Thursday, April 21, 2022

Karl du Fresne: Hallucinatory moments of optimism

Notwithstanding everything I wrote on this blog site yesterday about contemporary journalism (none of which I resile from), there are days when, in insane moments of giddy optimism, I imagine that the tide might be turning after years of largely sycophantic media coverage of the government.

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?

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


Terry Morrissey said...

Admire your optimism Karl but once an egg is rotten it doesn't improve. They have had a taste of corruption and appear to like the flavour.

Anonymous said...

long ago, during my life in the hostel, students who returned back from home attracted lots of 'friends'. the main reason being that they brought home-made sweets. as days would pass and the box of sweets started to empty, many of the 'friends' would disappear without notice!

perhaps the PIJF is nearing exhaustion and there are no signs of renewal on the horizon...

Anonymous said...

The 600 deaths are WITH covid, not from covid, get it RIGHT!!!!

anonomus said...

If we take into account of covid deaths in UK where 93 percent are from the vaxed, not the unvaxed, it puts a whole new spin on our death numbers.

Robert Arthur said...

As it applies to newspapers I think you are hallucinating Karl. The tourist loans scandal reflects more on the "rich pricks" than the govt.
The Herald regularly publishes articles by Te Pou, Debbie NP, Tamahere and co. All blatantly pro maori (ie pro govt) and riddled with questionable assertions. Supportive Letters to Editor (under European names) inevitably appear but nothing that questions. In my experience all such are binned.
There was no serious objective discussion of Hae Pora, Three Waters, the curriculum, Council maori wards, or Housing Supply bill. Although too late to influence, a trawl through the submissions would have revealed a wealth of valid comment, but almost none pursued. There has been no comment about the curriculum submissions not being available to the public, and apparently no media has pulled the OIA to view material on this topic so vital to future civil order in NZ. Any faintly thoughtful journalist who applied the effort could have established most of the criticisms of most legislation a year ago when public discussion might have achieved something. But objective analysis is sure to involve negative comment on aspects of pro maori (ie govt) attitudes and thus jeopardise PIJFunding.
Aucklanders and the Council have every reason to be outraged at the far sighted and traumatic $50 million ratepayer dollar AUP being cast aside. Presumably due allegiances and career considerations, the Council response has been quite muted, but any industrious objective journalist could have caught the interest of very many and had a field day.

Peter van der Stam, Napier said...

I do agree with Karl and the commenters.
Christ Church mass murder! Ardern was soo taken away with it ( rightful so, but did it need a headscarf??)
600+ deaths from a flu of which most of them were from the jab, are not important.
To me they are, but to politicians it doesn't matter at all.
We don't even talk about the adverse effects sufferers, of which some are PERMANENTLY ( life long) going to suffer the rest of their lives.
Any politicion heard talking about them???
I have NOT

Empathic said...

'Covid death' statistics in NZ count all deaths that occur within 28 days after the illness was detected. A large proportion then will have recovered from that illness by the time of their death from other causes. Some or many will have had minimal symptoms, certainly not life-threatening ones, and will have clearly died from other causes such as accidental injuries, suicide etc because each death statistic does not require any causal relationship between Covid and death, only that the person had been diagnosed with Covid in the last 28 days before death.

If media were to focus much on these death statistics their true nature will become widely known and this would jeopardize the fear-mongering and vaccine coercion media have colluded in with government, probably for money including through advertising.

Anonymous said...

my son is 16 and eligible for a booster. however, he can't take it because he had covid - he must wait for 6 months. this sounds rational - as the medical system wants us to take advantage of natural immunity...

wait a minute! i thought covid vaccine mandates were based on the logic that natural immunity from infection is not acceptable. what am i missing???

Robert Arthur said...

Re comments above, in terms of matters of moment not adequately reported or investigated by journalists, prompt detailed analysis of Covid related deaths is not going to significantly influence the future NZ. In any case detailed info would not yet have been sorted by the preoccupied medics. Right wing advocacy organisations lose general respect and influence when they appear to be obsessed with matters Covid (and climate change denial.)

Robert Arthur said...

Sorry folks, my brain is addled by maori words. Above I used Hae Pora but meant Pae Ora. Also have He Puapua in my head. Such errors and inefficencies are avoided with plain post stone age English.