By Chris Trotter*
Last Monday, Neale Jones and Ben Thomas were Kathryn Ryan’s guests on RNZ’s Nine To Noon programme. Ryan’s “Political Panel” is one of the programme’s most listened-to segments – it’s influential. Listening to Jones and Thomas last Monday, however, I was left wondering “influential with whom?”
Political commentary on RNZ has evolved in a very strange way over the past few years. The original intent seemed pretty clear: to secure independent commentary from competent representatives of right-wing and left-wing opinion about the deeds of government, opposition, and other sundry political actors across the week just passed. There can be little doubt that the Political Panel’s most popular right-wing commentator was the volatile – but never boring – Matthew Hooton. The Left, too, put up some formidable champions: Peter Harris from the CTU; the former Alliance MP, Laila Harré.
Critical to the success of these commentators was their willingness to tackle what were often highly sensitive and contentious issues without feeling the need to look over their shoulders. They were as ready – when it was warranted – to put the boot into their own “side” as they were to criticise their more traditional ideological foes.
For the programme’s listeners, this independence of mind constituted a vital ingredient in the Political Panel’s success. The moment commentary becomes predictable it begins to take on the character of spin. Heterodoxy has another important advantage over orthodoxy: its ability to surprise and provoke; a capacity to make those who encounter it think differently about an issue. In other words, it makes for both a better democracy and great radio.
Why, then, has RNZ abandoned this winning formula in favour of a Political Panel comprised, more-or-less exclusively these days, of pollsters and public relations mavens? Now, to be fair to RNZ, it was their star turn, Hooton, who started this particular ball rolling by establishing his own PR company, Exeltium. Not wanting to lose Hooton’s prodigious talent, Nine to Noon decided to offer its listeners a fulsome disclaimer – and hope for the best.
Gradually, however, the nature of RNZ’s political commentary changed. More and more, it became a forum for major players from inside the Wellington beltway. The official pollsters for National and Labour started turning up, followed closely by former ministerial press secretaries and chiefs-of-staff turned PR specialists.
On its face, this seemed like a great idea. After all, if pollsters and well-placed insiders didn’t know what was going on, then who did?
The problem, of course, is that well-placed insiders and party pollsters don’t remain well-placed insiders or party pollsters by blabbing everything they know about the moving and shaking of the movers and shakers to RNZ’s listeners. For the Nine to Noon audience, these keepers of secrets could not be expected (and, presumably, were not expected) to provide anything other than a carefully framed picture of New Zealand politics.
Carefully framed and ideologically neutered. By relying on pollsters and PR people, Nine to Noon was quite consciously narrowing the range of political discussion down to the weekly wins and losses of the major parliamentary players. Only very occasionally does the Political Panel venture out into the broader realm of ideas. The sort of discussion and debate listeners might have heard if the programme’s producers had reached out to academic iconoclasts was not something that RNZ seemed eager to promote.
Which brings us back to last Monday’s discussion between Ryan, Jones and Thomas. Unsurprisingly, one of the topics up for discussion was the Leader of the Opposition’s, Judith Collins’, ongoing effort to get the Labour Government to offer up any sort of coherent response to the He Puapua Report.
If ever there was an issue that called out for a broader discussion, it is the He Puapua Report. Under review is nothing less than the future shape of the New Zealand constitution and a radically reconfigured relationship between Maori and Pakeha New Zealanders.
Rather than venture forth into these stormy waters, however, Ryan attempted to re-frame the discussion as a shrewd Opposition manoeuvre to drive a wedge between the Prime Minister and her Maori caucus. Having thus constricted tightly the parameters of the discussion, Ryan passed the speaking-stick to Thomas. It was at this point that things took a decidedly weird turn.
Riffing off his co-commentator, Jones’s, sneering characterisation of National’s interest in He Puapua as some kind of “conspiracy theory”, Thomas upped the ante by claiming that the report’s critics were treating He Puapua as something akin to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This charge represents a major step-up in the effort of what might best be described as the New Zealand “political class” to stifle all further debate on the issues covered in the report.
What Thomas (PR consultant) had done was to move beyond Jones’s (Managing Director of PR firm Capital Government Relations) strategy of marginalising the Government’s critics as tin-foil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists, into the much darker realm of virulent anti-Semitism and far-Right mythology.
For those who don’t know, the Protocols were published by fanatical Russian anti-Semites in 1903 as a means of inciting murderous pogroms against the Tsar’s Jewish subjects. They concern a supposedly secret Jewish plot to take over the world. Brought out of Russia in the aftermath of World War One and the Bolshevik Revolution, the Protocols served to inflame Adolf Hitler’s already passionate hatred of the Jews. Copies of this ur-conspiracy theory are still on sale in bookshops all over the Middle East.
By invoking the Protocols, Thomas – wittingly or unwittingly – was associating National’s Judith Collins with the worst excesses of the Nazis and their admirers. And, it appears to have worked. In her keynote speech to the Southern Regional Conference of the National Party in Queenstown (16/5/21) the name He Puapua does not appear.
Listening to last Monday’s Political Panel, the similarity between the attitudes struck by Ryan, Jones and Thomas over He Puapua, and those struck by the British political class in relation to the UK-wide debate over Brexit is … well … striking. There is that same lofty tone of condescension; that same propensity to belittle those who refuse to endorse the “official” policy-line; the same impression that those opposing them are ignorant and powerless peasants who may be safely waved away and ignored.
The Political Panel’s airy dismissal of their fellow citizens’ concerns was bad enough in itself, but what made it worse was the fact that it was being broadcast on a network supposedly owned by, and committed to serving, the people of New Zealand – all the people of New Zealand. A state broadcaster rigorously excluding any and all voices dissenting from the official line, is something most New Zealanders would expect to encounter in Moscow or Beijing – not in Wellington.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.