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.)


Anonymous said...

Sorry, I don't have a Google account or a URL but thought this just released A G Sulzberger interview might be of interest to you:

"As you say, I come from the reporting tradition and it is my first and greatest love and the heart of what we do at the Times. As the industry declined in expert on-the-ground reporting, the New York Times added a historic number of people doing that type of work, and it’s the thing I’m most proud of.

As you noted, we moved opinion down the page because my view is that the internet is oddly engineered to grease the flow of opinions but reporting doesn’t always find its audience, especially the boring but important topics that we feel so committed to writing about. So we are making reporting even more central than it has always been on our page.

As for opinions, we are labelling them much more aggressively. Even if fewer people click on them as a result, we want to make it clear that opinion journalism is something different. ..."

LNF said...

Pity. Your blog is very inspiring but I fully understand your loss of will to continue
John Campbell. - Cringeworthy and I never watch him
But then I come from an era of reading the Dominion on the train to Wgtn in the morning and the Evening Post at night on the way home. I also remember your departed brother who was a fantastic broadcaster from his days in Kapiti and Levin - RIP
Best wishes

Anonymous said...

Dear Karl,

Thank you for the perspectives you have offered over many great blogs.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading them and it has made me feel less alone in NZ.
I came here from Europe 13 years ago and have witnessed how things have changed.
And not for the better IMO.
But there we are.
Such a fantastic place with so much potential, just mucking it up.
Everything to be Te Tiriti-led, though no one really knows what that means when it comes to a University or a Museum or...
Emperor's new clothes.


Anonymous said...

It is instructive to compare the present day North and South with the magazine it was back in the late 80s/early 90s. Back in those days I was a teenager contemplating a career in journalism and I remember devouring every issue of North and South (and Metro) and marvelling at the (generally) high standard of the research and writing. Journalists back then were not always fully “objective” but most made an honest attempt to do so and they took the time to dive deep into a subject, represent the issues from all sides and columns of 5000 words or more were the norm. Perhaps my memory is faulty but I think I recall Warwick Roger saying at the time that objectivity in journalism is like the quest for perfection - we will probably never get there, but if journalism is to maintain its credibility as a discipline, it is something that all journalists should strive for.

Today, both magazines are a far cry from what they used to be. They are both still capable of a good story but seldom do writers from either of those magazines now dig deep into a subject. I guess it was all too good to last and of course it didn’t. I don’t wish to single out those two publications - I think the trend is everywhere across the media. Look how the Listener went into a nosedive after 1990 for instance.

Speaking of too good to last - it’s sad to see you go Karl! Thank you for all your blog posts over the last 16 years - you had the courage to articulate the views that many ordinary New Zealanders were expressing, but which never found a place in the mainstream media. I wish you all the best and I will return periodically in the hope that you do decide to post again.

Jade Warrior said...

I enjoy reading your comments and will miss them, like Sir Robert J. All the best

Anonymous said...

I do hope you change your mind. Your well-informed commentary will be greatly missed.

Dave Lenny

Paul Peters said...

All the best Karl. I enjoy your columns as a counter to the deluge of ''correct'' opinion material often weaved through ''news'' on MSM .
Hope you return even if perhaps less frequently .
Someone on here wondered about treaty-led museums. I see Auckland War Memorial Museum is about to change to a social impact narrative agenda. I imagine exhibits will be removed or adjusted to illustrate the narrative of CRT... like the Bad Captain Cook spin with a cannon, by an academic, as the entry point on one floor of the Te Papa Museum.
Govts may change but the activist grip on local govt, local facilities and education is tight and unrelenting .

Cheers and thanks again . Paul Peters

Anonymous said...

What are we to make of Mike Hosking's opinion-style pieces? Is the distinction simply one is a public and the other a private broadcaster? Hosking certainly also has a huge audience. That would seem to be an unfair advantage to the wannabe opinion writer working for a private broadcaster. Broadly speaking tho I agree a reporter should put their opinions to oneside in newswriting. Perhaps
therein lies the distinction the reporter vs the journalist. I would certainly expect a senior specialist journalist to be able provide analysis and offer opinions in their area of expertise.

Flash said...

Sorry to see you go Karl. Your blog (and its comments page) are by far the most civilised corner of the internet I have come across. Enjoy your break. I'll miss your input.

Peter Dale said...

I am no journalist but I know so much more about the trade than I did due to your blog, Karl. Labours of love, in your case your blog, are just that. When you fall out of love with them it is critical that it can be detected and remedied otherwise love becomes like and opinion becomes whine. I will miss your letters. Thank you for the education.

Malcolm Mackay said...

Your final post is as reasoned and well-argued as all of your previous ones.
Thank you for clear-eyed contribution to the debates on various topics over the years. I agree with you almost always.
All the best for the future.
You are greatly appreciated.

Hilary Taylor said...

Ah Karl...I'm a bit teary on this lovely ChCh Fri now. Almost finished your song-title tour book here beside me on the nightstand, good things can't be rushed. (Your remarks about the ubiquity of the 'valley girl' accent in the States chimed with my observance of something similar happening in the accents of the actors in Coronation St...yes, I'm hanging on by the fingernails..). Going out with a right banger, no pun, lord you'll be missed. Much love & grateful thanks for it all. Like others I'll keep an eagle eye out. Ciao ciao for now.

Leigh said...

Excellent post Karl- I argued the journo objectivity point with a short lived Dom Post editor last year but she didn't get it. Depressing

JeffW said...

You’ll be missed, very much.
Never watch John Campbell, TVNZ or 3News. All propaganda with some celebrity worship thrown in, with the former being cringeworthy in my judgement.
Sad to see you go, and hope you find the reason for the occasional piece.

zeke said...

Irrespective; there will always be a place for truth. You would be well aware of that Karl.

The new era and the space that 'The News' fulfills, or what is passed off as being news, is now solely up to the reader to ascertain its worthiness.

What news I want to read, I do so. if the article appeals then I will devote the time, otherwise its birdcage material for all of it.
When I was a young fella in the Hutt I was paid ten bob a week to deliver it.
Then as I became more sophisticated and had time in the evenings I bought the paper mainly for the comics and the horoscope.
The Horoscope I believe, was composed by the junior news room staff before they were allowed to knock off for the day.
Now the horoscope material has become prime news and the production thereof fought over by the kings and queens of the news rooms.

Times have changed. The net has opened up new horizons.
I now select my source for news based solely on the content of the journalism involved.

In the new age of social media there are old journalists stuck in a time warp; being condemned to preach to their rapidly diminishing and equally empty classrooms.
Is it sad.... I guess so. The daily rag was once very much part of our lives.
But their demise is very much comprised of their own stupidity.
I thought they were supposed to be smart; Smart would be an ability to read. Would it not ?
Rather ironic to say the least.

With a newspaper it was a lonely experience, you read it and were left to ponder as to the authenticity.
Whereas with the net, the world, as well as a blog like this, you finally get to read opinion and what others think about it.
I'm old enough to enjoy any delay.

Sad to see you go though Karl.
I thoroughly enjoyed your presence among the favorites section of my laptop.

Gary Peters said...

All the best for the future Karl and thanks for the thoughful discourse.

Sad to see you go but I do understand the "grind" out there that has worn many a wise man down over the past few years.

Martin Hanson said...

So sorry that you're finishing. You and Graham Adams are the only antidotes to the Left-wing propaganda that masquerades as journalism. You will be greatly missed.

Tom Hunter said...

I wasn’t implying that TVNZ should function as a state propaganda arm...

The unspoken bit is that for the last six years it effectively did, and the likes of Campbell had no problems with that - at least according to those who watched and listened to them (all aged over 65 and most over 70). I haven't watched TVNZ since 2000 or listened to RNZ since 2015.

Re the "objectivity can't be attained" goal: yes, I saw through that claim in the 1980's when even then it was obviously an excuse for "we can be as subjective as we like", and then went ahead be exactly like that. BTW, Campbell has been extolling his love of Pilger and Chomsky for decades now.

Meantime the private MSM is dying fast. I doubt this National-led government will have the stones to do it but at some stage in the future a right-wing government will pull the plug on the Public MSM (RNZ, TVNZ, NZ On Air) the simple basis that tax payers can't afford to fund something that hardly anybody watches anymore.

Ben Thomas said...

"Good journalism is never about lecturing the public on what they should think." I recall that a former head of TVNZ News said that the purpose of news reporting was to "tell people what to think". That view is evidently still in place.

R Singers said...

Hey Karl, sorry to hear you are giving up writing. If you get the itch again it will be interesting to read about something more local than national politics. Your writing is a refreshing change from the dross from the likes of Hayden Donnell.

Vaughan said...

As a reporter who worked with Karl when he was a news editor, I want to vouch for his amazing journalistic ability, his impeccable ethics, his superb news judgement and his warmth and intelligence as a human being.

He has a great sense of humour too. He teased me rather than chastised me if I came close to missing a deadline.

I knew Karl was traditional (rather than conservative) in that he lived good moral values without preaching, was tolerant of others, and a stickler for journalistic standards.

I am sure he had no idea of my political views, and I had no idea of his.

What I knew was he wanted a good story for the front page, on time, with all points covered, and not favouring any point of view.

He is an excellent writer and sometimes makes me feel lacking in comparison yet grateful to have worked with one of New Zealand's most accomplished journalists.

Patrick said...

To the person above discussing Mike Hosking's opinion-style pieces. They are indeed opinions from Mike as a broadcaster rather than a journalist. That's because he has stated time and time again he is not a journalist and that these are his opinions. John Campbell however never states that whatever he puts out is an opinion. But like Mike Hosking, you either like him or loathe him so I suppose they have that much in common.

Anonymous said...

Oh no....I've only just found your blog! But thank you for your inspirational and stimulating articles. I hope you have a change of heart at some stage.

Ivan Dyer said...

Very best wishes Karl. Opere et Veritate.

Phil said...


Your blog has been a much needed tonic over the last few years, thank you. I hope you take some time out and come back. Another blog I tune into called The Abbey of Misrule, the writer also stopped blogging on social commentary but later came back with a different theme altogether and now chats mostly about wells in Ireland but still well written. Hopefully you will get your passion back

mudbayripper said...

Thank you Karl for giving me some faith.
Go well.

Graham Adams said...

I’m very sorry, Karl, that you are not going to be blogging “for the foreseeable future” — although, like many here, I’m hoping your eyesight isn’t very good and you’ll be back soon.

One point that is rarely raised in the opinion vs objectivity debate is that we expect our senior government bureaucrats to not air their political preferences publicly — and when they do announce them, they are liable to be sacked (eg Rob Campbell). I can’t see why we shouldn’t expect the same of journalists working for state-owned / funded media.

And thanks for the link to my latest column. Much appreciated. Graham

Huskynut said...

Great swansong piece, Karl. Like others, I thank you for your service and hope you return at some time.
I find the new journalistic outlook massively pretentious.
Cops have personal views of right and wrong but swear to uphold the law as written. GPs may disapprove of a patient smoking but withdrawing assistance due to disapproval would be an ethical breach.
The idea journalist's can't behave similarly so shouldn't even try is just self-indulgent Pablum.

hughvane said...

Many thanks Karl for your insightful blogs, enjoy your time of respite and rest - and please take this as a firm invitation to add your comments on other writers' pieces.

ihcpcoro said...

I think this country owes a great deal to Karl, and the many others who perservered with publishing views contrary to the MSM, in what will be looked back on as NZ's dark days of the last 3 years particularly. Kiwis are traditionally a trusting lot, many of whom have now lost faith in all public institutions, including government itself. That is not what defined us or our country. Thankyou Karl for your balanced views, plus the many others (such as Muriel Newmann) who have worked tirelessly at a task that should not have been necessary in hitherto more normal times. It has been an exhausting experience, but a very necessary scrap if we still believe in democracy. Cheers and all the best. Ian Penrose.

Anonymous said...

Today more than ever we need people such as you to stand in the way of the left wing woke juggernaut by opening our eyes and also remind us of what should be and where we are going.
Don't put the pen in the bottom drawer just yet.

Anonymous said...

Not so fast Karl. It is your public duty to remain in the saddle as a greatly valued commentator. We live in extraordinary times, and we need all the wisdom we can find. This column proves the point. Therefore your resignation is not accepted.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much Karl, I will miss your wonderful columns. Go well.

Anonymous said...

thanks Karl. all the best

Anonymous said...

Hi Karl. A herculean post from you & as usual every word is on point.

We perhaps don’t realise what we’ve got till it’s gone so this is a sad day for me to hear you are stopping your blog. I hope - and I’m certain all other readers here will agree - that just like Sir Bob Jones you will get itchy fingers & fire your keyboard up again.

It has been a real privilege to read your excellent articles over many years. Thankyou.

Regards Steve.

Michael Johnston said...

Thank you for all of your contributions to public discourse, Karl, from your journalism and editorship in print media, to your regular opinion columns in the Dom Post, to your 15-or-so years of blogging. I'll miss your voice in the public sphere and wish you all the very best.

Karl du Fresne said...

My thanks for all the generous comments above. They are greatly appreciated, even though I feel they overstate my contribution.
I mentioned Graham Adams in my post, but in hindsight I should also have highlighted the work of the indefatigable Muriel Newman, whose Breaking Views blog ( has for many years provided an outlet for alternative perspectives that the mainstream media refuse to recognise.

Tom Hunter said...

Yes, I'm sorry to see this but I do get the bit about your heart no longer being in it after so many years. I worry that people such as you will depart and leave even more of the stage to the likes of Campbell.

And on that front, out of the USA, Hi, I'm John Avlon and I'm running for Congress because TRUUUUMMMMPPPPPP, and as the commentator Ace of Spades puts it:

Wait, this can't be right.

It says here that John Avlon is a Democrat, and apparently a MAGA-hating liberal extremist Democrat, but I know my eyes must be deceiving me, because when he was on CNN he claimed to be an objective journalist without fear or favor for either party.

And yet... I can't shake the nagging feeling that someone is lying to me here.

I doubt will ever see Campbell run for Parliament here because he probably reckons his influence is bigger where he is - and he'd be right.

Tim O'Neill said...

I too, will miss your thoughts, all the best

Ricardo said...


Not farewell just au revoir.

Your contributions have always been principled, insightful, thought provoking and well written. I am in agreement with your approach as well as, increasingly, that of Chris Trotter; something which would have surprised me several years ago. Perhaps the times we live in bring together old opponents with shared and enduring liberal values.


David Thompson said...

Often when musicians get older they continue producing recordings but fail to recognise that they are no longer imbued with the talent and creative melodies that they once presented. Journalists should be the opposite, because they have the opportunity to write individual pieces on any day that utilise all of their skills of investigative research and observation across a wide spectrum of topics. And those skills, gained over many years, are exactly what we need in New Zealand now, more than ever before. “In the tank” has been used in a few places over the last year, Karl. But whereas we might be happy to see those weary incompetents leave the fray, perhaps you just need a holiday at the beach, some sunshine and good books to read, some good Kiwi tucker with your family and friends before the realisation hits that you have an essential role to fill, still, and a capability to do so. Even if you don’t say “Kiwi”! Best wishes, good luck - and when the tank has some gas again, do keep writing. Objectively, of course.

Jack Tuohy said...

A sad day indeed Karl and here's hoping the urge will return and soon.

I second all the best wishes and compliments of others and particularly endorse Ian Penrose's comment that "this country owes a great deal to Karl, and the many others who persevered with publishing views contrary to the MSM".

Thank you for providing so much well reasoned commentary over so many years and thank you also to the many interesting, informed and entertaining commenters on your blogs.

Stay well,
Jack Tuohy

David Cohen said...

Thanks for all your pieces over the years, including the ones every now and then I didn't agree with. In my case, that's going back a long way, to a cover piece you wrote about professional wrestling for the Listener, which I think was the first time I ever read the magazine. It's always good to move on to new things. I look forward to seeing and reading whatever comes next.


Karl du Fresne said...

Thank you, David. I barely remember the pro wrestling piece, which would have been about 1980. Even after writing that story, I couldn’t be sure whether the wrestling circuit was pure theatre or whether there was an element of genuine menace. One or two of those guys were seriously scary.

Andy Espersen said...

What an hugely interesting, informative treatise on the change in journalism in New Zealand over the last 40 years – written by a masterful investigative journalist! By an insider! You, Karl, have been witnessing all this throughout your working career. It is a global matter, really : the slow infiltration of postmodern philosophy into our Western civilisations. I Google the question “What is postmodernism ?” - and I am told :

As a philosophy, postmodernism rejects concepts of rationality, objectivity, and universal truth. Instead, it emphasizes the diversity of human experience and multiplicity of perspectives

You put it all so well, Karl - but I look in vain for a solution to our problem. Please, let me attempt to give us one such :

In 1989 the NZ Broadcasting Act was passed. In those days we all had the examples from Nazism and Communism in fresh memory – and for a government to own a publishing agency was very controversial. In the US that is still the case – but most democratic countries realise that public ownership of a news and entertainment agency is actually desirable. A country needs a mass medium not depending on advertisements or other money considerations for survival. It was felt that New Zealand needed a Broadcasting Board of Governors to guarantee standards consistent with 1. the observance of good taste and decency; 2. the maintenance of law and order; 3. the privacy of the individual; 4. the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

We now find that the NZ Broadcasting Board of Directors (as they are now called) is blithely disregarding item 4 above. Worse, as Karl so ably proves above – the Board is actively sanctioning programs that are directly against the policies of the government of the day, and will tolerate no demands from the politicians as regards many non-political issues

This cannot be tolerated. My solution is that the NZ Broadcasting Board must be dismissed. We do not need it. It is of no importance – and it has failed in its duties. The Minister of Broadcasting, Melissa Lee (and Parliamentary Under-Secretary Jenny Marcroft), must in its stead appoint a couple of highly paid, intellectually able, very ordinary, old fashioned Chief Editors, I suggest Graham Adams could be one (or Karl du Fresne if he could be tempted out of retirement for a year or two!). Legislation guaranteeing political independence already exists - and in New Zealand Cabinet Ministers obey the law.

As for your retirement from it all, Karl : I think I understand you. Of course, we will all miss your regular thoughts and articles. Your blog was in effect a continuation of your journalistic work – and you have now had enough of it! You want to be properly retired. Good on you!! You will find retirement is the most pleasant job you’ve ever had.

Anonymous said...

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.
Hi Karl. I have touching distance experience of the above regarding your local paper and its fresh faced young journalists as well as its local democracy reporters.
All that you write about is true and clearly the teaching and practise of objective journalism and reporting the facts have been vengefully discarded by their teachers and institutions of learning. I won’t venture into the reasons why but what I know is that these ‘journalists’ have no concept of presenting their reports with the required Ws, or in most cases write a readable report that give the readers the news. They prefer writing opinion pieces because that way they don’t have to do any groundwork or walk the hard yards. All sad but true.

Doug Longmire said...

Excellent article, Karl.
Like many others above I wish you all the best, and thank you for your very high quality blogs and articles over the year. Your excellent journalism will be sorely missed.
Thanks Again, Karl. Enjoy your retirement !

Doug Longmire said...

On a separate topic:- I do not watch John Campbell with his unctuous, cringeworthy manner !

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the years of engagement as a citizen, in the best traditions of the Greek city states. You can take satisfaction at lining up with other men and Socrates, who opened minds, and not the dogs after power like meat, Alcibiades their champion.
John Campbell unfortunately is an ill trained dog who will not learn to balance the flesh on his nose until command given. But it’s the dog itself I object to, more than it’s obvious behaviour. And all such dogs.

Anonymous said...

Put your feet up for a spell but please don't hang up your pen.
There are far too many loose units waiting to be put under your magnifying glass.
Look forward to seeing you back in print real soon.
Nick Theobald

Anonymous said...

Sadly the Newshub announcement today has illustrated in stark relief the consequences of the style of "journalism" that has now been taught to several generations of people who describe themselves as journalists.
They have been infected with the idea that their role is to "change the world" rather than report the news as impartially and objectively as possible; as was drilled into earlier generations who came into the trade via the cadetship system.
In so thoroughly betraying the founding principles of a calling that played such an invaluable role in society for centuries, they have become the authors of their own downfall.
We are all the losers for it.

David Thompson said...

I would suggest that, today, the readers expecting unbiased reporting are all the winners. I know that since the Ardern Government arrived and started proclaiming that they were the trusted source of the truth, whilst having been discovered on many occasions to be just the opposite and to be concealing topics of relevance to voters, I have roamed across the internet looking for many different sources of reporting. These were often on the same global topics and the partisan concealments were astounding. Later evidence revealed cover ups and direct lies in the media coverage and it is still happening today. Newshub staff member Mike McRoberts has been invited, today, by Sean Plunket, to contact The Platform. Mike’s ethical and conscientious reporting and presentations rank high on my list. He sets a benchmark on TV news. So today, the reality of where the MSM has sunk has been revealed. Viewers have gone because they don’t trust the pigeons with the messages and with them have gone the advertisers. No money, no jobs. How many staff are looking in a mirror tonight and saying “I wish I had done more ……. but not the same”! Too little, too late.

B DeL said...

Sorry to see your blogs stop (for now?) I've read all of them over the years.
Bruno DeL

Bill Moore said...

A heartfelt thank you for your clarity and accuracy, your masterful style and above all, your courage. I might disagree with your opinion from time to time but as a retired hack I can only admire your ability to express it.

Philip O'Brien said...

Thank you for your posts Karl.
A refreshing change from the usual media diet.
I remember you at Silverstream.
You were much the senior, and won't remember me.

Nick Wempe said...

I have not done you the courtesy, Karl, of posting prior to this. I have enjoyed your blog for many years and this latest article no less. I wish you the best for the moment and hope to see your blog again in the future.

Nick Wempe

Karl du Fresne said...

Good to hear from you. Silverstream crossed my mind last Sunday. They were good years - well, for me, anyway.
Thank you. Much appreciated.

Alex said...

Seems there are 57 varieties of Campbell comments.
Until I wrecked it.

Tony Penman said...

Karl, I will greatly miss your blogs. Anyway indicator of why NZ MSM has problems.