By Dickens, what a year it has been

Every time I sit down to review the past year, I am drawn to the words of a former reporter on London’s Morning Chronicle.

No matter what the year, the opening lines to one of his better-known pieces of writing seems to resonate: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

And, by Dickens, that sums up the past 12 months.

The New Zealand media’s year has been, to put it far less eloquently than the author of A Tale of Two Cities, one of ups and downs. Of course, media cannot be held entirely responsible for those oscillations. In many respects they are simply mirroring or reacting to what is happening more widely in society and on the global stage. And that world is full of paradoxes – some of the best rises out of the worst.

Take, for example, the occupation of Parliament’s grounds in February and March, which was one of the worst assaults on democracy in this country’s history. Anti-mandate, anti-vax, and anti-[place your conspiracy theory here] laid siege at the seat of government and called for the trial and execution of politicians and journalists. Reporters and crews covering the occupation were verbally threatened and manhandled.

From it emerged not only excellent field reporting but the exposure of a parallel media environment in which conspiracy theories ran riot. Investigative journalists then began to probe. The work of two journalists stood out for me but many contributed to our understanding of that dark vista on websites such as NZ Telegraph and the Telegram social media platform. The New Zealand public was left in no doubt of the clear and present danger presented by disinformation.

The two endeavours that I would highlight are, firstly, the Stuff Circuit documentary Fire and Fury led by Paula Penfold, which put faces on the conspiracy theorists and drew lines between them while taking us inside the occupation. And, secondly, an on-going series of revealing stories by the New Zealand Herald’s David Fisher, who used his knowledge of New Zealand security services to inform us of the responses to threat and risk.

And risks there were. Penfold’s personal safety – and that of her family – was put in danger by what was judged to be credible threats in reaction to the documentary. Fisher has had threats and so, too, have others (such as Newsroom’s Marc Daalder, The Spinoff’s Dylan Reeve, and The Disinformation Project’s Kate Hannah) in the course of excellent work to uncover those behind the anti- movement. None, as far as I am aware, has been dissuaded from continuing their enquiries.

Personal threats are not a new phenomenon. The ones against me were in envelopes delivered by the postman. Some you take seriously, others not. However, what marks out 2022 is not only the sheer volume – a function of the digital age – but the pure hatred that is embodied in the messages. The rhetoric now draws on a lexicon provided by what is clearly an international collective hell bend on destroying parts of civil society. A threat during the occupation to rape a reporter at the end of her night shift casts at least one aspect of the media’s year into the worst-of-times category.

Those threats, of course, stand as nothing alongside the price paid by 58 journalists and media workers who were killed in the line of duty around the world this year (according to Reporters Without Borders). Eight of those were in Ukraine, where the invasion by Putin’s forces – and the war crimes revealed in reclaimed territories – have exacted a fearful toll on the mental well-being of hundreds of journalists. Here I tip my hat to Newshub’s Lisette Reymer and cameraman Daniel Pannett for their work in the war zone. They brought a New Zealand perspective to the conflict and reinforced the picture of a courageous nation that will not capitulate whatever the cost.

In fact, the year revealed some superb examples of good journalism across so many fields that it is perhaps unfair to try to single out examples. They were proof that good journalism is not dead. Far from it, there were many examples of tenacious investigation and breaking news coverage that do the outlets credit. The number of such oases is growing but oases they remain and, as I have said so often before, to have an oasis you first need a desert. It is created by a metrics-driven desire to, first, entertain and, second, to create minor celebrities out of journalists.

Too often, in pursuit of the latter, good reportage was subsumed by opinion. Some journalists believe their comments are more sacred than facts. They are wrong, and last week I heard a compelling reason why they should rethink their approach. Three secondary school students made a brief Zoom appearance at a conference I was attending. They left the audience in no doubt that they wanted to see facts, not journalists’ opinions. One summed up their collective view: “We don’t want to be told what to think. We want to know what to think about”.

There were good examples of ‘tell me what to think about” journalism in coverage of the Covid pandemic, where the majority of news coverage was science-based.  For example, the New Zealand Herald’s science writer, Jamie Morton, was a consistent supplier of science-based information that both explained the news and allowed people to assess threats and countermeasures.

Climate change also presented the country’s media with science-based opportunities and challenges, from live coverage of its real-time effects on New Zealand to unravelling the geopolitics of the COP27 conference in Cairo. Here, I must acknowledge Newsroom’s Rod Oram for helping me understand how the world can compensate small nations for the effects of a manmade catastrophe while failing to address its causes. It was also encouraging to see the way news outlets dedicated sections of their websites to sequestering their climate change and environmental coverage.

Not a year goes by that crime does not dominate headlines. Much of it has been warranted by clear public interest. Ram raid and retail smash and grab raids – culminating in the death of a Sandringham dairy worker —  have seen to that. Nonetheless, there is clear evidence that some of our metropolitan newspapers are more disposed toward ‘if-it-bleeds-it-leads’ than others. In the year to date, the New Zealand Herald published 93 front page leads relating to crime or serious injury. It was followed by the Waikato Times with 74, The Press with 41, Otago Daily Times with 24, and the Dominion Post a mere 19. Doubtless, each editor would justify her or his choices, but I do question whether the electrocution of a scaffolder or a teen’s fatal failure to take a road bend merit the front page, let alone the lead.

But back to the best of times.

First, my choice for media celebrities of the year: The Black Ferns.  Here was a group of women full of enthusiasm, drive, skill and humour – all of which combined to make them stars across the media galaxy. I understand there is also a man’s team.

Secondly, it is encouraging to see the growing number and range of podcasts being offered by virtually every news outlet. My picks for the year: The Fold (The Spinoff), The Detail (RNZ and Newsroom), Bernard Hickey’s When the Facts Change (The Spinoff), Liam Dann’s Money Talks (NZ Herald), Eugene Bingham and Adam Dudding’s True Story (Stuff), and a career-changing surprise from former National Party leader Simon Bridges with Generally Famous (Stuff).

And now to the best and worst category, so named because each nominee has elements of both.

The Public Interest Journalism Fund had notable successes grub-staking projects such as Open Justice (which has undoubtedly broadened coverage of our courts) and trained Maori and Pacifika journalists who may not have been attracted to tertiary academic pathways (broadening the backgrounds and diversity of newsrooms). The latest NZ on Air annual report stated the funding scheme created almost 13,000 pieces of public interest journalism and over 30 million page views of that content.

I judge that a success, but the PIJF fell victim to a classic disinformation campaign that labelled it a bribe by government that would coerce recipients into toeing a government line. That, of course, is rubbish. However, in the field of disinformation, perception is everything and even normally right-thinking people have been heard repeating the myth. That includes opposition politicians who should know better. The muck has been hard to wash off.

Equally muddied was the government’s attempt to merge Radio New Zealand and Television New Zealand under the guise of a new public service entity for the digital age – an idea whose time has come when one considers the BBC will go online-only within a decade and Australia’s ABC has signalled a digital-focussed restructuring. The Bill that will create the new organisation falls disastrously short of that ambitious goal. Worse, the lack of safeguards in the proposed legislation is so manifest that it has been characterised as “unsafe”. And the minister in charge of the project, Willie Jackson, only stoked the fires of discontent in a disastrous interview with Jack Tame on Q&A. Toby Mahire on The Spinoff and Bryce Edwards in the New Zealand Herald have speculated the merger could be killed off.

Euthanasia is a possibility but that would merely delay, for a few years at most, a process that digital markets will make inevitable. Done properly, a new entity could usher in the best of times. The way this year has played out will, if Labour continues its bulldozer tactics, turn next year into the worst for our state-owned broadcasters. Better to send it back to the drawing board, but not the one that produced a fiasco.

This year, for me and many of my former colleagues, ends in sadness. Over the weekend we heard of the death of one of the finest political journalists the country has produced. John Armstrong was the New Zealand Herald’s political editor until the cruelty known as Parkinson’s forced him to relinquish the role for a slightly less arduous – but no less challenging– one as political correspondent. Obituaries in the Herald  and by my successor as the Herald’s editor-in-chief, Tim Murphy, on Newsroom sum up the man and I endorse what they say. Let me simply refer back to an earlier part of this column and say that John Armstrong always knew the difference between comment and analysis. He eschewed the former and carried out the latter with intelligence, fairness, and a deep understanding of the workings of democracy.

This is the final Tuesday Commentary for 2022. I’ll end by quoting that Evening Chronicle reporter once more: “…it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

Meri Kirihimete.

4 thoughts on “By Dickens, what a year it has been

    1. Gavin Ellis – Gavin Ellis is a media consultant, commentator and researcher. He holds a doctorate in political studies. A former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, he is the author of Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights (London, Palgrave) and Complacent Nation (Wellington, BWB Texts). His consultancy clients include media organisations and government ministries. His Tuesday Commentary on media matters appears weekly on his site
      Gavin Ellis says:

      Your post was removed because you chose to make your point on multiple platforms. I responded to you on one of them but I have absolutely no intention of engaging with you across the social media spectrum. If you want to make a point, make it here and leave it at that. Don’t characterise it as censorship. You had your say, and you know that.

  1. Approaching year’s end simply to say thank you Gavin for your thoughtful, insightful and consistently valuable commentary on the news media over the past 12 months. Your summation of the year just posted underlines the above view. May you and Rufus continue the good work. All the best to you and Jenny for a wonderful Christmas and fruitful New Year.

  2. Gavin Ellis – Gavin Ellis is a media consultant, commentator and researcher. He holds a doctorate in political studies. A former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, he is the author of Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights (London, Palgrave) and Complacent Nation (Wellington, BWB Texts). His consultancy clients include media organisations and government ministries. His Tuesday Commentary on media matters appears weekly on his site
    Gavin Ellis says:

    Many thanks Ado. Rufus and I really appreciate that. Have a great Christmas.

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