New Zealand

Helpless Amnesiacs: The Media’s Dangerous Lack Of Historical Memory

WHAT PUZZLES ME is the historical ignorance of today’s political journalists. Politicians like Chris Bishop will always reach for hyperbole and exaggeration in a tight spot – as in the National Party’s campaign manager’s claim that the CTU’s advertising campaign signals an unprecedented descent into the pit of dirty politics. Less forgivable, however, is the inability of the Press Gallery to laugh such self-serving claims to scorn, recalling effortlessly three or four much worse examples of dirty politics from elections past.

A political journalist without a working historical memory is no bloody use at all. Why? Because when some self-serving politician claims that they are witnessing the beginning of “the dirtiest election campaign in New Zealand history”, these helpless amnesiacs believe him! Do they read at all, these so-called journalists? Political history, political memoirs, political science? With one or two noble exceptions, the answer would appear to be “No.”

Mind you, the people teaching these kids don’t appear to have much in the way of a working historical memory either. Just consider the “expert” reaction to the protesters who greeted Labour supporters en route to the auditorium in which Labour’s election campaign was about to be formally launched. Has a line been crossed? Is this really part-and-parcel of the democratic process? Surely, this is a departure from the norm?

Bloody hell! Where would they like me to begin? 1938? 1951? 1975? 1977? Let’s take a peek?

Here’s what I wrote about the 1938 General Election in my political history of New Zealand “No Left Turn”:

If all the straws flying in the rising proletarian gale pointed to their losing control of New Zealand’s political system, the country’s leading capitalists could still inflict enormous damage upon its economy. [Bill] Sutch records the steady escalation of capital flight in The Quest for Security: “From the end of 1934 to the end of 1938 it is estimated that capital of £22-£23 million was sent abroad, a great deal of it (£10-£15 million) in the second half of 1938.” It got worse. “In the months preceding the 1938 general election,” Sutch recalls, “the electors were subjected to a campaign of vilification and press hostility to the Labour Party that has not since been equalled. Many people were persuaded that the country was going bankrupt and that their savings were in danger.” Walter Nash would later tell Parliament: “I know of Opposition candidates in Wellington who advised people to go to the Post Office Savings Bank and see if they could draw their money out.” Millions were needlessly withdrawn as National, in a last desperate bid to destabilise the electorate, attempted to start a run on the people’s bank.

Thirty years later, [the British Marxist, Ralph] Miliband would write about this kind of pressure, describing it as “more important and effective than any other”, and demonstrating how the business community was “uniquely placed to exercise it”. It can be brought to bear, he wrote, “without the need of organisation, campaigns, and lobbying.” The pressure he refers to is, of course, “the pervasive and permanent pressure upon governments and the state generated by the private control of concentrated industrial, commercial, and financial resources. The existence of this major area of independent economic power is a fact which no government, whatever its inclinations, can ignore in the determination of its policies, not only in regard to economic matters, but to most other matters as well.”

Unless, he should have added, that government is so assured of the people’s support that it is willing to call the “independent economic powers”’ bluff. Because that is exactly what Savage, Fraser and Nash did. Rather than surrender to the “pervasive pressure” of New Zealand and British capital, they defiantly announced the imposition of foreign exchange controls.

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The reaction of Labour’s opponents was venomous. The newspapers, in particular, responded to Savage’s refusal to be blackmailed by painting his party as the harbinger of totalitarian doom. Sutch was particularly appalled by the editorial published in The Dominion on the morning of election day, 15 October 1938:

“Today you will exercise a free vote because you are under this established British form of government. If the socialist government is returned to power your vote today may be the last free individual vote you will ever be given the opportunity to exercise in New Zealand.”

It wasn’t enough. In spite of National’s 100,000 members in 1,000 branches; in spite of an Opposition war-chest of £30,000 (much of it collected from “confidential donations”); in spite of the unrelenting hostility of every major daily newspaper in the country; in spite of wild rumours about New Zealand’s imminent bankruptcy; and in spite of the absurd charge that voting for the government was tantamount to voting for an end to democracy – the Labour Party was triumphantly returned to office.

All you cynics out there will shrug and say: “It was ever thus. This is nothing new.” And you’d be right. Strange, though, that the political journalists of today seem utterly ignorant of the structural impediments described by Miliband, or, if they are aware of them, then, for some reason, they keep them out of their stories.

But, if 1938 was bad, then the snap election of 1951 may have been worse. This is how the University of Otago’s Professor Tom Brooking described it in his popular history of New Zealand, “Milestones”:

 “The campaign was probably the dirtiest in New Zealand’s political history. National declared the election was a contest between the ‘The People versus the Wreckers’. Hackneyed old stories that [Labour Leader, Walter] Nash had once been a bankrupt were dredged up and his earlier visit to Russia was cited as proof of his communist leanings.”

And yet a mild-mannered ad campaign by the NZ Council of Trade Unions is described as “nasty”, and compared to US attack advertising. As if New Zealanders were not introduced to American-style attack advertising as long ago as 1975 when, with a little help from the Americans, National launched its infamous “Dancing Cossacks” ad, in which Roger Douglas’s NZ Superannuation scheme was equated with Soviet Communism. Seriously, when it comes to “nasty”, the NZCTU isn’t in the same league as the National Party!

And as for Freedom NZ’s little protest on the steps of the Aotea Centre – amateurs! Back in 2007, I recalled for the readers of The Dominion Post a 30-year-old protest against the presence of the National Party Conference in Dunedin’s Town Hall:

In July 1977, when the National Party’s annual conference rolled into Dunedin, I was a young liberal arts student at the University of Otago. “Rob’s Mob” was two years into its first three year term. Norman Kirk and Labour’s dreams had expired, and the progressive community was learning just how determined the Prime Minister was to defend the values of all those conservative New Zealanders who had returned National to office in 1975. 

Calling ourselves the “July Front”, about 500 student, trade union, civil rights and feminist activists gathered outside the entrance to the Town Hall and forced the hapless delegates to run the gauntlet of our noisy protest. I can still recall our chant – which rose to a deafening crescendo when the big LTD bearing the Prime Minister pulled up: “What’s the story filthy Tory? Out! Out! Out!” 

Of course most of us were very young, and not at all disposed to consider how we must have looked to the perfectly ordinary men and women marching stoically toward the Town Hall doors, while sixty burly policeman, arms linked, held back the surging human tide.

Farmers from South Otago and the King Country, lawyers from Remuera and Fendalton, small businessmen from Timaru and Levin, these were the sort of people young male university students ran into whenever their girlfriends decided it was time to “meet the parents”. Introduced anywhere but this mad maelstrom of protest, everyone would probably have got along famously – if only because of their common interest in politics. 

But not that night. That night, glancing nervously in our direction, all those frightened delegates saw were hundreds of eyes filled with hate; hundreds of fists punching the air in anger, and hundreds of wide open mouths chanting over and over again: “What’s the story filthy Tory? Out! Out! Out!”

Which only bears out what I have always maintained: aggressive and abusive protest is as much a tradition on the Left as it is on the Right. If New Zealand was blessed with a Fourth Estate that knew even a little bit about this country’s proud and passionate political history, then it wouldn’t panic every time one group of citizens started shouting at another. All genuine political journalists understand that it is silence and inaction that are to be feared the most. Denunciation and protest are Democracy’s proof of life.


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