I have some sympathy for the public service union’s objection to TVNZ’s ban on political journalists belonging to parties. The ban strikes me as an over-reaction to an embarrassing failure that was partly of TVNZ’s own making. (I say “partly” because Shane Taurima’s underhand behaviour was obviously the primary contributing factor, despite his ludicrous claim to have been vindicated by the report of an independent panel.)Gavin Ellis, former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, argued on today’s Morning Report that journalists have to make a choice between reporting on politics and belonging to a political party. Some political journalists (I think Colin James is one) go even further to ensure purity. They don’t vote.
But with all due respect to such principled views, I struggle to accept that being a political journalist necessarily requires you to neuter yourself as a citizen.The crucial issue, surely, is how you do the job. Journalists should be judged on the fairness and impartiality of their reporting and commentary. It’s possible to be a party member and still be even-handed as a journalist.
I can think of relatively high-profile journalists who hold strong left-wing views in private but still manage to do their work with integrity, as the journalists’ code of ethics requires. There are also journalists and commentators (Paul Henry and John Campbell, for example) who quite openly lean one way or the other – but since their politics are no secret, viewers can decide for themselves how much weight to place on whatever they might say.These are not the people who worry me. The ones we should really be concerned about are the journalists who hold pronounced political views that are not declared, but which permeate their reportage. There are a lot of them about, probably more than ever before, and they will never be controlled by arbitrary rules – such as TVNZ is now imposing – about declarations of political interest.
If such people have no qualms about exercising bias in their work, they are not going to feel compelled to fess up to the boss. They are answerable only to their own conscience, which isn’t much help if they don’t possess one.