Helpless Amnesiacs: The Media’s Dangerous Lack Of Historical Memory


WHAT PUZZLES ME is the historical ignorance of today’s political journalists. Politicians like Chris Bishop will always reach for hyperbole and exaggeration in a tight spot – as in the National Party’s campaign manager’s claim that the CTU’s advertising campaign signals an unprecedented descent into the pit of dirty politics. Less forgivable, however, is the inability of the Press Gallery to laugh such self-serving claims to scorn, recalling effortlessly three or four much worse examples of dirty politics from elections past.

A political journalist without a working historical memory is no bloody use at all. Why? Because when some self-serving politician claims that they are witnessing the beginning of “the dirtiest election campaign in New Zealand history”, these helpless amnesiacs believe him! Do they read at all, these so-called journalists? Political history, political memoirs, political science? With one or two noble exceptions, the answer would appear to be “No.”

Mind you, the people teaching these kids don’t appear to have much in the way of a working historical memory either. Just consider the “expert” reaction to the protesters who greeted Labour supporters en route to the auditorium in which Labour’s election campaign was about to be formally launched. Has a line been crossed? Is this really part-and-parcel of the democratic process? Surely, this is a departure from the norm?

Bloody hell! Where would they like me to begin? 1938? 1951? 1975? 1977? Let’s take a peek?

Here’s what I wrote about the 1938 General Election in my political history of New Zealand “No Left Turn”:

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If all the straws flying in the rising proletarian gale pointed to their losing control of New Zealand’s political system, the country’s leading capitalists could still inflict enormous damage upon its economy. [Bill] Sutch records the steady escalation of capital flight in The Quest for Security: “From the end of 1934 to the end of 1938 it is estimated that capital of £22-£23 million was sent abroad, a great deal of it (£10-£15 million) in the second half of 1938.” It got worse. “In the months preceding the 1938 general election,” Sutch recalls, “the electors were subjected to a campaign of vilification and press hostility to the Labour Party that has not since been equalled. Many people were persuaded that the country was going bankrupt and that their savings were in danger.” Walter Nash would later tell Parliament: “I know of Opposition candidates in Wellington who advised people to go to the Post Office Savings Bank and see if they could draw their money out.” Millions were needlessly withdrawn as National, in a last desperate bid to destabilise the electorate, attempted to start a run on the people’s bank.

Thirty years later, [the British Marxist, Ralph] Miliband would write about this kind of pressure, describing it as “more important and effective than any other”, and demonstrating how the business community was “uniquely placed to exercise it”. It can be brought to bear, he wrote, “without the need of organisation, campaigns, and lobbying.” The pressure he refers to is, of course, “the pervasive and permanent pressure upon governments and the state generated by the private control of concentrated industrial, commercial, and financial resources. The existence of this major area of independent economic power is a fact which no government, whatever its inclinations, can ignore in the determination of its policies, not only in regard to economic matters, but to most other matters as well.”

Unless, he should have added, that government is so assured of the people’s support that it is willing to call the “independent economic powers”’ bluff. Because that is exactly what Savage, Fraser and Nash did. Rather than surrender to the “pervasive pressure” of New Zealand and British capital, they defiantly announced the imposition of foreign exchange controls.

The reaction of Labour’s opponents was venomous. The newspapers, in particular, responded to Savage’s refusal to be blackmailed by painting his party as the harbinger of totalitarian doom. Sutch was particularly appalled by the editorial published in The Dominion on the morning of election day, 15 October 1938:

“Today you will exercise a free vote because you are under this established British form of government. If the socialist government is returned to power your vote today may be the last free individual vote you will ever be given the opportunity to exercise in New Zealand.”

It wasn’t enough. In spite of National’s 100,000 members in 1,000 branches; in spite of an Opposition war-chest of £30,000 (much of it collected from “confidential donations”); in spite of the unrelenting hostility of every major daily newspaper in the country; in spite of wild rumours about New Zealand’s imminent bankruptcy; and in spite of the absurd charge that voting for the government was tantamount to voting for an end to democracy – the Labour Party was triumphantly returned to office.

All you cynics out there will shrug and say: “It was ever thus. This is nothing new.” And you’d be right. Strange, though, that the political journalists of today seem utterly ignorant of the structural impediments described by Miliband, or, if they are aware of them, then, for some reason, they keep them out of their stories.

But, if 1938 was bad, then the snap election of 1951 may have been worse. This is how the University of Otago’s Professor Tom Brooking described it in his popular history of New Zealand, “Milestones”:

 “The campaign was probably the dirtiest in New Zealand’s political history. National declared the election was a contest between the ‘The People versus the Wreckers’. Hackneyed old stories that [Labour Leader, Walter] Nash had once been a bankrupt were dredged up and his earlier visit to Russia was cited as proof of his communist leanings.”

And yet a mild-mannered ad campaign by the NZ Council of Trade Unions is described as “nasty”, and compared to US attack advertising. As if New Zealanders were not introduced to American-style attack advertising as long ago as 1975 when, with a little help from the Americans, National launched its infamous “Dancing Cossacks” ad, in which Roger Douglas’s NZ Superannuation scheme was equated with Soviet Communism. Seriously, when it comes to “nasty”, the NZCTU isn’t in the same league as the National Party!

And as for Freedom NZ’s little protest on the steps of the Aotea Centre – amateurs! Back in 2007, I recalled for the readers of The Dominion Post a 30-year-old protest against the presence of the National Party Conference in Dunedin’s Town Hall:

In July 1977, when the National Party’s annual conference rolled into Dunedin, I was a young liberal arts student at the University of Otago. “Rob’s Mob” was two years into its first three year term. Norman Kirk and Labour’s dreams had expired, and the progressive community was learning just how determined the Prime Minister was to defend the values of all those conservative New Zealanders who had returned National to office in 1975. 

Calling ourselves the “July Front”, about 500 student, trade union, civil rights and feminist activists gathered outside the entrance to the Town Hall and forced the hapless delegates to run the gauntlet of our noisy protest. I can still recall our chant – which rose to a deafening crescendo when the big LTD bearing the Prime Minister pulled up: “What’s the story filthy Tory? Out! Out! Out!” 

Of course most of us were very young, and not at all disposed to consider how we must have looked to the perfectly ordinary men and women marching stoically toward the Town Hall doors, while sixty burly policeman, arms linked, held back the surging human tide.

Farmers from South Otago and the King Country, lawyers from Remuera and Fendalton, small businessmen from Timaru and Levin, these were the sort of people young male university students ran into whenever their girlfriends decided it was time to “meet the parents”. Introduced anywhere but this mad maelstrom of protest, everyone would probably have got along famously – if only because of their common interest in politics. 

But not that night. That night, glancing nervously in our direction, all those frightened delegates saw were hundreds of eyes filled with hate; hundreds of fists punching the air in anger, and hundreds of wide open mouths chanting over and over again: “What’s the story filthy Tory? Out! Out! Out!”

Which only bears out what I have always maintained: aggressive and abusive protest is as much a tradition on the Left as it is on the Right. If New Zealand was blessed with a Fourth Estate that knew even a little bit about this country’s proud and passionate political history, then it wouldn’t panic every time one group of citizens started shouting at another. All genuine political journalists understand that it is silence and inaction that are to be feared the most. Denunciation and protest are Democracy’s proof of life.



  1. Yes, not nearly as bad as that cartoon of Muldoon having the floor sawed out from under him in a circle. What was it called, sink the pig or something? Now that was an attack ad. As compared to awww you know we think he’s a bit out of touch….

    • The problem being the likes of Jenna Lynch, Katie Bradbury are actually giving out and feeding into misinformation. Let’s face it they absolutely hated Jacinda Ardern I know its a strong word but the daily questions told you that. They held her in utter contempt. History will show how the journalists of 2017/2023 actively worked to get rid of the Labour government and I am not talking about Hoskins , at least we know where he stands. I am talking about the so called supposed to be unbiased political journalists . Unfortunately these are the women who are actively supporting Luxon and Willis. Remember when they ran behind the car? Radio NZ is no better Nine to Noon an example of another woman journalist actively working against the government. Daily they are feeding the public with Labour (in the scheme of things) minor wrong doings , but there we have the biggest lie of the National party plank “ tax cuts “ where is the real scrutiny, where are they being held to account for the made up scenarios where is the modeling, where is the recognition of a global economy. NZ is being sold a pup in order to elect a NACT government and boy will there be some disappointment when the truth comes out if this catastrophe comes to pass

    • But the issue is that today’s journos’ abysmal historical ignorance enables politicians to exaggerate, tell lies, and behave like performance artists, and usually get away with it. The politicians themselves are probably more reality averse than ever before, then blame somebody else if they’re caught out, which may be the the only authentic dynamic that they engage in. They’re mainly all as useless as each other. Toss in Labour’s attempts to stifle freedom of speech, ostensibly to help fight the now nonexistent war against terrorism, and the whole population could end up as dumb as the Dept of Education.

  2. Yes. Like many, I had family involved in the Nat’s shocking inhumane activities during the Watersiders’ Strike and the 1951 snap election, and I know how very dirty that was. The current hopeless political scribblers may be as ignorant as they seem to be, or they may be reflecting the wilful ignorance of their political paymasters, but I’d hesitate to even call them journalists at all.

  3. Hahaha, damn straight @ Chris Trotter, brings back memories as a kid of my Dad ( A staunch labour ite) going head to head and sometimes toe to toe with his staunch tory mates in that Muldoon era, an understatement to say things got a bit heated. Can’t say that I carried his passion for the better red than dead mantra though.

  4. Ironically, with the CTU posters around town, the first thing you see is Luxon’s name then his picture, looking possibly more thoughtful & intelligent or at least more edgy than he does on his own cheesy election posters, then you drive past, possibly not reading the lines below meant to denigrate him, or maybe you assume the lines refer to the risks another Labour term poses, because Labour is definitely out of touch & present too much risk to be given a term. Recognition in branding is important, so these posters are less dirty politics, and more a marketing fail. The CTU are literally paying for marketing for brand Luxon.

    • Interestingly, the hot pink around the text, suggests that if you are serious about a change of Government, don’t waste your time on National, you need to vote ACT. Another branding fail.

  5. Thank you Chris.
    I despair of what has become of journalism. It has become a ghostly breach in our democracy that doesn’t just invite, but warmly welcomes every kind of corruption.

    The media-personalities who have replaced the fourth-estate seem unable to even smell the rot.

    I can’t remember when I started thinking ”do you ever read”? Not just of journalists, but of a variety of members of the ‘expertise’ class.

  6. Helps to have amnesia if you get paid by those you want to forget.
    Also as far as the media is concerned why is there no outrage at the revelation that the chair of the reserve bank is a national party stooge. How much influence has he had in ensuring interest rates have been jacked up. Together with John Key these two have probably done more damage to our economy in the last few years than any Labour policy.

  7. “WHAT PUZZLES ME is the historical ignorance of today’s political journalists’.

    Great opener CW. I suspect its a generational thing, although that’s a lame excuse. An appreciation of history is not the pejorative of any one generation. Surely not education. In the new world of credentialism you’d think today’s political journalists have the quals. Whatever that means these days. Perhaps they simply haven’t read political history, or dabbled in postmodernism and wondered what Foucault was on about, or thought Noam Chomsky had a point. Perhaps they are all graduates from the dreary halls of commerce. Perhaps its a sign of the times.

    • Ah …. on a second reading I see its the last paragraph that pulls the punch, little understanding of historical precedence, failure to recognize denunciation and protest as a function of Democracy, rather than a failure to speak truth to power, important as that is. Keep up the good work @ CT.

  8. Well Chris for once I agree with you. This election appears to be about petty point scoring and very one sided. Take a quick peak at the National MP’s social pages its very painful I know but it certainly an eye opener with all the personal remarks. Why aren’t they castigating Nicola Willis for all her lies ( she actually lies on a daily basis). Where is the furore from the political journalists about this shonky tax package. I was never good at maths but even I know it doesn’t add up and there lies the danger of these promises “ the dreaded cuts “, thats what they should be questioned on. What will they cut to appease their wealthy donors. Where is the forensic analysis on the donors and their lobbying. Why aren’t they questioned( i mean really questioned until there is a plausible answer) daily on releasing the modeling of these tax cuts. For some reason the MSM. hate the Labour government ,its become very personal, they are promoting Luxon and Willis for all their worth she’s been proved to tell lies. . Where is the scrutiny of these journalists and their right leaning agendas, will a NACT government have the same nitpicking scrutiny or will the journalists be nicely entrenched in their right wing back pockets with absolutely no accountability.

  9. Thanks Chris. Nice essay.

    But within the context of managing the spread of “disinformation” on social media by individuals and groups being a focus of parliament this is a justifiable reasonable response by critics and free thinking observers.

    Of many people read you comment it may well have calming effect. It feels like the “culture wars” are escalating and any voice of reason is good.

  10. 1938. I learned to drive in a 1938 Ford V8 *Standard pick up truck. I hastily point out that it was much older than me. I was 6 years old and my job was to follow my mum around the lambing paddocks if she needed to catch a ewe with a tail-first lamb. For you town people, God bless you, but lambs must come out nose first or they’re usually literally dog tucker. It’s a breathing thing. I’d stand up and wrangle that old bakelite steering wheel. * The Standard model had mechanical brakes hence my disproportionally large right hand calf muscle.
    1938. Two years after the formation of the national party. Hmmmm…? I wonder.
    “From the end of 1934 to the end of 1938 it is estimated that capital of £22-£23 million was sent abroad, a great deal of it [£10-£15 million) in the second half of 1938.” It got worse. “In the months preceding the 1938 general election,” Sutch recalls, “the electors were subjected to a campaign of vilification and press hostility to the Labour Party that has not since been equalled.”
    By whom and for what and how?
    The National Party has been stealing farmer money for 87 years while they blamed the Labour Party and its followers and members for their dirty, lazy ways, now pass that sausage and buttered bread now would ya? I have an office to sit in and you can send the bill to my mansion in Remuera.
    That’s why the national party secreted roger douglas away inside and up old Labour. That’s why roger created ACT then manned it with bloodless crooks like seymour.
    You also mentioned douglas and superannuation. It’s a fucking scam and it’s not enough and it’s taxed and it’s about 25% of what’s actually needed to have a comfortable retirement in Jacked Prices Kiwiville. But you’re all right aye boys? You dirty, lazy fuckers. You billionaires and millionaires get superannuation too and I highly doubt you’re paying tax on it just like you don’t pay taxes on anything else. How’re those off-shore accounts going then?
    A little lite reading of a sunny afternoon.
    Paradise Papers :
    The Paradise Conspiracy:
    Dirty Politics.

    • Hey, CB.

      Just a quick note re: your castigation of Douglas’s “New Zealand Superannuation” scheme.

      Are you sure you’re not thinking of Muldoon’s “National Superannuation” scheme? The one that replaced Douglas’s 1974 scheme? It’s Muldoon’s scheme – with one or two tweaks and a couple of name-changes over the past 48 years – that we post-65ers still receive today. Piggy’s pay-as-you-go, as opposed to Douglas’s contributory scheme.

      Have a good one!

      • ‘Castigation’ is a good word. Words and lyricality are our main thing. Will go into ‘that good night’, now upon us all, with silly word arrangements in my mind.

        Tunes, I look down upon.

  11. Those journalists wouldn’t be in front of Bishop, unless they’d already drunk the cool aid to reelect the Tories.

  12. This isnt a new thing though it’s definitely getting worse. Gone are the days of serious journalism when people like yourself, gordon campbell etc were part of the mainstream and today the best we get is the likes of Jess and Tova doing he said / she said type stories with zero background or analysis. What we need to know is not what they said but what they did what they believe and who they represent.

  13. Chris, as we know journalistic training has been dumbed down so much here that the chances of a Press Gallery reporter having a pol sci or history degree are remote. Paddy Gower for all his faults is well qualified in this regard. Jack Tame is probably an exception. On the other hand lightweights such as Jenna Lynch, Tova O’Brien, Mike Hosking are legion.
    My mother was so upset with the 1951 election and the Holland government that she went to Australia. She believed that a Bob Menzies government was preferable to a Holland government.

  14. Is there actually any point in having this election the Media have already decided who they want in Govt, do we have to endure weeks of this Media Kangaroo court. Where is the Media insistence on National to release their tax cut costing. We all know it BS but nobody seems to care.

  15. This is what happens when you are too zoomed in on micro-gotcha-aggressions and sound bites rather than actual news and paying attention to big pictures.

    Incidentally, why was it ok for Labour election monitors to be stopping me to record my name and rego number of my car in the parking lot last election and radioing their monitors inside before letting me in the building. Actually curious as Elections NZ said monitors are fine but they shouldn’t be stopping me outside the place like that, however since they only acted in a threatening manner and didn’t make actual threats or stop me from voting then it would be ignored.

    This was in a highly elderly area, I feel let down by that whole situation

  16. Maiz ben zur.

    The whole thing of now is forgetting we all were poor and desperate 80 years ago. Only 80 years ago, yet we think we have a ‘right’ to comfort. That delusion needs to be dismissed, against the wind. As you say that won’t pass.

    I think reality is the first thing and last, why I’ll probably vote for the Greens talking that.

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