Political journalism in an unquiet time

:  Colin James
 

Parliament rises today.

It has done its dash for the year which has been marked by so much turbulence and change.

However, given the amount of legislation that will be held over till the new year, that turbulence is not over yet.

But maybe instead, it may be a relief to forget the partisan brawling that our politics seems to have become and instead to talk about political journalism.

There is good reason to talk about that at present.

Yesterday the High Court refused the appeal from NZME and Fairfax against the Commerce Commission ruling that stopped the two companies merging.

The Commerce Commission’s original ruling was a strong endorsement of the idea that a plurality of media outlets and the competition between them leads to a more informed public.

But more importantly, it was a strong statement about the importance of the media in a democracy.

“This merger would concentrate media ownership and influence to an unprecedented extent for a well-established modern liberal democracy,” the Commission’s chair Dr Mark Berry said.

“The news audience reach that the applicants have provide the merged entity with the scope to control a large share of the news consumed by a majority of New Zealanders.

“This level of influence over the news and political agenda by a single media organisation creates a risk of causing harm to New Zealand’s democracy and to the New Zealand public.”

We all know what is wrong with much of the mainstream media’s coverage of politics; it is superficial; too full of opinion and there is too little context and analysis in most stories.

But there have been three events involving political journalists over the past month that challenge those trends and suggest that all is not yet lost.

First, the cartoonist, journalist, scriptwriter and humourist, Tom Scott published his memoirs, "Drawn Out".

Scott redefined political journalism in the late 70s and early 80s with his work on “The Listener” when his cartoons were accompanied by long colourful accounts of how political events had actually unfolded.

He put flesh on the bones of second readings and mini-budgets and all of the dry material that pours out of the Beehive and Parliament itself on a daily basis.

Scott was what is called a colour writer (though his investigation into the Reserve Bank crisis of 1984 ranks with some of our best economic journalism).

He opened the doors to a political journalism that began to see our politicians as real people with real foibles and personalities rather than simply cyphers who delivered speeches.

The second event that happened this month; the retirement of 88-year-old Ian Templeton was the retirement of a more prosaic traditional political journalist.

In a rare tribute debate to him in Parliament, the point was made that he could be trusted and thus had access to just about every MP in the place.

"In 60 years of reporting from this place, you've carved an enviable reputation for accuracy, for insight, and for fairness<" said National MP Gerry Brownlee in tribute.

However, it is the third event that this article is really about.

Yesterday Colin James wrote his last column for the "Otago Daily Times."

James is a rare beast; an academic at heart; an author; an intellectual in the best meaning of the word and an outstanding former editor and journalist.

It is James who has sought to bring order to the chaos and turbulence that has been New Zealand politics for the past 40 years.

In a thoughtful address to Victoria University's post-election conference two weeks ago he offered the proposition that the election of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government was the first real post-baby boomer Government.

"In short, if Bill English had won the coalition auction, that would have delayed, not staunched the underlying change running through this election," he said.

"The baby-boomers' time was up, and English and his contemporaries were the last of the baby-boomers.

"Jacinda Ardern, 37 years old, epitomised this shift.

"But she is not alone. The 20172020 Parliament is markedly younger.

"So, is the cabinet and the ministry,  septuagenarian Winston Peters aside.

"A page has been turned.

"English is on the wrong side of history.

"Ardern is on the right side.

"Jacinda Ardern was – is – a shaft of sunlight through the long shadow of the babyboomers.”

James sees Ardern as a clean break with the past not only for her own generation but also for the many over-40s and over-50s who have never been comfortable with hardline market-liberalism, or who have grown uncomfortable with it over time.

"Jacinda Ardern offered a whiff of a possible reconstitution and refashioning of social democracy and thus redefinition of the Labour party,” he said.

And yesterday James said farewell to political journalism in his last column for the ODT with a few thoughts on that craft.

“My beat was politics and policy, a high privilege," he wrote.

“Since politics is power, I met those in power and their advisers and came to understand and respect them, even those I could not admire.

“Many, I, the inner person, came quietly to like.

“Almost all in politics mean well. I learned they are different: they see, or affect to see, only one side of each many-sided story the journalist sees.

“And since politics seeps into almost every corner of a nation's life, I met thousands of interesting people from nearly every walk of life.”

James recently published “Unquiet Timer” which looks forward to the next decade which he says”will be challenging and energising, painful and uplifting” because of the challenges and changes the country will face.

“It will likely test Aotearoa/New Zealand’s resilience whether we are flexible enough to absorb and adjust to the impacts of change but keep intact a strong inner core built on our bicultural base and liberal, democratic, largely corruption-free institutions," he says.

That sounds like an assignment for the next generation of political journalists. 

 (The writer of this piece is hugely indebted to James for his inspiration, his encouragement and his constant reminder of what political journalism is really about. )

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