29 March 2021

PM’s Hosking call a sign of the times

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Gez Johns / Gez@nwkcom.co.nz

The PM’s recent decision to desist from her weekly appointment with Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB has proved predictably polarising. This would not have been made on a whim and is a not-so-subtle muscle flex. But it raised three questions pertinent to the PR realm for me … how did we get to this point; who wins; and if I were providing the PM’s PR advice, would this have been in my playbook?

Well let’s start the answers by asking another question. Would you continue to turn up time after time only to be heckled, pilloried and told you’re a useless charlatan if you didn’t have to? While Rodney Dangerfield may have quipped that “it’s why I go home to my wife after work every night”, for the rest of us this would be a resounding no. But then we’re not the chosen one.

The immediacy of social media as a communications tool, and the adeptness with which it has been harnessed by amongst others, our PM, to set narratives has encouraged this creep of tabloidization into our traditional news slots. In the battle for ratings, approval and therefore advertising dollar, nuanced conversation and interviews have been replaced by shouty tirades or monologues that play to specific audience needs. These segments are now just another part of the entertainment mix – tune in for some reassurance about how you see the world, rather than be challenged by diversity of thought.  

But in the age of the carefully-curated soundbite and social media post, we rely more than ever on our broadcast media to hold our politicians to account; to probe them with questions that require them to find nimble answers, not deflect personal attacks. I personally think Jacinda Ardern has led the country through traumatic times with grace, empathy and a stateliness that serves us well on a domestic and world stage, but that doesn’t mean she should now get a free pass on her management of the Ihumātao deal or the robustness of her Government’s fiscal and housing policies.

I don’t think this would matter as much if we had greater depth and breadth to our mainstream media. But when the views repeatedly broadcast on the country’s highest-rating radio shows are amplified online and in print on one of our two biggest newspaper sites, the effect becomes attritional and encourages a binary perspective of the political landscape.

By encouraging the attack dog mentality and editorialising of its presenters, ZB and its parent NZME has legitimised the PM’s decision to walk away, thereby closing off an avenue for us to have genuine questions answered. But we’re not the only losers in this.

On securing a second term, the PM talked of appealing to the middle ground through consensus politics. Responding to the angry shouts from the right with a cool, upturned middle digit might feel like the right thing to do, but ultimately this just leaves a vacuum in the middle at a time when she is making decisions that impact this audience. Which is why on the face of it, my PR instinct would have been to find another way to flex both finger and muscle, while continuing to grin and bear it.