Thursday, February 22, 2024

The case for objectivity in journalism

The cover story in the latest issue of North & South, headlined A matter of opinion, takes up an issue raised by me twice in recent weeks. The story is subtitled Did John Campbell cross a line? and occupies eight pages.

The catalyst was my blog post of January 23, in which I said it was wrong that TVNZ, a publicly owned media outlet, provided a platform from which its highest-profile journalist was allowed to pursue a campaign against a democratically elected government. This was after the TVNZ website had published a series of trenchant opinion columns in which Campbell made it clear he thought New Zealand voters had made a grievous mistake by electing a centre-right government.

I wrote that Campbell, who has the vague and all-encompassing title of TVNZ’s Chief Correspondent (which presumably gives him licence to range over any subjects that take his fancy) should be sacked for abusing his privileged position by engaging in what I called a highly personal political mission. I said his columns should be seen as a gesture of contempt to all the deplorables who voted for a change of government because they didn’t like what had happened under Labour. I also suggested that the TVNZ directors should be invited to resign, since they were complicit in his misconduct.

Crucially – and this is a point often overlooked, I suspect wilfully, by critics of my piece – I have said that Campbell is entitled to his opinion about the government, and indeed anything else. As I wrote in an earlier post, my objection was to his views being promulgated on the website of a taxpayer-owned broadcaster which has an ethical obligation to observe editorial balance and political neutrality.  To put it another way, my argument was with his misuse of his status to promote personal opinions which, when all is said and done, have no more legitimacy in a democracy than those of a bank teller or bus driver. 

The central issue here is not that Campbell keeps attacking a centre-right government (of which, incidentally, I’m not a supporter, although I think it's a huge improvement on the last lot); it's that he has publicly expressed a political opinion at all. “I’m appealing,” I wrote, “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.”

I was in Australia in the weeks following my post so can’t claim to have kept close track of the reaction, but the column attracted attention both in mainstream media and online. Former New Zealand Herald managing editor Shayne Currie picked up on it in his Media Insider column and RNZ’s Mediawatch discussed it at least once. It was republished on the Bassett, Brash and Hide website, where it attracted more than 6500 views, and provoked an entertainingly splenetic rant on Martyn Bradbury’s The Daily Blog, accompanied by a string of comically inaccurate readers’ comments. (According to Bradbury, I’m a “brownshirt crypto-fascist”. He’s the equivalent of the court jester in a Shakespeare play, babbling incoherently most of the time but occasionally fluking an astute observation – just not in this instance.)

Now North & South has weighed in with a piece in which freelance journalist Jeremy Rose explores the tension between the principle of journalistic objectivity – which, broadly speaking, means impartiality, fairness and balance – and the supposed right of journalists to express their opinions.

As Rose acknowledges at the start of his article – in fact recounts at length over 22 paragraphs – he and I have something of a history, dating back to his time as an earnest leftie producer and presenter of Mediawatch in 2008, when I mentioned him in one of my very first blog posts. That there’s an element of score-settling going on here is apparent from his reference to me as a “provincial New Zealand version of Hedda Hopper – the Hollywood gossip columnist infamous for outing reds under the bed”.

But at least Rose disclosed his bias. And to be fair, once he gets past his apparent antipathy towards me, he presents a balanced picture of the issues and takes the trouble to present my arguments fairly and accurately. Most importantly, he has helped kick-start an overdue debate about the value of objectivity in journalism, which can only be good.

What's striking about Rose's piece is that several of the people he approached for comment about Campbell – people I might have assumed to be on the broadcaster’s side – voiced misgivings about the increasingly blurred line between fact and opinion in journalism.

Former RNZ chief executive Peter Cavanagh, for example, is described as being concerned by the trend to publish more comment masquerading as impartial news coverage. “Removing objectivity from journalism is a very dangerous trend in an increasingly complex world,” Cavanagh is quoted as saying. “I have no doubt that it’s the blurring of the lines between fact and opinion that is driving the growing distrust many now have of mainstream media.”

This is no crusty reactionary speaking. Cavanagh ran a left-leaning RNZ and previously served as head of news and current affairs for Australia’s impeccably woke SBS.

Rose also quotes his former RNZ Mediawatch colleague Colin Peacock, who says Campbell’s November 25 column savaging the new government “does kind of cross a line for me”. He accurately describes the column as “very condemnatory and very personal – the sort of thing you might see in Metro magazine rather than in the opinion and analysis section of a publicly owned broadcaster”. 

Victoria University media studies professor Peter Thompson (like those mentioned above, no right-winger) is another who sees a risk that TVNZ’s publication of strident opinion pieces by its most senior journalist could erode public trust. While noting that Campbell is a very capable journalist (which I don't disagree with), Thompson says there’s a conflict between his role as an opinionated commentator and his other function, which involves him in the production and presentation of news. This, he says, can lead to mistrust of the media and perceptions of bias.

You’d think TVNZ would be alert to this danger, especially given its fragile financial health, but there’s no sign that its bosses and directors are remotely concerned. I think they’re detached from reality.

Strangely, Thompson then muddies the waters by saying he doesn’t think Campbell’s columns are a very serious issue, because they’re clearly labelled as opinion. It’s an argument others have used and it misses the point entirely, which is that Campbell is misusing his privileged position as a public broadcaster. This imposes obligations of impartiality that Campbell and his employer either don’t recognise or fail to accept. As Ita Buttrose, the high priestess of the Australian media and chair of Australia’s (left-leaning) Australian Broadcasting Corporation, pointedly said in a lecture last year, “being a journalist means that you give up your right to be an activist”.

PARTICULARLY interesting, for me, are the comments in the North & South article by Al Morrison, RNZ’s former political editor (and before that, a writer of editorials and feature stories for The Dominion and chief reporter for the Evening Post) who went on to head the Department of Conservation and later took a high-powered job in the State Services Commission.

Al and I worked together at both the Dominion and the Evening Post and he was probably the first journalist I had met who rejected the idea of objectivity, a subject on which he and I civilly disagreed. Al, like John Campbell, had bypassed the traditional entry route into journalism, arriving in the newsroom after previously working as a teacher and then completing a post-graduate course in journalism at Canterbury University. 

He hadn’t served the customary newspaper cadetship and therefore hadn’t been inoculated with the view that journalists must set their personal views aside. He represented a new breed of university-educated journalists who brought to the job an intellectual and ideological framework that distinguished them from ordinary hack reporters who took the view that their job was to tell stories, report facts and convey other people’s opinions, but never their own.

Al pushed the now-fashionable view that all human beings have their own inbuilt and often unconscious prejudices that influence our decision-making and that it’s therefore impossible to make strictly objective judgments. Rose in his article takes a similar line, writing that “every journalist is somewhere on the left-right spectrum”. Yes, but generations of journalists were trained to keep their own opinions to themselves. Newspaper readers would have been hard-pressed, for example, to discern the political views of most leading press gallery reporters. I didn’t know myself, and I worked with some of them.

According to the “objectivity is impossible” argument, all decisions in journalism – which stories to cover, how much prominence to give them, what editorial angle to take, who to interview, what to emphasise in the headline and so forth – are subjective and thus at risk of being distorted by personal perspectives. Ergo, objectivity isn’t worth even attempting.

My response is that at every step in the editorial process, journalists can (and mostly do, even today) set aside individual biases. There are well-established rules and principles that ensure they do, in the same way that judges, police officers and even sports referees are expected to carry out their duties impartially (and generally do). Politics and ideology should never intrude in editorial decision-making and readers or viewers shouldn't be put in the position of wondering whether the news has been subjected to political spin. 

Journalists have understood and operated by these principles for decades. New Zealand has a Media Council (formerly the Press Council) to adjudicate in cases where journalists are alleged to have abused the rules. The very existence of a regulatory body charged with upholding principles of fairness, accuracy and impartiality is evidence that the rules are clearly defined and workable. But no one should be in any doubt that those principles are under sustained attack from within the media, and the assault on the supposedly unattainable ideal of objectivity is a key part of that.

Judging by his comments in North & South, Al hasn’t retreated from his views on the futility of striving for objectivity. Yet he concedes, rather contradictorily, that it’s “an ideal to be pursued”, just as long as you accept that it can’t be achieved. Tellingly, Al also acknowledges there’s a problem because “consumers of news” can find it difficult to distinguish straight reportage from a journalist’s opinions.

Exactly. I would argue that one leads inexorably to the other. Once you allow journalists to abandon the principle of objectivity, you open the door to a confusing melange of fact and comment that leaves viewers and readers scratching their heads, resenting the spin, distrusting mainstream journalism and turning to social media in the hope of finding the truth. (Good luck with that.)

Journalists of a previous generation didn’t incur this risk, because they stuck to clearly understood rules. The principle of objectivity is our only protection against politically motivated journalists spinning the news in whatever way suits their ideological agenda, which can only diminish media credibility and contribute to the further decline of a previously vital civil institution that should play a central role in the affairs of the nation. There are no winners here, apart perhaps from malevolent players in the shadowy online demimonde.

ROSE’S piece recalls a quote from Campbell, back in his Campbell Live days on TV3, in which he said: “I’ve never met a journalist who didn’t want to change the world and make it a better place. Without exception that’s why they get into journalism.”

Here he inadvertently pinpoints a generational change that has transformed journalism, and not in a good way. I entered journalism more than 20 years before Campbell, and I can’t recall any journalists then who thought they were on a mission to change the world. 

That’s an attitude that began to emerge in the 1970s, gathering momentum through the 80s and 90s to the point where it’s now entrenched. It coincided with the gradual academic takeover of journalism training, which had previously been done in the workplace. American ideas about the function of journalism, often promulgated by leftist sociologists, were highly influential in this process and have partially supplanted the British model that previously held sway.

It was in the late 1970s that I first encountered colleagues who saw journalism as a tool for the promotion of political causes, but the great majority of the hundreds of journalists I worked during my career simply wanted to tell stories. Many took pride in regarding journalism as a trade rather than a profession and bristled at the latter description. Politics and ideology rarely, if ever, intruded on their work and in most cases I had no idea of my colleagues’ politics. Those who did air their political views in the pub were mostly left-wing (hardly surprising, given that many journalists came from working-class backgrounds), but they never considered it their role to pursue political agendas on the job. What drove traditional journalism was a belief in the public’s right to know, which has nothing to do with ideology.

If there was a political dimension to their work, it was simply the belief that journalists had a duty to provide people with important and useful information about what was going in their  local communities, in the nation and in the wider world. Of course this sometimes involved reporting things that people in power would have preferred to keep secret. To that extent, news often had political repercussions, but that was a consequence rather than an explicit purpose.

The idea that journalism was all about championing aggrieved minority groups (aka identity politics) and challenging oppressive power structures came much later. The result, as I see every day in my local paper, is that we now have a generation of young journalists who are incapable of writing a simple, straightforward news story (this, after spending a year supposedly learning how to do it) yet feel competent to produce personal comment pieces masquerading as editorials.

As recently as 20 years ago, the exact reverse was true. 
Was the public better served then? I think so, but many younger journalists would disagree. Problem is, most of them didn’t experience that era, so wouldn’t know.

Watergate, which fostered the romantic idea that journalism was all about bringing down corrupt people in power, had a lot to answer for. The advent of journalists' bylines, often accompanied by their mug shots, exacerbated things by boosting reporters' egos and inflating their self-importance.

CAMPBELL, significantly, was not a product of the era when old-school chief reporters and sub-editors pulled ambitious young thrusters into line. According to his Wikipedia entry he received no journalism training, obtaining his first broadcasting job (in which capacity I first met him) after completing a BA with Honours in English literature.

Clever, charming and confident (all of which is still true), he was fast-tracked to celebrity status. I think his lack of any grounding in the traditional culture, ethos and discipline of journalism – yes, discipline – is reflected in his belief that his position at TVNZ gives him licence to pontificate at will. It’s possible he has become such a household name that he thinks he has escaped the constraints accepted as a matter of course by lesser journalists.

But as I said in response to a recent comment on my blog: “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.”

This is not just my view. In the aforementioned lecture last year in honour of a former ABC journalist, Ita Buttrose observed: “Good journalism is never about lecturing the public on what they should think. Good journalism is about reporting, just the facts – not opinion. It is about listening to community concerns and fashioning them into powerful stories that inform and illuminate; stories that are backed by evidence and take a fair and impartial point of view.” Note those crucial words: fair and impartial.

Coming from the woman who chairs a powerful media organisation (the equivalent of our TVNZ and RNZ combined) that’s regarded by conservative Australian commentators as overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Left, Buttrose’s statement had a particular resonance. And she’s not alone in her view that journalists should keep their personal views out of their work. In a recent furore over the sacking of an ABC host, even the ABC Alumni – an association of former staff – issued a statement saying it “understands and respects the principle that staff at the ABC should not allow their personal opinions to intrude on their work”. On this crucial issue, our Australian neighbours – even left-leaning ones – may be ahead of us.

I WAS pleased to hear that Emile Donovan, the new host of Nights on RNZ, seems to get this. Discussing my blog post on Midweek Mediawatch with presenter Hayden Donnell, Donovan gently challenged Donnell’s assertion that “you can’t insist that people [such as Campbell] don’t have opinions”. Donovan countered: “Isn’t that the skill set of the journalist – to hold personal opinions but to strive for the ideal of objectivity?” Precisely.

It was interesting to hear Donnell then subtly shift his ground even as he was having a crack at me. He ended up conceding that if a prominent TVNZ columnist criticised a left-wing government – a highly unlikely scenario – there would be an outcry from the Left. 

Donnell’s proposed solution to the tension between objectivity and the right to hold an opinion is that journalists should act as “fair brokers”, whatever that means. To that, I would say it’s surely better to have clear, sharp, unambiguous rules than to rely on vague, fuzzy terms like “fair broker” that journalists are left to define for themselves.

A few other points arising from the North & South article:

■ It quotes former Auckland Star editor and veteran journalism tutor Jim Tucker as suggesting, in the 1999 journalism textbook Intro, that objectivity in journalism was unattainable. But I’m sure that in his earlier days as an editor, Jim (who’s an old mate of mine) would have insisted, like all his contemporaries, on adherence to the principles of objectivity. I suspect that after he moved into academia he fell prey to the American influence that contaminated New Zealand journalism teaching. If so, he wasn’t the first. (Jim himself ended up getting an MA in media ethics.)

■ Rose highlights an old magazine interview in which Campbell ridiculed the notion that journalists should always seek the other side of the story. “At the liberation of Auschwitz, would you give the SS the right of reply?” Campbell asked rhetorically. I’ve seen this argument before and it’s pure sophistry, because it chooses the most extreme example imaginable (as Campbell more or less admitted). A more relevant analogy might be the 1981 Springbok Tour. Almost everyone accepts that apartheid, like Nazi genocide, was evil, but the question of whether New Zealand should maintain sporting contact with South Africa was far more nuanced. Would supporters of the tour be allowed their say today? Judging by the way the media have collectively agreed to shut down legitimate expressions of scepticism about climate change, I couldn’t confidently answer that question in the affirmative. (For the record, I marched against the tour.)

■ Both Rose and Donnell pounced on my statement that TVNZ is “the government’s most potent communication medium” and inferred authoritarian overtones, as if I were endorsing some sort of Russian or North Korean model of state control. I suspect they wilfully misread a rather clumsy choice of words. I wasn’t implying that TVNZ should function as a state propaganda arm; anyone who knows me would realise that’s absurd. What I should have said was that TVNZ is a potent communication medium owned by the government, which conveys a rather different shade of meaning.

■ A TVNZ spokeswoman quoted in Shayne Currie’s Herald article said that opinion pieces such as those on the TVNZ website “play a role in holding power to account, reflecting different perspectives and driving huge digital audiences”. She went on: “John’s pieces are doing that – they’re resonating with New Zealanders who agree or disagree with the perspective and driving huge digital audiences. Given du Fresne also engages in this style of reporting himself, the irony is not lost on us.” This is an example of false equivalence and I suspect the TVNZ spokeswoman knows it. I’m a private, unpaid blogger with no official standing and an average 2000-odd readers a day; Campbell is a highly paid national celebrity, the Chief Correspondent of a powerful, state-owned organisation, with formidable resources behind him and a massive potential audience reach. Besides, I don’t purport to “report” on anything. What I write is clearly my opinion and in contrast with Campbell, it risks no confusion with reportage. TVNZ compounded this dishonesty by telling North & South that its opinion columns “bring a broad range of perspectives to the forefront”, but I’ve yet to see it publish any opinion that could be described as remotely conservative. (Interestingly enough, at least two of Campbell’s most inflammatory anti-government columns seem to have disappeared from the TVNZ website. Is this an acknowledgement that the criticism is striking home and the objections to his naked bias are valid?)

■ Campbell responded to written questions for the North & South piece rather than being interviewed. His answers are rambling and replete with references to “right-wing, Pakeha men” and “cultural hegemony”. He cites, as an authority for his rejection of objectivity, an American journalist who wrote about editorial decisions being made “almost exclusively by upper-class white men”, which may have been true in the US but not, in my experience, in New Zealand, where I have never experienced an "upper-class" editor but have had the pleasure of working alongside some exceptionally competent female editorial decision-makers. It would be helpful if we stuck to examples that are relevant here. Campbell also makes the mistake of suggesting that because lots of other people write opinion pieces, he should be free to do so too – sidestepping the vital distinction, as highlighted by me and others interviewed for the story, that he’s employed by a public broadcaster.

To summarise the above, what we have here is a clash between two competing models of journalism – one that has endured for generations and another of relatively recent origins. I think I know which of the two models serves the public interest better and which is more likely to ensure the media’s survival. That is, if it’s not already too late.

Footnote: This is my last post, at least for the foreseeable future. I am placing my blog in indefinite recess. This has nothing to do with John Campbell or any other issue that I’ve written about. The truth is that after coming back from a recent holiday with family in Queensland, I realised that my heart’s no longer in it. This doesn’t mean I don’t feel as strongly about the issues I write about; rather, it’s the act of writing that I can no longer muster the energy for. Fortunately there’s now no shortage of other conservative (or should I say crypto-fascist?) bloggers, such as Graham Adams, to take up any slack. I extend my heartfelt thanks to all those who read me (more than three million views since I started blogging in 2008), and in particular to those who have taken the trouble to contribute often thoughtful and erudite comments. I can’t guarantee that nothing will happen to make me burst back into action, but for now I’m signing off. (The blog will stay online and any comments on this post will still be welcome.)