A New Zealand Minister’s ‘war’ with the media

Minister Winston Peters being interviewed by the media.

Minister Winston Peters being interviewed by the media. Screenshot from the YouTube video of Newshub

New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters said he is at “war” with the media and has accused public broadcasters of lacking independence.

Peters, currently serving as Deputy PM under Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, is the founder and leader of the populist and nationalist New Zealand First party. He began his tenure by publicly chided the media just days after the country’s new government was formed on November 27, 2023. He questioned, in particular, the USD 55 million public interest journalism fund set up by the previous government during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, which he claimed was used to “bribe” the media.

He asked journalists to stop being “mathematical morons,” and, at one point during a Cabinet meeting, he dared journalists to be “transparent”:

Before you go, can you possibly tell the public what you had to sign up to to get the money? Before you ask one more question, tell the public what you signed up to to get the money.

Peters is a veteran politician whose party lost in the 2020 election. During the October 2023 campaign period, he lambasted some journalists for being “corrupt” and “dirt merchants.” He repeated his charge about the media being biased during a parliamentary session during the first week of December.

Three conservative parties, including Peters’ New Zealand First party, formed a coalition to form a government. The new government has pledged to lower taxes, reduce bureaucracy, train more police, and ease inflation. They dislodged the former ruling Labour Party, which was globally praised for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic but faced local criticism for the rising cost of living.

In his rebuke of the public interest journalism fund, Peters didn't mention that it aimed to support local media companies that lost advertising revenue during the pandemic. The fund was managed by New Zealand on Air, an independent body. Andrew Shaw, a board member of the body, described Peters’ statement as “malicious” and “not truthful.” He subsequently resigned from his position since his statement undermined the impartiality of the body.

Sir Ian Taylor, founder and managing director of Animation Research and also a former board member of New Zealand on Air, wrote that Peters should apologize for his remarks. He also defended the credibility and independence of the body.

The only way journalists could access those funds was to have their applications approved by the New Zealand on Air board, a completely independent organisation. By making the claim that “you can’t defend USD 55 million of bribery” our Deputy Prime Minister just accused the full board of being complicit in his bribery claim and they, quite justifiably, should expect an apology for such an unwarranted, and potentially defamatory, claim. He certainly deserved much more than the slap over the wrist he got.

Tracy Watkins, editor of the Sunday Star-Times, wrote that Peters is engaging in “misdirection and misinformation” and that he is using his office “to further erode trust and respect in the media.” She also criticized the motives of authorities who echo the baseless claims of Peters about the media:

Why have so many powerful people bought into this argument? Because it muddies the boundary between truth and lies. Because a weakened media is good for them. What politician wouldn’t want that? They don’t particularly like being answerable to the media and they like even less the scrutiny that comes with public office.

Cédric Alviani, the Asia-Pacific bureau director of Reporters Without Borders, urged New Zealand’s Prime Minister Christopher Luxon to affirm the government’s support for a free press. He also condemned the statements of Peters:

By making irresponsible comments about journalists in a context of growing mistrust of the New Zealand public towards the media, Deputy Prime Minister Peters is sending out a worrying signal about the newly-appointed government’s attitude towards the press.

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