I MUST HAVE MISSED the news bulletin in which the appointment of Jack Tame as People’s Prosecutor was announced. I guess Winston Peters missed it, too. Otherwise, why would he have put himself in the dock on Q+A last Sunday morning? (6/9/20) Not that Winston was ever in real trouble, not from “James” – as the NZ First leader kept calling him. Winston’s been around too long to be seriously discommoded by an ambitious young journalist less than half his age. But, as he angrily told Tame and his producer, he had plenty of other things to be going on with, 40 days out from a general election in which he is fighting for his political life and legacy, than to submit himself to the inquisitorial fury of People’s Prosecutor Tame.
Anyone who knows anything about the way current affairs shows like Q+A are put together will share Winston’s outrage. Securing the appearance of a prominent politician on such shows is always a delicate exercise. The person, or, more likely, his or her minders, will want to know what the programme intends to talk to their boss about. And believe me, if they are told that the programme intends to ambush him with a whole series of questions of the “Are you still beating your wife?” variety, then the show’s producers will be told, very politely, to fuck right off.
So, you can bet your bottom dollar that Winston and his minders weren’t told anything remotely like that. He’d made himself available for an interview on the understanding it would mostly be about the tragic loss of the live-cattle-carrier capsized by a typhoon in the East China Sea. He did this believing, perhaps naively, that he was dealing with honest broadcasting professionals, not media bushwhackers.
You can also lay down a fairly heavy bet that Tame and his producers talked through the interview with considerable care, deciding exactly when the ugly shift from friendly interviewer Jack, to pitiless inquisitor Jack, would take place. Equally likely is the encouragement Tame would have been receiving through his earpiece from the control room as the interview unfolded. Were it a case of an interviewer gone rogue, Tame would have been shut down immediately. So, the Tame-Peters interview didn’t just happen – it was organised.
Just think about that for a moment. The leader of a political party – precariously poised on the edge of political oblivion – is invited to appear on a television programme whose producers’ and host’s intention is to ambush and embarrass him. Not, it is important to note at this point, to question him on evidence gathered by its own journalists, and about which he, having been given fair warning, will be invited to make comment. No, no, no: that would be what honest-to-God professional journalists would do.
I’ll never forget my old boss at The Independent Business Weekly, Warren Berryman, drumming it into me that real journalists don’t do ambushes. The subject of a story must always be offered the opportunity to respond to its content. It’s called “fairness” and there was time when TVNZ understood the meaning of the word.
Not anymore it would seem. If Tame had anything solid in the way of evidence of Winston’s and NZ First’s wrongdoing, then he and his producers kept it to themselves. All we got to hear was a quick-fire series of questions cleverly constructed to leave their guest with nowhere safe to go. Perhaps, they really did have the goods on Winston, and what they were trying to winkle out of him was a flat denial, which they could then expose as a lie – as the cameras rolled. Then again, maybe they didn’t.
Which leaves me – and I’m pretty sure a pretty large chunk of the Q+A audience – wondering what TVNZ’s game is. This is, after all, a public broadcaster. That should mean, at the very least, that the highest possible standards, not just of journalism, but also of common human decency, are drummed into every single staff member. Because, you know what, they used to be. Back in the days when news and current affairs constituted a sort of holy order, separated and secured from Hunter S Thompson’s “cruel and shallow money trench where pimps and thieves run free and good men die like dogs for no good reason” – i.e. the rest of the television industry.
For what it’s worth, this is what I think their game is. I think it’s about the substitution of the news media (young journalists in particular) for the people. And since democracy itself is about “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, what we’re actually looking at is a bunch of journalists who no longer put much faith in democracy. Because, you know, there are so many people out there who are racists, misogynists and homophobes. As such, they shouldn’t really be allowed to govern the country – should they?
What we’ve got is a bunch of journalists who, wittingly or unwittingly, are dragging us all in the direction of government of the media, by the media, for the media. They’re doing it for us – of course they are – because, you know, most of us really aren’t up to the job of doing it ourselves.
Joining a political party, earning the trust and confidence of its members, being selected as a parliamentary candidate, getting elected. It’s all so tedious, so demeaning. Having to listen to ordinary citizens, secure their votes, stay on their good side. So much easier to cast the cloak of the media’s protection over the weak and stupid. So much more satisfying to slay the monsters – like Winston Peters – who, these journalists are pretty sure, are cheats and misleaders, live on the people’s airways, or luridly on private-sector newsprint.
Because, you must know that if the media doesn’t take on the role of the People’s Champion; the People’s Prosecutor; if charlatans and extremists aren’t lured in front of the cameras and microphones to be ambushed and politically executed; then there’s every possibility that the people – idiots that they are – will re-elect them.