Voters have no real excuse not to be informed. Or not to know much about Christopher Luxon. Or not to know confidence from supply, a free trade agreement from a foreign tax treaty or Chris Bishop from a wildly misdirected skyrocket.
The news media, in all its forms (public or commercial, conglomerate or niche, dying or digital) has cumulatively and strongly performed its task of informing New Zealanders about the people and parties that would rule them and what they plan to do.
In these columns, we exempt Newsroom’s own efforts from our bouquets. Suffice to say an exceptional team produced a remarkably broad, balanced and revealing file throughout the official six-week campaign and for months beforehand. Our Election 2023 section is here.
But at the other end of the scale, even the fringest, wackiest parties and causes have had their own social media or Sean Plunket or Peter Williams to advocate their passions and bypass the dreaded, bought-and-sold Mainstream Media (MSM).
This long campaign has been notable for the breadth of policy analysis on news platforms and the scrutiny applied to parties’ claims about their policies.
National’s Nicola Willis probably dreads the words ‘fact’ and ‘checking’ over her tax and savings policy package. And, no, it wasn’t all by Labour-aligned partisans in the Council of Trade Unions. Some of it was, but some journalists like Richard Harman on Politik.co.nz, Thomas Coughlan at the Herald, Bernard Hickey at Kaka and our own Marc Daalder looked hard at the numbers and the claims.
Similarly with Labour’s out-of-body-experience in proposing to take GST off (some) fruit and vegetables. Journalists went well beyond National’s kumara and parsnip quips and established how complicated the policy could be and how little it might help those in need. Lloyd Burr at Newshub presented veges and salads one by one at a post Cabinet press conference and sought answers. It was good for the cameras but it made its point and voters would have got that point.
Journalists, with economists and analysts providing insight, were able to show that supermarkets rather than struggling families, could be the big winners.
The campaign has been notable too for a smart, comprehensive airing on broadcast and on-demand television of debates among the leaders, spokespeople, and minor party leaders.
TVNZ did its job in platforming the two major party leaders, twice, but it did the rest of its job in providing prime time viewing on both youth issues and Kaupapa Māori. Both debates rose above their publicity or broadcasting charter value.
Over at Newshub, Paddy Gower’s three-way with the two major party leaders was the standout debate of the season. Newsy. Punchy. Funny. And the Newshub Nation ‘powerbrokers’ debate – the best name yet for the minnows – let David Seymour, Winston Peters, Deborah Ngarewa-Packer and Marama Davidson show themselves.
A plaudit, too, to a partisan and non-media body: The Taxpayers’ Union. While it delights in provocative mischief and some personalised political attacks, during this campaign it funded and held multiple campaign debates, live-streamed, and conducted polls by a reputable pollster, Curia, for a clutch of key electorate races. The events and the polls added to the life of this campaign.
Among the professionals, the television, radio and online interviews on Moana on Whakaata Māori, on Morning Report specials on RNZ, on Newshub Nation, with Mike Hosking and Heather du Plessis Allan on NewstalkZB and from the new Tova podcast on Stuff contributed to a campaign chock-full of the information voters need.
Best of all, from the broadcasters, was the series of in-depth interviews with the party leaders and with leading spokespeople by 1 News’ Jack Tame on Q+A. Tame’s series of exchanges were the masterclass of 2023. His calm and persistent questioning of a flailing Winston Peters joins the annals of great-interviews-with-a-flailing-Winston-Peters, stretching back to the 1980s.
The media efforts weren’t perfect, of course.
TV news’ obsession with the moving pictures of Chris Hipkins with meat and pastry products and Christopher Luxon pretending to serve ice cream parodied itself to the point of pity. First time, good. Second to 12,000th, just lame, distracting, diminishing of the news and the political process. (Memo – newsdesks: They only did it because you ran it.)
And an aside here to commend Winston Peters for calling the leaders out for playing this unfunny and unoriginal game.
We entered the twilight zone with questions to Chris Hipkins about him saying he had “the munchies” and a follow-up on whether he’d smoked anything that morning (for the record, he claims to have used the innocent meaning, for hunger, and no, no smoking). But at least that spontaneous and humorous exchange wasn’t the deadly, humourless pursuit of questions of Christopher Luxon over whether he believed dinosaurs existed.
At times the press gallery’s competitive urge and egos ran away with themselves as interested voters watched via livestreams; occasionally ugly interactions and barracking of politicians in a manner devoid of respect for viewers as much as politicians. Sometimes media relied too much on material handed to them by interest groups to put political leaders on the spot.
The very access for voters to these livestreams of leaders making announcements or being questioned around the country is something to be grateful for – if you wanted to be an election or political nerd there was no excuse not to be able to follow the campaign like a pro.
Beyond the day-to-day, the extent and depth of coverage of issues from climate to health to law and order was commendable in 2023. Teams at the NZ Herald and RNZ, in particular, produced analysis as good as we’ve had in any election over the past few decades. (See also Newsroom’s Election 2023 section.)
No one story stood out, nothing that turned the campaign on its head. Revelations about National’s tax policy’s over-ambitious house sale plans for foreign buyers, and the limited nature of that party’s promised “up to” $250 extra cash for the “squeezed middle” were important.
But I’d nominate two stories for probably altering the course of the past few weeks, and possibly changing what happens after the election.
RNZ’s Jane Patterson, in an interview with David Seymour for the Focus on Politics show and published on the RNZ website, revealed the Act leader was prepared to keep his party beyond a National-led government offering backing for confidence votes but providing further support only on an issue by issue for spending (supply) bills.
It could be argued that admission indirectly led to Act’s historically high poll ratings ebbing away in the final few weeks. It introduced doubt, the prospect of instability.
The second story, by Claire Trevett of the Herald just last Sunday as the campaign entered its final week, put National’s campaign chair Chris Bishop on record as saying that if his party, Act and NZ First couldn’t come to a satisfactory governing arrangement, then a second election was a real possibility.
More doubt. More loss of nerve among the assumed government parties-to-be.
The media coverage of Labour over the salad-limp and internally controversial GST plan, about its timid economic outlook and over its candidates’ repeated fake news claims about the other side, were examples of fact-checking scrutiny at a level heightened above past campaigns.
On social media, Labour’s bug-eyed partisans could only see journalists being critical to their team. The National, Act and ‘fringe’ partisans on the other end of social media were as bad, the weakest of them resorting in any debate, about anything, to accusing media outlets of having sold out to the Labour government by taking taxpayer funding for public interest journalism.
Media large and small in New Zealand have shown, in a spirited and independent way, that the Public Interest Journalism Fund, and that rounded-up and meaningless figure of $55 million, did not change their approach by one letter, one comma in how they covered this election.
If Labour ever thought the journalism funding would deliver it favourable coverage (which only the dimmest politicians could have), it would be sorely disappointed sitting on 28 percent support, 36 hours out from the polls closing.