Election 2017

Edwards: How media viewed Election 2017

Last year’s election campaign was tumultuous for the media too. Dr Bryce Edwards of Victoria University of Wellington looks at the analysis of how the media handled the election in the book on the election, Stardust and Substance.

Change was in the air for everyone involved in the 2017 election campaign. The four chapters relating to the media in Stardust and Substance emphasise the degree of transformation occurring in the media landscape.

Producing a political TV show in one of New Zealand’s most explosive election campaigns

So much of what made the 2017 election campaign tumultuous was related to political communications, and especially the role of the media. From Metiria Turei’s downfall, to the “stardust” of Jacinda Ardern’s rise, and the debates over $11.7 billion holes, it was all related to how politics is communicated and conveyed to the public.

This means that journalists like Nicola Kean, who was a Newshub producer working on The Nation in 2017, can provide very useful insights into what was happening in the media, and how they deal with politicians. Her chapter is a must-read for anyone interested in how the media works.

Kean puts a lot of emphasis on the role of Metiria Turei’s benefit saga in enlivening the election campaign: “Turei gave a speech that set in motion a dramatic chain of events. By the time polling day rolled around little more than two months later, three political party leaders had resigned, two of National’s key coalition partners were fighting for their lives, and for the first time in almost a decade Labour was in spitting distance of forming a government.”

So, what was looking to be a “beige campaign” shifted into something more spectacular: “one of the most astonishing upsets in New Zealand political history”.

Inside the Turei saga

In terms of the Turei saga, Kean defends the media’s coverage of the beleaguered politician: “The media has been criticised for the way it covered Turei’s admission, accused of hounding her and ignoring the issues she raised in her speech. While some of the commentary around her speech was certainly unpleasant and unnecessary, she was also a public figure who admitted to committing a crime. When journalists began scrutinising the background they discovered inconsistencies in her story.”

According to Kean, this scrutiny should have been expected by Turei: “Turei’s narrative was beginning to unravel. It quickly became clear that she hadn’t taken steps to minimise the potential damage, neither seeking legal advice nor meeting with Work and Income until well after the speech.”

What’s more, it turned out that many in the party – especially two Green MPs who resigned – were also not on board. And then “more questions emerged from Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint programme about the support Turei had received while on the benefit.”

In a defensive crouch

Another theme of Kean’s chapter is the attempts of politicians to escape this scrutiny. Politicians often proved reluctant to appear on The Nation – especially government ministers: “holding politicians accountable on behalf of the voting public is only possible if they see it as part of their job. With certain honourable exceptions, including the then Prime Minister Bill English and Finance Minister Steven Joyce, the National government seemed to spend its final term in defensive crouch mode. Which is why, for example, The Nation went the whole year without doing a one-on-one interview with the then Minister for Social Housing Amy Adams about a key issue in the campaign. Likewise, when the rapidly rising prison muster was the topic du jour there was no long-form interview with Minister of Corrections Louise Upston.”

Kean also recounts how Opposition politicians also caused problems over fronting up. In one instance, in the days following the Budget, a Labour MP scheduled to appear on the show to talk about Labour’s reaction to the Budget pulled out a day before, and no other Labour MP was provided as a replacement. Hence, according to Kean, “we felt we had no choice but to ‘empty chair’ the party – in other words, to tell (and show) viewers that Labour had pulled out of the interview.”

The Nation also had great trouble getting Winston Peters to do interviews or take part in debates. Even “after the election it would be 161 days before he sat in the interview chair again. It’s a phenomenal number when one considers the effect he had on New Zealand politics in the interim.”

Speaking directly to voters

Other politicians apparently embraced social media also in order to get their messages out without the scrutiny of the media. Kean says that tools such as Facebook Live were used to “speak directly to voters” and create “a virtual town hall”, but “the more sinister flipside was that the technology could also be used to evade questioning from journalists”.

But the media have also come under increased scrutiny themselves. Journalists, Kean says, “are also more exposed to criticism and vitriol than ever before. During the campaign a number of journalists were talking openly about the abuse they receive online and several rolled back their engagement on social media for the sake of their mental health.”

Much of this comes from “a mistrust of the so-called mainstream media”, which meant that “Journalists frequently were accused of ‘fake news’ on social media for reporting facts that disagreed with the user’s political views.”

Kean does admit that sometimes reporting during an election campaign is fraught – such as when Finance Minister Steven Joyce claimed the existence of a $11.7bn hole in Labour’s proposed budget: “In a fast-moving environment like an election campaign, press conferences like this are reported basically immediately and although it didn’t take long for Joyce’s claim to be rubbished, an immense amount of damage potentially could have been done with the initial headlines. At the very worst it was a cynical ploy by Joyce, knowing the media would have to report his statement but was also not in a position to fact check it immediately.”

Kean deals with the rise of “Jacindamania”. She conveys the rise of Ardern – “a young woman leader with a carefully crafted image”, who followed “a succession of pale, male and stale leaders”. Kean describes Ardern as “warm and genuine but with a backbone of steel”.

Finally, the term “stardust” used in the title of the book is explained as arising out of National and Bill English’s search for a critical label to use for Ardern “without looking condescending or bullying”. Hence, “English took the tack of attempting not to address her directly in the debates, in the Christchurch Press debate referring to her as ‘stardust’. The phrase immediately took off amongst her fans, spurring artworks of Ardern as David Bowie from the cover of his 1973 Aladdin Sane album.”

Māori media and the campaign

When the Spinoff website published a light-hearted guide to political television programmes, it clearly offended TVNZ political journalist Yvonne Tahana, because she’s taken writers Duncan Greive and Toby Manhire to task in her chapter on the media’s coverage of Māori politics. The Spinoff writers described had described TVNZ’s Marae programme as “avuncular”. She has hit back: “I found that so patronising coming from an organisation who haven’t done a great deal of Māori journalism themselves and probably don’t watch a lot of Māori media either. They should do so.”

Tahana generally evaluates how well the media covers Māori politics, with a number of useful insights, and a list of personal irritations. For example, she suggests that she generally gets annoyed with non- Māori journalists and commentators analysing Māori politics: “there was a bit of a Twitter spat, involving a Māori political reporter saying ‘shoosh’ to some of the Pākehā political reporters. I can understand why that happened. It is a bit grating to hear reporters who never go to Māori events express their views on Māori affairs. It’s the same with academic commentators.”

But Tahana’s problem isn’t with all non- Māori analysing or reporting on Māori politics. For example, she says: “My favourite Māori news reporter at Radio New Zealand is Lois Williams, a Pākehā who really has an amazing amount of institutional knowledge, able to go back 30 years where the rest of us might be able to go back around three.”

Others to get the tick of approval are Elton Smallman and Jo Moir at Stuff, Claire Trevett and Audrey Young at the Herald, and Shannon Thompson and Mihingarangi Forbes at RNZ.

Some focus is given to trying to understand the Māori electorates. The best guide, according to Tahana, is the network of iwi radio stations. And she points out that the polling of the Māori electorates is expensive and less reliable.

It was therefore a surprise that the Māori Party’s Te Ururoa Flavell lost Waiariki to Labour’s Tamati Coffey: “only a few Māori journalists thought he would win. Most of us didn’t pick it. Labour understood the seat’s importance and threw Jacinda Ardern at it.”

Tahana is clearly sympathetic to Flavell, saying “he is essentially a very good man”. And she was unhappy to see his party’s demise: “To conclude, I would say that I think it very sad that Māori have essentially dumped the Māori Party. But that’s politics. I don’t think that you can question the commitment level of Te Ururoa Flavell and others in the Māori Party, but clearly in 2017 it wasn’t enough.”

Cartoonists and the 2017 election

2017 was a great year for cartoonists in New Zealand. And the chapter by Ian F. Grant and Hannah Benbow reiterates this very well: “After an early 2017 expectation that there would be a dull and predictable election… the election campaign turned out to have rich pickings for cartoonists, and for the media generally”. They point out that it was Jacindamania, especially, that made it a better year for cartoons: “The elevation of Jacinda Ardern was a heaven-sent gift to the media – fearing a drab, boring election”.

Grant and Benbow discuss how cartoonists portrayed Ardern: “New Zealand cartoonists have traditionally softened their depictions of women politicians. Consequently, Ardern’s gleaming and expansive teeth have given our cartoonists an instant hook to compensate, not too unkindly, for the sort of good looks that are usually the bane of caricaturists. Nevertheless, those good looks have not been overlooked by a (currently) male-dominated profession and the male gaze is evident in many depictions of Ardern”.

Much of the chapter is about making a case for the important role of cartoonists in helping communicate and understand politics. Arguably this role has actually become more important, due to changes in the media and increased spin from politicians: “During modern-day election campaigns, voters are bombarded with political party information at a much greater volume and intensity than in earlier decades, which may partly explain a reducing level of voter engagement. There is both more to absorb and higher than ever levels of ‘spin-doctoring’ to contend with. Politicians have always attempted to blur the facts and worse, but during the last few decades ‘spin-doctoring’ has become an industry.”

Changes in media and technology also mean that visual satire is changing, especially because online media is providing more opportunities not just for traditional cartoons, but also for animated cartoons as well as new art forms such as memes: “During the 2017 election, political/editorial cartoonists found their work featuring alongside a range of other visual satire. Memes have graduated from the domain of the Internet troll to a powerful and popular medium for satire – for instance, the Twitter accounts ‘New Zealand Art History Parallels’ and ‘Kupu Hou’. Also of note was the ‘We are Beneficiaries’ social media project’s response to Metiria Turei’s benefit fraud confession.”

The highlight of the chapter, and indeed one of the highlights of the book, is the reproduction of some of the best cartoons from the election campaign. Thirty-four colourful cartoons are laid out in a way that provides an excellent overview of what happened in 2017.

Satire and citizen craft in 2017

Political satire in New Zealand is going through a transformation at the moment according to the chapter by Sarah Austen-Smith. She says that changes in the media (commercialisation; the rise of “gag-heavy panel shows”) meant that “satire looked to be under siege – until the flourishing of new media.”

As part of her research for a Masters of Journalism, Austen-Smith discovered that a new type of political humour was emerging: “the satirical class of 2017 can be seen to be breaking new ground. A new cohort of millennials took satire from the pages of print media to smartphones everywhere, with Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook drawing new audiences into political discussion.” She points to practitioners such as Tom Sainsbury, Robbie Nicol, and Ben Uffindell.

She calls this “the rise of the citizen satirist”. And some of it is having an impact or reaching a large audience, despite the lack of a mainstream media platform. For example, Uffindell’s “most popular post was read by more than half a million New Zealanders. That’s no mean feat, considering that the highest-rating Shortland Street episode of all time reached 700,000 viewers.”

She also explores the rise of memes in the 2017 election. The most popular seemed to be the Facebook page ‘Backing the Kiwi Meme’, which Austen-Smith explains: “Started in late 2016, it took aim at the New Zealand Labour Party’s then slogan, ‘Backing the Kiwi Dream’. The page uses photoshopped images, videos, memes and GIF images to satirise New Zealand politicians, putting most of its focus on Labour and the left.”

So, is there a leftwing bias to political satire in New Zealand? Austen-Smith quotes Alexander Sparrow, who conveys to her that “it’s a tough time to be conservative in New Zealand’s comedy scene”. He says “people who are obviously influenced by Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and John Oliver basically preach. I find that really boring”.

Sparrow bridles at the conformist nature of political satire in this country: “I think 98 per cent of comedians in Wellington would be voting Labour or Greens and I’m not. I wanted to put across the other side, not because I want people to vote a certain way, but to show that you can engage in political discussion without it just turning into ad hominem”.

Ben Uffindell, despite coming from a more leftwing position, seems to back this up with his own experience: “When I write stuff about the left I get hate mail. When I write about right-wing figures everyone seems to have a great time. I think left-wing satirists and comedians are used to being the ones doing the laughing and the right-wing person’s used to being laughed at.”

And he wishes he was freer in his ability to poke fun at the left: “the left are virtuous. It annoys me sometimes that I can’t throw it both ways and just have people accept that”.

Finally, this raises questions of whether satirists have a responsibility for providing a particular type of political art? For example, we often hear that satire should only “punch up, not punch down”. But Austen-Smith says Steve Braunias “dismisses the idea that satire has a responsibility to democracy”, saying “I think that’s ludicrous”. Instead, she reports that Braunias thinks that satire has “a responsibility generally to be funny, although sometimes there’s ‘a need for satire be really bitter and unfair’.”

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