Jacinda Ardern speaking to Hilary Barry on TVNZ 1 last night

TVNZ 1’s Covid-19 special showed the power of legacy media during crisis

An unscheduled Covid-19 special ran in place of Seven Sharp last night, and Duncan Greive says it brought out the best in both its participants and the medium itself.

Over the past decade there has been an inexorable gravity sucking us toward social media. Young men, whipsmart and in a hell of a hurry, created products which presented as benign tools of instant communication and the maintenance of friendship and family ties. For years, we watched in awe as these platforms rose and ate our time and reoriented our habits.

To work in the traditional media through this period was to feel a little basic – well-intentioned, but hopelessly naive. For years there was a strange courtship, where social media’s boy kings were uncritically feted in the very media they were methodically usurping. Not intentionally, just with friendly fire on their way to the future. 

The tide turned fast. Russian election interference, a livestreamed massacre and, just this week, waves of Covid-19 misinformation arriving through Whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook messenger. Last night saw a kind of corrective, at 7pm on TVNZ1, one of the most hallowed slots on a channel which holds perhaps the last truly immediate mass audience in the country.

It came in the form of a bracing throwback of a news special, which ran in the place of the suddenly too-jokey-for-these-times Seven Sharp. (In a bleak nod at modernity, co-host Jeremy Wells was unavailable due to being until very recently in self-isolation thanks to potential exposure to Covid-19, after interviewing a contestant on The Bachelorette. They tested negative.)

The special was hosted by Hilary Barry, leaning on the gravitas and trust she has earned over decades, and commenced with an interview with prime minister Jacinda Ardern, which was, even by her standards, a masterpiece of communication. She spoke with urgency but without alarm, gesturing for emphasis and with complete command of the facts. 

She reaffirmed that the public would receive “clear, early direction from government”, encouraging a public which is understandably freaking out to weigh its messaging far more highly than a conspiratorial group Whatsapp. When Barry asked her to directly address the panic shopping, Ardern allowed a hint of frustration to seep out.

“Even in countries which have seen complete lockdown, essential services and the provision of food stays open… The supermarket chains have been very clear: when you see empty shelves, it’s because they need to restock, not because they have run out,” said Ardern.

She called this a one in a hundred year event, and explicitly drew a line between early action on public health and the length and depth of the economic impact, a line which has been blurred and buffeted by waves of commentary and posting, often by narrow subject-area experts straying far off into other domains.

The interview was conducted against a backdrop of New Zealand flags, which couldn’t help but call to mind the recent addresses of Donald Trump. The contrast was shattering, between his sloppy, meandering and inscrutable speeches, and Ardern’s taut and precise language. 

We don’t usually go in for the pomp of presidential-style addresses. Our key ceremonial speeches are mostly ignored, and mandatory party electoral announcements were recently cut, mainly due to lack of interest. But in a crisis of such complexity, with the gap between a well-run response and a fumbled one of such consequence, Ardern’s strength as a communicator feels of huge importance.

She was followed by another who has been elevated by this crisis. Dr Siouxsie Wiles is a frequent writer for The Spinoff and, has joined director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield as a key figure in distilling this fast-moving situation into facts you can use. Wiles was at her cool-headed best, reaffirming that “the virus is not airborne”, and answering questions from fearful viewers Glynnis and Avril about the efficacy of different types of soap (it’s all good, basically).

The whole special was very well-executed, a tight 30 minute package that combined clear and useful information with up-to-the-minute news. It was naturally and inevitably a very different kind of product, feeling at times like the state commandeering its TV channel to speak near-directly to the public. But, crucially, it did not feel propagandistic or political. And while some commentators have suggested TVNZ1 should have already converted to ad-free 24 hour Covid-19 coverage, even the fact of that would likely incite more panic, rather than the staged response the moment requires.

To be clear, while TVNZ and RNZ have covered the pandemic well, the state-owned networks are far from the only place people can turn. This morning’s Newshub Nation featured excellent longform interviews with Bloomfield and education minister Chris Hipkins, while ZB, Stuff, The Spinoff, the Herald and more have crucial coverage too. 

By comparison, social media remains a lottery. For every well-sourced story, there’s wild rumour, with algorithms propelling the spread of each at their own pace. There’s a true Black Mirror perversity to the fact we’re seeing an immense bright yellow government Covid-19 campaign, costing a tremendous amount, going out through the very platforms which propagate many of the fallacies it seeks to correct. The same campaign is near-invisible on many traditional media platforms, all of which are working hard at the expensive job of communicating verified facts instead.

We will see innumerable behavioural changes over the coming months. It can feel at times like a giant social experiment, which will blast us further into the big tech era, whether we like it or not. But last night was a powerful reminder that there are behaviours some of us have forgotten, and others never acquired, which retain a special power. Based on the evidence of last night, watching the TV news, and consuming more traditional and less social media, is one old habit which shouldn’t die hard.


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