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ANANISH CHAUDHURI: Winston Peters has a point about media bias

Winston Peters has suggested that mainstream media were “bribed” by the previous Labour government. Members of the media are outraged.

Peters, true to form, is being provocative.

I don’t think Peters’ strident tone helps. If Peters wants to get through, then a more diplomatic approach may be better. Aggressiveness merely gets people’s backs up and prevents circumspection.

But Peters does have a point.

The facts are clear. The last government provided a lot of handouts to struggling media companies. The Public Interest Journalism Fund is a part of it. Evidence suggests that the Labour government paid TVNZ and Stuff for advertisements that were designed to feature content with hand-picked experts on topics like climate change. A TVNZ staff member commented that while it is standard practice for governments to advertise, putting those advertisements inside of programming as news content in television shows was “unorthodox.”

While “bribery” may be too strong, the evidence does suggest unusual symbiosis between the Labour Government and the mainstream media. Many in the media came to think of Labour Party policies as “their” policy, ones they felt compelled to defend.

Nowhere was this more apparent than when it came to our government’s misguided and overwrought pandemic response.

There are many examples but let me highlight one incidence of this strange nexus between the government and media.

In late 2021, after promising that the Covid vaccine was not going to be mandatory, Jacinda Ardern’s government did an about face and decided to impose a vaccine mandate, which ended up being deeply divisive and problematic.

When the vaccine mandate was introduced, there was no specified target in the sense that we were not told what level of vaccine take-up would lead to a removal of Covid restrictions.

Enter the New Zealand Herald, which announced a campaign for 90% vaccination by Christmas 2021!

It is important to understand that to get to 90% of the population we needed to vaccinate both adults and children. Leaving aside the fraught nature of vaccine mandates for adults, the rush to vaccinate minors (those less than 15 years old) was singularly misguided.

Here is what the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) had to say about this at the time.

“The available evidence indicates that the individual health benefits from COVID-19 vaccination are small in those aged 12 to 15 years who do not have underlying health conditions which put them at risk of severe COVID-19. The potential risks from vaccination are also small, with reports of post-vaccination myocarditis being very rare, but potentially serious and still in the process of being described. Given the rarity of these events and the limited follow-up time of children and young people with post-vaccination myocarditis, substantial uncertainty remains regarding the health risks associated with these adverse events.

Overall, the committee is of the opinion that the benefits from vaccination are marginally greater than the potential known harms (tables 1 to 4) but acknowledges that there is considerable uncertainty regarding the magnitude of the potential harms. The margin of benefit, based primarily on a health perspective, is considered too small to support advice on a universal programme of vaccination of otherwise healthy 12 to 15-year-old children at this time. As longer-term data on potential adverse reactions accrue, greater certainty may allow for a reconsideration of the benefits and harms. Such data may not be available for several months.”

The margin of benefit, based primarily on a health perspective, is considered too small to support advice on a universal programme of vaccination of otherwise healthy 12 to 15-year-old children at this time.

Later on, of course, part of the vaccine mandate for police and defence forces was deemed unjustified by the High Court.

But, once the Herald announced that 90% vaccination target, this effectively became public policy, and everyone started working toward this goal.

It is hard to believe that there was absolutely no communication between the government and the Herald in setting this target.

But suppose there was not. Is this a suitable role for a newspaper, setting public policy goals for the country? Did the Herald have any expertise in determining whether the vaccine mandate made sense? Was a Covid vaccine justified in a country that does not routinely mandate other vaccines such as for measles? Did it make sense from a health perspective? Was it legal? Was it moral? Did it abrogate the Bill of Rights?

The role of the media is supposed to be to hold governments to account. But, far from asking questions of those in power, the Herald was not only defending the government’s policy, but it was also, in this case, essentially formulating policy on the government’s behalf.

Methinks the media doth protest too much. Their outrage stems from the fact that deep inside they know that there is a kernel of truth in Peters’ allegations; that whatever the reason, the media’s independence and integrity took a hit during the Ardern years. Peters’ reservations are shared widely and the media leaders disregard this dissatisfaction at their own peril.

Ananish Chaudhuri, PhD. Professor of Experimental Economics | University of Auckland

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