger off, Tova, you’re wasting my time” might be a good start. Viewers would probably applaud, regardless of their feelings toward the National leader.

O’Brien thus carried on where she left off last year. But here’s the thing: the National Party, for now at least, is little more than a sideshow. It’s a party in abject disarray after the humiliating election result that O’Brien’s relentlessly disparaging coverage on the campaign trail helped to bring about.

What National is doing (or more accurately isn’t doing) isn’t news. With only 33 seats in a 120-seat parliament, it exercises no real power – so why is Newshub’s political editor expending so much energy on it? It's like thrashing a lame dog.

The real meat of political journalism is in what’s being decided on the ninth floor of the Beehive. That really does matter. But here we observe a strange dichotomy. The same Tova O’Brien who’s fearless when tormenting the floundering National Party purrs like a kitten when reporting on Jacinda Ardern and her ministers. The contrast in the tone of her coverage is striking.

On Wednesday night, for example, she uncritically parroted the government’s PR line on the release of the Covid-19 vaccine, extravagantly declaring that “New Zealand has struck gold” while conveniently ignoring concerns about contradictory political messages on the timing of the vaccination programme and false promises from Chris Hipkins to the effect that New Zealand “would be at the front of the queue”. Who needs highly paid press secretaries when the government has O’Brien spinning on its behalf?

We’re now told it will be the latter half of the year before most New Zealanders get their jabs, which is probably fine with most people, given that the pandemic appears – for the time being, at least – to be under control. But are we really expected to believe that a journalist who repeatedly holds Judith Collins’ feet to the fire over confected, inconsequential trifles can’t think of a few awkward questions to direct at Jacinda Ardern about the government’s handling of issues that actually matter, such as Covid-19, climate change, poverty and the housing crisis? We hear a great deal about the fashionable notion that journalists should hold the powerful to account, but there’s precious little evidence of it happening in Newshub’s political coverage.

Oh, and one more thing. On the same night that Newshub urged us to join the Great Leap Forward into a zero-emissions future, The Project (which follows the news on the same channel) featured an interview with Dave Grohl from American rock band the Foo Fighters.

Nothing startling about that, you might think, except that the interviewer was the prime minister’s partner, Clarke Gayford. No explanation was offered for Gayford’s involvement in the show, other than that he was a fan of the band (which was soon apparent from his star-struck demeanour), and there was nothing to suggest the interview couldn’t have been done just as well – and possibly a lot better – by any of the three regular panellists. So what was he doing there?

I’m old-fashioned enough to think that the relationship between media organisations and politicians should be kept at arm’s length, and that principle should extend to politicians’ intimate partners. The ideological leanings of The Project team are hardly a secret to regular viewers, but Gayford’s interviewing gig on the show suggested a connection altogether too cosy and incestuous for comfort.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at


Doug Longmire said...

The other night, I heard the P.M. say on TV that this was the most significant thing she had done. (referring to her climate change action)

Well - of course !! Climate change initiatives are much higher priority than child poverty, housing shortages, child abuse statistics, Growing gangs, methamphetamines and other lesser priorities.

Your comments on the media are also very timely Karl. The drooling Left wing media, following their Princess of Kindness is just so, so biased.

Ray S said...

If all the commissions recommendations are adopted, the Covid pandemic will seem like a school picnic, with treats. NZCPR has a blog whereby they ask for comments that would make NZ fail. The climate change commissions report would do the job nicely.
The media, particularly TV1, Stuff, to a lesser extent, some journos, are mouthpieces for the government, none more so than O'Brien.
One can only assume that media generally have little regard for the populace.

DeeM said...

Doug -bearing in mind what the PM has practically achieved in her time in office, the Climate Commission plan really could be the most significant thing she has done. After all, she achieved none of her major policy objectives from her first term and I'm equally confident she'll perform to the same level this term.
What she does excel at is making grandiose promises that sound wonderful, until you dig a bit deeper and find they're often based on flawed or one-sided science, research or opinion.
To make up for this she fully employs her BA in Communication by smiling and nodding a lot while making her announcements, projecting kindness and sincerity, and uses a voice that would fit perfectly in a Year 1 classroom to soothe those of a delicate nature.
At the risk of sounding sexist, the old saying "all shirt and no trousers" sums it up for me.