(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, November 15).
Something’s not right here. I’m watching a 1 News item about Prince Charles being implicated in an international tax dodge, and the reporter is TVNZ’s own Chris Chang.
The story originated in Britain but Chang would have recorded his voiceover in TVNZ’s Auckland newsroom. It will have replaced a voice track supplied with the original item by the BBC. But why?
Are we really expected to believe that a journalist sitting in New Zealand, with no specialist knowledge of Prince Charles or his dodgy investments, is in a better position to tell us what’s going on than someone close to the action?
Of course he isn’t. But this deception is routinely practised by our state-owned television network. Almost nightly, TVNZ takes overseas news items and gets its own journalists to record a voiceover.
It’s dishonest, because it pretends TVNZ’s own staff have done the hard yards when in fact they’re piggy-backing on the work of correspondents overseas.
You could argue that it’s harmless, but it’s dishonest all the same – and entirely unnecessary. So why does TVNZ do it?
I suspect that it’s all about promoting TVNZ’s own journalists as “names” – celebrities, you might say – whom we are encouraged to regard as our personal friends. It’s just one example of the many ways in which TV news bulletins have been cheapened by gimmickry and the cult of personality.
Even in the digital age, when consumers of news have a veritable smorgasbord of options, the 6 o’clock news remains crucial in locking viewers in for the evening. 1 News remains the most-watched free-to-air programme, and TVNZ constantly tweaks it to ensure it retains our loyalty.
The debasement process was set in train decades ago when someone decided it would be a good idea to have two people, rather than one, reading the news.
The tandem male-female newsreading team is now such an entrenched practice that we no longer think of it as peculiar. But reading the news requires only one person, as radio and most respected overseas TV networks demonstrate. Two is pure gimmickry.
Let me remind you how this strange practice came about. In the late 1970s the newly launched TV2, desperate to establish a point of difference against the bigger and better-resourced TV One, pioneered a dual newsreading team consisting of John Hawkesby and Tom Bradley.
Even Hawkesby and Bradley seemed to recognise that it was all a bit silly, jokingly referring to themselves privately as the Bobbsey Twins, after the characters in a popular series of American children’s stories. But nearly 40 years down the track, this contrivance has become a permanent fixture.
Now let’s move from the merely irritating to the ingratiating. TVNZ newsreaders and reporters have clearly been instructed to encourage us to think of them not as detached, competent professionals doing a serious, important job, but as our chums.
It’s the Friendly News with Simon and Wendy, with Dan the Smiling Weatherman providing the warm-up act. This sense of easy familiarity is reinforced by the way the newsreaders address reporters when they appear live. Jessica Mutch is “Jess”; sports host Andrew Saville is “Sav”, and so on. They’re our pals.
We see it too when a reporter such as Paul Hobbs, one of TVNZ’s most favoured journalists, appears on screen. He often gives the impression that he’s less concerned with providing an authoritative report than with establishing a smiley empathy with viewers.
This approach can be traced back 20 years or so, to when an American consultant was brought in to retrain TVNZ’s journalists and newsreaders. His message, which TVNZ management heartily endorsed, was that viewers had to become more emotionally engaged with the news. They had to feel it on a more personal level.
Brian Edwards memorably called it the coochie-coo news. Some TVNZ journalists couldn’t bear it and quit rather than undergo what they called “potty training”.
What else bugs me about 1 News? Well, there’s the nagging suspicion that some reporters are hired for their looks rather than their ability. It helps to be young and attractive. Appearance seems to be valued over experience.
Then there are the ridiculously brief sound bites from interviewees – sometimes just three or four words. Is TVNZ worried that our attention span can’t cope with a complete sentence, or is it a way of making the news seem fast-paced and dynamic?
There’s also the ridiculous emphasis on reporting “live” from the scene of a story, even when the event being reported took place hours earlier and the “live” report adds nothing. It’s made worse when the reporter is not up to the challenge of speaking live to the camera, as is often the case.
And don’t get me started about incorrect captions – indeed, often no captions at all, so that you’re left to guess the identity of the person on screen. Standard practice is not to identify the speaker the first time he or she appears. You have to wait for a second appearance before you learn who it is.
Again, why? Perhaps TVNZ thinks we’ll be so curious to discover who it is that we won’t be tempted to stray to a rival channel in the meantime. Who knows how the TVNZ corporate mind works?
My point is this: news is serious stuff. It deserves to be treated with respect, not gussied up with floss and tat better suited to a travelling circus.
In the 1920s, the BBC famously required its radio newsreaders to wear a dinner jacket, even though no one saw them. Over the top? Yes – but at least it showed that the BBC saw the reading of the day’s news as an occasion of some gravitas.
FOOTNOTE: Soon after my column appeared on the Manawatu Standard website, TVNZ supplied the following statement from Phil O'Sullivan, head of newsgathering. I reproduce it in the interests of fairness and balance.
"Mr du Fresne is perfectly entitled to his opinion on our news and we welcome his viewership but when he accuses 1 News of 'deception' and 'dishonesty', a response is called for.
"We frequently run international material from the BBC and the United States’ ABC network. When our Europe or US correspondents are not available, we will often pull together a story back here in New Zealand. Not all our affiliate material is suitable to run in New Zealand. The story may still be developing, it may be too long, too short or aimed too closely at an overseas domestic audience. Our aim is simply to tell a story that New Zealand viewers can relate to.
"Mr du Fresne is incorrect in stating as fact our reporter 'replaced a voice track supplied with the original item supplied by the BBC'. The reporter conducted his own research and reported the story using a range of affiliate material and sourcing. In no way did we deceive our audience and we believe they’d be smart enough to know if we did so.
"We agree 'news is serious stuff'. In the past year alone our team has reported from all over New Zealand and the world on stories as diverse as natural disasters to a general election. All of these stories have myriad challenges, not least keeping our staff safe while covering them.
"1 News is New Zealand’s most watched and most trusted TV news – we never take that position for granted."
I'm happy to accept Phil O'Sullivan's assurance that Chris Chang compiled the Prince Charles item, although I question the need to do so when the BBC could have been relied on to cover the matter thoroughly. I believe this reinforces my point about TVNZ wanting to put its own reporters forward. I have noted many occasions in recent months when TVNZ's own journalists have presented overseas news items for no obvious reason.
Incidentally, I notice that on the two nights since my column was published, 1 News appears to have changed its policy of not identifying people when they first appear on screen. Of course this could be entirely coincidental. Nonetheless it's welcome.