John Armstrong's opinion: PM's excuses to drop Mike Hosking's show 'nonsense'

John Armstrong
Source: 1News

Don’t buy the arrant nonsense spouted by Jacinda Ardern by way of explanation for her cancelling her regular slot on The Mike Hosking Breakfast Show on NewstalkZB.

Jacinda Ardern says the race is "neck and neck" despite tonight's nine point lead to National in latest 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton poll.

The Prime Minister has done herself a major disservice by disseminating a convoluted and barely credible rationale for dumping the once-a-week exchange between her and the host of the highest rating breakfast session on commercial radio.

Her decision to terminate an arrangement which, until now, had survived the clash of will and ego that underscore such verbal bouts between politician and major media personality for more than three decades is perplexing.

Sure, Hosking’s criticism of Ardern has become progressively more relentless, provocative, caustic and impatient the longer she has occupied the highest office in the land.

That has been the tone of his commentary as represented by his pithy opinion pieces which he voices on his show and which also appear online courtesy of the NewstalkZB’s and the NZ Herald’s sites.

That commentary is not going to cease simply because Ardern has shut down Hosking’s weekly opportunity to grill her.

In comparison to his commentary, Hosking’s interviewing of Ardern is far more restrained. Had he loaded his weekly ten-minute window with chunks of opinion, it would have degenerated into a shouting match of no worth to anyone— especially the listeners.

Hosking rather regarded the slot as a means to put the questions to the Prime Minister that needed to be put to her. His crime has been to be more insistent on getting answers to those questions rather than the waffle she serves up to duck them.

Ardern obviously sees things differently. No longer is she prepared to be punching bag soaking up the jabs and jibes administered by someone who displays all the DNA of a National Party clone.

The relationship between politicians and media is symbiotic. They need one another. The latter need the former to supply the goods — be it policies, statements, directives or whatever— which the latter then convey to voters.

It only works if it is a two-way process. Both parties have to get some benefit from what is an unspoken arrangement.

Ardern’s view clearly was that she was getting nothing out of it but aggravation. What would have grated with her in particular would have been the fact that week in and week out she was being confronted by a walking billboard — one whose view of the political universe is not a million miles removed from the version espoused by Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

Having decided to ditch the slot, most politicians would have left it at that.

They would have ignored the complaints of constitutional purists that the axing of the weekly battle between the Princess of Prattle and a Babble with a Cause weakens the overall capacity of the media to ensure those exercising power are held to be accountable for their actions.

They would have likewise taken on the chin the charge that they were chickening out of the fight and — as Hosking has put it in Ardern’s case — “running to the hills”.

The notion that the incumbent currently holding court in the Prime Minister’s office in the Beehive cannot handle the heat that gets cooked up in that political kitchen is absurd.

As Ardern has demonstrated with her handling of the major crises which have erupted out of nowhere during her tenure, she thrives when forced to deal with calamity or catastrophe. The hotter the better, in fact.

If the P"ime Minister has a weakness, it is that her persona dictates that her actions and statements conform to her self-image as some kind of 'Ms Perfect".

Everything she says or does is guided by the highest moral principles and the best of motives. Or that is the intention.

Until that is the grubby world of politics intervenes; a world where trade-offs and comprises are required to progress the greater cause; a world where the choice is either the bad or the very bad.

In such circumstances, Ardern has shown a proclivity to rewrite history so that her actions are always painted as being done for the right reasons — even if those reasons are phoney.

On first hearing, her reasoning for terminating the longstanding arrangement with NewstalkZB contains a smattering of plausibility.

She insists that nothing sinister ought to be read into the dropping of Hosking’s slot from her jam-packed schedule of radio and television appearances during the course of the week.

She says the decision followed a “review" of that schedule and reflected a desire to do a “better job” in communicating her administration’s messages and extending the reach into different sections of the community.

Fair enough. Given the changing composition of New Zealand society along with the multiplicity of media platforms plus the already heavy demands on the Prime Minister’s time, it is not only sensible to check that she is utilising the most appropriate means to reach the audience she is wishing to target, be it population cohorts broken down by ethnicity, income, education qualifications or whatever.

It would be remiss of her to neglect to do so.

Even if one is willing to give some credence to this purported justification for boycotting Hosking’s show, the decision makes no sense for a number of reasons — about 350,000 reasons, in fact.

According to listenership ratings, that is the scale of the audience for NewstalkZB’s breakfast session. It is around twice the numbers tuning into the second-highest rating commercial station at that time of day.

Is it worth foregoing that number of voters in order to free up a meagre 10 minutes to speak to a much-reduced audience? Of course not. It is ludicrous.

Even if you subscribe to such warped and counter-productive logic, it still makes absolutely no sense to single out NewstalkZB for exclusion.

Ardern needs to communicate to that station’s listenership — a cachet of voters whose allegiances can shift between elections.

If Ardern needed to drop one radio station from her schedule, that station would be RNZ National. Those switched onto Morning Report, the state-owned broadcaster’s flagship programme, lean heavily in favour of Labour and the Greens. Moreover, they tend to remain a strongly-aligned to the centre-left parties over the long-term. In talking to that bloc, Ardern is preaching to the converted.

Ardern is not the first prime minister to play such games in order to weaken the Fourth Estate, whether by playing favourites, divide-and-rule or outright bans on individual journalists.

Sir Robert Muldoon was in a permanent state of war with the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Jim Bolger ended the practice of holding a weekly press conference altogether.

That was in the early 1990s when he was at his nadir in terms of unpopularity. His press conferences had become a competition between political journalists to make Bolger appear weak and hopeless.

It culminated in TV3 mercilessly lampooning him by running a collection of embarrassing news clips of the embattled prime minister to the tune of The Beatles’ song Nowhere Man.

In Ardern’s case, the more apt melody to pick from the Lennon-McCartney songbook might be Paperback Writer — the fiction-oriented variety.