During the 1938 election campaign, the ruling Labour Party led by Prime Minister M.J. Savage, was vigorously attacked by most newspaper editors throughout the country. At his public meetings, Savage dined off his critics, especially the editor of the New Zealand Herald. At the end of his packed Auckland Town Hall meeting with 1000 people outside listening over loud speakers, a telegram boy made his way to the stage and handed the Prime Minister a message. Almost certainly pre-warned, Savage carefully opened it while the audience fell silent. The message read "Best wishes for the election from workers at the Herald". It brought the house down.
Thirty years later during my early days of campaigning, Labour candidates were advised that while newspaper editors might be hostile, there was enough good will among journalists that we could expect balanced reporting. Chief reporters would measure the column inches devoted to leaders and candidates, and balance up radio and TV coverage. Some like the Listener, our first nationally-read weekly, mostly avoided politics altogether till the sixties, as I discovered to my surprise when researching the 1951 waterfront dispute. That carried balance too far.
Sadly, these days only a minority within the media attempts balance. Some splendid journalists carefully weigh their accumulated wisdom. Al Morrison, Jeff Robinson and Sean Plunkett of Radio New Zealand; John Armstrong and Audrey Young of the Herald; TV3's Jane Young; and the Dominion-Post's Nick Venter and Jonathan Milne stand out. Jane Clifton is a national treasure. Several prominent media organs, however, have simply typecast themselves. The National Business Review sometimes reads like ACT. TV1's news looks like a ministry mouthpiece. Making up for lost years, the Listener has become an outlet for the (late) Alliance and the Greens. TV3's political news is superior in content and balance to TV1's, but the hapless John Campbell's caperings with Nicky Hager, and the interviewer's supercilious, argumentative performance during the leaders' debates, lowered his channel's reputation generally. Watching Kim Hill's face tighten, and limbs swing when ACT's Rodney Hide appeared on TV 1 the day after the election told its own story; our mother of the airwaves has little tolerance for anything outside her narrowly left comfort zone. At the bottom of the heap, constant editorialising on political matters by know-nothing suburban reporters makes our throwaway papers toxic to fish and chips. Like the great bulk of New Zealanders, journalists have prospered during the last twenty years as our economy adjusted to the wider world. Reciting mantras about the evils of the market, as all too many journalists still do, belittles them rather than informs us.
Alarmingly, some younger journalists suffer from a huge knowledge gap. As an historian I answer frequent historical queries. But I have to confess to disbelieving my ears recently when a young reporter asked me: "who was prime minister at the time of the 1981 Springbok Tour?" How can that person have a future in political journalism without a great deal more learning?
To be fair, neither journalists nor their supervisors should bear full responsibility for poor or slanted reporting. Too few classrooms deal with current events. My own historical profession has down-graded political history while elevating gender and ethnic stories. Some political scientists nurture quaint theories. Short specialist courses in journalism can't make up the shortfall. The financial pressure applied to media by demanding shareholders has pruned staff numbers. Wage structures make it difficult to retain good reporters when nearby PR companies offer double remuneration. As a result, over-worked journalists easily succumb to spoon-feeding. This, I suspect, is why Radio New Zealand's weekend bulletins sometimes carry bizarre opinions from organisations no one has heard of. Speaker Jonathan Hunt was quite right to accuse the media of "trivialising" Parliament. The trouble is that many hours of listening won't necessarily reward a hard-working select committee reporter with a story. MMP multiplied the number of parties, and complicated the composition of select committees, thus providing a half-credible excuse for why we hear so little about them.
To explain today's media problem with politics neither excuses it, nor fixes it. Maybe I'm an old romantic, but next in importance to serving one's country abroad, or in Parliament, comes reporting news and keeping people fully and accurately informed. It's fundamental to democracy. Reporters and interviewers have no licence to peddle their own prejudices. They are best left to editors and columnists. It's high time there was an end to media self-congratulation, and more done to lift standards. Less hubris and greater balance are required. There is room here to enhance co-operation between workers, editors, owners - and dare I add - the politicians they report. Nobody wants a return to the stand-off between editors and politicians of Savage's day, nor to the rigidity of the fifties. But we do have a right to expect knowledge, balance and careful self-supervision within all parts of the Fourth Estate.
Historian and author Michael Bassett was an MP for 15 years.