Stuff.co.nz’s decision to turn an anonymous, politically-motivated smear from an ACT Party activist into a front page tabloid screamer is gutter journalism for sure, but it’s only the latest example of a worrying trend.
The story is here. I’m not going to dignify it with an analysis. What interests me is the emerging pattern of mainstream media outlets laundering right-wing smears and personal attacks on Labour MPs.
The story on Stuff (picture opposite) frames Charles Chauvel having to deny “overstepping” by allegedly complaining about some screaming kid on a plane.
The allegations come from some obscure ACT Party blog, ‘Clint Heine and Friends’, which has previously only come to public attention for its decision to photoshop Helen Clark’s face onto transexual pronography. It also shopped a picture of Clark showing her genitals (not worksafe) to Heather Simpson. It is a blog steeped in sexism and homophobia of the worst sort.
The story itself is written by an ACT Party activist going by the name of ‘boomtownprat’. It’s completely unsubstantiated, and is clearly written by someone with a political interest in embellishing or even making up the facts in order to smear a politician he despises.
Still, no matter how astonishing it may seem that Charles Chauvel is on the front page of Stuff having to defend himself against unsubstantiated and politically-motivated smears from some no-name gutter blog, it’s fast becoming the norm.
You’ll recall that recently Chris Carter came under fire when the Waiheke ferry was diverted to pick him up one night. The story, such as it was, only reached the media after it appeared on the blog of National’s pollster, David Farrar.
Farrar wasn’t actually on the ferry, he was told about it as part of a humorous anecdote by former National Party president Michelle Boag. The ferry company had no problem with the diversion when asked about it, they said it was standard practice and had nothing to do with Carter being an MP. No one else on the ferry complained either, including Boag.
The story only became news when Farrar, well practiced in the art of the political smear, decided to reframe it as a story of political favouritism/corruption and then fed it out to the media via his blog. The story was dutifully picked up by Stuff.co.nz with framing intact, and ran as a tabloid screamer on the front page. From there it fed out into other media outlets and even made the TV news.
Poor old Chris Carter’s getting the treatment again today, with Audrey Young seeing fit to cover allegations from Whaleoil (yes, Whaleoil!) that Carter only recently removed a taxpayer-funded phone line from his mother’s house. “Now with her good and loyal son not able to sup quite so often at the trough, she has had to move to having to pay for it herself”, Whaleoil is quoted saying in Audrey’s article. It’s bullshit of course – Chris Carter’s mother died in 1993. At least Audrey mentions this in her article, but you’ve got to wonder what she was doing wasting valuable space covering right-wing smears like this in the first place.
So what’s behind this trend? For the right-wing smearers it’s easy, the beauty of the politics of the personal smear is that even if the MP is proven to be in the clear it doesn’t matter. Explaining is losing and the damage is already done. It’s also no coincidence that both of the MPs targeted so far have been gay.
As for the media, is it a sign they’re complicit with the smear machine? No, I don’t think so. More likely it’s a result of the growing tabloidisation of the media. As media companies slash journalist numbers news operations are becoming increasingly reliant on sensation and scandal to fill the gap that used to be filled by real journalism.
If that means news values and journalistic ethics have to go out the window then so be it. After all, business is business, and there’s no point having a tabloid box on your front page if you’re not going to use it.