Shane Taurima thought he could keep his affiliation to a political party entirely separate from his journalism, and to a degree he was successful. The Prime Minister, for one, felt fairly treated by him in television interviews despite Taurima's affiliation to the Labour Party. It is not hard to put personal views aside in the interests of objective journalism even when a subject is political. But the independent report into political bias at Television New Zealand was right to find him at fault. Partisan politics and mass media journalism do not mix.
The report found Taurima not only had a clear conflict of interest, but had used TVNZ facilities for Labour Party activities. These included a $343 credit card bill for an air fare and the use of TVNZ's offices and email for Labour Party planning and campaigning. Clearly the problem is not confined to the former head of its Maori and Pacific programming unit. Three of his staff also participated in the party activity.
But if these misuses of company property had not occurred, Taurima's position would still have been untenable. He not only joined the Labour Party while working in news and current affairs, he made an unsuccessful bid to be Labour's candidate in the Ikaroa-Rawhiti byelection last year. Strangely, after missing the selection, he was able to return to his position at TVNZ. There, his continuing Labour activities reached a level that, the report says, "would plainly be deeply embarrassing to TVNZ if it came to light".
He must have known that would be so. It is elementary to journalists that joining a political party is not an option unless they plan to make their career in the party's publications. Those who want to be credible reporters of news and politics for a mass audience cannot belong to a party. If they did, they would have to declare their affiliation, and their audience would rightly question the reliability of everything they reported.
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The Public Service Association seems not to understand this. It thinks a recommendation to ban reporters, content producers and editors from political activity is a draconian and unnecessary breach of their rights as citizens. It believes the State Services Commission guidelines for public servants are sufficient for the state broadcaster and that TVNZ will set "a dangerous precedent for other public servants".
Public servants serve the Government of the day. They can belong to a political party and take part in its activities after hours because the primary audience for their professional work is ministers and other politicians understand their code. State-owned media such as TVNZ and Maori Television are different. Their primary audience must know their reporters, producers and editors are not a member of any party in their spare time.
None of this is to suggest that journalists should be devoid of political views and judgment. They would be less than citizens without them. Their views and judgment will be apparent to the audience and acceptable so long as there can be confidence they come from an interested, well-informed, even concerned person who has no conflict of interest.
The Herald does not allow its editorial staff to participate in community or political activities that could compromise their work. This means not only membership of political parties but taking part in public campaigns that they could have to cover. Preserving this distance from politics is not an onerous restriction for those whose credibility is paramount. They have the privilege of observing, reporting and commenting on public affairs. Once they cross the line to partisan participation, there is no coming back.