6 Aug 2017

Calling time on omnipresent pundits

From Mediawatch, 9:07 am on 6 August 2017

“Professional pundits” who appear heavily in the media should be given time limits on air, says Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein. 

"US presidents are restricted to eight consecutive years in office, so why do people who shape political opinion appear to have jobs for life?"

As the usual suspects take up ever more air time ahead of the NZ election, could Klein's suggestion be a good idea here?

Mike Hosking

Mike Hosking Photo: TVNZ

What a week it's been for punditry in New Zealand.

Long-serving pundits like Chris Trotter were rolled out to pronounce on the political upheavals in the Labour Party and the media scrambled to find pundits to comment on the so-called 'Jacinda Effect'.

But in New Zealand it's not so much the length of service of the pundits that's striking; it's the fact that a handful of them feel almost omnipresent.

And when it comes being everywhere Mike Hosking is in a league of his own. He's not so much a pundit as a production line of reckons.

Most mornings he blasts out a couple of strongly worded opinion pieces on his Newstalk ZB breakfast show – one of which is re-worked into one of his 'Mike's Minutes' on the NZ Herald's website – and night after night he ends TVNZ's Seven Sharp with yet more strident opinions.

It doesn't matter the topic: Hosking has a strongly held view on it.

So how does one person – juggling so many gigs – come to have such definitive opinions on... well, everything?

It's as if Hosking resides in the Nirvana envisaged by former Prime Minister Mike Moore when he said he wanted New Zealand to be a net exporter of knowledge. It's one of those quips that sounds good until you give it a second's thought.

If there's a pundit that comes close to Hosking in terms of being everywhere, it's Matthew Hooton.

Unlike Hosking, he's neither a professional broadcaster nor a journalist but a political lobbyist and former National Party staffer.

Hooton is a political insider who often claims to have insider knowledge from both the right and the left of the political divide.

Last Tuesday he told RNZ's Kathryn Ryan that Helen Clark and Michael Cullen had been calling Labour MPs on behalf of Jacinda Ardern.

The next morning Duncan Garner asked Ardern about that on Three's AM Show.

"Helen's in Europe so I think it's very unlikely that she would have given up her holiday to start making phone calls for little old me," Ardern said.

Another person who was sceptical of the claim was Tim Murphy of the Newsroom website, who tweeted:

"Hooton claiming on @ninetonoon Helen Clark and Michael Cullen calling MPs on behalf of Jacinda. Seems so implausible to be implausible."

To which Clark replied:

"Complete and utter rubbish as you surmised. Fake news in the real sense."

Hooton climbed into Twitter with this riposte:

Matthew Hooton

Matthew Hooton Photo: RNZ

"More implausible would be that Helen Clark wouldn't get involved in a @nzlabour spill. Tim owes me an apology."

Mediawatch gave Sir Michael Cullen a ring to see if he could shed any light on the question.

He told us that Matthew Hooton was half right and then added: "Not bad for Matthew."

The former deputy prime minister said he'd rung a reasonable number of MPs encouraging them to appoint Adern but wouldn't be more specific than that.

And Hooton often brings an insider's knowledge to his punditry – no-one else seemed to be aware of Cullen's lobbying.

But as the managing director of Exeltium – which boasts on its website that it's New Zealand's most successful corporate and public affairs consultancy – listeners can't but wonder whose barrow Hooton is pushing.

So as appealing as Naomi Klein's suggestion of a term limit for pundits might be it doesn't deal with the main problem in New Zealand, which is that a small pool of pundits – many of them working in the field of public relations – hog the public soapbox.

RNZ, ZB, TVNZ, Radio Live and TV3 all share the same pundits. It's time for more diversity.