Hard News by Russell Brown


Everybody has one

Dita de Boni bowed out from her New Zealand Herald column this morning with a powerful explanation of why she might, as some people have apparently suggested to her over the years, have become more "biased against" the government.

The answer's that the examples of contempt for the public, hypocrisy, and flat-out bulls***tery have become too overwhelming to ignore.

And while these traits can also be found in the opposition, it's not the same. A journalist - even an opinion columnist writing on politics, which is not the same thing as investigative journalism and certainly not as important - must necessarily give more weight to the actions of the party in power. Anything else starts to look like meaningless diversion.

The other reason, of course, is that I love New Zealand - not in a new flag baloney, jingoistic, Richie McCaw-worshipping kind of way, but as a country that is small enough, wealthy enough, and forward-thinking enough to ensure a great life for most.

She goes on to lament government policy – or the lack of it – in Housing and Corrections, noting that while she has a nice life in "an expensive house in central Auckland ... children live in sheds and sleepouts and die from the diseases of overcrowding not 40 minutes away." It's a strongly-written piece about holding power to account.

In the same online paper today, Mike Hosking has a confused and self-serving column that also addresses claims of bias, most notably from Winston Peters. Hosking professes surprise at "how appallingly ill-informed so many people are about how the media works" and explains that because he is not, as is widely supposed a journalist, "I can, like most people, say what I like." Most people do not, of course, have the benefit of multiple platforms on which to amplify their sometimes weirdly inaccurate reckons.

It would be easy to think that Hosking's primacy and de Boni's departure represent a conscious editorial tilt to the right. I don't think that's necessarily what's happening here. After all, Toby Manhire still writes very well every week, and Jarrod Gilbert this week offered an insightful opinion on the way that public anger gets in the way of actually addressing the causes of violence against children.

It's more like this: Hosking's thoughts are automatically echoed in the Herald because Newstalk ZB and the Herald are part of the same company, NZME, and Hosking is one of NZME's banner names. The company wants both to promote Hosking and reticulate traffic through its different media assets. (TVNZ is basically an add-on to this.) Over at Mediaworks, an increasing proportion of what you see and hear is also in service of another part of the company – and that will become even more the case when Mediaworks' events venture gets up to speed. In both companies, commercial radio provides the profits, meaning radio calls the shots. If there's a conservative influence, that's radio.

The other factor is that opinion – and that's increasingly what column-writing is becoming, rather than analysis or argument – is in oversupply, because everyone has one of those in the age of the internet. It no longer fetches much of a price.

So while Jarrod Gilbert gets paid in recognition of his greatly-deserved Blogger of the Year award, it suits the Herald to keep on Bob Jones, who writes for free, and dump Paul Casserly, who doesn't. The tedious tit-for-tat columns that Judith Collins and Phil Goff get their staff to write in the Sunday Star Times are, similarly, funded from your tax dollars, rather than the paper's editorial budget. [Correction: Collins is paid a modest fee and donates the money to the Totara South Auckland Hospice. Not sure about Goff.]

Dr Michelle Dickinson's new Science and Tech column in the Weekend Herald is sponsored by Callaghan Innovation "to promote the coverage of science and innovation". As welcome as a science column is, and as fine a communicator as Michelle is, I suspect this means the paper is being paid to publish a columnist, rather than paying a columnist. You'll see more of this in future. It would be good to think that means more money for investigative journalism.

Hosking's column includes a shot at his journalistic critics – for foolishly mistaking him for a journalist. He declares " as a journalist one of your primary tasks is accuracy and if you start off with inaccuracy you never really recover".

Hosking, on the other hand, is relieved of the burden of accuracy because it's just his opinion. But it appears in the newspaper, and I'm sure there are many at the Herald who worry about the paper being dragged down to commercial talk radio standards of opinionating, let alone prose style. I suspect in the hard world of modern media, they don't have much choice.

Hosking further suggests that "my glass half-full view of the world might just happen to coincide with the glass half-full view of the Government" and declares himself to "have been glass half-full for about 50 years".

De Boni invokes the same phrase in her farewell column:

If I have a "glass half full" mentality, it's because that's easy for someone in my privileged position to have.

I need hardly explain to you the difference in what they're saying.

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