Windbags muddying the waters

Radio hosts have said some pretty stupid things over the years in the pursuit of listeners and ratings.

Most can be ignored as purely cynical ploys or passed off as uneducated views, and many such digressions are soon forgotten as they spread through the ether and out into the universe.

However, recent comments by Newstalk ZB talkback hosts Kate Hawkesby, Mike Hosking and Kerre Woodham downplaying and even mocking Cyclone Gabrielle should not so easily be forgotten or forgiven.

They were reprehensible, arrogant and insensitive, and showed they clearly thought they knew far better than the experts.

An aerial photograph reveals the extent of flooding in Wairoa after Cyclonoe Gabrielle. Photo:...
An aerial photograph reveals the extent of flooding in Wairoa after Cyclonoe Gabrielle. Photo: HAWKE'S BAY CIVIL DEFENCE
These swaggering windbags should have taken a step back from being legends in their own lunchtimes and thought of the potentially real and fatal consequences of not backing the official warnings.

Instead, they took the easy and lazy route to boost their ratings among the naysayers.

It would come as something of a relief to know that, amidst the subsequent death and destruction caused by the cyclone, the Newstalk ZB hosts might actually feel perhaps a shred of regret for their stupid and dangerous comments.

But it seems unlikely.

What makes their jaundiced and derisive opinions even more gobsmacking is that, as they were pronouncing them, real journalists were out in the elements reporting on the gathering storm.

Kudos to RNZ’s Mediawatch programme for calling out the Newstalk presenters for their "trivialising commentary" and for highlighting that responsible reporting by media organisations had probably saved lives.

Former New Zealand Herald editor in chief and media researcher Dr Gavin Ellis told Mediawatch that Newstalk ZB should focus on "clear, concise, comprehensive information" rather than "contrarianism" during a crisis.

Dr Ellis is absolutely right.

When a disaster is unfolding, be it a major earthquake, an ex-tropical cyclone, a blizzard, or even a pandemic, there needs to be an undertaking that media will report what officials and specialists are saying without undermining the robustness of such warnings.

That doesn’t mean journalists should not talk to experts other than those being fronted by the authorities.

But there is a difference between publishing educated opinions and focusing on ill-informed and unqualified comment, such as uttered by these presenters.

Not only was this the most destructive cyclone to hit New Zealand in decades, but also it was probably the best predicted.

In fact, almost a week before Gabrielle arrived, WeatherWatch was cautioning just that - that it was likely to be the worst so far this century.

The computer models used by MetService, WeatherWatch and Niwa were all remarkably consistent in the six or seven days before the storm arrived from the tropics, in terms of the timing of it, its track on to the country and its erratic deepening once it got here.

Such constancy in those models is rarely seen.

Those forecasting agencies deserve a huge public pat on the back for the accuracy of their predictions and, in the case of MetService, its official severe weather warnings.

Downplaying events, and sowing confusion in the minds of the public, has led to legal action in the past.

The most high-profile example is the case of the Italian scientists prosecuted, but later cleared, for making false reassurances to the citizens of L’Aquila in 2009 before an earthquake which killed more than 300 people.

Judging by their irksome comments, the Newstalk ZB foursome are the kind of people who take it personally if they don’t get a storm in their own studios.

Of course, they are not the ones whose lives and livelihoods will be upended by such an extreme event.

Few people in the path of a cyclone will complain if, for some reason, it changes track and misses them.

Perhaps it is time for the Newstalk ZB hosts to go back to school and do some basic geography and meteorology.

At the moment, who would trust them to even tell us if the sun is out?