Earning it: The Swarbrick lesson 2016

In which a late night twitter discussion rammed home the importance of candidates having to 'earn it' and the media's coverage of "foregone conclusions" is defended

On Sunday night Auckland mayoral candidate Chloe Swarbrick was feeling fed up with media coverage of the city's election and took to Twitter to express herself. In reply to a tweet saying turnout was tracking only marginally ahead 2013's poor effort, she said:

"I'm optimistic, but again doesn't help that media sold this as a boring one horse race that everyone should just give up on".

That irked me a little, so I replied that no media had urged anyone to give up on the race and asked how the media could have have this differently. That started an  conversation with her and one of her supporters, Richie Hardcore, that raised some interesting points about the intersection of politics and media.

Twenty-two year-old Swarbrick has complained on numerous occasions about how she's been cut off from much of the media coverage of the Auckland mayoral race and not taken seriously. As her tweets showed she's also frustrated the media covered the race as "a foregone conclusion" leading to "a self-fulfilling prophecy".

Undoubtedly, much of the media's analysis from the start of the race has been that it's Phil Goff's mayoralty to lose. Or, to be more honest, that it's hard to see him losing. He has name recognition, is one of the country's longest serving politicians, has strong links into the Auckland community and the rest of the field is made up of novices. It's hardly controversial to expect him to canter home.

And there's the rub. How do journalists cover the election without stating the obvious? What's the alternative? We would be damned just as much, if not more, had we tried to beat-up a tight race when it wasn't that tight or tried to boost other candidates. Surely, as I tweeted on Sunday, media analysts can and should only be expected to tell the truth as they see it and as the evidence suggests it to be.

But as Hardcore pointed out, it does tend to keep outsiders, well, outside. And people do like to back a winner, so Swarbrick has a point about it becoming self-fulfilling.

Their argument, at its core, suggests that every candidate deserves the same treatment and fairness is measured by everyone getting the same shot. In principle, that's absolutely right. And in more than principle. The media should, as with any story, cover elections without fear or favour, giving every candidate a voice.

But it's not that simple.

I've had to make – or been involved in making – many such decisions as a journalist and it's always complicated. Calls have to be made and sometimes they cut people out. For good reason.

Consider this Auckland mayoral race. There are 18 candidates, most you've never heard of and have had next to no media coverage. Why? Because the media has deemed them not to be serious contenders. Does that meet the standard Swarbrick and others are demanding? No. Is it fair? Yes. Here's why:

For a start, time and space are finite. To give everyone equal coverage would be soak up huge real estate in the papers, online and on-air. If you give time to all 18, then that means less time given to, say Goff, who really needs to be challenged and tested the most given his favouritism for the job. Practically, no TV or radio studio in NZ could fit 18 candidates and any effort to moderate that many competing voices would almost certainly turn into a farce. Swarbrick was on Checkpoint's bus tour of five mayoral candidates. Now imagine how that would have gone with 18 on board.

For one, those most likely to get the job would get an easier run and less time in the glare of questions.

So journalists have to make a call on who gets in and who doesn't, and those who don't naturally don't like it.

The accusation, as Swarbrick and Hardcore went onto tweet, is that the established names are reinforced and the status quo rarely challenged. Swarbrick said the media must be subject to checks and balances and be more responsible. All fair points. But the fact is that we are and we do take these issues seriously. This tension is as old as elections; here's just one example.

At the 2014 general election, I was in charge of The Nation on TV3 and we decided, for those reasons of time and space, that Colin Craig would not be included in our minor party leaders debate. We agonised over the decision and what was a fair line to draw. We could accommodate six candidates in the studio, so who should be left out. Ultimately, if we were to include Craig – and the Conservatives were polling well at that stage, well ahead of some of the existing minor parties – which sitting MP should be left out? If we went by seats in parliament or length of service, we favoured the establishment. So what other measure should we follow? Polls are volatile. Drawing straws, just silly.

So Craig was left out, but went to court and appealed. Late on a Friday afternoon a judge who knew little about practical issues involved in making live television ruled that the Conservative leader should get his shot and to deny him would be bad for democracy. It took time off the others, he was badly lit, crew had to work late and early to make it work and it undermined journalistic independence, but Craig was accommodated. So the check and balance worked for Craig, but at a cost. Other principles (press freedom) and others' rights (the other minor parties) paid a price.

The thing is, sometimes a bunch of very important principles are incompatible and something has to give. And it's not just a matter of a lazy or corrupt media.

In fact, I'd go further than that. I think if you look at recent elections here and round the world, it's no bad thing that every candidate is not treated equally from the get-go. If you're coming into politics – the serious business of making decisions that effect the everyday lives of so very many people – fresh and without a track record, I think it's healthy that you should have to earn it. Experience matters. To get serious coverage, it's no bad thing that candidates have to show they are serious.

Look at Colin Craig. The closer he got to power in 2014, the more serious coverage he got. And it exposed the cracks in his character and his party structure, as we've all appreciated more fully in the past few weeks. In 2002, United Future rode TV's worm to eight seats in the 2002 election, but clearly wasn't ready for the responsibility voters gave it.

Look at Donald Trump. Is there any better example of how an outsider with a gift for politics but few (or perhaps simply dangerous) ideas about governance and the use of power has had to be taken seriously, and how damaging that can be to a political system?

I think it's healthy that candidates for election to senior posts have to earn it, to show that they deserve to be taken seriously and to be given the time and space that might otherwise be given to those with more chance of holding office.

Perhaps the best example of this principle is Swarbrick herself. At the start of this race, she was excluded from most debates. But she worked the meetings she was invited to, made the most of the interviews she got. She worked hard on social media, held her own meetings, made serious contributions to the debate. And by the end of the race, she was being included in most of the debates. Her voice is being heard.

She earned it, and come Saturday Swarbrick is probably going to come in ahead of some more establishment figures.