Saturday, March 26, 2011

Journalism as blood sport

It has been interesting, if not entirely edifying, to observe the way the Darren Hughes story has unfolded. It has followed a now familiar and generally predictable trajectory.

It started with a mere sniff of a story in which an unnamed MP was at the centre of a police investigation, then gathered momentum with striking speed – as is now the pattern – as the facts tumbled out.

Few things move faster or more mercilessly than the parliamentary press gallery when it has the scent of blood in its nostrils. In quick succession we learned the identity of the politician involved (Hughes had little option but to out himself, since the controversy threatened to cast suspicion on his colleagues) and that there was a homosexual element – an irresistible frisson to anyone old enough to recall that homosexual smears derailed the careers of high-profile Labour MPs Colin Moyle and Gerald O’Brien in the 1970s.

In short order the controversy engulfed both Phil Goff and his deputy Annette King, in whose house the alleged unspecified incident with the unnamed 18-year-old complainant took place. Under intense media pressure, and no doubt sensing a spreading taint, Goff shifted from being strongly supportive of Hughes to a more distanced position.

As the crisis escalated, Hughes (who has insisted throughout that he did nothing wrong) went from merely being placed on leave – the standard first step in damage control – to losing his roles as chief whip and education spokesman and then resigning altogether. All this in less than three days, and largely in response to relentless media pressure.

In the meantime, significantly, the focus shifted from the MP at the centre of the affair to his leader. Suddenly it was Goff’s behaviour, rather than that of Hughes, that was under scrutiny. Why had he not taken the initiative when he first learned of the police investigation two weeks previously? (A fair question: he might have been in a better position to control the story, and he wouldn’t have had to answer awkward questions about the inconsistency between keeping quiet about Hughes when he had attacked John Key in 2009 for not being more forthcoming about his errant former cabinet minister Richard Worth.)

The speed with which such stories develop is a feature of the modern media. There was a time when, if the facts emerged at all, they would have been prised out over a period of days or even weeks. Now they can assume tsunami force within hours. The first hint of the Hughes controversy emerged on Wednesday morning and by Friday he was toast. Phew; it fair takes your breath away.

Watching it unfold, I was reminded of Tony Blair’s comments in 2007 about the pressure placed on politicians by the relentless 24/7 pace of media coverage and the need for "impact" in news bulletins. Events developed at outstanding speed, Blair said. "Make a mistake and you frequently transfer from drama to crisis. Things harden within minutes.” If Goff didn’t fully understand that before this week, he certainly will now.

The question now is whether Labour’s panic-stricken attempts to contain the damage will be enough to ensure Goff’s survival – which brings us to another phenomenon of contemporary political coverage.

Media scrutiny of Goff’s behaviour has gone beyond simply informing the public. It rapidly progressed to the point where journalists seemed intent on undermining him. Breathless reports that Goff's leadership was on the line seemed to lack any solid corroboration, which led me to suspect that it was journalists, rather than disaffected Labour MPs, who were greasing the skids under him. Anything to drive the drama on and keep the story at the top of the bulletins.

There is a fine line between reporting events and driving them. I get the uneasy feeling that some of the more aggressive political journalists, such as TV3’s Duncan Garner and Patrick Gower, will stay on the case until they have a scalp to hang on their belts (or better still, two scalps; why stop at Hughes when Goff presented an even more tantalising target?). At times like this, political journalism starts to resemble a blood sport. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, Garner and Gower are the hyenas with their teeth clamped in the wounded gnu's buttocks.

Is this the legitimate role of the media? Traditionally, journalists have been content to report the news then step back and allow events to take their natural course. But increasingly, they see themselves as central players in the political process rather than as mere passive observers. As I wrote in a column a couple of years ago, journalists have become choreographers of the political ballet, using their power and influence to shape and drive events.

I don’t care one way or another whether Goff remains leader of the Labour Party, but I don’t think it’s for journalists to decide. Their job is to brings facts out into the open and leave it to others – in this case the Labour caucus – to determine what, if anything, should be done next. But the media wield such power that when journalists latch onto a vulnerable politician as they have done with Goff, undermining him by questioning whether he’s up to the job, it has a habit of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I don’t believe that’s the function of the media in a democracy. Bringing down a government is sometimes cited as the ultimate journalistic coup, but I think that’s a distortion of the journalist’s role. We should remember that when Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate affair, which is often cited as the high-water mark of journalism in the 20th century, they didn’t set out to bring down Richard Nixon. Their revelations weren’t accompanied by strident denunciations. Their job was simply to report what had happened and let events take their course, which is exactly as it should be.


Anonymous said...

the 'errant' former cabinet minister you referred to was Richard Worth, not 'Richard North'

Karl du Fresne said...

The error has been corrected and the proofreader has been fired.

Treetop said...

Karl Do you know why the full police evidence into Colin Moyle has not been released?

Do you think this should be released?

Do you think that the police are hiding from the public in part how they conducted their handling of the Moyle scandal?

Do you trust the police to investigate the 18 year olds complaint regarding Darren Hughes and to be impartial toward Labour?

Do you trust the police to carry out the complaint of the 18 year old in a manner which is not going to do irreparable harm to the 18 year old?

Karl du Fresne said...

Too many questions there, most of which I don't feel competent to answer.

Treetop said...

Fair enough, in particular the first three questions pertain to over three decades ago and the last two questions depend on the confidence the public have in the police when it comes to their investigative processes and best practise.

Good article.

The probligo said...

... and in the midst of all of the bloodsport, the rights of an individual to presumption of innocence go out the window. Any chance of a "fair" trial after being found guilty in the court of public opinion presided over by rampant journalists? You are joking!!

Much as the blubberman might rail at the misuse of suppression orders, there are times when the quiet and methodical investigation of crime is required.

Having said that, what is Hughes accused of? Rape? Or just propositioning? The former is a crime, the latter (to the best of my knowledge) is not.

And what on earth did the 18y-o think might close his evening out? Tiddliwinks and a brandy nightcap?