Jacinda Ardern - and her family - attracted plenty of attention at the UN in New York this week. She was even cast as an antidote to Trumpism. But did the media mistake exposure and international interest for genuine impact and influence?
Photo: Supplied / Prime Minister's Office
“Our Prime Minister is at the centre of a pivotal moment for the future of the United Nations in New York,” said TVNZ 1 news last Tuesday.
Amid rising tensions over Iran, President Trump had slammed the UN for failing to confront critical global issues, said TVNZ.
A few of the 140-odd world leaders at the UN General Assembly really were at the centre of big debates about the UN’s role and its future, but Jacinda Ardern was not one of them.
TVNZ’s US reporter Rebecca Wright went on to tell viewers she had a careful strategy of speaking out for New Zealand values but not antagonising the US leadership - which is standard behaviour for national leaders at the UNGA.
Other reporters who made the trip also talked up the PM's impact.
“Ardern has become the torch carrier for progressive politics as a young woman who breaks the mold in a world where the political strongman is on the rise,” Stuff’s political editor Tracy Watkins wrote from New York.
“She is a foil to the muscular diplomacy of the likes of US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin,” she said.
Back home, New Zealand Herald reporter Matt Nippert was puzzled.
Casting by local media of the UN general assembly as a civilization-shaking showdown between the schools of Ardern and Trump is kinda weird.— Matt Nippert (@MattNippert) September 23, 2018
There was huge media interest worldwide in Jacinda Ardern as a new mum - especially with baby Neve alongside dad Clarke Gayford at the UN.
"This is a bombastic arrival by a world leader,” Newshub’s Patrick Gower gushed on the AM show. "(She was on) The Today Show with millions of viewers this morning with a New Zealand flag behind her,” he said.
"John Key would battle and fight for moments like this,” he said.
Ironically, Jacinda Ardern herself said on the Today show she believed in politics without ego.
It was left to The AM’s show’s resident curmudgeon Mark Richardson - a frequent Ardern antagonist - to point out that exposure is not a true measure of success.
Plenty of other pundits drowned him out though.
Earlier this month, Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan said Jacinda Ardern was “stupid” and wrong to travel to the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru.
But she said the current PM had outshined predecessors soon after Ardern arrived in the US.
“If you don't think Ardern's got it all over Clark and Key, just look at The Late Show. Key had to pay consultants thousands to get him on that show. Ardern paid no one,” Heather du Plessis-Allan said in her Herald on Sunday column last weekend.
“World leaders will no doubt also want face time with her ... and a photo with someone as cool as New Zealand's PM will do a lot to win over progressive voters in whichever country they come from,” she wrote.
Our pundits’ obsession with political messaging runs deep.
Where in the world are people perpetually thinking about which candidates, parties or movements to back in elections which may be years away - and whose votes might be swung by a photo with Jacinda?
"Sometimes politics is a kindergarten" - report on Ardern and family in Austria's Heute newspaper today: pic.twitter.com/qVWCBZfdrA— Bryce Edwards (@bryce_edwards) September 26, 2018
On Tuesday morning, the PM’s sub-four minute chat on NBC’s Today show was the lead story on almost all news outlets here. Readers and listeners and viewers were solemnly told the breakfast-time show pulled an audience of 4 million.
On Newstalk ZB, the BBC’s New York correspondent Nick Bryant said it was a success for a leader new on the world stage.
“I’ve never seen a New Zealand PM on the Today show before,” he said.
But that leaves around 326 million Americans who didn't see the broadcast.
“Jacinda Ardern wins applause from The Late Show’s studio audience in New York,” said RNZ.co.nz after her appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show.
But the audience is more or less told to applaud whoever turns up - and when to do it - on US TV talk shows.
They are built around the publicity industry. People who want to promote something - even if it’s just themselves - are juggled by producers who pack them in weeknight after weeknight.
But applause does need to be earned at UN General Assembly speeches and Jacinda Ardern got lots speaking on Friday about multilateralism, climate change policy, the limits of globalism and equality.
But even so - her words didn’t get the kind of global attention she got when she arrived at the UN with her family earlier in the week.
Have the media exaggerated Jacinda-mania at the UN and beyond?
The BBC's Nick Bryant told Mediawatch he was going to include Jacinda Ardern in his preview of the UNGA, but didn't because ... well, because Trump.
"I don't want to call her a sideshow, but virtually all the media attention has been on him," he said.
He said the BBC's nighttime news asked him to include footage of her in his report of UNGA on day two.
"They asked us if we could lever in shots of her with the baby in that auditorium. We didn't in the end because it didn't feel like it fitted, especially as they were from the day before," he said.
"But I think that's indicative of the level of attention. She is the most interesting debutante this year," he said.
But as one of the least experienced leaders at the gathering, is it over the top for commentators to call her "the Anti-Trump" and a foil to the likes of the US president and Vladimir Putin?
Nick Bryant said Canada's Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron of France were cast as left-leaning progressive counterweights to the nationalistic right and the same is now being said of Jacinda Ardern - but not to the same extent.
"But she seems publicly reluctant to go up against Trump," he said.
"Macron really embraces that role," he said.
Now that she has had global attention - even if some of it was down to a kind of novelty factor - will foreign affairs journalists and big name media outlets have her on the speed-dial for serious stories about serious international issues in the future?
"These days star power translates into soft-power. When there is a leader that has stirred interest around the world, people listen more closely to what she has to say. She is taken seriously by the sort of journalists who cover these events," he said.
A youthful Tony Blair was hailed as 'Bambi' by the British press after a landslide win in 1997. The soft-focus treatment looked absurd years later when he was cast as 'Bliar' over the Iraq war. Justin Trudeau's first foreign trip to India was a disaster.
"That coverage can change fast. Justin Trudeau doesn't get anything like the coverage he got when he first arrived," said Nick Bryant.
"The key for new leaders is to maximise the debutante status. Jacinda Ardern's team will be happy with the way it's gone this week," he said.