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Benefit Of The Doubt

The benefit of the doubt is a gift that political journalists and commentators reserve primarily for themselves.

None of them appears to be in any doubt that they are a critical cog in the democratic process. At its heart, the Parliamentary Press Gallery is unswerving in its noble purpose of holding the Government to account, speaking truth to power, standing strong in defence of freedom and keeping tyranny’s dogs from democracy’s door.

Gallery chairman, Newsroom political editor, Sam Sachdeva, was reported recently by RNZ’s taxpayer-funded parliamentary reporting service “The House” as saying “the press gallery exists to be a check on those in power on behalf of the public.”

Admitting that gallery journalists also had a reporting role, summarising and interpreting debates and committee hearings, they also had important functions as commentators and critics.

“So,” he said, “if we feel that a Government is abusing its power or a Minister is, then it’s our role to prove that and then expose it to the voting public.”

That, in fact, is actually the role of the Opposition — those MPs in parties unable to muster up the numbers for the majority required to pass legislation through the House. The Opposition parties in this Parliament are National and ACT and they are playing a critical role in the Epidemic Response Committee, which has 11 MPs chaired by National’s leader, Simon Bridges. The committee’s six meetings in the first two weeks of the lockdown covered approximately 18 hours. The meetings have been live streamed and recordings are available on Parliament’s website. Transcripts, however, have been very slow and only fragments of what was said by MPs and expert witnesses have been reported.

Gallery journalists, on the other hand, have been tireless in telling truth to power and holding ministers to account — one in particular. Health Minister, David Clark, joined Deputy Prime Minister and New Zealand First leader, Winston Peters, in the media’s bin of politicians to be routinely and forever more denied the benefit of doubt.

Clark did call himself an idiot, a description that attracted immediate and widespread support from around the Press Gallery. The Herald’s political editor, Audrey Young, described his off-road bike ride and drive to the beach as being “an appalling lack of judgment”.

That was mild in comparison to Magic Talk’s Sean Plunket who said the minister’s “selfish bike ride is like a member of Churchill’s war cabinet hanging party lights on his house during the Blitz.”

Newshub’s political editor, Tova O’Brien, one of the Mediaworks newsroom’s four horse persons of the Apocalypse, said Clark had “acted like an arrogant dick.”

He had “an axe hanging over his head,” she sermonised. Never one to let one cliche do the work of three, she said Clark had “very little credibility” and was “in the last chance saloon” and ”if he screws up again, he’s gone.”

RNZ’s political editor, Jane Patterson, agreed that Clark was, er, skating on thin ice. “His future as a Cabinet minister once the lockdown is over is shaky, to say the least.”

Stuff’s senior political reporter, Henry Cooke, went further, suggesting it might be better if Clark didn’t even stand for re-election as a member of Parliament.

“This is the Health Minister breaking and undermining an extremely stringent set of rules his own government has put in place for health purposes,” Cooke wrote.

“It fulfils every stereotype of politicians as people who are happy to write rules but not abide by them.”

That’s the nub. Stereotypes are created by news media as way of defaming individuals without naming them and risking retaliation. In this case, the reporter is accusing the minister of being a hypocrite.

Hypocrisy is the zero-sum blame game that fuels most political debate. In this case it’s hypocrisy with a twist. The inconsistency, or double standard , is not in breaking a rule. It is in the rule itself. Driving 2km or 20km is okay if your destination is a supermarket but not if it’s a beach.

The Government has decided its economic emergency rules under Alert Level 4 will required total obedience if it is to achieve its goal of complete elimination of the virus. Compliance will be encouraged, as usual, by fear of punishment.

While the media lambasted the Health Minister for his failure as a role model, his boss seized the opportunity to use him as a role model of a different kind. Joining the braying media mob, Jacinda Adern told Newshub that Clark had “made a massive mistake” and punished him by stripping him of his Cabinet ranking and a couple of minor portfolios.

While some commentators said the Health Minister should not have been working from home in Dunedin, the Leader of the Opposition came under fire for doing the opposite, driving to Wellington from his home in Tauranga, a round trip of 500km, to chair meetings of the Epidemic Response Committee.

Put on the mat on Wednesday 8 April by RNZ’s Morning Report co-presenter, Suzie Ferguson, he said wanted to be in the Capital because “it’s where things are happening, it’s where decisions are being made, it’s where there’s a focus, it’s where I can focus.”

The situation of not having a Parliament was unprecedented, he said. “I don’t think that it’s actually a big call to say the Leader of the Opposition should be here doing my job.”

Ferguson: “Who authorised your travel?”

Pause.

Bridges: “Well, I’m not sure of what point you’re making.”

Ferguson: “Well, if you’re classed as an essential worker, as I am, I was authorised to travel by the chief executive of RNZ and I have a letter that I can show to police should they stop me if I’m out and about or on my way to work, for example. So, who authorised your travel?”

Bridges: “Suzie, I suggest you go pick up any constitutional text book that you find in any bookshop in New Zealand or on-line. That will give you a fairly good handle on the role of the Leader of the Opposition in a democratic country like New Zealand and why there are, I think, very sound reasons, in good times but actually also in crises, for me to be chair of a committee providing scrutiny and at New Zealand’s Parliament.”

Ferguson: “Brief yes or no: are you going to continue with the driving?”

Bridges: “That’s my intention, yes.”

Ferguson: “Thanks very much. Simon Bridges there.”

ALSO BY TOM FREWEN on wellington.scoop.co.nz
Concert FM - Anatomy of a Blunder. Parts One, Two, Three and Four.

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