In her weekly political column today, Dominion Post political editor Tracy Watkins refers to the propensity of some politicians for bawling out journalists. She mentions two: Michael Cullen and Winston Peters. But I suspect that most experienced reporters and editors, including those who have never worked in the press gallery, would be able to produce their own lists of public figures who are capable of rude, aggressive and intimidating behaviour toward journalists. Some make a deliberate practice of it.
I once had a friend who edited a provincial paper. He was a tough and seasoned operator, but a visit from the local mayor – a nasty bully of a man, accustomed to getting his own way – would leave him white-faced and trembling. The mayor didn’t like the way the paper reported council affairs, and reasoned that the same intimidating behaviour that cowed his council opponents into silence would also frighten the paper into seeing things his way. (Mayors, in my experience, can be some of the worst offenders, perhaps because they usually only have one or two local journalists to bring to heel – much easier than a stroppy and sometimes tribal press gallery – and because the protocols of acceptable behaviour are less clearly defined at local government level than in Parliament.)
There is a convention that these unpleasant encounters remain in-house – a sort of journalistic equivalent of the old rugby rule that what happens on the field stays on the field. Reporters and editors rarely write about the abuse they sometimes get from people holding public office. But I wonder whether this code of honour (if that’s what it is) is misguided.
The late Frank Haden used to refer to politicians as “my employees”. He was right in the sense that they are paid by, and accountable to, the public. While I wouldn’t go so far as the American journalist who famously said there was only way to look at politicians, and that was down, people in public office need to understand that they are the ones under public scrutiny; they are the ones who must account, in a democracy, for their statements and actions. They have got things completely arse about face, if you’ll pardon the expression, when they behave as if journalists – who are the public’s proxies, after all – are accountable to them rather than vice versa.
None of this absolves journalists of the duty to report fairly and accurately. But it does mean they are entitled to go about their work without being subjected to browbeating outbursts from politicians who are angry and frustrated because the media don’t always report things the way they would like.
Maybe it would discourage the bullies (not all of whom are male, incidentally) if journalists more often reported what goes on behind the scenes, so that voters could see their elected representatives as they really are. Just a thought.