Despite the sometimes fractious relationship between politicians and journalists, the role of the Fourth Estate is arguably more important in New Zealand right now because of Labour’s outright majority in Parliament and the influence of social media.
The recent spat between Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and radio host Mike Hosking is understandable, however, it illustrates the serious problem facing traditional media and its role in democracy.
Frustrated at Mr Hosking’s combative style, the Prime Minister decided to cancel her weekly appearance on his Newstalk ZB show, sparking an outcry from opposition MPs.
Shortly after, the Prime Minister had a change of heart and appeared on the show to talk about the planned travel bubble with Australia. The interview wasn’t pretty. Neither was the aftermath, which raises valid questions about the extent to which a Government should be available and held to account at a time when it believes it can advance its policy agenda with such a strong mandate.
For the first time in New Zealand’s MMP history, the governing party is unfettered by the typical constraints of a coalition arrangement. With the Opposition significantly weaker, the role of the Fourth Estate is arguably more important than ever.
But politicians don’t necessarily see it that way, particularly in a social media age which allows them to reach constituencies directly.
Much effort is put into side-stepping traditional media in favour of getting unmediated political messages to voters. Politicians can use live addresses on Facebook and Instagram to reach hundreds of thousands of viewers anytime of the day. But this avoidance of traditional media can undermine the watchdog role of the press in a well-functioning democracy.
Over the past year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government’s role in the economy and in our daily lives has understandably intensified. And while the media arena is hostile and sometimes challenging for politicians, in many cases we have seen critical reporting as the catalyst for improvements in New Zealand’s health and economic response. Examples include the early exposure of limited personal protective equipment available for health workers which led to new distribution processes, and Newshub’s Michael Morrah’s continuous coverage of MIQ failings that led to the Simpson-Roche review.
As long as the Government has the loudest megaphone, it’s crucial for the media to be able to hold power to account.
Meanwhile, we watch with interest to see how the Government’s $55million fund to support ‘public interest journalism’ will be used.