How New Zealand’s media endangered public health
The New Zealand government’s COVID-19 response was a success story, national media’s coverage of it was not.
New Zealand’s health minister, David Clark, has been forced to resign and the nation’s hyperactive media have claimed their latest scalp. In the middle of a pandemic, no less.
Unseemly as the media’s months-long hit on Clark was – a classic example of trial by media – it was consistent with the borderline misconduct that has defined much of the reporting throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
While the response to the pandemic threat from the national capital, Wellington, can be held aloft, for now, as a rare success story in a world of disarray, the machinations of much of the nation’s media leaves much to be desired.
Taken over time, New Zealand’s reporters have appeared focused on managing perceptions, berating and cajoling a fearful public on numerous fronts. In doing so, and from the earliest stages of a four-level alert system, public health concerns have been eclipsed by a clamouring commentariat, all seeking to score political points and undermine the government’s health-first priorities.
A case can be made that the nation’s media, laundering many of the opposition’s attack lines and big business talking points, have repeatedly endangered public health.
This was driven not only by the country’s clutch of prominent Fox News-style commentators – Mike Hosking, Heather du Plessis-Allan and Duncan Garner – each of whom hawks anger and division to drive ratings, but by senior reporters and editors.
Omission and the economy
New Zealand entered alert level four at midnight on March 25. Public fear had built throughout February, sharpening to a peak in the latter part of March.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her government had to rapidly scale up a response when it became clear in January that China had not contained the virus.
With multiple clusters across the country – a high school in Auckland, a wedding in the deep south, a bar in the tourist hub of Matamata – the government heeded the advice of leading epidemiologists.
They opted for an elimination strategy. That would mean a strict and prolonged lockdown, easing over time. New Zealanders overwhelmingly endorsed this approach, putting public health above all other considerations – specifically the economy.
Daily life ground to a halt.
The opposition, business elements and an instinctively conformist media moved quickly to set the agenda, artificially narrowing the parameters of public discourse.
There were, for example, no deep-dive stories into the state of the health system, eviscerated by aggressive neo-liberalism since the late 1980s, yielding the country acutely vulnerable to COVID-19.
Little was said about our hyper-globalised societies’ increasingly fraught relationship with nature, of which COVID-19 is a symptom.
Such discussions were omitted from the news agenda. Instead, economic considerations dominated media messaging.
Then-leader of the National Party, Simon Bridges, began imitating Donald Trump, claiming that “the medicine should not be worse than the cure.” Disinformation about a spike in suicides as a result of lockdown proliferated.
Trans-Tasman rivalry was cynically leveraged into the public domain, with claims that Australia was outperforming New Zealand on health and economic outcomes due to its less stringent lockdown.
An organisation called Plan B, a “cross-disciplinary group of academics”, became ubiquitous in the media. Its website read, “International health data and experience is showing that New Zealand’s lockdown may now be unnecessary, and even more harmful than the problem we’re trying to solve.”
The messaging was clear: the government had “overreacted” and it was time to get back to work.
With Ardern set to announce whether cabinet would move down alert levels on April 20, journalists and commentators brazenly agitated for a move to alert level three, which would allow for cafes and restaurants to offer contactless delivery and take away services, namedropping their favourite fast-food chains in a media-wide in-joke.
They showed little concern for the minimum-wage workers who would have to stand at open windows, handing food to thousands of people in the middle of a pandemic.
The health minister, Clark, became a target. With an election approaching – and the Labour Party’s popularity skyrocketing – the opposition needed to drive a wedge between the government and its popular health response.
The media obliged.
A flood of reports castigated Clark for breaking lockdown rules by driving 20km to a beach with his family.
Then, he carried some belongings from a former residence, used as an office, to his new home a few hundred metres away. This set off the reporters at Newshub, who argued that it constituted “moving homes” – forbidden under lockdown provisions.
“It speaks of one set of rules for the Health Minister and another set of rules for all other New Zealanders,” wrote Newshub’s Tova O’Brien.
Put simply, much of the media appeared to be conditioning the public. This approach continued as the country rushed through alert levels three and two.
Alert level one
The country moved to alert level one on June 8, having reported 1,504 COVID-19 cases and 22 deaths. It was the 17th-straight day that no new cases had been discovered.
The country was virus-free.
The New Zealand Herald’s front page that day, before Ardern announced her cabinet’s decision, smacked of Diktat – a propaganda technique – reading: “Only 1 Option.”
All domestic restrictions were lifted. New Zealanders were free to do as they wished. Meantime, the outside world was entering a period of pandemic acceleration.
Ardern and her reassuring director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, had delivered a world-leading health response. The government had additionally protected the economy, through massive government spending.
Yet political and media pressure had forced a number of concessions over several months. These included: allowing compassionate leave for relatives of the terminally ill; increasing the numbers of mourners at funerals during level two; and, most importantly, moving early into alert level one, which Bloomfield felt should not happen before June 22.
‘A national disgrace’
On June 16, National Party spokesman for health, Michael Woodhouse, told parliament that two returning New Zealanders, released early from managed isolation to visit a dying relative, had met with friends in Auckland and shared a “kiss and a cuddle” – after becoming lost on the city’s motorways.
The pair had driven some 650km to Wellington, where they tested positive for COVID-19. The implication was clear: they may have unwittingly reseeded the virus.
At around the same time, the media ran a number of stories about the nation’s managed isolation facilities, suggesting systemic failings. Woodhouse claimed that a homeless man had entered an isolation facility, spending two weeks living it up on taxpayer money.
Even worse, apparently, 1,359 people who were released after two weeks in managed isolation were not swabbed for COVID-19 under a new testing regime. That regime required tests on days three and 12 of isolation.
Media variously described the situation as a “shambles” and a “fiasco”, “chaos” and a “national disgrace”. The National Party’s new leader, Todd Muller, suggested that the country had undetected cases of community transmission.
The public’s fury was unbridled.
To his credit, Bloomfield, venerated by the public, took responsibility for any failures by local health officials to implement ministry protocols.
The media, unsatisfied, went scalp-hunting.
‘Thrown under the bus’
On June 25, press gallery reporters approached Clark and Bloomfield following a select committee meeting, pressing the health minister to accept blame for “border failures”.
“The director-general has accepted that protocols weren’t being followed, he has accepted responsibility for that and has set about putting it right,” said Clark.
A Newshub cameraman panned to focus on Bloomfield’s face.
Newshub’s story, written by O’Brien, was headlined: “Health Minister David Clark brutally throws Dr Ashley Bloomfield under the bus while standing right next to him”.
The media piled on, running probably hundreds of pieces riffing off the phrase “thrown under the bus”.
Clark, the country’s most effective health minister in decades, tendered his resignation.
The problem with all of this is, however, that the two women who drove to Wellington did not “kiss and cuddle” their friends; that was an incendiary exaggeration by the political opposition.
After reviewing CCTV footage and interviewing widely, authorities found no evidence that Woodhouse’s homeless man existed.
The media’s claims of systemic failings at managed isolation facilities began to look more like isolated instances, blown out of proportion. Numerous returning Kiwis said that the facilities were well run.
A month on, and with tens of thousands of tests conducted, there is no evidence that the virus has reseeded in, let alone spread throughout, the community.
The inescapable conclusion is that the media willingly colluded with the opposition’s attack lines, relying on the fear and scandal that generated to attract eyeballs – clickbait.
On the first weekend of July, the personal details of COVID-19 patients at the country’s border facilities were leaked to multiple media organisations. The opposition leader, Muller, framed this serious breach of privacy as another example of government incompetence.
“It talks to a government that’s slipping off the side of a cliff, in terms of managing this issue, the border, the information pertaining to it,” said Muller.
“These guys need to step aside and let a competent government take over,” he added.
However, Muller’s party on Tuesday admitted that it was behind the leak.
National MP Hamish Walker had engineered it, using information allegedly obtained by a former party head, Michelle Boag. Walker had recently attempted to stir-up racist sentiment towards New Zealanders returning from India and Pakistan.
Will the media hold the National Party to account?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.