Tuesday, January 23, 2024

The John Campbell question

Once again, state-owned TVNZ has obligingly provided a platform from which its best-known (and no doubt highest-paid) journalist, John Campbell, can flail the government.

This is extraordinary and unprecedented. The government’s most potent communications medium has been hijacked by one of its employees and co-opted in a highly personal political mission.

Campbell’s anti-government agitation is more than simply provocative. It can only be seen as a direct challenge to the government and a gesture of contempt to all the deplorables who voted for change because they didn’t like where we were going under Labour.

Campbell clearly decided on October 14 that New Zealand had made a grievous mistake in electing a centre-right government and set himself the task of leading the Resistance.

Someone in authority should have told him then that this was not his function as a journalist. If he refused to accept that, he should have been told to pack his bags.

That this didn’t happen tells us that TVNZ is happy for its Chief Correspondent, aka the nation’s Hand-Wringer-in-Chief, to continue his crusade.  Now we’re in the unfortunate situation where someone in government may be tempted to strike back, because no government is likely to tolerate a situation where one of its own employees is so feverishly working to undermine it.

Journalism is in a potentially perilous situation here. Battles between the state and the media rarely turn out well.

The danger of vindictive politicians punishing troublesome journalists hardly needs to be pointed out. But Campbell has put us in this invidious position by brazenly abusing his power and thus inviting retribution. A combative politician like Winston Peters, whose early role model was media-baiter Robert Muldoon, would need little encouragement to retaliate.

The finely balanced relationship between journalists and the government, whereby politicians accept the inconvenience of a critical press as the price of an open democracy, is at risk of being destabilised when one side is seen as wilfully defying the established norms – which is what Campbell has been doing with his series of assaults on a government that’s ideologically not to his liking. 

The danger for the government is that unless it acts to deter egregiously partisan journalism from its own media outlets, Campbell and others like him – including some in RNZ – will feel emboldened to continue.  

As a product of the corporate world, Luxon will be familiar with the management maxim that “What you accept, you approve”. Well, it applies here.  As long as Campbell and others like him feel empowered to attack the government with impunity, National and its coalition partners can expect to endure a prolonged and self-inflicted form of Chinese water torture.

Lest this article be misinterpreted, I’m not presenting an argument for more pro-government journalism. That phrase is a contradiction in terms, because it is not the function of journalists to support governments.

Neither am I rushing to the defence of this government because I support it. I didn’t vote for it and I have little confidence in it, but the government was legitimately elected and it deserves a fair shake. It's impossible not to be struck by the sharp contrast between media attitudes toward the previous government and this one.

Rather, I’m appealing for a return to traditional journalistic values of impartiality and balance, the decline of which can be blamed for steadily diminishing public trust in the media. Contrary to what budding journalists are taught in universities (of which Campbell is a product), journalism is not activism.

Campbell’s attacks on the government – and in a broader sense, the sustained offensive from the media at large since last year’s election – place National and its coalition partners in difficult territory. Convention says the government shouldn’t interfere in the editorial decisions of its media outlets. Any such intervention would be portrayed as an intolerable attack on freedom of the press.

There would be uproar from the media and their academic fellow-travellers. Those with long memories would recall the bad old days of the 1960s, when the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation was firmly under government control.

Fear of such a backlash is what Campbell and his bosses will be counting on to prevent the government from acting, but there comes a point when Campbell’s moralistic crusade becomes so brazen and arrogant that it can’t be ignored.

The question then becomes, what would be an appropriate response? In different circumstances, a stern word in private with TVNZ management might have done the job. But Campbell’s adversarial attitude to the government is so public and so obvious that a low-key strategic retreat is not possible. We’ve moved beyond that point. In any case, TVNZ is complicit in his misconduct.

Besides, this is an open democracy and the conduct of government affairs shouldn’t be carried out via covert, Yes, Minister-type manoeuvrings. If action is to be taken, it should be done in such a way that we can all see it.

That points to the nuclear option: a brutal, decisive and very public sacking on the basis that Campbell has betrayed the fundamental duty of impartiality that the public is entitled to expect of journalists in a state-owned media organisation.

If the TVNZ directors objected – as they would presumably feel bound to do, given that they have at least tacitly condoned Campbell’s activism – then they should be encouraged to go too.

In those circumstances, the government would need to be cleaner than clean in its appointment of a new board. Nothing would destroy its credibility more surely than the recruitment of political favourites and brown-nosers.

All this must sound odd, coming from someone who has written two books about the importance of media freedom (the only ones, to my knowledge, that examined the issue in a New Zealand context). The suggestion that a journalist should be fired because of his political views goes against the grain. 

But media freedom cuts both ways. Journalists must be able to report vigorously and fearlessly on matters of public interest. Generally speaking, in New Zealand the law allows them to do so.

But if the media are to retain the trust of the public, they must demonstrate that they can be relied on to report on issues of public interest in a fair, balanced and non-partisan way. Once the media betray that trust, they put their protected status at risk.

It goes without saying that Campbell is as entitled as anyone to say what he thinks about the government. The crucial difference, in his case, is that his personal opinion is seen as carrying the weight of a major state media organisation which is supposed to be apolitical.

He would be in a very different position if he worked for a privately owned media outfit, but employment by a state-owned organisation imposes a special obligation of impartiality. TVNZ is owned by the people, whose allegiances and sympathies cover the entire political spectrum. It takes a special type of hubris to assume that being the Chief Correspondent (whatever that title means) for such an organisation entitles him to impose his own narrow political biases on his audience.

Mention abuse of media power and people tend to think of press barons such as Rupert Murdoch, but Campbell is guilty of abuse in a more subtle form. In fact it could be argued that Murdoch is a more honest abuser of power because he doesn’t seek to disguise his actions behind an ostentatious façade of morality and compassion.

Campbell presents himself as the conscience of the nation, but by positioning himself as the implacable opponent of a democratically elected government, he’s effectively spitting in the faces of the majority of his fellow New Zealanders who voted for it.  He clearly regards himself as above them and above democracy.

He appears to interpret media freedom as giving him licence to wage a divisive and potentially disruptive political campaign, with the backing of a powerful state institution, against a government that he doesn’t think deserved to be elected. It needs to be made clear to him and TVNZ that his position is offensive and untenable, even in a liberal democracy. If that means sacking him, so be it.



David McLoughlin said...

I like John. I like his enthusiasm. I read his article carefully, Karl. It's certainly gushing. He seems to be in awe as he wanders about Tūrangawaewae Marae seeing famous faces. Tama Iti! Captain Underpants himself, Tukoroirangi Morgan! Margaret Mutu! A beaming Kīngi Tuheitia! And all these famous people stop to talk to him as he wanders among them, overcome with the magnificence of the occasion! He can scarcely believe it! Famous faces everywhere and they talk to him!

It's an article I'd expect to find on The Conversation, rather than the news section of the TVNZ website, but John does work for TVNZ and he is a kind of public figure because of that. I don't see his article as trying to bring down the government, I see it more as a gushing gee golly-gosh colour piece about the hui. Of a kind I'd expect from John. Given its placement and prominence, it must have been written and published with the approval of his bosses, so I would be very concerned if he were sacked for it. I'm always concerned at any call for a journalist to be sacked. Our members of Parliament have known what John stands for since well before Helen Clark called him a "little creep" for a story so slanted, one-sided and bereft of salient contrary facts that it makes this latest column seem naive and innocent by comparison.

Anonymous said...

Campbell is not acting in isolation. He is merely the most readily identifiable element of a media which is now captured by Leftist activism. If you read documents prepared by New Zealand On Air as to how the news is to be presented by the media and how journalists are to be trained, you will find that journalists are to pursue the interests of ‘social justice’ and the ‘correct interpretation of te Tiriti’. You will also learn that ‘pakeha institutions’ are ‘racist’. In assailing Campbell for the overtness of his ‘right think’ and activism, you fail to see the myriad more subtle ways that the instruments of the state are attacking the elected government: effectively they have been pre-programmed and trained to do so. This fundamental change from neutrality to the new reality occurred during the last Labour government. Arms of the state were effectively hijacked and programmed to serve the agenda of the Left.

Anonymous said...

I don't see a problem with Campbell reporting the hui from the inside.

What I have a problem with is it seems he spent the day hanging out with and quoting his terrorist pal, Tame Iti.

Still, it could be worse: the Ardern govt paid Tame Iti to spread covid propoganda on TV.

Andy Espersen said...

We have a RNZ Board of Directors precisely to ensure out public-owned broadcasting services remain fair and evenhanded in every sphere - as obliged to be in law. This board is obviously failing - and should be done away with. How do governments really differ from any other owner of any publisher, e.g. a newspaper - except that in a democratic country a government must allow complete political independence to the Editor.

Having political independence is quite different from publishing articles dead against government policies - journalists who do that (like Campbell) should simply be sacked. But here we have a board most of which, as it happens, are also against government policies - they are unable to do just that. We therefore need to do away with the Board - and in its place appoint one old-fashioned Editor-in-chief, who is personally responsible to the Minister of Broadcasting - who must, of course, follow the law. It is surely in order for a government to insist on a certain tone, a certain character, a certain quality of content, etc. in its broadcasting services. And governments change every three years.

How about coming out of retirement for a couple of years and muscle in to get that job for our new government, Karl - once that useless Board is sacked?.

Hiko said...

I dont know what it is with many of these journalists. A huge sense of self importance seems to overide everything else. The display of angst and anger when they are dismissed for any reason highlights this. How dare they dismiss me when I am the only source of truth.
Narcissism seems to be prevalent

Anonymous said...

Karl, you make many good points. The reason for the deterioration in NZ journalism is the loss of so many editors of your generation who subscribed to the Harold Evans school of journalism — clear and concise writing free of the plagues of hyperbole, zombies and parasitical add ons and the use of nuanced adjectives to editorialise in even a straight news story.
I mean editors such as you and Max Lambert and others of your time for whom news worthiness and the facts mattered more than anything.

Bush Apologist said...

The nuclear option would be to sell the place to the private sector, which would in turn force the new directors to impose whatever political position they think is appropriate. Television is a dead format anyway. The government now has many other avenues available to them to disseminate their position to the electorate. The coalition government has already shown a willingness to do this and so perhaps Campbell's behaviour is actually a thinly veiled threat by the broadcaster to demand they be the "visual disseminator of record"?

Max Ritchie said...

The Media Minister is Melissa Lee. She should sack Campbell and the board without delay and tell the owners (aka us) why.

ihcpcoro said...

JC has a cross to bear?

David Harvey said...

I don't like Campbell or his style. Indeed I dissected an earlier critique which can be found here - https://djhdcj.substack.com/p/vox-populi.
But as I said there what Campbell is doing is expressing an opinion and he is free to do that. It may be that because of his journalistic credentials and that he is seen by some as a "national treasure" more weight may be accorded to his opinion, but opinion it is.
I think you will find that the New Zealand Media Council has distinguished opinion from other forms of journalism and the need for balance is not required.
On the other hand Campbell is making it clear where he stands vis a vis our elected representatives and it may be that his credibility may be tarnished if he is going to continue to be so partisan.
That said, the latest piece is typical Campbell - booming self-righteous faux empathy. At least he writes with the same voice that he uses in other media.
But it is still opinion Karl, and he is entitled to it.
And RNZ can provide a platform for him.
As one who values freedom of expression I would not change that.

Tom Hunter said...

Meanwhile in the Europe the EU is silent about what the new Polish government led by former EU bigwig, Donald Tusk, is doing to their state media, This Donald Is A Good Authoritarian:

On the morning of December 20th, riot officers armed with pistols and batons surrounded the headquarters of TVP, Poland’s state broadcaster. Metal barricades were erected, staff vehicles were searched and multiple TV channels were taken off the air. Journalists were locked out of their offices while private security forces in plain clothes attempted to coerce managers into signing letters of resignation.

More rules for thee but not for me.

Anonymous said...

More likely an axe to grind!

Huskynut said...

Chirpy, chatty and naive might be good personal characteristics for a Woman's Day correspondent, but they are woefully inadequate for someone with as senior a role as JCs.
He's clearly overprotective to his role, especially by contrast with some senior Australian journalists who bring gravitas, intellect and a strong institutional memory to their work.

David George said...

KdF: "the decline of [traditional journalistic values] which can be blamed for steadily diminishing public trust in the media."

He wasn't fired but how much credibility does Simon Wilson have remaining after his blatant bullshit during the election campaign? Or the rest of them?

Perhaps it's become so obvious to almost everyone that we have an antigovernment fifth column rather than fair minded journalists, reporters and columnists that everything they write or say is regarded as BS and propaganda.

The comforting belief that "the problem is solving itself", that no one seriously believes anything they write anyway needs to be tempered. Unfortunately, either through habit or due to confirmation bias, many still do believe their BS. We can expect a deep and dangerous polarisation as a consequence.

Karl du Fresne said...

I'm sorry to be coming late to this comment thread, but I was travelling all day yesterday and by the time I reached my destination last night I was too knackered to do much.
To David Harvey, thanks for your valued input. I suggest there's a direct conflict here between freedom of speech, which I absolutely support (I was a founding member of the Free Speech Union) and the convention of journalistic objectivity, which I am just as firmly committed to.
I would argue that the moment someone like John Campbell accepts a very senior position in a publicly owned media organisation, he relinquishes his right to promote his personal views. He's still free to say what he thinks at a private dinner party, but it’s improper as well as arrogant to push his personal opinions (which is all they are - personal opinions) using a very powerful platform which, by well-established tradition and convention, is expected to be neutral.
It's worth noting that for all their shortcomings, other high-profile political journalists keep their views to themselves, as they should.
To David McLoughlin, thank you too. I agree that taken in isolation, Campbell’s latest piece hardly represents a sacking offence. But considered in the context of all his other opinion pieces on the TVNZ website, it shows a striking pattern of antagonism toward the new government and a stubborn refusal to accept the election outcome. (It's also, incidentally, a poor piece of journalism that tells us nothing about what actually happened or was said at the Maori king's hui. It's a self-indulgent meander that, characteristically for Campbell, is long on emotion - the "vibe" - but notably short on substance.)

Eamon Sloan said...

Random thoughts about the John Campbell RNZ piece.

Campbell has thrown in a couple of gratuitous insults regarding Luxon’s Air NZ salary and the number of properties owned. There would be any number or individuals around NZ who have much more wealth than Luxon and are not the target of Campbell’s sarcasm.

Does Campbell have a side-hustle doing PR for ????

Is there such a thing as a Maori knighthood?

Is Campbell a closet separatist?

Or just a grudge and grievance merchant?

From the photos on the RNZ site: Why is Tame Iti wearing a bowler hat? The style made famous world wide by the British. They were the colonisers. Right?

To more serious matters. At least we know what Campbell’s opinions are. Should Maori culture be fearful of what might come out of a Treaty review? And should the wider culture be fearful of what Maori reactions might be? Do we need a Treaty?

From a Stuff article quoting the Maori king: “At the nationwide hui on Saturday, the Maori king said the world was watching and the government would be foolish to underestimate what te ao Māori was capable of.”

Are Maori capable of putting all of their grievances aside once and for all? Or does “capable” have a more sinister meaning?

Link to Stuff article


matt.c said...

Remember the RNZ and TVNZ boards were completely replaced by Willie Jackson last year and NZ ON AIR set up the rules for the PIJF.
The government needs to replace the boards and give clear instruction about balanced, non partisan reporting

Anonymous said...

It seems that when a certain Peter Williams made comment that was unliked by the previous Government that a very long career in journalism was cut short quite quickly. We are at the tail end of the last government's sponsored propaganda program, the PIJF and it is unlikely that the mainstream media will lay down without a fight. I believe New Zealand is a country crying out for unbais media coverage that will actually serve to protect the sanctity of free speech, the unity of a once proud nation and the freedom of oppression from the control of foreign entities, be they corporate, political or fanatical. (That feels better out than in - I won't be upset if you feel this is outside the edit of your article).

David George said...

Distrust in the legacy media isn't limited to the political.
The hyperbolic fear mongering over the weather is quite something. Apparently we're in for a "cyclonic vortex" now. Last week they put out a map to go with the lurid proclamations of life threatening "extreme heat". Seems they've hit the limits of the red spectrum; areas getting thirty degrees have been incinerated to charcoal.

Anonymous said...

Presumably the tirade by Verity Johnson on Stuff is still being funded by the taxpayer. Let it be privately funded . Treaty principles? Made up ones.

DF said...

I will never understand why TV3 never sought to differentiate themselves from TNVZ in their reporting sytle. We don't need/want a FOX News in NZ but any alternative to the craven moralizing and preaching from the likes of JC would be welcome and surely a commercial success?

I also recall a few years back reading an interview with a new Editor at Stuff. I don't recall her name. She stated that part of her mission was to "make New Zealand a better place". That pretty much sums up the problem with much of our news media. How can a supposed news-person feel their job is to make the country better? What are they teaching at journalism school?

Tony M said...

Rather than government getting involved in the ‘journalism’, let the people demonstrate their perspective through the power of the purse. Reduce TVNZ and RNZ funding. This will mean that advertising and ratings will drive content. It will be inconvenient for the Chardonnay socialists in the Wellington bubble to deal with advertising on Radio Red, but it will mean that a greater proportion of users will pay for the content and therefore have a say regarding the content itself

Karl du Fresne said...

TVNZ is already advertising-funded and ratings-driven, which reinforces a point made by other commenters - namely, why should taxpayers own a company that functions in virtually all respects as a totally commercial operation? It makes no more sense than the state owning a chain of fast-food outlets.

Anonymous said...

So the far right is into cancel culture as much as the far left. What a truly sad little opinion piece.

Karl du Fresne said...

You're either being deliberately obtuse or you're genuinely thick. (Your wild misuse of the term "far Right" suggests the latter.) The point of the piece is that Campbell’s habitual and highly political pontificating is incompatible with his position. Even the chair of Australia's ABC, surely one of the most Left-friendly media organisations on earth, says that "being a journalist means that you give up your right to be an activist".

Pearce said...

The government’s most potent communications medium

That's a creative way to describe TVNZ, which is legally guaranteed editorial independence and freedom from political interference.