A nation talking to itself

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 12 March 2021

Once upon a time, Arthur Miller said, “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” These days, many media outlets are talking only to segments of the population.

For the New Zealand media, 2021 has been a year of cancellations.

Finance minister Grant Robertson cancelled his weekly MagicTalk interview slot with Peter Williams. Presenter Sean Plunket left the station before there was a chance to cancel him.

Last week, the Herald cancelled historian and former Labour cabinet minister Michael Bassett after publishing (and unpublishing) a column of his. And finally, the Prime Minister cancelled her weekly interview slot with Newstalk’s Mike Hosking.

Each incident is different, yet they all point to ongoing political polarisation.

You do not have to agree with Williams, Plunket, Bassett or Hosking to know that many New Zealanders do. That is why Mike Hosking reaches a large segment of society with his morning show.

Hosking’s audience will now miss out on the weekly interview with the Prime Minister. That is a pity for them and for Hosking.

But the greater damage is that this cancellitis creates more echo chambers in our media.

Where politicians only speak to audiences close to them, there will be no tough questions, no hard talk and little to learn. And where journalists only interview politicians they like, they are in danger of becoming acolytes.

It gets worse. As a growing segment of online and print news is now serving left-of-centre audiences, this leaves a diverse group to their right homeless.

Yes, these groups could still listen to Hosking. They could also resort to reading international newspapers like The TimesThe Australian or the Wall Street Journal. But they would struggle to find similar written content here.

According to the mediabias.co.nz research project, all mainstream media outlets in New Zealand show a left-wing bias. Though their sentiment analysis tracks partisanship more than ideology, this suggests there is a media vacuum to the right of the centre-left.

There is a danger that, eventually, such a vacuum would be filled: not from the centre but by publications or social media channels on the fringe. So instead of a new Times, we should worry about a Kiwi version of Breitbart News.

That is not the end of the story, either. Fringe media promote fringe views. And fringe views create fringe politicians. Thus, the polarisation will jump from the media into politics.

It does not have to happen this way. But to prevent this dystopian and polarised future, we must stop cancelling each other.

As a nation, through and in our media, we should be talking to ourselves.

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