In a key scene in Almost Famous, legendary music critic Lester Bangs offers the aspiring rock journalist some advice. The rock stars he wants to write about “are not your friends”, no matter how many drinks they buy you. “These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories.” Fake friends, he warns.
The same can be said of politicians and journalists. In this case, though, the fake friends are more often the journalists.
I warned, some time ago, of the folly of politicians cultivating journalists as friends and admirers. It’s a cynical relationship, both ways: politicians exploit the media as unpaid publicists; the media turn like pack dogs on their one-time idols the instant they smell political blood in the water.
At the time, I pointed the warning at Jacinda Ardern, using Kevin Rudd as the example. Like Rudd in Australia, the relationship between Ardern and the NZ media is a sleazy symbiosis between two narcissistic manipulators. But, sooner or later, the media turn – and viciously.
It seems that my warning was premature – probably because I didn’t allow for the shocking lack of media diversity in New Zealand, where the only differences are how far left the mainstream outlets are. So the echo chamber is left to clang, uninterrupted.
But, sooner or later, the old echoes die and a new one starts. The first, faint tinklings of change may be ringing in the NZ media.
From the moment she took office in 2017, Jacinda Ardern promised her government would be the most open and transparent New Zealand has seen.
In her first formal speech to Parliament she pledged: “This government will foster a more open and democratic society. It will strengthen transparency around official information.”
Ardern also promised to build 100,000 homes and light rail down Dominion Rd, a capital gains tax, to end the housing crisis and lift children out of poverty. How have those worked out?
About as well as that openness and transparency.
Since then the number of faceless communications specialists has skyrocketed. The Government’s iron grip on the control of information has tightened.
And it is now harder than ever to get information.
This year, I have made more complaints to the Ombudsman than in any previous year. So far, every one has been upheld.
In my 20-year plus time as a journalist, this Government is one of the most thin-skinned and secretive I have experienced. Many of my colleagues say the same.
Vance goes further, calling Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, “paranoid and hyper-sensitive”. She also snipes at Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi as “cynical and obstructive”. Vance details how the government obstructs journalists by dragging their heels on OIA requests and redacting crucial information.
It’s now very difficult for journalists to get to the heart and the truth of a story. We are up against an army of well-paid spin doctors.
I hate to break it to, Andrea: as far as the Ardern government is concerned, you are nothing but an army of well-paid spin doctors.
But the sheer amount of publicly-funded spin from the government itself is staggering. As Vance details, “communications specialists” (spin doctors) have more than doubled in most departments and ministerial offices. In the case of the New Zealand Transport Agency, they’ve tripled the drones at the Ministry of Truth.
At every level, the Government manipulates the flow of information. It has not delivered on promises to fix the broken, and politically influenced OIA system.
It also keeps journalists distracted and over-burdened with a rolling maul of press conferences and announcements, which are often meaningless or repetitive and prevent sustained or detailed questioning[…]the prime minister’s office makes sure its audience is captured, starting the week and cementing the agenda with a conference call with political editors.Stuff
Yet, journalists have lapped it up and called it ice-cream, for four years.
Whine all you like about an obstructionist, opaque government. Complain about ministerial offices that flatly refuse to take journalists’ phone calls. Fulminate to the high heavens about a cynical prime minister peddling “an artfully-crafted mirage”.
Whether it’s because they’ve been seduced by a ‘political princess’ who panders to their left-wing groupthink, or whether it’s because they’re desperate for dry bones of public funding that the government has tossed to their dying industry, the NZ press have spectacularly failed at their job for the past four years.
The danger for Ardern is that the media will decide that there’s tastier meat to be had if they turn and attack as a pack.
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