TWO-THIRDS of all New Zealanders, and three-quarters of all Aucklanders told pollsters that Covid-19 had influenced their Christmas holiday plans. It is difficult to think of a more moving recognition of New Zealand’s citizens’ love and respect for one another. Unquestionably, the Covid-19 Pandemic has brought out the very best in this country.
The greatest tragedy of 2021 is that this astonishing demonstration of collective empathy and public-spiritedness was often overshadowed by the behaviour of the most ignorant and selfish among us. That the worst in New Zealand was amplified and, to a worrying degree, encouraged by the news media must rank as the second greatest tragedy.
In journalism, context is everything. If the actions of individuals and groups are not set properly in the context that gave rise to them, then they are liable to serious misinterpretation. It says a great deal about the quality and the intentions of New Zealand journalists that context was conspicuous by its absence from so many of 2021’s stories.
To hear senior journalists, day after day, question small business owners in the tourism and hospitality sectors about the impact of the Covid regulations on their hopes, dreams and bank-balances, was worse than infuriating: it generated mistrust and suspicion. No intelligent person was unaware of the impact of the Pandemic on businesses large and small. No compassionate person could fail to feel genuine sympathy for the predicament of their owners. But to hear journalists present these folk’s situation as if it was the result of malign and/or maladroit Government actions, couldn’t help but raise serious questions about the media’s intentions.
Only rarely did journalists balance their reporting by offering their readers, listeners and viewers the more obvious counterfactual arguments. One almost never heard them asking business spokespeople if they were promoting the withdrawal of all anti-Covid protections at the border. In the endless media advocacy for a relaxation of the MIQ regime, it was, similarly, extremely rare to hear a journalist remind those complaining that, very early-on in the Pandemic, the Prime Minister had advised travellers that they ventured overseas at their own risk, and that a timely and trouble-free return to New Zealand could in no way be guaranteed by the Government.
That the lines of questioning followed by many leading journalists so often paralleled closely the attack-lines of the Opposition parties did not go unnoticed by their readers, listeners and viewers. Those same Opposition parties would, of course, be quick to reject such claims – pointing to the extremely supportive reporting of the Governing parties’ actions throughout the first year of the Pandemic. The possibility that such positivity was no more than an accurate reflection of New Zealand’s outstanding performance in combatting the Coronavirus never seemed to occur to them.
Clearly, given its conduct over the last 12 months, that possibility never occurred to the mainstream news media either. It seemed at times that, among the upper echelons of the principal media outlets, a consensus had been reached that journalists had been far too easy on the Government in 2020, and that a much tougher approach was required in 2021. Certainly, the simultaneous release, by major media outlets, of the former Prime Minister’s, John Key’s, “smug hermit kingdom” commentary, did little to allay citizens’ fears that the mainstream media was “out to get” Jacinda Ardern’s government.
As New Zealand underwent the inevitable transition from the strategy of Covid elimination to the strategy of mass vaccination, the news media’s newfound hostility towards the Government couldn’t help but augment and intensify the hostility and suspicion of those New Zealanders who, for a whole host of reasons, did not want to be vaccinated. While it is certainly not the case that journalists were “anti-vax”, the often quite truculent scepticism contained in their reporting reinforced the much deeper hostility and suspicion of the anti-vaxxers.
Not that mainstream journalism’s readiness to criticise the Government’s handling of the Pandemic in any way endeared them to the anti-vaccination movement. It remains an article of faith among anti-vaxxers that the Government and the news media are willing co-conspirators, hellbent on aiding the global assault, masterminded by perverted billionaires, on the rights and freedoms of ordinary people.
What can be said, however, is that the media-generated climate of aggressive scepticism, combined with the anti-vaxxers feverish exhibitions of anger and hate, contributed significantly to the febrile atmosphere enveloping New Zealand in 2021. The observation that the nation was fast becoming unrecognisable became a commonplace in conversations across the country. Those old enough to recall the bitter divisions of the Springbok Tour, declared the country’s mood to be much, much worse.
What made it all so much harder to fathom was that the media outlets they trusted to tell them the truth about the world seemed either unable or unwilling to acknowledge what every intelligent New Zealander knew: that their country was doing incredibly well.
The economy was among the best performing in the OECD. Unemployment was at record lows. The nation’s hospitals continued to function. Most importantly, the number of New Zealanders who had died from Covid-19 remained comfortably below one hundred.
In the Age of the Internet, all these facts were available to Kiwis at the touch of a keyboard. And yet, for Opposition politicians, businesses spokespeople, talkback hosts, newspaper columnists, editors and their teams of reporters, it was as though none of these extraordinary achievements were of any consequence.
Had all the country’s politicians and journalists lost their minds?
Sometimes, it almost seemed as though they had. It was as if a vital memorandum had been circulated, detailing a number of profoundly important changes. Specifically: the name of the country was being changed from ‘New Zealand’ to ‘Aotearoa’, and the country’s major cities were undergoing a similar transformation. In spite of the fact that they had all been built by and for the Pakeha settlers of Aotearoa-New Zealand: and named for their homelands, leaders and heroes; henceforth they would bear Māori names. Much more importantly, the nation’s constitutional arrangements were to be fundamentally revised in order to better reflect a democratically unmandated interpretation of te Tiriti o Waitangi.
When, and on whose authority, this memo and its unsettling contents was released, remains a mystery to the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders. The mystery only deepens when those same Kiwis discover that, in spite of the memo obviously being received by politicians, public servants, journalists and business leaders, the rest of the population were not included on the circulation list.
In spite of this glaring sin of democratic omission; the failings of the mainstream news media; and the increasingly toxic behaviour of the anti-vaxxers; the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders – as evidenced by the 90 percent+ of eligible citizens who ensured that they were double-jabbed – did not falter in their solidarity to one another, nor in their collective determination to defeat the Covid-19 virus and its variants.
These past twelve months have confirmed the fundamental decency, resilience, solidarity and compassion of the ordinary New Zealander. Which is why the 2021 prize for: The Most Significant Participant in National Affairs; belongs, unquestionably, to the sorely-tried, long-suffering, but ultimately unbeaten – and unbeatable – People of New Zealand.
An earlier version of this essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 20 December 2021.