Podium: Times change, prejudice doesn't

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The Independent Culture
Jenny Shipley

From a speech by the Prime Minister of New Zealand to the Newspaper Publishers' Association, Wellington

AS I thought about what I should say to New Zealanders about your centenary, the first thing that struck me was that the more things change the more they stay the same. Let me explain to you what I mean.

On the issue of more taxes, an editorial in The Press in February 1898 says as follows: "As a colony we have reached the unenviable position of being the most heavily taxed and of being the most extravagant of all the colonies. To lower the taxes does not seem popular at present. New schemes must be devised to spend more money, and the Premier's personal extravagance has not been condemned by a single journal calling itself `liberal'. We are heaping up taxes, but the day of reckoning will come. Unfortunately when it does come the blame may not be put on the right shoulders."

And on the issue of old age pensions, in September 1898, when they were talking about the first government pension bill, they noted: "...the Government's Bill... although it involves the expenditure of a large and ever-increasing sum of money year by year, without indicating how it is to be provided..."

There are other stories that are familiar. You may be interested to know that there was a headline in 1898 that accused the ministers and members of Parliament of denigrating the House because of their ongoing use of urgency and insisting that the public had no faith in matters that were pushed through the legislative chamber under such circumstances. The other thing that struck me as we perused 100 years was that MPs' salaries and salaries of the state sector are always good for a headline.

What I would conclude from looking at these is that you, as newspaper publishers, are very familiar with the buttons that need to be pushed to quench the hunger of your readers in terms of their desire to have their prejudices satisfied. And so we go back to the same stories again and again.

It's also worth observing, as the first woman Prime Minister, that some prejudices still do apply. I want to say that in my experience in the last decade I have seen an improvement in this area, but there is still some progress to be made. Reflecting on the past 100 years there is language that amuses.

One hundred years ago they spoke of "the shrieking sisterhood" as they described the uncompromising, stroppy, strong-minded women who insisted that it was their right to stand as equals in the voting booth. Today you can still see some similar headlines.

International studies conclude that women leaders do, from time to time, struggle to be visible in the news. In New Zealand we could not automatically conclude that that is the case, given that the leaders of both major political parties are women. But that international research also says other interesting things.

An issue that struck a chord with me was that, when women become prime ministers, the media tends to be preoccupied by the gender issues as opposed to the substantive programme that the person may wish to advance.

I want to remind you of some of the language that has been used in the media in relation to myself over the last 12 months.

I went back and looked at how male commentators had tended to describe me as a person, compared to female commentators. You may be interested to know that the male language tended to include words like "battle", "amazons", "iron lady", "stern boss" and "public enemy", compared with the female language which included "queen", "a farming woman", "matron Shipley", "Shipley may kiss and cuddle".

It's frustrating to count the centimetres printed in terms of this government's aspirations for the people of New Zealand, compared with the media's interest in what glasses I choose, what clothes I wear, how my hair is cut, whether I decided that for myself or somebody has in fact "made me over" or, indeed, who my advisers are. I am in hope that that the language will change.

I respect your right to describe us in politics as you see fit, for it is the right of the press to comment on the life and times of the country.

However, I want to observe that it is not a two-way street. While the media demand the right to speak freely, as you should in a democracy, the media in my experience do not give proportional space to politicians' views on whether that media comment has been fair. I refer you to Max Lerner in his book, Love and Hate in Politics: "A politician wouldn't dream of being allowed to call a columnist the things a columnist is allowed to call a politician." I leave you to reflect on that.