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NZ media changing tack, and women are steering

Political reporting, like the country’s political management, is undergoing significant change.

Last week, MediaWorks announced that Tova O’Brien will take over as Newshub’s political editor, now that Patrick Gower has moved to being a national correspondent.

TVNZ's Jessica Mutch will be Corrin Dann’s replacement. Dann has moved to a fulltime role on Q + A.

In much the same way that Jacinda Ardern has brought a different approach to political power in this country, the changing of the media guard could see a different style of political reporting emerge in 2018.

The political bureaux of all our main media organisations will be led by women for the first time ever.

Tracy Watkins at Stuff, Audrey Young at the NZ Herald steer the ship at the two big newspapers and online platforms. Jane Patterson is in charge at RNZ. O’Brien and Mutch will make it a clean sweep.

TVNZ’s Katie Bradford is also chair of the press gallery.

The all-male press gallery team in 1931. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

As one gallery journalist put it to me being “pale, male and stale” is so 2017.

It was once true that women held few senior editorial or management positions in the media but those days are long gone.

Sinead Boucher is now the CEO of Stuff after being its Editor, Bernadette Courtney is Editor of the Dominion Post, Carol Hirschfeld is head of content (including news) at RNZ, Miri Alexander is Editor of the Herald on Sunday and The Weekend Herald, and until she left recently, Joanna Norris was Editor of The Press in Christchurch.

Both TVNZ and Newshub have women in senior editorial positions.

Numerically, across all media there are more female reporters than male reporters.

The changes in the parliamentary press gallery are the most striking though.

Being “pale, male and stale” is so 2017.

In addition to the departing Gower and Dann, the long-serving and respected Vernon Small (Dominion Post) and Alex Tarrant (Interest.co.nz) have gone to be Labour press secretaries. The doyen of the gallery, Ian Templeton, has retired after the demise of the subscription-only Trans-Tasman newsletter.

Male reporters will soon be in the minority when it comes to political reporting.

Covering national politics is often seen as a rite of passage by many journalists. Working in the press gallery has a certain status and most of the major stories in this country have a political component to them.

Parliament is regarded as a bear pit for politicians and it is also a tough place for those who report on them. Competition to break stories is fierce. If you are not first with the news then the follow-up better be good.

Forty-five years later and not much has changed. Photo: Lynn Grieveson 

Editors ride their political reporters particularly hard because a competitor's output is so visible and they have a lot of resources tied up in parliamentary bureaux.

Most of the major news organisations have four or more staff working in the gallery.

Reporters (especially television ones) are judged not only on the stories they do but on how they perform in the rolling mauls. Did they ask the killer question that embarrassed a hapless politician? Did they get the better of a leader under pressure?

Newshub’s Duncan Garner and Paddy Gower were experts at this with a dogged approach which, depending on your view, was either admirably persistent or rude and over the top.

The cut and thrust between male reporters like Garner, Gower, and Dann and male leaders like Key, English, Cunliffe, Little and Peters was often brutal.

Will this change now that we have a “kinder” Prime Minister in Ardern, possibly a less-combative National Party leader in Amy Adams and mainly female political reporters?

There is a sense among senior media people that it will and that media organisations are already - consciously or unconsciously - moving to reflect Ardern’s softer, less aggressive style of politics.

There is a sense among senior media people that it will and that media organisations are already - consciously or unconsciously - moving to reflect Ardern’s softer, less aggressive style of politics.

But the chance of a sea change is going to be tempered by two factors - the characteristics of the women involved and the growing influence of journalists reporting from outside the press gallery.

Tova O’Brien grew up journalistically around some tough operators - Garner, Gower and TV3’s ex- Wellington bureau chief and former political reporter, Gordon McBride.

She is seasoned, determined, and will at least start with a view of taking few - if any - prisoners.

Jessica Mutch is less aggressive but highly competitive and will want to go toe-to-toe with O’Brien. She is also experienced having previously been deputy political editor at TVNZ.

!980 and things are starting to look better, but gender balance is still a long way off. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

If there is any softening towards politicians from inside the “beltway” there is unlikely to be any from outside it.

Rigorous interviews have disappeared from the 7pm television shows but radio is making them a high priority.

Guyon Espiner on RNZ’s Morning Report is in devastating form, coolly dissecting MPs that give off the slightest whiff of incompetence.

His co-host Susie Ferguson shows plenty of skilled determination, too.

If the politicians manage to elude Espiner and Ferguson, they are likely to be nailed at the other end of the day by Checkpoint’s meticulously researched John Campbell.

A new era has arrived in New Zealand politics and perhaps some of the blunt instruments of the past will be banished - but the scalpels remain close at hand.

On commercial radio, Garner and Mike Hosking will tip over a few but they suffer from not having the longer interview durations that make their RNZ colleagues so effective.

An interesting addition to the radio ranks is Lisa Owen who is taking over RadioLIVE's drive time slot with Ryan Bridge.

Owen, the host of Newshub’s weekend political show The Nation, is similar to Campbell and Espiner in that she prepares like a demon.

MediaWorks will be hoping she can bring some momentum to its struggling station.

Ardern’s rise has also coincided with the rise of independent news websites, including Newsroom (whose gallery team is led by a male editor), that have broken political stories.

A new era has arrived in New Zealand politics and perhaps some of the blunt instruments of the past will be banished - but the scalpels remain close at hand.

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