"It's Summertime" goes the jingle just before TV ONE news each evening. Whether it's a warning against what follows, or an excuse, I haven't quite worked out. But many duty reporters excel over summer at producing items that demean themselves. It's not just the steady diet of dog bites boy stuff, or preaching about the road toll, or the predictable Pacific cyclones and often phoney scares. Nor is it the distraught New Lynn BGs fan thumbing his discs, eyes misting as he recalls his late idol. That at least had black humour. Nor is it Radio New Zealand's unparalleled capacity for wrongly placed clauses in news sentences that sometimes produce hilarious results. The real horror is our media's weird misallocation of time and space. More is devoted to ephemera, to sportspeople telling us they need to improve their strokes, than to major on-going stories with a capacity to de-stabilise our country, such as the brewing war with Iraq. Contrary to many newspaper editors' beliefs, the world goes on while New Zealand is on holiday. Does every senior reporter go on leave simultaneously? Is no one with judgement left in charge for weeks on end? Or is the problem deeper? Is it a permanent, year-round deficiency that only reveals itself in naked form over Christmas?
In my days as a politician we knew the holiday season would be weak on news. Ministers were told to dream up stories that could be fed to the media during what we labelled in our superior way the "silly season". Summaries of "achievements" and carefully-worded conjecture about future policy were sent to the Prime Minister's Office for drip feeding to the media. Some made it to the news; others fell by the wayside. Why one succeeded and another didn't was always a mystery. Our goal was to steal a march on our opponents, and convince the chattering classes, while they had little else on their minds, that we were achievers and statesmen.
With so little of substance coming from politicians this summer, the media imbalance has seemed even starker than usual. There's been a dearth of material from government MPs despite Phil Goff's heroic efforts, signalling that this ministry is cruising, possibly literally, certainly figuratively. The combined opposition has also produced little except a handful of statements from National. Because the Nats still haven't worked out what principles guide their policy, it might have been better had their spokespeople gnawed harder on the turkey and basked longer in the sun. None seemed to have thought seriously before issuing their statements. I couldn't believe my eyes on Boxing Day when I read that Judith Collins, National's associate spokesperson on Health, thought the Government should write a cheque for $8 million to write off the bad debts of the St John Ambulance Association. "If anyone deserves the money...people like them do", she grandly told her non-questioning Herald reporter. It was left to Finance Minister Michael Cullen and to the experienced Gordon Davies, deputy Director-General of Health, to remind us about all governments' needs to prioritise expenditure. There was no sign that Collins understood how the ambulance service worked, nor that she realised the consequences to its vital voluntary component, and to those who continue to pay for services, if the Government always topped up shortfalls.
Then we had Roger Sowry telling us that we needed four-lane highways across the country. No credible costings, nor any indication of the existing priorities to be set aside while we paid for this latest Think Big extravaganza. In more recent days Lynda Scott took issue with health sector redundancy payments. A piddling $8 million within the $8 billion sector, as Annette King rightly (and more politely) observed! Did National mean to imply that surplus staff should be left in non-jobs? If so, how would that pay for more hip replacements? Or was the real target Labour's unfortunate hospital "reforms"? It wasn't clear.
The journalists on duty, like the politicians, often failed to research the issues or pose searching questions. And isn't it time ONE News and Radio New Zealand News seriously re-examined how they prioritise? To be fair to newspapers, they occasionally ventured into serious reporting. While the Sunday Star-Times indulged in a pathetic beat-up about Taranaki Maori and Tom Cruise which was quickly exposed for what it was on Morning Report next day, the Dominion Post did some investigative journalism. It plugged away with its pre-Christmas questions about Donna Awatere Huata, and scored some hits. The Herald's flirtation with political investigation quickly evaporated. Having started interviewing new MPs, it cried off with another fifteen or so still to go. And last week it produced a political story about the Molesworth Street fish and chip shop's demise, almost every purported "fact" of which was incorrect. Like the weather, summertime journalism is fitful at best, and disappointing most of the time. Surely as a nation we can do better?
Historian and author, Michael Bassett was Minister of Health 1984-7.