Friday, September 5, 2008

God save us from those who would protect us

When a government ministry sponsors a public forum on the media at which one of the key speakers is the Race Relations Commissioner, a high-ranking public servant holding an office that I regard as a threat to media freedom, I get uneasy. My unease is compounded when I note that there’s not one media representative on the advertised panel of speakers; not one person to speak up for the importance of a free and independent press. How balanced is that going to be? It’s compounded further when I learn that the subjects for discussion include the Danish cartoons affair, North & South magazine’s controversial Asian Angst story and the Dominion Post’s coverage of the Clydesdale report on Pacific Island immigration, all of which gravely breached the tenets of political correctness. So when, last Tuesday, the Ministry of Social Development held such a forum, the subject of which was “Ethical reporting in a challenging news environment”, I made a point of being there. (My thanks, incidentally, to a contributor to Journz, an online journalism discussion group, who tipped off fellow members that the forum was happening.)

As it turned out, there was a media representative on the panel of speakers: me. I was a late ring-in, having been approached at short notice by the forum chairman, Whitireia Polytechnic journalism school head Jim Tucker. Jim told me he had invited people from the big media companies to take part but no one had accepted. Whether his last-minute approach to me had anything to with the fact that National Business Review media columnist David Cohen had written an item about the forum highlighting the conspicuous absence of media people, I couldn’t say. But certainly the panel would have been a journalist-free zone otherwise, unless you counted Jim himself. He is, after all, a veteran journalist and former editor of the Auckland Star, though some of us regard him with a degree of suspicion since he crossed over to academia, and suspect he has been at least partly captured by the political correctness that permeates the tertiary education sector.

I should add that there were one or two journalists in the audience as well, including David Cohen for a time and also Deborah Coddington, who wrote the much-pilloried Asian Angst article for North & South. I’m happy to admit I tipped Deborah off about the forum, thinking she was entitled to know about it and might have an interest in hearing what was said. Otherwise the auditorium seemed mainly occupied by people on the public payroll, many of them from the ministry.

So what happened? Well, the forum proceeded pretty much as you might have expected. The other speakers on the panel got up in turn and robustly denounced the way the media had covered the issues under examination. Two of them – Charles Mabbett of the Asia:NZ Foundation and Keith Ng, a blogger and columnist – directed their criticism mainly at North & South, which was predictable since both speakers were among the many who complained to the Press Council about the Asian Angst story, in which Coddington reported on the incidence of Asian crime in New Zealand. David Vaeafe of the Pacific Co-operation Foundation was naturally more concerned with the reporting of the Clydesdale paper, which cast Pacific Island immigration in a negative light. De Bres talked about his personal involvement in two of the issues, more of which shortly. As the nominal voice of the media, and having expressed some of my own views about the same issues, I was called on to defend, explain and justify the media’s handling of them.

A vociferous contributor to the discussion was Arlene Morgan, formerly a journalist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, now with the Columbia University Journalism School in New York. Morgan’s speciality is promoting ethnic diversity in newsrooms – a concept that has clearly found favour with New Zealand journalism educators, since this is the second time in a year that she has been invited here to promote her message (this time with assistance from the Asia:NZ Foundation). My first instinct was to be suspicious of Morgan, thinking that here was yet another finger-wagging outsider who knows what’s best for the New Zealand media, but I warmed to her as the morning went on. She seemed staunch on journalistic values such as free speech, though I have misgivings about where excessive enthusiasm for newsroom “diversity” might lead and how it might compromise important journalistic principles – but I won’t go into those here.

No one held back, but it was polite and everyone got a fair hearing, as one might expect of an event held under the auspices of Her Majesty’s Government. The media got a round ticking off for its supposed shortcomings in covering matters of racial or cultural sensitivity. (When Jim lamented that the major newspaper groups couldn’t be enticed to take part in such events, I suggested a possible reason was that editors and journalists were tired of being lectured and harangued by sanctimonious critics – and in any case, had more pressing business at hand, like getting a paper out.)

Some valid points were made, particularly in regard to the flawed Asian Angst story (the complaints about which were upheld by the Press Council). I squirmed at the brutal mauling Coddington got from people who were plainly unaware that she was present. She later stood up, identified herself and defended her story with commendable grace and dignity, and was given a fair hearing.

As best as I can recall (because I wasn’t speaking from notes), I made the point that while Coddington’s critics pounced on a fatal failing in her story relating to statistics, that didn’t mean the subject itself should have been considered off-limits. No one seemed to dispute that. My concern, as expressed in this blog, was that the outcry over the Asian Angst article might have frightened editors and journalists off such subjects altogether, when the real lesson is that anyone tackling a sensitive issue such as this has to take even greater care than normal to ensure the story is accurate and balanced.

On the Danish cartoons issue, which so exercised Joris de Bres, I said that as an editor I possibly wouldn’t have published them – but that the papers that did publish them (the Dom Post, the Press and the Nelson Mail, as I recall) were completely entitled to do so in a free and open democracy, and I deplored the pressure their editors were put under by critics from the prime minister down. I was pleased, and I admit slightly surprised, to see a few nodding heads in the room, and to get emphatic support on this point from Arlene Morgan. I also expressed my firm belief that in a liberal democracy, the right to freedom of expression is far more precious than the right of a minority – in this case the Muslim community – not to be offended.

On the Clydesdale report, I wondered where the problem was. Yes, it turned out that some of Dr Greg Clydesdale’s stats were dodgy, but there was nothing obvious to indicate to the Dom Post prior to the publication of his paper that he was anything other than a reputable academic, and indeed Massey University stood by him at the time (though it seems to have distanced itself from him now, which has slightly worrying implications for academic freedom). The main thing about the controversy over the Clydesdale paper, however, was that it demonstrated that a free and open society, if left to function properly, tends to be self-correcting. In the slew of publicity that followed the Dom Post’s first story, the true facts emerged and the whole issue of Pacific Island immigration – the good aspects along with the bad – got a far more thorough airing than otherwise would have happened.

Oddly enough that’s the way things usually work out in an open democracy. The same thing happened with the Exclusive Brethren’s covert funding of election advertising in 2005 – they were exposed, and in plenty of time for the voters to decide whether those who had benefited from their support should be punished at the ballot box. You wouldn’t guess this, of course, from the government’s extraordinarily heavy-handed response, which has left us with an obnoxiously undemocratic statute in the law books.

The greatest threat to the healthy process of disclosure and debate that followed the Clydesdale story is the belief that the state must protect us from harmful ideas because we’re not mature and intelligent enough to deal with them. Underlying this is a fundamental distrust of democracy. Which brings me back to Joris de Bres.

One of the points de Bres made following publication of the Clydesdale paper was that it encouraged the bigots who phone talkback shows. Well, hello. That’s called democracy, and these bigots were exercising their rights of free speech. I suggested at the forum that bigots are better out in the open, where we can all see them, than forced underground. But control-freak government can’t resist trying to assert control over unsavoury ideas, and I suspect that some apparatchiks in the more ideologically charged branches of the bureaucracy would like to put a halter around the unruly beast known as the media too. Nothing disturbs their sense of order more than ornery journalists and commentators freely disseminating information and opinion without regard for prevailing political morés.

De Bres’s behaviour as Race Relations Commissioner should be seen in this context. His urge to meddle in issues such as the Danish cartoons and Clydesdale issues, on the pretext that he is trying to create understanding and tolerance, is dangerous. It represents state intervention in an area where the state has no business. He has inserted himself needlessly, and patronisingly, into an area where people of intelligence, goodwill and sound judgment are quite capable of working things out for themselves, as they have done in the past. Now we have moved on to the point where government ministries are holding forums at which the press – an institution far more crucial to democracy than Commissioners of Race Relations – is subjected to a form of ex-parte trial with officials like de Bres in the role of prosecutor. And bugger me if journalism schools don’t seem to be playing along with it.

It shouldn’t be taken from this that I don’t believe editors and journalists should be held accountable for their actions. Of course they should. But there are ample accountability mechanisms in place already, ranging from the angry phone call from a reader to the Press Council and ultimately to the High Court. Governments have stayed clear of these accountability mechanisms, as they must do if we are to have a truly free and independent media; but that crucial principle is now under attack by stealth.

As I said earlier, the forum was a civilised and good-natured affair, as you’d expect in a civilised and good-natured country like New Zealand. There was no ranting and no abuse. Hands were shaken at the end. There was constructive and frank dialogue, as they like to say in diplomatic communiqués.

Jim Tucker and the pleasant woman from the ministry who organised the event seemed genuinely grateful for my participation. I don’t believe this had anything to do with the profundity of anything I said; it’s just that if I hadn’t been there, there would have been a roomful of people sitting around agreeing with each other. And as I remarked to a friend later, that would have been pretty damned boring. “And dangerous”, he added perceptively.


stephen said...

The reason Coddington's story was lambasted was not because the subject was off-limits - it was because she got it wrong.

I use this simile because I am Jewish: if you want to write a story about whether we use Christian babies' blood at Passover, that's not off-limits; but you'd better be right. As you yourself said, her statistical failing was fatal. A story like that requires proof as well as a premise.

Ford Nucleon said...

“I also expressed my firm belief that in a liberal democracy, the right to freedom of expression is far more precious than the right of a minority – in this case the Muslim community – not to be offended.”

I take your point here Karl, and agree with the principle. However, the media engages in dozens, if not hundreds, of acts of censorship each day to avoid offending people. Profanity – whether in direct speech or not – comments that are deemed by editors to be outside the bounds of acceptable debate, nudity and gruesome images of conflict and car accidents are carefully weeded out because of the inevitable outcry from (usually white and middle-class) readers that follows.

Country Bumpkin said...

This is seriously creepy stuff, Karl, and you've done a great service in raising it. At no time, ever, anywhere, should civil servants have the right to conduct seminars about "improving" the media — it is an activity that should be expressly forbidden to them.

With all its imperfections, and its for all its tendency to edit out the undesirable and the ugly and the politically incorrect and whatever, the press remain the Fourth Estate of the Realm and are not to be suppressed in their duty of keeping watch on those who govern us.

Be very aware too that for quite some time now, in places like the UN and the EU and others, there has been quite a lot of activity towards setting up monitoring regimes to "supervise" bloggers. they have gained no traction so far, but the forces of the ungodly are out there. They never sleep.

Craig Ranapia said...

“I also expressed my firm belief that in a liberal democracy, the right to freedom of expression is far more precious than the right of a minority – in this case the Muslim community – not to be offended.”

ITA, Karl, but there's a corollary: In a liberal democracy, the media and academe do not constitute a secular priesthood, whose pronouncements constitute inerrant holy writ.

Karl du Fresne said...

Not being sure what ITA means, I googled it. I came up with Intercollegiate Tennis Association, International Trade Administration, Industry Training Authority, Institute of Transactional Analysis and - this was my favourite - International Trombone Association.

Craig Ranapia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig Ranapia said...

"ITA" is an on-line acronym for "I totally agree" -- which I did with you as far as you went.

But despite Ms. Coddington's rather shrill assertions to the contrary, the problem with that 'Asian Angst' story wasn't that a brave truth-teller had the nerve to go for a politically correct sacred cow. But that she didn't do her homework properly, and whoever edited and fact-chacked her copy didn't catch it.

Tom Stoppard once wrote: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Nobody is entitled to their own facts." Surely, it is a basic responsibility of journalists and academics alike to be scrupulous in matters of fact, and when errors are made (and they inevitably will) to accept responsibility for promptly acknowledging and correcting them.

Sadly, it's becoming rather obvious that pretty basic numeracy and statistical literacy is no longer required of journalists. Which would be sad if there weren't plenty of politicians, lobbyists and special interest groups who are quite happy to exploit that to have their spin uncritically repeated.

And I find that a damn sight more of a cause for anxiety than the delicate sensibilities of Joris De Bres.