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MediaJuly 28, 2022

The Te Puke Affair: How Morning Report saw a social media flub and smelled a cover-up

Image: The Spinoff
Image: The Spinoff

A banal non-story became a full-blown inquisition on Morning Report, as Susie Ferguson grilled a bemused National leader about Facebook and his holiday.

The interview took over eight minutes of radio primetime, all consumed with a single subject – the kind of keenly contested tousle the medium was made for. The host would not let up, returning time and again to the credibility of her target, refusing to let him move the conversation on to his talking points. A sampling of the questions shows just how dogged Morning Report’s Susie Ferguson was with National leader Christopher Luxon.

0.57: “It kind of looks like a cover-up. It’s got that sort of feel to it… was this a mistake? Or was this a strategy?” 

1.30: “It gives the impression that you’re working when you’re on holiday. Do you accept that?”

2.57: “Does this dent your credibility?… We’re discussing trust in you.” 

4.26: “It’s a question about whether you were upfront about it… Did you try to hide it?”

5.06: “You said you thought it wasn’t misleading, yesterday initially.”

5.16: “Was it misleading? Or wasn’t it misleading?”

7.01: “You don’t think you’re in a situation where you’re having to make things up on the fly?”

The subject? A series of scheduled social media posts, which when taken literally, suggested Luxon was in Te Puke when he was, in fact, several thousand kilometres away in Hawai’i. TVNZ figured this out and ran it as a brief two-minute gotcha on the previous night’s 6pm bulletin, which is about the right level of public ignominy to suffer for what is ultimately a process failure within a social media team. 

What Luxon says happened is very much Occam’s Razor here – that having built up a stash of tedious but necessary social content to fill the feed while the leader was on holiday, no one changed the tense to reflect that it wasn’t going up live, but was scheduled instead. If so, it was very much a minor cock-up, and nothing like the major conspiracy Ferguson’s relentlessness suggests. 

This is not to say that Facebook posts cannot be a source of major stories. Contrary to what is often said, social media does in fact matter. It is how many of us relate to our leaders, and it can go to judgement, as one of Luxon’s predecessors, Simon Bridges, found when he lost his leadership thanks to an ill-timed (though ultimately benign) Facebook post.

Still, to justify Ferguson’s refusal to move on, you have to believe that this was a deliberate deception rather than a boring mistake. It’s essentially impossible to imagine that Luxon was planning to keep his trip to Hawai’i a secret with an elaborate series of scheduled social media posts. Discovery would be inevitable, and swift (as it proved). The gain of such a ruse – presumably that he was seen to be muddy-gumbooting it around rural New Zealand, solidarity with the working stiff and all that – is small. The downside of exposure would likely be career-ending, not so much for the scale of the lie but because it would be so massively weird.

(My personal theory is that Luxon’s regular trips to Hawai’i are a shameless tribute to the man he seeks to emulate, former National leader John Key, who also made an annual pilgrimage to the sunny islands. If so, also embarrassing, but not really a story.)

Figuring out a proportionate response to an event is one of the media’s core jobs. We have to triangulate a range of factors, but surely one of the most important is: what would some mythic average person think about what happened. The mislabelling of a social media post seems almost comically small, worthy of satire, maybe a couple of jibes at the top of a radio spot, but not a lot more.

What makes the interview more unfortunate is that it feeds into what is already a well-established perception on the right that RNZ is more inclined to look favourably upon Labour and the left. And that Ferguson on Morning Report is the most egregious example of this lean. The Act Party has gone so far as to boycott the show, so convinced is it that its positions fail to get a fair hearing – though not just because of Ferguson. 

Writing as an avid listener, most of the time there is little to back this perception up. Finding evidence of bias is a game of microaggressions and tone-policing and very difficult to prove as a thesis. Certainly compared to the naked hostility across the dial at Newstalk ZB, which ultimately resulted in Mike Hosking being dropped from Ardern’s radio rounds (he remains a peerless and non-partisan interviewer, but the editorialising is rough). 

Still, there are moments when you can see what the right is angry about, as when you contrast the deference to Ardern with the posture of the questions to Bridges during the first lockdown. 

Luxon’s predecessor Judith Collins had a notably frosty relationship with Ferguson too, though Collins had a notably frosty relationship with most of her own party by the end. Regardless, a presenter and a show need to carefully know when to listen to feedback from combatants and when to tune it out, and for the most part Morning Report remains one of the best products in our media, and Ferguson is very much a key part of that.

In this interview though, she went far beyond any rational and proportionate response to the scale of the alleged offence. After four excruciating minutes raking over the posts, she turned to the location of his holiday: Hawai’i. Ferguson seemed to question his patriotism in leaving the country at all. “Didn’t you consider spending your holiday, and indeed your tourism dollars, in New Zealand?” Luxon remained calm and polite, but was clearly nonplussed at the bizarre direction the interview ended up taking. Then Ferguson returned to the posts, and never quit.

At any time this would be unfortunate, but ultimately could be written off as a missed call, the kind we all make from time to time. It comes, though, at a time when public media is under immense scrutiny due to the merger of RNZ and TVNZ. Facebook is rife with conspiratorial mutterings about the government’s intentions with the merger, and both National and Act have expressed misgivings about its ability to be truly impartial given the scale of the associated increase in funding and scope. 

This is made more acute in following so soon after the Public Interest Journalism Fund, which was well-intentioned and basically fine but has ended up decaying trust in the institution of journalism in some quarters. There is a strong sense that the remarkably non-polarised political-media environment under which we’ve operated lately could start to wear as the merger progresses. This absolutely does not mean we need to pull our punches, but the fact our politicians and media inhabit the same reality is to be defended and treasured. If Luxon were to follow Ardern and Seymour’s example and quit interviews he didn’t like, for example, it would represent a plausible start of the unravelling of a key tie that binds us.

It was only one interview, and only about a smattering of basic Facebook posts – but given how delicately the entire public media ecosystem is balanced at the moment, it risks introducing further instability at the worst possible time. Hopefully Luxon’s social media manager can get their tenses right in future, otherwise this thing could really tip out of control.

Clarification: This post has been amended to clarify that Act’s boycott of Morning Report was not solely because of co-host Susie Ferguson.

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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