Thursday, May 5, 2022

Karl du Fresne: Simon Bridges' parting shot at the press gallery

I’ve never known quite what to make of Simon Bridges; he always struck me as a bit of a political shape-shifter. But I was pleased that he gave political reporters a serve in his valedictory.

In comments addressed to the press gallery, but which you may not see reported, Bridges said:

I love you all, and Claire Trevett [New Zealand Herald] you're my favourite, although your story this last weekend certainly tested that favouritism. But I do despair how narrow the viewpoints are here, as opposed to in the UK, the United States, and even Australia. More viewpoints are tolerated, actually encouraged, in their deeper media environments. Our press gallery can hunt as a pack — OK, then there's Barry [Soper] — but basically, as a pack. And I say to you, if every one of you has the same basic position on a complex matter, you are probably all engaged in group thinking, quite probably wrong. Go spend some time in the provinces or one of our bigger cities that's not this one to recalibrate, and get a fresh view.

And then this: While I'm on my friends in the press gallery, your most important job is to hold the powerful to account, and let me give you a clue: it's the Government that has the power.

I imagine many politicians regularly bristle with fury and resentment at their treatment by the gallery but bite their tongues because they think they dare not risk making enemies of the media. (Winston Peters was a notable exception, often going out of his way to provoke fights with reporters in the manner of his model, Robert Muldoon, and it didn’t seem to harm him. Unlike most politicians, Peters grasped that the public don’t like the media much either.)

On his last day in Parliament, Bridges obviously felt freed from any restraint, although I would have admired him more if he’d taken a whack at his tormentors when he was still a serving MP and therefore had something to lose. Getting his own back on his last day in the House was a bit like giving the fingers to someone you don't like from the safety of a passing car.

There’s nothing new in his statement about the press gallery hunting as a pack. That’s been the case for decades. There’s courage in numbers. (I wrote about the bizarre antics of the gallery pack here and here.)

But Bridges identified other concerns, such as the uniformity of their views (it’s reassuring when everyone thinks the same way) and their tendency to highlight the supposed failings of opposition parties rather than hold the government's feet to the fire - a tendency never better demonstrated than by Tova O'Brien's vicious hounding of a stricken Judith Collins.

Bridges also alluded to another occupational hazard among political journalists - namely, the conceit that working in the press gallery and rarely venturing outside Wellington tells them all they need to know about politics. In fact they exist in an artificial bubble where they are largely insulated from the real world.

They may have some grasp of the machinery of politics, but politics is about much more than what happens in Wellington. Ultimately what counts most in a democracy is what the public thinks and why people vote the way they do, and there can be few people more poorly qualified to assess the public mood than press gallery journalists. The narrow world they’re exposed to is simply not the world most New Zealanders live in.

It would be a useful grounding exercise for them to listen to talkback radio for an hour or so each day. I wouldn’t pretend that’s the key to understanding what real New Zealanders are thinking, but it would expose press gallery reporters to a more authentic world than the one they inhabit, which largely consists of fellow members of the political class. (Of course it wouldn’t happen, because the typical political journalist probably regards talkback callers as the untermenschen.)

There’s another problem that Bridges didn’t specifically mention, namely the apparent homogeneity of the gallery. A bit more diversity of age, background and life experience might be helpful.

A few more mature political journalists are still active – Soper, Audrey Young, Brent Edwards, Jane Clifton, to name a few – but most of the press pack have the disconcerting appearance of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed idealists, eager to avoid (as Bridges intimated) making things too difficult for a government that they are ideologically sympathetic with. Soper must sometimes feel like a grizzled old bulldog confined in a pen with a lot of yapping, over-excited young poodles.

If this seems a rather sweeping condemnation of the entire gallery, I plead guilty. I acknowledge there are capable political journalists who make an honest attempt to do the job well. It's just unfortunate that they are tainted by association with others who come across as self-absorbed, over-confident and, dare I say it, sometimes not very bright.

If you want to read Bridges’ valedictory in full (it’s worth it), you can do so here:

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


Anonymous said...

i rarely watch videos longer than 10 mins, but simon bridges' talk was well worth it. the best statement i heard was this:

People sometimes can't understand my conviction in conservative politics and how I reconcile it with my forebears and the prevailing views in Māori politics today. But the reason I have opposed and continue to oppose policies like Māori wards, health authorities, and the like is because while I deeply understand our country has quite a way to go on race, personally, I don't want to be treated differently on the basis of it. I don't want special help, because I'm not a victim. I am good enough in any room, whether this big one, our Cabinet, or commercial board rooms in the future, and so are all Māori.

it is a shame this person did not get a chance to be the PM :(

Janine said...

Hasn't Simon been offered a job in the media himself? Let's see whether he can make a difference then. It seems from that speech he is just another politician being a little soft, yet again,on our bought and paid for MSM.

Why can't these people speak up for Kiwis more forcefully? They are not beholden to a TV channel or a radio or a newspaper but to the people of New Zealand who put them there and in Simon's case many non- Maori citizens voted for him.

He is absolutely right though, Maori are highly represented in parliament and obviously have the same opportunities as other Kiwis.

Helen Swan said...

The comment that the current cache of political reporters is “not very bright” rings true, it’s just a job to them but allows an opportunity to grandstand and if they hang in there for a while they may get a term as overseas correspondent (albeit not covering the Ukraine war which would take more courage and discomfort) then perhaps a spot at a Sunday morning quiz show like Q&A…..
The media bosses show no respect for the public which is clear in their choice of the current light weight performers. When they did branch out to giving Toxic O’Brien more airtime, her unhealthy trait of disparaging personalities rather than viewpoints has led to a new level of nastiness which overshadows any hope of excellent investigative journalism.

Ian P said...

As a born & bred Wellingtonian (long since moved north to milder climes) the Wellington fishbowl mentality has given me great concern. Too much power concentrated with a people with little knowledge of the 'real' New Zealand. It is good that Luxon is telling his MPs to get out and meet people face to face. Labour has failed badly here.

Ian P said...

Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett were the perfect team to be leading New Zealand at this point in our history imho. You have to have talent as a politician to be able to publicly take the piss out of yourself.