Settling back into the status quo: NZ Herald and its Hit and Run coverage

I had a little interaction with an often very good NZ Herald investigative business reporter this morning about their morning coverage as it related to Hit and Run (Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s new book on an SAS operation gone very very wrong):


David Fisher is outstanding and has covered New Zealand’s military operation overseas for a long time, often providing a well-researched critique of the New Zealand Defence Force. However, in my view Matt’s basic argument here that the NZ Herald can’t be a tool of propaganda for the state because they have David Fisher covering Hit and Run is flawed (though it was a very good Twitter burn to which I had no snappy comeback). To equate individual intent and the intent of the New Zealand Media and Entertainment (owned now entirely by financial institutions) is without basis. This argument is derived out of a desire to see the New Zealand corporate media as a gadfly on the rump of the state, more dream than reality.

The NZ Herald editorial response to Hit and Run could be articulated as being neutral rather than objective. It’s been largely back and forth: an article expressing concerns, an article expressing doubts. But that approach is not neutral or balanced. Hit and Run proposes an alternate view of who we are as an international actor that is at odds with the dominant narrative in our society, and alternates founder without people being given good information and advice on how to unpack the implications.

The dominant narrative is that internationally we are a fair player, that we “punch above our weight,” that we are a “good” nation, and that our armed forces represent a distilled essence of the New Zealand man: fair; firm; stoic; unemotional. This also ties to a dominant narrative about war: when we conduct war it is surgical and precise, it is necessary, and it is just. Hit and Run, as did Secret Power and Other People’s Wars, proposed a different view: we are a servant state to the United States of America; in conflicts our armed forces can react emotionally and act illegally; we are involved in murky conflicts with no clear outcomes or achievement; and we have hurt people who are innocent.

That is an unpalatable narrative. The NZ Herald has undermined that alternate narrative in allowing political and military leaders to muddy the waters, to repeat the dominant narratives without really providing any way for their readers to form a judgment on what is true and on what is not. The coverage of the Spinoff has been a telling point of difference. So I stand by my assertion that NZ Herald as an institution, not necessarily its reporters, has been used to settle the masses. By way of example, the article about the Steve Askin in the NZ Herald (borrowed from the Christchurch Star) was a masterclass in manufacturing consent.

Steve Askin is, of course the helicopter pilot who was tragically killed during the enormous Port Hills fires earlier this year. There is no doubt he had lived a full and fascinating life, including time with the SAS. From all I have read, he rightly deserve to be called a hero. This article on a letter received by his family from a woman he saved in Kabul is compelling.

The purpose of the article is even more interesting if we do a little semiological analysis. Semiology is the study of signs and meaning making. A sign is a ‘thing’ that is used as a symbol to call us, the population to give attention and to act in specific ways that create meaning. This article is replete with signs that are intended to provide meaning to the actions of the SAS. The article is not really about Askin, but about him as a sign that gives meaning to the New Zealand Defence Force.

It’s timing, in the midst of the storm of criticism around the SAS and New Zealand Defence Force is deliberate. It presents as a human interest story, a celebration of one life cut short. It is that, but it is also a story of generosity and courage that is in juxtaposition to the conduct covered in Hit and Run. This story asks the reader a question: do you really believe the men of the SAS, represented here by Askin, could have done such a terrible thing? Look! here is a thumbnail of Askin in Afghanistan, exhausted brother in arms, modern day warrior representing a country that does not shirk its responsibilities. Look! here is a video summary of his funeral, starting with the a powerful haka from Defence Force personnel, a demonstration of the camaraderie and brotherhood. Look! a photo of Askin and his wife is appended; love and family, a rural happy life of civic duty and volunteerism. Look! the woman who sent the letter does not wish to be identified: how different to that media-hungry critic Nicky Hager.

Askin is a person who deserves to be celebrated, but this article has not appeared today with the intent of celebration. Askin is a sign that is meant to call the reader back to the comfort of the dominant narrative. Look! Look! Look! Look! It sets you up emotionally to then read with sympathy and agreement the opinions of conservative Barry Soper and the serious, considered doubts of a man in uniform. All preach ‘peace’; peace for them, injustice for villagers in Afghanistan.

Our society doesn’t run by a happy coincidence, but by a planned effort to ensure our compliance. Bill English’s cowardly statements on behalf of the government and the Lieutenant General Keating’s attempts to throw shade upon aspect of Hit and Run whilst rather angrily avoiding the central questions would be inadequate without the co-operation of the corporate media in creating meaning, in using signs to get our attention. Access to power and its benefits is predicated on the corporate media playing their part.

Interestingly, critics like Hager and Stephenson are themselves treated as signs. Whilst people, when the corporate media allows them access it is to create a certain meaning for us: Hager and Stephenson are allowed to speak because we are a good democracy. We allow them to critique because we are purveyors of truth. We allow them to ask questions… but they are not allowed to tell us the meaning of the answers. The state and its institutions will tell you the meaning of the answers to their questions. The key task of the institutions in our society is not justice or rights, but it to ensure that a critique like Hager and Stephenson’s Hit and Run does not change who we are and how we act.

Nothing is more important than maintaining the status quo.

3 thoughts on “Settling back into the status quo: NZ Herald and its Hit and Run coverage

  1. I have to question whether Askin himself would want his story used in this way… if he was as upstanding a person as he seems to be from the media coverage since his death, he would surely be as outraged as you or I by the actions of his colleagues.
    Incidentally, in between the Chch fires and the publication of Hit and Run, I talked to someone who was acquainted with Askin and had chatted to him during the early days of the Afghanistan war. My friend was surprised at how frankly Askin spoke of that war as a mess that the US+co would be embroiled in for many many years. It was surprising because this was in the early days of the war, before this viewpoint was mainstream in the public. This anecdote reinforces my suspicion that Askin would not want his memory used for this propaganda purpose.

    1. Kia ora Caleb, thanks for the reply and the context. Unfortunately he became public property in the course of the whole event.

  2. Thanks for a great piece of media analysis which takes an abstract idea like the ‘sign’ and gives it good political use! Impressive and challenging.

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