Golden Girl: Jacinda Ardern's extraordinary popularity poses a serious problem for the news media. What social and political influence it retains is based largely on its representation of itself as the public’s first and most reliable line of defence against the banality, venality and downright stupidity of elected politicians. But how does that work when the public suddenly decides that some politicians are actually pretty damn good?
JACINDA ARDERN poses a deeply perplexing problem for the New Zealand news media. Her determination to remain “relentlessly positive” runs directly counter to contemporary journalism’s reflexive negativity towards all things political. Especially alarming for the so-called “mainstream” media is the fact that Ardern’s “sunny ways” are working. Her positive, “let’s do this” strategy has rekindled a hitherto deeply alienated population’s interest in politics. Her own, and Labour’s, reward has been rapidly rising levels of public support.
This clear popular endorsement of Ardern’s political tactics places the media in a difficult position. What social and political influence it retains is based largely on its representation of itself as the public’s first and most reliable line of defence against the banality, venality and downright stupidity of elected politicians. Without us, say the media, there would be no one to protect you from all this despicable trickery and all these terrible lies. You may not like us, but, by God, you need us!
It’s a strategy that remains viable only for as long as their viewers, listeners and readers can be persuaded that all politicians are, indeed, the self-serving predators upon the public purse that the news media proclaims them to be.
Nowhere is this strategy more in evidence than in the interviewing techniques of the twenty-first century broadcaster. Gone are the days when interviewers asked open-ended questions of politicians and then allowed them the time to make their case for or against a particular policy. Today’s interviewers prefer the role of the People’s Prosecutor: aggressive cross-examiner of “the accused” – i.e. the politicians – whose job it is to expose the latter’s invariably evil intentions for everyone to see.
Crucial to the success of this technique is the practice of interrupting and talking-over the interviewee. The last thing these “People’s Prosecutors” want is for the politician to deliver a clear and persuasive argument to the “jury”. Trial by media falls squarely into the tradition of the show trial – not the fair trial.
But what if the politician in the media dock has already become the people’s champion before the trial begins? In those circumstances, prosecutor becomes persecutor, and the audience bridles with indignation and disgust at what they, quite correctly, regard as the unfair persecution of their hero – or heroine. If the journalistic persecution persists, the politician’s popularity will not only be boosted, but he or she will also be given the opportunity to cast the offending journalists as “enemies of the people”.
For those with the wit to see it, the example is there in the person of Donald Trump. The US president has effectively inoculated himself against the attacks of the mainstream “liberal” media. Nothing it can do or say has the slightest impact on Trump’s electoral base. He has succeeded in persuading “ordinary Americans” that their White House champion is the victim of “fake news”: untrue stories manufactured by the “lying media” in order to prevent him from “Making America Great Again”.
Although Jacinda Ardern is a thousand miles away from being a Donald Trump, she already enjoys the benefits of a very similar sort of media inoculation. Placing her in the dock and treating her like some sort of dangerous criminal: interrupting her replies and talking-over her every attempt to explain her party’s policies will serve only to make her even more popular in the eyes of a politically reinvigorated electorate.
Clearly, this was an important factor in Mike Hosking’s moderation of the first Leaders’ Debate. He was extremely careful to be an equal opportunity interrupter and talker-over. He simply could not (and, to his credit, did not) appear to be treating one of the contenders like a hero and the other like a zero. The very pleasing result was a debate in which rather than being accused and denounced, both politicians were given the opportunity to reveal themselves.
Neither contender emerged entirely unsullied by their own testimony.
Paddy Gower, moderator of the next Leaders’ Debate, would do well to follow his colleague’s example. The essence of being a good interviewer is to so conduct oneself journalistically that the qualities of the interviewee emerge naturally. If Bill English and Jacinda Ardern possess what it takes to be a good prime minister, then that will very quickly become evident in the depth and persuasiveness of their answers to the moderator’s questions.
It is neither the place, nor the right, of the news media to crucify politicians on behalf of the voting public. The journalist’s job is to give our political leaders just enough rope to hang themselves – or not. The only enemy Jacinda should have to be wary of is herself.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 2 September 2017.