Thursday 20 February 2020

RNZ Must Have No Dogs In The September Fight.

Stand Clear! Winston Peters is encouraging voters to think of RNZ as belonging to “The Media Party”. He wants them to see it as a politically partisan institution with its own, vicious attack-dogs in the electoral fight. If he succeeds, it will be, and probably should be, the end of public radio in New Zealand.

RADIO NEW ZEALAND needs to reflect very carefully about the position in which it now finds itself. If it fails to alter its present course, there is a real possibility it will find itself accused of serious political bias. As a public broadcaster, RNZ simply cannot afford to be seen to have its own dog in the September 19 fight. Fair and balanced reporting is of huge importance when your radio network is funded by the taxpayer. In an election year, moreover, fairness and balance are absolutely critical to the maintenance of public confidence.  

For the moment, nearly all of the accusations of bias are coming from Winston Peters and the NZ First Party. This is only to be expected, given that RNZ’s reporting has inflicted serious damage on Peters and his colleagues. Lending credence to the latter’s accusations, however, is a photograph of Guyon Espiner, one of RNZ’s senior journalists, chatting amiably with Lester Gray, a former president of the NZ First Party. Looking at the photograph, it is very difficult not to identify Gray as the source of Espiner’s damaging revelations about the NZ First Foundation.

The release of this photograph – taken, according to Peters, by a member or supporter of NZ First – to The BFD (successor to the Whaleoil blog) has not only alarmed RNZ, it has put it on the defensive. The idea that a journalist and his source may themselves come under scrutiny is being widely interpreted as a thoroughly sinister development.

The mainstream news media has had much less to say about the failure of a supposedly experienced political journalist to protect his source. Tauranga is pretty much “ground zero” when it comes to NZ First’s historical support base. Why, then, would a former television journalist, with a very familiar face, choose to wander about in full public view with a former NZ First president and candidate? Why not meet privately, indoors, safe from prying eyes – and cellphones?

As for casting the whole episode as sinister, well, that particular charge is simply without merit. It is well-established in law that the taking of a person’s photograph in a public place, with or without their knowledge and/or consent, is not a criminal offence. If you are foolish enough to parade your connections in a Tauranga shopping centre’s carpark, then you should not act all hurt and surprised when that fact is recorded.

Nor should the mainstream news media be at all surprised that the photograph ended up on The BFD blog. Cameron Slater, of Dirty Politics fame, has publicly acknowledged his legal and personal connections with the lawyer Brian Henry. One of Winston Peters oldest and most trusted legal advisers, Henry also stood by Slater. Is this the explanation for what appears to be a decisive shift in the political allegiances of Slater and his colleagues from the National Party (which couldn’t distance itself fast enough from its favoured blogger following the publication of Nicky Hager’s book) to NZ First?

Such a shift would go a long way to explaining the rumours that NZ First is being assisted by one of Slater’s closest political allies from the Whaleoil years, Simon Lusk. A hard-bitten political operator, Lusk would have needed no instruction when it came to gathering intelligence on the two journalists responsible for revealing the closely-guarded secrets of the NZ First Foundation. The involvement of somebody like Lusk would certainly explain The BFD’s photograph of Stuff Reporter, Matt Shand. Recognising Espiner and Gray would not have been difficult. In that location, however, Shand was unlikely to be recognised by anyone not closely associated with the NZ First Foundation story.

That Tauranga shopping centre appears to have had more shooters in it than Dallas’s Dealey Plaza!

The demonisation of The BFD is yet another problematic aspect of RNZ’s coverage. Conservative blogs have every bit as much right to present their ideas to voters as liberal and left-wing blogs. In my time as a political commentator, I have contributed material to daily newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch, and a weekly business publication edited by a devotee of Ayn Rand. So, when Cameron Slater invited me – along with a clutch of other non-right commentators – to contribute to a new pay-walled section of Whaleoil, I did not refuse. Similarly, when The BFD was launched, I agreed to contribute to its pay-walled “Insight” section. Nothing builds up one’s understanding of the Right like writing for their publications! And, although I have always been scrupulous to submit material I would happily see posted on The Daily Blog, or my own Bowalley Road, I’ve never once been censored.

In an environment where the idea that there might be two sides to every story, and that even those with whom you profoundly disagree have a story to tell, is dismissed as giving fascists a free-pass, it is not easy to make a stand for fairness and balance in journalism. It is vital, however, that RNZ tries.

On its “Mediawatch” programme, broadcast last Sunday morning (16/2/20) RNZ featured an interview with Ollie Wards from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Triple-J” youth-oriented radio station. Among many other observations, Wards ventured the opinion that “holding the government to account” was a vital aspect of the public broadcaster’s remit. There would appear to be a great many RNZ journalists who agree wholeheartedly with Wards’ characterisation of their role. That does not, however, make it right.

In a parliamentary democracy, it is not the news media which is entrusted with the role of holding the government to account, but the Opposition. They are the people elected to scrutinize the executive and ensure that government ministers are doing their jobs. They do this on behalf of the voters – the people charged, every three years, with the ultimate responsibility for holding governments to account. Nobody elected Guyon Espiner or Matt Shand to hold their government to account. Indeed, those gentlemen are not accountable in any meaningful political sense for the potentially decisive influence they are so well-positioned to exert on the electoral process.

The role of the news media (especially the publicly owned news media) is to assist the voters in the critical task of holding their representatives to account – not to do the job for them. That means doing everything within its power to give voters the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It means unearthing the facts, as many as possible, and then contextualising them in a fair and balanced way. It does not mean extracting only those facts that serve an individual journalist’s purposes, and using them to manipulate the voters’ understanding of what a party has, or hasn’t, done.

Winston Peters is encouraging voters to think of RNZ as belonging to “The Media Party”. He wants them to see it as a politically partisan institution with its own, vicious attack-dogs in the electoral fight. If he succeeds, it will be, and probably should be, the end of public radio in New Zealand.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 20 February 2020.


Kat said...

Winston Peters has a media generated reputation to live up to, being "tricky" and "cunning" to mention a couple. There are stereotypes about politicians within the media in this country that are more about class and wannabe recognition than anything to do with whats really happening. I hope Winston Peters exposes these media stereotype generators for what they are, political party hacks available for hire.

Geoff Fischer said...

Kia ora Chris
Your post is long and deep breath of sanity in the midst of this particular furore.
Winston Peters is right to claim that the media are acting as a party, advancing their own interests and defending the presumptive privileges which they have granted to themselves, while carrying on their own political vendettas.
The media consider they have the right to photograph people without permission or buttonhole and doorstep them for comment, but when their victims retaliate in kind it is portrayed as a gross abuse of democracy.
I suspect that most New Zealanders will see the media's position as precious and hypocritical. They may even be drawn to sympathy for Winston Peters and New Zealand First at a time when it should be more apparent to the impartial observer that Peters and his party are no better and no more trustworthy than the National Party or any of the other parties in the New Zealand Parliament.
To many journalists any concerted criticism of the media is tantamount to an attack on "free speech". In fact the opposite is the case. The media also must be held to account while they themselves are holding others to account. They may legitimately try to protect their sources, but that is their responsibility and no one else's. Others can have a legitimate personal or public interest in exposing a journalist's sources. It all depends on the circumstances. We may sympathize with a worker who blows the whistle over an environmental outrage and would risk losing her job by going public, but how much sympathy should we have for the SIS agent who relays dubious information about a rival state or a progressive political party to a pliant journalist under cover of anonymity?
If a journalist fails to protect his sources (in the present case out of sheer incompetence) we ordinary folk have no interest in rounding on those who uncloaked the relationship between journalist and source. We may however have an interest in what happens next. For example we would want to see that the source does not unfairly suffer retribution, but that is all.
The issues of "free speech" and "protection of sources" must be seen from a wider perspective than the interests of journalists. Both are important principles for society as a whole. It is not just journalists who should be accorded the right to speak and be heard. It is more the case that firstly the people have a right to hear the full range of facts, ideas and opinions and secondly that they have the right to offer up their own knowledge of fact and opinion. Journalists can play a positive role in the process, or they can impede and obstruct. I would suggest that those who do the former are a distinct but greatly respected minority within the journalistic community in New Zealand.
On that note it would seem that even "The Daily Blog", which has taken a stand for free speech in principle, has in practice descended into a rather confused, contradictory and irrational system of censorship or "moderation". Whatever is going on around you Chris, I hope and trust that you will continue to stand firm on the need for open, informed political debate

John Hurley said...

RNZ is biased, how else would we get Paul Spoonley and Julie Zhu saying:

Tod Niall
Because I would argue it has taken Maori a long time to get to a place where they are not yet where they feel they should be.

Is there a new dynamic here that we have to worry about Paul?

Paul Spoonley
Well there is and I mean, in terms of Auckland it has already happened. So the Asian community is considerably larger than the Maori community of Auckland and yet Auckland is the largest Maori community in the country. So I think Auckland is the test case or laboritory in which we get to play around and decide how we do politics and in this case recognition of diversity and we started to day by talking about the council and the wards you know we are far from getting that right so we need to ask the question right around the community “are there difference between people who are tangatawhenua in terms of recognition as opposed to those who are immigrants and their decendants?” My answer is yes! I mean I think the conversation should be a very different conversation. And so i react quite strongly and quite negatively when people say , you know, there’s me, Im Pakeha and there’s others who are different. No there are not they are not all the same.

Julie Zhu
"but that kind of positioning sort of positioning of Pakeha and everyone else. I always try to think of the ideal as Maori and everyone else because Maori are kind of the only unique aspect of NZ that really needs to be upheld if we are to move forward and I think there just needs to be solidarity."


Any other standout or surprises to the numbers

and the context is that we are growing at 2.1% which is high. If you nlook at the numbers of Asians they are growing at 3.5% , So tha's why the're contributing.Pakeha are growing at less than .5%
So that's why we are seeing this diversification.

and it's also in some ways the argument for immigration isn't it
because in some ways your gonna need taxpayers, especially as that baby boomer demographic retires. We know there are some big issues coming upn there.
OK if we are one of the most diverse and have been so for a long time, what else are we going to have to do.

Over and over again Distinguished Professor/Demographer/Immigration Expert Paul Spoonley has made the same claim thinking no one outside of academia would know that in practice immigration increases population well over and above demographics as the migrants (also) age.

Rowan G said...

RNZ might want to protect its sources but the public don't have to play along. I think it is fine if somebody exposes secret informants - it just means the media have done a poor job in protecting that person's identify. And in the case of the NZF photo all done without intruding on privacy or invading private property which tends to be the MO or the media.

Pete George said...

Chris, are you really advocating the demise of RNZ while not just making excuses for The BFD, but promoting it?

"The demonisation of The BFD is yet another problematic aspect of RNZ’s coverage."

Your defence and support of The BFD (that could stand for Bullying For Dollars) is what is problematic.

If they were just a right leaning blog and you were just providing a left wing perspective that would be fine.

But the are not just a right leaning blog. Their attempt portray themselves as some sort of alternative media is largely a front for a means of running dirty attack agendas.

So you are not just adding a different perspective on political topics. You're effectively aiding and abetting their narrow, nasty agendas, and not just morally, but you're helping them finance it.

They are widely seen as unprincipled, nasty and toxic. Your association and promotion affects your credibility.

Odysseus said...

Nicely argued Chris but I find the publication of the anonymously taken photographs a little sinister. They appear to me to be an attempt at intimidation. If the photographer were to put their hand up I would feel more comfortable. We do not have an impartial media in New Zealand. RNZ are hopelessly biased toward the "woke", so-called "Liberal" left who are actually totalitarian in their instincts. The main newspapers are no better. So I read a range of blogs including yours as well as overseas media and current publications on political/social issues and climate change in search of brain fodder. One should never overlook also one's own direct experience of life as a valuable learning resource. I admire and strongly support your commitment to free speech which is the bedrock of democracy and human progress, even if I think your politics are sometimes a bit weird in a charmingly old-fashioned way. Cheers.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Peter George

Your comment, Peter, betrays a woeful misapprehension of the underlying purpose of all media. What newspaper, radio station or television network is established without an agenda? What investor in media does not hope to see his money working for him - politically as well as commercially? Do you consider Rupert Murdoch disinterested? Really!

And yet, as I say in the post, I happily accepted Rupert's cheques (even if they did bear the logo of INL!) Likewise, I'm happy to bank those from both "The BFD" and "The Daily Blog".

It's called freelancing, mate. Get over it.

Kat said...

Odysseus said...
"We do not have an impartial media in New Zealand. RNZ are hopelessly biased toward the "woke", so-called "Liberal" left who are actually totalitarian in their instincts. The main newspapers are no better......."

First bit on the button, second bit absolute nonsense. The MSM is up for the highest bidder which happens to be the China/National party. The left is way behind.