Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Scalp hunting: the new style of political journalism

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, November 22.)

THE ELECTION campaign has brought to the fore a new style of television journalism.

It is aggressive, confrontational, highly opinionated and designed to provoke a reaction. Its chief practitioners are Patrick Gower and Duncan Garner of 3 News.

Both are astute political journalists who clearly see their role as much more than simply reporting. When Garner announces “This issue isn’t going away”, under the guise of making an objective statement about the political controversy du jour (such as the Café Urban furore), he does so with the certainty of a man who will make damned sure it doesn’t go away.

But it’s Gower who has obviously been designated TV3’s resident attack dog, with a brief to get in politicians’ faces.

3 News recently showed Act leader Don Brash saying to Gower outside Wellington’s Amora Hotel: “You are a deceitful bastard, quite frankly, and I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

To goad the almost painfully polite Brash into responding so vehemently must have taken some doing, but I bet Gower went home that night feeling pleased with his day’s work. It’s just a shame that 3 News didn’t explain the background to the exchange so that viewers could decide whether Brash’s accusation was justified.

Former Act MP David Garrett subsequently wrote on Kiwiblog: “Gower is the prick who tried to goad me into dropping my bag and dropping him at Wellington Airport a year ago.” Garrett, who was up to his eyeballs in political strife at the time, accused the journalist of blocking his path at the security gate until a security man pulled him out of the way.

I watched that news item and agree that Gower seemed intent on provoking the volatile MP into lashing out. But as Garrett said, that would have played into his hands.

Tripping politicians up, catching them out, is an honourable journalistic tradition. Gower had the usually cocky John Banks on the ropes last week over what was said over tea at the Café Urban, and even John Key looked rattled in the face of Garner’s questioning. Neither journalist lacks guts.

Yet there’s something disconcerting about Gower’s approach. You get the feeling that its purpose is to claim political scalps for the sheer sport of it.

He is a journalistic picker of scabs, a scavenger who swoops on the wounded. He scans the political landscape looking for any story that, with judicious editing and sneering voice-over, can be manipulated for maximum effect.

The Gower approach illustrates two trends in modern political journalism. One is to strive at all costs for what former British prime minister Tony Blair called “impact” – something to excite the public blood lust.

The other is to put the journalist at the centre of the story. The modern political reporter is no longer content to be a passive observer, but wants to be a player – a maker and breaker of careers.

* * *

HIGH COURT judge Forrie Miller acted sensibly and compassionately in discharging without conviction the mother of a toddler who drowned in the family swimming pool while she was distracted inside the house.

Mary-Anne Illston will serve a life sentence anyway, metaphorically speaking. She hardly needed a conviction to realise the terrible consequences of not supervising her daughter more closely.

But the case raises an important question about the need for consistency in the way police deal with such matters.

Illston was charged with manslaughter. Similarly, last April, Ashish Macwan was charged with careless driving causing death after his three-year-old son Aarush drowned in Lake Dunstan. The family van, with the boy inside, rolled into the lake after Macwan inadvertently left the handbrake off. In that case too, an enlightened judge discharged the bereaved parent without conviction.

Most people would say that in both instances, the parent’s grief was punishment enough. Yet police followed the book.

It will be interesting to see, then, whether they take the same uncompromising approach in the case of two-year-old Sukhraj Singh, who recently drowned in the Taruheru River at Gisborne. News reports said Sukhraj and his cousin, who also nearly drowned, wandered off from Sukhraj’s home and it was 10 or 15 minutes before anyone noticed they were missing.

The family blamed Gisborne District Council for not fencing the river. But the primary cause of this terrible accident, if news reports are accurate, was a failure of parental supervision.

Only the stony-hearted could not feel sorry for the Singh family. But as Justice Miller pointed out, there have been 85 pre-school and infant deaths in the past decade, most of them the result of adult complacency. Water Safety New Zealand accepts that prosecuting parents can compound their grief, but says it’s an effective way of drawing attention to the problem of child drownings.

What’s important, surely, is that the police are seen to be even-handed. The law should not be a lottery.

* * *

AT AN ELECTION meeting last week, Wairarapa MP John Hayes mentioned that of 25 young men who went on a forestry work course, 22 subsequently failed a drug test.

This is an aspect of the drug problem that the pro-dope lobby doesn’t mention. Present laws may not be very effective, but at least they serve as some sort of curb on usage. Legalise cannabis, and even more young men may be condemned to lives of uselessness.


Anonymous said...

With regard to the first section, I'm thinking of your previously published views on journalism and politics. As I recall it, you argued that only public broadcasters, and those paid by public funds, had to be objective and balanced, and that was to immediately counter any left-leaning views with those from the right. You then argued that those working for private media companies should feel no such obligation, and just report on the views that aligned with the commercial interests of the company.

As we now see, the outcome of this approach is to focus on the messenger, and not the preferred message, and to hound the object of the latest storyline until the likes of Gower get their man, and prove how influential they are. If this was not what was intended by the right wing version of journalism, perhaps it would be better to leave it to the traditional practice, based on principles of objectivity, balance etc.

Lucy said...

If Patrick Gower needs to bring down others so be it. When you have to live with that face its bound to make you feel better.

Richard McGrath said...

Karl, I'm not sure drug prohibition does much for the prevalence of drug use. People who want to use cannabis will do so anyway. Legalising drugs removes the stigma and fear of prosecution, and evidence from Portugal suggests that when drug possession and consumption is made mlegal more people attend drug treatment and rehab centres and in most age groups the level of drug use may actually drop.

Just my opinion said...

When my blog "broke" that Charles Chauvel harrassed my co-bloggers children on a plane - when the MP was drunk - I got a phone call from NZ (as I'm based in London) from Gower telling me he was going to "go get the bastard" and tried to get me to dish the goss.

As it wasn't my story, I gave him my co-bloggers details and left it at that. However Patrick was bullshitting, he went all out to make my mate look bad and hardly told a balanced story. His problem is that he thinks he is a big fish but that's only a result of him swimming in a very small tank.

Karl du Fresne said...

In reply to The Sentinel:
I don’t recall arguing, as you claim, that only public broadcasters have an obligation to be objective and balanced. I would put it slightly differently: I would say that public broadcasters have a special obligation to be objective and balanced. That doesn’t exempt journalists in the privately owned media from observing the commonly accepted principles of fairness and balance. They are, after all, the rules that the mainstream New Zealand media have traditionally operated under.

This is the crucial point. In a wholly free society, privately owned media would be allowed to take whatever line they like, but mainstream media in New Zealand have traditionally operated within the rules of fairness and balance. This can be seen as the price the media have agreed to pay in return for earning and maintaining credibility and public respect. Those principles are written into the standards of the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Press Council. The public expectation is that they will be followed.

If media organisations are going to break with that tradition and pursue their own political agendas (I’m speaking entirely hypothetically here), it needs to be overt. As things stand, the public expectation is that mainstream broadcasters such as TV3 will be objective and balanced. People tune in to the 6pm bulletin expecting the news to be played straight. If TV3 wanted to abandon that principle, fine with me – but it should say so, and live with the consequences. (I don’t think it’s come to that, but they’ve certainly been testing the boundaries.)

Incidentally, I don’t think I’ve ever argued that “those working for private media companies should … just report on the views that aligned with the commercial interests of the company”. That's a distortion of my views.