She's a hard road finding the perfect journalist, boy

...But that doesn't mean we don't try. An essay in defence of a word and its meaning, at a time when journalism is bruised and battered, but standing strong

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!' "
    "But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.
    "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

I'm a journalist. It's what I do for a living. But just what that word 'journalist' means and what it is journalists do is morphing and twisting in so many ways, that many people are starting to feel as bewildered as Alice, in Through the Looking Glass. And it's certainly prompting a few nice knock-down arguments.

I've had several arguments with people in Pundit threads this past summer over the importance of independent journalism in the light of the the profession's wrestling with its own purpose and principles after the election of President Donald Trump in America.

They reflect arguments happening all over the world at the moment as news coverage fragments and all sorts of groups calling themselves news organisations and all sorts of people calling themselves journalists corrupt the very core of the journalistic code that is often summed up in a single phrase: "without fear or favour".

This past weekend, a former colleague of mine at both TVNZ and TV3, Phile Vine, talked to RNZ's Mediawatch about his new job at Greenpeace. He calls himself a journalist.

Now here's the thing: Phil is one of the best – if not the best – visual storytellers in the business. He's an excellent journalist. When TV3 cancelled 3D, I hired him for The Nation and he made one of the best and most important pieces of long-form journalism seen in New Zealand in recent years. He's an excellent journalist.

At least he was. 

As much as I respect Phil, I can't go along with calling him a journalist when he's working for an activst organisation that calls itself "a movement". Greenpeace has many journalism-friendly virtues, most notably its independence from corporate or governmental funding and its commitment to "bear witness", but it's undoubtedly an organisation with an agenda. More than a mere point of view, it has a mission. It's a mission that may or may not be in the public interest, but whatever it is, he's bound to it. And that disqualifies him from using that title, I believe.

But it's a nuanced argument, so let's unpick it a bit. Phil told Mediawatch's Colin Peacock, Greenpeace was a politically and financially independent organisation. That independence, he argued, meant he was no more compromised at Greenpeace than at a media company under financial pressure from commercial pressures.

He holds to his personal journalistic ethics as he always has. He will find compelling stories and tell them, just as he always has. You might add, that he will gather, edit and present information, which by definition makes him a journalist. Phil argues all that's new is that, in a world where primetime current affairs programmes no longer exist (with the exception of TVNZ's Sunday), he's found a different platform. Same song, different stage.

Phil said:

"I look at it more like a statement of intent. I still want to pursue and film stories that matter to New Zealanders and I still will continue to do that with a fiercely independent outlook within an independent organisation." 

But it's in Phil's own words that my problem lies. Because it comes down to independence and intent.

I accept that Phil may be able to make stories identical to what might have gone to air a couple of years back on 3D. And, more substantially, I accept mainstream media is struggling to maintain its precious independence. 

Journalism has always suffered under the weight of all sorts of imperfections, more so now than it has for a long time. Increasingly, access to power is hard to get and often comes with conditions. Questions can only be about certain topics, at this time, and in this place. Often direct questioning is not allowed and communication is controlled by the use of written statements.

Even if you get the access that allows direct questioning, you often confront a person who has been trained to say as little as possible, or nothing other than the inane repitition of some pre-established core message.

These days, the ombudsman has fretted about the power of political gatekeepers, something I've seen growing first hand. I've spent years being told by press secretaries that politicians will only agree to be interviewed "when he/she have something to say". I've had them ask for my programme's ratings as a way of deciding whether they will bother to agree to be questioned, ask me why they should bother when they can reach voters through Facebook without the bother of interruptions, and tell me that they won the election, so they don't have to debate with opponents for another three years.

In all these ways, independence (and democracy) die little by little. 

Journalists are limited by time, money and, increasingly, off-peak slots. Sponsors expect slots on programmes and products "integrated" on-screen; substantial journalism leans increasingly on the crutch of New Zealand on Air funding; and newsroom populations are getting smaller and younger. 

Your average daily journalists race through their days trying to tweet, do live crosses, create Facebook content and whip out the odd blog all while trying to gather facts, call contacts and process the complex issues they are covering. Then, having done all that, they sit back and endure the abuse of people who would be horrified if people dared to judge their day's work, but feel no compunction in damning the professionalism of people working in a business they know next to nothing about. 

Then there's the pressue of ratings or circulation. Winning an audience is a wonderfully democratic way of testing whether your story matters to people; I've long thought doing journalism that matters was never an excuse to be dull or write for some clubby elite. But audiences and journalists can conspire to make the important boring and vital news seem like the limp brussel sprouts of your childhood. It's hard to do the news in an era where cats, not content, are king.

Phil understands that as well as anyone, having lost a job and a strong team of colleages because a couple of bean counters with no committment to independence or intent thought (perhaps even correctly) they could make more money out of reality TV than they could out of long-form journalism.

And, on top of that all, journalists have to deal with their own biases and baggage. We all have views, bad days, blind spots and imperfect knowledge. We make human mistakes and even get things wrong, despite the checking and double-checking. (My wife this week has had a flood of hectoring letters criticising a single grammatical error she made in an editorial, in a week where she and just one other part-timer put together an entire magazine). 

So I get all the mainstream media failings and don't pretent any of it's perfect. I get Phil's arugment that mainstream journalism comes with bias and all the rest.

But for me, that's not the point. Those are all problems from the journey, not from your place of origin. Or your intent. And the main reason I don't see Phil as a journalist is that, when he arrives at work each day, he starts from a fundamentally different place than I do.

When I, or another journalist at RNZ, start on a story, we are able – no, expected – to follow the evidence wherever it leads. We are expected to work in the public interest. Now you can debate what that means until the cows come home, but it means – within the bounds of all those imperfections I listed – I make independent editorial judgements. 

Phil can't do that. Colin Peacock asked him what would happen if he decided, based on his investigations and evidence gathered, that nuclear power or GE foods were good for humanity and he wanted to report that. Phil argued that Greenpeace wasn't an orgnisation of monolithic opinions and he would "not be pushed down". 

I'm sorry, I don't buy it. Greenpeace's own website says:

Greenpeace opposes all releases of genetically Engineered organisms into the environment. Such organisms are being released without adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health.

They could not have someone writing stories on the same site contradicting that stance. It would lack integrity. Or, if that could somehow be allowed, how about dairying or mining? What if Phil wanted to report the viewpoint, or even any evidence, suggesting that a few dirty rivers or holes in the earth were worth the gain of important food and minerals?

I don't believe he'd have that sort of independence, because Greenpeace's intent is not objective information in the public interest, but protecting the earth.

I could go on. Is he really independent to interview an expert from Forest & Bird if he believes him better prepared than one at Greenpeace? Is he free to tell the other side of the story with the same resources and vigour? (Phil said he wants to tell the stories of farmers, but the 'good ones' farming without irrigation, presumably not the ones who are happy to lose a river or two for the sake of dramatically increased production).

And, fundamentally, if he decides the public interest is better served by him reporting on child abuse, space travel or a prisoner's toupee, he can't make an independent decision to do that.

For me, intent matters. Because that lies behind independence. 

That can be seen in another story that appeared last weekend, the day before Phil's Mediawatch interview aired. The Washington Post reported that the pool reporter ("that is, the reporter who supplied details about Pence’s daily activities as proxy for the rest of the press corps") covering Vice President Mike Pence one day last week was an employee of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank.

"In other words, the news that reporters received about the vice president came from a journalist employed by an organization with a vested interest in the direction of White House and federal policy," the Post reported.

"The short answer is that it’s concerning that news organizations with a clear and stated bias are serving as the eyes and ears of the White House press corps, regardless of their political leaning,” said Andrew Seaman, a Reuters reporter who is chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee. “In a perfect world, only news organizations with editorial independence and proven track records of reliability should be able to provide pool reports for the White House or any other government agency or official.”

I think that rams home my point. Whatever Phil's immense skills as a journalist, he's now working for an organisation with a vested interest. If I say I'm comfortable with Phil being called a journalist, then logic demands I have to be happy with someone, say, from the NRA or an climate change-denying group taking the title as well. And I'm not. I'm just not.

There has to be meaning attached to the word journalist. One good list of meanings I found writing this come from the American Press Institute's page, 'The elements of Journalism'. Take a look. 

Phil could tick some of those boxes. I'm sure his first obligation remains to the truth (although if, as noted, that contradicted a Greenpeace policy, I can't see how he could report it). I'm sure he will verify what he reports. I'm sure he will provide space for public criticism.

But he cannot, working for a campaigning organisation, say his first loyalty is to citizens. It must be to members, surely. It must be to the cause.

So what do we call Phil instead? Russell Brown mentioned on Twitter that he's done some of his best investigative work for campaigning organisations (and I'm not saying that can't be truly investigative work, but rather that it just has to come with the asterix of intent, the caveat that the funder has an agenda).

Russell suggested calling it 'advocacy media'. That makes sense to me. It allows that it's media, but makes it clear it comes with that asterix. The word journalism isn't twisted to fit.

For the sake of the brusied and battered journalism now being practised and its still potent core values, let's not blur the lines any more than we have to. What Phil does now, I'm sure he will be great at. He'll do it factually, with integrity, and with great pictures and scripts. Cos that's what he does. But just don't call it journalism.