A recent Dominion Post column of mine headlined “Dinosaur versus Dominatrix” (reproduced on this site), about an on-air clash between Kim Hill and Don Brash, brought a couple of old-school broadcasting grandees out of the woodwork.
Ian Johnstone, a familiar face on TV screens from the 1960s till the 1990s, and Geoffrey Whitehead, a former BBC deputy political editor who became CEO of Radio New Zealand and now lives in retirement in Napier, both had a whack at me for criticising Hill’s hostile demolition job on Brash.
Both seemed to think that unleashing RNZ’s most aggressive interviewer against Brash, for the sin of criticising Morning Report’s Guyon Espiner over his use of the Maori language, was a perfectly legitimate thing for the state broadcaster to do.
I haven’t responded to either of my critics until now because more important things – family and holidays – have occupied my attention. But before I get on to Johnstone and Whitehead, there are a couple of points to be made about the furore that arose from Brash’s Facebook post about Espiner.
Was it a storm in a teacup, as the leftist comedian Jeremy Elwood (“leftist” and “comedian” are virtually synonymous these days) disingenuously wrote in a column? Yes, it was. But it was the Left that whipped up the storm, and it did so for a reason. It seized on Brash’s objection to the use of te reo on RNZ and turned it into a rallying point in the ongoing culture war between “progressives” and conservatives.
That’s the wider context in which the debate played out, and it explains the ferocity of the reaction against Brash. The aim was to make an example of him: to inflict such bruising punishment that opponents of the Left’s identity politics agenda would be fearful about the consequences of speaking out in future.
Kim Hill’s overtly hostile “interview” [sic] with Brash was part of this response, which brings me back to Johnstone and Whitehead. These two men clearly regard themselves as lofty guardians of the public broadcasting heritage and see it as their duty to correct those of us who, for reasons of ignorance, malice or political misguidedness, don’t properly appreciate it.
Johnstone wrote a piece in the Dominion Post in which he defended Hill's confrontation with Brash as “lively, challenging and entertaining”. It didn’t surprise me that he approved. Johnstone is a genteel old Leftie – too genteel by far to have attempted a Hill-style demolition job when he was still a broadcaster himself, but I’ve no doubt he would have quietly applauded. Brash’s neoliberalism would be anathema to him.
Johnstone adopted a patronising tone toward me, wagging a finger at me for my “comical hyperbole”. Here was the seasoned broadcasting veteran patiently explaining, for the benefit of the irksome johnny-come-lately (hell, I’ve been in the media for only 50 years – what would I know?), that what Hill did to Brash fell within the finest traditions of public broadcasting.
Strangely, he wrote of me: “I guess what he’d really like to say, but dare not, is that he thinks too many RNZ staff are ‘Left-leaning’.” I can’t imagine why Johnstone would think I dare not say that, seeing I’ve been saying it for years, but let me say it again, unequivocally. I not only think many RNZ staff are left-leaning; I know they are, because I know many of them personally and know their political views.
It’s virtually imprinted in the DNA of public broadcasting organisations that they lean to the left. One of the reasons people seek work with state broadcasting organisations is that they distrust capitalism and the profit motive, and regard state-owned media as pure and untainted. And since like attracts like, there evolves a self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing monoculture. That’s true of RNZ just as it is of the BBC, Australia’s ABC and National Public Radio in the United States (all of which I listen to).
This becomes a problem only if RNZ employees allow their political views to influence their work. Many of them don’t, and I respect them for it, but others make no attempt to disguise their political leanings. (I note that Finlay Macdonald, whose wife Carol Hirschfeld is RNZ’s head of content, recently used the RNZ website a to write a piece gleefully rubbing the National Party’s nose in the dirt over the election outcome. It doesn’t say much for RNZ’s, Hirschfeld’s or Macdonald’s ethics that this cosy nepotistic arrangement is permitted, but it certainly says something about the political ethos of what is supposed to be a neutral organisation.)
Back to Johnstone. He rebukes me for saying that RNZ no longer regards its job as being to serve all New Zealanders, and he asks rhetorically whether I hear its daily news reports from all over the country, as if these contradict my argument. Well yes, I do, but they don’t prove a thing. RNZ generally – generally – plays with a straight bat when it comes to news reportage, and I’ve praised it in the past for adhering to journalism values that have largely been abandoned by other news organisations. The country would be much the poorer without RNZ’s news bulletins. But news reports are just a small part of what RNZ does, and Johnstone can’t expect to get away with the trick of cherry-picking his evidence to suit his argument.
The political taint that permeates much of what RNZ does is found elsewhere – in current affairs and magazine-style interviews and discussion programmes, in the subjects and interviewees selected, in the slant of the questions asked and the stance (either sympathetic or hostile) of the presenter, and in so-called “debates” that are anything but, because only people with views that are deemed acceptable (and who all conveniently agree with each other) are invited to take part.
Even then the picture is far from uniform across all of RNZ, because some of its programmes (Nine to Noon, for instance, and Morning Report, at least most of the time) are generally even-handed. I have huge regard for Nine to Noon host Kathryn Ryan.
I would never subject RNZ to blanket condemnation, because it continues to do a lot of things very well and conscientiously. In a moment of cultural sensitivity, I once labelled it a national taonga. But to those like Johnstone who insist that RNZ caters for all New Zealanders, I can only ask why so many people I know – intelligent, informed people with a keen interest in politics, society and culture – have long since given up listening to it because they object to the relentless political and ideological spin. They ask me why I still bother, and I reply that I listen to RNZ because it it’s my right to listen to RNZ and to expect it to adhere to its charter. I’m a part-owner of it, after all, and my taxes help pay the salaries of its employees. Call me bloody-minded, call me naïve, but if more New Zealanders, rather than giving up and switching to NewstalkZB or Radio Live, listened to RNZ and insisted that it cater to a true cross-section of tastes and political views, as is their right, perhaps it would feel obliged to lift its game.
As it is, RNZ will of course continue to be defended by people like Johnstone and Whitehead. They have spent their lives in public broadcasting and regard RNZ’s pervasive soft-Left bias and uncritical embrace of "progressive" causes as the natural order of things.