Thursday, 5 April 2018

Piling-On The Pressure.

An Unfortunate Perception: Can liberal democracy survive if the news media abandons evidence-based judgement and simply piles-on “as one” against a prime minister and her government? And what if it isn’t just the timing that’s consistent, but the message as well? What then? How is the public to avoid the impression that the news media is rooting for one side and not the other?

WERE YOU AWARE of the Easter “pile-on”? The media assault on Jacinda Ardern’s credibility when, according to Herald journalist, Fran O’Sullivan: “the commentariat … basically rose as one and questioned her prime ministerial abilities”.

Nothing remarkable in that, you might object, in a liberal democracy it is entirely right and proper for the news media to judge the performance of presidents and prime ministers. Yes, but shouldn’t such judgements be based on a sober and objective assessment of the leader’s actual performance? Isn’t that one of the critical (if unspoken) assumptions underpinning the whole notion of media freedom?

Can liberal democracy survive if the news media abandons evidence-based judgement and simply piles-on “as one” against a prime minister and her government? And what if it isn’t just the timing that’s consistent, but the message as well? What then? How is the public to avoid the impression that the news media is rooting for one side and not the other?

This is more than idle speculation. We have only to look at the United States to see what happens when a significant number of voters simply stop believing anything reported by media organisations which have not already identified themselves as co-partisans in the political struggle. Any negative story emerging from the other side’s “lying media” can be branded “fake news” and dismissed as further proof of its uncompromising mendacity.

When President Trump tweets his outrage at “the lying New York Times”, liberal New Yorkers may puff out their chests with pride. The eyes of mid-western conservatives, however, will narrow with suspicion and their hatred of the “coastal elites” intensify.

In a political environment as polarised as this, the openness and tolerance which liberal democracy needs to function withers and dies. It is impossible to engage in any kind of fruitful political discourse when every participant believes every other participant is lying.

The media picture in New Zealand is further complicated by the absence of newspapers and radio stations which loudly and proudly advertise their partisan allegiances. Kiwis do not have the option of subscribing to the equivalent of the UK’s Guardian or Daily Telegraph. There is no MSNBC for liberals to watch; no Fox News for Kiwi conservatives.

That being the case, the New Zealand news media has always strived to balance right-wing opinion with the perspectives of left-leaning commentators. This is not just a matter of fairness, it is vital to the maintenance of trust. Readers, listeners and viewers need to feel that somewhere in the mix of voices there is someone who speaks their language.

Even more important than ensuring a diversity of opinion, however, is the news media’s responsibility to separate fact from fiction and apply a critical eye to the news it reports.

With all these factors in mind, let us turn again to Ms O’Sullivan’s “Easter pile-on”.

The two news stories which generated so much common outrage in the “commentariat” were Jacinda Ardern’s and Winston Peters’ response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK city of Salisbury; and the Prime Minister’s handling of Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran’s coffee-date with RNZ’s head of news and content, Carol Hirschfeld.

In the Skripal case, the reportage and commentary (often filed by the same journalists and in the same story!) appeared to have been scripted by the UK Government. The only course of action which the commentariat was prepared to recognise as prime-ministerial is the one where Jacinda Ardern follows along behind the Russophobic UK Prime Minister, Teresa May, like a dutiful “Five Eyes” poodle.

The very notion that the NZ Government might withhold its judgement until it possessed hard evidence of the perpetrators’ culpability was laughed out of court. Laughter, indeed, featured heavily in just about all of these commentaries – as in “New Zealand has become an international laughing-stock”. As if an independently-minded New Zealand prime minister was simply too risible a notion to be taken seriously.

How quickly New Zealand’s political commentators have forgotten David Lange and the fourth Labour Government’s nuclear-free legislation. And how loath they are to recall the UK’s refusal to condemn the French perpetrators of state terrorism on NZ soil. That so many Kiwi journalists were willing to be guided by the same people who gave the world the “sexed-up dossier” on Saddam’s WMDs; the same country responsible for illegally invading Iraq; spoke very poorly of their ability to evaluate critically the news they were reporting.

The state of NZ journalism was the unspoken theme running through the breathless reportage and commentary of the Curran-Hirschfeld coffee-klatch. Or, perhaps, it is more accurate to call it the State and NZ journalism. Because, at the heart of so many of the piler-ons’ commentaries lies a deep and abiding disinclination to view public service journalism through anything other than an aggressively anti-state lens.

That Ms Curran may have enlisted the support of Ms Hirschfeld in her quest to reinvigorate public broadcasting was presented in the most sinister terms. That the RNZ Board may have been engaged in resisting the Government’s broadcasting policy was not considered sinister at all – quite the reverse.

Prime Minister Ardern was castigated for not reining-in a minister who was clearly determined to extend the reach of “Red Radio”. As an accusation it played beautifully into the commentariat’s subtextual insinuation that this government isn’t just unacceptably socialist, but that its policies are being delivered with a Stalinist inflection. Why else would the PM refuse to condemn the actions of the obviously guilty Russian state and its ex-KGB president?

A commentariat prepared to rise “as one” in its delivery of these rebukes risks alienating all but the most unreconstructed cold warriors and knee-jerk National supporters. Those less disposed to follow the lead of our “Five Eyes Partners” in the Skripal case, along with those who regard the reinvigoration of public service journalism as a very good idea, will feel both affronted and aggrieved by the “Easter pile-in”.

Genuine media freedom, embodied in a diversity of political voices, can only strengthen the public’s trust in journalism. That’s because the truth is always a composite picture – never a single frame.

When the commentariat “piles-in” with a single voice, it is not to our left-wing government that we should look for evidence of Stalinism.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 5 April 2018.


peteswriteplace said...

The media thinks it controls who governs in NZ? Who are they trying to convince? Certainly not somebody like me.

Polly said...

Sorry to disagree with your point of view.
The debacle of the youth camp, the cover up, to the intent of organisers that parents would not be told, was a disgrace to the Labour party.
Labours slyness piled on their own pressure.
Jacinda stayed silent to admonishment of her team.
She not a leader, simply a high paid bureaucrat.
Don't blame the press.

greywarbler said...

That's very true Chris. And the need for thoughtful critical analysis of themselves is obvious to all thinking people looking at those journalists' unseemly 'Easter pile up' or ruck as NZers call it. Perhaps the problem is in the name - journalist - being reporter on the day's events. They need to think beyond the day, be looking back as well as forwards, januslists, bringing historical memory to the present and looking to the future as well.

And talking in plain NZ terms so that denizens of our political school can understand, those journalists can 'go and boil your heads'. Then hang out in the sunshine till dry. Or dried out perhaps, as the frenzied tones of their reportage seem to indicate too much imbibing of high alcohol liquid along with the high-news-brew from the supposed high-brows. I, on behalf of the lowbrows, expect better.

Kat said...

And "reportedly" John Key's biggest regret was not being able to change the NZ flag.

I think you may be correct Chris in that continuing with more of the Easter type "pile on" by the MSM commentariat there will ultimately be a backfire. I am picking a few of the smarter commentators will be making moves to avoid being crushed in another "pile on". The real quality journalists have been conspicuous by their absence.

Nick J said...

As I mentioned on a previous post it is time to show who is boss. National politicized state sector appointments, it's time to fire a few very publicly.

greywarbler said...

After reading and hearing so much of NZ 'junioralism' one is left sputtering and thinking of French taunts for these invaders turning our democracy into a demockracy. This is the lowbrow response to these silly people who while away their time writing fantasies. And after the taunts there is a real political discussion!!

Anonymous said...

Ardern is the author of her own ineptness and misfortune. She has failed to sack Curran when she should have (what would have Helen done), has let Winston run amok re the Russian debacle and kept mum on the Labour sex camp scandal, once again, she should have spilled blood, taking a leaf out of Clark's more ruthless and decisive playbook. Clearly Ardern is out of her depth as PM, and frankly, she looks really ill.
The media are simply reporting what they see, instead of the blind fawning that went on pre election. Actually, the media did roll her into power, via MMP and Winston, and now that the stardust has worn off, seem to be regretting that choice. The majority of voters knew better of course, endorsing National with he most votes. Oh, but MMP is maturing....even if we ended up with a govt we did not want.


John Drinnan said...

No liberal left wig media in New Zealand? The Spinoff, The Wireless - not mainstream. its true. The Sunday Star Times is pretty liberal. Left folk have hated the story that led to the departure of Hirschfeld from RNZ. That says more about the state of the left than it does about mainstream media./

Bearded Git said...

Spot on Chris. The key point being that the MSM has overcooked the criticism of the (still new) government to a point where they are showing blindingly obvious bias and a total lack of objectivity.

Sanctuary said...

TheSpinoff is not left wing. It is urban liberal/hipster, which makes it a Blairite/third way publication aimed squarely at the managerial classes.

The fact a media commentator like yourself still uses such lazy definitions is a good indicator of the overall intellectual state of our media commentariat. There is no mainsteream left wing journalism in NZ. At best, you get middle class liberalism with a pink and Green tinge, written by people who would be alarmed at any serious threat to the current socio-political status quo. And you if doubt that, I commend you to go and review the Guardian's coverage of Corbyn's ascent to power to see how the urban liberals react to the arrival of a proper left winger on the scene.

The media commentariat is far too old, far too white and far too well off to have any real idea of life in NZ in 2018, but which makes for a excellent representation of the 1980s-90s neolib generation that just got unexpectedly tossed out of office. The unexpected nature of the rapid demotion from centrality to periphery of power by a younger generation of Labour party leader goes a long way to explaining the splenetic reaction of the media commentariat - Mike Hoskings appears to be trying to set a world record for the longest period of insolent sulking for an over fifty rich white male, an awesome feat given the competition coming out of Trump's America.

Michael Wynd said...

I do not seem to be able to locate a piece from on the uncritical pieces, the fawning over her, and softball interviews the media were giving Jacinda up to February. Is it not a case of the media angrily turning on her now the hype they built up has fallen apart in front of their eyes? I'm starting to see a similar trend with Hillary Clinton with the media as they come to realise that she was a terrible candidate and has now turned into a very bitter and pathetic individual. If the rumours are true, why is she now calling the media to complain about the coverage? This is certainly not a case of Key Derangement Syndrome as Jacinda's true inability to manage and lead a government are coming to the fore. It is refreshing that all sides of the media spectrum are commenting on the current government situation in generally even handed terms.

greywarbler said...

You comment refers to 'spilled blood'. Are you an Army dropout? What I
want is a country that works well and doesn't spill blood until absolutely necessary. It is not at that point. As for the political discussion about what was right, the Natzional party have managed to skew that so well that they say right is left. Labour has to find their own way in this morass they have left.

If you were a true patriot Ron you would want the government doing things for the people but instead you are treating our political process as if it was some pathetic neighbourhood dispute with everybody taking sides according to their predilections. Stick to sport mate, they play to definite rules or else everybody notices. With politics each side is open to question, the one with more money buys the judgment, and the left misses out big time.

Hilary Taylor said...


Hosking. Singular. Please. 'Insolent sulking' or business as usual for Hosking & not sure it has anything to do with the adjectives you choose for him. Can we call time on the 'white male' thing & its ilk..please?

Anonymous said...

Sorry Chris, I disagree on this one. The media honeymoon ended abruptly when Labour stuffed up the handling of the various scandals over the last four weeks or so. Jacinda should have fired Kirton immediately. She should have fired Curran immediately. No one is saying she should have fired Shane Jones, Jenny Marcroft or Winston, even though they would have if they were Labour MPs. Even Helen Clark implied that she would have fired these people. John Key certainly would have.

I see Paul Eagle has admitted swearing at people - the details of which are not yet clear but it's not much different to that National MP from North Canterbury who got fired for abusing waiters.

Whether you like it or not the media will compare Jacinda's standards of behaviour to Clark and Key.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Chris but the media always acts like a pack of chickens pecking at the mere sight of blood. They did so to National for 9 years and now it's Labours turn.
Quite frankly Aderns handling of pretty much everything since Xmas has demonstrated clearly that she has been weighed, she has been measured and she has been found terribly wanting.
Not at any time before assuming power had she demonstrated the aptitude to be Prime Ministerates. Certainly she is no Clark or Key.
To complain about the media's response to the Russia crisis is quite frankly infantile and beneath you. You should know more than anyone that it doesn't matter whether Russia was involved or not. All that was required was a symbolic expulsion of a diplomat or two to show solidarity with our 5 eyes partners.
You have gone from posting excellent articles before the election to really quite sycophantic ones post the election. I hope you recover soon.

Andrew Nichols said...

It's just the 99 Winter of Discontent orchestrated scam all over again...designed to frighten a non Nat Govt away from clear election commitments.