As I fully expected, I came under attack yesterday from some of my fellow journalists over my criticism of Nicky Hager’s claim to be an investigative journalist.The usual suspects were represented among the comments posted on the Kiwi Journalists’ Association Facebook page. The sleazy socialist journalism academic Martin Hirst popped up like an unwelcome recurring pimple – the first time I’ve encountered his odious presence since he left the Auckland University of Technology journalism school several years ago to return to his native Australia.
According to Hirst, I’m a tired old 19th century opinion machine who hasn’t been a journalist for years. Hirst wouldn’t have a clue about the work I still do as a reporter (work unrelated to my opinion columns), but ignorance has never been any impediment to people like him.
A former Radio New Zealand journalist named Colin Feslier had a go at me too. Feslier’s name will be listed in the annals of New Zealand journalism for one reason only. As a PR flunky at the Department of Internal Affairs in 2009, he misled the media about Winston Peters’ failure to return a ministerial car after the election. And he made things worse by boasting in an email (wrongly, as it turned out) that he had managed to persuade TVNZ, TV3 and the Dominion Post to “terminate their interest in the story”.Sorry, but I’m not likely to regard Feslier as an authority on anything to do with journalism. He revealed his dismal lack of understanding when he suggested that by my own definition of “journalist”, I should have offered Hager a chance to respond to my comments about him. Apparently he fails to grasp the fundamental distinction between a piece of investigative journalism and an opinion column. Or perhaps he does get it, but it suits him to pretend not to.
Similarly, some commenters have challenged my statement that journalists don’t pursue causes. What about Phil Kitchin, Pat Booth and Donna Chisholm? they ask.They are either thick or dishonest. There is a world of difference between a journalist seeking justice for a woman alleging rape by police officers, or men wrongly convicted of crimes, and what Hager does. There was no underlying political motive in the admirable stories written by Booth, Kitchin and Chisholm. With Hager, on the other hand, it’s all about politics. He’s not interested in stories that don’t advance his political agenda. I’m sure I didn’t have to put the adjective “ideological” in the front of the word “causes” for most of my readers to understand that.
I understand several journalists had a whack at me on Twitter too, including one quite high-profile political reporter. They do us all a big favour by revealing their true feelings, although it can’t do much for their reputations as journalists.There’s something significant going on when supposedly impartial journalists, especially ones who cover politics, so freely display their biases. I share the concern expressed by Alastair Thompson in his recent radio interview about the line between politics and journalism becoming increasingly blurred (although it apparently didn’t occur to Alastair that he’s contributed to this himself).
How has this come about? To return to an old theme of mine, it has a lot to do with the teaching of journalism. Until the 1970s, journalists learned their trade on the job. If they got above themselves they were sharply pulled into line by crusty, hard-nosed old hacks (not necessarily male) who adhered strictly to traditional precepts about balance and objectivity.But we now have two generations of journalists who graduated from journalism schools where teaching is often highly politicised by people such as the aforementioned Hirst. Many of these tutors and lecturers have had minimal journalism experience; just enough to persuade slack, lazy institutions to give them a job. They were far stronger on leftist ideology than on journalistic practice.
Hardly surprising, then, that many trainee journalists are taught that their primary mission is to make life difficult for the institutions of power (an honourable journalistic function, but it doesn’t define what journalism is about). This naturally makes them sympathetic to left-wing crusaders, such as Hager, and hostile to those on the right, such as Cameron Slater (and me too, obviously). They deeply resent any voice that runs counter to the comfortable soft-left groupthink that dominates media discourse.It must be incredibly galling that the vast mass of ordinary people remain profoundly indifferent to their noisy chatter, as was demonstrated by the 2014 election result. Or were they simply too self-absorbed to get the message?