• Herald Readers’ Comments

    For those with strong enough stomachs, reading the comments threads in the Herald can be an enlightening – if not exactly salutary – experience.

    It does at least provide a useful insight into what drives what is presumably an important sector of the Herald’s readership – and it also offers an understanding of why the Herald finds it advantageous to pursue its current editorial line.

    The comments are usually made in response to a Herald report or opinion piece which is critical of some aspect of the government’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic. The comments, by a large majority, endorse and amplify the criticism – no surprise there.

    But what is likely to take the casual reader by surprise is the vitriol emitted by so many of the contributors. For many of them, it is not enough to deplore or lament this or that supposed failing of the government; it is the government itself that is the target.

    And the comments are not just critical or dismissive of the government – they bespeak a visceral hatred of the government and especially of the Prime Minister. It is as though they are outraged at the very fact of the government’s existence – as though it is an offence against nature that it should be in office and responsible for our affairs.

    We should not be surprised, perhaps, at this evidence that – for some people – the very concept of government (and this government in particular) is anathema. There is increasing evidence around the world, after all, of a rising tide of extreme right-wing opinion, characterised by a conviction that government is a conspiracy against them, and that its every action and policy must be resisted.

    The pity of it is that our media – if the Herald is anything to go by – are all too likely, not only to reflect these distorted views, but to amplify and broadcast them, with the result that the values upon which our country has always been built are being lost – and we are all worse off as a result.

    Bryan Gould
    30 August 2021

  • Missing In Action

    The National party’s strategists (for which, read “The Herald’s editors”) seem to have decided that their only chance of electoral success is to prick the bubble of Jacinda’s popularity; so, we are treated today to a lengthy exposition in the Herald of the thesis that Jacinda “is not the Messiah” but is instead “a crafty politician”. In support of this shocking revelation, a good deal of time is spent on the Prime Minister’s supposed religious beliefs and on her Mormon upbringing.

    This is all produced to back up yesterday’s report – lovingly detailed by the Herald – of criticism of, and surprise at, New Zealand’s lockdown and elimination strategy in the world’s media. I have no doubt that there is such criticism; political leaders around the world are no doubt sick of hearing how well we have done under Jacinda’s leadership and will be enjoying a good deal of schadenfreude at the outbreak of the delta variant.

    Jacinda will no doubt respond to these assaults with her customary good humour and good sense. She will take the accusation that she is “a crafty politician” on the chin, comforting herself with the thought that, if doing the right thing is “crafty”, then she will plead guilty.

    But, when the smoke clears, and we have got through the current crisis, the Herald will have to ask itself “where were we when the going got tough?” I hope and believe that they will be embarrassed by the answer they are compelled to give – “we were missing in action”.

    Bryan Gould
    24 August 2021

  • Any Stick Will Do

    Right-wing political commentators can scarcely contain their impatience in their efforts to detect and encourage signs that the gloss is beginning to come off the Prime Minister’s bravura performance in handling our pandemic crisis.

    Their hearts must have sunk when they realised that the delta variant had required the Prime Minster to show once again how good she is in a crisis and had also necessitated a further series of press conferences on live television in which Jacinda Ardern could again demonstrate her skills as a communicator.

    Th response has come immediately, and on cue. In today’s Herald, Fran O’Sullivan berates the Prime Minister for taking a few moments to set the scene before announcing the Cabinet decision on extending the lockdown for a further period. According to the Herald’s reporter, the few seconds spent by the Prime Minster in setting out the background to the decision would have frustrated the business community who were anxious to know what was in store.

    It is hard to believe that a serious commentator could ask us to believe that a few seconds could make such a difference to business prospects – the sticks with which to beat the Prime Minister must be in very short supply if that is the best they can come up with. The article also shows little understanding of the skill, courage and effort required of the Prime Minister in facing up to the assembled media on a daily basis.

    But the O’Sullivan piece is welcome in one respect at least; it reminds us of just how partisan is the Herald’s coverage of this renewed national crisis.

    We deserve better from our leading national newspaper.

    Bryan Gould
    21 August 2021

  • Media Responsibility

    New Zealand Media and Entertainment (NZME) is New Zealand’s largest media group. They own the New Zealand Herald, the country’s most widely read daily newspaper, as well as the most widely listened to commercial radio network. In addition, they own a large number of provincial and local daily newspapers.

    Such a dominant position in the news and media world by just one company means that New Zealanders are in danger of seeing, reading and hearing only one view of what is happening in their country and in the world. It also, surely, imposes on NZME the responsibility of providing a balanced view of the country’s affairs.

    One part of that responsibility is the need to pay some attention to what their readers and listeners think and feel. A failure to reflect, or at least take account of, those views would, one would think, risk the loss of a proportion of the reading and listening public on whose support NZME relies for its profitability.

    I can testify from my own personal experience that there are at least some issues on which NZME editors listen very carefully to their customers. I was for a couple of years contracted by NZME to write a weekly column which was published in a number of their provincial newspapers; since I write from what some – perhaps many – readers might have seen as a decidedly liberal or leftist viewpoint, my column was, I thought, a useful antidote to what was otherwise pretty unremittingly rightwing fare in the papers and airwaves owned by NZME.

    I was writing my column throughout the recent American presidential election – a period that culminated in the Trump-inspired assault on the Capitol. I am no fan of Donald Trump, and my criticisms of him provoked, it seems, a number of letters to the editor from Trump supporters in which I was accused of being unfair to the then President.

    I regarded these protests, given that it was difficult to avoid taking a partisan position on such a controversial issue, as par for the course. But NZME were not so relaxed and apparently took fright, professing to me that they were concerned that I was upsetting their readers; my contract was accordingly terminated. I regarded this as regrettable, but very much their prerogative, and it was in some way a relief not to have to think of a topic and submit a column every week.

    I am prompted to write about my experience, however, because, as a regular reader of the Herald, I cannot help but notice that the Herald publishes a number of columnists, both in-house and contracted from outside, whose constant stock-in-trade is hostility to our current government; indeed, so marked is this characteristic that it seems that some of them – Mike Hosking, for example – have nothing beyond that to offer. In the case of Hosking, who constantly compares our response to the pandemic unfavourably with Australia’s, I can only hope that he will make good his threat to move to Australia, just as the Aussies are now seen to have entered a recession as well as now facing a renewed outbreak of the virus. Hosking, and one or two others – Heather du Plessis-Allan, for example – get two bites at the cherry; they are both newspaper columnists for the Herald, and they both host news programmes on NZME-owned commercial radio stations.

    These regular contributors to the Herald are reinforced by occasional columns from washed-up rightwing politicians – such as Richard Prebble and Steven Joyce – with the result that the Herald cannot now be read without the reader suffering indigestion from the overt bias that accompanies so much of what it publishes. And that is to say nothing of their policy on what makes a story – in other words, their news selection – in accordance with which an anti-government story wilI usually get top billing. I know from conversations with friends and neighbours (some of whom, but not all, share my views on the wider issues) that they are increasingly fed up with the diet of overtly prejudiced comment they are offered and have given up reading the Herald.

    The continued publication of such material must, at the very least, run the risk of alienating not only current but also potential readers – and I cannot believe that the Herald’s financial position is so strong that it can afford to cast a proportion of its readers aside in this way. And, furthermore, a little consistency would not come amiss. If my comments on Donald Trump could not be tolerated, supposedly, by NZME readers and editors alike, why are NZME so relaxed about offending the susceptibilities of Herald readers on a wide range of other issues? Why would NZME assume that its readers are not a faithful representation of the population as a whole, a majority of whom voted for our current government?

    The conclusion to which I am forced is that NZME’s owners think that the financial risk is worth it for the sake of the daily attempt, all too recognisable in their pages, to show our government in a bad light – so that politics, in other words, trumps profits, as well as – certainly – balanced reporting. If that is the case, as it seems to be, and NZME’s owners are prepared to sacrifice readers and profits because of the value they place on peddling an overtly political message, then our democracy is at risk; the Commerce Commission, which has already declined to approve NZME’s merger with another major media group, on the ground that the range of political comment in our country would be dangerously narrowed by such a takeover, should perhaps take another look at whether our democracy and political system is being properly served by the current concentration of ownership of our media or by the overtly political message that NZME’s pages and airwaves represent.

    Nor is this the only issue concerning the state of our media – both privately and publicly owned, and broadcast as well as published – that warrants our attention, if their treatment of a recent issue is anything to go by. The recent and damaging cyber-attack on the Waikato District Health Board was a follow-up to similar attacks elsewhere around the world, and notably in Ireland. It caused untold misery, anxiety and risk to many vulnerable patients, and confusion and worry to health administrators. It seemed to be an instance of “ransom-ware”, whose purpose it was to extract money from the institutions affected; and, not content with threatening the lives of the sick, the perpetrators then threatened to publish private information about those whose records were held by the hospital authorities and to demand more money as the price for not doing so.

    It is hard to imagine a more reprehensible instance of pitiless greed or of the exploitation of hi-tech expertise by heartless criminals. Yet, sadly, it came as no surprise that someone could be found to demand immediately the resignation of Andrew Little, on the ground that he was responsible for the debacle because he is the Minister of Health and also the Minister responsible for the country’s security.

    There can be no more telling example of a growing current trend, of which we have virtually daily evidence – that whenever something – anything – goes wrong or someone is disappointed or displeased by some action or inaction (of whatever kind), and irrespective of what other factors might be involved, a complainant will emerge from the woodwork to point the finger at the government of the day. This kind of knee-jerk version of the blame game is of course meat and drink to the media; they are presented with a ready-made story that requires no further investigation, with the added bonus of extending what is already a newsworthy story with a kind of “David v. Goliath” element of the “little man” or “ordinary bloke” fighting back against authority – and there is the pleasing additional opportunity to grill the authority figure complained about. The mere fact that a complaint has been made is, it seems, enough to make the story.

    The syndrome is constantly repeated, however tenuous may be the causal connection between the matter of which complaint is made and the person at whom the finger is pointed. In the case of the cyber-attack on the Waikato DHB, the intervention of international criminals, utilising a specialist knowledge for nefarious purposes, might have been considered not only as the prime cause of the crisis but also as a factor that was by definition difficult to foresee and counter – as other countries have also found to their cost.

    The reaction seems to be endemic in a society that is increasingly inclined to look to government to solve (and forestall) all problems, wherever and however they might arise – and the media seem to enjoy any such opportunity to lay into “authority”. The surprising element, however, is that such reactions often come from – and the complaints are made by – those who seem to resist and resent, as a matter of principle, the involvement of government in their lives. The best interpretation of the syndrome may be, in other words, that it is those who are hostile to the very concept of government in general terms who will be the quickest to blame “the government” if they are displeased about something – anything – that could attract attention from the media – and they have learned that simply making an objection or complaint is a sure-fire way of securing an anti-government platform.

    It may be futile to suggest that the media, in such circumstances, should exercise their own judgment as to whether such a complaint bears scrutiny and deserves (in many cases, headline) publicity; but we would all agree, surely, that free and active media are an essential element in a properly functioning democracy and that their role therefore involves more than simply reporting and amplifying attempts from whatever quarter to treat government ministers as Aunt Sallies or fall guys.

    Those of us who have other causes to support – in the media or elsewhere – will be concerned that our efforts will be unnecessarily prejudiced if the media demonstrate that they see no need to exercise such judgment, and that “anything goes” and is grist to the mill. The impartial viewer or listener might find it difficult to separate the chaff from the grain.

    And, if the media are committed to representing the viewpoint of only one section of society, such as big business – as seems to be the case in respect of NZME – what are the chances of getting a proper debate about important issues like the increasing control by overseas interests of significant elements and assets of the New Zealand economy?

    A lively public debate is essential to a properly functioning democracy, and our media are – or should be – the means by which that debate is conducted. If the media let us down, by failing to do their job properly, we are all worse off. The Commerce Commission, please take note.

    Bryan Gould
    22 June 2021

  • Blaming the Government

    It is surely now apparent that the covid pandemic constitutes a world-wide and potentially existential threat to humankind. Individual countries have had some success in limiting its impact for the time being – and New Zealand has had more success than most in keeping it at bay.

    But we must now recognise that we are going to have to live with the virus for some time to come, as it swirls and evolves around the world . The virus itself – and the measures we are obliged to take to combat it – are bound to have an adverse impact on each one of us for the foreseeable future.

    We already know that every aspect of our lives will be vulnerable to the changes that the virus dictates. It will change and restrict every aspect of our usual pattern of behaviour. There will not be a single life that is not affected – usually adversely – by its presence. Every aspect of our normal lives will feel its impact.

    Surprisingly, however, there is no shortage of people who see these inevitable consequences as something that they have a right to be protected against. The virus is all very well, they seem to say, but we are entitled to lead our lives as though nothing has changed.

    Such people resent the incursion of the virus into their lives, and they seek someone to blame. Because the virus itself cannot easily be put in the dock, they identify the government as the most obvious – and all-purpose – scapegoat.

    However unpredictable the virus may be, they say, we elect a government to ensure that our own individual lives can proceed as normal. If we suffer any discomfort or inconvenience, if we suffer economic loss, or less effective medical care, or some loss of freedom of movement, then we will blame the government, rather than the virus.

    Isn’t it time that we grew up, and acknowledged that grappling with the virus, and trying to mitigate and minimise the damage it does, is inevitably going to test government (along with every other human response) to its limits. Our responsibility is to work with the government and to use our own efforts to help produce solutions; sniping from the sidelines (which some find all too easy) can only make matters worse.

    Bryan Gould
    17 August 2021