The 150 years the New Zealand Herald didn’t want you to see

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Evaluating a major newspaper is always difficult. High calibre journalists, columnists, reviewers and commentators operate beneath a powerful institutional voice. So it is with the New Zealand Herald. The likes of Simon Collins, Brian Rudman, Ann Gibson, Graham Reid, William Dart and Ann Gibson are terrific contributors to a masthead which symbolises the Auckland establishment alongside Remuera, Kings College, Smith and Caugheys, Bell Gully and the Northern Club.

Against this background the NZ Herald`s institutional voice centres around the editorial, the business pages, the senior political journalist and the wording of major headlines. This was the voice which announced its 150th birthday on November 13. That evening it was the Auckland establishment, old and new, which attended an exclusive cocktail party at the Auckland Art Gallery.

Not a paper boy in sight.

Earlier, a large birthday edition lift-out positioned the NZ Herald as the pre-eminent chronicler of national events and as a popular biographer of major public figures over time. In other words, pleasant retrospective propaganda.

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No sense that the NZ Herald itself was a major institutional player in New Zealand history.

My own short counter-history of the paper builds upon the following proposition. At critical junctures of our national history the NZ Herald was the voice of establishment `commonsense` and/or bellicose reaction. When establishment outlooks changed so did the Herald`s, after a decent interval of time. Let’s start with an extract from the very first editorial of November 13 1863. In the midst of the New Zealand land wars the NZ Herald had this to say

`the rebels should be energetically dealt with, the war has been one of their own compelling. They commenced it with cold blooded deliberate assassinations . They are following up with stealthy murders of defenceless women and children. The fruits of a life of industry are the sacrifices of their vengeance. Agriculture perishes. Commerce languishes. Enterprise stands still. And a great and glorious country runs to ruinous waste until the murderer and marauder shall be imperatively taught that life and property must be preserved and Law and Order maintained inviolate`

As nuanced as a British cannon, this was white colonialism writ large. Later, as the Native Land Courts did their work Maori issues were devalued or rendered invisible. The NZ Herald then propagated the `colony to nation` myth which came to inform mainstream constructions of New Zealand identity. Local Maori were told of their obligations in no uncertain terms. Such is evident in the following editorial statement from October 30, 1882.

`The natives are coming to understand that their prospects and even their existence must henceforward depend upon preparing themselves to share the progress of the European so as to be able in due course to take their place on the same boat`.

In the Pakeha world the NZ Herald also took up reactionary positions. To fully grasp this, some background is necessary. In the 1880s New Zealand was mired in depression. Eventually, urban workers, manufacturers, small traders and small farmers combined to elect a succession of Liberal-Reform governments . Their long term achievement was the introduction of a modern pastoral economy. Large estates were sub-divided, rural credit was government guaranteed and technological innovations such as refrigeration diversified farm production.

Meanwhile, politics became democratically inclusive. Landowner multiple voting rights were abolished in 1889 and women gained the vote in 1893. As the franchise widened, previously excluded economic and social perspspectives began to inform government policy. A raft of labour and social reform legislation throughout the 1890s signified the beginnings of a welfare state and industrial relations system. The NZ Herald wanted none of this. Instead, they supported the National Association, an anti-Liberal pressure group formed in 1892. NZ Herald partner Alfred Horton was a longstanding friend of Sir John Hall, conservative Prime Minister from 1879-1882. These men aligned with rich landowners, British based financial interests and merchant importers. When this sector of the establishment lost power the NZ Herald adapted, after a decent interval of time. They openly supported Richard Seddon once he became a safe establishment figure.

The NZ Herald`s early position on womens issues was cringeworthy, even at the time. From 1870 the opposition Star newspaper actively campaigned for womens suffrage and hired women as typesetters, traditionally a male occupation. As David Hastings points out in `Extra extra` (2013), the NZ Herald was resolutely opposed to womens rights on principle. They were born to be wives and mothers in partriarchal households. Eventually, of course, the NZ Herald came round to the womens suffrage idea, after a decent interval of time.

Fast forward to the 1930s depression. The widespread experience of unemployment and working poverty was dislocating the governing orthodoxies of patriotism, social respectability and fiscal austerity. Oppositional newspapers such as The Maoriland Worker, The Weekly Herald, The Transport Worker and The New Zealand Watersider exemplified the developing culture of working class activism ,socialist thought and and Labour politics. During the depression such perspectives entered the mainstream via churches, womens groups, literary journals and populist `B` radio station programmes. Eventually, local manufacturers and small farmers combined with the union movement to reap the benefits of Labour`s election victory in 1935. The new government, led by Michael Joseph Savage, introduced exchange controls, import licensing and protective tariffs . Agricultural production for export was supported by a guaranteed price scheme for dairy farmers. Labour`s philosophy was that if all available resources were used to create public goods and services, this would expand employment and widen the tax base needed to fund the macroeconomic system. The consequent redistribution of income from taxpayer to beneficiary combined with housing and public works programmes underwrote the `Kiwi` welfare state.

In 1935 the incumbent Liberal-reform coalition government was supported by large run holders, banks and merchant financiers. Essentially, their priorities were those of British capital. The main centre daily press supported the old guard and railed against the Savage led Labour Party. The NZ Herald was chief among them. Before the election proprietor Sir Henry Horton donated 500 pounds to the government’s election expenses. Savage, the Labour Party, unions and the working class were constantly assailed by Gordon Minhinnick , the Herald`s resident cartoonist. The most spiteful anti-Savage cartoon, in July 1938, was entitled `The Spirit of His Ancestors`. The then Prime Minister is pictured on a comfortable chair next to a table handling a bottle with the label STATE CONTROL . Behind him are the unmistakeable figures of Stalin,Hitler and Mussolini. The cartoon can be found in Barry Gustafson`s biography of Michael Joseph Savage, `From the cradle to the grave`, opposite page 201 (1986).

When the National Party gained office in 1949 they did not oppose the basic outlines of Keynesian capitalism. Neither did the major daily newspapers. And so, the NZ Herald during the 1950s defended the then status quo while attacking all union activism outside of the national award and arbitration structure. Union activists were deemed as communist threats to cold war stability, an identical worldview to that of successive National governments.

Let us now fast forward again to the 1980s. Large local corporations tire of Keynesianism, full employment squeezes profits and the welfare state has had its day. Neo –liberalism seeps into Treasury, the Reserve Bank, the National Party and upper echelons of the Labour party. After the July 1984 snap election Muldoonism gives way to `Rogernomics`s and the mainstream media quickly embraces the new orthodoxy. The economic past becomes equated with regulation, intervention, inefficiency and state coercion, the neo-liberal future is one of free markets, dynamism and prosperity. The NZ Herald reinforced this perception even as its senior economics reporter questioned it. Simon Collins` Rogernomics (1987) was a prescient publication, it should be reread alongside Bruce Jesson`s Behind the Mirror Glass (1987).

In the NZ Herald`s recent November 13 liftout, entitled 150 years of great New Zealanders, readers should turn to the year 1989 (p F91). Next to a smug personage of David Caygill is the headline `inflation slayer`. This is the NZ Herald`s Man of that year, celebrated for entrenching `the last great pillar of Rogernomics` the Reserve Bank Act. This now establishment orthodoxy, premised on the assumption that there is a `natural` rate of unemployment, is a major instrument of capitalist class rule. And it is non-negotiable. Disquiet about privatisation and the TPPA can be found on the Herald`s pages but the Reserve Bank Act is sacrosanct.

So, where is the NZ Herald today? Well, it is no longer family owned. From 1995 to 1998 local owners Wilson and Horton relinquished their shares to Independent Newspapers Plc (later to be called Independent News and Media, INM). In April 2001 Independent Newspapers sold its shareholding to Australian owned APN News and Media. Under editor Shayne Currie a two track strategy of salacious infotainment and conventional journalism is being followed. I have some sympathy for the editors position, radio, television, the internet and social media are all competing news providers, circulation is falling. The financial viability of on-line `paywalls` cannot be guaranteed. Beyond economics, the NZ Herald is now quite liberal on moral issues. Most of their writers embrace popular culture, the weekly Timeout music-entertainment feature is excellent. And , the paper now has a reasonably welcome disposition toward Maori and their concerns,…….. after a decent interval of time .

10 COMMENTS

  1. Perhaps that’s why the Herald survived for so long. They just said whatever most of the people reading it wanted to hear.

    • that’s not what this says at all. it elaborates that the NZ Herald had its’ own agenda and when events of the day didn’t go along with its’ kaupapa then it didn’t make the pages (in any complimentary fashion anyway).

  2. Well done Wayne, just as the 150th NZ Herald anniversary slid by almost elevated to some vague Kiwiana status we should be pleased about, you tender a nice reminder of this papers track record.

    The ‘dirty filthy Herald’ has always been viewed with suspicion by many unionists and other activists with numbers present at actions consistently stated by ‘Granny’ as a low count compared to organisers estimates, as recently as the 50,000 strong No Mining march in Queen St.

    The Herald was only bought by many of my colleagues to see what “the other team”–employers and US imperialism–was up to. It remains a ruling class organ albeit in changed form in a changed world.

  3. Yes, Wayne, I second almost everything you wrote here! For me though, the “New Zealand Herald” has NEVER been a “newspaper” that I could take all that seriously, as the “largest” one in New Zealand. I always dismayed and asked myself, is that the “best” they can do?

    Compared with any “major” newspaper” (now also online) on the international scale, it may compare well with many in so-called “developing” countries, but hardly with the upper ranks of what we may call “developed” (maybe OECD) countries.

    International news were always brief and “summarised” on back pages, and “national” news were mostly about the odd story about government and opposition, and what one or the other politician had to say about policies that were current.

    Lots of advertising and sports always struck me as “main focus”, and the “headlines” were ever only occasionally fitting and catching. Then you get stories about dogs, sheep and whatever in distress, the last racehorse doing well, endless sports exploits, a bit social trivia and lots of crime, and ads for Marmite on the first page.

    Surely, you would never see this in Paris, London or any other “big” place.

    As for the journalists, I always enjoyed Simon Collins and what he had to write on social issues. Sadly, it seems, over recent years, he has been restricted to writing very few, condensed and compromised stories, that say too little and inform only so much. Indeed I have myself informed him comprehensively and in detail on the recent welfare reforms, so he would have ALL the details. He got a lot anyway, but seems to have missed a fair bit, of what is going on.

    But he is not alone, most the “mainstream media” now have a condescending and even hateful view of “welfare” and “beneficiaries”, there is little of objectivity and facts being reported, mostly it is reinforcing bias, mixing it with abuse and scandal stories, so it feeds the public what they have mostly “felt” is happening (being FAR from the reality).

    I feel so sorry for Simon, as his days seem numbered now, and the Herald will soon introduce a paywall.

    As we enjoy (still) this blog and “social media”, I wish to present some links leading to info, most of Simon was sent over the last 2 years, and which could have made a difference in the public’s perception of beneficiaries:

    http://accforum.org/forums/index.php?/topic/15463-designated-doctors-%e2%80%93-used-by-work-and-income-some-also-used-by-acc/

    http://accforum.org/forums/index.php?/topic/15188-medical-and-work-capability-assessments-based-on-the-bps-model-aimed-at-disentiteling-affected-from-welfare-benefits-and-acc-compo/

    http://accforum.org/forums/index.php?/topic/15264-welfare-reform-the-health-and-disability-panel-msd-the-truth-behind-the-agenda/

    So I am still waiting for the “Herald” and other media to look into this (honestly), to analyse it, to absorb it and report to us what is really going on. Maybe one day we can return to “true journalism”, there and in other places?

    My impression though is, we need a solid and strong public broadcasting (and other) media, that demands government to reinvest in proper public broadcasting. Sadly the opposite is happening, leading to endless misinformation, dumbing down and a “democracy” that is nothing but “mockery” as it lacks “informed democrats”!

    Leaving all this into private hands leads to exactly the perverted kind of society that enables such perverts as the “road busters” to prominently “profile” themselves (via private “social media”) and get away with it.

  4. Indeed, the NZ Herald is symbolic of “media” of an “imperialist kind” that has kept New Zealanders informed in a way, they were meant to think. Is a bow stretching to modern day “Goebbel’s media” perhaps going a bit far, I ask?

    I think it will, but in essence, the striven for result is similar, promote the “conservative”, or “dominant forces”, that should be in government, according to their line of thinking.

    “Pave the way”, and that they did repeatedly, in the past, and in 2008 and 2011, to assist the populace to “see the brighter future”, so to say.

    What a rotten media dominance, resulting in a “rotten” society, and that is the self serving New Zealand society of today, that still caters for the Remmers, the Eastern Suburbanites, the North Shorites and so in Auckland, and the same types in Wellington, Christchurch and Wellington.

  5. Latest idea done by the Herald – Edward Snowden is Russian Spy – Their reason, well he did not release spy information on Russia or China. I would suggest it is the fact that he worked for the NSA via a contractor not the Chinese not the Russians but the Americans. This is the type of ridiculous spin that is placed on stories/opinions by the NZHerald. It drives me crazy as all stories are like that, thankfully I can only seldom open their webpage due to the fact that I have set up my computer to take a dim view of websites with too much spywear. I worry that the fast bulk of people would never question their spin. Forget maths forget science teach critical thinking before those things.

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