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KARL DU FRESNE: Suddenly, the media are unimportant - and it hurts

I sometimes wonder whether political reporters ever pause to think how precious and entitled their behaviour looks to outsiders.


I doubt it. They are too self-absorbed.


Right now, members of the parliamentary press gallery are feeling peevish. After feasting for years on a rich banquet of political news and sensation, they suddenly find themselves on starvation rations. And they’re not taking it well.


Post-election, everything has come to a dead halt. We are in the customary hiatus period when the leaders of the successful parties disappear from public view to conduct their horse-trading.


As an aside, this is one of the downsides of MMP that no one talks about. Ironically, an electoral system that was supposed to encourage transparency had the reverse effect.


When coalition talks begin, all bets are off. The politicians disappear behind closed doors and all the pledges and promises solemnly made on the campaign trail are up for negotiation. Voters can’t see what’s going on and have no influence over the outcome.


Inscrutability comes with the territory. It’s what we voted for in the early 1990s when we decided to punish politicians - you may permit yourself a rueful grin here - for breaking promises and not being honest about their intentions. But it frustrates the hell out of the media.


Thus we get moments of exquisite preciousness from people such as NewstalkZB’s Jason Walls, whose pride was wounded when Christopher Luxon said he wouldn’t indulge in “parlour games” with the media over the substance of coalition talks.


This, Walls pronounced with no trace of self-awareness, was “terrifically offensive … it’s actually called reporting the news to the New Zealand public.”


Er, no it’s not. You can’t report news when there is none. When the details of a formal coalition arrangement have been hammered out, we’ll be told. Until then the players are bound to play their cards close to their chests. It’s not an ideal set of circumstances, but that’s the way it is.


It's not, however, what the media are accustomed to. They’re conditioned to expect that politicians will bend over backwards to humour them (Winston Peters being a standout exception), and for once, just for a few weeks, the shoe is on the other foot.


Walls’ indignation indicates his apparent failure to accept that after being indulged by politicians for the past three years – and never more intensively than during the election campaign, when the need for favourable public exposure is greatest – the media are suddenly unimportant. The politicians don’t need them right now; in fact the media just get in the way.


It’s a tough adjustment for political journalists to make, but do I feel sorry for them? No, and I doubt there’ll be much public sympathy either. (Incidentally, where did Walls get that weird accent? It’s unlike any I’ve ever heard.)


TVNZ’s Jessica Mutch-McKay was another who pompously played the journalists-as-noble-guardians-of-the-public-interest card. Shayne Currie reports today that Mutch-McKay lectured Luxon at a media stand-up, telling him: “You talk about your negotiations and you’ve done a lot before [sic].


“This is very different because you are an elected prime minister. We are the Fourth Estate that represents the public and it feels like you’re treating us like we’re the ones that are hyped up.


“We’re not, we’re the ones asking on behalf of the public, who have [an] interest in what’s going on. Can you see where we’re coming from?”


This appeal to Luxon’s sense of public obligation might have some moral weight if (a) he had anything substantive to announce and (b) if all members of the press gallery were consistent and conscientious about fulfilling their own obligation to inform the public fully and fairly on matters of public interest. But the media have squandered whatever moral authority they might once have enjoyed through a pattern of partisan, highly selective and often embarrassingly petty political reportage.


That the election has disrupted the normal relationship between politicians and the media was evident in other ways too – almost comically in the case of veteran West Coast Labour MP and cabinet minister Damien O’Connor when he was ambushed by a media pack eager to know whether the party leadership was likely to change.


Accosted on his way to the toilet during a Labour caucus meeting, O’Connor told a reporter to fuck off. I wonder how often MPs from both sides of the House have desperately wanted to say that, or a variant thereof, when bailed up and asked asinine questions.


On this occasion the normally amiable O’Connor, doubtless feeling out of sorts after losing his seat, didn’t hold back. On RNZ’s Midweek Mediawatch, Hayden Donnell noted the irony that for once, a politician gave a heartfelt response to a question rather than rehearsing formulaic, pre-prepared lines, and copped a media backlash as a result.


If only more politicians could be so viscerally honest occasionally. I don’t think the public would think less of them. If anything, quite the reverse.


Astonishingly, O’Connor was stopped again on his way back from the dunny. This illustrates a striking characteristic of the press gallery media pack: a sort of dull, brutish insensitivity and sense of entitlement that’s manifested in oafish rudeness and a failure to recognise that continuing to ask the same questions, when a response is clearly not forthcoming, is stupid as well as pointless. The pack mentality - the excitement of the chase - takes over and common sense takes flight.


We saw the same phenomenon when reporters pursued Peters through Wellington Airport, peppering him with fatuous questions that he obviously wasn’t going to dignify with an answer.


Of course it’s often the case in such instances that reporters are far less interested in obtaining a genuinely useful morsel of information than in simply provoking a reaction. TV viewers watching the news realise this, which does nothing to lift journalists off the bottom rungs of the public respect scale. I don't think political journalists realise just how cynically they are regarded by the public. They are immune in their bubble.


Another testy exchange took place between Newshub’s Amelia Wade and Helen White, the new Labour MP (for the time being, at least) for Mt Albert. Wade was gratuitously provocative, asking White whether she was embarrassed by the result in her electorate (where Jacinda Ardern’s 22,000 majority in 2020 was cut to a mere 106 on election night) and more bluntly, “How did you do so badly?”


This appeared to be a classic case of a question being asked in the hope that it will goad the respondent into an injudicious (and therefore bulletin-leading) response. I suspect Newshub’s political journalists are under standing instructions to take this approach.


The confrontation between White and Wade illustrated another immutable verity of political journalism. When you’re a predator, all wounded politicians, regardless of their party affiliations, make irresistibly tempting prey. In that respect, if in no other, political reporters tend to be impeccably even-handed.


This in turn points to an even bigger truth: the media always win. They just shift their targets as circumstances dictate.


Unlike politicians who must submit themselves for re-election, journalists are not held accountable and almost invariably escape punishment when they get things wrong. They have no skin in the game and nothing personally at stake. They create their scandals-du-jour and move on, rarely pausing to look back.


Power without responsibility, the British prime minister Stanley Baldwin famously called it (although credit for the phrase is given to his cousin, Rudyard Kipling). Or to paraphrase a cynical British writer: journalists hide in the hills while the fighting rages, then come down and bayonet the wounded.


That being said, it’s important to state that not all political journalists are egotistical, feckless sensation-hunters. The harm is done by those who hunt as a pack, and more especially by those who play the alpha predator at media stand-ups and thus tend to be most in the public eye. To those more traditional political reporters who are conscientious and committed to the values and principles of good journalism, I apologise now for slurring them by association.



Karl du Fresne, journalist and former Dominion editor blogs here

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