Few prime ministers have ever been as popular or polarising as Jacinda Ardern – a reality expressed in the highs and lows of her media coverage, writes Duncan Greive.
The first time I really saw Jacinda Ardern was around the start of 2017. The Spinoff had decided to host a debate under the ludicrous name “The War for Mt Albert”, and in then-typical Spinoff style, we invited the key candidates to a newly-opened craft beer bar out back of an Indian restaurant in what can only be described as a shipping container. It was the political media equivalent of seeing a future chart-topper play to a dozen people at the Wine Cellar.
It was hosted by our brilliant and energetic Auckland editor Simon Wilson, who prepped for it as if it were a presidential debate. Ardern was Labour’s deputy leader at the time, and was set against the Opportunities Party leader Geoff Simmons and the Greens’ Julie Ann Genter. Both were very good, informed and measured. Jacinda Ardern, though, was a revelation – no one in that room could have failed to note her poise, power and, most impressively, a complete command of the whole of the political agenda. Not just her shadow portfolios: everything.
It’s important to remember that to this point she had been considered something of a lightweight. This was not just a right wing trope – ahead of the 2011 election, when the contesting of Auckland Central was nauseatingly dubbed the “battle of the babes”, Wilson had taken Ardern and National’s Nikki Kaye to lunch and came away unimpressed with them both. Kaye ended up winning the seat. Matthew Hooton typified the right’s perspective: Ardern was a “flake” who would never accomplish anything. That was essentially the thesis – Ardern was ubiquitous at media events, very easy to get on with, but the vibe was more “a cool person you can talk to who likes the same stuff culturally as you” than “the next PM of NZ and a towering world figure”.
All of which is to say that the media had her wrong – or at least, that she knuckled down and matched her charisma with an enormous amount of work, and ultimately proved an extraordinarily adept leader. And I think a huge part of that was her relationship with the media, and the deep understanding she had, not just of media itself, but of the whole fast-evolving nature of communications in this era.
On the conditions and possibilities of Jacindamania
Looking back now over her five-and-a-half year run as Labour leader, there really was almost no period in which there was a rational and appropriately-calibrated relationship between Jacinda Ardern and the media. When she first replaced Andrew Little and held that historically great opening press conference, it set off what became known as “Jacindamania” – an exciting but very challenging situation for the media to respond to. Newshub political editor Paddy Gower typified the moment in his review of her first day: “Jacinda Ardern has got that valuable political ingredient – vibe,” he wrote. “She has got serious vibe.”
That was less an opinion than an observation – watching her in public in that period showed a different kind of relationship with a different kind of voter. It was hard to disentangle coverage of her as a phenomenon from assessment of her performance as a leader, because the former so heavily impacted the latter. She was so different from the suited and dry archetype of prior major party leaders of the MMP era that, as BusinessDesk’s Pattrick Smellie notes, a 200m walk could take an hour due to the volume of demand for selfies.
Five years on, things had become very different. Her approval rating fell to less than half of its gaudy peak, and police advised against a cute barbecue at Waitangi due to the dangers posed by a segment of the electorate which came to view her as personally responsible for everything they loathed about the law or society as a whole. Her media appearances became studded with questions about seemingly intractable problems and almost no headline seemed to contain anything good for her government. As Hooton noted in a column yesterday, a third of the electorate seems to actively loathe her for a spectrum of reasons, many of them bizarre and fact-free.
In between these two periods, Ardern dealt with two of the most complex crises Aotearoa has faced the past 50 years, and was forced to deploy her extraordinary communication skills with unimaginable frequency. For large parts of 2020 that made her so popular that media coverage almost could not countenance a criticism, so harsh would the backlash be on social media.
A different approach
While both Helen Clark and John Key were known as brilliant leaders who handled media very well, Jacinda Ardern was a wholly different and more impressive communicator. She has a degree in the subject, sure, but her mastery of media was layered and multi-dimensional. She instinctively grasped not only how to communicate through different mediums to different audiences, but how fast and comprehensively the media was changing.
Most obviously this was shown in her use of social media. Previously an avid user, she jettisoned Twitter almost entirely as prime minister, correctly clocking the way it drew many politicians into base and unstatesperson-like politicking. She instead embraced Instagram in a way which humanised her, but Facebook Live became her most impressively-deployed platform, allowing her to speak candidly and in unstaged environments about the realities of her life as prime minister.
Just as interesting was what she didn’t do – most notably her abandonment of her weekly slot on Newstalk ZB in favour of a broader array of regular media interviews. In that one decision Ardern made ZB and Hosking look old and fading, while simultaneously creating more room for her to speak to audiences which might plausibly vote for her. It was emblematic of a far more sophisticated media operation than had ever been run before, with Ardern continuing John Key’s courtship of major US media figures, without having to pay for it, and significantly expanded on the impact of it. That much of the coverage was fawning and ludicrous was hardly her fault – more a result of our persistent presence as a caricature in international affairs, when we’re thought of at all.
To be clear, this was both Key and Ardern doing each of their jobs – both party leader and prime minister. The prime minister has a clear need to expand the brand and visibility of New Zealand, and where they have such huge star power and media fascination it’s in the national interest for them to do so. The party leader should deploy every tool in their power to maximise their vote, and for a while there it made New Zealand swell with pride seeing its young, telegenic leader feted on the world stage.
A huge contributor to what has made Ardern’s five years as prime minister feel much longer was the sheer volume of public communication she had to do in that time. She fronted the atrocity in Christchurch, and tried to find a way to hold a fragile nation together through that fraught time, before the heat of the pandemic and the endless 1pm press conferences that came with it. The total length of time the average New Zealander has spent watching her speak must surely be orders of magnitude longer than any prior prime minister.
For a long while, this served her well. She interacted with media almost constantly, but on terms she set, and while these were deeply challenging times for the country, public sentiment overwhelmingly coalesced behind Ardern and against the media. Tova O’Brien and others have spoken of the vitriol which landed on them simply for asking the kinds of questions needed to create the 6pm news. The comments sections of any story which assessed the speed of vaccine procurement or the assumptions baked into MIQ would sometimes treat basic journalistic inquiry as treason.
As recently as a year ago, with Auckland emerging from its longest lockdown, Ardern remained by far the most popular politician in the country, with a 39% preferred PM rating, almost quadruple her nearest challenger on 11%. It’s instructive that her nearest rival then was David Seymour, a man who had adroitly advanced a particular critique of Ardern and Labour, one which suggested that far from having successfully navigated a perilous virus, it had in fact made multiple major errors along the way.
Watching the 6pm news and reading our major news sites, the tone shift was rapid and sustained. Where it had once been almost dangerous to publish even mild and reasonable critiques of government decisions, by the start of 2022 a broad-based disgruntlement had become the default position of most coverage and analysis. The extremes of this were driven by the anti-vax movement which peaked in those extraordinary scenes around parliament, but you could feel the change everywhere.
This in truth was near-inevitable. The emergence from Covid-19 and lockdowns has seen inflation, supply chain chaos and crime spikes all over the world. New Zealand is hardly unique in any of this, and our media was simply doing its job in covering it. Sections of the media undoubtedly over-reached, indulging in a bleak kind of “Cindy”-baiting which was deeply ungenerous at best and often just straight up misogynist.
It paled in comparison to the worst of social media though, which we all create and is ultimately where all this came from and goes to. The news media certainly had moments which suggested a mythic Saint Jacinda that was clearly beyond what any human could plausibly carry. Equally, sections of social media sought to attribute multi-generational state failures to a single person operating in the eye of a hurricane. But all of it was induced demand – throughout this period the media was monitoring responses to its work and producing more of what made people tune in, watch, click and subscribe.
Which is to say that while the media and Ardern were almost never operating from an even footing, the cause ultimately wasn’t how either party behaved. It was us and our collective mood, beaten and bruised by events, that dictated terms.