Monday, January 15, 2018

If RNZ caters to all New Zealanders, why have so many given up on it?

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.

One last point. In his letter, Whitehead pompously suggested I didn’t understand the role of the public broadcaster. In fact I not only understand it perfectly well, but I believe in public broadcasting and have said so many times. Where I differ with Johnstone and Whitehead is in my interpretation of its role. It is not the function of the public broadcaster to act as an agent of social and political change or to promote ideological views that some of its presenters and producers think would benefit us all. In fact I would say that ultimately, the greatest threat to public broadcasting may come from those within who abuse its power and therefore undermine its standing and credibility.


Barry said...

Hello Karl

I think that taxpayers should no longer be forced to fund NZ On Air. People can then fund it voluntarily or it can fund itself or it can disappear. I have listened to RNZ National and RNZ Concert for decades but that's what I now think about RNZ's present state and NZ On Air's present state.

hughvane said...

Don Brash must have had a severe, some might say catastrophic, brain fade or explosion when he agreed to be interviewed by Kim Hill. Almost without fail she and her producer have a carefully prepared agenda of vicious, sneering demolition of anybody who holds and promotes a philosophy or practice that is different from theirs. I do not understand how either of them keep their jobs, quite frankly, but Ms Hill is banned from my home, has been for decades.

Trev1 said...

I can't bear to listen to RNZ. The monotonous smug virtue-signalling is a shocker. And we are expected to pay for this?

granddad said...

I'm also one of those who have given up on RNZ for the reasons you noted

hilary531 said...

Whereas I am still listening, much like you Karl. Occasionally smug assumptions annoy me mildly & I realise now it's because as I age I'm leaning politically more to the right now. I still enjoy Kim Hill. I agree with your piece and like you I notice the bias more than I used...or their slant is less concealed now, perhaps both. But I can't stomach commercial radio at all and so I'm hanging in there with RNZ.

Phil said...

I really enjoy reading your opinion Karl, as it is totally the opposite of my own. I ask myself, why is this? Do you ever consider a counter point of view could be correct?

Phil said...

"If RNZ caters to all New Zealanders, why have so many given up on it?"
I read the article because of the headline, which was totally misleading. Where is the evidence of "so many giving up" ?

Karl du Fresne said...

I would have thought it was clear from my column that I was referring to people known to me personally - people one might expect to listen to a serious, non-commercial broadcaster, but who have given up.

Karl du Fresne said...

In response to your earlier comment: yes, of course I consider other views, and I often acknowledge opposing arguments. I've never pretended to be omniscient. If I’ve learned anything from 50 years in journalism, it’s that there are almost invariably two sides to a story. But newspaper columns and blogs like this one are about the expression of an opinion. They don’t purport to carefully weigh up competing arguments, and they would probably be pretty tedious if they did. And something else I’ve learned from decades of writing columns is that when I do acknowledge the legitimacy of opinions other than my own, few of my critics seem to notice and still fewer give me any credit for it. Most people seem more comfortable in a binary universe where they can conveniently categorise you as either 100% wrong in your views or 100% right.

Unknown said...

Just listened to the Brash/Hill piece again. Couldn't disagree more. There was nothing 'vicious' about it. Hill out thought and out maneuvered Brash, simple. Her checkmate was 'you are advocating separatism', which of course he is. Brash had just never thought his own position through to its logical conclusion. RNZ is the national broadcaster and te reo Maori is one of our three official languages. It has equal status with English. Hence, RNZ presenters have the manners and good grace to acknowledge the existence and status of te reo with a few greetings and farewells. What is the problem with that?
Brash's call for Maori to be fenced off from 'mainstream NZ' (whatever that is) is a call for apartheid, pure and simple. Should our national broadcaster be advocating or practicing apartheid?
Brash was given a platform and had his chance - one on one - to make his case. He failed and was made to look a fool. Not by a 'dominatrix' (sigh) but by a better mind and a better argument. IMHO etc.


Karl du Fresne said...

Three brief points.
1. Brash was entitled to a courteous hearing. He didn't get one. Hill was aggressive from the outset. She was intent on using her command of the medium to demolish him.
2. Brash has never advocated separatism, and I don't know how anyone could infer that from what he has said. The very name of the group he founded, Hobson's Pledge, points to his belief that we should all be treated equally.
3. Personally, I don't have a problem with a bit of te reo on radio, though Guyon Espiner's rapid-fire delivery can be irritating and I can't avoid the feeling that he's showing off. But Brash is perfectly entitled, as a taxpayer who helps to fund RNZ, to question the practice without being pilloried by RNZ's resident attack dog. And I draw the line at RNZ journalists using Maori place names in preference to the commonly used English ones. I'm up for a debate about whether New Zealand should be renamed Aotearoa, for example, but it's a decision for the country to make - not a change for elitist broadcasters to introduce by stealth.
On second thoughts, make that four brief points.
4. Who don't you identify yourself? If a view's worth expressing, it's surely worth putting your name to.