Thursday, September 5, 2019

Activism disguised as journalism

Radio New Zealand continues to exhibit utter contempt for its obligation of impartiality.

In a story published on the RNZ website yesterday under the headline NZ's right wing turn up in force for controversial free speech case, reporter Matthew Theunissen painted a lurid picture of “notable right-wing figures” turning up at the Auckland High Court, where the Free Speech Coalition was challenging Auckland Council’s right to deny a public speaking venue to Canadians Lauren Southern and Stephan Molyneux.

Theunissen reported that Don Brash, “the man behind the Orewa speech”, made an appearance and Jordan Williams from the Taxpayers’ Union was listening intently in the gallery, “a few seats down from a man wearing a MAGA (Make Ardern Go Away) hat”.

He added that “old” Conservative Party leader Colin Craig (I think Theunissen meant “former”, but hey – who expects journalists to have a command of correct English?) “poked his head around the door at one point”.

There you have it, then: as sinister a collection of shadowy right-wing rogues and conspiratorial schemers as you could wish for. Theunissen seemed intent on making it sound like a clandestine meeting of the Ku Klux Klan, or perhaps a reunion of old Nazis. I'm not sure they turned out 'in force', as the headline said, which implied a room full of menacing men in brown shirts and jackboots, but let's not get too picky. 

Theunissen went on to describe one of the applicants appearing in support of the Free Speech Coalition's case as “would-be Dunedin mayor, climate change denier, Donald Trump supporter and rare books dealer Malcolm Moncrief-Spittle” (whose name Theunissen misspelt, but hey – who cares about getting names right when it’s the sneering tone that matters?).

The relevance of Moncrieff-Spittle’s views on climate change and Donald Trump wasn’t clear, but never mind; the important thing was to convey the impression that this was a court action brought by a bunch of crazy and possibly dangerous old men.

Even Jack Hodder QC, who represented the Free Speech Coalition, didn’t escape. Theunissen’s assiduous research had established that Hodder also acted for the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners in opposing aspects of the recent changes to the gun laws.

No further evidence needed, then. It was left to readers of Theunissen’s piece to conclude that the disreputable figures congregating in the Auckland High Court were racists (Brash – ref. the Orewa speech of 2004), religious cranks (Craig), champions of heartless free-market capitalism (Williams) and probably white supremacists (Moncrieff-Spittle). Oh, and possibly gun nuts too (Hodder).

The unmistakeable purpose of the article was to denigrate those involved in the Free Speech Coalition’s case and by doing so, to discredit the court action.  Never mind that the coalition’s motivation is to defend the freedom of speech that Theunissen and his colleagues – all funded, incidentally, by the taxpayer – depend on every day for their livelihood.

RNZ followed that up today with the results of an obviously laborious investigation (pun not deliberate) into Pregnancy Counselling Services, an organisation that offers support to pregnant women facing a choice between having an abortion or carrying their baby to full term.

It’s no secret that PCS is loosely affiliated with Christian churches and tries to encourage women to at least consider having a baby rather than immediately taking the abortion option, so that was hardly a “stop the presses” exclusive. RNZ reporter Susan Strongman concentrated instead on portraying PCS as dishonest in the way it promotes its services and highlighting the fact that it has received modest financial support under the government’s Community Organisations Grants Schemes (Cogs).

Trouble was, Strongman’s credibility as an impartial journalist was fatally compromised when she was sprung collaborating with pro-abortion activist group ALRANZ. As reported on this blog last month, Strongman used the ALRANZ Facebook page to seek information from women who had sought counselling from PCS “only to find they [the counsellors] are pushing a pro-life agenda”.

Strongman’s post on the ALRANZ page introduced her as a “friendly journalist” and said that “Terry [Terry Bellamak, president of ALRANZ] can vouch for me as being a reliable and trustworthy journalist”. Prospective sources were told “you can get my mobile number off Terry”.

It’s one thing for journalists to use contacts to go on a  fishing expedition for information, but another to align themselves so closely with one side of a divisive and contentious political debate, especially when the reporter is working for a state-funded broadcaster with an obligation of neutrality.

Certainly, pro-life groups were convinced that Strongman was out to do a hatchet job on PCS with the aim of cutting off an important source of funding. Reading Strongman’s 3400-word article does little to dispel that impression, although I can’t help wondering if it was toned down once she realised she’d been rumbled.

It includes, for example, an interview with the chair of the PCS board of trustees, but there’s no concealing the article’s partisanship. As with Theunissen’s piece on the Free Speech Coalition’s court action, it can only reinforce concerns about the increasing incidence of activism disguised as journalism, and further undermine public confidence in Radio New Zealand as an impartial source of information on matters of vital public interest.


david said...

Journalists are human. It is normal to think that your views are right and those to either side are extreme. Asking journalists to approach things in an unbiased way is asking them to do something unnatural. I would think it takes much skill and training to recognise your weaknesses and be able to treat contentious issues impartially. That this skill seems to be lacking reflects a cultural shift not just in journalism school but also at the editor's desk. Are there any journalists out there able to treat subjects impartially? They are the ones we need to highlight.

Karl du Fresne said...

Like me, you probably worked with a lot of journalists who were aware of their own biases and consciously tried to counter them by ensuring their stories weren't one-sided. That was part of the ethos of journalism. What has changed is that journalists are now free to parade their bias and feel no obligation to write balanced stories.

Karl du Fresne said...

I should have added that if the journalist didn't ensure his/her story was balanced, someone else - a chief reporter, news editor or chief sub-editor - usually would.

Mark Wahlberg said...

Unlike days of old, todays journalists fresh out of poly tech get a by-line and generally speaking, their news reports all have the air of opinion pieces about them.
Back about 1966 I had a friend who started as a paperboy for the Wellington Evening Post selling the days headlines on Willis Street. Graduated to the loading dock stacking bundles of the days print run into the back of delivery trucks. Then into the news room where he was run ragged as a fetch and carry boy. After 2 years he was allowed to write a small piece about a church fair in Karori. Happiest day of his life.

Karl du Fresne said...

I can relate to that. I started out in the reading room of the Evening Post in 1968. I think they reasoned that if you could survive a year of paralysing boredom as a lowly copyholder, you won the right to step up to the reporters’ room. My first story ran to about six single-column inches. It was an interview with a mate’s father who had just come back from a year working for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Afghanistan. I interviewed him in his room at the St George Hotel and I still have that story somewhere in a scruffy scrapbook.

Karl du Fresne said...

P.S. It was several years before I got my first byline.

Doug Longmire said...

Well Karl, Your article illustrates yet again that responsible, balanced reporting has just about vanished from the NZ main stream media. Those articles quoted above are indicative of the very Left leaning bias in almost all msm. Interesting also to see that personal attack was prominent in the first article. This is typical of the Left.
Thank You for providing some balance Karl

Hypatia said...

Really ?

Your bias is so overt that I gave up on reading articles written by you a few years ago .
You are not the measured, objective journalist you seem to think you are.

In case you're wondering, I stumbled onto this rant of yours via twitter.

Karl du Fresne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doug Longmire said...

Hear Hear Karl !!!!

Neil Keating said...

First, the old saying: if you're not a socialist when you're young you have no heart, and if you're not a Tory when you're old you have no brains.
Second, how old are these 'activist journalists'. A friend (age 35+/-) who worked for RNZ about ten years ago told me their newsroom had a visit one day by a bunch of dolly-birds (that dates me). My friend first assumed they were from the journalism class at polytech. No, he said. They were from the parliamentary press gallery.
Neil K.

Andy Espersen said...

How right you are, Karl. It is almost getting to the point of "Journalism - undisguised activism". Journalists think it is their job to educate readers to the politically correct way of thinking - and their editor bosses concur. I am really curious to know exactly what is the reason for this happening in all our news media. It has happened alongside the appearance of the internet and its many blogs. I know that correlation does not mean causation - but perhaps it does in this case (??).

The upshot is that I now get all my news from the internet and from various scientific, intellectual, philosophical blogs and other news platforms. The obvious danger here is that I will pick only blogs which give support to my personal biases - thus possibly causing me increasingly unbalanced views. But I do consciously make a point of picking only non-extreme blogs - together with blogs from really independent, balanced journalists (like yours).

It has got to the point that if it weren't for the local news (and the death notices!), I would quite likely stop subscribing to my local newspaper. Newspapers are fast dropping in readership - they will most likely disappear within a few years.
Does it really matter (except to us oldies) that they die a natural death??

David said...

I am not the David above Karl. I am another one.

One of my greatest concerns, journalistically, is the widespread opposition to free speech and the airing of contrary views by many journalists, here and overseas. It is not just the younger ones schooled by left-leaning teachers and university lecturers, but even the long-established ones.

As I've noted before, the Kiwi Journalists Association FB page is a who's who hive of NZ journalists, many of whom daily rage and rally against free speech and views they disapprove of. They sneer at this blog from time to time, by the way.

Gavin Ellis on Radio NZ's media spot each Tuesday never fails to sadden me with his support for shutting down contrary views or news he doesn't think the public should hear. He even banned me from KJA for trying to critique the party line there.

Gavin devoted his RNZ slot last week to extolling an international media agreement to promote the "climate crisis" (his words, adopting a Guardian call to media arms to use that term, not "climate change") with scare stories in the lead-up to this month's IPCC conference. In my opinion this is nothing but an agreement by news organisations in many countries including NZ to run a week of unbridled propaganda on a subject where only one viewpoint is allowed in any case. Gavin thought this was great. He used to be the editor of a newspaper that once upon a time strove to present the unbridled facts.

Philob said...

What opinionated lefty journalists write is not important. Half the population have learned long ago to discount what they say. The other half believed it before they read it.

hughvane said...

This is comment, not criticism Karl, but your outrage - if that's not too strong a word - is wasted on RNZ (National). Its socialist agenda and bias is so blatantly obvious as to be embarrassing, a national disgrace, so .... why do you listen to it?

Karl du Fresne said...

I've decided to delete the comment I made yesterday in answer to someone called Hypatia because it wasn't in keeping the decorous tone that I try to maintain on this blog. His/her (I suspect the latter) comment pushed all the wrong buttons, starting with that giveaway word "rant", which some on the left habitually use to dismiss any opinions they don't like. But just to repeat my main point, for the benefit of people who don't seem to understand the obvious (or choose not to), this is a blog which, by definition, is a platform for the expression of personal opinion. It doesn't purport to be an impartial source of information. In other words, I don't pretend to be a "measured, objective journalist" on this site, though I'm perfectly capable of fulfilling that role when writing in other forums, as I think an unbiased assessment of my record will show.
I really shouldn't even be responding to Hypatia, since he/she doesn't have the guts to identity him/herself. I don't insist that all commenters reveal their names, but when they personally attack me I think I'm entitled to know who my accusers are.
So, Hypatia, tell me who you are; after all, you know who I am. Failing that, just stop reading my blog if it vexes you. You'll find lots of comfortingly asinine content on Twitter, which sounds more like your natural habitat.

Karl du Fresne said...

You’re not the first person to ask me why I still listen to RNZ. My answer is this: we can either give up on it as a lost cause and allow its biased presenters, journalists and producers to push their ideological agendas without being challenged, or we can assert our rights as owners by insisting that RNZ meet its obligation to reflect the broad spectrum of New Zealanders’ interests and opinions. I may be pushing shit uphill, but I choose to do the latter.
My other reason is that RNZ employs a lot of good people – they’re not all achingly woke barrow-pushers – and still does many things very well. Besides, what’s my alternative? The obvious answer is Newstalk ZB, which I do listen to some of the time. But I live in Masterton, where it seems there are only half a dozen or so advertisers on the local ZB frequency, which means you hear the same ads repeated in every commercial break. It’s an exquisitely cruel form of torture – the equivalent of the rats that torment Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Andy Espersen said...

Karl - Your blog proudly states, "This blog does not allow anonymous comments". In my naivety I presumed that meant that, though some commentators use aliases, at least you would know their real identities. How come that Hypatia could write a comment?

Karl du Fresne said...

You've got me there Andy. I've been a bit slack in policing that rule because normally it's not an issue. (To tell the truth, I'd forgotten it until you brought it up.)

hughvane said...

Karl- re RNZ (Nat) and listening to it (or not) - I followed your general principle for a few years but then it became too much for my temperament, and I wanted nothing more than to hurl my radio out through an open (or closed) window. Not a good idea, my radio is a valuable asset. You’re right, however, what other station provides reasoned (ha ha) debate about topics numerous and various? In the end I tossed it, and, with the exception of WorldWatch (a curate’s egg) I returned to the soothing (mainly) tones of RNZ Concert.

My main intent however is to pose the question: why persist with something that causes so much vexation? I believe we’re far better off shutting it out - and they HATE that! Such are broadcasters’ egos, they cannot cope with people rejecting them. Keep that in mind, I suggest, but make sure they know they’re no longer relevant to you. I sent Brian Edwards that very message years ago, and he was so incensed he mentioned my email on his Sat morning show.

Well done in withdrawing your vitriol, people like Hypatia thrive on angry reaction, and whoever it is is simply not worth it.

PS. Might you consider amending the Title of this particular blog to “Activism masquerading as journalism”?

Hilary Taylor said...

First read about this RNZ piece on another blog and thought it was satire. Ha! My dear old Dad carried transistors around the property so he didn't miss much of what the National programme offerred. Just about daily I wonder what he'd make of ts current incarnation. Like others I'm listening to much more Concert...took refuge there after the mosque massacre when the saturation coverage in all media became practically dangerous to health. II used to replay all the interesting interviews I'd missed on National. Rarely bother now.

David said...

I actually like Radio NZ despite its bias. I don't think RNZ people actually know they have this bias. They have a world view of soft liberal left (it's certainly not party political IMO) and think most of the rest of the world is like them. It's not of course, but I can handle that. They are kind people. Nothing wrong with that IMO.

I like Radio NZ because it presents the country's best news coverage (again IMO); it often has interviews with people I find interesting; and it has no irritating ads. I particularly like the latter point. I can't bear stations like ZB with their cacophonies of (IMO) nonsensical talkback callers and blasting adverts.

Radio NZ has its obsessions, such as Global Warming. I have a rule. Whatever the programme or whatever the news bulletin, I switch off the moment that subject is launched. It means with someone like dear Kathryn Ryan, who I like immensely, I often have to switch off during her first sentence when she takes the microphone after 9am, so obsessed is she with that subject. The last few weeks with Lyn Freeman in that spot have been a blissful array of different topics.

Fortunately I am starting a new job next week: it requires me at my desk at 9am rather than 10am so I will not have to obsess about Kathryn's obsession. But I will still be able to listen to Morning Report (or sometimes, Moaning Retort); while I take the train to work rather than driving, as has been my need these past two years.

I've listened to Morning Report since the very first episode with Joe Cote on 1 April 1975. I was just a kid back then; I hadn't even begun my career. But it got me hooked and I have been back daily ever since. I get up with it at 6am daily and head out for my morning dog run at 6.20am with it in my earphones. For a news hound like me who goes to the ABC, BBC, Al Jazeera and other news websites many times a day, Morning Report must be doing something right to keep me hooked all these years. It also has the biggest (and growing) audience by far of anything on the radio, commercial stations or RNZ. That also suggests it's doing something right.

Trev1 said...

Excellent column Karl. RNZ "journalism" has no credibility. I gave up Moaning Report years ago - it's not good for anyone's health. As for the sanctimonious smug "hosts" of the various segments through the day, truly empty vessels and windbags. Free speech is actually wasted on these people.