by Karl du Fresne

In the past few months I’ve got into the habit of watching the Prime TV news at 5.30pm.

The timing is a bit inconvenient, but that’s greatly offset by the benefits. Eric Young has a very agreeable newsreading style, by which I mean he just sits at a desk and reads the news. There’s never any pretence of Walter Cronkite-style moral authority and no cues to viewers as to how they should respond emotionally to what’s on screen.

The bulletin is only 30 minutes long but that’s enough to cover the essentials. In fact the shorter duration is an advantage because it forces Prime to stick to the basics. It’s a no-frills, straight-down-the-middle bulletin that avoids the editorial posturing and embroidery common on the other channels; this, despite the fact that it uses some of the same reporters as Newshub.

Last night I was reminded what a blessed relief it has been to watch Prime. An important phone call meant I missed the 5.30 bulletin, so I took a deep breath and tuned into Newshub at 6pm.

I didn’t last long. I turned off after about a minute, but only after shouting a profanity at the TV set. I’m not sure what that was supposed to achieve.

The lead item – the event that Newshub’s editors selected as the most significant news of the day – concerned a low-profile Opposition MP who had expressed scepticism about the role of human-induced climate change in Cyclone Gabrielle.

So after 10 days or so when the New Zealand media had a real and vital story on their hands – a dramatic story about life, death and devastation on a massive scale (which, to the media’s credit, they generally handled admirably) – we were jolted back to normality with a mischievous sideshow.

Newshub was back to its default setting of political scalp-hunting, contriving to whip up a storm out of an injudicious comment from a relatively minor player whose chief failings appear to be that she’s honest and politically not very astute. It was a reminder of all I despise about television journalism.

The item should have been headlined News Flash: MP says what she thinks. This, of course, is the worst possible thing a politician can do, especially when media assassins are constantly lurking with their daggers poised.

Maureen Pugh’s statement of scepticism about climate change was seized on not because she’s an important figure in the party (far from it; although she’s National’s junior whip, she has retained her seat in Parliament by the skin of her teeth), but because her gaffe presented an opportunity to portray National as at odds with itself over a cause that the media push with totalitarian fervour.

Even watching the opening moments of the item last night, I could see political editor Jenna Lynch’s fingerprints all over it. When I held my nose and viewed it in full later, I confirmed that it bore all her usual trademarks. These included ambushing senior National MPs and demanding to know whether they shared Pugh’s scepticism – the purpose being to see them squirm – then going to government ministers and effectively inviting them to denounce her.  

I guess this is Newshub’s idea of balanced journalism. After all, both Labour and National had their say.

Predictably, Pugh’s colleagues from Christopher Luxon down scuttled for cover. I didn’t hear any of them defend her right to express a dissenting view. A sensible response would have been that National is a broad-church party, open to a variety of ideas and able to cope with minority opinions. But no: deviation from the party line is not permitted and will be punished – in this case, by Luxon giving Pugh some books and ordering her to read them. Does he not realise he risks losing more votes than he wins by throwing her under the bus? It serves only to gratify the witch-hunters in the media and enhance their sense of power.

As is so often the case, the Newshub item was infused with a moralistic tone. Lynch went so far as to imply that to deny the effects of climate change was to betray the thousands of people struggling with the effects of Cyclone Gabrielle. Brazen emotional manipulation is another part of her tool kit.

But she was able to adopt a gloating note at the end when she reported that a suitably chastened Pugh had “walked back” her comments. Job done, then; another scalp to hang on the belt. Journalists always win because they control the rules of the game.

Of course Newshub wasn’t the only media outlet to engage in the pile-on. The  sanctimonious Marc Daalder of Newsroom was in on it too, demonising Pugh as a denier, accusing her of callous disregard for flood victims (as Lynch did) and – get this – saying she should be disqualified from holding office. This from a journalist who has been in New Zealand for roughly five minutes.

Much as he might hate the thought, Pugh has a legitimacy Daalder will never possess. She’s at least answerable to voters, even if only indirectly via our cockeyed electoral system. Daalder, on the other hand, is accountable to no one other than his employers. I’ll take a wild guess and say there would be more sympathy for Pugh on the West Coast, where she comes from, than for the opinions of a privileged product of the American university system.

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Clearly, Chris Luxon is going to have to be more tolerant of dissenting views within his caucus. Toeing the Party Line on some things, like its major policy platform is important, but there must be room for questions and alternative stances on others. Cam Slater of the BFD righly calls hims a Woke Womble — see here.

Even Newshub’s Patrick Gower has come to Maureen Pugh’s defence — see here.