Despite the fears, what it means to be a journalist has changled little. It's journalism itself that's fragmenting. So, in rebuttal of Tim's post last week, it's time to start judging journalists on their merit, not some outdated idea of 'the public interest'
My dad, Frank, was a journalist. So were his two brothers, Brian and George. They're dead now. None of them were university educated. All three left school in Hastings, Sussex and wound up in Fleet St.
I didn't want to be a journo. Didn't really get along with my old man. It happened anyway. Blood won out. After quarter of a century in the biz I feel journalism is one of the three things which define me. Father, partner, journalist. Oh and four, argumentative bastard.
And yes I’m here to argue. Pundit Supremo, Tim Watkin, bless his argyle socks, is telling me I can't call myself a journo anymore because of where I work. He's saying I am "disqualified" like some disgraced Russian athlete. Well I'm calling bulls**t on that line of reasoning.
"Phil’s an excellent journalist,” writes Tim. “At least he was."
Was, like I’m dead or something. Crushing. I'm imagining him in a tux at one of those brandy-infused, mothball-smelling gentleman's clubs in Mayfair with a black ball in his hand.
I'm happy for Tim to call me what he likes. People have been doing that for years, especially on Fair Go. But he doesn't get to tell me what I can call myself. That's the difference between a description and a definition. And to get even more esoteric this is an argument about whether you are defined by what you do or who you are. Me I'm a journalist, I do journalism, wherever I happen to be working.
My dad and uncles were defined by their trade. A journalist was someone who sat behind a typewriter, smoked a cigarette and drank heavily. That's the stereotype. More importantly they were journalists because of who they were. My Uncle George who faced a firing squad in China and interrogation by the Stasi. My Uncle Brian who tracked down Ronnie Biggs the great train robber in South America.
Following in the family tradition I've been threatened, hit, shot at and locked up in a El Salvadorean jail. These exploits don't make me a journalist, but the things that drove me to those places do. A sense of justice, arch scepticism, suspicion of authority, respect for fact, love of the underdog, compassion, a sense of fairness. All of these things die hard. Together with my voice recorder and runbag, I took those ingrained traits with me when I joined Greenpeace.
Strictly speaking, Tim is right. The dictionary describes a journalist as a person who writes for newspapers, magazines or websites or prepares news to be broadcast. I don't do that. I write and film for an NGO. It's a technical knockout. But like Tim, I suspect the dear old Oxford English is a bit behind the times. Like it or not, social media is where most people get their news now. Legacy journalists can bemoan the fact or get with the programme. The digital world has opened up a whole range of platforms on which people can write and practice journalism.
That is what I will be doing for Greenpeace.
Tim thinks where you work is critical. In his eyes I will never be able to be an independent journalist because of who I work for. Me, I think journalism is the activity, regardless of where it's practised.
While he reluctantly accepts my arguments about the myth of journalistic objectivity and the individual bias that any journalist brings with them, Tim just couldn’t swallow my assertion that commercial television is just as much an enemy of independent thought as an NGO might be. Maybe he’s forgotten some of the interference apparent when we worked together at TV3 and TVNZ.
Two real life instances. A story for Fair Go about a major advertiser’s product which resulted in high level editorial interference and a threat of withdrawn advertising. The story was only saved by an executive producer with a backbone. Exhibit two a Campbell Live story about the accuracy of a ratings system, spiked when we were told that the broadcaster had a contract with the ratings company which stated we can’t do any stories about them. Reporting without fear is one thing, reporting without favour is a whole different prospect.
Tim sounded really worried for me. He seemed to think that Greenpeace would neuter my independence as a journalist. He floated some ludicrous scenarios like a sudden conversion to the joys of open cast mining or dirty dairying that would result in my individual thought processes being crushed by some centralised maxim. As if Greenpeace is some proto-Marxist organisation where unity of message is more important than individual ideas. It’s OK Tim, I haven't gone to work for the Politburo.
If, for instance, I were to stumble across irrefutable evidence that Donald Trump was right and climate change was indeed a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese Government, would I report that? It ain’t going to happen, but heck yeah. I value the veracity of a story above institutional allegiance. I jealously guard my independence, which is why I asked to be called a journalist, not a comms specialist.
The other lightening bolt Tim cast down from his mountain top at Radio New Zealand was the “essential difference” between us. Unlike me, he got up every morning, had a frappuccino, flossed and went to work for the “public interest”.
I’m sorry that’s just making me giggle. Cub reporters may start out in their early 20’s thinking they’re serving the greater good but in my experience everything gradually becomes subsumed by the glory of the story. The “get”. Producing a “piece” that no-one else has got. If it improves things for Jo Public, brings down an official, that augments the glory and makes for a better chance of winning an award. Sounds cynical, but sorry Tim public interest is not the reason the majority of journalists get out of bed in the morn.
Not to say public interest is a phrase that’s never uttered. It comes into it’s own when journalists are trying to get suppression orders lifted, arguing libel cases or breaking embargos. That’s when you’ll most likely hear it. Anyone who thinks that newspaper, radio and TV offices are crammed full of ethically charged journalists saying “damn it all I’m going to risk everything for the public interest” should get back to watching Aaron Sorkin’s “Newsroom.”
Tim says my basic problem is that I serve “vested interests” not the “citizens” of this fine country. He claims: “Greenpeace's intent is not objective information in the public interest, but protecting the earth.”
Thing is Tim, if we don’t have an earth then all other matters of public interest are fairly academic. Our fates are inextricably linked to that of the planet. Things are so delicately poised that any more harm we do to the environment is now self-harm. If informing people about climate change is not in the public interest then I will eat my patchouli flavoured balaclava.
Tim also seems perturbed that the word journalist is “twisting and morphing” and he is now forced to write in its defence. Personally, I don't think the word or its meaning have changed much at all. The thing that has shifted is the ecosystem in which it lives, the fragmenting media we hear about every other day.
"All sorts of groups are calling themselves news organisations and all sorts of people calling themselves journalists”.
Sorry boy, get used to it. There’s lots more to come. Journalism needs to be judged on its on merits, not whether a journalist is carrying the right business card. The model we used to know is fragmenting more each week. Pack ice breaking into hundreds and thousands of little bergs.
Tim wants to strip me of my identity as a journo and disqualify my traitorous ass. He wants to ride in like a white knight in defence of “independent journalism”. He says with the bellicose actions of the new President in the White House it’s never been a more important to hold onto the old definitions of journalism. And there is a grand irony in all of this.
One of the reasons why Donald Trump has been able to excoriate our colleagues stateside and accuse them of “fake news” is because of their low standing in the eyes of the public. The figures are staggering. The Edelman Barometer puts the percentage of US citizens who trust media after the election at 35 per cent. It’s even lower here in NZ – 29 per cent.*
Because of their poor reputation, President Trump is able to label journalists as a bunch of closed shop elitists out of touch with the average citizen. By riding in on his charger and saving independent journalism from the clutches of Greenpeace, Tim risks playing right into the hands of the Trumpists. He simply reinforces the public's opinion of journalism as an uptight, restrictionist, elite fighting a rear guard action to try and retain power. That’s not good for anyone.
So Tim, I welcome you to embrace this (not so new) form of media. If you really can’t stand me putting the j-word next to my name then maybe you could substitute the terms advocacy journalist or NGO journalist. These are both used widely overseas to describe what I do – investigating environmental crimes on behalf of the public.
Yes I will be pursuing my journalism with a bias. That is, towards the planet and away from those who want to mistreat it and make a dirty buck out of our rivers and seas. I think my audience is grown up enough to be able to see where I’m coming from. Also smart enough to realise that a transparent bias is preferable to a hidden agenda.
PS Tim I think you’re an excellent journalist too, wherever you happen to work.