Hard News by Russell Brown


Bad Judgement

This seems worth saying if only because the opposite impression is so often given by people in my trade: there is no shame in being active in a political party. Our chosen form of democracy relies on political parties and the people who toil, generally unpaid and at nights and weekends, within them. It's a noble thing.

That's what Natasha Panui Morris is doing in the letter that was leaked to Patrick Gower, giving Gower not just another scoop but a scoop at the expense of his rivals at TVNZ. She's organising a weekend hui for the Tamaki Makaurau branch of the Labour Party: sending out a to-do list covering food, AV gear, pens, paper, things for the kids, something to put in a raffle basket.

Unfortunately, she's doing it on her work's email system, which is particularly inappropriate when your work is at a Crown-owned company called TVNZ. And she refers to an earlier meeting of the Tamaki Makaurau LEC which took place at TVNZ.

Meaning, presumably, that LEC members and others were swiped through TVNZ security for the purposes of a political party meeting kept secret from the company's management. Whether it really amounts to TVNZ being used as a "campaign base" as Gower puts it is highly debatable, but it's unthinkably inappropriate.

But it is not, as a frothing Tau Henare claimed yesterday, evidence of a Labour Party "infiltration" of TVNZ's Maori and Pacific unit. Morris is a production manager: she organises flights, food, crew and the like. It's not an editorial role, and the jobs of the other two party members in the unit are scarely more so (if you think "digital producer" sounds like a cool, influential job, you may be disappointed).

They should not have sent or received party news on their work email (I'm assuming Henare's electorate committee members are scrupulous in this regard), but they weren't in a position to really influence editorial conduct.

That's not the case for Taurima. Like many elements of public life, the political inclination of journalists is as much a matter of perception as anything else. Joining a party doesn't suddenly change the actual conduct of a journalist's work -- and not being formally aligned with a political party is certainly no guarantee of an absence of bias.

But, in general, it's easier and more appropriate for journalists to manage perceptions by simply having no formal links with political parties -- and to not plan on coming back soon if they do venture into politics. This was Taurima's problem: after his unsuccessful attempt to become Labour candidate for Ikaroa-Rawhiti, he still needed a job, and he was patently good at that job, so he was taken back.

He might even have been able to carry on with his ambition to seek the Tamaki Makaurau nomination had he then shown a modicum of judgement. But he didn't. He allowed three of his staff to carry out party business on TVNZ's email system and he attended -- or, rather, eventually recalled attending -- the insane meeting on TVNZ property.

Interestingly, Minister Chris Finlayson, chipped in yesterday with a tribute to the "rigorous standards" maintained by another former TVNZ journalist, Kris Faafoi, who is now the Labour MP for the Mana electorate. Faafoi didn't go directly from from journalism into politics -- he had a cleansing spell as Phill Goff's press secretary along the way, and that made all the difference.

Even the most aggressive reporters will never turn on colleagues who cross to the other side to work for politicians or take money for media training in the way they might scorn those who display any political beliefs. In part that's because spin doctoring is seen as a trade -- or another element of The Game -- but it's also perhaps because journalists need to maintain relations with press secs, and in some cases, because they might need to cross over one day themselves.

We're now at stage where TVNZ programmes that very largely aired without comment at the time are being pored over for evidence of possible bias, and Paula Bennett is remembering two year-old interviews where she got a hard time. At least she could name an occasion: Tau Henare's declaration on Morning Report today that he'd always felt Taurima was biased against him but he couldn't actually think of an example was the stuff of farce.

Both MPs may need reminding that it is the job of journalists to strongly challenge them -- and to challenge them all the more strongly because they are in goverment. (TV3 journalists in the habit recently of using the Prime Minister as an unchallenged expository device in their stories may care to ponder this.)

I actually don't expect the review process to turn up anything relevant. Picking over the minutiae of broadcast interviews is beside the point. What's much more relevant is the editorial management culture that allowed it all to happen -- just as it was last year in the Radio Live debacle. TV3's news and current affairs enjoys the kind of strong, stable editorial leadership that its radio sibling and its TV rival across town do not. But that's a whole other story.

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