Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Tom Frewen: PM on delivering a set of deliverables

“How will it end? Will there be a mighty wind?” – British comedians Peter Cook and Rowan Atkinson discuss potential scenarios for the end of the world in a sketch about a Doomsday Cult in the Secret Policeman’s Ball, a comic revue raising funds for Amnesty International at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, in June 1979.

John Campbell, TVNZ’s Chief Correspondent, posed similar questions on X (Twitter) when promoting his end-of-year politics column on Saturday 30 December last year. “Who are we?” he asked. “Where are we heading? And who will we be when we get there? Are we on the cusp of something new or something old?”
Rhetorical questions don’t need answers. Their purpose is to provoke discussion. Nevertheless it is surprising that Campbell, the senior journalist on the country’s main TV channel, fails to address any of the issues that his questions raise. Readers hoping for just a hint as to who they are, where they are heading and the kind of cusp they are on, if indeed a cusp exists, are in for disappointment and some irritation when, reaching the end of Campbell’s 4400-word essay, he hands over his fruitless quest for answers that don’t exist to the new prime minister.

“In his own maiden speech, only three years ago,” Campbell writes, “Christopher Luxon said something worth holding to: ‘It's my absolute belief that New Zealand can do better, and when it does, New Zealanders will do better, too.’ ”

Of course some people will do better and others will do worse. Swings and roundabouts, yeah? Rich get richer, poor get poorer. Same old, same old. But do we really need to hear this from the prime minister?

Campbell obviously does and, without a clue as to where we are heading, he concludes his essay by begging: “Lead us there, Prime Minister.

All of us.” Oh dear. And Campbell calls himself a journalist?

Luxon, having transitioned up several next levels from CEO to prime minister and, like a personal trainer on an exercycle, creates the illusion of forward momentum by combining political rhetoric and corporate gibber.

“That's what we're here to do," he says, bounding up to the assembled media’s microphones and cameras at his National Party’s caucus meeting in Christchurch, "we're going to get back to work, and we're going to keep going, we're going to go hard in Parliament, and importantly we're going to make sure we continue to deliver on that 100-day plan.”

(The ritual of New Zealand governments kicking off with a 100-day plan originated in the United States in 1933 when newly-elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt got Congress to pass 15 major Bills in under three months.)

In New Zealand, the 100-day period also coincides with the traditional “honeymoon” period in which new governments get an easy ride in the media as politicians and journalists take their long summer breaks at the same time.

Extending from early December to the first week in February, the “Silly Season” exposes the extent of the media’s reliance on politics as a source of national news. With no arguments between politicians to report and comment on, the daily news is reduced to a bedrock content of weather, sudden death on the roads and in the water, murder in the suburbs, retail crime and celebrity weddings.

So when the prime minister says “we are looking ahead to actually deliver a set of deliverables that will help our vision of New Zealand to take root and come to pass” – and I did not make that up – there is no-one on deck to point out that he is literally talking nonsense.

It is also a bad time for any remotely famous individual to be caught out doing something dodgy. It took journalists just seven days to hound Green MP Golriz Ghahraman out of Parliament. Judging her guilty of shoplifting without waiting for proof to back anonymous allegations that had “surfaced” or “emerged”, The Post in Wellington and the Herald in Auckland delivered their verdicts on their front pages on Wednesday 17 January. “Golriz Gone” crowed the Herald, reporting that her resignation from Parliament came as “security footage circulated online that appears to show her stealing a designer handbag from a Ponsonby boutique.”

The Post went even further on its front page, saying the MP had not just ended her Parliamentary career but also her future involvement in politics of any kind. “Sad end” read the headline alongside Ghahraman’s portrait “From political scrapper . . . to scrapheap” — any sense of justice and fair play proving no match for a snappy tabloid headline.

NewstalkZB, owned by NZME, the same Australian outfit that publishes the Herald, also has a podcast called “The Front Page.” Chelsea Daniels, a news director and journalist, opened the show that Wednesday with “Parliament has not even returned for 2024 yet but we’ve already got our first political scandal of the year.”

Daniels’ view of politics as a source of drama and scandal was also evident on the front page of Stuff’s Sunday Star-Times on Sunday 31 December, New Year’s Eve. Under the headline question “What’s in store?” the paper’s writers welcomed in “a new year packed with political intrigue, economic uncertainty, fresh food and fashion fads, travel trends and a sporting calender highlighted by a new All Blacks coach and the Paris Olympics.”

Our news media’s demand for scandal and political intrigue is in inverse proportion to the supply of sensational headlines that a country of five million souls can generate on a daily or even annual basis. But newspaper front pages and television and radio bulletins have to be filled with something.

Donald Trump whose relationship with the truth is as loose as a goose on quaaludes accidentally came close to speaking truth to power with his label “fake news”. He would have been closer to the mark with “fabricated news” which covers a wide range of journalistic endeavour from opinion dressed up as analysis to outright prejudice masquerading as objective speculation.

Inevitably, to fill the vacuum created by the lack of reports about interesting events, journalists have resorted to writing about each other. Egos are extremely delicate in the creative writing space, making flattery much safer than honest criticism, highlighting the difference between between elephants and sycophants: elephants are always in the middle of the room while sycophants are everywhere.

“Epic, compassionate and insightful” was the verdict of journalist Philip Matthews on Campbell’s end-of-year column. “Jesus, that’s generous, Philip,” Campbell responded, “coming from someone who really knows how to write. Thank you.” Eww.

The elephant in this room, though, is Campbell himself. As Crown-owned TVNZ’s chief correspondent, his personal opinion is seen as carrying the weight of a major state media organisation. But as big game hunting veteran journalist Karl du Fresne has already pointed out in these columns, TVNZ is supposed to be apolitical. Bullseye! Allowing Campbell to express his personal opinions and prejudices on its website is a serious threat to the broadcaster’s claim of being financially and politically independent — it’s most important role as the mass medium with the country’s largest single audience for daily news.

Back on the mountain, meanwhile, the scheduled time for the end of the world passes with Peter Cook observing that “It isn’t quite the conflagration we’d been banking on. Never mind lads, same time tomorrow. We must get a winner one day.”

Tom Frewen is a media commentator and satirist whose day job reporting Parliament for radio spanned 22 years.

1 comment:

Empathic said...

Important to recognize that Ms Ghahraman chose to resign, likely because she knew she is guilty. Her public excuse-making was also consistent with her passive acceptance of guilt. She wasn't sacked before due process and if she believed she wasn't guilty she wouldn't have been 'hounded out'; her party would have stood by her as it had for its female leader even after she made an utterly false, hate-speech allegation that all violence is committed by white cis men.

On the other hand, any male politician accused of some minor sexual transgression against a woman would be hounded out regardless of innocence, guilt or due process.