Where is Maggie Thatcher when you need her?

Never in my wildest imaginings did I think I would want to conjure up the ghost of Margaret Thatcher…but I’m getting perilously close to doing it.

Specifically, I want a manifestation of her on 23 September 1981. That was the day she sat down to be interviewed by Australian 60 Minutes reporter George Negus.

Negus asked her: “Why do people stop us in the street and tell us that Mrs Thatcher isn’t just inflexible, she’s not just single-minded, on occasions she is plain pig-headed and won’t be told by anyone?”

The British Prime Minister’s immediate response was: “Will you tell me who has stopped you in the street and told you that?”

“Ordinary Britons.”


“In conversations”

“But I thought you had just come from Belize.”

A slightly flustered Negus replied rather lamely that it wasn’t the first time he had been in Britain, but Thatcher pressed him: “Will you tell me who and where?”

The now famous exchange was prolonged and was an absorbing but long-winded way of Maggie Thatcher telling George Negus that “people” was really no more than his personal opinion.

I want an astral projection of that lesson to appear like wispy fairies of light in the offices and home workplaces of New Zealand journalists and commentators who include “Covid-19”, “Delta variant” or ‘pandemic’ in what they are writing or saying.

I want them all to see the Iron Lady standing over them saying: “Why won’t you tell me names and who they are?” In other words, I want her ghost to point the finger at journalists and commentators who disguise their personal opinions as something greater than it is in reality.

“The People” are being regularly invoked when the journalists, commentators and social media ‘pundits’ interview themselves on the current outbreak in this country. Or they align themselves with other collective nouns – ‘scientists’ or ‘experts’ or ‘frontline workers’.

Witness Heather du Plessis-Allan in the Herald on Sunday saying that the mood in this lockdown has changed and “people – especially Aucklanders who are on their fourth stay-at-home order – are grumpier”. Are they? Or is it simply the NewstalkZB host and some malcontents? On August 23, The Spinoff reported the results of a nationally-representative poll (conducted between August 18 and 22) that shows an overwhelming majority – 72 per cent – supported the decision to move into Level 4 lockdown.TVNZ vox pops after the extension to the lockdown indicated general approval of that decision.

Or her stable mate Mike Hosking taking the opposite approach to demonstrate his superiority: “But most of us still don’t seem to have adjusted to the idea that this is the future and a case in a vaccinated population is not actually a big deal” when he really means that he doesn’t think it’s a big deal and other people are wrong if they do. Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker, on the other hand, said on RNZ’s Morning Report last Wednesday that New Zealand would be in a very good position if it kept its options open in terms of a combination of vaccination and public health measures.

Many commentators presume to be speaking for all of us, particularly when the message is negative. It seems almost like an attempt to share responsibility…or blame.

Negativity has, indeed, been rampant during this lockdown. However, it is not “the people” who are exhibiting symptoms of it but our news media.

There is a legitimate function in exposing shortcomings and mistakes, particularly when civil liberties such as freedom of movement have been constrained. That is what is meant by holding power to account.

However, there is a balance to be struck and lately that has been a little harder to find in some quarters.

Last Thursday the New Zealand Herald led with “Stab in the dark”, a story about the Auckland and Waikato district health boards lacking data on which staff were vaccinated. A splash across pages 2 and 3 was headlined “No taste, high fever – my son’s Delta nightmare” but I took a small measure of comfort when I turned the page and found “Bloomfield staying calm as daily cases set record”. I’m relieved someone is staying calm.

On Saturday the Dominion Post gave me another  glimmer of hope. The front page informed me that the Wellington outbreak of the Delta variant had been “ring-fenced”. Then I looked inside the paper. Page 2 told me there was “Frustration at wait for Level 3” and the facing page warned “Vaccine stocks under strain”. After reading on page 4 that data shows “Vaccination won’t rule out deaths” I was ready to poke my eyes out with a stick.

I’m pleased I didn’t do that because on that issue’s op-ed page was a column by Waiheke writer, Jenny Nicholls, lamenting the fact that few journalists had time for investigative projects and were reduced to what she termed quickdraw ‘reckons’. I agree with her. It’s not new, of course. In pre-digital times we called it ‘interviewing your typewriter’ and the give-away source was Giuseppe Olivetti.

There is a noticeable level of ‘I reckon’ (a.k.a. ‘people say’) in what we are seeing and hearing during the lockdown. Much of it is in the form of criticism of politicians and officials. And I’m not alone in noticing it. Jehan Casinader did not single out mainstream media in a column in the latest Sunday Star Times, but instead lumped us together as a country of Covid complainers.

Yes, he was risking the ghost of Maggie Thatcher breathing down his neck for saying there was “endless whining and moaning from a large segment of the public” (my emphasis). I agree, at least in part, with his description of us “like 5 million children squeezed into the backseat of a station wagon, chanting: Are we there yet?” Where I differ is in my belief that media are fuelling these attitudes rather than reflecting them. His column is worth reading: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/coronavirus/126199938/during-covid-spare-a-thought-for-our-leaders-mental-health

Nonetheless, I must balance criticism with an acknowledgement that there are excellent stories that legitimately hold Government and agencies to account, together with journalism and commentary that is helping the country navigate its way through the pandemic.

At either end of the country, the Waikato Times and the Otago Daily Times are doing a good job in contextualising national settings for local audiences. For example, after the announcement that much of the country would move down to Level 3 tonight (Tuesday), the ODT ran 10 pages of coverage that ranged from expressions of relief, through local vaccination statistics and level 3 explainers, to the significance of sewage monitoring and how local businesses can seek assistance.

A week ago, BusinessDesk editor Pattrick Smellie wrote one of the most perceptive explanations of the Government’s Delta strategy that I have come across. It has been placed outside the BusinessDesk paywall and is well worth reading: https://businessdesk.co.nz/article/opinion/newsflash-this-is-the-roadmap.

Each day the New Zealand Herald has been seeking expert responses to readers’ queries in an “Ask me anything about Covid” column.

Mike Hosking is a trenchant critic of the Government’s Covid performance and of the Prime Minister. His attitude was summed up on Saturday by Tom Scott in a Stuff cartoon that addressed the question: “What would the ‘Hosk’ say if Jacinda Ardern discovered a cure for cancer?” The response was: “Honestly, she would do anything to get on the cover of Time magazine”.

But fair’s fair: He did the vaccination programme a real service on August 16 when he and his wife Kate Hawkesby presented themselves for their first jabs. The pitch-perfect procedure was filmed and duly appeared on the Herald website along with an opinion piece under his by-line. In it he said: “It’s like so many things that involve government. The stuff at the top might be headline-grabbing or open to debate, but on the ground, the workers turn up every day and do their duty, there is an army out there all over the country right now doing a fantastic job.”

He concluded with his verdict: “Side effects? Zero. Experience? 10/10”. His commentary would have persuaded the hesitant to make a booking, and may even give pause for thought to any conspiracy theorists who listen to his NewstalkZB breakfast show.

Media ownership rules

Britain’s media regulator, Ofcom, has been re-examining media ownership rules and the public interest test. The provisions allow the Secretary of State to intervene in proposed sales or mergers that contravene the rules or fail the test. The aim is to prevent market domination.

One of the issues being examined is an extension of the test beyond traditional media to a new category of “news creators’ to reflect the role that online media now have in the media landscape. The new category would put online-only news providers in the same position as traditional media for decisions on market dominance and fitness.

Ofcom’s discussion document (submissions in response closed in the middle of last month) states that challenges to news sustainability and the dissemination of factual information have raised the importance of measuring plurality in the media market. It says in part:

The shift to online news provision and consumption may have increased exposure to inaccurate and untrustworthy news and created a more significant challenge for consumers in terms of discerning accuracy, trustworthiness, and impartiality. Both developments could cause plurality concerns if the impact of inaccurate and untrustworthy news becomes disproportionate.

While disinformation and misinformation are not new problems, the internet has accelerated how fast and far false information can spread, which increases the likelihood that consumers will be exposed to inaccurate and untrustworthy news.

While most people think critically about the information they see online, therefore mitigating the risks of this exposure, our research shows that as many as one third of adult internet users said they believed that all or most of the information they found online was truthful.  We also found that when people consumed news incidentally online – when scrolling through social media or news aggregators for instance – they focused primarily on the headline and paid less attention to the source of the news story. These findings could present implications for media literacy, as identifying a news source is important in making judgments about partiality, accuracy and reliability, while also raising the risk that exposure to false information online could present concerns about the impact and influence of inaccurate and untrustworthy news.

The ways in which consumers access news may also raise concerns about impact and influence. When accessing news through intermediaries, it may be difficult for some consumers to understand why they see the news stories they do, particularly when the content is surfaced by algorithms, and the basis on which certain stories or sources are given prominence is not clear. This lack of transparency may have implications for how consumers consider or trust different sources. In addition, where algorithms look to engage users by serving like-minded content, reducing the variety of opinions to which consumers are exposed may raise further concerns about the relative impact and influence of different news sources.

Isn’t it time we started addressing the same issues in New Zealand?












One thought on “Where is Maggie Thatcher when you need her?

  1. Hear, hear, Gavin. I have been shouting the very same thing at my television, radio and newspapers. A lot of word processor (aka typewriter of new) interviewing going on as proxy for “the people”. Yet, if they thought about the why it might give them pause. Why are people all over the country from poor benighted Northland to Rakiura/Stewart Island who have little or no chance of having been in a place of interest or near a close contact willingly staying in their bubbles? Why? Because if I break my double-vaccined bubble it gives my neighbour permission to break theirs and on and on and on. What we’ve seen is unprecedented – downright astonishing – compliance with the lockdown because the thought of rampant covid and tens if not hundreds of deaths is too horrible to contemplate. We all know they could be our kin, us or just fellow NZers. I agree. We’ve had wonderful, informative reporting. What we also get is too many damn uninformed opinions and, quite possibly, too many harried reporters required by their editors to editorialise or “give perspective”. Aaaagh. Save us.

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