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Karl du Fresne

I defended the media then; I wouldn’t now

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In his recent media column in the New Zealand Herald, Shayne Currie reports that media organisations are having to think about security arrangements for journalists covering the election campaign. TVNZ went to the extent of hiring security staff for its news team at the National and Labour campaign launches, both of which were disrupted by protesters. Currie quotes TVNZ executive editor Phil O’Sullivan as saying: “Globally we’ve seen an increase in anti-media sentiment. We’re now seeing this in New Zealand too, with an increase in abuse directed towards our reporters while out in the field, and threatening behaviour in online spaces disproportionately impacting our female reporters.”

We have been here before. An article in November 2021 noted expressions of concern from journalists about hostility toward the media at anti-vax events. It was headlined No one should be surprised by a backlash against the media and it still holds true.

I deplore attacks or threats against anyone lawfully doing their job, but people in the media need to ask themselves why animosity toward journalists – which has existed, to a greater or less extent, all the time I’ve been in the business – has been cranked up to an unprecedented level.

Part of the explanation can be found in an article that Currie quotes from. It was written in February last year by Mark Stevens, then head of news at Stuff. Stevens, who has a new job in an equivalent role at RNZ, noted that aggression toward journalists had increased and cited incidents of Stuff journalists being punched and having gear smashed.

Stevens (who I worked with when he was a very capable young reporter at the Evening Post in the 1990s) went on to say: “From time to time, news stories are published that rub a certain person, group or community up the wrong way. We often say in journalism that we can’t please everyone all the time. Nor should we. Holding the powerful to account, shining light on untruths and giving voices to the wronged isn’t always welcome or popular.”

This is the familiar narrative of the noble journalist on a heroic mission to uncover the truth, without fear or favour, and to make life uncomfortable for those in power. It’s an admirable ideal and one that appeals to journalists’ sense of self-worth, but I’m not sure the wider community has ever found it wholly convincing, and probably less so now than ever.

Then Stevens said this: “We publish a range of views, while avoiding and dismantling falsehoods, and we listen. But when you disagree, wipe the froth from your mouth first; we take criticism but cannot tolerate attacks, threats or violence.”

Let’s unpack that statement. “We publish a range of views”? That may certainly have once been true of the mainstream media, but it no longer applies. Just see how far you get with a letter to the editor in which, for argument’s sake, you challenge climate change orthodoxy, or suggest that the English language is being damaged by the increasing use of te reo (as someone I know did, and was told by the editor of the Dominion Post, when he asked why his letter was rejected, that he was a racist). Or try to get an ad published in which you assert that the word “woman” means “adult human female”, as both Family First and Speak Up for Women did, to no avail. In the case of Family First, every major paper in the country turned the ad down in a co-ordinated act – a conspiracy, effectively – of censorship. The “range of views” Stevens refers to is an increasingly narrow one, prescribed by media gatekeepers not on legal grounds, as might once have been the case, but on purely ideological ones.

Now, “avoiding and dismantling falsehoods”. Really? Who decides what’s false, and on what grounds? To use that same obvious example, who decided that “woman” no longer means an adult human female – a proposition still regarded, other than by an infinitesimally tiny and deranged woke minority, as an incontrovertible and objectively provable fact? The conceit that editors and journalists are able to determine what’s true and what’s false is a recent phenomenon, and one that has further eroded the already frayed relationship between the media and the public.

Then there’s this: “But when you disagree, wipe the froth from your mouth first.” The striking thing about this statement is its blatantly antagonistic posture. Stevens was characterising dissent as something that only mad and probably dangerous people would indulge in. He was overtly setting Stuff up in opposition to many of its paying customers. It’s a novel business model and it’s unlikely to end well.

Here we get close to the core of the problem. The media have effectively set themselves above the communities they purport to serve. They are interested only in people who agree with them; the rest can be dismissed as deplorables, to use Hillary Clinton’s infamous term.

The widening them-and-us relationship between the media and the wider community became starkly apparent during the Covid pandemic. Few journalists seemed interested in what motivated the hundreds of protesters camped outside Parliament. They preferred to look down on them, literally and figuratively, from the balcony.

Later came the shameful hounding of anti-vaxxers, when Stuff and other media outlets embarked on an orchestrated witch hunt aimed at demonising local government candidates who were deemed to hold the “wrong” opinions, or who were merely suspected of having links to so-called conspiracy theories. Not illegal opinions, mind you; just “wrong” ones. The frenzy reached a peak with Stuff’s overwrought – no, make that hysterical – Fire and Fury documentary. (Note: I was fully vaccinated myself so can’t be dismissed as anti-vax.)

To all this can be added the baneful consequences of the $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund, aka the Pravda Project, the beneficiaries of which never seemed to consider the likely public perception that the media were being bought by the government. Even if their motives were impeccably pure, there was always going to be a suspicion that the money came with strings attached.

Meanwhile, levels of trust in the mainstream media continue to decline, newspaper circulations continue to shrink and New Zealanders continue to abandon traditional free-to-air TV – that means the 6 o’clock news, along with everything else – in favour of streaming services. It’s slow-motion suicide.

And having alienated a large part of their audience and driven them to alternative online platforms, mainstream media then clutch their pearls in horror at the thought that audiences might fall prey to “unsafe” content and “disinformation” from fringe sources. It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic.

How did this happen? My own theory, and it’s unlikely to be popular among today’s journalists, is that it had a lot to do with the transferral of journalism training from the newsroom to the lecture room.

Earlier generations of journalists learned on the job from other journalists. Many of my contemporaries came from working-class backgrounds. They didn’t go to university and were proud to regard journalism as a trade rather than profession. The importance of neutrality, fairness and balance was drummed into them. They had no delusions of grandeur about being on a mission.

But from the 1970s on, journalism was subjected to academic capture. Budding journalists were inculcated with a highly politicised vision of journalism’s purpose. They were encouraged to acquire degrees that were often based on esoteric theories far removed from the simple, practical concerns of good journalism. Over time, that has had the fatal effect of creating a widening gap between journalists and the communities they claim to serve. Even more dangerously, it has led journalists to think they are wiser and smarter than the people who buy newspapers and watch the TV news, and even morally superior to them. As the Marxist American journalist Batyar Ungar-Sargon puts it, they climbed up the status ladder and became part of the elite.

So if anyone wants to understand why so many people are now reacting against the media and even viewing them as the enemy, there you are. It’s not pretty and it’s not desirable, but no one should delude themselves about how we got to this point.

I’m writing this on a Friday. For many years, Friday was the day I would meet a good friend, the late John Schnellenberg, for lunch in Masterton. We would talk about politics and inevitably the performance of the media would come up. I suspect John took a mischievous pleasure in goading me with disdainful remarks about journalists and I would always rise to the bait. It was my instinct in those days vigorously to defend the media. I’m sorry to say that wouldn’t be the case now.