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How dare you question “Dear Leader” or the “Team”!

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A backlash over tough questions for Dr Ashley Bloomfield

Journalists are facing a backlash for asking tough questions of Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Are they being too harsh, or is the director general of health’s popularity shielding him from accountability? Newshub’s Michael Morrah tells Mediawatch reporters are “not here to make friends.”

At the 1pm press conference last Saturday, director general of health Ashley Bloomfield fielded a question that provoked a backlash.

“Given the repeated failures of the testing system under your leadership, shouldn’t you take some responsibility and offer your resignation?” a Newshub journalist asked.

The question was being asked on behalf of Newshub’s investigations editor Michael Morrah. He spent the next few days weathering a blizzard of angry tweets and Facebook comments.

One person called him a “public health threat to us all”. Others said he should resign for his own “failure to do his job”.

A running thread in the criticism was that Morrah’s inquiry was unreasonable, given Bloomfield’s record in shepherding the country to 102 days of Covid-19 elimination.

But Morrah wasn’t leaping to a call for vengeance over a single Ministry of Health slip-up. His question came after nearly five months of reporting on the ministry’s shortcomings.

In April and May, he honed in on health workers’ struggles to access  personal protective equipment, or PPE, in hospitals and community care facilities.

That reporting has since been reinforced by the Auditor General John Ryan, who found that Bloomfield’s repeated assurances that plenty of PPE was available, didn’t always match the situation on the ground.

In May, he reported on the Ministry of Health’s failure to distribute adequate supplies of flu vaccines to hundreds of GP clinics.

Morrah was also one of those reporting in June on the lack of testing for people in managed isolation and quarantine facilities, along with concerning decisions on compassionate leave.

Last week he broke the story on the fact that nearly two-thirds of all border staff hadn’t been tested for Covid-19, despite a government assurance in late June that they would be swabbed.

Morrah says he doesn’t regret asking whether Bloomfield should resign. He sees those sorts of hard questions as part of his responsibility as a journalist.

“The buck has to stop somewhere,” he says. “My opinion is we as journalists are not here to make friends. We’re here to report the facts, and if there are failings, as there have been on multiple occasions with this response in my opinion, then we need to ask the questions and hold the highly paid public officials to account. Because if we don’t do that, and if we don’t ask the questions around this, then nothing changes.”

Morrah wasn’t alone in calling for accountability at the Ministry of Health over its failure to implement adequate testing in June and August.

Earlier in the press conference where Bloomfield was asked whether he would resign, RNZ’s Jo Moir asked Health Minister Chris Hipkins a similarly tough series of questions, which also ended in a query on whether jobs would be cut.

She noted that in both June and August, Ministry of Health staff hadn’t adequately implemented government policy on testing in managed isolation facilities and at the border.

“Do you know who is either failing to pass on the message or failing to do what was being instructed, and are they going to lose their job?” she asked.

These journalists make a convincing case that the ministry Bloomfield heads up hasn’t always lived up to expectations.

Why then have their calls for accountability provoked such a furious response?

It’s not like there’s no appetite for public figures to be held to account during the Covid-19 pandemic. Former health minister David Clark’s resignation was met with widespread acceptance, or in some quarters, acclaim.

Public service leaders like Bloomfield have also been held accountable for failures recently. Stats NZ chief  Liz MacPherson stepped down over the botched 2019 census and Raveen Jaduram at Watercare has resigned amid Auckland’s water crisis.

Part of the anger over Morrah’s question to Bloomfield could be the upcoming election further heightening partisanship on social media.

Journalists criticising the government’s Covid response could prompt some partisans to defend their side of the political divide.

But perhaps the main point of friction comes because several of the powerful people journalists want to hold to account have become incredibly popular.

Ashley Bloomfield is on tea towels. An effigy of him as a saint has been put up in a Wellington shop window. One Morrinsville woman got a giant tattoo of him on her calf muscle.

Morrah says he gets the sense that people see his critical stories on the Ministry of Health, and Bloomfield in particular, as betraying the vaunted “team of five million”.

“Because of the infatuation that the majority of the New Zealand public has with Ashley Bloomfield – he’s a nice guy and the top dog at the health ministry in getting to elimination point –  as soon as there are questions about whether he’s responsible for massive failings, people get annoyed at that and think that I’m not being a part of the team of five million,” he says.

Despite the harsh feedback it inspires, Morrah says he’s committed to continuing his critical, sometimes confrontational, reporting.

He won’t take people’s affection for Bloomfield into account before deciding what to publish.

“That’s not my concern. Whether people like him or hated him, it doesn’t really matter. It’s about doing our job and one of those jobs is to hold the powerful to account, and if there are failures identified then the person in charge has to take some responsibility, and in this case I would argue the failure is significant.”

That may seem harsh. Many people see Bloomfield as having done a difficult job in unprecedented circumstances. His calm, assured handling of the 1pm daily briefings during New Zealand’s path to Covid elimination has made him something akin to a national hero.

But as Morrah notes, he’s still a public servant with a salary of more than $500,000, and his successes or failures have enormous impact on millions of New Zealanders.

It’s in all our interests that Bloomfield and his ministry’s health response is as robust as possible.

If the last few months have shown anything, it’s that response can be improved by scrutiny.

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31 COMMENTS

  1. Does anyone know what the job of director general of Health is worth? What is the salary we are paying Dr Bloomfield? I think it is past time we the taxpayer of New Zealand were told exactly what we are paying the boffins who are ruining our economy and country. Right down to the last cent. thank you. Not even asking for a friend but for myself

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    • Weak and gutless pricks such as Bloomfield won’t resign.
      The money they earn is far too good. And far too much.
      Good to see a journalist like Morrah putting the heat
      on these lying arseholes.

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    • He will be on a massive salary.

      The more useless your job the more you are paid, in govt. The only requirement is that you always support govt and their policy. No matter how bad and harmful they are.

      These people are corporate psychopaths.

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      • Thank you Maggy that was very informative, Incredible how much these people are paid, interesting that I have never heard of some of the departments they work for.

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    • Circa 505k … read it in the papers during the first lockdown – nice gig if you can get it!

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    • Lizzie P says
      Does anyone know what the job of director general of Health is worth?

      >>Minus 50 Billion dollars

      that is what he is worth

      Destruction of 50 Billion dollars of wealth.

      In his team of 5:-
      The Slapper, Alfs wife, Bloomfailed, Chippy, 3 pies Woods

      If you are asking what his salary is, that is different.

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  2. There are plenty of Leftards that agree that questioning Ardern or Bloomfield is beyond the pale:

    “Jacinda and Dr Bloomfield need to get nominated for a sainthood just for not murdering the lot of them [journalists, for daring to question Dear Leader and crony].”
    – a shared post that appeared in one of my social media accounts.

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    • I read a good one today as well-

      “Once we (Labour) govern alone these slimy journalists won’t dare criticise Jacinda or Ashley.
      It will be more than their pathetic job is worth”

      Labour aren’t even hiding their plans for Totalitarianism!

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      • “Once we (Labour) govern alone these slimy journalists …”
        And they do not see the irony in that comment. It is the journalists that put Labour in the position to possibly government alone.

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        • The journalists will have outlived their usefulness. Journalists will have been useful idiots.

          No, the introspection belongs to the insanity of journalists first and foremost for being cheerleaders for the Left.

          Of course, what most (all?) Leftards don’t realise is that they will be next on the chopping block.

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  3. Q, how can you tell Jacinda is telling a lie?
    A,,The ventriloquists lips are moving.
    From my 12 year old grandson.

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    • My 17 year old son was incensed by a comment made on social media regarding David Seymour – ‘a vote for David is a vote for national’ … 17 year old said his left nut could control the border better than cindy and chums

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  4. The question of performance for salary is not just a matter for Dr Bloomfield to answer.

    Yesterday we had the Prime Minister telling us Dr Reti had good access to enable him to question officials. This was in response to an assertion he had been refused opportunity to question Dr Bloomfield at Select Committee. The Leader of the Opposition confirmed the situation was not as indicated by the Prime Minister .
    Later in the day, Dr Reti is now able to put questions to Dr Bloomfield at a Select Committee.

    The Prime Minister has, knowingly or otherwise, enabled her Select Committee Chair to obstruct Dr Reti in asking questions. While the matter has now been corrected, it took exposure through media and a firm statement from Judith Collins to get the matter corrected.

    The government has not been open and transparent in this serious matter about Covid-19 in what the PM said is a COVID-19 election.

    Well it is also about truth and competency and at present those qualities are not being displayed by the government to the level I expect. Well done Judith Collins and Dr Shane Reti for exposing the inadequate response of the Select Committee Chair.

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    • This government has not been open and transparent about anything, period.
      The only thing they do with any competence is lie.

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  5. Hitler said the most uplifting caring things. He cared greatly about his people, social justice and the environment.

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  6. When people question the high salaries being paid to public servants the answer is always, we live in a globally competitive employment environment and so have to compete internationally to get top people. Well if that is the case those chosen have to perform to the international “standards” –in this case Bloomfield has been found wanting in his performance so he has to take the heat. All he had to do was manage his senior people –tell them to earn their high salary by making sure things were done, Structures set in place to get the new work done, reporting procedures put in place, data collection updated etc. Finally he just had to say it had to be “done yesterday” not on glide time and lack of performance would be held to account. All that should have been done before the first lock down.

    In fact all that should have part of the Pandemic Plan that the MoH had “on paper” ready for such an emergency –ie. there should not have any need for much extra work, just some fine tuning. That’s what they get paid the big bucks for, I thought.

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    • Nah mate. They rarely take responsibility for anything. They’re just there to be political whores, take the money and throw the little people under the bus when needed.

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      • For the rest of the year when they are not stuffing up they should be learning from their past mistakes.
        Instead what do they do lattes and smashed arvo down in the cafe!
        They should have a template for every disaster imaginable ready to print out. Rather than make shit up on the hoof!
        If the can’t do that, step aside!
        Going by past mistakes, you would think Twit Twyford was incharge!

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