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.
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 .