I never used to be an admirer of Mike Hosking. Too image-conscious, too vain, too caught up in the whole journalist-as-celebrity shtick. Lately, though, I’ve warmed to him after hearing some of his morning commentaries on Newstalk ZB, which are generally sharp and perceptive. (In other words, I usually agree with him.) I was at risk of becoming a Hosking fan.
Now, dammit, I have to reappraise him again in the light of the New Zealand Herald’s revelations about his commercial association with Auckland’s SkyCity casino.
If the Herald’s John Drinnan is to be believed, and I have no reason to doubt him, Hosking is paid to act as some sort of celebrity “ambassador” for the casino. Paul Henry reportedly had a similar association with SkyCity before he moved to Australia.
Apparently there are quite a few of these “ambassadors”, including entertainers and top sports people. Some are paid to perform specific duties for the casino, such as MC or promotional duties; others accept generous freebies – such as accommodation, drinks and meals – in return for just being seen there.
Now what sports people and entertainers do to earn a bit on the side is their affair, unless it happens to be illegal; but journalists are a different story. If they are to retain the confidence of their viewers, listeners or readers, they have to be above any suspicion that they might be commercially tainted.
It’s not as if there’s no room for potential conflict of interest here. As Drinnan points out, SkyCity was recently in the news over children being left in cars while their parents played the pokies. That’s the very sort of item Close Up , on which Hosking regularly fills in for Mark Sainsbury, is likely to cover. Would Hosking be compromised by his commercial association with the casino? Of course you’d hope not, but the risk shouldn’t arise in the first place.
What makes things worse is that he apparently didn’t think it necessary to tell TVNZ about the SkyCity tie-up, although a TVNZ spokeswoman said his contract required him to declare such issues. Now, just suppose Hosking had to present an item about problem gambling, or the government’s sweetheart deal with SkyCity over Auckland’s proposed new convention centre. It would be unsatisfactory enough knowing he had an association with the company and wondering whether he was giving us the full, warts-and-all story; but it would be utterly beyond the pale if the viewers – and even his employers – had no idea he worked for the people he was reporting on.
TVNZ, to its credit, seems to have recognised the ethical black hole here, even if Hosking chooses not to. Drinnan reports that TVNZ has forbidden Hosking from covering stories related to SkyCity when he fills in on Close Up. That’s the very least it should do. TV3’s head of news and current affairs, Mark Jennings, reckons TVNZ should get rid of Hosking altogether. (It’s not often these days that Jennings can claim the moral high ground over his rival, so he can hardly be blamed for grasping the opportunity.)
Hoskings’ Monday-to-Friday employer, Newstalk ZB, seems more relaxed about his involvement with SkyCity. Hosking has told the network of the relationship and is simply required to declare it to listeners if SkyCity-related issues come up on his programme. Is that enough? I wouldn’t have thought so. Better to avoid the perception of conflict of interest altogether.
Apparently Paul Henry’s radio employer, MediaWorks, was similarly laidback about his association with SkyCity while he was on RadioLive. That’s disappointing too, but not entirely surprising; Henry is first and foremost a showman and for all I know, thinks “ethics” is the way a man with a lisp might pronounce the name of a southern English county. But Hosking has a solid journalism background and expects us to take him seriously.
The bigger problem here is that journalism, particularly its television and radio variants, has been fatally contaminated by the cult of celebrity and the temptations it dangles in front of those who are easily seduced by wealth, fame and the thrill of seeing their photos on the gossip pages.
It doesn’t seem to matter that some broadcasters are already paid the equivalent of a small South Pacific country’s GDP. In fact it sometimes seems that the more they get, the more they need to sustain their image and lifestyle – whether it comes from accepting gigs as celebrity MCs, taking payment from women’s magazines for exclusive non-stories, or hiring out their services on the quiet as media trainers to politicians and business people.