The Taurima affair: when good reports go bad

The Taurima report paints a slear portrait of a fine journalist who lost his way, but then goes on to make a recommendation that is oppressive and should be resisted

At last it's out. After some delay the report into alleged misconduct by Shane Taurima in his roles as General Manager of Maori and Pacific Programmes and host of Q+A have revealed that clearly Taurima crossed a line in his work for the Labour Party. But it also shows how blurred those lines can get when it comes to impartiality and bias.

While declaring there was no evidence of political bias in his work as a journalist, it found that he had faced a conflict of interest and failed to declare it early and fully enough. And on the facts presented it seems a reasonable conclusion.

The report is a thorough piece of work which clearly trawled through screeds of emails, phone logs and versions of events to come to its conclusions. For an insight into the personal tensions journalists can find themselves in, it's a useful read. While it's clear Taurima crossed the line, you can read between the lines to hear the competing voices of his own ambition, the opinions of friends and loved ones, and the pressure from his whanau. He was being pulled this way and that, and in the midst of it seems to have lost his professional ethical compass.

Most of what he did in his role as head of Maori and Pacific programming he did well; and even where he sent some emails from work about party business and made a few phone calls, much of it would be forgiveable – even normal – from an employment point of view. Don't most desk-bound workers look at the odd holiday offer at work, read or send some personal emails about the kids or rugby club or date night (especially if they are working late)? And who hasn't called the occasional friend, taken a pen or two home or even photocopied some non-work item? At one level, reading the allegations against Taurima seem no more serious than that.

But it's at the higher level that those mistakes take on a much more serious tone. If what he was doing had been for the rugby club or whanau, much of it might have been OK. (Although the pressure on staff to take part in his actions seems to have raised some concerns with the investigating panel). But this was work for a political party, something all journalists would know from the outset of their careers was unacceptable. If you are running a department of news and current affairs programmes, party membership or active participation of any kind if beyond the pale. End of. I'm sure Taurima knows this, and so his choices are inexplicable.

I worked for Taurima for a year as a producer on Q+A. Indeed, I'm referred to a couple of times in the report (although not by name) and to be honest I'm a little unimpressed that I was not spoken to about the events described that I was involved in.

What I would have said, as it turns out, largely agrees with is in the report. Taurima was a talented interviewer who grew into the role as the year progressed and showed no signs of bias in his work.

I also appreciate some of the commentary prefacing the report, which says "bias is very subjective. Reasonable people may disagree about what amounts to bias". Bias, it adds, may be deliberate or inadvertent. Which is all true.

The longer I've spent in the sphere of political journalism especially – but in truth, in journalism overall – the harder I find it is to draw clear and consistent lines on issues of partiality and bias. I still try, but for every rule there seems to be an exception. I remain an objectivist – that in large part our job as journalists is to recognise our prejudice, but to subvert it and be as objective as possible. Where we can't – or at times don't want to – we must declare our interests.

Everyday journalism should be as free as possible of the journalist's own views, leave the audience to make up its own mind and be reported without fear or favour. That's a simple rule to live by. But it's often broken for good reasons. Advocacy journalism has a proud place in journalistic tradition; at times history would judge reporters harshly if they were not to take sides. At times a personal narrative is the best way to tell a story. And at all times we are, all of us, only so good at suppressing our biases, however hard we try.

Further, there are less noble, more practical examples of how hard it can be to be a purist on this. For a start, most commentary relies on trust. From columnists in print to panellists on TV or radio and, as with Taurima, even journalists on staff, bosses rely on a lot of trust. Who knows if any Herald columnist, for example, isn't praising X for some personal reason or gain? Not his or her editors, unless that interest is declared.

There are few who offer analysis in New Zealand who don't have barrows to push. We're too small a country to have full-time pundits. Look at any panel and you will see people with other day jobs, competing interests and paymasters, and strong personal opinions and relationships. If we were utterly purist about our commentators we would have a very, very small pool.

In Taurima's case, he was a host and interviewer, which carries a much greater weight of impartiality than a commentator and he clearly went too far. But the rest of us live in this grey-zone every day and try to draw lines as consistently as possible, all the while knowing that a hard and fast rule is impossible.

Even those of us in the media (free from other sources of income or partisan ties) who also dare to offer analysis (me for example, with Pundit and my spots on ZB and National Radio) bring personal biases, an inability to reveal certain things due to loyalty to sources or the day job and professional and contractual commitments. I try to be as frank as possible on this site, but have to self-censor on some things.

In other words, who is truly impartial? And is that always the best choice anyway? For example, Linda Clark and Guyon Espiner both chose not to vote whilst political editors at TVNZ (others in that job or at TV3 may have done the same – those are just the two examples I know). It ensured no perception of partiality. Both were very good at their jobs, and while some like to make often lazy and ill-informed assumptions from afar, both worked hard to be impartial.

But for me, not voting makes little sense. Does it stop you having a soft spot for one MP or another? Does it stop you seeing competence in one party and chaos in another? Does it stop your own political views from entering your head? No. You could argue that by not voting you give yourself an excuse to be more biased in other ways. I wouldn't buy that, but I would argue that impartiality is not a political editor's only duty.

As turnout has dropped in recent elections, should a political editor display by his or her actions that it's OK not to vote? Surely they should encourage participation and lead by example. At the very least, you can see there are two strong ethical arguments for opposite choices and that this is not easy ground.

And what's worse, bias or a lack of transparency? Are Paul Henry's biases fine because they are openly declared? Or is it better to be much less biased, but to not declare anything?

As for declarations, when are they useful and when arbitrary? As a Herald feature writer I did a massive (meaning very long) series on the struggles of one family at the Kinleith mill as the husband and father was laid off. I spent seven or eight months visiting the family and viewing the impact of a mass redundancy on the town through their eyes and experiences. When the articles went to print I was forced to declare at the bottom that I was a member of a union. Was that really vital information for readers? And given the undeclared bias of others writing for that and other papers, why was mine singled out?

You see, even supposed efforts to avoid bias can actually display it.

Forgive me that long ramble. What I wanted to come to in this post was one of the recommendations by the panel of Brent McAnulty, Steven Price and Bill Francis, who wrote the TVNZ report. All are good men whom I respect. However, I find one recommendation at best pointless and at worse oppressive:

"Those employees within TVNZ’s News and Current Affairs Department, whose roles require them to report, edit or produce political content cannot be members of political parties, or engage in political activity for a party or cause."

The first 34 words are fine and quite proper. Partisan membership or engaging in political activity for a party compromises your ability to report without fear or favour.

But who has the right to say a journalist shouldn't "engage in political activity for a... cause"? Not any employer.

Quite simply, what is "a cause"? And what is "political activity" for that matter?

Interpreted a certain way, that could imply that journalists shouldn't join a union. Isn't that political activity of a type? Indeed, I'd argue that not joining a union can be as political a statement as joining one, so is not joining a union because of your political beliefs a political activity of sorts?

As for engaging in a cause, well, that's far to broad to be applicable. Is a political journalist not allowed to join Amnesty International? Or short of memberhip even write a letter to help free a political prisoner in some far-flung place? Is this requirement saying that a journalist never sign a petition?

If I as a general reporter who did the odd political track or article marched against the Iraq War (and that describes me at one time), would I be breaking the rule? Whether or not it's meant that way, it's certainly open to that interpretation.

Is donating to the SPCA, say, in the light of its political statements such as around illegal highs, deemed unacceptable? Can I buy Christmas presents from Oxfam given its clear political activism? What about ownership of a Soda Stream machine? The language is so loose it could quickly veer into the absurd.

The political is personal and to deny TVNZ staff the right to take part in any cause or form of political activity is to deny them the right to be fully functioning members of our democracy. If that's not what the panel meant, it should say so clearly and withdraw the clause, because it can certainly be read as a general over-reaction to a specific concern.

For an organisation that relies on precise language to do its daily job, the wording used there is far too vague. I'd hope that TVNZ journalists reply to the report by drawing their own line in the sand – we will report without fear or favour, we will not join political parties or use TVNZ resources to further our political (or any other) careers. But we will not be told that we cannot engage in any causes that we believe in, for that is to deny a simple right of citizenship that goes beyond their professional lives and duties.