Hard News by Russell Brown


Spinning and soldiering

Our story begins in May, when the Sunday Star Times published a story headed What Afghans really think of Kiwis. It was based on a poll conducted among residents of Afghanistan's Bamiyan province by independent journalist Jon Stephenson, which found that while our provincial reconstruction team was viewed favourably by the locals, they did not highly rate the teams actual achievments in reconstruction.

Nonsense, roared New Zealand Herald columnist Garth George in a subsequent column headed Nit pickers owe Kiwi heroes their gratitude:

It was a silly story, based on a "poll" of 100 Bamiyan town residents, 82 of whom rated the PRT's contribution to the security of their province as either "good" or "very good" but of whom 64 described the team's contribution to reconstruction as "poor" or "very poor", with only 34 saying that they or their family had benefited in any way from aid projects in which the PRT has been involved.

How dumb can you get? For a start, this sample was taken in only the main centre of a province that covers more than 14,000sq km with a population of nearly 400,000. And, in any case, asking a resident of a single town with a population of 60,000-odd whether the aid work of the PRT is good enough is a bit like asking a beneficiary if the money he gets each week is enough.

Jon responded to the broadside by filing some requests under the Official Information Act, and presenting his conclusions at AUT's Media, Investigative Journalism and Technology conference over the weekend.

This is the abstract of his paper, 'How the war was spun: the media, the New Zealand Defence Force, and Afghanistan':

This paper takes as its starting point the definition of journalism posited by the noted Israeli reporter Amira Hass – “Our job is to monitor power, and the centers of power”. The writer will argue that, if this “Fourth Estate” definition is accepted, there can be few more important areas of journalism than reporting on conflict, where lives – sometimes thousands, even tens of thousands, of lives – and the fate of nations are at stake. Media coverage of New Zealand’s involvement in the 2001– Afghanistan conflict will be discussed, with particular emphasis on New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) activities. The writer will argue that, with few exceptions, reporting on what is now this country’s longest war has been seriously deficient. Reasons for the woeful coverage of our commitment to what is arguably the world’s most important conflict will be outlined and analysed, with specific reference to the writer’s on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan and interactions with the NZDF. Arguing that the NZDF has essentially received a “free pass” from media since the Afghanistan war began, the writer will look at the costs of failing to monitor our nation’s involvement in what many regard as an illegal, immoral, and intractable conflict. The paper will conclude with suggestions for improving New Zealand media coverage of the Afghanistan war

It would be fair to say that Jon believes Garth had some help with his homework. Garth, in return, says he stands by everything he wrote. Things might get lively.

If you'd like to join us for Wednesday's recording, we'd need you at the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ by 5.30pm. As usual, drop me a line to say you're coming if possible.

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