20 Jun 2021

Running the numbers on the PM's media schedule

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 20 June 2021

When Jacinda Ardern changed her media schedule earlier this year, it raised heckles from commentators who felt she was ducking scrutiny. But what have the changes actually meant?

Jacinda Ardern and Mike Hosking.

Jacinda Ardern and Mike Hosking. Photo: RNZ

When Jacinda Ardern changed her media schedule this year, Mike Hosking announced the move in typically understated fashion.

"The prime minister has not been on the programme this morning and there's a reason for that," he said. "She's running for the hills."

The Newstalk ZB Breakfast host was peeved mainly because the changes meant Ardern would no longer be appearing weekly on his show, opting for ad-hoc bookings instead. 

The following day, he shared a theory on why Ardern made that move.

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

It wasn’t just Hosking himself making that accusation. He got back-up from Newstalk ZB’s political editor Barry Soper, who penned a venomous op-ed criticising Ardern for failing to pose for “derpies” with students and not inviting the media up to her office for social calls.

On The Detail, RNZ’s podcasts and series editor Tim Watkin delivered his own challenge, saying if she couldn't handle Hosking's rudeness, she was in the wrong job.

“You're the prime minister. Suck it up, deal with it, toughen up, and actually front up," he said.

Others argued Ardern could still suck it up and front up without appearing on Hosking’s show every week.

The Hui’s presenter Mihingarangi Forbes said a small collection of outlets with predominantly Pākehā audiences had dominated the prime minister’s media schedule for too long.

She welcomed the chance for a broader range of interviewers to get access.

That lined up with Ardern’s own rationale.

"I don't think anyone would argue that I'm not available, I'm not able to be questioned on issues of the day, but I do want to do a better job of reaching into some other corners where people might not get information from sources like ZB or even the Herald," she said.

In the months since, Hosking has kept the pressure on the prime minister over her alleged allergy to scrutiny.

He’s been running a regular segment keeping checking she’s up to in her appearances on music stations, including one on The Rock where she was asked about her TradeMe account and another on The Hits where she shared that she had set a date for her wedding.

Several of Ardern’s recent media bookings have reinforced the theory that she’s only interested in softball questions.

Earlier this month, she appeared for a relatively unchallenging podcast interview with David Axelrod, a former senior advisor in the Obama administration.

"When I look at your agenda in New Zealand, it's really very much about reversing conservative policies that have been in place for decades and strengthening the social safety net, the social compact as it relates to child poverty, fair wages, and so on," he observed in one question. That assertion has been disputed by Labour's progressive critics.

But is the prime minister truly cutting back on news in favour of light entertainment?

The answer is maybe sometimes, but not really.

We checked over Ardern’s media diary to see how things have changed in February, March, and April this year.

Ideally we would have compared back to the same time period 2020, but a reasonably significant global event called the Covid-19 pandemic distorted the prime minister’s media schedule somewhat during those months.

Instead we selected three lockdown and general election-free months - February, July, and November - to compare to this year’s diary.

In those three months in 2020, 24 of 94 - or roughly 23 percent - of Ardern’s media appearances were on entertainment-focused networks like music stations. 

That compared to 21 of 96, or 22 percent, in February, March, and April this year.

While appearances on music stations have gone down slightly, Ardern has been booked more regularly on stations catering to Māori and Pacific audiences. 

Thirteen of her 96 media appearances were on platforms like Māori TV’s Te Ao Tapatahi, Radio Waatea, and 531 PI in 2021, compared to seven of her 94 appearances in 2020.

Her appearances on other ethnic media like Radio Tarana, which is targeted at Indian audiences, were down slightly with four over three months in 2020 and three over three months in 2021.

There was one type of media appearance that Ardern cut back on substantially though.

In the three months we looked at from 2020, she appeared on Mike Hosking Breakfast 12 times.

In 2021, she was interviewed on the show just three times in three months - half the number of appearances that she racked up in the same time on another Newstalk ZB show, The Country.

These results are far from scientific. There’s every possibility the prime minister is ducking some tough questions.

But while she may no longer be engaging in weekly verbal warfare with the nation’s most popular commercial radio broadcaster, it doesn’t appear she’s eschewing scrutiny altogether. 

She’s still sucking it up and fronting up - albeit for different audiences with different concerns.