14 Mar 2021

A week of media meltdowns

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 14 March 2021

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's decision to dump her weekly interview with Mike Hosking and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's interview with Oprah sparked a series of media meltdowns this week.

Jacinda Ardern and Mike Hosking.

Jacinda Ardern and Mike Hosking. Photo: RNZ

On Monday Mike Hosking announced that Jacinda Ardern was breaking with long-standing prime ministerial tradition, and refusing to speak to him at least once per week. He saw the decision as an act of political cowardice. 

"She's running for the hills," he said.

"She no longer wants to be on this programme each week. The somewhat tragic conclusion that is drawn is that the questions she gets - the demand for a level of accountability - is a little bit tough."

Ardern had actually decided to leave the regular slot four weeks earlier, opting to instead appear on Newstalk ZB only - in her words - “as and when issues arise”.

No-one had noticed earlier because issues had obviously arisen, and she’d been interviewed on Newstalk twice during those weeks. 

In spite of that, Hosking’s revelation that Ardern was refusing to speak to him every week sparked concern that she was allergic to proper scrutiny. 

One person who was especially concerned was Mike Hosking, who covered the issue in two straight instalments of his daily editorial Mike’s Minute.

His second editorial was more exercised than the first. 

"She hates a hard question. She hates fact. She hates accountability. She hates not being fawned over."

But Hosking wasn't the Newstalk ZB host taking the prime minister's decision the hardest.

His colleague Barry Soper, the station's political editor,  responded with a blistering, highly personal opinion piece accusing Ardern of blanching at tough questions and using Covid-19, a pandemic which has killed 2.6 million people worldwide, as her “security blanket”.

Soper also criticised Ardern for not copying her predecessor John Key and posing for "derpies" with students.

But he seemed even more offended she hadn’t furnished him and his gallery colleagues with regular invites up to her office for social calls.

"All of her predecessors got to know the parliamentary media by inviting them to their ninth floor Beehive office at least a couple of times a year.  It puts a human face on the public performer," he wrote.

"Ardern has done it once, a few months after becoming the prime minister."    

As stay-at-home dad Andrew Biggs noted on Twitter, Ardern has a three-year-old child and might be saving her after work drinks until she’s done reading Hairy Maclary three times.

The Taxpayers' Union responded to the Hosking snub with a petition for the prime minister to resume her weekly interview with the host.

This weekend it had reached 2200 signatures, leaving it only about 375,000 short of triggering a non-binding citizens initiated referendum.

Though it got a little bit lost in all the fallout over her Hosking decision, Ardern has also opted to pull out of her regular Tuesday interview slot on RNZ’s highest-rating show Morning Report.

It wasn't lost on Mike Hosking.

“What wasn’t reported yesterday because sadly this show got the headlines, is that Morning Report, the breakfast show of the state-run radio station, has apparently agreed to rearrange the prime ministerial schedule to allow the prime minister to come on the day of her choosing, on the topic of her choosing," he told his listeners on Tuesday.

"If true, and God I hope I am wrong, the fact they have allowed this is little short of a scandal."

That prayer was answered. He was wrong.

Morning Report said the prime minister's office got in touch with the show around a month ago - the same time as it contacted Newstalk ZB - to say Ardern will continue to appear at least weekly, although not on a set day.

But she won't choose the topics - Morning Report told Mediawatch they still do that. 

Morning Report and the Mike Hosking Breakfast show have one thing in common: audiences which skew heavily toward older, Pākehā listeners.

Those audiences may be large, but as The Hui's host Mihingarangi Forbes noted on RNZ's The Panel, a weekly interview with the prime minister gives a certain segment of the population much better access to the nation’s top elected official than others.

"I ask hard questions too, and we'd love that opportunity," she said. 

"But I guess there's only one prime minister and there's literally hundreds and hundreds of outlets these days. It's time to spread it around. What about Māori journalism? What about Asian journalism? What about Indian channels and radio stations? Māori radio stations. They don't get any."

Forbes has recent evidence to reinforce her claim that she's capable of asking the prime minister hard questions, including an interview earlier this month where she asked Ardern if she owed an apology to the family of the KFC worker, Case L, who contracted Covid-19.

Ardern herself echoed Forbes’ point in an interview with Morning Report on Tuesday.

She said the Herald and Newstalk ZB  - both outlets of publisher NZME - have a shared audience and she felt she had to reach a more diverse range of people.

"There are some parts of the media that I might reach there, that I don't reach anywhere else."

"I don't do nearly as much ethnic media. I don't do nearly as much media that crosses the different demographics of New Zealand. I feel like I need to do a better job of that, and that's what I'll be doing."

There’s still a risk Ardern will use her newfound free time to book more softball interviews on less newsy radio stations.

But as good an interviewer as he can be, Mike Hosking isn’t the only broadcaster capable of keeping the prime minister honest.

If Ardern can still be held to account, while appearing before a broader cross-section of the people she’s meant to represent, that sounds like a good thing.

After all she’s the prime minister for all New Zealanders, not just the older, white ones.

Ex-royals trigger second wave of media conniptions

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Photo: AFP

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey provoked intense reactions from segments of the press, some of which were accused of racist and biased coverage by the formerly royal couple.

The Daily Mail plastered its homepage with no fewer than 13 stories about the interview within minutes of it going to air.

But even its obsession couldn’t contend with that of New Zealand’s most avid Markle-watcher, Newstalk ZB's early morning host Kate Hawkesby. 

By the calculation of The Spinoff’s Sam Brooks, Hawkesby has written 15 articles about Markle since 2018 - in addition to lots of on-air comment. 

That’s more than 7000 words about a person who almost certainly doesn’t know Hawkesby exists.

Her two articles on Markle’s latest interview are in keeping with many of the rest: deeply personal, and brimming with scorn. 

The first, written just prior to the interview going to air, was headlined ‘Disingenuous Meghan steps back into the spotlight’. 

The second, after it screened, compared Markle and Ardern, saying both are guilty of picking and choosing where they’re held to account.

Meanwhile, her partner Mike Hosking leveled a personal, gendered insult at Markle during one of his editorials.

"We see her for what she is don't we? A sort of shallow self-absorbed, attention-seeking, woke, bandwagon-riding hussy," he said on Newstalk ZB.

But the most callous reaction to the interview came from to the Herald’s head of business Fran O’Sullivan. 

On Newstalk ZB's Drive show she cast doubt on Markle's claims that she was subject to racism both from the press, and within the royal family.

"She's half-white, let's get real about it. Dad is a white film director. Her mum's not. She's bi-racial herself. Come on, let's play to all the intelligent side as well. She's had a fantastic upbringing. She's had a fantastic career. I just take it all with a grain of salt I'm afraid," she told host Heather du Plessis-Allan.

"I also think it's time that Harry got over the fact of his mother's death," she said. "It was a very long time ago."

"I totally agree," Du Plessis-Allan replied. "Gosh, we could talk about this forever."

“Meghan Markle has either had her lips plumped, or the makeup artist had a long night and couldn’t apply the lip liner straight," O’Sullivan also wrote in a hastily deleted tweet posted while the Oprah interview was on air on Three.

All this seemed a little out-of-scope for a business editor.

These reactions may have been over-the-top, but they couldn’t match the that of ITV’s Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan.

He started off the week saying Markle was lying about feeling suicidal during her time working in the royal family.

"I don't believe a word she said," he said. "I wouldn't believe it if she read me a weather report."

When another of Morgan's co-hosts, Alex Beresford, criticised him the following day, he walked out of the studio, saying "I don't have to take this".

He subsequently met with his bosses at ITV and decided to leave the station. 

If that seemed a little contrived, it’s worth noting that Discovery is looking to set up a Fox News-esque channel in the UK and is reportedly interested in hiring Morgan.

Discovery also owns Three, which broadcast the Oprah interview in New Zealand.

All these meltdowns are linked by the fact they’re weird overreactions to comparatively inconsequential events.

But they’re also all deeply personal attacks from commentators who don’t really have the insider knowledge to back up their accusations.

In the case of Newstalk’s guests and hosts, that’s possibly part of a strategy. One former presenter for a station in the NZME stable told Mediawatch they were regularly pulled up for adding context to their answers, because that didn’t make for “good strong opinion”. 

But even if good strong opinions make for better ratings in a competitive media market, they can be delivered without fully-fledged character assassinations of people they barely know.

Whether it's a change in the prime minister's media schedule or holding forth on a former royal, hosts could do with playing the ball, not the woman.