Editorial: Taurima controversy political overreach

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

It is a truism of politics that a "partisan" is always a member of the opposite party. So, when a former contender for a Labour Party nomination is found to have held a small party gathering at the premises of his employer, Television New Zealand, the squeals of bias against him and the network from the National Party are as predictable as they are loud.

The poor judgment of Shane Taurima in mixing his political interests with his journalistic workplace and colleagues is obvious. He has resigned and apologised to TVNZ. The broadcaster is investigating the circumstances of the meeting and Taurima's work as head of the Maori and Pacific unit. While the decision a year ago to allow Taurima to resume that news job after his failed tilt at Labour politics was wrong and has been proved to be wrong, TVNZ has since acted with urgency and due regard for its journalistic reputation. Its chief executive, Kevin Kenrick, accepts relying on an assurance from Taurima that his political aspirations had passed was a mistake.

It is perhaps too easy to take Taurima's personal activities and apply their politics to his performance as a broadcaster. It is an overreach to claim TVNZ's political independence has necessarily been damaged by them.

Taurima stands criticised by National's Paula Bennett and her colleague Tau Henare as having carried his Labour Party sympathies into interviews with them on TVNZ programmes. The evidence seems to be his insistence on receiving answers rather than platitudes and in debating sensitive issues robustly. Taurima applied the same rigour to his questioning of the former Labour Party leader David Shearer.

At the individual level Taurima's continued activity in the Labour Party makes future political interviewing untenable, not least because he had been asked for that assurance that he had put politics behind him. It does not, however, invalidate his whole body of work or the work of the unit he ran, which produced up to six programmes. TVNZ's inquiry will determine if any "bias" can be found in those areas.

TVNZ will face charges of political favouritism every election year. It has one of the biggest media voices in the country, is Crown-owned and is in fierce commercial competition. Its public ownership places an expectation of political neutrality beyond even the dictates of the Broadcasting Act. Any misstep can and will be taken by partisans as evidence of a breach of its duty.

The failings of political neutrality demonstrated by Shane Taurima cannot be visited upon the broader TVNZ newsroom and its political judgments. Say what you will about the general content across TVNZ news and current affairs programmes, with all the subjectivity and rushed preparation common to active news media, but political bias is not a tenable charge - for incumbent governments or against.

Some within National have broadened their criticisms beyond tut-tutting over Taurima and TVNZ to attempt to paint the Labour Party as deliberately misusing the public service for its own ends, using the apparatus of the state to get elected. There are repeated claims - denied outright - that Labour's leader, David Cunliffe, attended a party gathering in the TVNZ buildings. The partisan's purpose is to broaden the smear as wide as possible to suggest conspiracy.

We have about eight months until the general election, a poll that will, inevitably, be close because of the MMP system. Mainstream news media will be criticised from all quarters for alleged party political bias. The public should see such claims for what they are. Shane Taurima has provided the first ammunition but his case is a singularly misguided blurring of personal and professional interests.

- NZ Herald

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