I have just belatedly caught up, thanks to TVNZ ondemand, with last week’s edition of Media 7, the media programme hosted by Russell Brown. It consisted of a gang-up against Dominion Post editor Tim Pankhurst over the Dom Post’s coverage of a paper by Massey University economist Dr Greg Clydesdale.
Clydesdale’s paper, prepared for an employment conference in Brazil, controversially posited that Pacific Island immigrants are a drain on the economy and an underclass. The Dom Post not only broke the story but later published an editorial climbing into Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres, who took it upon himself to initiate an investigation into Clydesdale’s paper on the basis that it had caused significant hurt to Pacific communities and “fuelled the venting of prejudice on the Internet and talkback radio”.
The Dom Post’s editorial noted that de Bres seemed irritated by the newspaper’s reporting of the issue and suggested, in essence, that he pull his head in. It pointed out that the Bill of Rights Act guaranteed freedom of expression and information, and that newspapers had a right to report academic critiques.
Pankhurst’s fellow panellists on Media 7 – Brown, TVNZ Pacific affairs correspondent Barbara Dreaver and Samoan-born writer and actor Oscar Kightley (nicely introduced as a “recovering journalist”) – didn’t seem impressed by these arguments. Dreaver criticised the Dom Post for not checking Clydesdale’s academic credibility. (Her own employer is, of course, noted for its tireless journalistic rigour). Kightley asked Pankhurst whether he had acted responsibly in publishing an inflammatory and damning attack on Pacific Island culture. Brown demanded to know why the paper had given Clydesdale front-page treatment.
Pankhurst’s perfectly reasonable answer to this last question was that when an academic sticks his head up and risks getting it kicked, it’s news. “We’re not going to decide it’s too contentious and we shouldn’t run it. If we did that, the news pages would be empty.” Quite so.
What worried me about this debate was that it was so obviously loaded. It was, as I said at the start of this piece, a gang-up. Pankhurst is perfectly capable of looking after himself, but three onto one – and on publicly funded TV – isn’t a good look.
The tone was set at the start with a replay of the National Party’s infamous 1975 election ads exploiting fears about Pacific immigration, though the relevance of something that happened 33 years ago wasn’t immediately clear. And though newspaper coverage of the Clydesdale paper was certainly a valid subject for a media programme, I don’t think Dreaver and Kightley were invited onto the show for their professional detachment and impartiality on the issue.
What it all seemed to come down to was that Brown, Dreaver and Kightley didn’t like what Clydesdale said in his paper, so didn’t think the Dom Post should have publicised it. Pankhurst, on the other hand, took the line that facilitating debate on touchy issues was part of the media’s role.
I know which position I support in a robust, open democracy. And it worries me that a professional journalist like Dreaver should argue, in effect, that a story should be suppressed. Her thrust was that Clydesdale’s paper didn’t deserve to be publicised because his credentials didn’t stack up, and that the Dom Post should have made inquiries before running the story. Well, perhaps in an ideal world an eager-beaver researcher would be assigned to assess the credibility of every academic paper submitted for publication, but that’s not how things work in the real world – including, I suspect, TVNZ.
The news media frequently publish what many might consider arrant nonsense by highly qualified academics; it’s a routine part of the news mix, and no one objects – that is, unless the subject matter happens to offend prevailing political sensitivities. I doubt that anyone would have tut-tutted at the failure to check Clydesdale’s history were it not for the crucial fact that he expressed a politically unfashionable view. In any case, a call to Massey University would have confirmed his legitimacy. (The university has publicly stood by him.)
Dreaver, incidentally, was responsible last year for one of the most embarrassingly bad pieces of news reporting I’ve seen on New Zealand television. I’m not sure I regard her as an arbiter of good journalism.
At one point on Media 7 Dreaver, whose mother is from Kiribati, made the comment that “He [Clydesdale] is telling us to stay home”. This to me illustrates the dangers that can arise when identity politics collides with journalistic imperatives. When a journalist identifies so personally with the issues she’s paid to report on, can she be relied on to report news relating to those issues with professional detachment and objectivity?
The current push among journalism academics for greater representation of minorities in newsrooms makes me slightly wary for exactly this reason. It could result in activist journalists whose primary role, as they see it, is to act as advocates for their minority group rather than to “report and interpret the news with scrupulous honesty by striving to disclose all essential facts and by not suppressing relevant, available facts or distorting by wrong or improper emphasis”, as the journalists’ code of ethics rather clumsily puts it.
But back to the Clydesdale paper. As last week rolled on, and government departments found obliging academics who were happy to furnish peer reviews faulting his research, it became clear that his paper was dodgy. By Saturday he was being clinically taken apart on National Radio by Kim Hill, whose questions he answered – or failed to answer – with an almost endearing lack of guile.
I would argue that this is exactly the way the media should work in a robust democracy. A controversial report is published, people challenge its findings, there is a vigorous public debate and eventually a consensus of sorts is reached. In this case the consensus was that Clydesdale’s report lacked academic weight and was suspect in its use of statistics.
Does this mean the Dom Post shouldn’t have publicised the paper in the first place? No. Better to have marginal views exposed in the public domain, where they can be challenged and disproved if wonky, than to stifle them for fear of upsetting someone. If that were to happen, marginal ideas that are good might be stifled along with those that are bad.
Freedom of speech means the right to upset people and the right to get things wrong. It also means the right to attack faulty scholarship, which is exactly what happened here. Ultimately it all comes out in the wash. I like John Milton’s ringing declaration back in 1644: “Let truth and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
Problem is, there’s always someone who wants to suppress unpalatable ideas under the guise of protecting the public – a fundamentally undemocratic notion, since it means they don’t think the public can be trusted to sensibly make up its own mind. A few centuries ago it was religious enforcers who silenced heretics; these days it’s the New Puritans of political correctness.
One last point about Media 7. I’ve only seen a couple of programmes so far but the potential is there. The content is topical, the format is sharp and Brown is capable of being a good presenter. It would be a shame if the programme blew all credibility by following a tedious ideological line – but then TVNZ must have thought of that when they chose Brown, an unabashed leftie and Labour cheerleader, to front it.