Gordon Campbell: Fostering the Kiwi culture of covid complaint media

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NZ media narrative on covid
"Little of this reality has been reflected in a media narrative that has been skewed towards allegations of confusion, mis-management, shambolic disarray and the hardship resulting from the government’s treatment of public health as its major priority." Image: Werewolf/VOA

ANALYSIS: By Gordon Campbell in Wellington

Success can be its own worst enemy. If the plane doesn’t crash or the ship doesn’t sink, that doesn’t prove the safety measures were unnecessary, or that anyone can fly a plane.

It can also be taken as an indication that the safety measures are working. Ditto during a pandemic.

Arguably New Zealand has managed the best response to covid in the entire world. This didn‘t happen by accident. It reflects the skill and dedication of tens of thousands of people working at the borders, in MIQ facilities and in the public health system. Hundreds are alive and well today who would have not have been if the government had bowed to pressure from the business sector and its friends in the media, and thrown the borders open prematurely.

Little of this reality has been reflected in a media narrative that has been skewed towards allegations of confusion, mis-management, shambolic disarray and the hardship resulting from the government’s treatment of public health as its major priority. Yes, this can be hard financially (and stressful) on people whose business model was built on a pre-covid reality where foreign tourists and locals could mix and mingle freely.

We now have vaccines, but they do not render even the double vaccinated entirely bullet proof.

Therefore, the need for caution in removing restrictions and safeguards remains, especially given what we know about how readily delta and omicron spread covid-19. Moreover, and throughout the pandemic, compassionate taxpayers have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the hospitality and tourism sectors. They did so (a) to keep firms afloat and workers in jobs, while (b) those firms adapted to the new reality.

Some firms in hospo and tourism have made that adjustment. However, many others have been given a media platform to repeatedly complain about their plight, as if the government (and taxpayers) have a duty to sustain their old business model for them, forever.

Instead of providing a megaphone for grievance, shouldn’t the media be more willing to challenge those employers to explain how they’ve dynamically changed their business practices, and what their transition plans look like?

The last time I wrote about this, this was mis-construed by some as an argument for turning the media into government apologists or publicists, and preventing journalists from heroically doing their job. To be clear on this point: there’s not much that’s heroic about amplifying complaints without context or pushback.

Also IMO, it isn’t particularly heroic to be wilfully naïve about the political dimensions of your work. Meaning: the risks of being an apologist and virtual publicist apply not only to government policies and actions. Especially in the aftermath of the delta outbreak mid-year, much of the media has been a virtual echo chamber for the attack lines originated by the Opposition.

The wilful lack of context has, at times, been breathtaking. Outside the business pages, the recognition of the relative success of this country’s economic management during the pandemic has been almost non-existent.

– Gordon Campbell

The wilful lack of context has, at times, been breathtaking. Outside the business pages, the recognition of the relative success of this country’s economic management during the pandemic has been almost non-existent.

Last year, New Zealand – and the rest of the world – were expecting the worst recession since the 1930s. In some countries, the covid recession has been deep and lasting. Here, not so much.

In fact, our Reserve Bank has recently been forced to intervene to dampen down the inflationary fires within a growing economy. Much as this may hurt the feelings of the centre-right, the results have vindicated the borrow and spend approach taken by the government in unison with the Reserve Bank.

Last month, the government books were opened. People are in jobs. Unemployment fell to 3.4 percent in the quarter to September, and is headed further downwards. Yes, prices are rising faster than wages, but this is largely due to supply chain bottlenecks and oil price rises beyond our control.

It is also because of record global demand for our farm exports that — despite what the Groundswell protesters claim — has left farmers extremely well placed to meet the costs of meeting their climate change and water quality obligations.

As this column has consistently argued, the inflationary surge in prices is forecast to peak early in 2022, and to recede sharply thereafter. Despite the covid effect, the Operating Balance evidence is that deficits will revert to surplus in 2023/24, three years ahead of schedule. Similarly, there will be a spectacular decline in net debt, which will peak at 40.1 percent of GDP next year, before steeply declining to only 30.2 percent within five years, a full 18 percentage points below the gloomy forecasts on debt that were made at the outset of the pandemic.

So much for fears that covid-related spending would impose an intolerable debt burden on future generations. Instead, the borrowing sustained (and generated) levels of economic activity that will largely take care of the debt incurred in obtaining the subsequent social benefits. Another triumph of neo-Keynesianism over the policies of austerity.

Finally on this point, the Treasury is predicting government debt will fall from 35.3 percent of GDP to only 30.5 percent next year and head further downwards over the forecast period. This means that New Zealand is blessed with one of the lowest Crown debts to GDP ratios in the developed world.

Among other things, it leaves acres of room for the government to borrow more to invest in infrastructure and social needs. There is also plenty of headroom in the economy for a further active response to covid-induced needs. More to the point, these figures render the centre-right criticisms of government economic policy almost entirely irrelevant.

This is what I mean about a skewed media narrative. In its horse race journalism fixations on the new leader of the National Party — did he or didn’t he best PM Jacinda Ardern in the House etc etc — there has been almost zero attention paid to what Luxon is advocating as an alternative to the current economic settings. For all his vaunted experience as a CEO, Christopher Luxon has so far brought nothing whatsoever to the table by way of an alternative economic strategy.

All that Luxon has offered (so far) are 40-year-old Thatcherite ideas about reducing debt, balancing the budget and tinkering away at the fringes with wasteful government spending. These policies are antiquated relics of a bygone era.

There is a fixation on style — is he John Key Redux? — as though querying Luxon closely about his lack of content would be bad form, and rather mean to such a political novice.

– Gordon Campbell

There is a fixation on style — is he John Key Redux? — as though querying Luxon closely about his lack of content would be bad form, and rather mean to such a political novice.

In reality, it seems as if the centre right has slept through the Global Financial Crisis, let alone the covid recession. In both these crises, the countries that did best — including the US — borrowed and spent their way out of trouble. The countries (mainly in Europe) that did worse during the GFC in particular, had actively embraced the policies of austerity, the ideology of small government and the service cutbacks that the current leadership of the National Party is being allowed to peddle by a compliant media.

There’s so much more media interest (and clicks) in the Luxon vs Ardern popularity contest.

Footnote: In the US over the past few weeks, the same debate has arisen over the prevailing media narrative on the Biden presidency. Again, the lack of context (e.g. in the coverage of the US exit from Afghanistan) , the relentlessly negative focus on trivialities (e.g. Biden’s cough) and the resort to horse race journalism (e.g. the Biden approval ratings) all have their counterparts here. Here’s a Columbia Journalism Review article on the media’s skewed stances towards Biden.

Much of the recent debate has been kicked off by a (paywalled) column written by the Washington Post’s Dana Millbank, who has argued that the US media’s amplification of what are relatively insignificant government failings is serving to advance the country’s drift to the extreme right. As Millbank says in this MSNBC interview:

“Compare the last four months to the last four months of 2020, when Donald Trump was threatening to not honour the result of a free and fair election..He was embracing the Proud Boys white supremacists, and embracing QAnon. He was sabotaging the Post Office.[Yet] in that period of time he got similar to, and even more favourable, coverage than what Biden is getting today.”

In this situation, the media’s ordinary combative instincts – they originate in the admirable journalistic urge to hold power to account – can be ill-suited to recognising, let alone dealing with, the bigger picture. Because, Millbank argues, the stakes involved in the US are more than the usual party political jockeying between Democrats and Republicans. In his view, the struggle is between small “d” democrats, and authoritarians.

As Milbank said in his Post column, “Biden is attempting to re-establish democratic norms. The people opposing him are using fascist tools of deception and voter disenfranchisement. Neutrality in this struggle is not a virtue.”

Footnote Two: Luxon’s CEO experience might be the worst possible preparation and qualification for heading a government. After all, CEOs are answerable only to the shareholders, and their main fidelity is to the bottom line. Yet governments — if they’re competent — need to be willing and able to juggle competing interests, to acknowledge the minority view, and to minimize the risks to the vulnerable, even if this involves sometimes abandoning the quest for optimal economic efficiency.

By and large, the current government has managed that balancing act pretty well. Arguably, by focusing so much coverage on the angrily disgruntled, the media has taken an easy clickable route that downplays — or negates — the fact that such people are actually outliers within what has been so far, a successful response to the pandemic.

Gordon Campbell is an independent progressive journalist and editor of Scoop’s Werewolf magazine. This article has been republished with the author’s permission.

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