Opinion is killing journalism

The 'little men' of the modern media are dragging down a once respected profession because they lack the courage to maintain the standards journalists once held dear

When I was at secondary school – at experience I now measure in decades past rather than mere years and months – we had a school motto. In Latin it read Confortare esto vir , which translated means 'take courage, be a man'. It was a motto that implied a core set of values and principles that have served me we throughout my working life.

When circumstances required courage, such as enduring chemotherapy as I did some ten years ago, I saw that motto lived out in a young child receiving treatment at Auckland hospital and confronting it with all the grit and bravery of someone many years his senior.

It was evident in the courage displayed by my father-in-law who faced each day as an amputee, following his military service in North Africa. Again, I have seen it repeated day after day since our second son Mark experienced a convulsion at eleven months, leading health professionals to conclude that he would inevitably be institutionalised. It was a verdict my wife Mary refused to accept and by building a program of language development she gave the whole family the courage to engage in life-long education with a son who today is a fine young man, holding down a full-time job and an inspiration to us all. 

The values implied by being a man do not, in my view, lead to the conclusion articulated by David Cunliffe, when he apologised for being a man and they are clearly missing from those individuals who think it is OK to abuse or denigrate other human beings.

Being a man in my terminology means respecting others because they each have a history, a culture and a dignity of their own. There is no greater achievement in life than being truly human. And that is why throughout our working lives it takes courage to respect others even when they disagree with us or challenge our fundamental values and beliefs.

I was thinking about these values recently following an RNZ interview with Kim Hill, when she asked me about my interaction with Mr Robert Muldoon. When the Prime Minister accused me of leaking a confidential document, thereby threatening my integrity and my continuing employment I sought an apology. When that wasn’t forthcoming I took the matter to court. Over a two-year period I was sent background information on the Prime Minister and his family on the assumption that I might use this material in retaliation, but it was never used in this way and was simply destroyed.

I eventually received an apology from the Prime Minister and although his intervention clearly affected my employment prospects I have always continued to refer to him as Mr Muldoon. 

One of the most important lessons I gained from this experience was the imperative (in public policy terms) to focus any analysis or critique on the policies themselves rather than individuals involved in the policy process. That is why the Briefing Papers website since its inception in 2014 has focused on policy issues rather than the individuals engaged in promoting or evaluating policy options.

It is a difficult stance to maintain and every so often I find myself drifting away from basic principles to enjoy satirical interpretations of our everyday lives like the “grumpy old men” on the British TV program of the same name. I could identify with their obvious disenchantment with trivial matters on primetime television such as the daily litany of weather conditions highlighted on TV night after night when we are told that it “was raining today” – their response: ‘we knew it was raining today for goodness sake we were there! What we want to know is what the weather will be like tomorrow.’

It was these ‘grumpy old men’ who came to mind as I followed this year’s general election; especially the aftermath of the election from the time that Winston Peters indicated that New Zealand First would form a partnership with the Labour Party. A small group of men, masquerading as journalists and commentators, went into meltdown discarding any pretence of professionalism.

It began with the host of Seven Sharp, Mike Hosking, who’s boorish and chauvinistic behaviour should have been the subject of a Broadcasting Standards review. But he was merely the first in a select group of whining, whinging, moaning ‘little men’ who could not disguise the fact that they didn’t like the outcome of the election campaign. 

There were many aspects emanating from these unprofessional practices that raised concerns: the misogynistic way in which they personally attacked the election of a woman Prime Minister; the manner in which they questioned the authenticity of the coalition government; the blatant lies in interpreting the election results; and especially their distortion of the MMP electoral system.

In policy terms this whining bunch of commentators undermined the integrity of journalism and the role of the fourth estate.

I grew up during a period in which we as a country had respect for journalists and for their profession. We understood that the Fourth Estate was a vital component of democracy, interpreting government policy and conveying the assessments of independent journalists to the public at large – mainstream media have often claimed that they provide this service in the public interest.

More recently, we have watched the way in which this independence has been undermined by controlling interests in media ownership and the blatant bias of media giants like Fox News and media moguls like Rupert Murdoch.

During the recent election campaign some in the mainstream media lost further credibility as they promoted a right-wing agenda through a bunch of commentators who seem to have discarded any semblance of objectivity. This became most evident in the aftermath of the election result as these commentators huffed and puffed their way through articles in the mainstream media and on talkback radio.

As a consequence, we the public are faced with a problem. It is not enough to lament the decline in journalistic standards or decry the lamentable state of current affairs in this country. We should be demanding higher standards of journalism and a Fourth Estate that meets the expectations of the public they claim to serve.

The decline in news and current affairs reporting is evident in the shift that has occurred over recent years (especially in the mainstream media) in both the fostering of ‘celebrities’ and in replacing journalists with commentators.

Rather than reporting news these ‘commentators’ have become the news themselves. This shift is indicative of a fundamental change that has occurred in the nature of broadcasting and the media.

The public interest (once a cornerstone of the fourth estate), has been replaced by the private interests of sponsors, owners, and the ‘little men’ of the once respected profession of journalism.