Hard News by Russell Brown

Balancing acts

I don't mind being called a conspiracy theorist in Gordon Campbell's critique of the Broadcasting Standards Authority's decision on the Corngate broadcast in this week's Listener, although it was really more in the way of an observation.

As it happens, I have had a small correspondence with Nicky Hager recently. He feels that I have been snide and unfair towards him, and that my analysis of the BSA decision was selective. I hope and trust he will find the following more measured.

An alternative view is laid out in Campbell's four-page commentary, which is a strong and persuasive piece of writing. His comparison of the Corngate decision with the BSA's 1999 dismissal of complaints over TV3's outwardly very similar interview with Timberlands CEO Dave Hilliard over allegations in Hager's book Secrets and Lies, before that year's general election, is fascinating. It is odd that the BSA would have made a comparison with the Holmes "brain drain" complaint, but not reached back a couple more years to the Timberlands programme.

But it is … selective. Campbell says that TV3 was "cleared of allegations that the story was factually wrong", but my reading of the decision was that the BSA declined to determine the facts, which is different. Having interviewed Judy McGregor of the BSA and Sir John Jefferies of the Press Council on precisely that issue, I'm fairly sure I'm right.

Campbell is also happy to invoke Steven Price's "painstaking" feature in Metro magazine, in which Price largely endorsed the case made in Seeds of Distrust; but didn't note Price's quite favourable opinion of the BSA decision. It would seem fair to have included both.

And nowhere does Campbell mention TV3's recording-over of the field tape of the interview with Hager, which "astounded" the BSA. That action had no bearing on the programme itself, as it presumably occurred after it went to air, but it was highly unusual and, on the face of it, obstructive. If Campbell thought it was irrelevant it might have been better to say so, rather than simply ignore an issue so clearly flagged in the decision.

I suspect there will be a letter or two of complaint about what Campbell says about journalistic objectivity - that it ought to have its limits - but there's a case there too. Yet there's something to be said about his concluding argument that the Corngate gotcha was the most effective means of airing the facts.

What actually happened was that within 24 hours, TV3 was recasting its cast-iron facts as "allegations", even though they had substance, and within 48 hours, it was beginning to back away from the story. The mainstream media, as Campbell notes in his piece, dropped it, in some cases derisively. It cost the Green Party several points on its vote, and possibly a role in government. Most of the public probably regard it as a conspiracy theory. The government has consented to a select committee inquiry, but nobody seems to be reporting it. The Opposition finds no mileage in it. No one has resigned. It is not a great result for a tactic designed to block out government spin.

I think that, for whatever reason, both lay people and others in the media did sense an unfairness in the Corngate programme. Many of them were probably already feeling that the election campaign had been hijacked by GE. The emergence of the apparently trustworthy scientist Russell Poulter didn't help either. I'll shut up about this until the select committee comes back. But for now, I just think there was a better way than "gotcha".

Anyway, it looks like it's TV One news that will be troubled for the next wee while, with Ralston apparently obliged to wield the budgetary machete on arrival. So it's Hosking off Sunday and fronting Breakfast on his own, Kate Hawkesby back to reading news, and Assignment apparently for the chop, or at least a folding into a revamped, more journalistic, Sunday.

I suspect Ralston will see fat to trim in the travel budgets too - flying Sunday reporters to America so they can stand in front of buildings doing pieces to camera is a poor use of resources. Perhaps they could take a lead from the best bit of field reporting to appear on Sunday all year: Richard Driver's brave handycam foray into Zimbabwe. That wasn't newsclerking and it wasn't expensive.

Part of TV3's news appeal is that it looks like it costs less, they know it and they don't care. Perhaps some rations would do the same at TVNZ.