John Drinnan 's Opinion

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan: TVNZ checks staff politics

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Seven Sharp's Mike Hosking makes no secret of his conservative leanings. Photo / TVNZ
Seven Sharp's Mike Hosking makes no secret of his conservative leanings. Photo / TVNZ

Television New Zealand is demanding journalists and presenters declare membership, fund-raising or other political party activity, with checks to be complete before the run-up to the September election.

The political check-up is a response to the Taurima report, which revealed misuse of TVNZ resources by a Labour Party cell within the broadcaster's Maori and Pacific programming department, headed by Shane Taurima.

The review of its protocols for staff political involvement will be announced soon and the Public Service Association, which represents some TVNZ journalists, is worried about how the management inquiries will be conducted. The union fears checks on staff will breach State Services Commission guidelines, and the idea of political checks has been questioned on civil rights grounds.

Journalists in mainstream media should not be party members or activists, and while blogs are free and easy, mainstream media restrict such activities. In fact, party membership is anathema to many journalists.

But TVNZ checking on its staff and contractors' politics has undertones of McCarthyism. Some staff are irritated that their careers could be affected if they choose not to respond.

After all, as one suggests, re-hiring Taurima after he sought a Labour Party nomination was due to bungling by senior management, not a groundswell of politicisation at the network.

TVNZ is focusing on party membership, not the wider and more complex area of voicing political opinion on air.

It says it will look at present-day conflicts, not historical membership of political parties. "There are plenty of people who joined the Communist Party in their student days who might not feel the same affinity now," says spokeswoman Megan Richards.

So the lesson is clear to any party hacks at TVNZ: pull out before the boss turns up at your desk with a questionnaire.

The check-up is not limited to low-placed editorial staff; all presenters will go under the magnifying glass. Kevin Kenrick, TVNZ's chief executive and editor in chief, will also be asked about his affiliations.

VOTE FOR THE HOSK

The TVNZ political purity drive unmasks an anomaly.

While current affairs people are not allowed to align themselves with political parties, presenters such as Mike Hosking are allowed to give their personal views, as long as they are not a member of a party or an activist for one.

In fact, Hosking is the "elephant in the room" when it comes to TVNZ's reputation as an objective political observer.

He wears his conservative politics on his sleeve and TVNZ has given him influence over what gets shown on Seven Sharp, says a source familiar with the show's workings.

Spokeswoman Georgie Hills says TVNZ accepts that most people, including journalists and presenters, will have some political opinions.

"Over the years it has become more common to hear personal views expressed by presenters on more conversational style news programmes like Seven Sharp - and up to a point we accept that as well."

Which is probably handy, because Seven Sharp with Hosking and Toni Street rates well and delivers more advertising revenue than it did last year.

"You have to draw the line somewhere and we draw the line at active membership of a political party," says Hills.

CELEBRITY POLITICS

The Taurima report was embarrassing for TVNZ, especially in an election year.

Politicians routinely accuse it of bias, even where none exists. And though the report found no programming bias, it is important that TVNZ is seen to act.

Other media organisations also demand their editorial staff not get involved in politics or community issues that clash with their editorial roles.

Former head of TVNZ news and current affairs Bill Ralston says that from his experience, party political membership is not an issue, but activism among staff needs to be taken into account.

Back in the 1990s, Ralston was among the first celebrity news and current affairs presenters. His satirical political commentaries frequently included jibes at Prime Minister Jim Bolger.

Ralston notes that at TVNZ, Paul Holmes considered standing for the Auckland mayoralty while hosting his TV show, but TVNZ put a stop to that.

Objectivity is an unfashionable term in TV journalism nowadays. That is partly due to celebrity broadcasters, especially in talk radio, who need to provoke outrage to keep the ratings up.

Paul Henry - a former National Party candidate - was blatantly provoking outrage on TVNZ's Breakfast show when he got into trouble for asking John Key whether Anand Satyanand looked "New Zealand enough" to be governor-general.

TV3 keeps a close watch on Henry now he hosts a late-night news show, to the point that it chastised him for saying David Cunliffe was an idiot.

Yet despite Henry's chequered past - and undisguised right-wing leanings - many in television believe he is bound for a role in primetime after this year.

John Campbell of TV3's Campbell Live has studiously avoided party political associations and says despite being accused of being a leftie, he holds all parties to account.

He says the big problem is with journalists who are friends with politicians, while declining to spell out what that means.

He says Hosking makes it clear where he is coming from. But I wonder if that is what people in other countries would expect from primetime current affairs on state TV in an election year.

TIT FOR TAT

TV3 news and current affairs appears to be going through an erratic period, up one moment and down the next. On the one hand, the Parliamentary bureau led by Patrick Gower is dominating political coverage. Gower offers strong opinions and that makes good television, but you can't help but wonder if the TV3 news bosses have become dependent on the political team delivering controversy every day.

On the other hand, a recent item on Judith Collins' use of a firearm was such a non-story, a tweeter pointed out that even the most rabid left-wing bloggers, who despise Collins, did not bother to follow it up. At one point, TV3 items on allegations against Collins were so numerous that newsreader Mike McRoberts jokingly commented "wait, there is more", like some advertorial.

Campbell Live has been on a long run of successes, but at times it has seemed consumed by the stories it covers. An item on the GCSB that aired this week was worthy enough, but over-egged and played for melodrama with ominous music. Campbell defends the item as worthwhile, spelling out new developments, which were delivered at the end of the (long) segment.

TV3 has been at the forefront of the news agenda, but sometimes seems to have entered into a tit-for-tat relationship with National and John Key. Evidence of that was Key's questioning the use of Linda Clark as a TV3 political commentator, claiming that she had provided media training for Labour leader David Cunliffe. It is almost as if Key wants to take TV3 down a peg or two.

GROUP SALES

Two key media groups have created new roles to handle the shift to converged sales. APN News & Media - which includes the Herald and TRN among its assets - appointed Nina Bialostocki to a new role as general manager, collaborative media solutions. She will be responsible for the development of integrated opportunities across APN's business units, including GrabOne and Adshel.

Meanwhile, MediaWorks - owner of the MediaWorks radio arm and TV3 and Four - has appointed Paul Hancox to commercial director of both Radio and TV.

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan is the media writer for the New Zealand Herald. A business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s. He is focused on the business side of the digital revolution in media.

Read more by John Drinnan

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