Ideasroom

Anne Salmond: Covid-19 and clickbait

Michael Woodhouse still can't provide evidence of his apocryphal 'homeless man' staying for free in quarantine.  Dame Anne Salmond argues the Opposition and media need to be better in throwing around such claims.

It is now 12 days since the National Party’s spokesman on health, Michael Woodhouse, claimed two women who were infected with Covid-19 drove to Wellington without being tested, and had a ‘kiss and a cuddle’ with friends on the way.

The following day, he told the media a ‘homeless man’ had bluffed his way into a five-star hotel in Auckland, claiming to be a returning New Zealander and joining others in managed isolation for a fortnight.

Despite the risk to public health, Woodhouse did not share his information about the two women with the authorities as soon as he received it. Instead, he held onto it for a political ambush in Parliament.

It seems the claim of a ‘kiss and a cuddle’ was exaggerated, and he has produced no evidence at all to verify his story about the homeless man.

In both cases, the press acted as a megaphone for clickbait, failing to ask for evidence to support these stories, and in many instances, joining the Opposition in baying for blood.

In this unedifying spectacle, there has been more than a hint of US-style trial by media and ‘factoids’ for political gain.

I’m glad the Prime Minister refused to hand over any sacrificial victims, either by condemning the two women, who were after all grieving for a parent who had just died; or by naming and sacking the hapless civil servant who gave them permission to travel without a Covid-19 test.

In dealing with Covid-19, a virus that has overwhelmed the health systems of so many other countries, there were bound to be some mistakes.

If our border opened early, before quarantine processes had been fully tested, that was in large measure due to intense pressure from the Opposition and other parties, who like their counterparts in other countries, have taken no responsibility for the consequences.

It is clear under these unprecedented circumstances, managing the border has been a formidable challenge, with staff in airlines, customs, immigration, transport and hotels untrained for the task.

Over the past few months, I have watched the Prime Minister and the Director-General of Health doing everything humanly possible to protect New Zealanders from the worst of this pandemic. They have carried a huge burden on behalf of the rest of us, often to the point of exhaustion, and without complaint.

Overall, our leaders have made wise strategic decisions. At present, New Zealand is one of the safest places to be on the planet. I, for one, am incredibly grateful to them for that, and their integrity and good judgement; and to all those who have supported them during this extraordinary, life-changing time.

The ‘team of five million’ rose to the challenge of lockdown. Those who aspire to lead us need the same decency and sense of collective responsibility as the vast majority of New Zealanders. That also applies to the media.

If journalists want to be respected by the public, they must check their facts. The last thing we need is a Crosby-Textor style of divisive, dishonest politics in this election, in the middle of the ravages of a global pandemic. The country deserves better than that.

Dame Anne Salmond was 2013 New Zealander of the Year

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