13 Nov 2022

Herald’s bid to short-circuit short-termism and tribalism

From Mediawatch, 9:12 am on 13 November 2022

The Herald - and its publisher NZME - has embarked on a months-long series to push back at short-term thinking and political tribalism holding back the post-Covid recovery. Mediawatch asks the driving forces of ‘Rebuilding Better’ how that can be done - and if that also means confronting some of the shrillest voices on NZME’s own platforms.

One of many articles in the New Zealand Herald's in-depth 'Rebuilding Better' series.

One of many articles in the New Zealand Herald's in-depth 'Rebuilding Better' series. Photo: RNZ Mediawatch

“New Zealand governments have for decades grappled with the need to get tangible results before the electoral cycle ends. In local government, we have legislation committing territorial authorities to 10-year long-term plans,” The New Zealand Herald said in an editorial last week.  

“Could such a measure be palatable in central government; or do we need longer electoral cycles?” the Herald asked. 

An interesting question. 

The editorial kicked off a campaign asking big questions about big changes the country needs to consider while recovering from Covid: New New Zealand: Rebuilding Better.

It will run well into 2023 - an election year - tackling themes such as the economy, health, education and social division one by one. 

In just this first week, the Herald has published articles, data and video on drug reform, work practices, the state of relations between employers and workers and more.  

“It's something we’d been talking about all year after the disruption of Covid and also the protests that gripped the nation at that point. We wanted to actually take a step back and ... have a serious think about long-standing systemic issues within New Zealand society and government,” Herald senior newsroom editor David Rowe told Mediawatch.

It’s also a response to short-term thinking and entrenched positions.

“One of the ever-present roadblocks to progress is the binary divide in our political, economic and (ultimately) philosophical ideas about human behaviour and social organisation,” Herald business editor at large Liam Dann - one of the brains behind this campaign - said in a scene-setting opinion piece headlined: If we want to rebuild better we need to change our mindset

He warned that politicians afraid of upsetting or alienating voters at the margins - or trying to set “dead-centre” policies to minimise the risk of that - won’t move this country forward, but debating issue-by-issue might remove what he called “the entrenched tribal dynamic which leads to big policy failures on both sides of the political spectrum”.

“I’ve always been highly sceptical of anyone whose politics makes them certain that one way is right and another way is wrong. And frankly, I think it is these people who are holding this country back. I’m sick of it and I suspect a lot of New Zealanders are too,” he added. 

But awkwardly, the platforms of his own employer NZME often air those sorts of definitive, strident opinions - many from their own journalists and radio hosts.

Last year, the NZME’s energetic ‘90 percent’ Covid vaccination campaign was undermined by its own ZB radio host and Herald columnist Mike Hosking, who repeatedly claimed - wrongly - it would meet “a wall of resistance” well before that level. 

This week the new Herald series published a piece by the boss of the New Zealand Initiative think tank Oliver Hartwich who said our education system was a “disaster”. 

“If a war had wiped out our entire education system, the task could not be more daunting,” he said, arguing the bureaucrats overseeing it must go.  

He said the answer was better training and a better career structure for teachers; a better curriculum; a better assessment system and better monitoring systems - all at once.

But he didn't say how that should be done - or by whom. 

His crisis call for a “national education emergency” to be declared amplified in Newstalk ZB's news bulletins - and in an interview the same day on Newstalk ZB Drive show, Hartwich restated his grievances and a call to “get back to basics”.

It was pretty basic criticism - highlighting problems rather than problem-solving - and not much of a blueprint for ‘rebuilding better'. Isn't this the kind of strident doctrinaire stuff Liam Dann said was holding the country back?  

“I think to look at one column or one interview - that's what we're trying to get away from. This is a long term project and one of the topics we're going to tackle in depth is education,” Rowe said. 

“The New Zealand Initiative has done a lot of research on (education) particularly around literacy and set the tone for debate and brought those things to the surface. So it would be terrible if people saw it as just a right-wing point of view and discount it,” Rowe said.  

“The important thing is to look at the ideas as what they are, rather than where they come from. That's why we're creating an overall brand and a hub for this content, so that we can explore it over a period of time and look at the various arguments,” Rowe told Mediawatch

Have media actually encouraged what Liam Dann described as “the daily and weekly scraps about the short-term economic cycle” by airing a lot of opinion focusing on that rather than the issues of substance?

“Well, we don't want to be boring. And we are also commercial to the extent that we've got it got to be attention-grabbing," he said. 

“It is also an issue for the right I think right now, and hyperbole doesn't help ... and I think a lot of the sort of shrill, anti-woke kind of stuff isn't helping that cause,” Dann said. 

In his article calling for a new mindset, Dann argued we need “bold leadership with the confidence to accurately implement the right policy approach for the right issue”.

But sometimes when politicians are bold, they are punished by public opinion and in the media. 

The recent announcement on charging for emissions from agriculture sparked a wave of commentary in the media including claims the world doesn't care if New Zealand is ‘world-leading’ on this or not. The most strident and persistent ‘one note’ criticism was aired by another NZME platform, The Country.  

“That is a show that reflects the views of farmers. We're a country where agriculture is completely central to our economy, and farmers have a lot of power. So those are realities of life in New Zealand  and we've got to hear these views,” Dann said.

“When there was a large groundswell of opinion, you have to acknowledge that,” Dann said, referencing the rural protest movement that took to the streets to oppose ‘unworkable regulations’.

“We're a commercial organisation, so audiences are always central. There's a constant dynamic of how much we can push the agenda along. There's a feedback loop between the media and audience. I'm all in favour of the media doing what it can, but you don't want to be oppressively applying an agenda through the media or you end up with people just rejecting the mainstream media. And that's worse,” Dann said. 

“You have to be a fairly wide net and I would say Newstalk and the Herald is a wide net. It's not the same as the UK where you have a segmented audience, it is a constant balancing act and it's thought about a lot by senior editors,” Dann told Mediawatch

“If they're going to announce something regarding farming emissions, there's going to be a big backlash. I think that's where the boldness comes in. It's not about trying soothe the debate - it's about the politicians and the leaders having the courage of their convictions and making it work if that's what they think the country deserves and needs,” Rowe said. 

“You can lead your audience or you can follow your audience, but you've got to have your audience with you. And that's close to our thinking in everything that we do,” Rowe said.