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.



hughvane said...

An appointment to RNZ is a likely poisoned chalice, 'The Firm' being so far left-of-centre and cosied with the current Labour government, as to be about to fall over.

The fact that Kiri Allan has ditched her former marriage partner Natalie Coates in favour of MANI Dunlop suggests a stability of the likes of Rotorua mud pools.

Thus the appointment of Dunlop to one of the driving seats of Morning Report (to which I have not listened for ~7 years), suggests the same level of stability.

Andy Espersen said...

Taxpayers own and are paying for the daily running of Radio New Zealand and TV New Zealand - and, to the best of my knowledge, the editorial independence of these two enterprises is supposed to be guaranteed by whoever is in government. What a laugh!! Everybody knows what a hollow lie this is – everybody just takes it for granted.

Nobody seems to be greatly upset about it : it is just the way it is. Even Karl, in this piece, concentrates almost exclusively on the aspect of “cosyism” (straight out corruption) – rather than showing much concern about the supposedly guaranteed, editorial independence of those entities.

Perhaps we do need a written constitution in New Zealand where all those democratic obligations of governments are to be seen in black and white – so that any government breaching such clear obligations can be taken to court.

Birdman said...

There are so many aspects to your post Karl that I don't know where to start and I apologize to all for the length of this. However and on a different note, it's bloody good to see you back behind the keyboard and providing your insightful and informed posts.
First, Paul Thompson has shown he is unfit for his current role (let alone the combined RNZ/TVNZ entity), as Willie Jackson clearly backs him for saying (to the effect) "he gets what we want" - enough said really after Willie's train wreck exposure on Q&A of his wish/intent to control future public-owned media content.
Second, Dunlop has already shown in her interviews and aside political comments following thse interviews her intention to 'shape' the news rather than present it - one of Karl's points.
Third, from a personal perspective RNZ (specifically Morning Report) has clearly lost its way. From a programme I used to eagerly wake up and listen to for many years to now be one I just bear for a short period before moving to ZB and Hosking, regardless of the painful ads, says it all for me.
There are more points but one other (I believe) related matter I'd like to record about Morning Report regards Corin Dann. To me he has generally been reasonable benign to the extent he hasn't forced the reo and he has tried to be a bit more balanced. That was thrown out the window last week when he decided to invite the lawyer for the unfortunate baby who is caught up in the case about blood taken from 'the dastardly vaccinated'. The pros and cons of that matter aside, Dann's refusal to countenance debating her stated arguments, speaking over her, stating 'he wouldn't allow them to be aired' (he asked her on to be interviewed) effectively said 'you may not express that opinion or ideas on my radio station'. This removed him as being a balanced journalist. You do not have to agree with that lawyer or the parents' position but it makes the need for the the Free Speech Union even more important IMHO.
What a rant!!

Odysseus said...

State TV and Radio are already totally compromised as mouthpieces of the Labour government, the best advice is switch to another station. Personally I find Moaning Report depressing, it just seems to be one long whine in pidgin Manglish. I can't imagine ever returning to it. Jackson's Goebellian "reforms" will ensure the demise of public broadcasting in this country.

Gary Peters said...

The fact that you have spoken strongly on this appointment both privately and publicly almost guarantees that she will be appointed because .... no one tells me what to do and I think it has been preordained.

Don Franks said...

Yes, Corin Dann's ugly"interview" of the baby family's lawyer was the pits. It merited a warning from his employers for misconduct, which was almost certainly was not issued.
Interviewing surely means seeking the opinions of the person being interviewed and letting them be heard.
Corin Dann was like a thuggish policeman trying to break the spirit of a suspect. Too many mainstream media journalists are a mile up themselves.

Brendan McNeill said...

A few thoughts.

1) Given our fractionated cultural climate, it may be time for the State to remove itself from public broadcasting altogether. It cannot be balanced, reasonable and objective, and a change of Government is unlikely to bring correction. Has its time passed?

2) Just agree that it is a propaganda vehicle for the left and continue to fund it on that basis, while establishing a right of centre State funded alternative to compete with it on an equitable funding basis, without increasing the level of existing funding.

3) Keep the status quo, but provide a 'health warning' every hour that states: "The views expressed on this network are those of the ideological left and do not represent the views of many or most New Zealanders". (that would be good for a laugh) Perhaps the PM of the day could do the soundbite.

4) Keep the status quo and allow listeners to vote with their feet. There is so much Government waste that a few hundred million on RNZ / TVNZ is barely noticeable.

LNF said...

Conflict of interest means nothing. One look at Mahuta wii confirm that

Tom Hunter said...

I still recall returning to NZ from the USA just over twenty years ago to find myself smiling at the 6am birdcall of Morning Report after years of the 6am wakeup to NPR's morning news and thinking that I liked NZ's much better.

But I gave up on MR some time during the Clark administration; the harsh buzzer of the clock radio being preferable to an increasingly slanted "news" show and interviews. It wasn't partisanship; their interviews with Clark and company still seemed as tough as against National people. But even then there was an extra edge of nastiness when it came to ACT.

However, the real issue was ideology. It was subtle but increasingly I noticed that stories that hurt Left-wing causes - Climate Change, Renewable Energy, etc - were simply not covered, while stories that promoted all these were given repeated airings. From what I hear from others who still listen to MR and the rest of it, it's simply got worse.

And I'm Gen X. Nobody of my age-group listens to MR and as for my kids and their friends, they son't listen, watch or read any MSM, whether local or foreign. To them this issue is irrelevant.

I have to admit that for me it's largely an issue of mere curiosity: "What are the denizens of Radio Lefty up to now?