How a student journalist brought out the Trump in Winston

As a journalist at a student magazine, Joel MacManus wrote a straightforward report on a media appearance by Winston Peters. In return, Peters called him a moron and questioned whether he deserved to be in university.

Winston Peters is a man with many grudges. His desire for vengeance against those who wronged him is one of his most defining traits and his latest target is the journalists who revealed his overpayment of superannuation funds, Newshub’s Lloyd Burr and Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy. His attacks on their journalistic credibility included calling Burr a “National Party activist”, which earned the scorn of E tū union journalists representative Brent Edwards.

“As Foreign Minister, Mr Peters should uphold his obligation to support press freedom and journalists’ safety around the world, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region,” Edwards said.

It was upon reading this that I realised I had a story of my own about what it was like to be harassed by Winston Peters. I laughed it off at the time, but now I think about it, it was pretty fucked up.

For the last two years, I worked as a reporter for Critic, the student magazine at the University of Otago. I wrote a story in May about the NZ First policy of cracking down on international students earning work visas and permanent residency.

It wasn’t an op-ed, it was just a bog standard news piece. At no point was there any criticism of NZ First policy on my part. It wasn’t even original reporting, I pretty much just recounted and quoted an interview he did with The AM Show. Apart from an editorialised headline, it was a boring, regular story. I forgot about it the minute I sent it away.

Which is why I was baffled when I got a message three weeks later from the chair of the Southern Young Nats. “Congrats on the Winston Peters attack! Poor man’s Donald Trump.”

Then I checked Twitter and saw this:

Turns out, Winston was in Dunedin and had given a speech on campus in which he thrust a copy of Critic in the air and, pointing at the article I had written saying, “First question, who was the unreconstructed, four flushing moron that wrote that article? Second question, and how did he or she get into this university?”

“Despite all the downsides of mass immigration where students are concerned – high student rents, crammed accommodation, tens of thousands from overseas with work permits competing for your work, and depressed wages and conditions – someone at this university wrote that article.”

Again, what I wrote was not an opinion piece. At no point did I criticise Winston Peters or New Zealand First for their position on the issue. I basically just quoted Winston himself.

I’m pretty sure he didn’t even read the article, just glanced the headline, saw the word “rant” and assumed it was a criticism of him.

A more cynical person might say he saw an opportunity to fall back on that old populist trick of trying to paint himself as a victim of media bashing, regardless of the actual content of the article.

In the next issue, my colleague wrote a short article about the speech Peters gave on campus.

Winston responded by accusing Critic of “unprofessional bias” and “slanted reporting” because we chose to focus on his attacks on us rather than writing about the rest of his speech which he said included “topics of interest to students such as… NZ Super”.

Honestly, I was stoked. Being attacked by Winston Peters is almost a badge of honour among journalists. I thought the whole thing was hilarious. For a week, I went around telling nearly everyone I knew about my run-in. It was made all the better by the fact that his attacks were so nonsensical.

But I know not everyone would have taken it as well as me.

I was recently appointed as the new editor of Critic, which got me thinking how I would have felt if rather than me, Winston Peters had chosen to attack one of my staff. I would have been furious.

Like all student magazines, most of Critic’s writers are volunteers. Most of them are university-aged, and we even have the odd high schooler contribute. For almost all of them, Critic is the first time their writing has been published.

The author of that piece could have easily 18-year-old volunteer writing their first news story. This is exactly the kind of story a new volunteer would be asked to write because it doesn’t require independent investigation, just a recounting of facts.

It could be a young aspiring journalist looking to dip their toe in the waters of student media – and in response they get a very powerful man, the former (and future) deputy prime minister launching a cyber-bullying campaign against them, calling them a moron and saying they don’t deserve to be in university. After that, I wouldn’t be surprised if they never wanted to write again.

Winston Peters’ response was not to criticise the content of the article. He insulted me personally. He insulted my intelligence. Someone who was campaigning to be a government minister questioned whether I had gained valid entry into the University of Otago, a government institution.

By this point I had almost graduated and was already pretty checked out of my degree. But again, if that were an 18-year-old volunteer, already feeling the creeping self-doubt that inevitably comes with your first year of university study? To hear the former deputy prime minister say they aren’t smart enough to deserve a place there would be incredibly disheartening. That’s bullying, plain and simple.

This is not student media asking politicians to go easy on us. We don’t want to be handled with kid gloves. We are a member of the Press Council, and as such can (and do) get taken to the council on occasions when readers feel we have breached journalistic standards.

If Winston Peters had claimed inaccuracies in the content of the article, that would have been fine. But I’m pretty confident there were none. That he accused us of being biased was in my opinion incorrect and unfair, but arguably a valid complaint in theory. That he chose to personally attack and insult a reporter is not acceptable for someone in his position of power.

Those kinds of personal attacks on journalists are Trump politics at their worst. Actually, it’s lower than that: even Trump hasn’t stooped to the level of picking Twitter fights with individual writers on college newspapers.

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