Not Understood: Why New Zealand’s current-affairs television is so bad



It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it! – Upton Sinclair (1878–1968)  Muckraking American journalist and author.

TELEVISION CRITIC, Diana Wichtel, advises her readers to look upon the latest free-to-air current affairs offerings as “a sort of absurdist performance art”. It’s an arresting notion: the idea that television journalists, in attempting to make sense of contemporary New Zealand, can produce only nonsense. Either, the current affairs programmes on free-to-air television are accurate journalistic depictions of an increasingly absurd society, or, depicting New Zealand society accurately has become too troublesome for mainstream TV journalism.

This is a grim pair of options. They raise the question of whether or not the demise of serious current affairs journalism is peculiar to New Zealand television, or, whether it ours is merely the local reflection of a worldwide decline in the genre?

Sadly, the answer is that the decline is a peculiarly New Zealand phenomenon.

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Just last week, an hour-long episode of the BBC documentary series, Panorama, exposed the most shocking misdeeds of the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s Special Branch, MI5 and the UK Defence Force. Laid bare was the protection afforded to murderers and terrorists by agents of the British state. It was television journalism at its best: fearless, thorough and absolutely gripping. The powerful were held to account; the voices of the powerless rang out loud and clear; and the interests of democratic accountability were well and truly served.

Genuine television current-affairs journalism is, quite clearly, still possible in other parts of the world – so why not here? Has our society truly reached a level of absurdity such that it makes more sense to turn out a product in which the “surely ironically titled” Newsworthyshow’s co-host, David Farrier, “slowly stripped in front of [Conservative Party leader] Colin Craig in a sauna.” The answer, I’m afraid, is: “Yes, that is the level of absurdity that we have reached.”

Thirty years of neoliberal extremism has produced a society in which, for nearly half the population, life has become a bitter struggle for survival. What’s more, the reality of that struggle is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Tragedies, like the little girl who died of an illness that was complicated and intensified by the shocking quality of her family’s state-provided accommodation, cry out for action – but no serious governmental response is forthcoming.

It is the function of the news media in a properly functioning democracy to rouse public opinion against such political and bureaucratic delinquency. An aggrieved public, it is assumed, being all that is required to secure a redress of wrongs. This is what the BBC’sPanorama programme sets out to do, and it is what the now discontinued Campbell Liveshow more often than not achieved. (What John Campbell and his team would have made of the little girl’s tragic death is easily imagined!)

And yet, even when it was still being broadcast, Campbell Live always came across as representing the exception, rather than the rule, when it came to free-to-air current affairs in prime time. Indeed, I strongly suspect that every time the show’s producers and journalists broadcast another item critical of the status quo, they were all acutely aware of the massive viewer resistance through which it had to pass. They knew that out there – even among the show’s habitual viewers – there was a vast number of people who simply did not want to know.

Who are these people? They are the New Zealanders for whom neoliberalism is working. The citizens who own their own home, who are holding down a well-paying job, whose children attend a high-decile school, and who would rather not have their noses rubbed in the grim realities experienced by those who have none of these things.

Programmes like Newsworthy and Seven Sharp are what results when the network bosses decide that it is both more profitable and less troublesome to produce programmes for the men and women whose salaries depend on not understanding too much about the sort of society that makes them rich and others poor.

In a land of plenty – like New Zealand – such a situation is not only very wrong, it is also utterly absurd. But, when exposing the former is considered too troublesome, then “a sort of absurdist performance art” is all that remains


  1. I completely agree with you on the state of current affairs reporting in NZ. I tried Newsworthy twice, and it feels like it was modelled on BuzzFeed. Irrelevant vacuous curiosities with a feelgood factor.

    As an explanation I can only guess that any international items may be deemed at best tangential – given that we live on a small remote island. That leaves internal news. Could it be that the majority of people are just worn out by the daily grind and have no capacity left to care? I feel you may be slightly harsh on those for whom neoliberalism works. Many of those have not just been handed stuff on a plate, or through old boy school networks, or inheritances. The number who are apparently not caring is too great for that to be the explanation.

    I believe succeeding in the dog eat dog world we have created knocks all the stuffing out of people – they are not cold, but exhausted. This does, of course, suit the system just fine.

  2. The kind of concentrated TV audience that makes this sort of journalism politically effective no longer exists. That was an artefact of the 29th century and a cause of its peculiar politics.

  3. I thought it ironic that a competition based, in the pursuit of money, cooking show replaced a realistic, honest half hour of journalism. That also managed to raise hundreds of thousands for the needy. I do watch the news channels here, to see what the sheep are grazing on.

  4. They knew that out there – even among the show’s habitual viewers – there was a vast number of people who simply did not want to know. – Who are these people?

    They are the New Zealanders for whom neoliberalism is working.

    That is not the whole answer it’s far, far too simplistic.

    I doubt very much that the replacement programming tripe, such as the game and reality shows, are aimed at high achievers and those really doing well under neoliberalism.

    Those who “don’t want to know” include people who simply don’t want to think, or haven’t the capacity to think. These groups certainly straddle those for whom neoliberalism isn’t working.

    The reason for not wanting or not being able to think about current affairs can be diverse: Being otherwise occupied in daily struggle to get by; being adverse to confrontation; ideological indoctrination (e.g. religious faith); intellectual limitations (50% of population, by definition, have IQs under 100 points) and so on.

    Many of those devastated by neoliberalism lap up reality television and Hosking’s rants. And many of the comfortable middleclass in homes that are appreciating in value have enough of a chardonnay conscience to lament the passing of public television.

  5. TINA seems to be the neo-liberal version of the divine right of Kings and Adam Smith’s invisible hand – a criteria for legitimacy that is too destabilising to firmly establish itself as such. TINA’s legitimacy has been particularly doubtful since 2008, when broad promises of social renewal – “no gain without pain” – gave way to entrenched inequality. I do think that the dumbing down of current affairs is political, but I do not think that it is entirely to shield the eyes of the winners from the losers, or to direct only eyes that can afford expensive products toward them. I think it has to more to do with ensuring that public forums do not provide space for dissent to find affirmation. The international owners of mediaworks probably have more interest in seeing to it that no one breaks ranks with the current status quo than they have in selling Mazdas.

  6. One factor which must be remembered here is the small size of N Z About as many people here as Sydney and not much more land than Victoria. This condensation makes it very easy for dissenters to become prominent then isolated and vulnerable and suffer the fate of John Campbell and, back in the Muldoon era, Tom Scott. Key would not get away with his “forgetfulness” in front of a pack of Australian journalists. There would be many supporters for a query or negative comment there. Here we often see a lone voice questioning, or a lonely oped in a Provincial daily. It is easier for a politician here to bully a small group. Singling out an individual. I remember hearing Kim Hill standing in for the regulars of (I think)Nine to Noon for a couple of weeks. One morning Kim got stuck in to Key about the absolute balderdash he was spouting. A beautiful piece. Another interviewer took over the secondment from the next morning The government does not want a Fourth Estate. For NZ’s sake and your own; JOURNOS WAKE UP and support each other. If they can do it to John Campbell they can do it to you

  7. Why NZ current affairs is so bad???

    We don’t have any current affairs in NZ now since Key silenced his critics with the veracity of post war Germany.

  8. After reading this, it’s the first time I have ever heard of this so-called Newsworthy show. A sign of how much credibility “current affairs” programming in this country has lost.

    Considering what’s available on free-to-air television, the programme I’m most impressed with is The Big Picture on RT. Would be nice if such a politically progressive and insightful programme existed here. Suppose if a more progressive shift occurs in the US, it could act as an inspiration for such elsewhere like the revolutionary period of the 18th/19th century.

    A limitation to genuine current affairs programming is the half-hour format, an hour does more justice.

  9. I don’t know if the size of country or population is an issue in terms of a healthy media. The Republic of Ireland has a population similar to NZ’s and probably a smaller land mass, but seems to produce a good number of daily papers with differing opinions – Auckland only has one: The NZ Herald, and they probably have reasonable current affairs shows which make people think.

    Unfortunately we seem to have been taken over by ” Cop Shows”: Road Cops, Cops, Gold Coast Cops, Dog Squad, Female Cops, Border Patrol, Police 10 etc etc, then there are the cooking shows: Masterchef, Junior Masterchef, then the housing shows: The Block etc then Survivor. The list goes on.

    TV3 is the big loser.

  10. Free to air TV? Oh yeah – I think I remember that.

    It must stick in the throats of the left wing but Campbell Dead is a symptom of a worldwide phenomenon:

    We don’t really give a damn what Campbell and his mates thought and never did.

    We just have more choice now.



    if there are any journos out there reading this, say after me “Fries with that Sir?”

  11. Even more strange is the poor quality of the NZ media in general. It’s not as if only the working classes are expected to consume the tabloid trash – the ruling class apparently can’t be bothered with serious policy debates either.

    The collapse of the New Zealand left makes it unsurprising that there is no local ‘Guardian’ or ‘L’Humanite’. But there isn’t a London ‘Times’ or a ‘Le Figaro’ either – papers like the ‘Herald’ and ‘Dominion’ are a curious mix of frivolity and dull subservience.

    I can only assume that the people in the boardrooms of Queen St and Lambdon Quay read the foreign press to get in-depth coverage.

    My best guess is that the complacency of NZ capital is to blame. The local capitalists are notoriously lazy: e.g. lowest R&D spend in the OECD, allowing infrastructure to crumble in exchange for tax breaks, taking all productivity gains from lowering wages and worsening conditions. Without any opposition, who needs to worry about public debates?

    But the Tories felt threatened enough to raise benefits, and therefore admit there was an inequality problem. If the economic situation worsens, interesting times lay ahead.

    • Agreed. Its not just television. Media here is poor in general. The only place to find thought-provoking comment is via blogs and twitter. The opinions are there, just no-one wants to publish/broadcast them.

  12. “Either, the current affairs programmes on free-to-air television are accurate journalistic depictions of an increasingly absurd society, or, depicting New Zealand society accurately has become too troublesome for mainstream TV journalism.”

    Yes, I could not put it better in words, Diana Wichtel is on the spot with that comment.

    I am convinced, I see and hear it every day, what I observe is endless common idiocy, obsession with trivial stuff, with private chatter and bizarre expressions of emotion and thought, nothing is “normal” anymore, if it ever was.

    Braniwashing and dumbing down sadly works, as long as the “goodies” are delivered, and they are delivered with such shows.

    Selling the country, selling homes to overseas investors, selling stakes in companies that used to be NZ owned, selling farm land (more to come when farmers despair and have to sell up, due to low commodity prices for dairy), and selling fish in the sea, to overseas vulture “investors”, that is the game we have now.

    What does it matter, what does it mean to be a New Zealander these days? Maybe some identify with sports heroes, or with Lorde, or with some other successful or at least known, respected artist or whatever. Few actually believe they can still change things for themselves, but that is mostly themselves only, to become an entrepreneur and make lots of money, so they are sorted then.

    The majority of the people that have no chance of ever owning anything like a home, that are just mercenary workers and “contractors”, all forced to compete at the lowest common level, have no more trust in the political elite, and cannot be bothered to even follow things of relevance anymore.

    They rather escape into cyberspace, into infotainment, into entertainment, into distraction, and forget, as they are mere mortals, but who wants to be reminded of cold facts.

    Fighting is not encouraged, you get harassed, labeled, locked up and charged, so rather escape into the private sphere, into whatever distraction one can find, so people withdraw, do not even think about joining ranks, and give up, hoping the ship they still live on will not sink (that soon).

    So the “MSM” desperately seems to try and cater for those, that are still around, and may be appealed, to such silly shows, just for a laugh, but not much more. Life is just a joke now, a silly one, a sick one, whatever, it is just a joke, if you can still find something positive about it.

  13. AndyK “I’m most impressed with is The Big Picture on RT.”

    So am I so impressed with RT, as it is in every progressive country now and is non commercial.

    I watch RT all the time for my news and current affairs bugger Netflicks.

    Did you know Aunty Helen Clark NZ ex PM was today on a show called “Worlds apart” so go on the RT website and watch her as Helen was good in the show like old times.

    It is good to look back at nice PM material we had instead of the slimy lying money hedge fund trader types we have today.

  14. You’re impressed with RT?

    Then I have a bridge going cheap which you might be interested in buying…

    (It is mostly just Putin inspired, soviet style, agitprop)

  15. Silly question Chris. But along side this, is a decline in political satire is affecting us as well?. Indeed our politicians have never had it so good, in not being ridiculed. When Murray and Nick need it bad. Murray is never present, even when his body is in the room. And Nick is bringing a new depth of meaning to changing the N, with a D.

    Just wondering if we need good satire, to have good journalism?

    • @ Adam: “Just wondering if we need good satire, to have good journalism?”

      I think you’re right; and the other side-effect would be improvement in the quality of politicians and bureaucratic honchos.

      There’s never been a well-established tradition of satire here, though we did have some shining examples of it from the 70s through to the 90s. But it’s vanished; the closest we get to it now are a couple of comedy shows. Very sad…

      • We need another McPhail and Gadsby sp? or something similar. Jono and Ben have done some satire on the prime minister ie being casual and the hair pulling but it has not really been enough we need more…

  16. Agreed, both mike and Adam.
    No simple answer – when your fighting a marketing machine.
    I’m just hoping enough kiwis get disillusioned – and the penny drops.

  17. I disagree on one point. I don’t think the issue is with comfortable middle class people who own their own home and send their children to high decile schools. The truth is that there aren’t enough people in that situation to skew the numbers. This I believe this is an issue of the aspirational delusional. There was a guy who used to work in a real estate office with me. He was a dyed in the wool ACT voter. He would rant about these bastard beneficiaries wasting his taxes. Ironically he never paid any. He made two possibly three commissions in the entire year and his several children to different mothers were all supported by the state. Still he believed he was of the political and social cognoscenti. I think the problem is that so many people are invested in the existence of the Emperor’s wonderful new outfit that they don’t want to hear anything about the fact that it is a chimera. It will take a massive crash or some other sort of undeniable disaster to get people back to seeking the truth for now they are all happy that the saddest thing in the whole world is a dead ex All Black.

  18. Haven’t watched Newsworthy yet. But Paul Henry makes me that squeezy that he puts me off my Weetbix in the mornings. I have solved the problem by just not watching TV3 for anything that they deem as news. I cherish my Weetbix too much.

  19. There is one thing you must take into consideration when they released this survey.

    They said on average 86% of people were considered happy.

    Now take into consideration who the survey was asking, and what questions they were asking. If it was similar to Nationals thinking. The questions would be something like this:

    Q – Are you happy?
    1 – Yes Definitely
    2 – Yes Almost always
    3 – Yes half the time
    4 – Yes – sometimes
    5 – N/A

    Therefore on average you would say YES EVERYONE IS HAPPY. Its dumb things such as this stupid survey that put out ridiculous propaganda to make poorer people feel like they need to work harder. When its all against you.

  20. WOW, even the old Christians knew, that out of some vice, deep disaster and scandal, can in the end come some common good and “blessings” after all.

    So it seems to be working in this case, Colon Cringe (aka Colin Craig), entrepreneur, bizarre political adventurer, coming close to 4 percent of all votes last general election, is with his “Conservative Party” finally facing TOTAL meltdown!

    Good grief, thank GOD, the Almighty, Christ, Muhammad, Buddha, all Hindu gods and goddesses, Thor, Frya and other ones, maybe even the “faith” of the unbelievers, for their secret workings behind the scene. We may finally get rid of another mad cap right wing party and crowd, now so busy with in-fighting and challenges, RIP CC and “Conservatives”, your days are NUMBERED!

    That is what BOTH major TV channels presented, besides of the usual weather and other trivia, so we have hope, the “right” is breaking down to bits further. Thank you David Farrier, to take hold of Colon Cringe, in the sweaty sauna, that has “assisted” us, you be “blessed”, dear soul, but it will take more to “repent”, move yourself away from “Newsworthy” nonsense, wannabe broadcasting BS, thanks.

    Redemption, redemption, it is still there, an option, available, dear lost souls, grab it while you can.

  21. I’ve found this show on a satellite channel that could be a viable replacement for “Campbell Live”. It seems to consist of nothing but mindless torture & violence… something about “Videodrome”, or something similar. Sure to be a ratings winner (which is all that counts these days). Only problem is that ever since I’ve started watching it, I’ve been getting these strange headaches. And my stomach doesn’t feel too good either…

  22. What constitutes television “news” programmes are just another variety of MSM porn. We are all familiar with relationship porn (Dr Phil, Oprah Winfrey, The Batchelor); construction porn (The Block, Dream Home); kitchen porn (Masterchef, Gordon Ramsay); career porn (NZ’s Next Top Model), etc.
    Now we have news porn on NZ TV. (TV one and three news, Breakfast, Seven Sharp) Made especially for our two-minute attention spans. (What other similar activity to supposed to last two minutes?) Long on build-up and fantasy, short on delivery and reality.
    Our news porn programmes should come with an age classification warning that watching them could reduce your mental age to under six. Or it could make you deaf!!
    It will definitely make you dumb!

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