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.