Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Partisan media bias and Shane Taurima

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Shane Taurima. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Shane Taurima. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Can we rely on the New Zealand media to cover politics fairly? There will always be concerns about the ideological bias of reporters and media outlets.

To some extent bias is unavoidable and natural, and it's less of a problem when the public is aware of its existence. But what happens when key media figures are actually biased in a partisan sense, in that they are supporters of a particular party, and even planning a professional career in politics?

That's the nub of the issue with regard to TVNZ journalist Shane Taurima, now that the extent of his Labour Party involvement has been exposed in Patrick Gower's 4-minute item and article on TV3, TVNZ manager resigns over fundraising revelations, followed up by the 3-minute item and article TVNZ investigates Taurima bias, use of resources.

In Defence of Shane Taurima

Is this really such a big deal? Many think not, and have rallied to Taurima's defence, or at least downplayed the problems and significance of his alleged bias.

For example, Maori politics blogger Morgan Godfery (@MorganGodfery) tweeted immediately to say 'Super stupid from Taurima. But an email account and a meeting room? Not the biggest scandal to hit TVNZ'. He elaborated on his reasoning in a blogpost, Shane Taurima: political neophyte?. Godfery says, 'I stand by the claim that the use was relatively minor. But the political ineptitude isn't. There's a story on two levels: principled and practical. Is it ethical to remain party political while maintaining editorial control at a public broadcaster? On a practical level, does the issue speak to poor political judgement? I think Shane checked his views at the door. His work confirms that'.

Many on the political left have declared a 'double standard' to be evident in Taurima's downfall. On The Daily Blog, Martyn Bradbury reacted in his inimitable way: 'Yawn. Oh that evil "liberal media bias". When it's former national party candidate Paul Henry, it's ok. When it's Mike Hosking and his involvement with Sky City, it's okay. When it's the pro Government tone of the entire editorial team of TVNZ, it's okay. It's only a conflict of interest at TVNZ when Labour are involved - the rank hypocrisy of highlighting the lefts supposed conflict of interest while ignoring the rights is staggering. The level of pro Government spin that masquerades now as the news in NZ has made a marked increase since late last year and it is a reminder that citizens who want a media to genuinely hold the powerful to account must leave TV and go to social media and blogs for a counter narrative' - see: It's only a conflict of interest at TVNZ when Labour are involved. See also Bradbury's post, Did TVNZ review the work of Paul Henry, Tony Veitch or Mike Hosking?.

For many on the left - and in Labour particularly - the expose on Taurima is largely an anti-Labour beat-up that confirms the mainstream media is against their party. For example, Labour blogger Will Matthews asks Does It Even Matter?. Here's his key point: 'This Shane Taurima story is not particularly important, not particularly relevant. It's just indicative of the media hate for Labour that has been addressed on this blog and many others multiple times. It seems that Gower hasn't been able to make up any dirt on the party recently and so he's resorted to digging up the smallest things that he can find and throwing a total screaming fit about them. The truth is that this is not an issue. Labour have meetings in buildings owned by various organisations all the time. I'm sure that every other party does too'.

Labour MPs are also coming to Taurima's defence. Claire Trevett reports today that 'Shane Jones has gone into bat for Shane Taurima, saying his chances with Labour should not be written off because of one mistake' - see: Labour should not turn its back on Taurima, says Jones. On TV3, Jones is quoted as saying 'Taurima was balanced and a "journalist of some class" ' - see: National MPs: Taurima was 'biased'.

And it's not only Labour partisans who have favourable things to say about the controversial journalist. TVNZ's new Q+A co-host, Rachel Smalley has been watching him closely, and reports that 'I never saw Taurima exercise any level of bias. He was robust with National. He was equally robust with Labour' - see: Taurima showed no bias.

In the Maori media, too, Taurima has his supporters. Newstalk ZB reports: 'It seems the Maori broadcasting world still has Mr Taurima's back. Te Mangai Paho Maori Broadcasting funding agency chief executive John Bishara doesn't believe it's the end of the road for Shane Taurima. "His level of professionalism as a journalist broadcaster will help him for the future and I think there'll always be a position for him in the Maori language broadcasting sector"' - see: Government inquiry not ruled out.

On Twitter, a number of other MPs and commentators have also vouched for him. Massey University's Claire Robinson Claire Robinson (@Spinprofessor) tweeted to say 'I worked with Shane Taurima during TVNZ's 2011 election coverage and on Q+A in 2012 and never found him overtly biased towards Labour'. Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell (@TeUruroaFlavell) said, 'Let me say this. I always found Shane Taurima to be highly professional in all his dealings with me'.

There are also some that will see Taurima's downfall as based on discrimination connected to his ethnicity - see Tim Selwyn's TVNZ executive mismanagement of Taurima excuse for purge. Selwyn suggests that pakeha journalists have been treated with more leniency by TVNZ.

Media ethics and conflicts of interest

For the most balanced and thoughtful evaluation of Taurima's situation, see Russell Brown's Bad Judgement. He asserts that political journalists cannot be connected to political parties: 'in general, it's easier and more appropriate for journalists to manage perceptions by simply having no formal links with political parties - and to not plan on coming back soon if they do venture into politics'.

Brown also links to Claire Harvey's useful investigation into The media's right to a private life from nearly a decade ago, which asks whether political journalists can belong to political parties. This came in the wake of allegations that numerous Maori Party activists were working for Maori Television.

In the Herald today Geoff Kemp has a good discussion about whether political journalists can have a 'political conscience' - see: When well-meaning ideals collide. But it does not really address the key problem in the Taurima case, which is not about whether or not someone in the media can hold their own beliefs and worldview, but about the problem of partisan bias and affiliations of a political journalists.

Political media veteran Richard Harman (@RMAHarman) has succinctly summed up this case, saying on Twitter 'This Taurima thing is simple. If you try to be an MP you stop being a journalist because plainly you're not one and probably never were'. For a more detailed case against the journalist, see David Farrar's An appalling breach of neutrality at TVNZ. He asks many good questions, and labels it 'not far off political corruption'.

For many it's simply a case that you can't wear two very different 'hats' at once, as it produces a conflict of interest. And the stakes are high, especially since, as Patrick Gower points out, 'Taurima was in charge of at least $9.2 million in taxpayer funds. He had editorial control over six programmes and was in charge of 60 staff' - see: TVNZ investigates Taurima bias, use of resources.

Of course there are plenty of ex-partisans working in the media. John Armstrong deals with this in his column The difference between Taurima and Henry. He looks at various politico-media crossovers, including that of TV3's Paul Henry. Armstrong says that you shouldn't play a key media role directly prior to going into electoral politics. Furthermore, 'The crucial difference between the pair, however, is that Henry has not been using the back rooms at TV3 to set up a clandestine branch of the National Party'.

Blogger Danyl McLauchlan also sums up the differences between the examples of Mike Hosking and Shane Taurima, saying 'I think the main difference is that if Mike Hosking wanted to set up a fundraising operation inside TVNZ the National Party wouldn't let him because it would look terrible and destroy his career' - see: Gut feeling update.

For further discussion on journalists who have crossed between the two spheres, see Barry Soper's This time TVNZ deserves the whipping. He says that 'journalistic impartiality and a lack of bias is fundamental to any media organisation, it's something they build their reputations on'.

In discussions about media bias, questions often arise about family connections between journalists and politicians. Parliamentary gallery journalists with various family links to politicians such as Katie Bradford, Brook Sabin, and Audrey Young are often cited, but with no apparent evidence of bias. For the latest on this, in regard to the Taurima case, see Pete George's Katie Bradford on political affiliations.

So, is the media politically biased in this country? Is it 'for' or 'against' political parties? Of course, everyone thinks the media is biased. And, it's true. To varying degrees, all mainstream media - and new media, as well - acts in ways that are fair or unfair to various political and social perspectives and players. But there's really no consensus or particularly strong evidence for New Zealand's media being biased in a partisan sense. Despite what many partisans believe, most of the media and political journalists do not heavily favour particular parties. So, for example, many on the left think that the mainstream media favours the National Party, while many on the right think it favours Labour and the Greens. It's hard to establish any strong evidence for such allegations. For details about some relevant academic studies of media coverage, see my blogposts Newspaper coverage of the 2008 NZ election, Key to Victory - Media coverage of the 2008 NZ election, and Television coverage of the 2008 NZ election.

Public service and taxpayer issues

Some criticisms of Shane Taurima relate to the fact that TVNZ is publicly owned. For example, Chris Finlayson (@chrisfinlayson) tweeted to say, 'Does Labour understand that the public service and Crown entities are not just extensions of their political party?' In this sense, many of the objections to Taurima relate not to him working in the media per se, but working for the 'state broadcaster'.

Yesterday's Dominion Post pushes this line heavily, saying that Taurima 'broke the rules that require taxpayer-funded broadcasters to be politically neutral. State broadcasters must not use their position to promote the interests of any political party of whatever kind' - see: The political neutrality game.

On the No Right Turn blog, the same line is argued: 'TVNZ is a crown-owned company, and its employees (but not its board members) are covered by the SSC's Standards of Integrity and Conduct - which among other things requires political impartiality, "an absolute obligation not to bring our political interests into our work". And its deeply troubling that the culture of TVNZ, both as a journalistic organisation and a public-sector one, seems to have let that standard slide' - see: Shane Taurima.

For some on the political right, the whole episode shows why TVNZ should be privatised - see Chris Keall's Labour Party meetings another good reason TVNZ should be sold - Banks. John Banks is quoted as saying, 'If TVNZ were in private ownership no one would care about Mr Taurima's Labour Party activities on the premises'. But is this really the case? And, of course it might be asked whether or not TVNZ is really a 'state broadcaster' or simply another commercial broadcaster, albeit owned by the state. And as Chris Keall states, 'I'm pretty sure everybody would go ape if a TV3 journalist held a political party fundraiser in the office'.

Problems for Maori media

Maori activist Paora Ropata (@kiaora4that), has tweeted plenty of interesting responses to the scandal - for example: 'No wonder we get shit programmes out of that Maori Pa at TVNZ.Now we know why.Too busy doing dodgy stuff for Shane Taurimas political career'.

There will certainly be many working in the Maori-based media industry that will be disappointed with Taurima, or at least with the impact of the scandal. Broadcaster Derek Fox is reported as believing that the 'revelations of Mr Taurima's ill-judgement has immediately tarnished the reputation of Maori broadcasting'. Fox says the scandal will be a 'whipping horse for Maori people and Maori in broadcasting' - see Radio NZ's Taurima's actions 'tarnish' Maori peers.

Questions for TVNZ management

Shane Taurima has now left TVNZ, but there are plenty of questions being asked about the role that senior management played in allowing this scandal to occur. Mediawatcher John Drinnan says that 'TVNZ's re-appointment of the political wannabe is another example of loose oversight at TVNZ' - see: Taurima fiasco pushes Maori TV takeover claim. He suggests that TVNZ management should have taken the issue much more seriously: 'But given the integrity of the TVNZ news and current affairs is at stake, he should have asked more questions and taken more interest in the rumour mill around Maori politics and Taurima's role'.

TVNZ chief executive Kevin Kenrick has been reported as suggesting management had been duped by Taurima, saying 'The answer is, at the time we sought and received assurances from Shane that he had no further political ambitions. When asked to choose between journalism and politics, he chose journalism. With the benefit of hindsight that decision was a mistake - see Vernon Small and Stacey Kirk's Taurima inquiry expands.

It is also reported that the TVNZ management knew about Taurima's latest ambitions prior to TV3 making the issue public: 'TVNZ head of news John Gillespie said Mr Taurima had been upfront that he was considering standing for Labour in Tamaki Makaurau at the next election and had briefed his bosses last week' - see Claire Trevett and Rebecca Quilliam's Key: Political work by TVNZ staff a 'bad look'.

For more views on this issue, you can watch Paul Henry's 6-minute discussion, TVNZ Labour scandal: How did management not know?.

Parliamentary reaction

The parliamentary response to the scandal has been mixed. Some National MPs have gone on the offensive - see for example, Andrea Vance's Taurima was unfair to me - Bennett, and Felix Marwick's Maggie Barry slams Shane Taurima. But John Key himself has taken a much more relaxed approach, which has led Rachel Smalley to say 'Given the Prime Minister's position, National should then call off their attack dog Tau Henare' (Taurima showed no bias).

Will this scandal damage Labour and David Cunliffe? David Farrar argues that it certainly raises questions for Labour over the affair - such as: 'Did David Cunliffe not think there was anything wrong with attending a session on how to win the Maori vote, run by the head of the TVNZ Maori Unit? Should this not ring warning bells?' - see: An appalling breach of neutrality at TVNZ.

But John Armstrong argues that 'David Cunliffe has probably done enough to avoid Labour suffering too much collateral damage from the Shane Taurima affair' - see: Labour comes up smelling of roses. The bigger question is whether this has sunk Taurima's political ambitions.

The damaging professionalisation of politics

The focus of this scandal is Shane Taurima, TVNZ and Labour, but perhaps we should be focusing on the bigger picture, which is the increasing tendency for the separate spheres of media and politics to collide and merge. This takes the form of a huge increase in journalists and broadcasters shifting into parliamentary politics as candidates for office or spin-doctors for parties, and then shifting back again. I wrote about this in May last year when Taurima declared his parliamentary ambitions - see: Is the media taking over NZ elections? - and suggested that our Parliament was becoming too dominated by ex-journalists and broadcasters.

In the context of the current scandal over Taurima's ambitions to be the Labour candidate in the Tamaki Makaurau contest, it's worth noting, as
Vernon Small does today (Earth to politicians, come in please), that beyond Taurima, 'You can only laugh till you weep to hear that Labour's front runners for the Tamaki Makaurau seat are two other media personalities'. It seems that a job in media or PR is now the best stepping stone to a more lucrative career in politics, and we can expect that the grey areas of ethics in this regard will keep on expanding.

Finally, to see some of the diverse opinions about this scandal on Twitter, see my blogpost Top tweets about Shane Taurima, TVNZ and Labour.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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