Danyl McL writes:
Science, politics and the media are institutions that rely on a certain culture of contrarianism in order to have value: MPs, researchers and journalists who assume that bureaucrats, established experts and/or the government are always right and always trustworthy are not very useful. We’re currently experiencing a moment of national unity, and this is mostly a good thing, but there’s always a certain amount of conformity and intolerance towards dissent built into nationalist sentiment, so we’re seeing politicians and journalists who critique or question the government come under sustained attack from the government’s supporters and the public. The fiercest backlash has been directed towards Simon Bridges – which I get: I too find him hard to like – but whose job title is, literally, Leader of the Opposition, and the parliamentary press gallery, who’ve dared to ask impertinent and disrespectful questions of the prime minister and her officials.
There are always cranky, conspiratorial anti-government critiques circulating online, and there are always supporters of the government-of-the-day screaming that the media are a fifth column and dissent is treason. But both of these phenomena seem very intense right now. Probably because we’re all stuck stuck at home, and anxious and bored, and watching the livestreamed press conferences and select committees and either feeling patriotic and supportive of the state, or oppressed and tyrannised by it. And media-bashing is every lazy pseudo-intellectual’s favourite pastime (as an aside, it’s been very revealing to see how many of our media and political experts – both self-appointed and those who have advanced degrees in these subjects, comment on them and even teach them at tertiary level – have revealed that they’ve never actually seen a political press conference before, and have no idea how the news is made, or understand why we have an adversarial political system or the rule of law.)
I trust the prime minister a lot more than her critics do. But I also believe that a lot of her cabinet ministers are incompetent, and others are highly unscrupulous, and that this government makes operational and policy blunders on a scale we haven’t seen in our last few decades of technocratic centrism (as I was writing this the news broke that the entire lockdown may have been illegal). And they’re currently making huge decisions based on incomplete information because there is no expert consensus or reliable data available.
So I think there’s value to disrespectful questions and politicised critiques, and even some of the contrarianism, even if a lot of it is misguided or in bad faith, or simply wrong. And I think we need a space for those critiques in our mainstream politics and media instead of shouting it down and leaving it to circulate on the shadowy fringes of the internet. Because the experts are not always right and the government is not always trustworthy. If contrarians warn about the danger to our freedom in this moment, and it makes us more vigilant and we remain free, does it mean the contrarians were wrong?
Good column by Danyl.