Friday, July 12, 2024

What Diderot might have said about traffic cones

What the hell took him so long? That’s the only question arising from Transport Minister Simeon Brown’s belated crackdown on traffic cones.  

I wrote about the traffic cones lunacy nearly three years ago. It was a racket and a disgrace that had long been obvious even then.

I devoted another post to it in March last year and identified the traffic management cult as a prime symptom of the precautionary principle, which risk-averse regulators use as moral justification for imposing costly, wasteful and intrusive controls that defy common sense.

All the while, the problem has grown more intolerable. And we meekly fall into line even while cursing the irritation and inconvenience because we are essentially a passive, compliant people.

There’s an ideological element in all this. The urge to control human behaviour is central to the mentality of the bureaucracy, even in a supposedly liberal democratic state.

Traffic cones are just another means by which people can be made to submit to authoritarian edicts for which there’s no rational basis. The Covid-19 lockdown, which by common consent is now regarded as having been needlessly oppressive and damaging, can be seen in the same light.

While Brown’s belated initiative may be welcome, it’s also disappointingly half-hearted.  He says the government will be introducing a "risk-based" approach to traffic management, which raises the likelihood that decisions will be left in the hands of the same control freaks who got us into this mess in the first place.

The bottom line is that New Zealand built a network of state highways without a single traffic cone and no one, to my knowledge, has ever advanced a cogent reason why that needed to change. 

The 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot famously said that men could never be free until the last king was strangled with the entrails of the last priest. He might have added: “… and the last traffic cone is buried in a landfill”.

Friday, July 5, 2024

Here's the news: life will go on

I’ve asked this question before, but it’s time to ask it again: do TV journalists have any idea how precious and self-absorbed they look?

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests they don’t. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve witnessed an unedifying orgy of self-aggrandisement as Newshub journalists and broadcasters very publicly and ostentatiously mourn the imminent loss of their jobs.  

Paddy Gower, Mike McRoberts, Samantha Hayes, Lloyd Burr, Eric Young and Melissa Chan-Green have all invited us to share their grief, although Chan-Green, holding back tears, at least had the self-awareness to acknowledge that other people have faced tough times too.

Young, who I’ve always respected as a newsreader, deserves special mention for his maudlin display on a video released today. “There’ll be no time for self-indulgence,” he says of his final bulletin. Just as well, because we’ve seen far too much already.

It has been a strange combination of self-pity and self-celebration. The Newshub team are appealing for public sympathy while simultaneously bigging themselves up in a manner that many ordinary New Zealanders will find risibly over-the-top and more than a little self-centred.

They’re behaving as if they’re the first people ever to experience the trauma of losing their jobs, but of course it happens all the time. Businesses constantly fail, often with far more damaging consequences for those affected.

Untold thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled New Zealanders have been thrown out of jobs by technological change or economic upheaval and faced a far bleaker outlook than the relatively small number of skilled and talented people affected by the Newshub closure, some of whom have already acquired new and presumably well-paid jobs.

The difference, of course, is that all those anonymous victims of redundancy had no public platform from which to draw attention to their misfortune. Newshub journalists do, either via their own medium or through others in the media (such as the Herald’s Shayne Currie, who has assiduously reported all the hand-wringing). I’m sure it’s not lost on the public that they are exploiting a privileged position.

Yes, losing your job must be tough. It's also problematical, from a public interest standpoint, that there will be one less competitor in the news arena. But the Newshub journalists would probably win more sympathy, and certainly more respect, if they took it on the chin, just as thousands of anonymous workers had no choice but to do when they found themselves surplus to requirements.

I wonder, what makes the Newshub employees so special that their fate warrants all this wailing and breast-beating? What makes them think they have more emotionally invested in their work than all those other poor stiffs who fell victim to the cruel caprice of changing markets? An obvious explanation is that television is a uniquely ego-stroking medium. It can create the illusion, at least within the bubble of those working in the business, that the lives of the people who report and deliver the news are themselves a matter of vital public interest. Fatally, they come to regard themselves as celebrities.

It’s worth noting that this overweening egotism and sense of entitlement doesn’t afflict all journalists. Hundreds of print journalists have lost their jobs in recent years, with serious consequences for the public’s right to know what’s going on in their communities. They went quietly, without public fuss. What is it that makes TV journalists think their role is so uniquely precious?  

Similarly, when the Evening Post ceased to exist as a title when it was merged with The Dominion in 2002, it marked its own passing with a one-off commemorative issue that was notably light on self-congratulations. Hardly a word was published about the individuals who produced the paper. It was largely left to readers and public figures to write about what the Post had meant to them and to Wellington. (And bear in mind, this was a newspaper that had been an essential part of Wellington life for 137 years. Newshub, by way of contrast, came into existence only 35 years ago and was never more than a secondary player in its market.)

Well, here’s the news, to coin a phrase: life will go on. A timeline of Newshub’s history, published today in the Herald, graphically demonstrates that TV news and current affairs programmes come and go and are soon forgotten. The timeline serves as a striking reminder that television is essentially an ephemeral medium. Many of the shows mentioned have long since faded from the public memory, along with the names of the people who presented them. The same will happen to the 6 o’clock Newshub News, and possibly sooner than many of its grieving employees imagine.

Footnote (appended July 7): On Muriel Newman's Breaking Views page, a commenter named Gaynor responded to this piece by wondering where the mainstream media were when good people were losing their jobs because they chose not to have the Covid jab. No sympathy for them. A good point that I wish I'd thought of.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

A monumental piece of work

 


By anyone’s standards, my friend and long-ago employer Ian F Grant leads a very busy life, especially for an 84-year-old. But the past week has been exceptionally full even for him.

Last Thursday saw the launch of Pressing On – Volume II of his monumental history of New Zealand newspapers – at the National Library. Volume I, Lasting Impressions, covered the period from 1840 till 1920 and was published in 2018. The second book brings us almost to the present day.

I say “almost” because Ian wisely chose the year 2000 as his cutoff point. After that, things started getting messy in the print media and there would have been little point in charting subsequent trends and events, given the industry’s highly fluid state and uncertain future.

Lasting Impressions was a prodigious piece of work for the sheer depth and detail of Ian’s research into an aspect of New Zealand history that had previously been largely overlooked. Pressing On bears evidence of the same exhaustive research, but it’s probably fair to say that it has wider appeal simply because it covers newspaper titles and industry personalities familiar to current generations.

Lifelong newspaper enthusiast Sir Hugh Rennie (a co-founder, with Ian, of the National Business Review) and the retired political journalist Colin James addressed the gathering at the launch and there was an elegiac tone to their remarks – an acknowledgment that the book covers a golden age of New Zealand print journalism and that society and democracy will be much the worse for its decline.

By an apt coincidence, the launch was followed only days later by the announcement that Ian had been made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature and historical preservation. His inclusion in the King’s Birthday honours list followed similar recognition of his wife and publishing partner Diane 22 years earlier.

As founders and co-owners of Masterton-based Fraser Books, the Grants are prolific authors and publishers and show no sign of cutting back their workload. I keep urging them to slow down, partly because they make me feel wretchedly slothful, but they haven’t taken my advice in the past and I don’t expect them to do so now.

You can read a fuller account of the book launch here: Wellington.Scoop » Not dead, but …. 

Pressing On sells for $69.50. Copies are available from ifgrant@xtra.co.nz


Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Howling at the moon

(This post is a one-off. It does not signify a reactivation of my blog.)

There’s a crisis in the news media and the media are blaming it on everyone except themselves. Culpability is being deflected elsewhere – mainly to the hapless Minister of Communications, Melissa Lee, and the big social media platforms that are accused of hoovering up advertising revenue that would otherwise go to traditional mainstream media companies.

But while it has been clear for a long time that Lee is out of her depth, she’s not responsible for the media’s collapse and it’s not exactly clear what her media tormentors expect her to do about it. Bail them out with government money, presumably. But the proposition that the government should prop up news media that are openly hostile to it makes about as much sense as Israel providing arms and ammunition to Hamas. In any case, why should the long-suffering taxpayer be made to pay for the media’s manifest failings?

And while it may be true that Facebook and Google have been piggybacking on the mainstream media (although I sometimes wonder whether the damage has been conveniently exaggerated), pointing the finger at them neatly sidesteps the uncomfortable issue of the media’s own contributory fault.

For anyone unable to join the dots, the publication last week of the fifth annual Trust in News survey should help. It showed that New Zealanders’ trust in the reporting of news has continued its headlong downward plunge – from 42 percent in 2023 to an even more dismal 33 percent this year. Significantly, this is a faster decline than recorded by similar surveys in other comparable countries. Even report co-author Merja Myllylahti said she was shocked by the results.

In 2020, the year the New Zealand survey began, 53 percent of respondents said they trusted the news “most of the time”. So there has been a cumulative fall since then of 20 percent, and the decline is accelerating. Even the Otago Daily Times, which emerged from the latest survey as the most trusted media outlet in the country, scored only five on a scale from 0 (“not at all trustworthy”) to 10 (“completely trustworthy”).

RNZ and TVNZ both fell short of the break-even point. As publicly owned news providers, RNZ and TVNZ have a special obligation to provide trustworthy (in other words fair, accurate and balanced) news and commentary, but they have failed themselves and us.

The latest survey, conducted by Horizon Research for the Auckland University of Technology (AUT), also revealed that more New Zealanders are actively avoiding the news. I’m one of them. I’ve been a news junkie all my adult life, but I haven’t watched a TV news bulletin since last December. And it seems I’m not alone; I exchanged emails yesterday with an old friend, another retired journalist, who announced that he was boycotting the news and thought there had been a subsequent lift in his mood.

The report accompanying the trust survey gives a rather large clue to why so many people have lost faith in the mainstream media. It noted that those who no longer trusted the news were concerned about its negativity and, perhaps more tellingly, by “what they perceive as political bias and opinion masquerading as news”.

Eighty-seven percent of those who didn’t trust the news said it was biased and unbalanced, 82 percent said news reflected the political leaning of newsrooms and 76 percent felt it was too opinionated. Moreover, 47 percent of respondents couldn’t be sure that the news media were free of political or government influence most of the time – a predictable legacy of the ill-conceived Public Interest Journalism Fund, which showered public money on journalism projects that satisfied ideological acceptability tests.

No surprises there. But are the media listening, or are they too self-absorbed – too busy weeping, wailing and gnashing their teeth, as the Bible might put it – to see what’s obvious to virtually everyone else? The level of self-delusion is staggering.

One thing is inarguable: notwithstanding all the contempt being heaped on the Minister of Communications, she can’t be blamed for the collapse of trust in the media. That’s entirely the media’s own doing.

Neither can the problem be attributed to Facebook and Google. Even if the social media giants were made to pay in some way for the news they’re accused of currently pillaging free of charge, that wouldn’t solve the trust issue. So the media need to start rebuilding trust, as the authors of the Trust in News survey suggest. That is, if it’s not already too late. And perhaps the process of rebuilding trust could start by no longer angrily looking around for other people to blame for a media crisis that’s largely of the media’s own making.

Physician, heal thyself, as Shakespeare might have said. Problem is, the media appear to have no self-criticism mechanism – or if they have, it’s been out of use for so long that no one can find the switch to activate it.

Some high-profile casualties of the current media upheavals have plaintively and volubly appealed for public support on the basis that the media are essential to a functioning democracy. Doubtless that same argument is used to justify the fact that the threat of journalists’ job losses gets infinitely more media attention than, say, the closure of a meat processing plant or clothing factory. Journalists are supposedly different because of their noble calling. But arguments about the special place of the media hold true only as long as the media are fair, balanced and neutral in the way they treat the news.  Once they abandon that obligation, all bets are off – which is exactly what has led us to where we are now.

The truth is that the New Zealand mainstream media have been in self-destruct mode for years. Traditionally, the media’s legitimacy and moral authority rested on their role as a “broad church”, willing to report and reflect a wide array of news and opinion. To put it another way, the “old” media sought to reflect the diverse communities they served; a nation talking to itself, in the oft-quoted words of the playwright Arthur Miller.

The “broad church” model served the public and democracy well, but that changed with the ascendancy of a new generation of journalists, many with university degrees, who fatally saw themselves as being intellectually and culturally superior to the masses.

Rather than attempting to connect with the community at large, this new generation of journalists preferred to write about, and for, people with the same interests, values, tastes and ideological beliefs as themselves – an approach doomed to commercial failure, since it reached only a narrow demographic group.  The nexus with the broader community was severed and in the process, the mainstream media succeeded in delegitimising themselves.

All this coincided with the digital revolution and the resulting emergence of online platforms that gave people alternatives. Hence the continuing plunge in newspaper circulations and the shrinking audience for TV news.

It’s surely significant that the decline in trust has become sharper over the past few years. New Zealanders could be accused of being passive and even apathetic, but they are not entirely stupid. They observed that for six years, the media gave the Labour government a conspicuously easy ride, obligingly falling into line over crucial issues such as Covid (remember the media disdain for the anti-vaccine protesters at Parliament?), climate change, rampant crime, co-governance and the Treaty.

These were issues that provoked deep and growing unease and division. Yet a stranger to New Zealand, monitoring the media in the years 2020-2023, would have formed the impression the country was united in blissful accord behind Labour’s policies.

Jacinda Ardern was treated obsequiously and her ministers largely escaped critical scrutiny, other than in instances of behaviour so egregious it couldn’t be ignored (the names Kiri Allan and Michael Wood come to mind). Legitimate Opposition attacks on the government in Parliament went unreported and press statements from conservative lobby groups were routinely ignored. Media complicity was crucial in the advancing of a radical government agenda.

Compare that with the relentless barrage of anti-government rhetoric that has dominated news bulletins and newspaper headlines in the six months since the election as the media gorged on a diet of left-wing outrage over the coalition’s policies. It began almost the day after the election and it hasn’t abated since. Ministers are being subjected daily to a level of interrogation that their Labour predecessors encountered rarely, if ever. Regardless of one’s politics (and I’m not a supporter of the coalition), the contrast with the media’s pusillanimous, sycophantic approach under Labour is striking.

Unfortunately for the reputation of journalists, the public can weigh all this against the knowledge that people in the media are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Left. In the Worlds of Journalism study published by Massey University in October 2022, New Zealand journalists were asked to identify their political views. Of the 359 who completed the survey, roughly two-thirds identified as left-wing, 23 percent described themselves as centrist and only 12 per cent said they were right-wing.

Those figures don’t tell the whole story, however. An astonishing 15 percent of journalists described themselves as “hard left” and 6 percent as “extreme left”, although I’m not sure how they distinguished between the two. This was against an infinitesimal number – barely enough to register on the chart – who considered themselves “hard” or “extreme” right. The political imbalance was stark.

In a perfect world, this need not be an issue. Many, if not most, of the journalists I worked with over the course of a long career were left-wing in their politics. This becomes a problem only if journalists allow their personal views to influence (contaminate might be a better word) their work. Regrettably the evidence suggests overwhelmingly that today’s journalists do exactly that.

This is not only allowed but in many cases encouraged. Journalists reflect the ethos and culture of their workplace, and contemporary newsrooms more often than not are places of left-wing groupthink. Many journalists of the current generation have been taught that the purpose of journalism is to agitate for change. They have been conditioned to believe that editorial balance – the idea that there is more than one side to every story – is bogus, and that they should be free to decide which narratives are valid and deserve to be promoted. Theirs is the journalism of advocacy and activism.

This is especially problematical because the biases of journalists do not reflect the views of the populace at large. New Zealand is not a society that naturally leans sharply to the left. That’s clear from the last election result, and from the broad sweep of our political history.

When journalists are so obviously out of step with the society they purport to serve, it’s small wonder that people stop buying newspapers and watching the news. Readers, viewers and listeners naturally resent being lectured, talked down to and subjected to social engineering projects such as the renaming of cities and the arrogant imposition of a new hybrid language which the country didn’t vote for and only a minority supports.

It’s often said that the police operate with the consent of the public. The same is true, in a way, of the news media. And once public confidence has been lost, it can be very hard to win back. To quote an old Dutch saying, trust arrives on foot but leaves on horseback. In other words, it takes a long time to build but can quickly evaporate.

To use a different analogy, the current relationship between the media and the public is like an unhappy marriage that has irretrievably broken down and one spouse has walked away, leaving the other wondering what went wrong and trying to convince anyone who will listen that the fault was not theirs, when clearly it was. In this case it’s the public that has moved on, leaving the media to howl at the moon.


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.