Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Geoff Kemp: When well-meaning ideals collide


Most journalists leave their political conscience at the door and pull on their professional one like overalls.

Shane Taurima, former editor of Te Karere,crossed the line. Photo / Richard Robinson
Shane Taurima, former editor of Te Karere,crossed the line. Photo / Richard Robinson

How can journalists make the world a better place?

Shane Taurima probably felt he was trying to make New Zealand a better place, even if he went about it the wrong way, as everyone seems to agree, including himself. His involvement in political activities cost him his job as a Television New Zealand journalist.

The question of Shane's shame was made an open-and-shut case, but is the world of journalism better off without the politically committed?

Clearly not. Aspiring to provide information of benefit to society is itself a political commitment, and we want journalists with that ideal. That's what attracts aspiring journalists among students on our stage one course on Politics and the Media, though the odd one asks how to become a TV presenter without the hard yards.

They are taught the standards expected of journalists. Gavin Ellis surveyed press codes across twelve western countries and found common ground on values of accuracy, honesty, fairness, independence and avoidance of conflicts of interest.

The Elements of Journalism by leading US educators prioritises obligation to the truth, loyalty to citizens, and independence as a monitor of power.

But the Elements also lists "the exercise of personal conscience" and, in a university equipping critical citizens, students are given the thoughts of Robert Fisk, whose dispatches from the Middle East feature in the Herald.

Asked about the "goal of objectivity", Fisk called it a "problem in American journalism schools, which thank God we Brits don't go through. We do politics and history and other subjects at university", feeding a concern with truth and justice not just with "what two sides are saying", since journalists "have to have some sense of morality, and passion and anger".

Some journalists, like Fisk, get to show their colours in the job. Most others are required to exchange personal conscience for professional conscience at the workplace door, like pulling on overalls, to the extent that it conflicts with the mission of their institution, journalistic and otherwise. To many, there seems no conflict, and the normal business of journalism invites moral passion enough. But the tension lurks when the conscientious journalist has to be both political animal and political eunuch, in a system where societal ills are addressed through party politics.

The issue then is line-drawing, and most accept the lines drawn by editors and employers, by conscience or necessity. This is not unproblematic. This week New Zealand claimed a top 10 place in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index issued by the influential Reporters Without Borders organisation, based on questions that included asking whether media staff "may take positions of any kind on public issues with no limits of any kind from owners or the government".

Of course they can't. Press freedom belongs to those who own one, to quote the old saw, and journalists as such do not have rights to freedom of expression, individual citizens do. The system works, by and large, though it implies a self-censoring newsroom. Organising party campaigns in work's time clearly crosses the line, and so may putting personal political conscience first in doing the job of independent intermediary, though this is more fraught.

But more fraught still would be a limit on taking "positions of any kind on public issues", including outside the office. TVNZ has subsequently revealed that Shane Taurima was required to make "an explicit choice between journalism and politics", which presumably means not just leaving his party conscience at the door but censoring it entirely.

TVNZ revealed this to bolster its case, since reneging on an agreement crosses the line too. And the idea that journalists should have no party affiliations or even inclinations is fairly well embedded.

Not just journalists, either. A book I've just finished on censorship and press freedom has a chapter on the 18th century thinker Immanuel Kant and his case for 'freedom of the pen'.

Kant's advice, roughly, was obey the boss but keep arguing as a citizen. In election year, the likelihood and benefits of political journalists doing both are uncertain. Even more uncertain may be the future, as the split personality of journalist and citizen becomes increasingly the separate persons of professional journalist and citizen journalist.

Dr Geoff Kemp is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Auckland, and a former journalist.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

Read more by Claire Trevett

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