Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mediawatch fails the squeaky clean test

A quiet Sunday breakfast was interrupted by something on the wireless that was so startling I nearly choked on my Blackball pork sausage. Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch took a passing swipe at another RNZ programme, Checkpoint.

Okay, it was so fleeting they probably hoped no one would notice. But the mere fact of Mediawatch criticising its host broadcaster at all was such a novelty that I daresay many other listeners, like me, were momentarily dumbstruck. (The criticism, incidentally, was for Checkpoint’s failure to disclose that a broadcast interview with Cadbury’s chief executive about redundancies was supplied by a PR firm acting for the company, though Mediawatch seemed to find this less objectionable than TVNZ doing much the same thing.)

The state broadcaster’s media watchdog is always ready to impute villainous motives to the privately owned media, but after years of listening to Mediawatch almost every week I can’t recall one item in which it subjected Radio New Zealand to the same degree of critical scrutiny that it applies to other media organisations. I’m almost at the point of wondering whether the renewal of presenter Colin Peacock’s contract is conditional on RNZ remaining off-limits.

RNZ’s apparent immunity from criticism isn’t the only factor that makes me wonder about the programme’s probity. Setting aside its irritating inconsistency – the fact that it sometimes carries eye-glazingly tedious items about matters of little interest, even to media professionals, while overlooking media stories that cry out for investigation – I have to ask whether some partiality has been exercised in the recruitment of the people on the programme.

There was never much room for doubt about the politics of Russell Brown, who originally hosted it. Peacock, who took over, seems an affable and intelligent sort of bloke and I couldn’t claim to know what his politics are, other than to repeat the observation that his programme has a tendency to assume ulterior motives for just about everything the privately owned media do. But the recent recruitment of two other contributors to Mediawatch raises some questions.

Jeremy Rose, like Peacock, is a likeable fellow (well, he'd have to be - he's a mountain biker), but I’m sure he’d be the first to acknowledge that his politics are more pink than blue. He was closely associated with City Voice, a markedly left-leaning free paper founded by Simon Collins (now of the New Zealand Herald) which struggled heroically but unsuccessfully to find a niche in Wellington during the 1990s. (Incidentally, Rose’s excruciatingly long item on broadcasting in Niue last week was an example of Mediawatch’s odd predilection for boring listeners with matters of only tangential relevance to the New Zealand media. It made me wonder whether he had been given a grant to visit the island, a condition of which was that he broadcast something about it – in which case it should have been disclosed.)

More recently, Mediawatch has started carrying contributions from Adelia Hallett. Hallett has a respectable background in journalism but also happens to be a former media officer for the EPMU, the union that covers journalists (or at least those journalists who have chosen to remain unionised). It strikes me as slightly odd that of all the people who might work for Mediawatch, Radio New Zealand happens to have chosen two with leftist associations.

Today’s programme featured an item in which Hallett editorialised disapprovingly on an arrangement whereby a reporter for The Radio Network sits in on the daily editorial conferences of the Northern Advocate, which is owned by the same media conglomerate (APN) – the implication being that by sharing news, the two arms of APN are reducing competition (and ultimately threatening jobs). The item included critical comment from Tony Wilton, whom Hallett described as an “industry veteran”, but who is far better known these days as a long-standing official of … why, the EPMU.

In the “interests of full disclosure”, Mediawatch revealed at the end of the item that Hallett was a former deputy chief reporter of the Northern Advocate. But it evidently thought it not worth mentioning that she was also a former employee of the EPMU, a fact some listeners might have found just as interesting.

This is not to say that the arrangement between The Radio Network and the Northern Advocate was not a legitimate issue for Mediawatch to investigate. But when a programme consistently plays up stories that reflect badly on privately owned media while appearing to treat its host broadcaster as immune from criticism, when it appoints reporters with leftist political connections and doesn’t make all relevant disclosures, you have to suspect there is an unbalanced agenda at work.

A programme that sets itself up as a media watchdog – and a taxpayer-funded one at that – has to be squeaky clean. It has to ensure that it meets all the standards it demands of other media outlets in terms of fairness, balance, consistency and integrity, and then some. Can this be said of Mediawatch? Sadly, I don’t think so.


Steven Price said...

I've seen you make this criticism before Karl. In fact, over the years, MediaWatch has taken fairly regular swipes at Radio NZ, right back to the time when I was doing some reporting for it. Certainly, Radio NZ tends to get off more lightly than other broadcasters. But then again, there are also many fewer BSA complaints (and fewer upheld, too) from the public against RNZ than against other broadcasters, particularly TVNZ and TV3. And I would have said that MediaWatch's main fodder is TVNZ - hardly privately owned.

Karl du Fresne said...

I think "getting off more lightly" greatly understates the case. Given that Radio NZ is one of our most important news providers, I would expect it to be subjected to far more critical scrutiny than it gets from Mediawatch (which is effectively nil, since I don't count the occasional passing reference to something MW might very mildly disapprove of). To imply that RNZ escapes the blowtorch treatment week after week, month after month, year after year because its journalism is so consistently beyond reproach stretches credulity. Yes, its journalism is generally very good; but if Mediawatch approached RNZ with the same critical mindset that it appears to apply to the privately owned news media, it would have no shortage of things to carp about. (Incidentally, I'm not trying to get at RNZ here. I'm one of its most staunch listeners.)