Thursday, February 22, 2024

The case for objectivity in journalism

The cover story in the latest issue of North & South, headlined A matter of opinion, takes up an issue raised by me twice in recent weeks. The story is subtitled Did John Campbell cross a line? and occupies eight pages.

The catalyst was my blog post of January 23, in which I said it was wrong that TVNZ, a publicly owned media outlet, provided a platform from which its highest-profile journalist was allowed to pursue a campaign against a democratically elected government. This was after the TVNZ website had published a series of trenchant opinion columns in which Campbell made it clear he thought New Zealand voters had made a grievous mistake by electing a centre-right government.

I wrote that Campbell, who has the vague and all-encompassing title of TVNZ’s Chief Correspondent (which presumably gives him licence to range over any subjects that take his fancy) should be sacked for abusing his privileged position by engaging in what I called a highly personal political mission. I said his columns should be seen as a gesture of contempt to all the deplorables who voted for a change of government because they didn’t like what had happened under Labour. I also suggested that the TVNZ directors should be invited to resign, since they were complicit in his misconduct.

Crucially – and this is a point often overlooked, I suspect wilfully, by critics of my piece – I have said that Campbell is entitled to his opinion about the government, and indeed anything else. As I wrote in an earlier post, my objection was to his views being promulgated on the website of a taxpayer-owned broadcaster which has an ethical obligation to observe editorial balance and political neutrality.  To put it another way, my argument was with his misuse of his status to promote personal opinions which, when all is said and done, have no more legitimacy in a democracy than those of a bank teller or bus driver. 

The central issue here is not that Campbell keeps attacking a centre-right government (of which, incidentally, I’m not a supporter, although I think it's a huge improvement on the last lot); it's that he has publicly expressed a political opinion at all. “I’m appealing,” I wrote, “for a return to traditional journalistic values of impartiality and balance, the decline of which can be blamed for steadily diminishing public trust in the media.”

I was in Australia in the weeks following my post so can’t claim to have kept close track of the reaction, but the column attracted attention both in mainstream media and online. Former New Zealand Herald managing editor Shayne Currie picked up on it in his Media Insider column and RNZ’s Mediawatch discussed it at least once. It was republished on the Bassett, Brash and Hide website, where it attracted more than 6500 views, and provoked an entertainingly splenetic rant on Martyn Bradbury’s The Daily Blog, accompanied by a string of comically inaccurate readers’ comments. (According to Bradbury, I’m a “brownshirt crypto-fascist”. He’s the equivalent of the court jester in a Shakespeare play, babbling incoherently most of the time but occasionally fluking an astute observation – just not in this instance.)

Now North & South has weighed in with a piece in which freelance journalist Jeremy Rose explores the tension between the principle of journalistic objectivity – which, broadly speaking, means impartiality, fairness and balance – and the supposed right of journalists to express their opinions.

As Rose acknowledges at the start of his article – in fact recounts at length over 22 paragraphs – he and I have something of a history, dating back to his time as an earnest leftie producer and presenter of Mediawatch in 2008, when I mentioned him in one of my very first blog posts. That there’s an element of score-settling going on here is apparent from his reference to me as a “provincial New Zealand version of Hedda Hopper – the Hollywood gossip columnist infamous for outing reds under the bed”.

But at least Rose disclosed his bias. And to be fair, once he gets past his apparent antipathy towards me, he presents a balanced picture of the issues and takes the trouble to present my arguments fairly and accurately. Most importantly, he has helped kick-start an overdue debate about the value of objectivity in journalism, which can only be good.

What's striking about Rose's piece is that several of the people he approached for comment about Campbell – people I might have assumed to be on the broadcaster’s side – voiced misgivings about the increasingly blurred line between fact and opinion in journalism.

Former RNZ chief executive Peter Cavanagh, for example, is described as being concerned by the trend to publish more comment masquerading as impartial news coverage. “Removing objectivity from journalism is a very dangerous trend in an increasingly complex world,” Cavanagh is quoted as saying. “I have no doubt that it’s the blurring of the lines between fact and opinion that is driving the growing distrust many now have of mainstream media.”

This is no crusty reactionary speaking. Cavanagh ran a left-leaning RNZ and previously served as head of news and current affairs for Australia’s impeccably woke SBS.

Rose also quotes his former RNZ Mediawatch colleague Colin Peacock, who says Campbell’s November 25 column savaging the new government “does kind of cross a line for me”. He accurately describes the column as “very condemnatory and very personal – the sort of thing you might see in Metro magazine rather than in the opinion and analysis section of a publicly owned broadcaster”. 

Victoria University media studies professor Peter Thompson (like those mentioned above, no right-winger) is another who sees a risk that TVNZ’s publication of strident opinion pieces by its most senior journalist could erode public trust. While noting that Campbell is a very capable journalist (which I don't disagree with), Thompson says there’s a conflict between his role as an opinionated commentator and his other function, which involves him in the production and presentation of news. This, he says, can lead to mistrust of the media and perceptions of bias.

You’d think TVNZ would be alert to this danger, especially given its fragile financial health, but there’s no sign that its bosses and directors are remotely concerned. I think they’re detached from reality.

Strangely, Thompson then muddies the waters by saying he doesn’t think Campbell’s columns are a very serious issue, because they’re clearly labelled as opinion. It’s an argument others have used and it misses the point entirely, which is that Campbell is misusing his privileged position as a public broadcaster. This imposes obligations of impartiality that Campbell and his employer either don’t recognise or fail to accept. As Ita Buttrose, the high priestess of the Australian media and chair of Australia’s (left-leaning) Australian Broadcasting Corporation, pointedly said in a lecture last year, “being a journalist means that you give up your right to be an activist”.


PARTICULARLY interesting, for me, are the comments in the North & South article by Al Morrison, RNZ’s former political editor (and before that, a writer of editorials and feature stories for The Dominion and chief reporter for the Evening Post) who went on to head the Department of Conservation and later took a high-powered job in the State Services Commission.

Al and I worked together at both the Dominion and the Evening Post and he was probably the first journalist I had met who rejected the idea of objectivity, a subject on which he and I civilly disagreed. Al, like John Campbell, had bypassed the traditional entry route into journalism, arriving in the newsroom after previously working as a teacher and then completing a post-graduate course in journalism at Canterbury University. 

He hadn’t served the customary newspaper cadetship and therefore hadn’t been inoculated with the view that journalists must set their personal views aside. He represented a new breed of university-educated journalists who brought to the job an intellectual and ideological framework that distinguished them from ordinary hack reporters who took the view that their job was to tell stories, report facts and convey other people’s opinions, but never their own.

Al pushed the now-fashionable view that all human beings have their own inbuilt and often unconscious prejudices that influence our decision-making and that it’s therefore impossible to make strictly objective judgments. Rose in his article takes a similar line, writing that “every journalist is somewhere on the left-right spectrum”. Yes, but generations of journalists were trained to keep their own opinions to themselves. Newspaper readers would have been hard-pressed, for example, to discern the political views of most leading press gallery reporters. I didn’t know myself, and I worked with some of them.

According to the “objectivity is impossible” argument, all decisions in journalism – which stories to cover, how much prominence to give them, what editorial angle to take, who to interview, what to emphasise in the headline and so forth – are subjective and thus at risk of being distorted by personal perspectives. Ergo, objectivity isn’t worth even attempting.

My response is that at every step in the editorial process, journalists can (and mostly do, even today) set aside individual biases. There are well-established rules and principles that ensure they do, in the same way that judges, police officers and even sports referees are expected to carry out their duties impartially (and generally do). Politics and ideology should never intrude in editorial decision-making and readers or viewers shouldn't be put in the position of wondering whether the news has been subjected to political spin. 

Journalists have understood and operated by these principles for decades. New Zealand has a Media Council (formerly the Press Council) to adjudicate in cases where journalists are alleged to have abused the rules. The very existence of a regulatory body charged with upholding principles of fairness, accuracy and impartiality is evidence that the rules are clearly defined and workable. But no one should be in any doubt that those principles are under sustained attack from within the media, and the assault on the supposedly unattainable ideal of objectivity is a key part of that.

Judging by his comments in North & South, Al hasn’t retreated from his views on the futility of striving for objectivity. Yet he concedes, rather contradictorily, that it’s “an ideal to be pursued”, just as long as you accept that it can’t be achieved. Tellingly, Al also acknowledges there’s a problem because “consumers of news” can find it difficult to distinguish straight reportage from a journalist’s opinions.

Exactly. I would argue that one leads inexorably to the other. Once you allow journalists to abandon the principle of objectivity, you open the door to a confusing melange of fact and comment that leaves viewers and readers scratching their heads, resenting the spin, distrusting mainstream journalism and turning to social media in the hope of finding the truth. (Good luck with that.)

Journalists of a previous generation didn’t incur this risk, because they stuck to clearly understood rules. The principle of objectivity is our only protection against politically motivated journalists spinning the news in whatever way suits their ideological agenda, which can only diminish media credibility and contribute to the further decline of a previously vital civil institution that should play a central role in the affairs of the nation. There are no winners here, apart perhaps from malevolent players in the shadowy online demimonde.


ROSE’S piece recalls a quote from Campbell, back in his Campbell Live days on TV3, in which he said: “I’ve never met a journalist who didn’t want to change the world and make it a better place. Without exception that’s why they get into journalism.”

Here he inadvertently pinpoints a generational change that has transformed journalism, and not in a good way. I entered journalism more than 20 years before Campbell, and I can’t recall any journalists then who thought they were on a mission to change the world. 

That’s an attitude that began to emerge in the 1970s, gathering momentum through the 80s and 90s to the point where it’s now entrenched. It coincided with the gradual academic takeover of journalism training, which had previously been done in the workplace. American ideas about the function of journalism, often promulgated by leftist sociologists, were highly influential in this process and have partially supplanted the British model that previously held sway.

It was in the late 1970s that I first encountered colleagues who saw journalism as a tool for the promotion of political causes, but the great majority of the hundreds of journalists I worked during my career simply wanted to tell stories. Many took pride in regarding journalism as a trade rather than a profession and bristled at the latter description. Politics and ideology rarely, if ever, intruded on their work and in most cases I had no idea of my colleagues’ politics. Those who did air their political views in the pub were mostly left-wing (hardly surprising, given that many journalists came from working-class backgrounds), but they never considered it their role to pursue political agendas on the job. What drove traditional journalism was a belief in the public’s right to know, which has nothing to do with ideology.

If there was a political dimension to their work, it was simply the belief that journalists had a duty to provide people with important and useful information about what was going in their  local communities, in the nation and in the wider world. Of course this sometimes involved reporting things that people in power would have preferred to keep secret. To that extent, news often had political repercussions, but that was a consequence rather than an explicit purpose.

The idea that journalism was all about championing aggrieved minority groups (aka identity politics) and challenging oppressive power structures came much later. The result, as I see every day in my local paper, is that we now have a generation of young journalists who are incapable of writing a simple, straightforward news story (this, after spending a year supposedly learning how to do it) yet feel competent to produce personal comment pieces masquerading as editorials.

As recently as 20 years ago, the exact reverse was true. 
Was the public better served then? I think so, but many younger journalists would disagree. Problem is, most of them didn’t experience that era, so wouldn’t know.

Watergate, which fostered the romantic idea that journalism was all about bringing down corrupt people in power, had a lot to answer for. The advent of journalists' bylines, often accompanied by their mug shots, exacerbated things by boosting reporters' egos and inflating their self-importance.


CAMPBELL, significantly, was not a product of the era when old-school chief reporters and sub-editors pulled ambitious young thrusters into line. According to his Wikipedia entry he received no journalism training, obtaining his first broadcasting job (in which capacity I first met him) after completing a BA with Honours in English literature.

Clever, charming and confident (all of which is still true), he was fast-tracked to celebrity status. I think his lack of any grounding in the traditional culture, ethos and discipline of journalism – yes, discipline – is reflected in his belief that his position at TVNZ gives him licence to pontificate at will. It’s possible he has become such a household name that he thinks he has escaped the constraints accepted as a matter of course by lesser journalists.

But as I said in response to a recent comment on my blog: “The moment someone like John Campbell accepts a very senior position in a publicly owned media organisation, he relinquishes his right to promote his personal views. He's still free to say what he thinks at a private dinner party, but it’s improper as well as arrogant to push his personal opinions (which is all they are – personal opinions) using a very powerful platform which, by well-established tradition and convention, is expected to be neutral.”

This is not just my view. In the aforementioned lecture last year in honour of a former ABC journalist, Ita Buttrose observed: “Good journalism is never about lecturing the public on what they should think. Good journalism is about reporting, just the facts – not opinion. It is about listening to community concerns and fashioning them into powerful stories that inform and illuminate; stories that are backed by evidence and take a fair and impartial point of view.” Note those crucial words: fair and impartial.

Coming from the woman who chairs a powerful media organisation (the equivalent of our TVNZ and RNZ combined) that’s regarded by conservative Australian commentators as overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Left, Buttrose’s statement had a particular resonance. And she’s not alone in her view that journalists should keep their personal views out of their work. In a recent furore over the sacking of an ABC host, even the ABC Alumni – an association of former staff – issued a statement saying it “understands and respects the principle that staff at the ABC should not allow their personal opinions to intrude on their work”. On this crucial issue, our Australian neighbours – even left-leaning ones – may be ahead of us.


I WAS pleased to hear that Emile Donovan, the new host of Nights on RNZ, seems to get this. Discussing my blog post on Midweek Mediawatch with presenter Hayden Donnell, Donovan gently challenged Donnell’s assertion that “you can’t insist that people [such as Campbell] don’t have opinions”. Donovan countered: “Isn’t that the skill set of the journalist – to hold personal opinions but to strive for the ideal of objectivity?” Precisely.

It was interesting to hear Donnell then subtly shift his ground even as he was having a crack at me. He ended up conceding that if a prominent TVNZ columnist criticised a left-wing government – a highly unlikely scenario – there would be an outcry from the Left. 

Donnell’s proposed solution to the tension between objectivity and the right to hold an opinion is that journalists should act as “fair brokers”, whatever that means. To that, I would say it’s surely better to have clear, sharp, unambiguous rules than to rely on vague, fuzzy terms like “fair broker” that journalists are left to define for themselves.

A few other points arising from the North & South article:

■ It quotes former Auckland Star editor and veteran journalism tutor Jim Tucker as suggesting, in the 1999 journalism textbook Intro, that objectivity in journalism was unattainable. But I’m sure that in his earlier days as an editor, Jim (who’s an old mate of mine) would have insisted, like all his contemporaries, on adherence to the principles of objectivity. I suspect that after he moved into academia he fell prey to the American influence that contaminated New Zealand journalism teaching. If so, he wasn’t the first. (Jim himself ended up getting an MA in media ethics.)

■ Rose highlights an old magazine interview in which Campbell ridiculed the notion that journalists should always seek the other side of the story. “At the liberation of Auschwitz, would you give the SS the right of reply?” Campbell asked rhetorically. I’ve seen this argument before and it’s pure sophistry, because it chooses the most extreme example imaginable (as Campbell more or less admitted). A more relevant analogy might be the 1981 Springbok Tour. Almost everyone accepts that apartheid, like Nazi genocide, was evil, but the question of whether New Zealand should maintain sporting contact with South Africa was far more nuanced. Would supporters of the tour be allowed their say today? Judging by the way the media have collectively agreed to shut down legitimate expressions of scepticism about climate change, I couldn’t confidently answer that question in the affirmative. (For the record, I marched against the tour.)

■ Both Rose and Donnell pounced on my statement that TVNZ is “the government’s most potent communication medium” and inferred authoritarian overtones, as if I were endorsing some sort of Russian or North Korean model of state control. I suspect they wilfully misread a rather clumsy choice of words. I wasn’t implying that TVNZ should function as a state propaganda arm; anyone who knows me would realise that’s absurd. What I should have said was that TVNZ is a potent communication medium owned by the government, which conveys a rather different shade of meaning.

■ A TVNZ spokeswoman quoted in Shayne Currie’s Herald article said that opinion pieces such as those on the TVNZ website “play a role in holding power to account, reflecting different perspectives and driving huge digital audiences”. She went on: “John’s pieces are doing that – they’re resonating with New Zealanders who agree or disagree with the perspective and driving huge digital audiences. Given du Fresne also engages in this style of reporting himself, the irony is not lost on us.” This is an example of false equivalence and I suspect the TVNZ spokeswoman knows it. I’m a private, unpaid blogger with no official standing and an average 2000-odd readers a day; Campbell is a highly paid national celebrity, the Chief Correspondent of a powerful, state-owned organisation, with formidable resources behind him and a massive potential audience reach. Besides, I don’t purport to “report” on anything. What I write is clearly my opinion and in contrast with Campbell, it risks no confusion with reportage. TVNZ compounded this dishonesty by telling North & South that its opinion columns “bring a broad range of perspectives to the forefront”, but I’ve yet to see it publish any opinion that could be described as remotely conservative. (Interestingly enough, at least two of Campbell’s most inflammatory anti-government columns seem to have disappeared from the TVNZ website. Is this an acknowledgement that the criticism is striking home and the objections to his naked bias are valid?)

■ Campbell responded to written questions for the North & South piece rather than being interviewed. His answers are rambling and replete with references to “right-wing, Pakeha men” and “cultural hegemony”. He cites, as an authority for his rejection of objectivity, an American journalist who wrote about editorial decisions being made “almost exclusively by upper-class white men”, which may have been true in the US but not, in my experience, in New Zealand, where I have never experienced an "upper-class" editor but have had the pleasure of working alongside some exceptionally competent female editorial decision-makers. It would be helpful if we stuck to examples that are relevant here. Campbell also makes the mistake of suggesting that because lots of other people write opinion pieces, he should be free to do so too – sidestepping the vital distinction, as highlighted by me and others interviewed for the story, that he’s employed by a public broadcaster.

To summarise the above, what we have here is a clash between two competing models of journalism – one that has endured for generations and another of relatively recent origins. I think I know which of the two models serves the public interest better and which is more likely to ensure the media’s survival. That is, if it’s not already too late.

Footnote: This is my last post, at least for the foreseeable future. I am placing my blog in indefinite recess. This has nothing to do with John Campbell or any other issue that I’ve written about. The truth is that after coming back from a recent holiday with family in Queensland, I realised that my heart’s no longer in it. This doesn’t mean I don’t feel as strongly about the issues I write about; rather, it’s the act of writing that I can no longer muster the energy for. Fortunately there’s now no shortage of other conservative (or should I say crypto-fascist?) bloggers, such as Graham Adams, to take up any slack. I extend my heartfelt thanks to all those who read me (more than three million views since I started blogging in 2008), and in particular to those who have taken the trouble to contribute often thoughtful and erudite comments. I can’t guarantee that nothing will happen to make me burst back into action, but for now I’m signing off. (The blog will stay online and any comments on this post will still be welcome.)

Friday, January 26, 2024

My little spat with Philip Matthews

The news and comment website Newsroom published an article yesterday in which Philip Matthews reviewed a new and slightly revised edition of Michael King's celebrated Penguin History of New Zealand. (Matthews is a Christchurch-based Stuff journalist who occasionally contributes to Newsroom.)

The review was entitled History is a culture war and looked at how well King's book - now The Penguin History of Aotearoa New Zealand - had stood up in a time of rapidly shifting cultural and ideological attitudes. Matthews devoted part of his piece to the use of the name Aotearoa and commented that several "right-wing culture figures" - he named Peter Williams,  Michael Bassett and me - had "enlisted King as support for their argument that New Zealand should not become Aotearoa".

This would be all very well, except that I've never said New Zealand shouldn’t become Aotearoa and don't recall ever citing King in that context. My position,  stated several times over the years, is that I'm open to a name change just as long as it's supported by a referendum - in other words, democratically mandated, rather than imposed by a political/media/academic elite.

When I emailed Matthews requesting a correction, he tried to defend himself by citing an article I had written for The Spectator Australia in which I noted that Aotearoa was a name of "dubious authenticity". When I pointed out that this fell a long way short of opposing its adoption, Matthews astonishingly responded by saying my position made it hard to argue that I supported a name change. So now, apparently, it wasn't just a case of me being accused of opposing a name change (although I hadn't); I had apparently flunked the ideological test by failing to support it.

Except that even this wasn't correct, because I've written on this blog that "there are good arguments for adopting Aotearoa".

At about this point, Matthews lost interest in the argument and suggested I sort it out with Newsroom - a cowardly cop-out,  since the mistake was his, not Newsroom's. They had quite reasonably assumed that a senior journalist would take care to get his facts right.

I did take it up with Newsroom,  and to their great credit they immediately amended the article and added a footnote saying the original version had not accurately reflected my opinion. Though the correction didn't quite capture my position (it said I would accept a name change if the public voted for it, but implied I would do so grudgingly), I appreciated co-editor Tim Murphy's prompt remedial action.

Why am I recounting this?  Partly because some people will have seen Matthews' piece in its original form and been left with the wrong impression; but also to illustrate the danger of ideologically motivated journalists letting their prejudices get in the way of accuracy.  Personal antipathy may have played a part, since Matthews and I have a history. I think it suited him to characterise me, along with Peter Williams and Michael Bassett,  as a stubborn old white supremacist.  He's a capable journalist and I suspect in this instance,  he was more than simply careless.  

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

The John Campbell question

Once again, state-owned TVNZ has obligingly provided a platform from which its best-known (and no doubt highest-paid) journalist, John Campbell, can flail the government.

This is extraordinary and unprecedented. The government’s most potent communications medium has been hijacked by one of its employees and co-opted in a highly personal political mission.

Campbell’s anti-government agitation is more than simply provocative. It can only be seen as a direct challenge to the government and a gesture of contempt to all the deplorables who voted for change because they didn’t like where we were going under Labour.

Campbell clearly decided on October 14 that New Zealand had made a grievous mistake in electing a centre-right government and set himself the task of leading the Resistance.

Someone in authority should have told him then that this was not his function as a journalist. If he refused to accept that, he should have been told to pack his bags.

That this didn’t happen tells us that TVNZ is happy for its Chief Correspondent, aka the nation’s Hand-Wringer-in-Chief, to continue his crusade.  Now we’re in the unfortunate situation where someone in government may be tempted to strike back, because no government is likely to tolerate a situation where one of its own employees is so feverishly working to undermine it.

Journalism is in a potentially perilous situation here. Battles between the state and the media rarely turn out well.

The danger of vindictive politicians punishing troublesome journalists hardly needs to be pointed out. But Campbell has put us in this invidious position by brazenly abusing his power and thus inviting retribution. A combative politician like Winston Peters, whose early role model was media-baiter Robert Muldoon, would need little encouragement to retaliate.

The finely balanced relationship between journalists and the government, whereby politicians accept the inconvenience of a critical press as the price of an open democracy, is at risk of being destabilised when one side is seen as wilfully defying the established norms – which is what Campbell has been doing with his series of assaults on a government that’s ideologically not to his liking. 

The danger for the government is that unless it acts to deter egregiously partisan journalism from its own media outlets, Campbell and others like him – including some in RNZ – will feel emboldened to continue.  

As a product of the corporate world, Luxon will be familiar with the management maxim that “What you accept, you approve”. Well, it applies here.  As long as Campbell and others like him feel empowered to attack the government with impunity, National and its coalition partners can expect to endure a prolonged and self-inflicted form of Chinese water torture.

Lest this article be misinterpreted, I’m not presenting an argument for more pro-government journalism. That phrase is a contradiction in terms, because it is not the function of journalists to support governments.

Neither am I rushing to the defence of this government because I support it. I didn’t vote for it and I have little confidence in it, but the government was legitimately elected and it deserves a fair shake. It's impossible not to be struck by the sharp contrast between media attitudes toward the previous government and this one.

Rather, I’m appealing for a return to traditional journalistic values of impartiality and balance, the decline of which can be blamed for steadily diminishing public trust in the media. Contrary to what budding journalists are taught in universities (of which Campbell is a product), journalism is not activism.

Campbell’s attacks on the government – and in a broader sense, the sustained offensive from the media at large since last year’s election – place National and its coalition partners in difficult territory. Convention says the government shouldn’t interfere in the editorial decisions of its media outlets. Any such intervention would be portrayed as an intolerable attack on freedom of the press.

There would be uproar from the media and their academic fellow-travellers. Those with long memories would recall the bad old days of the 1960s, when the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation was firmly under government control.

Fear of such a backlash is what Campbell and his bosses will be counting on to prevent the government from acting, but there comes a point when Campbell’s moralistic crusade becomes so brazen and arrogant that it can’t be ignored.

The question then becomes, what would be an appropriate response? In different circumstances, a stern word in private with TVNZ management might have done the job. But Campbell’s adversarial attitude to the government is so public and so obvious that a low-key strategic retreat is not possible. We’ve moved beyond that point. In any case, TVNZ is complicit in his misconduct.

Besides, this is an open democracy and the conduct of government affairs shouldn’t be carried out via covert, Yes, Minister-type manoeuvrings. If action is to be taken, it should be done in such a way that we can all see it.

That points to the nuclear option: a brutal, decisive and very public sacking on the basis that Campbell has betrayed the fundamental duty of impartiality that the public is entitled to expect of journalists in a state-owned media organisation.

If the TVNZ directors objected – as they would presumably feel bound to do, given that they have at least tacitly condoned Campbell’s activism – then they should be encouraged to go too.

In those circumstances, the government would need to be cleaner than clean in its appointment of a new board. Nothing would destroy its credibility more surely than the recruitment of political favourites and brown-nosers.

All this must sound odd, coming from someone who has written two books about the importance of media freedom (the only ones, to my knowledge, that examined the issue in a New Zealand context). The suggestion that a journalist should be fired because of his political views goes against the grain. 

But media freedom cuts both ways. Journalists must be able to report vigorously and fearlessly on matters of public interest. Generally speaking, in New Zealand the law allows them to do so.

But if the media are to retain the trust of the public, they must demonstrate that they can be relied on to report on issues of public interest in a fair, balanced and non-partisan way. Once the media betray that trust, they put their protected status at risk.

It goes without saying that Campbell is as entitled as anyone to say what he thinks about the government. The crucial difference, in his case, is that his personal opinion is seen as carrying the weight of a major state media organisation which is supposed to be apolitical.

He would be in a very different position if he worked for a privately owned media outfit, but employment by a state-owned organisation imposes a special obligation of impartiality. TVNZ is owned by the people, whose allegiances and sympathies cover the entire political spectrum. It takes a special type of hubris to assume that being the Chief Correspondent (whatever that title means) for such an organisation entitles him to impose his own narrow political biases on his audience.

Mention abuse of media power and people tend to think of press barons such as Rupert Murdoch, but Campbell is guilty of abuse in a more subtle form. In fact it could be argued that Murdoch is a more honest abuser of power because he doesn’t seek to disguise his actions behind an ostentatious fa├žade of morality and compassion.

Campbell presents himself as the conscience of the nation, but by positioning himself as the implacable opponent of a democratically elected government, he’s effectively spitting in the faces of the majority of his fellow New Zealanders who voted for it.  He clearly regards himself as above them and above democracy.

He appears to interpret media freedom as giving him licence to wage a divisive and potentially disruptive political campaign, with the backing of a powerful state institution, against a government that he doesn’t think deserved to be elected. It needs to be made clear to him and TVNZ that his position is offensive and untenable, even in a liberal democracy. If that means sacking him, so be it.

 

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

The striking outpouring of media empathy for Golriz Ghahraman

Rarely has the media’s all-pervasive pro-Left bias been demonstrated more emphatically than in the outpouring of empathy for Golriz Ghahraman.

In the past 24 hours, the tone of media commentary on the scandal surrounding the former Green MP has shifted with striking uniformity. The focus has conveniently been diverted from the wrongness of her actions – there’s barely a mention of that – to the supposedly cruel nature of a political culture that, we are told, placed her under acute stress.

Ghahraman says she cited her mental health problems not as an excuse but as an explanation. In fact she doesn’t need to use stress as an excuse, because her legion of media sympathisers have obligingly done it for her.

The Greens have copped flak for not front-footing the issue of Ghahraman’s shoplifting, but in reality the controversy has been something of a PR triumph, thanks to the media’s eagerness to justify her conduct. Who needs spin doctors when the commentators are already on board?

The excuse-makers, apologists and hand-wringers are out in force. Ghahraman’s conduct has been explained as the almost inevitable consequence of an oppressive, racist system that’s dominated by white males and seeks to destroy capable but vulnerable women.

For an example, check out Madeleine Chapman’s column at The Spinoff, headlined The dramatic exodus of brown women from Parliament is no surprise. The implication is that Kiri Allan and Elizabeth Kerekere were victims of the same syndrome, although the article makes no attempt to substantiate that claim.

I’ll wager, though, that if an opinion poll were taken today, it would find that women are just as offended as men by Ghahraman’s behaviour and by the media’s eagerness to absolve her of blame. Certainly she won’t get much sympathy from a struggling working mother on the minimum wage who wonders how she’s going to pay the supermarket bill but never thinks of resorting to dishonesty.

For what it’s worth, my own inclination, initially at least, was to feel some sympathy for Ghahraman. That feeling has now almost completely evaporated. I’ve concluded she doesn’t need my sympathy when she has virtually the entire media in her corner.

You have to look very hard in the welter of comment to find any mention of the irony that a woman whose parliamentary salary puts her in the top 1 per cent of income earners resorted to theft. And not theft of everyday essentials, but of high-end fashion items marketed to the elite. It all looks decidedly at odds with the political creed of an MP who has positioned herself as a champion of the poor.

It didn’t help that when the scandal broke, Ghahraman was on holiday overseas; exactly where, we haven’t been told. What has emerged is a picture of privilege and entitlement that sits very awkwardly with Green Party ideology.

Nowhere in all the commentary have I seen reference to the fact that countless thousands of New Zealanders deal with mental stress without feeling tempted to steal. As David Farrar put it, “Trying to excuse what happened as being due to stress from the job is insulting to all the people who are also very stressed but don’t shoplift”.

Nowhere is there any mention that shoplifting is a massive drain on the economy. Research in 2017 put the cost at $1.2 billion a year, and you can bet it’s a lot higher now.

Nowhere does any commentator consider the danger that if Ghahraman is allowed to use mental health as an excuse for theft, anyone else feeling under stress will now consider themselves entitled to steal.

Having a bad morning? Go and pinch something. If a high-profile politician can use stress as an excuse, then so can you.

 

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

The Crewe murders revisited


No criminal case in New Zealand history has been more thoroughly worked over than the Crewe murders. The killing of Jeannette and Harvey Crewe (above) in their Pukekawa farmhouse in 1970 has been the subject of multiple trials, appeals, inquiries (including a royal commission), books, documentaries, countless newspaper and magazine articles and even a feature film. Could there be anything left to say?

Well, yes. Nothing startlingly new, necessarily – but The Crewe Murders: Inside New Zealand’s Most Infamous Cold Case, is still a gripping read.

The book, by journalists Kirsty Johnston and James Hollings, presents no compelling fresh theories and uncovers little in the way of previously unreported evidence – not surprisingly, given the degree to which the crime has been scrutinised over more than half a century. Crucially, the authors reach no conclusions about who was guilty of the murders, for which Arthur Allan Thomas served nine years in prison before being granted a royal pardon. But it’s a significant piece of work for all that, simply for the painstaking way Johnston and Hollings have reconstructed the crime and attempted to sift known facts from speculation, theory, rumour and scandalously flawed (and even faked) evidence.



Arthur Allan Thomas

The passage of time and the deaths of almost all the protagonists (Thomas himself being an exception – he’s still alive at 86) have taken much of the heat out of the Thomas controversy and enabled the authors to take what one hopes is a clearer, more detached perspective than was possible when it was a cause celebre. Nonetheless, the powerful and inescapable impression left by the book is that in its determination to protect itself and preserve the stability of “the system” (the authors’ term), the New Zealand establishment closed ranks.  A gruesome double murder had been committed, leaving a baby orphaned, and a perpetrator needed to be found even if it meant constructing a palpably flawed case and ignoring its multiple failings and contradictions.

As the arguments against Thomas’s conviction became ever more compelling, police, judges, Crown lawyers and even prosecution witnesses resorted to increasingly desperate and shameful measures to cover shortcomings in the way the case was investigated and prosecuted. Cronyism and conflicts of interest repeatedly got in the way. Vital information was withheld from the defence or suppressed outright, police blatantly courted jurors and when serious questions arose about dodgy police exhibits, they were conveniently dumped at a tip and buried forever.

The government eventually so lacked confidence in the integrity and ability of the legal and judicial fraternity that it went to Australia to find a judge who could be trusted to head a royal commission of inquiry. The commission’s report came as a bombshell, describing Thomas’s conviction on the basis of false evidence as “an unspeakable outrage” – a phrase that deserves to be ranked alongside Justice Peter Mahon’s “orchestrated litany of lies” in respect of Air New Zealand’s evidence at the Mt Erebus inquiry.

Detective Inspector Bruce Hutton outside the Crewe farmhouse.

All this came on top of an incompetent police investigation and multiple glaring inconsistencies and far-fetched scenarios in the evidence. It’s now accepted that Detective Inspector Bruce Hutton, who headed the murder inquiry, planted the cartridge case that helped convict Thomas. The royal commission said so. (Not only was Hutton never prosecuted, but then police commissioner Mike Bush paid tribute to him as a man of “integrity beyond reproach” at his funeral in 2013.)

In the end, it wasn’t the institutions that society trusts to uphold the law – the courts and the police – who ensured that justice was done in the Crewe case, but the media and a dogged group of citizen activists. Oh, and a couple of politicians: Robert Muldoon and his young justice minister Jim McLay, who made the courageous decision to issue Thomas with a pardon.

Decades later, all this makes sobering – no, make that chilling – reading. But The Crewe Murders can also be appreciated as an absorbing piece of social history. Pukekawa emerges as a feral sort of place – a New Zealand Ozarks with a history of Gothic murders where dark, clannish feuds, rivalries and suspicions simmered. (As an aside, I once visited Pukekawa in the late 1970s without knowing where I was. I was covering an international motor rally for The Listener and pulled in at an isolated service station to buy petrol and cigarettes. I spoke briefly to two surly men and got the distinct impression outsiders weren’t welcome. I came away with an inexplicably creepy feeling that I’ve experienced only two or three times in my life. It was only when I saw a sign a couple of hundred metres down the road that I realised where I was.)

Ultimately the book doesn’t get us any further, insofar as it doesn’t identify the killer(s) or even speculate on who it might have been, though you sense the authors were hoping they might break the case open, as any investigative journalist would. Notwithstanding his pardon, Thomas still can’t be definitively ruled out. (Hutton may have genuinely believed him to be guilty; what was unforgiveable was the fabrication of evidence against him.)

At the end of the book, I was left with one nagging thought. Harvey Crewe was a big man and his wife wasn’t slightly built. A dead body is an extremely awkward, cumbersome thing, not easily manhandled, yet someone managed to shift the two bodies from the Crewe farmhouse, wrap them in blankets, manoeuvre them into a vehicle, take them to the banks of the Waikato River and dump them in the water. It struck me that all this was highly unlikely to be accomplished unobserved by someone acting alone, yet the book is silent on this intriguing aspect of the case. Perhaps, after all, there’s yet another book still to be written …  

The Crewe Murders is published by Massey University Press and sells for $45.

 

Monday, January 1, 2024

An epic display of dummy-spitting

As a believer in free speech, I would never question John Campbell’s right to unburden himself of a long, whiny lament about where New Zealand is going under the new government.

I do object, however, when it’s published on the website of a taxpayer-owned broadcaster, TVNZ, which has an ethical obligation to observe editorial balance and political neutrality.

If you wanted proof that brazenly activist journalism is not only accepted but encouraged, even by state-owned media, there it is, right there. Clearly, TVNZ is untroubled by the fact that the man it calls its Chief Correspondent adopts an unashamedly political posture and sets himself up as an outspoken adversary of a democratically elected government.  It’s a measure of his ego that he can take such a provocatively defiant stance and expect to get away with it.

And it’s not as if this was the first such column. In an epic display of dummy-spitting, Campbell has grizzled repeatedly about the election outcome – here, here and here. I’m surprised he hasn’t demanded we vote again and keep doing it until we get the right result.

That he doesn’t like the new government is not so much the issue here. That’s his right as a citizen. What’s offensive is that he misuses his position as a high-profile journalist – one who has spent a large part of his career in the state-owned broadcasting system, with all the power and privilege that confers – by petulantly and very publicly railing against a government that his fellow New Zealanders voted for. The Labour Party may be beaten and demoralised, but that’s okay because Campbell has set himself up as the de facto Opposition.

It possibly doesn’t occur to Campbell – nor to TVNZ, obviously – that his political partisanship seriously compromises his journalistic credibility among the many New Zealanders who voted Labour out and welcomed the policy U-turns that he finds so egregious. What chance do New Zealanders have of hearing politically neutral comment from the state-owned TV network’s Chief Correspondent? What chance of a straight, unbiased account of any contentious issue about which Campbell holds strong opinions? The answer, it seems, is zero. That being the case, shouldn’t it matter to TVNZ that viewers who object to Campbell’s posturing are likely to switch off or turn away whenever his face comes on screen?

Nearly three months on from the election, Campbell still appears unable to accept that the country voted emphatically for change. I suspect that like many journalists, six ecstatic years under Labour misled him into thinking that a radical left-wing government was now the natural order of things. He exemplifies the elitist metropolitan commentariat which, for those six years, so dominated media discourse that dissenting opinion was all but smothered. 

Nowhere in his anguished lamentation does Campbell acknowledge that the government he objects to was legitimately elected by ordinary people exercising their one chance in every three years to influence public policy. Perhaps he avoided mentioning this because he’s too polite to come right out and say his fellow New Zealanders are thickos, racists and reactionaries, although the implication is clear enough.

The falsity of his carefully crafted image as a Man of the People has thus been laid bare. He displays nothing but contempt for the government and, by extension, for the people who elected it. He has made a career out of oozing empathy, but his goodwill toward his fellow New Zealanders stops short of accepting their right to vote for a government he doesn’t approve of.

Having said all that, let’s give Campbell his due. He writes very well, albeit a bit too emotively. He is achingly sincere. You can feel his pain. I think he genuinely cares about his fellow New Zealanders. The thing is, so too, no doubt, do Christopher Luxon, David Seymour and – who knows? – perhaps even Winston Peters. That presumably is why they entered politics.

The mistake Campbell makes, as is frequently the case with the sanctimonious Left, is that he thinks he has a monopoly on virtue and compassion.

On a broader note, the government has a problem. It owns two powerful media organisations, TVNZ and RNZ, that are essentially hostile to it and will function as centres of resistance to its policies. Democratically speaking, this is intolerable. The obvious solution is for the government to send a signal by sacking the TVNZ and RNZ boards, but the question then becomes: would it replace them with strong, competent, independent directors, or would it succumb to the temptation to install political toadies? I wish I could be confident of the answer.

To finish on a personal note, I hesitated for a long time before writing this because my wife and I were good friends of John Campbell’s parents. They are (or were, in the case of his late father) lovely people. The two degrees of separation that characterises New Zealand society sometimes makes things awkward, but there it is.

 

Saturday, December 30, 2023

A grotesque irony in the honours list

I have just sent the following letter to the Wairarapa Times-Age. It will be interesting to see whether they publish it.

I would like to point out a sad and grotesque irony in the New Year Honours list.

Professor Frank Bloomfield of Auckland University has been made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to neonatology.

Dr Simon Snook of Carterton has been awarded the same honour for services to reproductive health, which is a polite way of saying he has been honoured for promoting abortion.

In other words, one recipient is on the honours list for saving babies’ lives. The other is on the list for terminating them.

I know which of the two men I believe has done more to earn the honour and respect of his fellow New Zealanders.

Footnote: To its great credit, the Times-Age published my letter on January 2. If it had been Stuff, I doubt it would have stood a chance.