The mainstream news media weren’t just complicit in Labour’s defeat: in many respects they were the cause of it. If the new National-ACT-NZ First Government wishes to avoid falling victim to the same collection of politically motivated editors and journalists, then it may need to grasp the nettle of stricter regulation of the Fourth Estate. This does not mean censorship – no believer in liberal democratic values would countenance that. What it might mean, however, is the mandatory restoration of the editorial and journalistic obligation to be both fair and balanced. If editors and journalists refuse to allow both sides of a story to be told, then it may become necessary to create a truly independent statutory body to compel them.
Let us begin by examining that striking accusation: that Labour’s defeat was, at least partially, attributable to the mainstream media (MSM).
Following the formation of the Labour-NZ First coalition Government, and gathering momentum in the light of Labour’s extraordinary win in 2020, the MSM more and more came to resemble an adjunct to the ruling party. If Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues created the impression that their government was in the business of political transformation, then the MSM (with the obvious exception of NZME’s Mike Hosking) appeared to have adopted the role of transformer. On their pages and in their programming it was clear that the reasons for transforming New Zealand, and the means adopted for achieving that goal, would not be challenged in any meaningful way.
In part this was due to the extraordinary impact of Jacinda Ardern’s personality on younger journalists. She was perceived as one of them, carrying with her the promise that if she could rise above the dour and stodgy upholders of another generation’s status quo, then so could they. Ardern’s ‘Politics of Kindness’ would be matched by their own ‘Journalism of Kindness’. Racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes, climate-change deniers – bad actors of all kinds – were given notice: you no longer have the right of reply. Henceforth, it would be the duty of journalists to provide their readers, listeners and viewers with ‘moral clarity’. When only one side is right, representing both sides can only be wrong. Ergo, falsehood must be de-platformed.
This radical departure from the traditions of journalism was given added impetus by the Christchurch mosque attacks. The horror and brutality of the attack, and its obscene ‘justification’ in the perpetrator’s ‘manifesto’, gave rise to a series of actions that sanctioned extreme censorship in the name of human decency. While few contested the Chief Censor’s designation of Brenton Tarrant’s video and manifesto as ‘objectionable’, the state’s actions nevertheless appeared to sanction crushing intervention against even the words of ‘bad people’ – an impression strengthened by Ardern’s refusal to speak the terrorist’s name. As if refusing to either name, or discuss, Tarrant’s evil would make it go away.
The recommendations of the inevitable Royal Commission of Inquiry into the mosque shootings only made matters worse. In what amounted to a judicially sanctioned attenuation of the right to free expression, legislative action against the alleged ‘harm’ of ‘hate speech’ was recommended – and accepted – by Ardern’s Government. The Royal Commission’s findings were an echo of the massive outpouring of public solidarity for the terrorist’s Muslim victims. In the days that followed the massacre, when gatherings of thousands reaffirmed Ardern’s memorable phrase “they are us”, the Politics of Kindness took on corporeal form – while the MSM blew the trumpets.
This is not what the MSM – or any journalistic enterprise – is supposed to do. At precisely those moments when everybody else is proclaiming a miracle, the journalist is duty-bound to demand proof. Scepticism of political utterances is the default setting of every newspaper and broadcasting network worthy of the name. Embarrassingly, New Zealand’s MSM opted to become the equivalent of Vatican press office – issuing press releases for ‘Pope’ Jacinda.
It is difficult to imagine a worse moment for the New Zealand MSM to be confronted with an existential challenge on the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic. An economically faltering MSM, already morally compromised by the self-imposed strictures of its Journalism of Kindness, now found itself more-or-less conscripted into justifying the deeply authoritarian state policies required to manage a full-scale national medical emergency. The idea that New Zealand now had a tame ‘state media’ began to grow in the minds of more and more New Zealanders.
Hardly surprising, really, once it became generally known that the state had offered the MSM the life-line of a $55 million “Public Interest Journalism Fund”. Less generally known, but offering incontrovertible confirmation of just how supine the MSM had become, were the terms and conditions which the MSM had to accept before the money could flow. Proprietors and editors had to sign up to a frankly revolutionary definition of the Treaty of Waitangi’s meaning and acquiesce to its logical political implications. That all the major media enterprises ended up signing on the dotted line was astounding.
Given that the ‘decolonising’ and ‘indigenising’ agenda imposed by the Sixth Labour Government played a crucial role in undermining its electoral support (the exigencies of Covid-19 having long since put paid to the Politics of Kindness!), the MSM’s unwavering support for that agenda – manifested by the near universal editorial refusal to allow any meaningful debate over its content – was in every way complicit with the alienation of Labour’s support.
Indeed, the MSM’s abject failure to fulfil its democratic duty as both the creator and presenter of informed – and diverse – public opinion was compounded by its strident promotion of all things pertaining to the decolonisation and indigenisation of New Zealand – sorry, Aotearoan – society. In this regard, when even the delivery of the weather forecast became an opportunity for indoctrination, the case that the conduct of the MSM was one of the principal causes of Labour’s catastrophic collapse becomes incontrovertible.
Back in the late 1980s, as Rogernomics was laying waste to the social-democratic institutions and impulses of the ‘old’ New Zealand, some aggrieved worker had spray-painted on the wall of the (now demolished) Christchurch Trades Hall: “You were supposed to help”. New Zealanders, angry at the MSM’s failure to defend either democracy or the traditions of a free press, would have been entirely justified in spray-painting the same message on the wall of every major media outlet in the country.
Certainly, complaining to the MSM did no good at all as, in decision after decision, the bodies established to defend the core journalistic values of fairness, balance and accuracy ruled in favour of the purveyors of the new, state-adjacent, journalism. The catch-phrase of the incoming government should be “Away with them!” A new tribunal, untainted by the compromises and betrayals of the past six years, should be set up to make certain that New Zealand’s journalists adhere to the long-established principles of their profession.
Our democracy demands no less.