Take last night’s edition of Newshub’s 6 o’clock news, in which the first item put the heat on the government over the alarming and apparently uncontrollable surge in inflation. Here was a news outlet doing exactly what the media are supposed to do in a liberal democracy: namely, report on issues that affect the community and hold those in power accountable.
That report was followed by politically damaging coverage of the government’s refusal to ease harsh MIQ requirements, with heartbreaking consequences for the thousands of people affected, even after Ministry of Health officials had advised that it was safe to do so.
Later came an item asking why the government was dragging the chain over the resumption of economically beneficial cruise ship visits when comparable countries, notably Australia, have given them the green light.
All this seemed to represent a striking change in tone from Newshub’s usual political coverage. Admittedly the channel has exposed politically embarrassing issues before – most notably the glaring discrepancies between the government’s glib assurances about the steps it was taking to contain Covid-19 and what was actually happening on the ground, as revealed repeatedly by special issues reporter Michael Morrah.
But otherwise in the four and a half years since Jacinda Ardern became prime minister, it’s been hard to shake the impression that Newshub’s political journalists, along with those in other media organisations, have consistently given the government an easy ride while mercilessly hounding some of Ardern’s opponents (shamefully in the case of Tova O’Brien’s pursuit of the hapless Judith Collins).
Though it may be hallucinatory on my part, there have been other occasions recently when I thought I detected a subtle change in the tone of political coverage overall. I get the impression the media generally are now more actively publishing news that reflects unfavourably on the government (such as the scandal over multimillion-dollar tourism grants that appear to have been handed out selectively to companies that didn’t need them) when previously they were disinclined to do so.
If that’s the case, it could be due to a couple of things. Perhaps media decision-makers have taken note of recent surveys showing a continuing decline in public trust in the media, which has never been high even at the best of times. Alternatively, the sheer weight and volume of anti-media comment online may have reached a level they can no longer ignore. There must come a point, after all, when the self-preservation instinct kicks in.
A caveat to all the above is that the media continue to let the government off the hook over Covid-19 in one very specific respect. In the early stages of the pandemic, a single death was headline news. Now deaths occur daily in double figures and the total figure creeps steadily upward – to 602 at latest count, although we still compare favourably internationally (110 deaths per million compared with 263 in Australia).
Given the country’s continuing fixation with Covid, the media fleetingly pass over the death toll in a strikingly matter-of-fact tone, almost as if it’s no longer of any consequence. We are given no details other than age bands and location by region; nothing to show how many deaths were due to Covid or merely happened to coincide with the presence of the virus, and nothing to indicate whether those who died had pre-existing conditions and if so, what they were.
I’ve heard it speciously argued that this is a matter of respecting people’s privacy, but privacy rules apply only where individuals might be identified – not an issue in this instance, since no one needs to know the names of those who have died.
It seems nothing changes in politics and the bureaucracy. Just as the Official Information Act is still constantly thwarted after 40 years, so secretive officials continue to use the Privacy Act as an excuse to suppress information of public interest. So much for the open society.
Deaths from Covid are a matter of public importance. Why does the government appear to be drawing a veil over them, and why do the media let them get away with it?