Hard News by Russell Brown


Ian Fraser is right. The new TV3 News campaign is a cheap shot.

Fraser vented his anger to the Sunday Star Times, declaring himself "disappointed that a pair of journalists would lend themselves to a campaign in which they denigrate the independence, the courage and tenacity of other journalists when they know perfectly well there is no basis whatever to those claims."

The two journalists are, of course, John Campbell and Carol Hirschfeld, who according to the Star Times story wrote the copy they deliver in the new campaign, which advances 3 News's pitch for viewers by implying that TVNZ journalists cannot be trusted. It goes thus:

From Wellington to Washington to Baghdad. In uncertain times who can you trust?

Not anyone who works for TVNZ, it appears.

Yes, it's important to remember that propaganda can come from all sides …

And TVNZ will deliver it on command?

… so, our job is to be independent, to tell the truth as well as we are able.

While TVNZ tells lies?

At 3 News we are not cheerleaders

Unlike the journalists at TVNZ.

We're not state-owned.

Public broadcasters are not to be trusted.

We are journalists

And they're not, presumably.

We should not be afraid of anyone.

And they are.

Our job is to ask the questions - no matter who we might offend.

But they don't, because they're under the thumb of the government thought police.

I would be furious if another journalist implied these things about me, and, indeed, I have been in the past.

Lingering in the background, of course, is the Corngate story, which was certainly evidence of fearlessness in the face of official wrath. But TV3 would have fared better on the story had it spent less time trumpeting about "our investigation" and more time - or any - actually conducting one. But it didn't. It got the story on a plate (as did the entirely state-funded Radio New Zealand, albeit with much less notice) and the nature of the deal meant it came up short as the story developed.

RNZ's journalists revisited the story, and Steven Price (who vetted Seeds of Distrust for legal issues) has provided what is thus far the definitive account of the affair, in a thorough and nuanced feature in Metro magazine (he finds himself "not that far" from Nicky Hager's account). TV3 really hasn't returned to its killer story.

What also makes the 3 News campaign a bit rich is that although 3 News has long provided a welcome alternative to the smothering format of the market leader, it has become more like One News in the past two years, and can attribute at least some of its audience gains to that fact. 3 News's growth hasn't been amongst Auckland smarties, but churchgoing couples, residents of the Waikato and unemployed mechanics in Taupo (well, that's basically what the last research I saw said).

A deeper irony is that John and Carol work for a company owned by CanWest Global, whose proprietors, the Asper family have (when they haven't been campaigning against public broadcasting) practised some of the most egregious editorial interference seen anywhere in the democratic world in recent years.

Among other things, they have forbidden any criticism of the Israeli government in any of their Canadian newspapers, which account for most of the newspaper market in that country. (This story was broken here by the state-funded Mediawatch, but you won't have heard it on TV3 or Radio Pacific.)

There is no evidence that the Aspers' unpleasant meddling with editorial independence extends to their TV channel in New Zealand. Just as there is no evidence that journalists at TVNZ are beholden to ministers and officials.

Personally, I've gone from being a 3 News loyalist to more of a swinging viewer in the last year or two. The mum-and-dad schtick and incessant use of teasers on One News still irritate me, but so do those flimsy mid-bulletin entertainment stories on 3 News. (Doubtless on account of its much tighter budgets, 3 News can be unwatchable at the weekends.)

TVNZ is making a conscious effort to improve and innovate in its news and current affairs offerings. Some of what has resulted is a bit pompous (the "One News Centre"), some of it is excellent (Tsehai Tiffin's voluntary euthanasia story on Sunday) and some of it is awful (the Hosking-Howard interview in the same show).

Fraser needs to keep a check on his outbursts - they tend to become longer-running stories than the original offence, and it was silly of him to have a crack at Campbell and Hirschfeld personally - but I wouldn't rule out an angry response this week to industry grumblings about the new head of commissioning, Tony Holden.

TV3, in the meantime, ought to be wary of believing its own hype.