Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Gang-up on Media 7

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.

18 comments:

Russell Brown said...

Thanks for watching, Karl. You should perhaps have noted that we'd teed you up for the panel in case Tim Pankhurst hadn't been able to make it for personal reasons. But fortunately, he was able to join us, and I made a point of thanking him both on and off air for doing so.

But, as you have determined yourself, the paper was "dodgy". More specifically, it was dated, sloppy, unfinished and unpublished. The subsequent reviews strongly criiticised its analysis of data. Mr Clydesdale turned out to be be remarkably poorly equipped to defend his work. He was, indeed, taken to the cleaners by Kim Hill.

And Tim wasn't able to answer a simple question: what was it about this paper that merited coverage on the front page of his newspaper?

It is a reasonable question. Other media organisations, including the Dom Post's chief rival, decided that this study didn't stack up. I have no quarrel with Tim's right to prominently cover the study, but it's perfectly reasonable to ask him to account for the decision, much as it is to ask any editor about the publication of poor research. (And yes, I do actually expect journalists to take some basic steps to verify research before presenting it, especially when it arrives outside the conventional academic process, as this did.)

I also pulled up Oscar for not having fully read the study he was criticising, and pointed out to Barbara that she was getting the robust debate she wanted. It was a good programme.

But can I and anyone else appearing on the programme expect the degree of ad hominem attack contained in your blog post every time we say someting you don't like? That would be ironic.

Karl du Fresne said...

An ad hominem attack? I'm not sure. I simply meant to make the point that someone with political views as pronounced as Russell's is probably not the ideal person to be fronting a media programme, because it will be open to suspicion of bias. For the same reason I would be suspicious of any media programme that had me as its host.

M. Jansen said...

"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."

When I heard Pankhust say this I thought he showed some of the "lack of guile" you attribute to Clydesdale. Does anyone employed by any university qualify for the title of academic? Some lecturers in some subjects in some universities obviously lack academic rigour. Surely a newspaper should check this out before publishing such a hurtful article as that by the Dom Post?

I'm remember the dawn raids. I thought, oh no, here we go again, when I read the story. Even if his stats were true - and they weren't - it would be a scurrilous story. Pacific Islanders are our brothers and they deserve to come to NZ to live. We are a Pacific country.

In conclusion, if you are going to publish a front page story denigrating a race of people, you have to check out the facts first. Popping it on the front page to get a reaction and sell papers is downright immoral. You say that the media went through a healthy process of exposing this guy but not everyone watches Media 7 or listens to Kim Hill. There'll be a mass of red necks out there who think that Pacific Islanders are a "drain on our economy".

George said...

As others have noted, it is inflammatory. And likely to inflame racism. It's pretty easy to see that - and if Tim Pankhurst couldn't see that, he's more stupid than I think.

And if you're going to publish this, and publish it on the front page of your paper, you have a very strong responsibility to check the paper, seek comment from other academics, experts etc. to see that it's not complete rubbish.

I very nasty piece of work - that they decided to defend themselves rather than publishing a retraction shows a lot.

Michael's Travels said...

While the paper might be flawed, I don't get the sense that Clydesdale is a racist.Naive, politically innocent and unaware, but not racist.

I am worried at the way people like Dreaver have responded.

Freedom of academic expression is an essential element in a functioning democracy. You put the ideas and data out there, and they get debated and either supported or not. That's the process - it might be messy, it might upset some people's sensibilities, but tough - that's how it works. No one has the right not to be offended.

And to M Jansen, the idea that just because people come from a geographically close area makes them somehow "our brothers" doesn't hold any water for me at all.

Truth Seeker said...

The only question i would hope that any news editor asks themselves on any given day is: "Is this the most important news of the day?"

Too often the answer can only be no. But it is the news that will sell truckloads of newspapers.

At that point, all the high-falutin freedom-a-speech, robuss-demokrazy ackpedalling disappears down the plug-hole for me.

Bunga-bashing for profit, however titillating, should take a back seat to reporting the news people need and want to know.

What are National's policies? Who is defining them? Who knows what they are? Why is Bush negotiating an "alliance" with Iraq that MUST be completed by July 31st? What's the hurry? Bombing Iran in August? The are a million things I want to be reading about in the Dominion before get far enough down the list to put half-baked academic papers on the front page.

jafapete said...

It almost seems superfluous after the other comments, but...

The issue was not that the "report" (it's not, it's a conference paper) should have been suppressed, and I don't think that's what Dreaver was arguing. It's that the DomPost should have put something of so little substance on its front page.

Even on Media7 Pankhurst was trying to talk up the paper; he promoted Clydesdale from Lecturer to "senior researcher". There is a difference, as Pankhurst ought to know.

I've done a little research on the Conference in Brazil too. It looks a shonky affair.

What affronts me the most about Clydesdale is that whereas academics have the privilege of leading public debates on social, moral, economic and other issues, that comes with the duty to contribute the highest quality data and analysis — and he has made a mockery of that. Clydesdale is letting the side down and doing academe a grave disservice with his drive for self-promotion.

As for expecting panelists to show their professional detachment and impartiality on the issue at hand, it's been eons since we had that sort of television in NZ. Where have you been these last twenty odd years? The best we can expect these days is for some useful treatment of importnat issues, and Media7 excelled in those terms.

Buster said...

Karl has hit the Russell Brown nail on the head.
Brown is too inflexibly left wing and PC to be a suitable host and moderator for a debate such as that on the Massey paper on Pacific Islanders. Like Dim Hill, and the other scions of Radio NZ and TVNZ, Brown is far too predictable in his views to be interesting.

As for Dreaver: she comes across as excited to the point almost of breathlessness, shallow, and as du Fresne points out, an activist advocate on behalf of whatever Pacific Islands issue she is covering rather than as an independent, balanced journalist. If a palangi journalist covered Pacific affairs in such an unbalanced way, but in favour of white NZ, he or she wouldn't survive a week on state TV. TVNZ is chauvinistic and condescending by allowing a second, lower standard for a minority reporter.

Oscar can often be humorous, but he should be ashamed of debating this issue without having read the paper. Oscar also has created a persona as a Pacific Islander and ethnic comedian, rather than as a serious journalist or political commentator.

FreeView will never match Sky with crap like this.

M. Jansen said...

What other programmes on the media in NZ exist on Sky or TVNZ or anywhere? There's Media watch on Radio NZ ...

I thought Barbara Dreaver was remarkably restrained. She defended the newspaper's right to print the first story. The Massey paper was obviously written by a shoddy academic with an axe to grind. (So it WAS racist - Clydesdale does not like a racial mix as he indicated on the Kim Hill show.)

What about the typos, spelling mistakes and syntax errors that abounded in Clydesdale's writing? They were evident from the very start when Dreaver and co looked at it. She had every reason to be flabbergasted that the newspaper put it on the front page - with token denials but no background to the writer himself. Someone who doesn't know the difference between their and there doesn't deserve to have his research foregrounded like this! (Or who doesn't have the sense to employ a proof-reader.)

unaha-closp said...

In related news the Canadians are currently deciding what degree of speech suppression is legally required to protect the sensibilities of identity groups. They are probably going to ban Mark Steyn from publication.

http://steynian.wordpress.com/

Russell Brown said...

Freedom of academic expression is an essential element in a functioning democracy. You put the ideas and data out there, and they get debated and either supported or not. That's the process ...

That is assuredly not the process.

The process would have been to first finish the paper, update its statistics from the 2002 numbers it presently contains (PI unemployment has halved in Auckland since 2002, iirc, so the different is not trivial) and then submit it for conventional peer review, hoping it passes and improving it if it doesn't. And then publish the paper in a reputable journal, and preferably online, so that anyone can read what it actually says.

Clydesdale did none of these things. He sent out a press release touting an old and unfinished paper, presumably because he thought it would fit that week's news agenda and get him some attention. This is the man who told Radio NZ's reporter he wouldn't grant an interview unless it included a plug for his music CD. Really.

If you're to absolve the Dom Post for making front-page news out of such work, then you should presumably do so if and when, say, it gives front-page treatment to a pseudoscientific "study" of flouride, or one that proves the Earth is only 10,000 years old, examples of both being readily available. That's what you're arguing for.

Russell Brown said...

In related news the Canadians are currently deciding what degree of speech suppression is legally required to protect the sensibilities of identity groups. They are probably going to ban Mark Steyn from publication.

Hardly. Steyn has publicly said he wants to lose the Tribunal case -- what could be better for sales of the book from which the excerpt in question was taken?

No one sensible would buy the book. Steyn is a creep and a pretender who wouldn't know a fact if it bit him on the bum. His claims about European demography been demolished by people who actually know what they're talking about. (Steyn, a former entertainment reviewer, has no skills at all in the area.)

The law under which the Tribunal is constituted is silly, and the complaint is extremely ill-advised. But the complaints aren't seeking to "ban" Steyn, although he's happy for people to think that. They are seeking a rebutall of equal length in Maclean's, the magazine in which his orignal screed appeared. They should have accepted the fact that 27 letters to the editor were published and left it at that.

Bearhunter said...

I've often wondered how Steyn attained the status of right-wing master of all knowledge a mere few years after being the London Evening Standard's telly reviewer. And to a lesser degree how Richard Littlejohn became the spokesman for "middle England" on the strength of a telly column in the Sun. Maybe I should have been a TV reviewer....

unaha-closp said...

The Canadians are trying to ban Steyn. The complaint is not about his quality of argument or lack of factual reference, it is about "hate crime". If the complaint is upheld the work is considered a likely cause of hate. Such works are illegal in Canada and the court will have no choice but to ban it.

What Russell is refering to the original demand by the CIC group that MacLeans publish rebuttal or they would try to get them prosecuted through the HRC. They did not get what they wanted so they followed through with the threat and made an official complaint.

Michael's Travels said...

Actually Russell, it is part of the process.

I've read the paper, and I have to say I don't think it's very good.

Whatever data you base your paper on, you then put it out there, and it either floats or sinks, and this one appears to be (justifiably I'd say) sinking.That's the role of peer review and public debate.

But you must agree surely that academic freedom of expression is essential - and part of this process involves the debate around the ideas and data contained in papers. Not all papers are great. And some that are rubbish (e.g. the Sokal hoax) get published by reputable journals.

But does Clydesdale have the right to try and publish, to put this out? Even if it upsets some people?

Yes he does, definitely. And he must also take the consequences of it.

On a tangent, I'd love to know if it's true that Shane Jones said he'd "have a talk with his mate Maharey, the VC of Massey" about this sort of work, because for me that is a far more worrying prospect.

ani nil carborundum said...

It was a very poor editorial decision to run the orginal story front page.
The story was simply a beat up of a press release by the author, who seemed moved to suddenly promote an incomplete and out of date study.
I would think any professional journalist in the current century would recognise the importance of checking the credibility before publishing any such attack on an immigrant group.

David Cohen said...

An ad hominem attack? I'm not sure. I simply meant to make the point that someone with political views as pronounced as Russell's is probably not the ideal person to be fronting a media programme, because it will be open to suspicion of bias.

Depends which way you look at it. Me, I think it's a refreshing difference when a presenter's views are already relatively well known.

Usually--and I think this is generally the case with Brown, as much so as it used to be with Lindsay Perigo--professionals in this situation will be all the keener to play devil's advocate in the interests of warding off accusations of obvious bias.

And haven't we got past this quasi-mystical assumption here in New Zealand (unlike Australia, Britain and the US) where viewers, listeners and readers supposedly can't handle the information of where an interviewer probably stands on the political spectrum? This is ridiculous. Think of Malcolm Muggeridge, the best BBC interviewer of last century, whose religious and political views were incredibly well known: Did that harm Muggeridge's reputation as a broadcaster par excellence? I think not.

Karl du Fresne said...

I imagine everyone has moved on from this now. But for what it’s worth, a few observations on the comments above.

First point. Some people question the newsworthiness of the Clydesdale story. Nothing new here. Everyone has his or her own idea of what’s most newsworthy on any given day and no newspaper will ever satisfy them all. Everyone second-guesses the poor mugs on the news desk, who have to ask themselves each day not only what they think is the most important news of the day but also what’s most likely to sell papers – something none of their critics have to worry about. And before anyone gets too excited, this doesn’t mean that newspapers will run any old crap on the front page just to sell papers – not in New Zealand, anyway. It simply reflects the reality that the first duty of a paper is to be read. A paper that goes out of business because it doesn’t publish things that interest people and get people talking serves no one.

Second point. Despite a lot of plausible-sounding arguments here, or perhaps because of them, I’m more certain than ever that the reason some people believe Clydesdale’s paper shouldn’t have been publicised is simply that they didn’t like what he said. (I didn’t care for it much myself, incidentally.) His credibility should have been checked more rigorously, they say. But let’s apply that argument to a different issue: climate change. Global warming sceptics, some of them of unimpeachable scientific standing, vigorously dispute the credibility of much of what is said about global warming. Does that mean that newspapers, which don’t have the means to judge who is right, should leave the issue alone? I’d be very surprised if those who have posted the critical comments above would argue that because the science behind claims of global warming is disputed, they should be suppressed. Or am I missing something here?

Third point. Russell shows a surprising new-found sensitivity to ad hominem attacks, but I note that in the same thread he calls Mark Steyn a creep and a pretender – and I’ve seen far worse personal attacks on Russell’s blog.

Fourth and last. David raises an interesting point about whether having strong personal views should disqualify someone like Russell from fronting a programme like Media 7. I think his argument has some merit. There’s something to be said for a presenter or journalist making his or her political beliefs known – as John Campbell has done on certain issues, or for that matter RNZ political editor Brent Edwards (a union stalwart). By coming clean, as it were, they invite us to judge whether they are still capable of doing their job fairly and impartially. Arguably that’s a much more honest approach than having someone in an influential position with strong political views that are not disclosed. But the acid test, surely, is whether such people are able to set aside their own beliefs in the interests of fairness and balance – and I can’t be sure, on the basis of the Clydesdale programme (although I stress that I’ve only seen that and one other Media 7 programme) that Russell is capable of it. I certainly didn’t see any devil’s advocacy from him.