Monday, October 22, 2012

Mary Poppins and the debasement of journalism

Radio New Zealand's Mediawatch quite rightly gave TVNZ a serve yesterday for the way it has shamelessly promoted the Disney stage musical Mary Poppins, now running in Auckland.

Prompted by an email from a Southland listener intrigued by the fact that TV2 chose to screen the 1964 movie version of Mary Poppins on the very same night the stage show opened at the Civic Theatre in Queen St, Mediawatch compiled a damning dossier that revealed TVNZ had assiduously been plugging the show since June.

Among other things, it revealed:

■ A "news" item on One News in June announced that the musical was coming to Auckland and helpfully told viewers when tickets would go on sale. Does TVNZ routinely do this whenever a big stage musical is coming to New Zealand, or was this a case of One News editors being instructed to include the item for commercial reasons? If the latter, as I suspect, it's a debasement of journalism - not that this would worry the people who pull the strings at TVNZ, and who probably regard the 6 pm news as just another marketing opportunity. (I mean, why run an expensive news bulletin if you can't take commercial advantage of it?)

Close Up carried an interview by boy wonder US correspondent Jack Tame with the male star of the show's Broadway production.

■ When Mary Poppins opened in Los Angeles, Breakfast's Rawdon Christie was flown over to interview the stars of the show.

■ As if that weren't enough, when the musical opened in Australia, Christie was dispatched again to interview the male lead (to whom he addressed such searching questions as: "What was the hardest bit?") If Christie wants to be taken seriously as a journalist, as I think he does, he would refuse to demean himself by indulging in this tawdry hucksterism. 

After all this buildup, TV2 played its part not only by screening the movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, but preceded it with a documentary about the making of the stage version that was having its premiere in Auckland that night.

Coincidence? Absolutely, insists TVNZ. It was simply taking advantage of the school holidays and the "enormous" interest in the stage show - interest largely whipped up by the state broadcaster itself. It sounded indignant at the hurtful suggestion that its programming decisions might be influenced by outsiders. "Our scheduling is sovereign," it huffed.

You can decide for yourself how credible its denial is. But at least Mediawatch extracted the acknowledgement that TVNZ has a long-standing commercial arrangement with Disney that gives it rights to screen the American producer's films and programmes.

Now, Disney may make billions out of films featuring cute, cuddly animals, but it's not noted for sentimentality in its business dealings, so it probably has certain expectations of the TV networks to which it sells those rights. And it's probably not unreasonable to infer that Disney leaned on TVNZ to ensure Mary Poppins received a gushing buildup in New Zealand courtesy of the taxpayer-owned network, in which case it should be well satisfied with the outcome.

A few questions:

Did it occur to TVNZ to disclose its relationship with Disney when it bombarded viewers with promotional fluff masquerading as journalism? Of course not. What a quaint question.

Does One News subscribe to the long-standing principle that journalism shouldn't be influenced by commercial considerations, or has that now gone by the board?

Does TVNZ care that any reputation it still enjoys for the integrity of its news bulletins might be at risk? I would hope that among the organisation's journalists, at least, there remains some commitment to ethical practice. But Breakfast obviously no longer considers itself bound by the principles of good journalism (as Mediawatch pointed out, it's currently spruiking Tip Top ice cream), and it seems the boundaries are becoming dangerously blurred on Close Up and One News as well.

I also noted that One News  obligingly played along with the recent visit to Auckland by actress Eva Longoria, here to promote the new Shopping Channel, humouring her control-freak PR handlers by taking a mystery bus ride to a top-secret location to meet her (it turned out to be the Langham Hotel - who would have guessed?) and meekly complying with conditions dictating how many questions they could ask, and about what. This isn't news, it's promotional fluff; but tragically, PR firms acting for people such as Longoria  can be confident that the celebrity-obsessed media will go along with their pantomimes.

And to be fair, this isn't just true of TVNZ, although the state broadcaster is arguably the most egregious offender (and being supposedly a public broadcaster, has the strongest reason for remaining aloof from commercial contamination). As Mediawatch pointed out, Fairfax's Sunday Star-Times bought into the Mary Poppins malarkey too, though not nearly so brazenly, and it's impossible not to note the increasing frequency with which print media are compromising themselves by entering into commercial arrangements, such as competitions and special offers, which encroach on once-sacrosanct editorial space.

Once again we seem to be indulging in the old New Zealand habit of veering from one extreme to another. It wasn't so long ago that newspaper journalists zealously avoided any reference to a company or brand name, regardless of its news relevance, for fear that it might confer some commercial advantage. Journalists' Union representatives took it upon themselves to police the news columns to ensure no story mentioned Air New Zealand, or Dominion Breweries, or the local family-owned hardware business (unless, that is, the story portrayed them in an unfavourable light, in which case naming them was deemed acceptable - funny, that).

We are well rid of that ideological mindset, which was donkey-like both in its stubbornness and its irrationality.  But the accelerating trend now apparent, whereby "news" is subverted by commercial considerations, is potentially far more dangerous.


John said...

Is the DomPost much better? Yesterday, above the masthead, it had a large plug for a commercial venture: 'Win a wild night out: up close and personal with Bear Grylls.'

Karl du Fresne said...

I did say that the print media were increasingly compromising themselves too, but the Bear Grylls promo you cite is a standard reader promotion of the type newspapers have done for years. If you turn to the ad inside, it's quite clearly that - an ad. What's insidious is promotion under the guise of news, which is what I object to on TVNZ.