The sad evolution of journalist from informer to story teller

by Jake Quinn

Putting aside the merits of the criticism that he has faced, this week has been a shocker for Labour leader Phil Goff.  He has taken a beating from the press who (rightly or wrongly) have collectively decided that he is not a future Prime Minister and it is therefore their jobs to assist the Labour Party in finding it’s next leader by ‘helping’ them, and the wider public, to see that he hasn’t got the goods.

The National Party’s “Associate Communications Minister (delegated with on-line agenda setting)” David Farrar, then feeds the machine capping off Goff’s unfortunate week with a provocative NBR column that begins: “Four words I do not believe we are likely to ever hear are ‘Prime Minister Phil Goff’… I am not a person who is normally complacent about elections and their outcomes. In fact this is probably the first time I have been willing to predict an outcome in advance, let alone two and a half years in advance.” This will, as it has right here, kick off a series of quotations, further discussions and lengthy comment threads on this topic and about who will replace Mr Goff – at least that’s the plan.

Putting aside Farrar’s contribution (as he is after all a political actor not a journalist), what the last weeks concoction shows us is the unfortunate evolution of the role of political journalist from neutral commentator (allowing us to consider the facts and form our own opinions) to a creator of stories, stories that we do not need to consider and form opinions about, because the opinion is already formed – we are merely supposed to consume the story and smile blankly, hopefully tuning in the next night to engage in further thoughtless spoon-feeding of political views.

To steepen the slope of this downward spiral, the opinion (or story) is likely to be controversial by nature and involve clear winners and losers. That is because having clear winners and losers, like a good sports match, draws a higher audience (and hence more advertising revenue) than when there is none – imagine a rugby game without a scoring system, that you simply watched for the enjoyment of rucks, malls and watching men kick things around.

Hence the creation of the art of politician scalping – where journalists (think Garner) create high rating news by picking off politicians (think Benson-Pope or Melissa Lee) based on narratives they have nurtured over a series of nights or weeks.

So what is the outcome of ‘story telling’ political journalism? Are we more entertained? Yes – we probably are. But are we more informed? I would suggest we are not.  The winner in this case are the shareholders of the media companies, the loser of course is the public, who are slowly but surely being robbed of a very important right – to be presented with facts and to make up their own bloody minds.