Cynics have cruelly likened journalists to mercenaries watching a battle from a safe position above the fray and only venturing down to the plains when it is clear who the victors are — and then bayoneting the wounded.
As 2022 draws to a close, it appears that the media has identified Jacinda Ardern’s government as critically injured and are sharpening their steel for slaughter in election year.
Heather du Plessis Allan has never been one to hold back but her interview last week on Newstalk ZB with Michael Wood was an extraordinary exhibition of disdain, if not contempt, towards a Cabinet minister. If it presages a growing trend of similar forthrightness by journalists in 2023, it will prove extremely difficult for the Labour Party in its election campaign.
Allan was relentless in pressing the Immigration Minister to explain why it had taken him seven months to allow nurses, midwives and doctors immigrating to New Zealand to get immediate residency.
Wood responded meekly and politely to her aggression, which seemed to only further enrage her.
When Allan said: “Here’s the thing, minister… You guys are either stupid or stubborn,” Wood replied, “Hmmm, well, you can hardly call us stubborn when what we’ve done over the last few months is to work with the sector and show a willingness to be pragmatic.”
Unfortunately, his reply left a tacit admission of stupidity hanging in the air.
She didn’t let up.
“We’ve got at least another 11 months of you guys before we can vote you out and frankly it’s got to the point where a lot of us want to do that!”
The conversation ended when she hung up on him.
It was an astonishingly brutal tongue-lashing on air but it’s hard not to suspect there will be much more of it in election year as the mainstream media reflects the intense frustration the public has with a government perversely determined to give them more of what they don’t want.
Whether it is the widely despised Three / Five Waters project (supported by only 23 per cent in a poll); the merger of RNZ and TVNZ (22 per cent support); the compulsory unemployment insurance scheme (35 per cent support), or adding religion to existing hate-speech laws (after earlier proposals had been roundly rejected), the government’s policy prescriptions read like one of the longest and most bizarre suicide notes ever produced by a government hoping for re-election.
Alongside this, it has failed to give many voters what they actually want — not least a tougher stance on crime, and better health care and public infrastructure.
Another damaging line of attack manifested itself a fortnight ago with Rachel Smalley accusing the Prime Minister on Today FM of dealing in misinformation — which is, of course, a euphemism for lying.
Ardern had claimed that her government had funded 200 new medicines since 2017, but Smalley said: “I can’t find the 200 medicines that you say the government has funded, Prime Minister. Not even close.”
According to Smalley’s calculations — even after generously including medicines the government has provided wider access to — the total couldn’t be more than 138.
The Prime Minister has always had a fraught relationship with the truth — a fact the mainstream media has been extremely reluctant to recognise or call out — so 2023 may be a lot more difficult for her than previous years if Smalley’s direct challenge to her dissembling becomes more common.
The more combative stance the media appears to be taking lately certainly represents a big change from the beginning of the year when most of the parliamentary Press Gallery — to its shame — obeyed the Speaker’s command not to meet and interview protesters on the lawns below. They stayed with their master to watch the action from the safety of Parliament’s ramparts.
Journalists and political analysts — including The Platform’s Sean Plunket and the Democracy Project’s Bryce Edwards — who went into the encampment to report from the frontlines were vilified simply for being faithful observers.
In fact, much of 2022 has been notable for the gulf widening between mainstream journalists and independent internet-based commentary.
Contentious issues such as allowing trans women in women’s sports; the closing of London’s Tavistock gender clinic over concerns over the safety of puberty blockers; matauranga Māori being given equal standing with science throughout our education system; the safety of the Pfizer vaccine, and climate change nostrums are just some of the topics routinely ignored — or presented as beyond criticism — on mainstream media sites, even as discussion about them rages on social and alternative media.
And that’s before journalists’ failure to comprehensively analyse Three Waters has been included.
The divide has echoes of that existing between samizdat publications in the Soviet Union (especially the East European bloc) and the state-approved media.
Samizdat — literally “self-publishing” in Russian — was a system in which individuals devised ingenious ways to secretly print banned or dissident material, often by hand. The documents were passed from reader to reader.
With the internet now available to instantly publish and distribute nonconformist points of view to big audiences, the mainstream media no longer enjoys its historical role as the principal gate-keeper of what voters are told. Nevertheless, it still has a powerful influence on how much the public gets to know about what its political masters are up to.
The inescapable fact, however, is that if you want to be well informed on many matters of importance to politics and policy in New Zealand you won’t get the full picture from the mainstream media. You’ll need to read, watch and listen to alternative media sites as well.
One of the biggest challenges for mainstream media in 2023 will be drumming up the courage to tackle head on the government’s push for what is commonly known as “co-governance” — which more often than not effectively means “iwi governance”, although mainstream journalists are rarely willing to say this openly.
As Jim Bolger told the NZ Herald’s Audrey Young last week — and repeated to Sean Plunket on The Platform — the Prime Minister really needs to explain what she understands by the term, and what the endgame is for New Zealand in implementing it.
Bolger told Young: “The uncertainty is leading to huge anxiety and anger, sadly… I don’t understand why the Prime Minister doesn’t stand up at one of her many press conferences and give clarity.”
Whether Ardern can actually articulate a coherent response to such questions is moot but the mainstream media really needs to push her and senior ministers hard to clarify what they intend.
Three Waters is a particularly egregious example of how slack the legacy media has been in dissecting the ramifications of co-governance — and where direct iwi governance kicks in.
Although there is co-governance prescribed at the overarching, strategic level of the four Regional Representative Groups, below that iwi influence dominates — particularly via the binding Te Mana o Te Wai statements (essentially edicts) that iwi and hapu can make at will.
Among the mainstream media, only Newstalk ZB has picked up on this, albeit belatedly. Those listening to The Platform or reading Thomas Cranmer’s excellent Substack, however, have been acquainted with these facts for the best part of six months.
A principal reason for the media’s reluctance to wade properly into the debate around co-governance may stem from a fear of being called racist — although laziness can’t be discounted either. The Three Waters legislation is devilishly complicated — and perhaps deliberately so.
Fear of being called racist is not an unfounded concern — given that Nanaia Mahuta herself has alleged racism to be the motivation for much criticism of Three Waters (including the entrenchment debacle in which she was intimately involved) and of the various government contracts granted to her husband and nephew and niece.
Last week, Simon Watts asked her in Parliament:
”How does she reconcile her statements that entrenchment was, I quote, ‘a mistake’, when she had received advice twice on it, including on the day of the debate and a month beforehand, and isn’t it really the case that this was no mistake, but a deliberate and calculated action?”
Against reason, Mahuta described his question as a “dog whistle”.
In response to allegations about valuable government contracts going to what she has described as her “talented whanau”, Mahuta was reported on Waatea News on October 31 as saying that people are seeing through a newspaper campaign highlighting the business interests of members of her whanau, and that the stories were driven by the desire of a journalist from another country who wants to make a name for herself.
Mahuta added that people know what racism looks and smells like.
Mahuta is widely believed to have been referring to the NZ Herald’s Kate MacNamara, who is originally from Ireland and who has written closely researched articles on the topic.
This was an extraordinary (and very Trumpian) attack by a minister that appears to be directed at an accomplished journalist whose work has appeared on media platforms as varied as the BBC, the Irish Times, and the Sydney Morning Herald — and who also happens to be an immigrant.
It’s clear that when Mahuta is under pressure she is very happy to deflect criticism by moving straight to accusations of racism.
Whether any mainstream journalists will have the courage to run that particular gauntlet of abuse over co-governance — ranging from the vitriol of progressives on social media to criticism by ministers of the Crown — remains to be seen.
Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore. This article was first published at The Platform