Graham Adams: Are the media gloves coming off for Ardern?

Graham Adams: Are the media gloves coming off for Ardern?

New Zealand’s history as a sheep-farming nation means the command “Get in behind!” has long had a particular resonance — but not usually for journalists.

However, in late March, as panic over the coronavirus pandemic surged around the world, Dr Gavin Ellis — former editor-in-chief of the NZ Herald — recommended that the media should shift from “adversarial journalism” to “adversity journalism”. This, he said, means supporting the government in a time of crisis to maintain public morale, as it might during a war.

Although Dr Ellis included a nod to holding “power to account”, his message to journalists amounted to “Get in behind!” Most of the media adopted that patriotic stance — usually only taken during peacetime in weak democracies or dictatorships.

One obvious problem with such unqualified support, of course, is that once such adversity journalism has been established as a template, any dissenting voices are viewed not as legitimate critics but as fifth columnists who have infiltrated the loyal Fourth Estate and who should be quickly shouted down for their heretical, if not treasonous, views.

Now, as the fog of war is lifting after weeks of no new cases, more journalists are peering over the parapets to critically assess what was happening as we all sheltered in place. And the earlier adulation of Ardern is increasingly being tempered by less charitable observations about her decisions and character.

This week, Bernard Hickey wrote a scathing article for Newsroom and Stuff titled: “Behind our compassionate Prime Minister’s mean policies”, in which he lambasted Ardern for not taking care of immigrant workers stranded here without jobs or the opportunity to go home, as well as inadequate support for 350,000 beneficiaries.

He also insinuated she was hypocritical inasmuch as she had previously criticised Australia for denying welfare support to New Zealanders put out of work by Covid-19 despite their paying taxes.

The claim that Ardern was a hypocrite was also made in an article in the NZ Herald this week, which included recent photos of her standing close to young people in contravention of social-distancing rules. A few weeks earlier, Northland MP Matt King had been snapped alongside restaurant staff and had later been phoned by a senior police officer who warned him about observing social-distancing rules.

The criticism that seems to have stung her most keenly, however, occurred on May 12 when John Campbell quizzed her over the Covid-19 document dump and an email sent from her office that recommended ministers need not agree to interviews given how popular the government’s measures had been. Campbell said he had initially thought the email was a sign of arrogance but had decided instead that it more likely reflected Ardern’s lack of confidence in her ministers.

Ardern’s reaction showed she was more sensitive to a suggestion she might be arrogant than a question about her ministers’ competence. She made a point of addressing that issue even though Campbell had dismissed it.

“Arrogance is just, I hope, something people would see as not in my nature,” she said plaintively.

Essential to Ardern’s mana, of course, is the widely accepted assessment that she is a humble, honest and good person — and, above all, that she is kind.

Luke Malpass, Stuff’s political editor, obviously isn’t convinced. Two weeks ago, in weighing up the newly anointed Todd Muller’s chances of beating her at the election, he warned that Ardern is a “deceptively ruthless” politician.

On Thursday, Collette Devlin, a senior political writer at Stuff, described Ardern’s presentation of a list of obvious measures to follow under Level 1 as “patronising” and “irksome”, likening her to “a primary school teacher addressing a class”.

The mainstream media implying or stating that Ardern is arrogant, mean, ruthless, hypocritical and patronising is a seismic shift from the almost universal support she enjoyed during the first months of the lockdown.

The single event that has done most damage to her reputation, however, and reinforced charges of hypocrisy was her allowing thousands to protest last weekend in support of the Black Lives Matter movement without actively discouraging them.

Much like the photos of her standing close to others, her unwillingness to do more than gently chide the marchers for what was clearly an illegal gathering has been widely viewed as showing she is happy for there to be one law for some and another for everyone else.

In just a few hours, as people walked shoulder to shoulder in protest, the conceit that Ardern was the captain of a “team of five million” — as she is so fond of describing the country — was blown apart.

It was immediately apparent that her tactic of keeping the nation in suspense while she held out the prospect of a gradual lifting of restrictions if people behaved themselves would no longer work after thousands had brazenly flouted her rules. But instead of admitting that obvious fact, she insisted that bringing forward the move to Level 1 had nothing to do with her hand being forced.

Journalists have been very reluctant to admit Ardern sometimes has a tenuous relationship with the truth. Nevertheless, the reasons she gave for a more rapid exit from Level 2 would have fooled few.

Most voters, of course, won’t care about Ardern’s failings. She is riding high in the polls, with the latest Roy Morgan survey published this week showing support for Labour at 56.5 per cent and putting her on track for a “crushing electoral victory” in September.

The media, however, has given the Prime Minister notice that, after months of mostly uncritical support, the gloves are coming off — and just in time for the election campaign.


Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.