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In defence of those who hold the government to account on Covid-19

As we navigate the latest outbreak, those who challenge the government’s response are being subjected to increasing levels of vitriol, writes Laura Walters.

We have heard a lot about the team of five million during the past 18 months. We have heard about the team’s superstars: the healthcare workers, border workers, supermarket workers, contact tracers, scientists and modelling experts. Then there is the team’s corps: those staying at home, scanning in, masking up. But there is another subset of the team whose contribution is sometimes overlooked, and other times misunderstood: those who challenge the government and its Covid-19 response.

I’m not talking about those who, like Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, think we should immediately give up on the elimination strategy and learn to live (or die) with Covid-19. I’m also not talking about those who spread misinformation, conspiracy theories, or refuse to adhere to public health measures.

I’m talking about those who constructively criticise the government’s Covid-19 response. The opposition MPs, media and experts who ask about issues with PPE supply chains; why more essential and frontline workers haven’t had their jabs (only 40% of police are fully vaccinated; we don’t know what percentage of healthcare workers are fully vaccinated); and how the government is addressing the failings of the MIQ booking system.

Reporters and others have questioned the government’s handling of the MIQ system, which has been blamed for preventing hundreds of New Zealanders from coming home (Screengrab: allocation.miq.govt.nz)

Tough questioning by media and MPs has led to public revelations about discrepancies with vaccination doses that could point to as many as 11 people potentially being given a diluted dose or saline instead of the vaccine; and it’s brought to the fore issues raised about a pathway at the Crowne Plaza, which could be the possible source of this outbreak.

These people, who ask questions, challenge the government’s response, probe and probe again after detecting inconsistencies, play a vital role in improving the Covid-19 response.

Because being part of the team doesn’t mean mindlessly accepting information at face value. And being kind doesn’t mean sitting down and shutting up.

Questions and challenges should be rooted in fact, with the express aim of improving public understanding and access to information, as we all work towards the same goal: keeping New Zealanders safe. But there is plenty of space between whipping up hysteria and essentially becoming part of the government communications machine. It is not the job of the New Zealand media or the opposition to make the government look good.

Unfortunately, many of those who do play the vital role of questioning the government’s handling of some aspects of its pandemic response are vilified.

The National party has been accused of politicising a public health emergency. And while there have been attempts at political point scoring and the spreading of inaccurate information by the opposition, on the whole, Covid-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop has constructively questioned the government on legitimate issues. He’s asked about things like the percentage of health workers who are fully vaccinated, and vaccine supply issues.

Meanwhile, the media has also become the focus of online attacks and public backlash, as the 1pm live updates again draw the eyes of the country.

During the first national lockdown, Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien bore the brunt of the vitriol. This time around, it seems Newstalk ZB chief political reporter Jason Walls has caught the public’s attention.

Following a 1pm press conference last week, Walls was bombarded with insults online. His crime: asking questions of the prime minister’s decisions regarding the latest lockdown, versus the advice given by the Ministry of Health.

On the flip side, RNZ reporter Ben Strang has written about how he was attacked by someone sitting on the opposite end of the spectrum. A few hours before the country went into lockdown, he was tasked with interviewing members of the public. Someone who opposed the lockdown and believed in Covid-19 conspiracy theories tried to physically assault him.

Other reporters have also talked about overly aggressive anti-lockdown, Covid-19 conspiracy theorists confronting them while they’ve been working, Strang wrote.

‘It is not the job of the New Zealand media or the opposition to make the government look good.’ Jacinda Ardern anwers a question from media after announcing the lockdown, August 17, 2021 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

These responses towards the media are consistent with both local and global trends regarding trust in journalism.

Despite news organisations experiencing significant audience growth due to the pandemic, anxiety, fear and misinformation has further eroded trust in mainstream media. In 2021, AUT’s research centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy (JMAD) found fewer than half of New Zealanders trusted news in general

General trust in news declined from 53% in 2020 to 48% in 2021, and trust in the news people themselves consumed fell from 62% to 55%. All news brands in New Zealand experienced erosion of trust, according to the AUT research.

This is consistent with global research. The annual trust barometer from US communications firm Edelman found the global infodemic has driven trust in all news sources to record lows. Traditional media saw the largest drop in trust year-on-year, to 53% globally.

But this mistrust isn’t exclusive to traditional media. Distrust in other sources of information and leadership is also rife; politicians, CEOs, NGOs and social media.

Some of the hate directed towards reporters and politicians likely has to do with live streaming of news events and select committees. This isn’t new – press conferences and parliamentary select committees have been live-streamed for years now – but pre-pandemic people didn’t tune in at the same scale, with the same focus.

Watching the sausage being made can be surprising, confusing and sometimes off-putting. Repeated questioning on the same topic might seem unnecessary or even a form of badgering, but it’s also how a subtle inconsistency in a comment from the country’s leadership can reveal a wider issue.

Some of those online said these 1pm live updates prove the irrelevance of media, when New Zealanders can get information straight from the source. Seemingly, these people forget the years of training and experience reporters have in cutting through government spin, and how they are adept at using a tip from a well-placed source to tease out the whole story.

Of course, how these questions are asked, and how they are framed, matter. Criticism can rightly stem from a question being asked in an overly accusatory or confrontational manner. Human decency and respect should always apply.

But it’s a tense time for these members of the team too. Politicians, media and public health officials are also working long hours, under high pressure. They may feel anxious like the rest of the country, and they may be struggling with personal issues we are unaware of; issues which may have been exacerbated by Covid-19.

They are trying to do their jobs the best they know how, in an effort to get the New Zealand public the information they deserve. Sometimes this means pointing out mistakes or holes in the current plan. And that can be uncomfortable, but it’s crucial. They do this all while the country looks on and judges them in real time.

So, when we talk about the team of five million, it’s important to remember there are many roles within the team, and they often look quite different.

Good science has been at the core of New Zealand’s successful Covid-19 strategy. Good science is not born out of acceptance or complacency; it’s reliant on the constant challenging and questioning of ideas and approaches, in order to get the best possible outcome. The same is true for public health policy and political responses.




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