In an article I wrote for the BFD last week and republished on this blog, I predicted the media would be out to destabilise Chris Luxon from day one, which turned out to be literally true. But even I’ve been taken aback by the intensity of the character assassination he’s been subjected to.
The media appear obsessed with the fact that Luxon is a Christian. At the press conference that followed his elevation to the National leadership, the first question he faced (from TVNZ’s Jessica Mutch McKay) related to his religious beliefs.
In the eyes of many political journalists, being a Christian automatically categorises him as a weirdo and possibly a fundamentalist right-winger. But in the 2018 census, 37 per cent of New Zealanders identified as Christian, and my guess is (in fact, logic dictates) that they span the political spectrum, supporting Labour and even the Greens as well as conservative parties. “Christian” is not a synonym for loony, wild-eyed extremist or tragic Gloriavale cultist.
It got far worse on Newshub News last night, when Luxon was subjected to an undisguised hatchet job that focused on his wealth. In the eyes of many in the media, being rich is almost as bad as being Christian (unless, that is, you're a rock star). It goes without saying that being both rich and Christian makes Luxon an irresistible target for journalists like Newshub’s smiling assassin Jenna Lynch, who snidely claimed he was so wealthy he didn’t even know how much capital gain he had made on his property investments (but don’t worry, Newshub had calculated it for him).
Lynch linked Luxon’s ownership of seven properties to the housing crisis, as if he were personally responsible for the continuing surge in house prices and had cynically exploited them for his own gain. “If you’re going to attack me for being successful, I can’t defend that,” Luxon protested. But appealing to Lynch’s sense of fairness is about as futile as asking a pitbull to desist from lunging at your throat.
Stuff followed up with a similar hit job headlined “Christopher Luxon’s property gains soar as National promises to tackle housing crisis”. Stuff calculated that he was earning $90,000 a week in capital gains and commented: “While the Opposition has hounded the government for allowing the housing crisis to worsen, National’s new leader is benefiting more than most from soaring house prices”. In other words, we’re encouraged to assume that Luxon is a hypocrite as well as a callous profiteer, getting richer by the day at the expense of the homeless and destitute.
But Luxon is no more responsible for the housing crisis than the hundreds of thousands of other New Zealanders who have similarly benefited from economic circumstances which they have no control over or responsibility for. What, I wonder, does Stuff think he should do? Bury his money in the garden? Give it all away?
In response to Luxon’s statement that his property ownership hadn’t caused the housing crisis, the Stuff reporters commented: “But it’s hard to separate the property portfolios of Luxon and [Nicola] Willis from their position on housing”. Really? That implies a degree of culpability, but what’s the connection? Stuff didn’t explain. It’s easier to make facile judgments.
Now here’s a very intriguing thing. In three separate interviews, I heard Luxon being asked exactly the same question. Lisa Owen on RNZ’s Checkpoint, Ryan Bridge on Newshub’s AM Show and the smiling assassin on Newshub News all demanded to know whether he regarded abortion as murder.
It seems beyond coincidental that all three asked the same question, the more so because it came out of the blue. Abortion happens to be an important issue to me, but it isn’t something you hear people talking about in the pub and the supermarket. In a world beset by Covid-19, runaway house prices, rampant crime, inflation, inequality and other pressing issues, it was nonsense to suggest (as Owen did on her programme, in an attempt to justify the question) that abortion was a pressing issue for her listeners.
The truth is that abortion is an ideological shibboleth – a test of Luxon’s acceptability to the left-wing media elite. The question was clearly linked to their apparent obsession with his Christianity. If you were of a conspiratorial mindset, you couldn’t help but wonder whether this was a co-ordinated set-up. It certainly looked that way.
And what was the point of the question, given that abortion isn’t currently on the political agenda? Could it be that tens of thousands of New Zealand women have had abortions, and that trapping Luxon into suggesting they’re all murderers would ensure National would never get their votes?
Trapping politicians, baiting them, trying to catch them out and make them look silly, hypocritical or indecisive … that’s what now passes for political journalism. And of course the journalists always come out on top, because they can set themselves up as judge and jury, are responsible to no one, pay no penalty when they get things wrong (as they frequently do) and always have the last word.
What’s more, they’re highly selective about whose feet they hold to the fire. Luxon wields no real power at this stage of his political career, yet he’s subjected to far tougher treatment than the sainted prime minister, who clearly enjoys immunity from difficult questions. But most New Zealanders still believe in giving people (even conservative politicians) a fair go, and the media are probably doing far more damage to themselves than to Luxon.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.