Prime minister was already under fire for her recent handling of the Auckland Covid outbreak


New Zealand's prime miniester, Jacinda Ardern, in Newstalk ZB's broadcasting studio
Newstalk ZB host Mike Hosking, who supports the opposition National party, claims that Jacinda Ardern is ‘over being held to account’ Photograph: Newstalk ZB

New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has cancelled one of her highest-profile regular media appearances, surprising commentators and fuelling criticism that she is dodging tough questions.

Newstalk ZB’s morning show host Mike Hosking on Monday announced that Ardern would no longer be appearing for a weekly interview: a regular segment observed by New Zealand’s prime ministers for more than 30 years.

In a statement provided to media, Ardern’s office confirmed that the schedule of media appearances had been reviewed “and while it hasn’t reduced overall, it has changed”. Ardern would no longer do a specific weekly slot on Hosking’s show, but would continue to appear “as and when issues arise”.

Ardern’s office gave no reason for the change, but Hosking said he was informed of the decision about a month ago. He said on air today that he believed the prime minister found his interviewing too combative, and was “over being held to account”.

“Without being too unkind to some of the other players in this market, the reality is the prime minister enjoys a more cordial and compliant relationship,” he wrote in the New Zealand Herald.

Hosking has previously endorsed the National party, but has refuted criticisms of bias in his journalism. In the past he has hosted Morning Report, RNZ’s top morning news programme, and election debates.

The Mike Hosking Breakfast is the most popular commercial morning show in the country, while New Zealand’s prime ministers have had a regular segment on Newstalk since 1987, when the late broadcaster Paul Holmes would grill David Lange.

Last year one of Ardern’s ministers, Willie Jackson, said Hosking had been “simply rude” in his questioning of Ardern, and taken “the most negative possible assessment” of her handling of Covid-19.

Ardern’s decision to walk away from that platform has given fuel to her political opponents amid heavy scrutiny of her leadership and messaging through Auckland’s recent coronavirus outbreak.

On Twitter, National party leader Judith Collins suggested Ardern was afraid of “all those tough questions” from Hosking.

Colin Peacock, the host of Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch programme, said though Hosking did present an editorial line in his questioning, the prime minister had never seemed uncomfortable in their exchanges.

He said he was surprised by Ardern’s decision: “It does open her up to criticism that she is picking and choosing media outlets.”

But that was not new for politicians, Peacock added, noting that John Key and the senior ministers in his National government routinely refused to be interviewed on Radio New Zealand – where Ardern will continue to appear weekly.

“I can’t see a pattern in this government that’s out of step with any other in terms of access or willingness to answer questions,” said Peacock.

He also questioned the value of a weekly slot, beyond as a “useful backstop” for a prime minister who was otherwise inaccessible, and was otherwise a “slightly artificial” feature of the modern media landscape.

Ben Thomas, a political commentator and public relations consultant, said Ardern already had a powerful platform at her disposal in social media, with her live addresses on Facebook and Instagram routinely reaching hundreds of thousands of viewers.

“If you’re a politician, of course you’re going to choose that over an interview, even if it’s not adversarial.

“There’s nothing unusual about politicians picking and choosing their venue. What’s changed is the balance between how much they feel they need the media, in the social media age.”

But he said was surprised by Ardern’s decision to forgo her Newstalk slot when it was a means to reach National voters, many of whom had switched to Labour at the last election.

“It does seem strange to give up that channel unless you’ve decided that, politically, it’s better for you to just cut it and not face the questions.

“It’s both a show of strength, in that you show ‘We don’t need the biggest commercial news channel in the country’, and it’s a show of weakness: ‘I don’t think that I can get or maintain votes better by engaging with Mike Hosking and his audience’.”

But in reaching the decision to forgo her weekly face-off, Ardern would have made a cost-benefit analysis, said Thomas.

He noted that the prime minister’s recent radio appearances had been on The Rock, the Breeze and Mai FM – stations focusing on music over current events.

“Presumably her calculus is, she’s got a better chance of keeping those voters if she continues talking to them on Facebook, The Breeze, Country FM than being interviewed by Mike Hosking.”