It wouldn’t take a PHD in journalism to understand why substandard steel in major Auckland infrastructure is newsworthy to the Herald’s core readership. So clear is the relevance, and so great are the implications, that any school newspaper editor would have no problem explaining the rationale for this story leading the news in the country’s largest daily newspaper.
Unfortunately for readers of the Herald, and for New Zealand’s democracy, traditional news values are rejected at the Herald when a story might reflect badly on the National-led political and corporate establishment. So partisan has this publication become, that such obtusely Orwellian omissions have become commonplace, and readers of the Herald and its website are missing out on key items of leading news because the Herald’s agenda appears to override their inclusion.
So, when Radio New Zealand reported on June 1 that: “Sixteen hundred tonnes of steel from China has been found to be too weak for four bridges on the $450 million Huntly bypass that forms part of the $2 billion Waikato Expressway”, The New Zealand Herald kept quiet.
When Radio New Zealand reported the very next day that: “The government is downplaying the importation of hundreds of tonnes of weak Chinese steel as a one-off and it will not be investigating”, The New Zealand Herald kept quiet.
Likewise, when Radio New Zealand reported on July 12 that: “The government has said it has no concerns about the steel either in Huntly or at the Waterview Connection project in west Auckland, where only half the New Zealand standard was specified for vital steel strand”, The New Zealand Herald kept quiet.
Readers of the Herald might be forgiven for thinking their regional newspaper was neglecting their interests as taxpayers, road users, and safety conscious citizens, in favour of protecting a Government with a sloppy record on building regulations, or other unknown commercial interests.
In fact, it was only when Fairfax’s Vernon Small broke the story of China’s threats to retaliate with a trade war if the substandard steel was investigated, that someone at the Herald began to take notice.
The Herald’s Head of Business Fran O’Sullivan immediately tweeted that this was an: “Important story from Vernon Small”. Still, at her own publication, the Orwellian tumbleweeds continued to roll. When the Herald finally did acknowledge the story, it was – as is typical – a nine paragraph story resembling a National Party press release. It quoted John Key’s press statement at length, with no journalistic inquiry, little context, no Opposition comment, and still no mention of that dodgy steel in the Waikato Expressway and Auckland’s Waterview Connection.
Subsequent infrequent updates of this major breaking story have followed this pattern without exception. John Key’s word is gospel, National’s spin is the angle, the Opposition doesn’t exist, and there is no acknowledgment of unsafe steel being used in major roading infrastructure under John Key’s watch.
Journalistic writing is often likened to an inverted triangle, with the biggest, juiciest, most newsworthy information at the top, and less important information at the bottom. It is the opposite of how The New Zealand Herald have treated this huge breaking story from the very beginning.
The Herald’s version is written like straight PR, always beginning with National’s spin, assuring readers that it’s no biggie, and that there is nothing to see here.
No school of journalism anywhere advocates “nothing to see here” as a news angle. That is the polar opposite of journalism. It is PR, or perhaps propaganda. And in just this one story, New Zealanders are shown exactly what the Herald’s modus operendi has become.
Of course, in a democracy, it is a newspapers prerogative to champion a particular political party, and such practice is common overseas, most notably in Britain. However, in that country, publications are traditionally open about their political allegiances. And, in Britain, there are numerous alternative publications presenting opposing or objective views. New Zealanders do not have that luxury, and the Herald’s one-sided coverage reads as abject contempt for democracy, and for their unsuspecting readers who turn to the Herald and other news media in the belief that news is objective and political agenda-free.
So, perhaps the challenge for the NZ Herald, and for other news providers in New Zealand, is to either present a more objective news balance, or inform readers overtly that they have an interest in promoting John Key’s Government and ideas of the Right, so that consumers can make an informed decision about what they read, and how they read it.
Neil Watts is a media blogger and news critic.