Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Woodville Wire: a cautionary tale

Ever heard of the Woodville Wire? No, I hadn’t either, until a couple of days ago. It’s a newsletter that publishes community news and comment on local issues in a southern Hawke’s Bay town where nothing much happens (at least, not usually).

I'm guessing the Wire’s readership would be counted in the hundreds, at most, yet this very modest news sheet has unexpectedly been pitched headlong into the culture wars. What follows is a cautionary tale about the febrile state of Maori-Pakeha relations and the precariousness of free speech - freedom of the press too, come to that - in a climate of state-sanctioned authoritarian orthodoxy.

In October last year, a local woman named Annette Nepe sent the Woodville Wire an article about a petition she had launched urging the InterCity bus service to reinstate its local bus stop. Ms Nepe prefaced her article with the greeting “Kia ora nau mai, ngā mihi nui koutou katoa”, which she explained meant “Welcome everyone, big friendly greeting to all”.

Nothing controversial here, surely. The subject of the article was one that might be described as parish-pump – i.e. of purely local concern. The tone of Ms Nepe’s email, as far as we can ascertain, was cheerful and (to use a fashionable word) inclusive. But Ms Nepe wanted the Maori greeting included with her article, “to reflect her culture”, and things turned sour when the editor of the Wire, Jane Hill, refused.

She told Ms Nepe in an email that it would have been respectful to ask, rather than demand, that the article be published. (Was it a “demand”? We don’t know, because the full email exchange hasn’t been disclosed.)

Ms Hill went on to say: “Secondly, this is not a Maori newsletter; it is a community newsletter and everyone in this community speaks English.

“I, as well as many New Zealanders am not in favour of giving one cultural group special privilege regarding their language simply because they (falsely) claim first nation status.

“Thirdly, why should we elevate the Maori language for you, when you clearly show no respect for the English language. It is extremely poor.

“I will write an article about the public transport system and encourage people to sign the petition as have I.”

Phew. Talk about lighting the blue touch paper. Ms Nepe subsequently brought legal proceedings against Ms Hill in the Human Rights Tribunal, alleging racial harassment. The case went to mediation and resulted in what might be described as a complete capitulation by Ms Hill.

According to a press release issued by the Office of Human Rights Proceedings, which is part of the Human Rights Commission, Ms Hill made the following statement:

“I, Ms Hill, acknowledge the hurt that was done to Ms Nepe by the correspondence I sent.

 “I acknowledge that my choice of words was perceived as aggressive and unnecessary. It was not my intention to attack or minimise Ms Nepe’s culture.

“Now that I can see the effects of the experience on Ms Nepe, I am willing and committed to changing the way I engage with Maori in my community.”

According to the press statement, Ms Nepe thanked Ms Hill for her apology. “This is good for both of us; I’m happy that we talked. This is a good outcome and a step towards repairing and growing relationships in the Woodville community. We both agree racism has no place in Aotearoa New Zealand and we’re on the road to eliminating it.”

All settled, then. Ms Hill suitably contrite, Ms Nepe gracious in her response – although of course it’s easy to be big-hearted in victory. I imagine the Office of Human Rights Proceedings was pleased with itself too for its part in exposing and publicly shaming a supposed racist, albeit a now remorseful one.

Predictably, Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, New Zealand’s No. 2 official finger-wagger (Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt is numero uno), weighed in with a gratuitous and patronising statement – a pat on the head, figuratively speaking – welcoming “the willingness to move forward in an informed manner”.

So ... all done and dusted.  Except that the episode is likely to leave many people feeling distinctly uncomfortable about creeping authoritarianism and the imposition of a penalty, in the form of a public shaming, for speaking freely. It should also be viewed as a direct attack on press freedom, given that it undermines the right of an editor to determine what she should publish.

We don’t know what transpired behind closed doors in mediation. It’s quite possible Ms Hill had a genuine road-to-Damascus experience, as the official statement suggests. But it’s also possible that confronted with the weight of the state’s punitive apparatus and the prospect of continuing stress and controversy if she stood her ground, she felt the easiest way out was to back down. I'm guessing the signal was conveyed to her that it was the appropriate thing to do.

If so, she wouldn’t have been the first. In 2020 I wrote about the case of a Taranaki nurse who was deregistered by the powerful Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal for making derogatory comments about some of her Maori colleagues. She too found herself up caught up in an intimidating quasi-judicial process and subsequently issued what might be categorised as a grovelling apology. I wrote then that a newspaper account of the tribunal proceedings left the discomforting impression of a show trial.

In both instances, the instigators did themselves no favours by their initial actions. The nurse’s statements on Facebook were, by her own admission, impulsive and offensive, although the consequences were wildly overstated by a complainant who appeared eager to make the most of the situation.

Similarly, Ms Hill was needlessly provocative and antagonistic in her email to Ms Nepe, apparently seizing the opportunity to vent opinions that she could have chosen to keep to herself. But it’s possible to acknowledge these faults while still feeling uneasy about the way events unfolded.  In both the Taranaki and Woodville cases there appears to have been a disproportionately heavy-handed response from a system that seemed keen to make a public example of the transgressors.

Does anyone, I wonder, consider that the personal consequences might greatly outweigh the perceived offence? In the Taranaki case, the nurse subsequently struggled to find work. She was effectively blacklisted. Now I note that in both the Stuff and New Zealand Herald stories about the Woodville Wire episode, Ms Hill is described as the “former” editor.

What does this mean? Did she quit in disillusionment? Did she feel so bruised by the unpleasantness of the complaint procedure that she decided it wasn’t worth going on? Or was she fired for bringing the Wire into disrepute? I know nothing about the management and ownership structure of the Wire, so can’t say. She may, of course, have been planning to leave anyway.

But what I would say is this: Someone, perhaps Ms Hill herself, took a punt in establishing the Woodville Wire, presumably because they saw it as providing a useful service to the community. They would have committed their own capital to the venture, to say nothing of their labour and skill, with no guarantee of a financial return. Now a person with no stake in the enterprise has been able, with the help of a busybody government agency, to exert power over it and subject the editor to a demeaning quasi-judicial process, possibly even to the extent (this is pure conjecture on my part) of triggering her departure. Hands up all those who think that’s fair.

Furthermore, the Woodville Wire is presumably a private undertaking. Ms Hill broke no law. She is therefore not answerable to government functionaries. Yet she was subjected to a humiliating and very public ticking-off (public because the Office of Human Rights Proceedings made it so) which, by implication, painted her as a racist. Where is the justice in that?

Would Ms Nepe have pursued her complaint had Ms Hill responded more diplomatically? We don’t know. But as things stand, it seems the worst Ms Hill can be accused of is impoliteness and candour. Last time I checked, being rude and forthright didn’t breach any law.

Certainly, Ms Hill’s behaviour falls far short of “racial harassment”, which is how the Office of Human Rights Proceedings described the case. Lest there be any doubt about the gravity of Ms Hill’s supposed offence, the Office’s press statement was headlined “Racial harassment case settles”.

Harassment? Really?? My New Zealand Oxford Dictionary defines the verb “harass” as meaning “to trouble or annoy continually or repeatedly” (the italics are mine). All Ms Hill did, evidently, was send a single email to which Ms Nepe took offence. How does that amount to harassment? A good lawyer would surely have moved for the complaint to be dismissed outright as a nullity.

Here’s the thing. Ms Hill was entitled to decide what to publish, and by logical extension what not to publish. As editor, she was legally responsible for the content of the Woodville Wire. That imposes obligations but it also carries rights, including the right of refusal to publish a statement in te reo. People may legitimately disagree with her decision in this instance, but it’s hers to make.

Incidentally, I can’t help wondering whether the Media Council would have been a more appropriate forum for resolving the issue.  I’m speculating again here, but perhaps the state human rights apparatus was preferred because there was a better chance of a favourable outcome for the complainant. The Media Council has been known, after all, to uphold the autonomy of editors.

And here’s another thing. Will activist lawyers and Maori language advocates regard the Woodville Wire case as a precedent, opening the way to future insistence on the publication of statements in Maori? You can bet they will. And will timid or woke editors now consider themselves obliged to publish submitted content in te reo even though only a tiny minority of their readers can understand it? Very likely.

I have asked myself whether I, as a former (very former) newspaper editor, would have published Ms Nepe’s Maori greeting. I probably would have, because it was charming (am I permitted to say that?), quirky and harmless. But that’s not the point; Ms Hill was entitled to decide as she did without then being pressured, through the intervention of an ideologically driven government agency, to recant.

The whole affair leaves a bad taste. There is a balance to be struck between use of the English and Maori languages, and New Zealanders are steadily working towards that goal. Note the increased frequency with which Maori words and phrases (kapai, whanau, waiata, kuia) have naturally been absorbed into everyday speech. But a sullen resistance sets in when people perceive that te reo is being imposed on them, as is happening now, by an elite political/academic/media caste rather than being allowed to evolve organically.

The Woodville Wire case, however, is about much more than the use of te reo. More disturbingly, it stands as a lesson that anyone bold or rash enough to challenge prevailing orthodoxies risks being publicly pilloried, with the state’s active complicity. This is true regardless of whether Ms Hill had a genuine and sincere change of heart.

Observing the fate of someone who did no more than exercise her editorial prerogative in what she no doubt thought was a private email, people will reasonably conclude that the only safe course in New Zealand is to keep potentially contentious opinions to themselves or express them only to trusted friends. That can only have a chilling effect on public debate, which of course is exactly the intended outcome. If you sometimes sense the pincers of state control gradually tightening around you, it’s probably because they are.


Friday, December 23, 2022

Compliments of the season

🎄To all those who have followed this blog in 2022, even when they didn't necessarily agree with it, and to those who took the trouble to contribute erudite and insightful comments, my sincere thanks and best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.  See you in 2023. 🎄

Friday, December 16, 2022

The striking thing about the Dom Post's new editor

Stuff has announced the appointment of a new editor for the Dominion Post. Caitlin Cherry will replace Anna Fifield, who is returning to the Washington Post as its Asia-Pacific editor.

Cherry, who will start in February, has spent most of her career with RNZ in behind-the-scenes roles on news and current affairs programmes, including Morning Report and Nine to Noon. She currently has the title of Head of Content at Consumer NZ.

What’s most striking about her appointment is that judging by her LinkedIn profile, she has never worked for a daily newspaper – in fact appears to have no print experience of any sort. Yet she’s taking over the leadership of what used to be one of the country’s most influential mastheads.

This could be a move so bold and visionary that its brilliance isn’t immediately obvious. On the other hand it could be just plain dumb.

It could be interpreted as confirmation that Stuff isn’t really interested in print and possibly regards it as a dinosaur medium in the digital era. The company has often given the impression, intentionally or otherwise, that it regards its newspapers as an encumbrance.

Alternatively the appointment could be taken as yet another indication that Stuff doesn’t have a clue what it’s doing. When a puzzled former colleague of mine asked whether anyone knew what the company’s overall strategy was, the only answer I could think of was “slow-motion suicide”. But I hope my bleak assessment is wrong - because for all Stuff's missteps, hundreds of journalists still depend on it for a living. 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

My invitation to the coward who calls himself Guerrilla Surgeon

An anonymous commenter on Chris Trotter’s Bowalley Road blog has described me as “extremely right wing”. Laughably inaccurate though that is, I’m not about to lose any sleep over it. 

Of far more concern was this, from the same anonymous commenter: “As someone who has had something to do with Karl DuFresne [sic], I would say that his opinion … is not worth listening to. I have no great regard for his ethics”. (The italics are mine.)

I submitted the following comment to Bowalley Road. To his credit, Trotter promptly published it. I don’t think he had much option, having waved the original slur through.

“It doesn’t bother me that the commenter who calls himself (I bet it’s a male) Guerrilla Surgeon describes me as extremely right-wing. Anyone who knows me would regard that as laughable. But to put it as politely as I can, I’m surprised that an anonymous commenter has been allowed to make vague and unspecified insinuations about my ethics. If he has evidence of any situation in which he thinks I’ve behaved unethically, I invite him to provide it, either on this blog or on my own. But he should identify himself rather than cower behind a pseudonym.  In the meantime I’ll leave it to readers of this blog to wonder about Guerrilla Surgeon’s own ethics in seeking to undermine someone’s reputation with an unsubstantiated throwaway line.”

I repeat that invitation here. I promise the coward who calls himself Guerrilla Surgeon that if he details whatever concerns he has about my ethics, and does so under his own name, I’ll publish it – along with my response. Then I’ll leave it to readers of this blog to decide which one of us can claim to be Mr Clean.

People might think I’m over-reacting, but a potentially damaging slur cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. In journalism, reputation is everything.

Postscript (posted at 7.45pm Thursday): For the record, Chris Trotter has posted a gracious apology for allowing Guerrilla Surgeon's comment to go through, for which I thank him. 

Footnote: Thanks to Gary Peters, a reader of this blog, for drawing my attention to the comment on Bowalley Road and sticking up for me there.


Monday, December 12, 2022

The drunk uncle and other Christmas phantasms

I keep hearing what a social minefield Christmas is. Stuff’s Weekend magazine on Saturday devoted a page to illustrator Toby Morris’s advice, delivered in the form of cartoons, about how to avoid family rows. Morning Report this morning included an item with a similar theme.

Particularly noticeable is the tired stereotype of the irascible old man provoking arguments or making cringeworthy jokes at Christmas gatherings. An older male was depicted as the problematical character in two of Morris’s cartoons, while the Morning Report item contained tips on how to talk to “that uncle” about climate change. (Cyclists are apparently another subject to be approached with caution, or so we’re told.)

Older white males are the one demographic group that’s considered fair game for snide, condescending digs. The drunk uncle has become a recurring cliché.

But how accurate are these stereotypes? I’m an older white male and an uncle to 21 nieces and nephews. We’ve celebrated many Christmases and other family events together, invariably lubricated with generous quantities of alcohol, and never discussed contentious political issues in any shape or form. The only reason voices have been raised was so that people could make themselves heard over the hubbub.

Similarly, my wife and I recently spent four days enjoying a reunion with our four adult children and six grandchildren, some of whom hadn’t seen each other for more than 10 years because they’re spread across three countries. The subject of politics never came up. There were far more important and interesting things to talk about.

In fact I wouldn’t have a clue what my children’s politics are. I have no interest in knowing and still less desire to impose my own opinions on them.

The same applies to my friends, who span the full ideological spectrum. We almost never talk about politics. Why risk spoiling the conversation by introducing potentially divisive subjects?

There are other people, like the group of mates I had a couple of beers with last Friday and whose company I’ve enjoyed for years, whose political views are largely unknown to me. All that matters is that I like them as people. Mostly we indulge in idle social gossip or talk about music. God forbid that we should choose our friends on the basis of their political opinions.

So it will be a politics-free Christmas for me, just like every other one. I imagine the same is true for many, if not most, New Zealanders. I sometimes wonder whether the drunk uncle is an urban myth; a phantasm created by people whose need to construct imaginary social ogres exposes their own underlying intolerance. 

Alternatively, perhaps the anxious millennials who fret about the terrifying prospect of encountering contrary opinions around the Christmas dinner table just need to chill a bit.


Friday, December 9, 2022

Why no royal commission on the Whakaari disaster?

It’s three years today since Whakaari/White Island erupted, killing 22 people. Netflix has made a documentary on the disaster that will screen next week.

In the meantime, a former IT manager with the New Zealand Fire Service has posed an important question: why no public inquiry?

In a column published in the New Zealand Herald, Alan Thompson pointed out that similar catastrophes in the past (Mt Erebus, Pike River, the Ballantyne’s fire and the Christchurch mosque atrocities are obvious examples) were the subject of royal commissions that examined their causes, established fault where appropriate and came up with recommendations on how similar events might be avoided in future.

The official explanation for the government’s inaction over the Whakaari disaster was that Worksafe and the Chief Coroner were both conducting inquiries, the latter of which apparently won’t proceed until the former has been completed.

But as Thompson points out, both inquiries are limited in their scope. The big questions – what went wrong, why it went wrong and how a recurrence might be avoided – won’t necessarily be answered.

Thompson doesn’t attempt to explain the government’s reluctance to lift the lid on Whakaari, but we can form our own conclusions. The obvious one is that the tragedy was a major international embarrassment and the government doesn’t want to risk making things worse by drawing attention to whatever factors caused it.

On the basis of what we know already, complacency – the “she’ll be right” mentality – would be one of those factors.

What distinguishes Whakaari from the other disasters mentioned above is the potential harm to the image of the New Zealand tourist industry. Of the 47 people caught in the eruption, 41 were from overseas. Many of the survivors were left with appalling injuries that left them permanently scarred. That means there would be international interest in the findings of a royal commission.

Pre-Covid, international tourism vied with dairying as our biggest income earner. Adventure tourism is a big part of the country’s appeal and the last thing the industry needs, just when it’s starting to recover from the pandemic, is an official report that presents the country as an unsafe destination.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how a commission could reach any conclusion other than that the risk to tourists visiting Whakaari was gravely understated by everyone involved and that emergency planning - assuming an eruption could be planned for at all - was hopelessly inadequate.

To make matters worse, the official response to the eruption was hesitant and indecisive. It was only due to the prompt action and extraordinary heroism of volunteer rescuers, including helicopter pilots, that more lives weren’t lost.

We are now left with the unedifying spectacle of Worksafe, the government agency charged with ensuring health and safety in the workplace, appearing to absolve itself of any blame for the deaths and injuries and making itself unpopular by prosecuting some of the people who put their lives on the line to save others. A royal commission might not let Worksafe off the hook so easily.




Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Why social cohesion should be the key issue in 2023

I’ve thought for some time that social cohesion will be a key election issue – perhaps the key election issue – next year. If it isn’t, it should be.

This belief may simply reflect my own anxieties, but it gained some weight this week when Victoria University politics lecturer Bryce Edwards reported a survey that showed mounting concern among New Zealanders about social division.

Even during the 1981 Springbok tour, generally regarded as a high-water mark of polarisation in New Zealand, the country wasn’t split in the way it is now.

On that occasion there was a clean, sharp fault line over a single issue. After the Springboks went home, things slowly settled down. It even became permissible to enjoy watching rugby again. And of course the battle over apartheid eventually became a distant memory after the transfer of power from whites to blacks in South Africa.

But in 2022, there are multiple social cracks spreading in all directions, and no promise that the fractures will heal.

Where Bryce Edwards and the respondents to the survey he reports may be wrong, I suspect, is in identifying inequalities of wealth and housing as the key factors “tearing the country apart”, in Edwards’ words. I think there’s much more to it than that.

Certainly those glaring economic disparities exist and are growing more obvious. They are in large part a long-term consequence of the country’s economic restructuring during the 1980s.

I was one of the many who broadly supported those changes, some of which were essential and long overdue, but there’s no denying they fundamentally re-arranged New Zealand’s social furniture in ways that I don’t think were foreseen. What we thought of then as an unavoidable but temporary social dislocation ended up becoming structurally embedded.

New Zealand pre-Rogernomics could fairly claim to be an egalitarian society. No one could pretend that’s still true. Extremes of wealth and poverty become more marked with every year.

Almost as disturbingly, a status-conscious, consumerist culture celebrates conspicuous, ostentatious displays of wealth – in everything from clothes to food, cars and houses – in a way that was unthinkable 50 years ago. I find it hard to reconcile this new New Zealand with the country I grew up in.

But economic inequality is only one contributor to the worrying decline in social cohesion that Edwards wrote about this week. At least equally insidious, although far harder to measure, is the pernicious effect of identity politics.

This encourages us to think of ourselves not as a community with shared interests, values and aspirations but as a collection of minority groups with disparate and often conflicting goals.

Identity politics promotes a neo-Marxist view of society as inherently divided between the privileged – for which read white and male – and a plethora of aggrieved groups struggling against oppression and disadvantage. These include women (even though they make up half of Parliament and occupy the country’s three most powerful positions), Maori, immigrant communities, religious minorities, people with disabilities or illnesses (including some that are avoidable, such as obesity) and those asserting non-mainstream sexual identities.  

We are told these perceived disadvantages are the result of structural imbalances of power that can be remedied only by a radical reconstruction of society. It’s effectively a zero-sum game in which power must be transferred from those who are perceived as having it to those who feel excluded. This creates conditions in which society runs the risk of going to war with itself.

Even traditional liberal democratic values that most of us thought were unassailable are under attack. These include freedom of speech, which the proponents of identity politics condemn as a tool of oppression and an instrument of hate against vulnerable minorities, and the principle that no group of citizens should enjoy greater rights than any other.

These trends have been evident for years but have greatly accelerated under the Labour Party government, the more so since Labour was given power to govern alone in 2020. The government itself is a symbol of the ascendancy of identity politics, with a powerful Maori caucus that functions as a virtual government within a government.  

Identity politics originated in the Marxist social science faculties of universities but has penetrated all corners of the community. No sector is immune to its reach.

Its spread has been greatly assisted – albeit accidentally – by events such as the Christchurch mosque atrocities, which activists unashamedly exploited as an opportunity to promote the canard that New Zealand is a haven for hateful white supremacists, and the Covid-19 pandemic. The latter event, although initially conducive to a message of national unity, exposed a yawning divide between those in authority and those whom the political establishment viewed, to use Hillary Clinton’s infamous term, as deplorables.

A striking feature of many of the loudest voices promoting identity politics and rebuking New Zealanders for their supposed failings is that their accents identify them as arrivals from other countries. For saying this I will be labelled as a xenophobe, but I welcome the fact that New Zealand is now home to multiple ethnicities. Multiculturalism has greatly enriched and enlivened our society.

What I resent is the disproportionate influence wielded in New Zealand affairs by vociferous, highly assertive relative newcomers – in academia, the bureaucracy and politics – who see New Zealand as a perfect ideological blank space on which they can leave their imprint. I suspect they can’t believe their luck in stumbling on a country with a population that’s either too passive, too naive or simply too distracted by other things – jobs, mortgages, sport, bringing up kids – to realise their country is being messed with. We have always been suckers for articulate, confident voices from overseas; it’s part of our national inferiority complex.

The news media’s role in all this upheaval should not be underestimated. Social division has been promoted and magnified, deliberately or otherwise, by media outlets that relentlessly focus on issues that highlight perceived differences and supposed inequities.

The mainstream news media formerly served as an important agent of social cohesion by providing a public space in which issues could be civilly explored and debated. They have largely abandoned that role in favour of one where they constantly promote ideological agendas and hector readers, viewers and listeners with their own radical, unmandated vision of what New Zealand should be like.

In the process they have alienated much of their core audience, betrayed their trust and driven them to online channels that serve only to accentuate, and in some cases exploit, the deepening stress fractures in New Zealand society.

The result is that what was previously a unified and, by world standards, generally contented country is now a sour, rancorous babel of competing voices. Distrust, fear, resentment and sullen anger have displaced the broad consensus that sustained New Zealand for decades regardless of which political party was in power. Where all this could lead is impossible to say and frightening to contemplate.



Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Why Mani Dunlop is wrong for Morning Report

It’s now more than four months since it was announced that Susie Ferguson was leaving RNZ’s Morning Report after co-hosting the programme since 2014.

RNZ has been playing musical chairs in the meantime, with Kim Hill, Mani Dunlop and Guyon Espiner all sharing the presenting role with Corin Dann.

No replacement for Ferguson has been announced, but unless RNZ has someone else waiting in the wings, an obvious candidate – I would guess the most likely one – is Dunlop, who is back in the studio with Dann this week. Dunlop became RNZ’s Maori News director in 2019 and is best known as the host of Midday Report

Morning Report is RNZ’s flagship programme and the appointment is therefore crucial. For years the programme has been locked in a ratings duel with Mike Hosking’s breakfast show on Newstalk ZB, with a ratings survey earlier this year showing Hosking opening up a comfortable lead over his state-owned competitor. 

Whoever is eventually named to succeed Ferguson will be sitting in a chair previously occupied by some formidable names: Geoff Robinson, Lindsay Perigo, Hill, Maggie Barry, Sean Plunket and the aforementioned Hosking, to name a few.

It follows that RNZ will want to be sure it makes the right choice, which may explain the extraordinary time being taken to make an announcement. But there are potential political fish-hooks to be considered too.

Dunlop ticks a lot of boxes. She’s smart, capable and articulate, with a pleasant on-air manner and the important attribute (one not possessed by all former Morning Report presenters) of a good radio voice.

In an interview last year, she came across as open, frank and personable. She’s also relatively young, which should count in her favour if RNZ wants to break its dependence on a predominantly older (and ageing) audience.

And of course she’s Maori.  I think I’m right in saying Morning Report has never had a Maori presenter before, which is surprising given RNZ’s commitment to woke virtues.

Notwithstanding those qualities, Dunlop would come with a couple of flashing warning lights attached, at least from a traditionalist perspective.  First, she represents a generation of journalists that has been encouraged to disregard the principle of objectivity. This frees journalists to regard the promotion of favoured causes as legitimate.

A related risk is that as a Maori journalist, she may see it as her function to advocate for Maori. Identity politics has permeated journalism to the point where the line separating it from activism has been dangerously blurred.  

But in Dunlop’s case, there’s a far more glaring issue that RNZ can’t ignore. She’s the fiancée of a senior cabinet minister, Kiri Allan.

In a blog post in October, I cited the relationship between Allan and Dunlop as an example of “cosyism” – a term used by commentator Max Rashbrooke to describe overly close relationships between people in power.

Some people would go further and cite the fact that a senior RNZ journalist dealing with sensitive political issues is in an intimate relationship with a cabinet minister as further evidence of a cabal dominating national affairs. In a blog post last year I defined “cabal” in this context as “a group wielding power and influence disproportionate to its numbers, characterised by a common ideology and constantly reinforcing itself through mutual support”.

Needless to say, the situation becomes far more serious when there’s a strong prospect that Dunlop will become co-presenter of Morning Report, a job in which she would be required to interview political opponents of the woman she plans to marry.

Even if Dunlop bent over backwards to be fair and neutral, as her defenders insist she would, the programme’s credibility would unavoidably be compromised by the public knowledge that she’s the partner of a senior government politician. Perception is everything, and the problem would become even more acute in the white-hot intensity of an election year. It would be hard, if not impossible, to avoid doubt in some listeners' minds as to whether Dunlop was approaching issues from a strictly non-partisan standpoint. 

The political optics are not improved by the fact that Labour is clumsily ramming through legislation to merge RNZ with TVNZ, the purpose of which can only be – in the absence of any other compelling argument – to make the state an even more dominant force in the media. Government influence over the flow of information has never been a touchier issue.

Someone perceptively noted a few weeks ago that in an interview with Christopher Luxon on Morning Report about the Hamilton West by-election, Dunlop asked whether the National leader might be prone to unconscious bias in the selection of his party’s candidate. The point was made that Dunlop might be guilty of exactly the same fault in the way she conducted the interview. There’s RNZ’s problem, right there.

In a recent email exchange with RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson, I asked whether Dunlop was likely to replace Ferguson and if so, whether he was concerned about public perceptions regarding her neutrality. He kicked for touch in his reply, saying only that the recruitment of a new presenter was still underway and he would answer my questions once an announcement was made.

I believe Dunlop’s appointment, assuming it’s being considered, is a risk RNZ can’t afford to take – not if it places any weight on public perception and potential damage to the state broadcaster’s credibility. It would be a statement of contempt for traditional norms of journalistic neutrality – or to put it more bluntly, an “up you” gesture to New Zealanders who expect RNZ to demonstrate strict political independence.

RNZ is already seen as leaning sharply to the left. Many people to the right of the political centre have given up on it for that reason. Remarkably, we have come to regard this as a natural and acceptable state of affairs, but it’s not. A broadcasting organisation that all New Zealanders are obliged to support with their taxes has a corresponding moral and ethical obligation to serve people of every political shade.

Dunlop’s appointment to Morning Report would magnify the perception that RNZ reflects and serves the interests of a privileged and tight-knit political elite. Regardless of her credentials, Thompson should find someone else.