To see ourselves as others see us

02/12/2020

When I read reports on Peter Goodfellow’s speech to the National party conference I wondered if the journalists and I had been at the same event.

All took the same extract where he spoke about the impact of Covid-19 on the political landscape. He gave credit where it was due but also spoke of the grandstand it gave the government and especially the Prime Minister, and he mentioned media bias.

The reports gave credence to the last point. From where I was sitting the whole speech, of which the extract was a small part, was well received by the audience. But all reports were negative, and many commentators said the listeners didn’t like it, which was definitely not the impression I got. Most were surprised, even critical, that Goodfellow retained the presidency given the election result.

None appeared to understand that the president wasn’t responsible for the self-inflicted damage by some MPs  nor that while party members elect the board it is the board members who elect the president.

They might have known that he had called for a review of the rules after the last election. They were not privy to the report on that by former leader Jim McClay which was delivered in committee,  greeted with applause and well received by everyone I spoke to afterwards.

But why would they let the positive get in the way of the negative if it fitted their bias?

Bias, what bias?

The non-partisan website Media Bias paints the New Zealand media landscape decidedly red.

The almost universal lack of criticism has been noticed by Nick Cater who said media ‘diversity’ is alive but not at all well in New Zealand:

. . . The media paradise Rudd craves looks somewhat like New Zealand, where inoffensive newspapers compete for drabness and commentators are all but united in adoration of Jacinda Ardern.

You’ll struggle to read a word of dissent in the four daily newspapers. Mike Hosking and some of his fellow presenters are prepared to break from the pack at Newstalk ZB, but that’s it. Retired ZB host Leighton Smith remains in the fray as a podcaster and columnist but, when it comes to broadcast media, Hosking is Alan Jones, Chris Kenny, Andrew Bolt, Peta Credlin and Paul Murray rolled into one.

If the columnist listened to Magic Talk he might add Peter Williams and Sean Plunket to those who challenge the pro-PM narrative. But these are few against the many whose reporting and commentary are rarely anything but positive about Ardern.

The only hint of irritation at the Prime Minister’s weekly press conference is that she isn’t running fast enough with her agenda of “transformational change”, the umbrella term for the righting of social injustices, including those yet to be invented.

Ardern’s decision to hold a referendum on the legalisation of cannabis was widely praised as another step on the path to sainthood. The proposal was rejected by 51.6 per cent of voters, prompting this exchange.

Media: “In terms of governing for all New Zealanders, you do have 48.4 per cent of New Zealanders who did vote for legalised cannabis.”

PM: “And the majority who didn’t, and so we have to be mindful of that, too.”

Media: “But you’ve promised to govern for all of those New Zealanders, including the 48.4 per cent who did … there is an appetite among an enormous section of the population for something. And obviously the referendum did fail, but it doesn’t mean … ”

Can we assume that because 48.9 per cent of Americans didn’t vote for Joe Biden, Donald Trump can stay in the White House? Or does the ballot only count when the left is winning?

Those with a more sophisticated understanding of liberal democracy than “Media” (the generic name ascribed to journalists in the transcript, presumably because they are all of one mind) may be feeling a little queasy.

A Prime Minister who tells voters she chose politics because it was a profession that “would make me feel I was making a difference”, and holds an absolute majority in the parliament’s only chamber, is an accident waiting to happen. An independent media should be the first responders in such circumstances, ready to erect barriers in the path of the Prime Minister, should she swerve across the line.

Yet the press pack are not merely on the bus, they are telling her how to drive it.

New Zealand’s small population and splendid isolation are part of the explanation for the enfeeblement of its media. Ardern’s sledgehammer response to the COVID-19 pandemic hastened the decline.

In May, Nine Entertainment let go of the newspapers it inherited from Fairfax, The Dominion Post, The Press and The Sunday Star-Times, for $1 to a company that goes by the name of Stuff. It seems like a bargain given the copy of the Post at the newsstand will set you back $2.90, hardly a vote of confidence in the future of NZ media.

Yet market size is only part of the explanation. It doesn’t explain why, for example, in a country split politically down the middle, 100 per cent of daily newspapers and virtually every TV and radio station stand proudly with Ardern.

We can only conclude that commercial logic no longer applies. Media companies are no longer driven by the pursuit of unserved segments in the market. It’s not the product that is faulty but the customer. When commercially minded proprietors leave the building, the journalists take charge. They are university-educated professionals cut from the same narcissistic cloth as Ardern. They, too, want to feel like they are making a difference.

With the collapse of NZ’s Fourth Estate it is difficult to see what might stop Ardernism becoming the country’s official religion. The National Party is in no position to offer effective political opposition. The party that reinvented credible government in NZ is bruised from two defeats, uncertain who should lead or in what direction it should head.

Intellectual opposition is all but extinguished in the universities, but still flickers on in alternative media, blogs, websites and YouTube channels, which serve as a faint beacon of dissent.

Is this what Rudd seeks? The last thing a country needs is a prime minister basking in applause who switches on the news and finds herself staring at the mirror.

Would today’s journalists and commentators be familiar with Robbie Burns who wrote:

O, wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us!

It wad frae monie a blunder free us,

An’ foolish notion.

If they are familiar with these words, would they attempt to see themselves as others see them and accept that not only are most biased but that it shows in their work?


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