John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Save us from one-sided TV

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They've made it their mission to side with people against power

John Campbell's reporters on Campbell Live aren't asking the hard questions. Instead, they're delivering a simplistic, one-sided view of stories. Photo / Supplied
John Campbell's reporters on Campbell Live aren't asking the hard questions. Instead, they're delivering a simplistic, one-sided view of stories. Photo / Supplied

Do you know how they chose which schools to close in Christchurch? I don't. I could find out butI shouldn't have to, there has been so much television coverage of the subject this week we should be well informed.

I have seen sad, angry and bitter teachers. I have been told over and over what a blow this is for people who are still trying to recover from earthquakes, particularly when their school suffered little damage.

I have seen school children lined up for the cameras and saying the same things, exactly the same, as the sad, angry and bitter teachers. I have seen the kids with placards made in class and I've seen them having a protest march.

Has anybody explained to them how and why their school is on the list, or are they simply learning this is what you do when you don't like a decision? That strikes me as a good reason to close the school but doubtless there were other criteria.

I have listened to John Campbell, thinking he would want to know what they are, but if he knows he doesn't seem to think his audience needs to know.

I watched his reporter cover a school protest meeting the other night, jumping excitedly from one sad, angry, bitter teacher to the next and then to one well-primed child after another, and Campbell thanked him for that report.

Maybe I missed an interview where an education official got a chance to explain the reasons but I would have thought the rationale, whatever it is, would be mentioned in every report.

Journalists are trained to cover all obvious questions. When one is left begging like this, be very suspicious.

It is possible the criteria for closing or merging so many schools across the city will not stand critical examination. When officials of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority point out central city buildings still to come down, they speak with a devilish glee that can give the impression Christchurch is in some sort of post-traumatic orgy of destruction. Heritage defenders certainly think so.

But if the rationalisation of the city's schools was infected by the same syndrome, television programmes would be tearing the reasoning apart. The fact they don't want to know tells me the rationale is probably sound.

That doesn't excuse the programmes. Television is powerful. Fox News in the United States largely created the "tea party" against taxation that turned the congress against President Barack Obama and has the world economy fearing another US fiscal crisis. This country's little Fox comes from the opposite point of view.

Possibly the producers of Campbell Live think they are doing "advocacy journalism" and the usual standards needn't apply. They've made it their mission to side with people against power and express the pain and frustrations of those on one side of a problem.

In their world, we are governed by misanthropes. Ministers are cold, hard rationalists who close schools, deny food to hungry children, take away trains, force beneficiaries to look for jobs, because they don't care.

The public are helpless victims, their personal interests always fair, their behaviour beyond reproach.

How I miss Paul Holmes. He had the rare ability to empathise with everyone, the powerful and powerless. He saw them all as the well-intentioned people they are as they grapple with problems.

His programmes were far more interesting and informative because he understood politics and public policy and credited everyone else with the intelligence to understand them.

Holmes, of course, dealt in emotion as much as any programme but he could find it in the dilemmas of public decisions. He didn't need to reduce them to the insulting simplicities of Campbell Live.

The other night - probably the same night as the Christchurch school closures - it carried an item about school kids who appear to have no lunch.

Labour last week promised food for every child in lower decile schools next time it is in power. Campbell Live went to schools at the upper and lower end of the decile range and asked a class in each to put their lunches on the desk.

The contrast was startling: gourmet packs on the rich desks, nothing on most of the poor. The programme promised to investigate further.

The following night its reporter spoke to kids at a dairy on their way to the school. They seemed to have plenty of money, seemed to be spending it on junk that quite likely they would consume long before lunchtime, but the programme didn't really want to know.

The issue is cut and dried to Campbell Live: the Government must provide. The Government probably will. If school meals become a new entitlement, very hard to contain, it will be a costly triumph for one-sided television.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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