Telum Talks To: Tova O'Brien, Chief Political Correspondent at Stuff

Telum Talks To: Tova O'Brien, Chief Political Correspondent at Stuff

By Rhys Evans

What inspired your interest in political reporting?
Without sounding too much like a kool aid drunk cult member, politics is everything. It sits across everything - the cost of the food you pack in your kids' lunches; how and what those kids go on to learn at school; how safe you are going to work at the ports or a dairy; the inflated cost of the long black you buy on the way to work; the fuel you put in your car; your rent; your mortgage.

Whether you can afford to go back to work after having a baby; do you pay GST on the carrots and mashed potatoes you have with dinner; how you and your family are cared for if you get sick or need cancer medications not available in New Zealand; what the next severe weather event; terror attack or natural disaster will mean for you. I could go on, but you get the picture. I just see it as so fundamental to everything for all of us. It’s also wild, bonkers, hilarious, absurd, and addictive - I’ve always been attracted to that and love sharing it with people.

In your experience, what are the most significant challenges and responsibilities of reporting on politics in New Zealand?
The country still feels very raw post-pandemic. There’s a lot of fear and misinformation out there, a lot of weaponising algorithms and social media to stoke false and extreme views. We’re already seeing that writ large on the campaign trail, and we’ve only just begun.

It’s a very real challenge and responsibility to not just write people off, particularly vulnerable people susceptible to some of this misinformation, but also balancing that with the risk of giving oxygen to those views, which can be harmful to other vulnerable groups like our rainbow community. I think politicians need to be hyper-mindful of this too and be really careful about legitimising or amplifying some of that division.

The issue of media freedom and the importance of a free press is globally significant. What are your thoughts on the state of media freedom in New Zealand, and are there any concerns you have in this regard?
Way back in 2012, I was lucky enough to be invited to a three-week journalism fellowship in the United States, with around 130 journalists from all over the world. The stories I heard from my colleagues about family members being assassinated for their reporting, about newsrooms being burned down, and about state restrictions on reporting made me truly appreciate how lucky we are in New Zealand in terms of a free press, our access, and editorial independence.

That’s not to say we should take anything for granted - we should always be vigilant about fortifying and protecting those rights. What’s more concerning for me is the disinformation that’s ramped up since COVID about media being bought and manipulated by the government. It’s just not true and again, that perception risks seeding division and marginalisation.

How do you navigate the challenges of asking tough questions to politicians and public figures while maintaining a professional rapport?
Respect. I have enormous respect for politicians and their office which is also why accountability is so important. It’s trite, but it’s right to pedestal their privilege and expect the highest standards. Most politicians understand that and that it’s not personal. We all work for the same people at the end of the day.

Do you have any advice for media professionals and their audiences regarding breaking down and understanding politics?  
Listen. The best thing we can do is listen. The more we hear people’s perspectives, fears, and cares, the more likely we are to tap into the things that matter to them and the more likely they are to understand the relevance and importance of the stories we cover. We’re also more likely to help affect the change that people want or need to see.

Also, we could all benefit from not taking ourselves too seriously. Politics can be really fun. If you show people that, they may be more inclined to engage, to vote, and to pay attention.

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Tova O'Brien

Chief Political Correspondent

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