Sacrificial Lamb: If the stories about Mr Taogaga and the unauthorised release of confidential medical data had been deliberately orchestrated by Labour’s political opponents, their deflection of the news media’s attention away from the Prime Minister’s address to the Labour Party Congress could hardly have been more successful.
THE LABOUR PARTY delisted Kurt Taogaga for one very simple, very brutal, reason: to appease the mainstream news media. The party was pulling out all the stops to generate as many positive news stories as possible from the Prime Minister’s speech to Labour’s election year congress. Had Mr Taogaga not been purged, his presence on the Party List would have completely overshadowed Jacinda’s speech. By delisting him, Labour’s President, Claire Szabo, demonstrated the seriousness with which the party responds to the slightest hint of Islamophobia. It staunched the wound which Newshub-Nation had very deliberately inflicted on the party. Political triage of this sort is never pretty but, sadly, it is necessary.
The journalistic decision-making that went into the Taogaga story is also rather ugly. Given the skeletal nature of Newshub’s current staffing arrangements, it is hard to see any of its reporters having the time to trawl through Labour’s entire Party List for embarrassing social media postings from several years ago. That’s the sort of job a parliamentary staffer might be tasked with on the off-chance that something politically useful might turn up. Which, in this case, it did.
It is worth emphasising how useful Mr Taogaga’s social media commentary was to the Government’s enemies. A very substantial part of Jacinda Ardern’s dazzling political persona is attributable to her deeply empathic response to the Christchurch mosque shootings. The viral image of Jacinda, hugging in a headscarf, rocked the entire world – it was even projected on the Burg Khalifa. The damage done to her reputation, should she fail to move immediately against a Party List candidate found to have posted anti-Islamic sentiments on social media, is easily imagined. Instant cauterisation of the media-inflicted wound was the only viable option.
If Newshub was tipped-off by a parliamentary source, it raises the question: should they have allowed themselves to be used to inflict political damage on the Government? After all, Mr Taogaga’s indiscretion (if that is what it was) took place seven years ago in 2013. What’s more, his comments were made well before he became involved in Labour Party politics. What were the ethics of using information this old to almost certainly destroy a young man’s political career? What should the producer of Newshub-Nation done?
In another era of current affairs broadcasting, she would, at the very least, have made an effort to put Mr Taogaga’s comments in context.
Between 2012 and 2013 the number of deaths from terrorism had increased by 61 percent. In 10,000 terrorist attacks 17,958 people had been killed. According to the BBC: “Five countries - Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria - accounted for 80% of the deaths from terrorism in 2013. More than 6,000 people died in Iraq alone.” Just four terrorist groups were responsible for the deaths of two-thirds of 2013’s nearly 18,000 terrorist victims: Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram and the self-styled Islamic State. The Global Terrorism Index reported that: “All four groups used ‘religious ideologies based on extreme interpretations of Wahhabi Islam’.”
This was the context in which the NZ First MP, Richard Prosser, wrote his infamous “Wogistan” article. The article which Mr Taogaga somewhat naively endorsed. The anti-Islamic mood of the times was further heightened by the terrorist attacks launched against European targets – especially against the staff of Charlie Hebdo and the audience at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris – over the course of the next two years.
Responsible journalists will always strive to contextualise statements like Mr Taogaga’s, lest the passions and fashions of the present are unfairly and anachronistically projected back onto the past.
Unfortunately, current affairs producers and their staff no longer have the time to do the right thing. They are acutely aware that if they are not prepared to use leaked information, more or less immediately, then it will be passed on to somebody who is. These sort of pressures play directly into the hands of parliamentary research teams and their political masters. It makes it almost impossible for the mainstream news media to do anything other than act as a conduit for information likely to prove useful to the Government’s enemies. If they don’t use it – they lose it.
Mr Taogaga also suffered from the coincidence (if that is what it was) of the unauthorised release of confidential Ministry of Health information. Just hours before his own story had found its way into journalists’ hands, Radio NZ, Stuff and NZME had all been supplied with the names, ages, addresses and current locations of 18 individuals who had recently tested positive for Covid-19. This was a truly appalling breach of patient confidentiality, which senior Government ministers seemed pretty sure was malicious – and quite possibly criminal. Their urgent need to deal with this problem left them no time to deal with media accusations that Labour was harbouring Islamophobes. They had witnessed the damage done to the reputation of the British Labour Party by media accusations of antisemitism. Better to be safe than sorry.
If the stories about Mr Taogaga and the unauthorised release of confidential medical data had been deliberately orchestrated by Labour’s political opponents, their deflection of the news media’s attention away from the Prime Minister’s address to the Labour Party Congress could hardly have been more successful. If the woman who broke out of quarantine on Saturday – instantly commandeering the top slots of both 6:00pm news bulletins on Sunday night – turns out to be a fervent supporter of the Parliamentary Opposition, who would really be surprised?
Editors and producers must know when they are being used for political purposes – and by whom. This raises an important question: in protecting their journalistic “sources”, are the media also protecting the shadowy teams of political operatives and their bureaucratic helpers who, by fair means or foul, supply the information? Equally importantly, are these same editors and producers “equal-opportunity” political facilitators? Is the Left, when it is in Opposition, always offered the same consideration and protection from those who own and run the mainstream media as the Right?
In forty years of covering politics in New Zealand I can only recall one period in which the whole of the mainstream news media was lined-up to keep Labour in office, and that was between 1984 and 1987. Everyone who mattered in television, radio and the daily press were determined to see the programme of David Lange and Roger Douglas succeed. Is it significant that for those three years Labour’s economic policies were further to the right than National’s? What do you think?
Mr Taogaga shouldn’t feel too bad. His was a personal sacrifice. Between 1984 and 1987, to keep their newfound mainstream media friends onside, Labour was willing to throw the entire New Zealand working-class under a bus.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 7 July 2020.