Manufacturing Consensus? New Zealand Press Attitudes Toward the Labour Movement in 1890
This thesis investigates the attitudes of New Zealand newspapers to the social and economic tensions exacerbated by the emergence of a newly assertive labour movement in 1890, culminating in the August-November Maritime Strike, and the 5 December General Election. Through detailed analysis of labour reporting in six newspapers (Evening Post, Grey River Argus, Lyttelton Times, New Zealand Herald, Otago Daily Times, Press) this thesis examines contemporary conceptions of New Zealand society and editors’ expectations of trade unions in a colony that emphasised its egalitarian mythology. Although the establishment of a national press agency in 1880 homogenised the distribution of national and international news, this study focuses on local news and editorial columns, which generally reflected proprietors’ political leanings. Through these sites of ideological contest, conflicting representations of the ascendant trade union movement became apparent. While New Zealand newspapers sympathised with the striking London dockers in 1889, the advent of domestic industrial tensions provoked a wider range of reactions in the press. Strikes assumed a national significance, and the divisions between liberal and conservative newspapers narrowed. To varying degrees both considered militant action by organised labour a threat to the colony’s peace and prosperity – sentiments that pervaded their reporting. The New Zealand Maritime Strike confirmed these prejudices and calcified the perception of organised labour’s malevolence. Despite the year’s upheavals, this thesis contends that the press struggled to comprehend labour’s political ambitions, ignoring the unprecedented mobilisation of thousands of new voters, shifting public opinion, and the transformative impact of electoral reform. Distracted by the mainstream political obsession with land reform and convinced that public prejudices, stoked by their own reporting, would obviate a labour presence in the new parliament, the victory of the Liberal-labour coalition confounded the publishing establishment.