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Karl du Fresne: When political journalism morphs into crude emotional blackmail

Broadcaster Sean Plunket might have been taken aback to discover he was the subject of the second item on Newshub’s 6pm news bulletin a few nights ago. Then again maybe it was no surprise, given that few people are more keenly aware than Plunket of the mainstream media’s eagerness to marginalise – even demonise – anyone who challenges ideological orthodoxy. His key purpose in setting up his online site The Platform, after all, was to counter the ceaseless barrage of woke indoctrination from media outlets that have abandoned journalism for activism.



On this occasion Newshub not only decided that Plunket’s supposedly heretical opinion about the Christchurch mosque massacres was the second most important news item of the day, but that it was a matter of such gravity and national importance that it justified taking up nearly three and a half minutes of the bulletin.



It didn’t matter that a large number of Newshub’s viewers had probably never heard of Plunket and would have been scratching their heads wondering what the hell political editor Jenna Lynch’s garbled and overheated report was all about. Plunket is well-known in media and political circles but his public profile, especially beyond Wellington, is limited. Moreover, he doesn't hold a position of public responsibility; he's a private-sector media presenter and commentator with a relatively small audience. But the reason this obviously didn’t matter to Newshub was that conventional news judgment didn’t enter the equation. This was not a news story but a carefully orchestrated hit job, the clear purpose of which was to hector politicians into declaring they wouldn’t appear on The Platform again.



In other words the bigger objective was to torpedo one of New Zealand’s few outlets for legitimate voices of dissent. Plunket should take it as a great compliment that he’s considered such a threat that a far bigger, more powerful rival wants to shut him down. He must be getting traction.



And what was the egregious act that justified Plunket being presented as some sort of public enemy – a man whose views are supposedly so offensive that Lynch effectively insisted that politicians shun him?



He said the mosque killer was not a terrorist. While this is an opinion not widely shared, it’s hardly a capital crime. As far as I’m aware Plunket hasn’t sought to excuse, diminish or justify what Brenton Tarrant did. That would justifiably have prompted outrage, but Plunket has acknowledged that Tarrant was a mass murderer and described his crime as heinous.



He just doesn’t think Tarrant meets the definition of a terrorist. It would have been helpful if he had expanded on that by explaining his understanding of the word. But the important point here is that Plunket has said nothing that minimised the enormity of what Tarrant did. It appears to come down to an argument about language: was it an act of terrorism or one of mass murder by someone who, although held to be clinically sane, would be categorised by many people as deranged?



For what it’s worth, I disagree with Plunket on this. But I was curious to understand his reasoning, so I asked him to explain it to me. And while most people might challenge his take on the mosque massacres, his view is one that can be legitimately held.



Plunket sees parallels with the Aramoana massacre perpetrated by David Gray in 1990, which he reported as a 25-year-old journalist. He points out that both crimes were committed by socially isolated men – lone wolves – with access to guns. Another common factor which he thinks is significant is that they had no familial relationships to keep them grounded. (Both of Gray’s parents had died; Tarrant’s had split up).



He says there was no obvious reason for Gray’s actions and while Tarrant wrote a manifesto, it wasn’t a coherent political statement. (Plunket says he hasn’t read the manifesto but has spoken to people who have.) In his own words, they were both nutters with a gun.



The standard definition of a terrorist is someone who commits violent acts in pursuit of ideological or political goals. Plunket obviously believes Tarrant didn’t match that definition. He prefers the term mass murderer.



More controversially, Plunket asserts that Tarrant wasn’t racist and he wasn’t anti-Muslim. “He just wanted to kill people and create chaos”. The government, he says, made Tarrant a terrorist for political reasons – to justify restrictions on freedom of expression under the guise of preventing hate speech.



The problem I have with that interpretation is that regardless of whether Tarrant’s manifesto was garbled and incoherent (and I haven’t read it either), there appeared to be a clear ideological motivation for the massacres. For all that Tarrant may have had in common with Gray, this vital factor distinguished the mosque killings from Aramoana.



After all, why else would Tarrant have targeted Muslims? For argument’s sake, he could just as easily have killed Mormons, Catholics or members of the Destiny Church – or come to that, spectators at a sporting event or people milling around in an airport terminal. But he carefully sought out Muslim temples; he knew where they were and what time worshippers would be there. That makes him a terrorist.



So I think Plunket is wrong on this. The judge who presided over Tarrant’s trial would doubtless say so too. Justice Mander described the shootings as a terrorist act and said Tarrant’s ideological motivation was readily apparent.



Nonetheless, Plunket is entitled to think otherwise. In a free society we are entitled to get things wrong and to hold opinions that other people vehemently disagree with, just as long as we don’t incite violence or harm.



That brings us to the nub of this issue. The real outrage here is not Plunket’s opinion, but Lynch’s attempt – condoned if not encouraged by her bosses at Newshub – to shut him down. That’s a flagrant misuse of media power and an attack on free speech.



Lynch, who is shaping up to be as malignant as her predecessor, Tova O’Brien, commenced her piece by referring to Plunket as a “shock jock” – woke code for any broadcaster the illiberal left doesn’t approve of. Her item included a brief comment from the sister of a massacre victim who appeared dismayed that anyone could think the shooter wasn’t a terrorist and who said she didn’t want politicians “enabling” voices like Plunket’s. (I immediately wondered whether she had come forward of her own accord or been approached by Lynch. Plunket told me Lynch admitted to him that it was the latter.)



Then Lynch ambushed Chris Hipkins, Christopher Luxon and David Seymour, all of whom have been interviewed by Plunket, effectively challenging them to declare that they wouldn’t appear again on The Platform – the implication being that if they didn’t comply, they would be endorsing someone who was in denial of what happened in Christchurch. It was a crude form of emotional blackmail, played out in full public view.



Lynch even tried to draw in Jacinda Ardern, clearly hoping for a prime ministerial directive that her ministers should boycott Plunket, but all she got from the prime minister was a snide crack about not wanting to get involved in a “misguided publicity stunt”. Unfortunately this throwaway line was aimed at Plunket when it could have been more accurately applied to Lynch.



Lynch must have been bitterly disappointed that Plunket refused to back down when confronted with his supposed heresy, and indeed doubled and then tripled down (Lynch’s words) by repeating it, to her apparent astonishment. Plunket obviously hasn’t read the rule book. Ego-driven political journalists with a distorted sense of their own authority aren’t accustomed to their intended victims standing up to them. They prefer to extract a grovelling mea culpa and claim a scalp to hang on their belts – and all too often that’s the outcome. But not on this occasion.



It was an abuse of media power as naked and explicit as any I’ve seen, and a striking demonstration of the threat posed to free speech by activists posing as political journalists. Lynch ended her piece by speaking live to camera with a patronising and vaguely threatening remark that “politicians should proceed with caution here” – in other words, they should think very carefully before dealing with Plunket. But the day our elected representatives take their cue from hubris-afflicted media assassins like Lynch will be the day democracy can be declared irrevocably dead.



Disclosure: The Platform occasionally re-publishes posts from this blog free of charge and I have been interviewed by Plunket and another of his presenters, Rodney Hide. I have no other association with Sean Plunket or The Platform.


This article was published at Karl du Fresne's blog

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