NEALE JONES is to be congratulated. No, no – it’s alright – I haven’t hit my head. It is just that I have always believed in giving credit where credit is due – and Jones deserves a lot of credit. Had I been on the receiving end of Kathryn Ryan’s and Brigitte Morten’s right-wing tag team, as Jones was on RNZ’s Monday-morning Political Panel, I’m damn sure I wouldn’t have kept my cool as impressively as he did.
Ryan is usually a lot more circumspect in revealing her personal opinions than she was on Monday (14/2/22). That’s as it should be. Her role on the Panel is that of moderator – at least, one hopes that’s still her role! She is there to put the questions to the panellists and prevent them from interrupting, talking over one another, and generally attempting to dominate the discussion.
That is not what happened on Monday. Ryan threw herself, boots and all, into the debate over the protest blockade of Parliament. She interrupted, talked over, and – not to put too fine a point upon it – hectored Jones, to a degree that bordered on the unprofessional.
Unsurprisingly, Morten was quick to follow Ryan’s lead. She, too, interrupted and talked over Jones – seemingly with Ryan’s blessing.
Jones, however, remained unfazed by this blatant breech of the Political Panel’s rules of engagement. He stayed resolutely on-message, stoically refusing to let Ryan and Morten rattle him. He didn’t turn nasty. He didn’t lose his temper. He just kept on talking sense.
It would have helped the listeners immensely if his levels had been set to match those of the two women – then we wouldn’t have had to strain our ears to hear him. But on Monday morning everything seemed to be set against him.
The most intriguing aspect of the whole encounter was the political line taken by Ryan and Morten. Both women consistently refused to accept Jones’s argument that the protest was inspired by individuals and groups in the grip of outlandish conspiracy theories imported from the United States. Nor were they willing to accept the well-established Far Right provenance of these conspiracy theories. Throughout the half-hour Ryan and Morten attempted to paint the protest as the anguished cry of stressed-out Kiwi battlers determined to resist Government over-reach.
The fact that the so-called “Freedom Convoy” was always intended to establish a laager of motor vehicles within which a protest encampment in Parliament Grounds could be established and, more importantly, protected, in no way slowed Ryan and Morten down. They simply didn’t appear to be interested in exploring the strategic purpose of the Convoy’s organisers, or what lay behind their radical departure from the norms of New Zealand political protest.
Even more disturbing was the way they seemed to brush aside the unprecedented displays of aggression directed at New Zealand’s Members of Parliament and the Press Gallery. Wellington has witnessed many angry demonstrations in its history, but very few in which the rhetoric of at least some of the participants was explicitly homicidal. What was it that made Ryan and Morten so determined to re-focus the debate away from this deeply disturbing reality?
I couldn’t help being reminded of the Peter Ellis Case, where the most bizarre, outlandish, and obviously impossible accusations of the children interviewed were simply set to one side so as not to “prejudice” the jury. It simply didn’t suit whatever it was that Ryan and Morten were trying to do to have listeners reminded of the murderous fury directed by the protesters against politicians and journalists.
The least damaging explanation of Ryan’s behaviour is that she was overcompensating for what critics from the Far Right and the Far Left described as the Fourth Estate’s sneering, middle-class dismissal of the smelly protesters cluttering up its stately work environment. On-the-spot reports from intrepid Far Right and Far Left observers, reassuring New Zealanders that the overwhelming majority of the protesters were just ordinary Kiwis exercising their right to protest, have, as intended, shamed a number of mainstream journalists into revising their original stance. It’s possible Ryan is one of them.
Morten, however, is more than savvy enough to realise the damaging impact which the bad behaviour of the protesters, and the baffling failure of the Police to move them on, is having on the Government’s reputation. The longer the protest continues, and the longer the Government and the Police are seen to be standing by ineffectually, the better it is for the Opposition parties. Just because it would not be wise for Christopher Luxon to be seen taking the side of the occupiers, doesn’t mean that it is unwise for Morten to do everything she can to make it more difficult – from a PR perspective – for Labour and the Police to resolve the crisis.
The Jones boy, every bit as savvy as the Morten gal, knows this. Hence his dogged determination to keep his listeners’ minds focused on the true character of these latter-day “Freedom Riders”.
They are not honest toilers, they are people hell-bent on getting rid of the protections Labour has mandated to keep the real honest toilers safe. They do not have legitimate grievances – unless you reckon thwarting the sociopathic impulses of unvaccinated extremists constitutes a legitimate grievance. They are, however, people acting under the influence of individuals and groups with Far Right affiliations and aims. Scratch them, and you’ll bleed.
In summary, Neale Jones was not “smacked down” by Kathryn Ryan and Brigitte Morten. He was, however, interrupted, talked over, and made extremely difficult to hear. In spite of all these hindrances, he kept on fighting the good fight for close to half-an-hour with admirable clarity and forbearance. Unlike the other two participants in Monday’s Political Panel, Jones kept his focus on the dangerous realities of the protest taking place in and around Parliament Grounds.
For that he deserves our cheers – not our jeers.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 18 February 2022.