On Smalley: a bit of back & forth

I wasn't going to, but here are a few thoughts on the debate around Rachel Smalley's comments about John Campbell's new job and the dominance of white male broadcasters in primetime.

I've been sitting here dithering whether I should write something about Rachel Smalley's critique of broadcasting as a male bastion. Or rather, her attack on John Campbell, depending on which way you view it.

It's one of those classic debates where everyone involved has one hand on a portion of the truth but, because it's a good argument – and somewhat personal – no-one really wants to either back down or get dragged in too deep.

Smalley's point that men dominate the airwaves is factually indisputable and should be of concern. It's an ongoing issue and worth debating, because Smalley's right to ask who is shaping the views of young women today. Her problem is how and when she raised it.

It was in the context of Campbell's appointment to the RNZ drive show. Smalley has history with Campbell – as a frustrated potential replacement who left the company because he was in her way – and so, as Finlay MacDonald tweeted at the weekend, it wasn't the wider point but "the graceless and simplistic way it was raised that grated". Second, as she acknowledged in her commentary, yes, looked like self-promotion. Third, she picked on a nice man and good journalist who is New Zealand's favourite martyr at the moment, especially amongst those who would normally care about gender diversity. Fourth, she made her point about how women see the world differently through some rather clumsy stereotypes (women care about the "humanity" of the Middle East, but men only care about the battles? Really?).

Oh, and by all accounts from RNZ she got it wrong when she talked about Mary Wilson being "taken off air" to "accommodate" Campbell.

Yet strip away the personalities and delivery and the point itself is a fair one. Heck, it's probably worse than she portrays in some ways, because she chooses not to add the likes of Leighton Smith and Sean Plunket into her list of male hosts (I get that she doesn't count their morning shows as primetime). Weirdly, Jim Mora is ommitted from her list. Or is that some kind of compliment?

Yet on the other hand, she also ignores the likes of Kim Hill and Kathryn Ryan who, while not primetime, have two of the most influential shows on air.

New Zealand would benefit from more diversity amongst its hosts, undoubtedly. But the problem goes deeper – beyond individual appointments and even newsroom cultures – to the expectations and stereotypes around young women today. There's the question of how women presenters are meant to look. Which roles in media women are meant to seek. And the roles women are meant to take in their families.

So four quick points I'd make.

The six men Smalley mentions are not exactly time-servers or have had anything handed to them by a male fraternity. And – unlike, say, their pronunciation or preparation – their gender is something they can't change. They are all talented question-askers and there's a reason they each have a following. Let's be honest and acknowledge that they wouldn't have the jobs if people weren't endorsing them by listening. I've been privileged to produce two of them (Guyon and Duncan), have been on-air for years with a third (Larry) and know John and Paul as colleagues. Mike Hosking is the only one I don't know. And one way or another, love 'em or hate 'em, they've all earned it.

Of those that I know or have worked with, they've all had women bosses. And that's a key point that's worth noting in this debate that is very different from the newsrooms of a generation ago. There are probably other examples, but as much as I know: Guyon has been produced by Maryanne Ahern, John by Pip Keane, Larry by Melita Tull and Paul by Sarah Bristow. Duncan has worked for Linda Clark. It was Carol Hirschfeld who hired Campbell last week. As much as the marketing sometimes belies this, news and current affairs is not just about the host. Of course they have significant power, but the host is only one part of the machine and those women are all providing a "well rounded media" and are "shaping" news coverage. I can't think of a programme I know that doesn't have very influential women producers calling shots.

Next, you can only work with the talent in front of you. And, while I'd be happy if someone is able to prove me wrong, I don't see many talented women broadcasters as good as those six dominant men and who can deliver an audience who are knocking down the doors. I'm fortunate to work with one of the best, Lisa Owen, on The Nation. As an exception to my point, she can – and each week she does – match any of those dominant men in a studio. But she is an exception.

Maybe it's because of the sexism that remains in society, because of media cultures, or because many women can't/won't pay the price required to do these jobs. But the pickings are slim. Point is, the only way to address this issue with any urgency is to appoint women over men, but I just don't see who it is you'd appoint.

Finally, there is diversity amongst these men. That's not to say gender and ethnicity diversity is not important or excuse anything. It's simply worth noting that that they bring different world views, ask different sorts of questions in different ways and reflect different sectors of New Zealand. No, they're not representative of 2015 Aotearoa, but neither are they all dinosaurs.