Hard News by Russell Brown

History pivots while we sleep

The thing that struck me is how different a weekend it could have been - if Saddam had somehow stayed safe in his hole and the terrorists had killed Musharaf.

Although it has inevitably been swamped by news of Saddam's capture, the Pakistani leader passing through 10 minutes before the bomb that had been set for him detonated is almost as a big a story. In a nation heaving with discontent, Musharraf, and virtually he alone, seems to stand in the way of darkness. This could have been a very ugly Monday.

As it is, the pictures are of Saddam, haggard and dirty like a tramp, being checked for parasites, having conspicuously failed to, as he promised, go out with guns blazing. His failure to die like an Arab leader should was clearly a disappointment to some of those spoken to by al-Jazeera. Salam Pax, on the other hand, sounded stunned and delighted when The Guardian got him on the phone.

Although this was the best possible news for the coalition, and for Iraqis hopeful of progress to peace and democracy, the absence of declarations of victory is prudent. The Iraqi insurgents don't appear to have been actively directed by Saddam, or motivated by a desire to return him to power, as this interview granted to Associated Press several days ago indicated:

A former Iraqi general who claims to be part of the insurgency against US troops says the guerrilla war around this Sunni Triangle city is being waged by small groups fighting on their own without direction from Saddam Hussein or others.

He and two other Samara men, who said they are in separate guerrilla units, insisted in interviews with The Associated Press that their fight isn't aimed at returning Saddam to power. They said it's about ending the US-led occupation and restoring Iraqi rule.

Then, of course, there was Newsweek's startling story last week about al-Qaeda's new focus on Iraq as the best place to kill Americans. Even as Saddam was being fetched from his hole, there was carnage west of Baghdad.

But destiny looms for one man at least: and as luck would have it, some sort of plan for justice was established only days before the former despot's capture: an open tribunal, run by and on behalf of Iraqis, where Saddam and his henchmen will be entitled to legal representation. And won't that be an interesting brief? The Reuters correspondent has looked at a few of the issues around the tribunal, including the application or otherwise of the death penalty.

Reports from members of the governing council who laid eyes on Saddam yesterday suggested that he remained defiant and unapologetic: those he had slaughtered by the thousand were but thieves and Iranian agents. Will he, in a final flourish, use the tribunal as a platform to try and embarrass his foreign captors?

And if he really has been spirited out of Iraq, where is he now?

Anyway, a few people have asked me about Deborah Coddington's "research" on bias at Radio New Zealand. I would point out this is not in any sense a response from Radio New Zealand, which may or may not be forthcoming, and probably won't. But given the extent to which, I, as the presenter of 24 minutes of National Radio per week, feature in it, some sort of personal response would seem to be appropriate.

For a start, Coddington needs to decide what her report is actually called. She heads it Saving Public Radio and then, on pages five and nine, calls it Supporting Public Radio. The report is plagued with mistakes and munged sentences. Sure, we've all had our trivial typing errors, but you'd think a document that sings its own praises as loudly as this one does would have been read more closely before it was launched.

Coddington's contention is that Radio New Zealand is biased against "pro-market" voices in favour of "pro-interventionist" ones. In making the argument she presents the majority of her facts out of context, apparently wilfully and sometimes ludicrously so. According to Coddington, Nine to Noon's commentator Murray Weatherston, is guilty of being "cited in a Green Party parliamentary speech responding to the 2001 Budget". (Jesus! Does the SIS know?) Yes, he was quoted: opposing the government's superannuation fund, in line with Act Party policy.

Another problem with taking all this in any way seriously as research is that Coddington has not only taken her own measurements throughout, but set her own benchmarks: she has defined "pro-market" so narrowly that not only does Weatherston, a financial planner, fail to make the grade, so does Rod Oram, one of the country's most prominent financial journalists. She gives the appearance of arguing less for diversity than for a fairly limited sector of interest.

A fair chunk of the report is dedicated to the show I present, Mediawatch: it's the only programme to warrant its own section. And I think Coddington is on rather shaky ground when she says "Mediawatch rarely reaches above shallow commenting or glib reporting of weekly media occurrences," given the shallowness of her own research. The only opinions from industry figures - Paul Thompson of the Press and Gavin Ellis at the Herald - are lifted (one credited, the other not) from Jane Dunbar's monograph, Can We talk about the News? and were expressed to Dunbar about 18 months ago (Coddington describes the Ellis comment as "recent"). Her other research is based very largely on information available on the Mediawatch website, which, unfortunately, contains only a portion of what we've done.

What's notable about Coddington's critical examples regarding myself is that almost none of them relate to something I've actually said or done in nearly three years of Mediawatch. Instead, she plucks a few sentences (or some cases, individual words) out of context from 12 years of Hard News. (And even then she gets it wrong. Hard News didn't exist as a weblog in 2000, and wouldn't do so for another two years. It was a radio comment slot whose script I posted to the Internet.) From it she divines that:

Brown does not appear to be well disposed to pro-market politicians or their messages.

Actually, I'd have Stephen Franks and Rodney Hide in my Parliament any day. They have their uses.

Although his prolific writing displays an effort on occasion to understand a pro-market perspective...

Stupid little hobbit that I am, I couldn't hope to understand it, but I do try...

...often it tends toward baser comments...

Perhaps it does. Hard News has been known to be pungent; more so in its years as a radio feature. Such is life online. I dare say you could find evidence to hang me for any number of things from a decade's archive of late-breaking Friday morning radio-rants. But I do wonder at Coddington's judgement in citing it as grounds for "revisiting the make-up of the team behind [Mediawatch]" in a report she has forwarded to the Radio New Zealand board.

As it turns out, in the course of several thousand words, she is able to cite one instance of alleged bias on my part on the show itself, and it is this:

Quite often, Mediawatch exhibits a subtle bias against commercial broadcasting (as opposed to public service broadcasting). One example of this bias was exhibited when the presenter interviewed a former commercial radio employee:

Newstalk's news operation comes from a public service background. Does what we've heard this week from Paul Holmes, and the general drift, suggest that it's moving away from that?

The comment, “what we’ve heard this week from Paul Holmes”, was a reference to Holmes’ widely-attacked comment on commercial radio that Kofi Annan was a “cheeky darkie”. The underlying assumption the presenter is making is that such a comment would not be made on a public service broadcaster.

No, it probably wouldn't, and it hardly seems controversial to say so. But the point here is that Ron Sneddon, a former general manager at Newstalk ZB who now runs an ad agency, was on the show in part because he'd written an entertaining column weighing TRN's public broadcasting roots against the background of the Canwest team in the early commercial radio ventures. The context is right there on the page. She also fails to note that I subsequently suggested that commercial radio might have good reason to despise government, given the way it was stitched up by the government and the NZBC in the 1960s and 1970s.

Elsewhere, her arguments are confused and confusing. She says "no pro-market commentators are associated with Mediawatch", then that the presence of commentators like Lindsay Perigo (both an engaging interview and a pre-recorded comment on the show this year) provides variety, but "if the 'Comment' section is removed from analysis, Mediawatch is found to provide a lot less diversity." So if you don't count the diversity, there's a lot less, um, diversity.

She notes that there are "two other members of the Mediawatch team: a producer and a journalist. Neither has written as extensively as Brown and Frewen. While their CVs were taken into account for the subsequent analysis of depth of experience, there was not enough data to accurately establish their political viewpoints."

Goodness. Pompous and lazy! As anyone who knows anything about radio knows, the producer generally has more to do with the composition of a programme than anyone else. But apparently our producer's CV didn't provide enough "data" (oh, get over yourself, woman) for her "research" so that was it.

I don't so much mind being the subject of a hatchet job, but did it have to be so patronising? The sheer snottiness of Coddington's tone - apparently my skills are limited to infotech and "punditry" and I know nothing of business and lack "a perspective on other aspects of the media" - is remarkable.

Look, I've been writing for business audiences since 1996 and have won awards for doing so. I own my own business and have had a fiduciary responsibility at 95bFM for years. I also helped launch Unlimited magazine and have written for it ever since - they seem to find me competent there. Deborah Coddington, so far as I am aware, has never written for a business publication. (Update: Somebody did a search and discovered that she has written five stories for the NBR.)

As it happens, I do think a greater diversity of views - the best of all arguments - would be good for Radio New Zealand, but it's not necessarily easy to achieve in a Reithian organisation. It's much easier in commercial radio, where flagship programmes are routinely based around personalities. When you choose Leighton Smith, Tau Henare or Ian Wishart to host talkback you can be fairly sure of your ideological settings for the next two or three hours.

It would presumably be possible to air The Liberal Right Hour on National Radio, but to do so would be to risk politicising Radio New Zealand beyond all reason. Once you have the Act Party show, are you then obliged to devise a New Zealand First show, or the Green Party Gardening Hour? How do you measure the competing claims for philosophical airtime? If United Future dives in the polls, does that mean less Christianity on air next year? At what point do you bump out sector-based shows on the arts or sciences? Do you continue to go for the best talent available or institute an affirmative-action programme for candidates with what Coddington describes as the appropriate "pro-market philosophical framework"?

And how do you explain it all to a substantial existing audience that, according to research rather more reliable than Coddington's, doesn't particularly think anything's broken?

There is an argument that the solid, central Reithian voice is outmoded, that public broadcasting now should speak with many voices. That argument has some merit, but getting there from here would require deeper thought than is in evidence in Saving Public Radio - which, as I noted above, argues less for diversity than for the divine right of a narrowly-defined sector of interest.

I discussed this a bit over the weekend with David Cohen - the anointed saviour in so much conservative grumping about RNZ - who offered that:

Correspondents, expert contributors, and the voices used in bulletins are far more important than who crams the opinion slots. RNZ can broadcast anti-market, anti-US, wacky conspiracy opinions till the cows come home, and as it already does, and I won't really care. What concerns me a lot more is the quality of its news and information services.

To take one example from an area close to your heart: Why does nearly every British correspondent used on Nine Till Noon and the morning show always have to be from the liberal-left? Hey, I have nada against Guardian writers - theirs is my favorite British paper and it so happens that Patrick Ensor was my first-ever editor - but it puzzles me why RNZ can't follow even the BBC's example in using a spectrum of different journalistic voices. No actually, it's not puzzling at all; they don't do so because they're provincial jerks with that hideous NZ attitude of always presuming to know what's best for listeners.

Or what about the coverage given to the Featherston girl who was murdered? If we're going to have the usual line up of dolts saying it was all about narcotics and the system breaking down then why not, say, have a born-again minister on to argue that it was because of ... I don't know, sin or something? Or a pro-capital punishment type to say it happened because there's no death penalty. (Or whatever.) That would seem fairer than only featuring the kinds of narratives that fit in with a young, do-gooding, secularly puritanical view of the world.

I don't agree with all of that, but Cohen had more that was useful to say in an email than Coddington managed in 10,000 words. A little ginger in the form of a report like hers ought to be a good thing. The Act Party ought to make an intellectual contribution. But Saving Public Radio is so ditsy, sloppy, capricious and nasty that it really doesn't contribute at all. I think I want my taxes back.