Saturday, January 10, 2009

Journalistic deceit from TVNZ

The first time I heard it, I couldn’t quite believe my ears.

There was TVNZ’s Europe correspondent Mark Crysell reporting on the 6 o’clock news from the Israeli town of Sderot, near the border with Gaza. Journalists congregate in this town because Israel won’t allow them into Gaza and I presume it’s the closest they can get to the Israeli bombardment.

Crysell, looking every inch the foreign correspondent in his flak jacket, talked about hearing Israeli bombs exploding. He may have mentioned taking shelter from Hamas rockets, which are occasionally fired at Sderot. Then he said something like: “Here’s my report”.

What followed was a report from inside Gaza, showing the usual scenes: wrecked buildings, grieving Palestinians, bloody hospital wards. Sure enough, it was Crysell’s voice we were hearing over the news footage; but “my” report? How could it be Crysell’s report when he was on the Israeli side of the border, well away from the carnage?

Surely even TVNZ wouldn’t stoop to anything so blatantly dishonest as dubbing its own correspondent’s voice over footage compiled by someone else (I suspect the BBC, which has people inside Gaza) and then claiming it as Crysell’s own?

Not willing to trust my ears, I went to the TVNZ website and tried to replay the bulletin, but was thwarted. All I could get was National Bank commercials.

Two nights later, however – on Friday night – I was watching One News again, and again they crossed to Crysell in Sderot. Same scenario: the foreign correspondent in his flak jacket, nodding as he waited for the link to come through and then telling us once more how he could hear the constant noise of explosions. (Well, fancy that. Why doesn’t TVNZ just replay the same footage every night if this is all he can report?)

And then he said it again: “This is my report” (the italics are mine). What followed was more footage from within Gaza, similar to that which I had seen two nights earlier. It included several interviews in which the interviewee was not seen – but it couldn’t have been Crysell, because the interviews were from inside Gaza and Crysell was outside. This, however, didn’t stop Crysell dubbing his own voiceover and claiming it as his own report.

The only interview clearly conducted by Crysell himself was with a New Zealand Jewish man living in Israel, in what appeared to be peaceful surroundings, who talked about his reaction to the attacks on Gaza. Not exactly gritty frontline stuff.

The journalistic deceit here is breathtaking. Only weeks ago, Radio New Zealand’s Noelle McCarthy was deservedly pilloried for plagiarising bits and pieces of British newspaper opinion pieces in her own commentaries on Afternoons. Now we have one of the state-owned TV network’s most senior journalists presenting other people’s work as his own, with the apparent endorsement of his employer, and as far as I’m aware not a voice has been raised in protest.

Plagiarism in any shape or form is reprehensible, but I know which of these two examples I find more objectionable.

The most generous interpretation I can manage is that Crysell compiled the reports from material obtained from other sources, but that doesn’t make them his reports. “My” report, in this context, would suggest to most viewers that he was the man on the ground, gathering the information himself, when that was clearly not the case.

This tawdry situation has come about because TVNZ likes to present itself as a serious news organisation of international standing that can foot it with the big boys, flying its own correspondent to the scene of the latest international flare-up. But who does it think it’s kidding?

Crysell can’t get into Gaza, so is reduced to presenting variations on the same report every night, telling us how he can hear fighters and choppers flying overhead and bombs going off several kilometres away.

If this were as far as it went, it would simply be a laughable but harmless example of TVNZ slavishly adhering to the silly convention that its viewers gain some special insight by having “their” own reporter on the scene, even if he has nothing to report that can’t be covered more authoritatively by other news organisations whose services TVNZ has access to. But in its desperation to convince us that it’s right up with major players like the BBC and CNN, TVNZ has resorted to the pretence that its man is in the thick of things when clearly he isn’t. That’s a disgrace.

For his part, Crysell on his blog seems eager to present himself as the intrepid foreign correspondent, dodging Hamas missiles and racing to his hotel’s “safe room” in the middle of the night. In fact he’s probably no more at risk of physical harm than a TV cameraman on the sideline at an All Black test match.

So another step has been taken in the steady debasement of television journalism, and intelligent viewers have one more reason to wonder whether they can trust their own eyes and ears. This comes only months after TV3’s John Campbell, a broadcaster whom I generally admire, was rightly censured for conducting a fake interview with an actor purporting to be one of the Waiouru war medal thieves.

Television news and current affairs has almost compromised itself to a standstill through gimmickry, artifice and prestidigitation of one form and another. It started with the absurdity of having tandem news presenters, a practice now so embedded that no one questions it any more, and proceeded with the deliberate dumbing-down of bulletins under the guise of giving them more emotional impact. (Brian Edwards memorably described the indoctrination of TVNZ journalists in the new style of reporting as “potty training”.)

Practices that once provoked condemnation, such as reporters in Wellington newsrooms dubbing their own voices over stories from overseas, are now routine. And no one has ever, to my knowledge, seriously questioned the ethical implications that arise from commercial sponsorship of news and current affairs programmes or, in TV3’s case, the extraordinary situation whereby representatives of a sharebroking firm present the nightly financial and stock exchange news.

One final point on the chutzpah (perhaps an appropriate word in this context) of Crysell presenting the news from Gaza as his own. What does it say about TVNZ’s opinion of its viewers that it thinks it can get away with it? Or are viewers so brain-dead (to use former newsreader Lindsay Perigo’s description of TV news several years ago) that anything is now possible?


johnno said...

It is his report in as much as it's his script in the track, his analysis during the live, and his butt on the line. He decides what vision goes into his story from all that is available, what he leaves out, what sources are used, where each component of the story goes.

Every day stories go to air and print in NZ where the reporter has never actually stepped outside the newsroom. For example, a story can have vision and interviews from all around the country, and overseas, and it will all have been shot remotely by freelancers. My favourite examples are those most often seen on TV3 where something has happened in Hastings, for example, and the 3 stringer has shot and interviewed every bit of the story in Hastings, except the reporters piece to camera, which has been shot on a long lens in some anonymous part of Wellington.

For years now, American and European television journalists have not ventured outside their fortified headquarters in Baghdad. Instead they rely on brave Iraqi photojournalists to do the dangerous stuff, while they front the pictures from the rooftop of the Palestine Hotel. I'm yet to see anyone from Fox or the BBC say that the story was shot by freelancers.

I must say, that if Crysell's journalism is the thing about the current events in Gaza that offends you the most, then you have pretty warped take on things.

Max Ritchie said...

This is a comment about journalism & TVNZ, not a definitive opinion piece about Gaza. Karl has got it right - it is smoke & mirrors to pretend that this is Crysell's report. Why not attribute it appropriately? That's the convention. But is the source the BBC or is it from elsewhere? The viewer is entitled to know. And Karl has previously blogged on the Gaza issue; johnno should do his homework.

Anonymous said...

My biggest concern is not the fact that he claimed it as his own, but who actually shot it? How accurate is it? Who are these freelance photographers, and whose side do they tend towards? Probably the Palestinian side, considering they likely live in Gaza.

There are already rumours of staged news photographs coming out of Gaza. If the foreign reporters are just letting local lackeys shoot the stories and believe whatever they send them, then Hamas can easily control everything that comes out of Gaza, ensuring that the "news" is really pro-Hamas propaganda - as much of it certainly seems to be at the moment.

Dishonest, possibly. Inaccurate - almost certainly. And it is from these potentially biased or even faked (how are we to know?) news reports that Westerners form their views, and these reports that make them protest outside embassies.

Michael Wynd said...

I sincerely doubt that his "butt is on the line" either from physical harm or from the News Bosses. Apart from the arrogance and deceit used to present his "stories", is the very questionable use of video from within Gaza. CNN has already been caught broadcasting staged incidents and I wonder what control (if any) is placed on the footage used?

Craig Ranapia said...


Not seeing your point here. Karl has been a senior editor on newspapers that routinely used material from wire services and features from other newspapers that have been edited for any number of reasons -- for length, to conform to house style, etc. But not with a local reporter's by-line slapped on it and sans proper attribution.