This bad Covid column is everything wrong with opinion journalism
OPINION: Opinion sucks
What valuable insights does a sports writer have into pandemic management?
According to Stuff, the answer is “enough to publish an entire column about it.”
So here’s a bit of a blow-by-blow of said column, authored by one Mark Reason. Who is Reason, you ask? According to his Stuff bio, he worked for the Telegraph, which is a kind of newsletter for British Tories, and before that, he “read English” at Cambridge. After reading his column, you may find yourself wishing he had read a bit more, because it’s the bad-prose burp beloved of opinion sections everywhere.
Before going any further, let’s answer the obvious question - why am I bothering to dissect this column? I didn’t really want to write another one of these things — I burned myself out pretty hard on the last one — but, after two years of a global pandemic, it still blows my mind that the New Zealand news media intentionally elevates the views of people who by definition know absolutely fuck-all about epidemiology, medicine, science, or apparently anything except for (maybe) sports.
It’s not a particularly egregious example of the bad-Covid-take genre; there’s a lot worse out there, best exemplified by the daily shit speech from the NZME stable. But that’s kind of why I’m interested in this one — it’s so goddamn dull. The most banal of bad takes. Rather than taking on something worse, I’d rather examine why this particularly boring example was the one that bothered me enough to actually write something.
Let’s begin with this headline
This is a terrible headline, but to be fair to Reason, he probably didn’t write it. Sub-editors usually write headlines, and this one is just rubbish - there’s no wit, no snap, not even any real reason to click. It’s trying to be a riff on “I fought the law and the law won” but it just ends up being an overlong bore. Bad sub, zero points. Let’s move on to the actual article.
Ah, OK, I get it. It’s not actually about Novak Djokovic. It’s about Mark Reason! Djokovic is just the hook to hoodwink the audience into thinking the column might have something useful to say. But let’s zoom in a bit. We’ve got a clumsy metaphor — kids drawings vs soldiers. And sure, soldiers are spooky. Why are there soldiers?
Well, that might be because a few of the people obliged to quarantine in fully-catered hotel rooms kept trying to escape. But let’s look a little closer. You know where else has sworn officers of the state just kind of looming around to make sure people “follow the rules that her government has imposed”? Literally the entire country. They’re called “the police.” The “rules her government has imposed” also has a more common, less clumsy name: it’s called “the law.” And, all discussions of the problematic nature of policing and punitive justice aside, both police and law are kind of a fixture. Try not to panic when you see cops after you get out of MIQ, Mark.
Let’s keep calm and carry on.
“Unless you count being stuck in a lift with Tiger Woods for a decade.” What? What even is that? What does it mean? To what does it refer? Why are you torturing the “stuck in a lift with X” cliché like this? I’m picking on this bit because it’s so strange to me — golf is one of the few sports I actually follow to any extent, and Tiger Woods hasn’t really been in the news much since he got hurt in a car crash in early 2021. Why bring him up? What’s with the lift thing? I even googled “Tiger Woods in lift” to make sure I hadn’t missed some kind of obvious cultural reference but the first result was Reason’s column, which didn’t really help.
Sorry. Next bit.
“Here is a man, perhaps not a particularly noble one, who has broken the rules and then been crushed by the machinery of the state.”
Here’s another way to write that, in a way that reads less like The Odyssey by way of Google Translate and more closely resembles reality:
“Novak Djokovic is an enormously rich and extremely famous tennis player, who intentionally broke Australian law, by refusing a vaccination that Australia requires before anyone can enter the country. He perhaps thought his riches and fame would mean he didn’t have to follow the law. In a notable break with Australian tradition, this didn’t happen. He wasn’t allowed to play tennis and had to go home.”
That isn’t being “crushed by the machinery of the state;” it’s a minor inconvenience1 — one that could have been easily avoided by getting a vaccine like nearly 4 billion other people have. Do you know what is being crushed by the machinery of the state? What Australia does to refugees, who, despite Australian government bluster, are legally entitled to seek asylum. Some have been kept in indefinite detention for years, in flagrant violation of both international treaties and Australia’s own human rights legislation.
Astonishingly, and despite asylum-seeker advocates’ desperate attempts to use the Djokovic affair to highlight refugee plight, these actual examples of real government oppression are mentioned nowhere in the column. Instead, it’s about the self-inflicted inconvenience suffered by a tennis player, as it applies to Mark Reason.
Okay. Next bit.
See, it’s this kind of thing that makes me think no subeditor ever got near this column, because not only is that paragraph a dense, indigestible word-salad, the reference is obscure in the extreme. Trust me, no reader knows or cares about a “famous editorial headline,” particularly not one that you “referenced last week,” which was last any kind of famous headline in 1967, and is actually a quote from 18th century poet Alexander Pope! What the fuck? Is this even real? What are journalists?
Seriously - why? Is that bit just a billboard for your Cambridge education or is it supposed to be a joke? If so, I’ve got a comedy writing tip: your audience has to know broadly what the hell you’re on about, and the Venn diagram of rugby aficionados who read British newspaper editorials in the mid-60s and who are also Alexander Pope enthusiasts is three almost entirely separate circles.
Right. How far am I through this thing? Less than a quarter? Oh for Christ’s sake.
Reason now draws a very long bow to connect Djokovic’s self-own with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards getting arrested for drug offenses. Oh good, is this article going to morph into a well-reasoned attack on the unjust and wildly counter-productive War on Drugs?
There’s a point here, which Reason comprehensively fails to make: you could convincingly argue both that Australia is poorly governed at the federal level, as evidenced by its colossal failure on Covid-19, and also that the arbitrary power granted to its ministers is often unjustly wielded, as in the case of indefinitely detained refugees and asylum seekers. But having set up what could be a devastating serve, Reason opts to just kind of lob it into the net. See, we can all do sports metaphors, because as it turns out, it’s very very easy.
Again, there is an argument to be made here — about the perpetual tussle between rights and responsibilities, choice and consequence — and it just doesn’t happen. Instead Reason falls back on a paraphrase of the trite “I disagree with your views but I defend your right to hold them” cliché that doesn’t, in its fresh context, make any sense. Here’s my paraphrase: “I disagree with my alcoholic great-uncle’s views about drunk driving, but I support 100 percent his right to hold them.” So fucking what? My hypothetical great-uncle can have all the odious extra-legal opinions he wants, up until the point he drinks a fifth of vodka and dares himself to drive. Djokovic’s views aren’t the point. The point is he knowingly broke the law and then suffered the extremely minor consequence of not being able to play tennis.
You can see this as draconian if you like, but it’s kind of just how the rule of law works. When Australia offers endless examples of extraordinary legal cruelty to choose from, including everything from the genocide of Aboriginal nations to the indefinite detention of asylum-seekers, Djokovic’s deportation seems a really dull hill to die on.
Here is an actual image of me, reading that paragraph:
Let’s break it down:
The people on our flight were put on two buses and driven for three hours to Rotorua
Time for some journalism! I wonder how long it takes to fly from the UK to New Zealand?
So it’s about…. an entire day? With the same people?
This I thought was crazy. There was a clear risk of contagion by putting so many people in so small a space for so long.
So small a space? Time for more journalism! I wonder what the inside of a plane looks like?
Right, so now we’ve established that a plane is sort of like a bus, but for the sky, and that to take one from the UK to New Zealand it will take about 24 hours.
So why, Mark Reason, you desperately ironically-named man, why, in the name of God would it matter spending three additional hours on a bus alongside the same people you just spent a full day with in a tiny metal tube?
This is what it looks like when someone who’s spent a life largely free of real inconvenience encounters the wrong side of authority for the first time. The same sort of person who’d probably tend to wax lyrical about the noble duty and service of the military is suddenly sneering at some poor guy because — as is often the case with soldiers — he is a young person. If you’re white and male in New Zealand (like Mark and I both appear to be), you occupy an extremely privileged position in which society is still mostly arranged for your benefit. Cops are friendly, drug offenses get diversion, and so on. No doubt a slight shift in this perspective can be mildly traumatising.
On this point, I feel extremely sorry for Mark. New Zealand’s MIQ system has helped protect the country from the worst ravages of Covid-19 for two years, but it’s also been punitively unfair and cruel to those who want to travel home to be with unwell or dying loved ones, even as exceptions are carved out for entertainers and celebrities. So why isn’t the column more about this extremely relevant fact, one that’s persistently misunderstood by the New Zealanders who reflexively defend MIQ and its many failings? I understand it might be hard to write about, but all this blather about Djokovic, all the misapplied fury at the Australian legal system, the sneering, the impatience with inconvenience in the midst of a globe-spanning emergency that’s killed (at minimum!) over five million people — it undoes any real point Reason might have had.
This is the problem with opinion writing in New Zealand media in a very neat package: at the end of the day, a lot is just ranting2. Often enough, there’s an argument somewhere in the rant, but it’s usually only unearthed after generous excavation, and the disposal of a bunch of ill-formed or misinforming slush along the way. It could be so much better.
Well, there goes my sympathy. Apart from the jarring change in voice — Reason swerves from first-person to second-person perspective to address the reader directly, something not done in the rest of the column — we’ve got the near-inevitable crux of the article, the pinecone-tier argument that pie-eyed NZ opinion writers seem to be incapable of not making.
He wants us to “move on from that fear.” Yup, it’s just another sermon about learning to live with the virus.
For fuck’s ever-loving sake.
The thing about these learn-to-live-with-the-virus bros — I’m just going to call them Vibros, for short — is that “learn to live with the virus” is mostly shorthand for “let it rip.” Actually learning to live with the virus is a spectrum of deliberate, considered public policy choices, which span everything from what New Zealand is currently doing (mask mandates, mass vaccination, multiple other public health interventions, which have kept infection and death to an extraordinary minimum compared to nearly everywhere else in the world) to what the UK is currently doing (nine tenths of fuck all.) In fact, let’s do another journalism to see how they’re going over there:
It’d seem that the UK hasn’t so much learned to live with the virus as it has blundered into how to die with it. You’d think it self-evident that actually learning to live with the virus would involve people still being alive. But the Vibros on the media-political axis urge us to throw open our borders to Omicron (and all past and future viral variants) while nebulously “looking after the vulnerable.” This is always, always shorthand for either locking up the disabled, elderly and immunocompromised forever, or just letting them take their chances, while the rest of us (and it’s always assumed that the vulnerable aren’t part of “us”) get on with it.
Opposition to this nakedly eugenicist worldview is mischaracterised by Vibros as “fear” which “we” must “get over.” Until very recently, we used to hear a lot more about doing this for the sake of “the economy” — a catch-all term that has little to do with the classical definition of the word and instead means everything from “the bank accounts of the rich” to “my freedom to cough to my heart’s content in a crowded theatre.” However, Australia’s sudden realisation that letting ultracontagious, debilitating diseases run rampant is actually worse for the economy than public health restrictions seems to have dismissed that school of thought, at least for a little while.
But let us return to Reason. We’re in the home stretch now:
It may not surprise you to learn that this account of events comes not from reality, but from Mark’s keyboard. In fact, he’s got it backwards. The UK’s public health experts, accurately forecasting Omicron’s catastrophic impact, proposed a lockdown. The Government said no. Here’s how that’s going:
Of course, thousands of people dying every week is much less bad than public health restrictions, according to Mark’s good mate, an NHS “chest surgeon.”
“I am a rule follower.” Not only is this a glaring red flag on a Tinder profile, it really sums it all up: you’re all about the rules, until the rules — for possibly the first time ever — impinge on you, and then suddenly you’re taking to the streets, fighting for your God-given British right to be elbow-deep in pulmonary embolisms.
Mercifully, we’re now at the final paragraph of this turgid, pontificating waste of prose. Well, we are when it comes to Reason’s piece, anyway. Mine still has a few to go.
Oh that’s nice, Mark. It’s the famous British class on full display. Having spent most of your piece spitting in the eye of everything public health personnel are working for, you still take the time to thank them at the end. You really are a nice guy after all. Kia ora. The end!
Well, apart from one last lol, courtesy of Stuff’s donation exhortation:
This makes me wonder. Perhaps I’ve been unfair - Mark Reason is out of his lane, writing about public health. When he writes about his actual purview, sports, is it any good?
Of course, Mark’s sexist diatribe against women in cricket was referred to the Media Council, and of course — because the Media Council’s code of conduct and rulings are rigged to allow opinion writers to perpetuate cruel, damaging, false stereotypes to their heart’s content — they dismissed the complaint in a piece of reasoning that would be hilarious if it wasn’t so goddamn grim.
So there we have it. A writer with bad takes on sport is also producing bad takes on current events. Nothing new to see here, tale as old as time, news at 11. But just because it’s always happened doesn’t mean it always should.
There really aren’t any excuses left. If a global pandemic doesn’t give the news media pause about how the lassitude given to opinion creates a loophole for lies, nothing will. Misinformation is running rampant, and there’s never been a more urgent need for truth in story-telling. Explanatory or analytical journalism, including opinion, can and should be done well. When there’s no lack of evidence for just how good it can be, why should audiences settle for less?
And now, a word from me.
I don’t want to keep doing this.
A few months ago I sent out an overwrought, overlong jeremiad about bad Covid takes in the NZ media and the response was terrifyingly positive. I got comments, messages and emails from a truly surprising number of people3. What was most gratifying was the number of journalists who reached out to me, off the record, to tell me I was on the right track, and to share their own frustrations with opinionists — who they see as devaluing their work and bringing media into disrepute. Still more surprising was the number of people who not only signed up to the newsletter but subscribed, with real actual cash money. The Project came calling, and their kind producer spent much too long with me coaxing my interminable nervous rambling into a useable soundbite. When it aired I asked my wife to watch it before I could look at it.
Naturally, my response to this outpouring of support was to go dark for a few months. I’m a newish dad with a reasonably demanding day job, and on top of this, success has always spooked me. It means attention, and its dark shadow, obligation. I’m uncomfortable with both.
What’s more, I’m very aware of the irony, and the folly, of ranting about ranting. Mass media opinion pages and talk radio have always provided a safe space for cruel, counter-factual mendacity, and publicly complaining about this isn’t too far off “old man shouts at clouds.” The media will keep giving me material until I die or the oceans boil, whichever comes first. But I think I’d get very sick of it, and so would you.
So what I’m saying is: while I would still like to do media criticism when I think it’s worth the effort — if nothing else, it’s cathartic — I’d also like to expand the scope of this newsletter to be about other stuff as well. If you’re keen, this means you’d hear from me a bit more often.
For me, it also resurrects a long-buried dream. After a bunch of you reacted to the Fifth Columnists by clicking on the “subscribe” button I’d put up on a whim, I did a bit of maths, and with around 1000 paying subscribers (a mere 0.0000125% of the world population, I tell myself to make the number seem less big) I’d be well on my way to actually feeding the kid and paying the mortgage with this thing. And that seems… almost achievable! So maybe I should actually pursue it. Ultimately, you’ll make the decision for me.
For the next newsletter, I’d like to write about some possible solutions to unethical or morally dubious media conduct. I’ve got a few ideas and I’d love to hear yours. And if there is something else you’d like to see me write about, let me know.
Thanks for reading. Here’s the fiscal support button:
Here’s one that helps you win friends and influence people4:
And here’s a button that makes virtue-signalling and argument-starting with friends, family and strangers even easier than it already is:
Of course, it’s less of an inconvenience for Australia’s admittedly terrible government, which is probably happy to draw attention from the way that they just kind of invited an ultracontagious virus to run rampant across the country, destroying businesses, sickening hundreds of thousands, and — most damningly — killing vulnerable people.
Yes, this is a rant about ranting. It’s like rain on your wedding day.
Please bear in mind that any number much larger than zero would have surprised me, so take my hyperbole with a pinch of salt.