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Colin Peacock's lecture notes for the 'University of Auckland Winter Lectures 2010: The End(s) of Journalism?'

Colin Peacock presents Radio New Zealand's 'Mediawatch' programme.

When I received Joe Atkinson's invitation, I thought a series of lectures on future of journalism and the media was great idea.

While there's no shortage of opinions expressed about the news media, they remain under-analysed in a methodical way.

But someone has to have an ulcer actually organising something like this - so good on Joe Atkinson for doing that - and all the others at the University who have made this lecture series happen.

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Evidently, the organisers have faced the charge that this would be an ivory tower exercise.

It's been said that today's commercially-driven news media would be discussed and criticised and possibly even condemned in these lectures, but people in that business were not in the line-up.

I'm sure Joe Atkinson will have something to say about that in his talk elsewhere in this series - I'll leave it to him to comment directly on that...

But for your information, I

am

a working journalist, not an ivory tower academic (that will soon become very obvious in the low level of scholarship in this talk... ) I can't claim to work in the dog-eat-dog world of commercial broadcasting, but I do work within a tight budget to produce a programme just as they do. I do take audience surveys seriously, and I have to fret about who's not listening if the numbers fall - just as they do at commercial broadcasters.

And when making the Mediawatch programme for 48 weeks of the year, I am in touch with journalists and editors, programme-makers and producers who

do

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work in the commercial news media all the time.

So I hope I can bring at least a sense of their perspective to you in the course of this talk today - even if I'm not the person they might have chosen to represent them.

Is it worth debating?

As the value of these lectures has been questioned, I'd like to first consider why it is worth debating the media in lectures like this and elsewhere.

I think there is an assumption in media circles that outside the media and academia, people are not greatly concerned about the nature of journalism today, and they're pretty uninterested in debates about the media.

But I think interest is wider than they might think.

Last month for instance I took part in a "Late at the Museum" debate on the state of the media.

And I was encouraged to see between 400 and 500 people turned up for the panel discussion, having paid 20 dollars in advance or 25 dollars on the door.

Admittedly, there was music on downstairs and the bar was open, and the Little Bushmen probably shifted more tickets than the discussion, but still when the debate began, enough people tore themselves away to take very seat in the museum's auditorium.

I took that as a sign of healthy interest in the topic, but one of the panellists that night chucked a bit of cold water on that theory - Brent Impey, the former boss of Mediaworks (the company which owns of TV3, C4, Radio Live, music stations such as The Rock, The Edge and others).

He's always been an energetic advocate for commercial broadcasting, and he gave an interesting answer to a question from the event's host - Finlay McDonald.

FM: "How come there is no serious long-form current affairs on New Zealand television?

BI: "Because people don't want to watch it".

FM: "People do want to watch it!"

BI: "People do not want to watch it, Finlay".

FM: "Put your hands up if you'd like to watch some. There you go!"

BI: "With the greatest of respect the people in this room are socio-economic 1 and 2 living in Herne Bay, Grey Lynn or Parnell."

FM: "Put your hands up if that's true!"

BI: "I want to point this through. There is this great craving for 'It was better when Brian Edwards did that interview on the Post Office. Or Ian Fraser. But the reality is it's been tried time and time again and the public don't want to know".

Interesting response isn't it?

Brent Impey wasn't saying that is good or bad, just that that's a fact of life in the media today - and that arguing about it is only really of interest to people they call "the chattering classes" in the UK.

And that belief also echoes something the current Minister of Broadcasting is fond of saying, indeed he's said it a couple of times on Mediawatch this year:

"Look, people don't beat a path to my electorate office to talk to me about broadcasting".

Why?

Well, I don't know Auckland very well, but know he's on the North Shore, isn't he?

Maybe it's hard to get there from Parnell, Grey Lynn and Herne Bay? Do you have to cross treacherous waters?

There is, I think, another reason the minister might finds himself unmolested by people boiling over about broadcasting policy.

For years people have heard him and his predecessors saying can't comment on decisions of New Zealand On Air of the broadcasters, particularly TVNZ, they way they run their schedules, or the programmes they put on - because that'd be political interference.

So possibly people who

are

concerned about broadcasting figure there's little point in nagging the minister any more.

But that's another issue...

In a sense the minister is right: for most people there are more important things in life than the media, their quality and standards.

The fact is that there are no public lobby groups here with significant membership or clout, unlike some places overseas.

There's no Forest and Bird for broadcasting, no Garth McVicar-type figure mobilising members to demand 'Sensible Programming'.

And these days modern media executive could also reasonably say:

"Look. In just about every case you can imagine, other sources of information are available".

Today, they're more readily available than ever, thanks to modern communications, the internet and so on. So don't give us such a hard time".

And that's a point.

But only

to

a point I think.

Because even though we do now have all this choice and many channels on offer these days, the mainstream media still have a huge presence in the intellectual lives of all but the most hermit-like of New Zealanders.

And that on its own is a good reason to scrutinise what they do.

According to the Nielsen research company's surveys, an audience of between 1 and 1.2 million people watch either TV1's or TV3's news at 6 pm on a typical weeknight. Sometimes more if there's big news that day.

The four largest audiences recorded for single programmes so far this year? Four episodes of

One News

, I believe.

(Maybe

Masterchef

will have changed that by end of the year... ) Many of those same people also listen to morning news shows on the radio, like as Morning Report, or Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB. Again - a huge combined audience, even though the radio dial is crowded with other stations offering alternatives.

And then there's the papers.

Overseas publishers are amazed and jealous at the huge reach and high penetration rates our papers still enjoy in this country, despite the fact that news can be found online for free, from New Zealand and all over the world And consider a more specialised title:

The Listener

magazine.

The circulation these days hovers at around the 70,000 mark - well below its heyday, when it was far heftier, and employed far more people. The glory days are long gone, say its critics.

Maybe so.

But it's still pretty successful if you compare it to the nearest equivalent in Australia,

The Bulletin

. When the publisher put a bullet in

The Bulletin

in January 2008, it was selling 57 thousand copies - far fewer than the

New Zealand Listener

today, in a country with five times more potential buyers.

So clearly then, there's a healthy appetite for the news media here in New Zealand. No question.

But does it follow then that there's significant concern about the quality of it?

That's harder to prove. But I'd like to briefly refer to a couple of figures which I think show there is.

As part of the review process for TVNZ's charter, TVNZ's been obliged to survey what people made of its performance in recent years.

TVNZ's 2009 annual report says 1,009 people were surveyed, and 56 per cent said they were interested in the 6 pm news hour on TV 1,

One News

.

But

88 per cent

of them said

One News

was an important programme.

In the 2008 review, people were asked about aspects of TVNZ - and whether they were important.

79 said

independent news

was important; 76 per cent rated

analysis of issues of the day

as important; and

offering different perspectives

was important to 60 per cent of them.

The TVNZ annual report that year also said:

"the desire was expressed for more 'hard' journalism - and the expression of alternative or minority points of view to balance coverage of issues".

Some evidence there, I reckon, of at least

some

interest in and concern about the news and how it's presented, even among people who don't knock on the minister's door or join lobby groups.

And while TVNZ's survey isn't explicit about this, I'm assuming survey was not conducted exclusively in Herne Bay, Parnell and Grey Lynn.

-

But even more interesting in these surveys is the issue of

delivery

.

76 per cent per cent of those surveyed, remember, valued "analysis of issues of the day".

Yet only

56 per cen

t reckoned TVNZ did that well in 2008.

Only 38 per cent of respondents thought TVNZ delivered those

different perspectives

rated as important by 60 per cent of those surveyed.

And only 52 per cent reckoned TVNZ delivered independent news which 79 per cent had said was important to them Now, whether or not the people surveyed had thought deeply about this, or even really understood precisely what they were being asked, I don't know.

But it is at least an indication of a 'feeling that standards have fallen'. That we're not being served as well as we'd like by the news media today.

What are people worried about?

This

feeling that standards have fallen

can be quite strong in some people.

Maybe it's the reason some of you have come here today.

But what is it they are worried about? Is it just a feeling that things were better in the past (as Brent Impey was saying earlier).

Another gauge of this, for me, is feedback to the Mediawatch programme at Radio New Zealand.

Some of it comes from journalists, usually in a "don't-quote-me" or "you didn't hear this from me"-type way. It also comes from ex-journalists, people in PR - "media professionals" we could call them.

They get in touch to point out things like bad practice, or what looks to them like breaches of basic ethics - mistakes or omissions, potential or apparent conflicts of interest, suspicions of the undeclared influence of advertiser or sponsor, articles that looked like puff pieces - and so on.

A second source is people outside the media who've had to deal with them over some story or other: a spokesperson for an organisation, say, or an individual who just happened to be involved in a news story or making of a programme.

Often, they say the journalist or programme-makers they've talked to have got it all wrong. Sometimes they had to explain the issue to the journalist first before answering the question - obviously not good.

Thirdly, of course, there's the Radio NZ listeners, who get in touch when they see, hear or read something they don't like.

These are the ones most likely to insist that whatever they happen to be complaining about is a disgrace, surely a new low in journalism, evidence of plunging standards.

(... not all residents of Parnell, Grey Lynn or Herne Bay, by the way).

Mediawatch complaints

So the complaints and concerns that come in to Mediawatch are many and varied but I would summarise the nature of them roughly like this:

* the news media seem less thorough than in the past in pursuit of stories; and more willing to include and pursue relatively trivial stories.

* they are more sensational and tabloid in style; and journalists and programme makers must be more cynical - and less ethical - than they used to be.

* there's more opinion at the expense of fact in the media today, because they strive for impact as well as - or at the expense of - truth or understanding.

And many people seem convinced all the above is the result of aggressive commercialism at play in the modern media.

Obviously, the feedback to a programme like Mediawatch comes from a self-selected sample of people predisposed to complain about standards.

Many of them are over-reacting, and some don't understand the media very well - which is understandable.

So let's now look at some other perspectives on standards from people who do - starting with a proper working journalist.

Simon Collins, the social issues correspondent at the

New Zealand Herald

- and one of the hardest-working and most thorough journalists in the country.

He's also an active member of the journalist union, the EPMU.

In 2007, the union launched campaign about quality journalism which it believed was under threat from media companies cutting back to preserve profitability, under instruction from the owners overseas.

Simon Collins wrote a submission on behalf of

Herald

journalists for that campaign - typically it was very comprehensive.

He began by noting that public opinion surveys had shown the stories New Zealand readers follow most are about the weather, followed by disasters and crime. Quite legitimate stories, he said, meeting a genuine human emotional need to connect with the lives of others.

But there are also important stories about what he called "public issues" - things people really need to know about in a democratic society - but which may not have an "emotional human face".

Simon's feeling was that these had thinned out over recent years in the papers.

Simon Collins analysed the editorial content in the

New Zealand Herald

for one week in April 1988, and in the same week twenty years later in April 2008.

He counted the stories by type and recorded the length of each story.

The first thing that was clear from this was a shift away from what he called the "core business of news" - and towards entertainment and lifestyle features.

The proportion devoted to general news, business news and sports news dropped by 14 per cent over the 20 years - while entertainment, lifestyle and things like weather forecasts, puzzles and so on almost doubled from 15 per cent to 29 per cent of the editorial space.

Some types of news didn't decline, he found. For instance, stories providing useful information to people as consumers held steady, bolstered by shows about housing and property which doubled.

And among that reduced level of general news, there were fewer of those "public issues" stories and a rise in the "human" ones (particularly the "human tragedies" which the surveys found to be followed by more people than any others).

Among the reduced number of public issues-type stories in the paper, Simon Collins noted there were more about domestic politics and government in 2008.

Why? Perhaps because they have more of that "human" element about them with which readers identify. Or perhaps, he said, it was because staff numbers have been held steady at the parliamentary press gallery throughout the past 20 years, while the number of general reporters in total, he said, had been halved).

But all this meant stories about other public issues took up less than a third of the space they were given 20 years earlier.

But the results confirmed to Simon Collins that topics people really need to know about as citizens are no longer fully covered.

Things like:

* how we earn our living: trade, manufacturing, farming, industrial relations and employment

* how we relate to the world: foreign affairs and defence;

* And while what he called "the games of domestic politics in Wellington and in Auckland City" were well covered in the Herald, what central and local government are doing in our names - less so.

(though the emergence of the Super City issue here in Auckland may have changed that a little since 2008)

It was not the most scientific survey, as Simon Collins' himself acknowledged.

And these days you can't simply compare the output of papers now with the past by measuring the column centimeters in print. The publishers are putting plenty of stuff online that doesn't appear in their papers at all.

But the trend Simon describes at the

Herald

would, I'm sure, be found in other papers round the country too.

The shift towards entertainment and "lifestyle" features is - of course - in an attempt to widen the paper's appeal, and boost circulation and advertising sales. These days there are entire supplements in fashion, motoring, food and so on - all designed to hoover up more high-value display advertising Who could blame them, as classified advertising has slipped away to the internet - to the point where Fairfax Media paid 700 million dollars for Trade Me, the outfit which had siphoned off much the classified ads in the first place?

But it all leaves some readers - or 'customers' if you like - wondering: is this for my benefit? Or for the advertisers?

Broadcasting snapshots

Turning back to broadcasting now - I don't know of a similar content analysis by an actual working broadcast journalist which could give us a similar snapshot of changing priorities there.

But there are some interesting ones from those who were in the business in the past.

One is right here today - Dr Brian Edwards In 1992, he examined a week's worth of 6 pm news shows on both TV One and TV 3 - the only national TV news shows on offer back then.

They'd been competing head to head to attract viewers since TV3's launch three years earlier - a scrap that goes on today more than 20 years later.

Brian wrote about it for a chapter in book called

Whose News?

which analysed some of the forces at work in the NZ journalism at the time.

He described what the style of what he saw on TV as "cootchie coo news" because it seemed to be driven by the desire

not

to tell us what had happened, but rather, it sought to communicate with viewers - emotionally, and even personally.

On TV1 for instance, Richard Long and Judy Bailey were telling viewers how they might feel about the story being presented - as well as how people actually affected by the news might be feeling.

For instance, telling viewers an "entire community is in shock" - after a violent event or tragedy.

Each report, he noted, was also very short, and tightly edited, so as not to risk boring the viewers.

And to try and stop them drifting away in the ad breaks altogether, there were cryptic teasers about what was "coming up" - sometimes so cryptic that they obscured the actual story being signposted.

But it was a popular recipe back then.

Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders watched the shows each night...as they do today.

But Dr Edwards verdict was:

"where news is concerned, what people want must take a back seat to the integrity of the news itself".

By jazzing up coverage of real events and dramatising them, he felt those responsible were disrespecting the news, as if the news alone "was somehow not enough".

-

Ten years later, Dr Edwards repeated the exercise in 2002 and "The Cootchie Coo News Revisited" was published in a follow-up book called "

What's News?

" - subtitled "Reclaiming Journalism in New Zealand".

He concluded not much had changed.

Indeed the process had intensified with TV3 going further down the cootchie-coo track - a track leading away from objective journalism.

Presenters were still trivializing the news, and each segment of the hour was given a cliff-hanger ending, leaving Brian Edwards complaining:

"It's the bloody news for god's sake - just tell me what happened".

By my calendar, Brian should be due to update the following decade of TV news in 2012.

And if he does, some things have changed elsewhere.

For example, TVNZ7 offers an hour of news between 8 and 9

without

commercials and

with

space for one, sometimes two, talking heads.

Maori TV offers another alternative.

But as he sits down to survey the channels most New Zealanders still watch between 6 and 7 pm, he'll still be thinking:

"Just tell me what happened for god's sake".

And even though the entire bulletin takes one hour to watch, he'll still be feeling the time given over to important news is not enough to do it justice.

-

Of course, TV newsrooms produce more today than just the six o'clock news hours.

An expert who's been tracking how things have changed more broadly is Paul Norris, who was a head of news and current affairs at TVNZ in the 1990s. He's now the head of the New Zealand Broadcasting School, and he's written several hefty reports about broadcasting policy and you'll have seen his commentaries in the mainstream media from time to time too.

Paul Norris also had a chapter in the "

What's News

" book in 2002, in which he said that as a crown-owned company obliged to a return a dividend to treasury, TVNZ's news output inevitably resembled that of the privately owned competition.

But back then the Labour government's charter was imminent.

"It may mean more serious current affairs, and programmes such as Assignment and studio based Face the Nation will be given enhanced status and security".

But Assignment didn't last long, and the programme which replaced it,

Sunday

, sometimes struggles to fill even parts of the hour with New Zealand stories these days.

And even when it was relatively new, the then head of news Bill Ralston admitted that

Sunday

failed to cover the biggest domestic issue of the year - the seabed and foreshore upheaval.

Eight years ago, Paul Norris also wrote that the TVNZ Charter might bring:

"... a focus on issues of public policy rather than the eccentric behaviour of individuals. And a news diet more appropriate to the needs of citizens than the appetites of consumers".

That one didn't really work out either, did it?

Eight years later, TVNZ remains a commercial broadcaster required to return a dividend.

The direct funding intended to compensate it for putting on public service-style Charter programmes has been removed and made contestable for all broadcasters. It's called The Platinum Fund, which sounds like one of those dodgy finance companies the news media didn't warn us about til it was too late...

And there's also the TVNZ Amendment Bill, which, if it's passed more or less as it is now, removes the Charter from the law.

In a recent article in

The Listener

magazine Paul Norris wrote that:

"the removal of the Charter takes away any responsibility for TVNZ to deliver a high-quality news and information service.

"Commercial now imperatives rule. A fight for viewers usually means heading downmarket; a race to the bottom, some would say.

He went on to ask:

"What are we to make of the fact that TV One's Close Up not only dropped an interview with the Prime Minister in favour of a confession from former All Black Robin Brooke, but ran nothing at all on the Government's most important announcement to date - the tax changes".

And:

"Where are the items of substance about the important issues facing this country, be they economic, social, or political?

"

Good questions.

Political coverage on TV

As Paul Norris mentioned it there, let's briefly consider political coverage on TV.

It's an interesting area because politics is high priority for the news media, and - as Simon Collins noted in his research - it has continued to command specialist reporters throughout years when the number of reporters in other areas has declined.

Also, political journalism gets scrutinised by political experts as well as media pundits.

(You could do an entire doctorate on the changes to political journalism, the way certain reporters appear to be in politics - not just reporting on it. But I won't go there today... ) In 2005, Massey University academics Margie Comrie and Susan Fountaine compared TV news stories about in 2000 with those of 2003 and concluded there were stories of good quality on TV11 and TV3 but:

"There is little quantifiable difference between them. And the existing commercial environment is a constant threat to quality in depth coverage. New Zealand viewers would be better served by a TV environment which provides real choice"

The same year, Otago University's Chris Rudd and Janine Hayward wrote about and the degree to which the media intruded on political life and the increasing "spectacularisation" of political coverage.

And in 2008, Canterbury University political scientist Dr Babak Bahador analysed election campaign coverage in all the main media, and concluded only about half of it was about policy issues.

The rest focused on what he called "gaming matters" - the opinion polls, the strategy, the media battle itself and the whole 'horse race' approach to election coverage.

-

In recent years, new TV programmes devoted to politics have sprung up, Agenda and then

Q and A

, and now TV3 has

The Nation.

And there's also TVNZ 7, a commercial free digital channel which could be a home for intelligent political programmes too.

But so far, the channel has only offered one original one, called

Backbenchers

.

This programme does add to the mix a bit when it goes to places like Gisborne and Tauranga - but the formula is a kind of jovial debate in a pub in Wellington contested by - as the title suggests - 'backbench' MPs.

So from the title onwards, the theme is one of insignificance.

A missed opportunity, in my view.

Media impact so far..

To sum up so far then - when journalists, ex-journalists and academics weigh up the news media, they tend to paint a picture of news that's become condensed and morselised, over-dramatised and under-contextualised.

And more of it concerns relatively trivial topics.

Why? The critics say that's because commercial media organisations need to attract and hold the broadest possible audience in order to remain profitable, or at least keep losses to a minimum.

Only RNZ and latterly Maori TV don't suffer these pressures, but their own budget constraints limit what they can do.

And on top of all this, all media companies have to meet the costs of "going digital" at this time - maintaining and expanding websites, providing on-demand services for the web and mobile networks, and - in the case of television - there's the cost of new digital channels and digital transmission to bear as well - while still broadcasting the old channels the old analogue way for a while yet.

And the upshot of all this, to repeat journalist Simon Collins' conclusion back in 2008:

"many issues people need to know about as citizens are no longer fully covered".

-

So faced with this critique, do our media executives accept they're responsible for a sub-standard service, serving up Cootchie Coo news - or 'Teenage Mutant Ninja News' as Joe Atkinson once called it in Metro magazine? And that their companies are in it mainly for the money - and not the public good?

Certainly not.

In December 2005, Massey University's Margie Comrie noted that back in the early 90's such critics were:

"an easily marginalised minority, described by TVNZ managers as elitists who ignored their news's enormous popularity".

Nothing's changed.

They dismiss those they regard as poachers-turned-gamekeepers, and academics paid from the public purse, because, they say, they don't understand commercial broadcasting - or changes in public taste.

A couple of examples:

The former Mediaworks boss Brent Impey recently pointed out that even though that company has been owned for some time now by a private equity concern with a big debt to service - the commitment to costly news and current affairs on TV3 has remained.

A couple of examples:

The former Mediaworks boss Brent Impey recently pointed out that even though that company has been owned for some time now by a private equity concern with a big debt to service - the commitment to costly news and current affairs on

TV3 remains

.

The low-rating breakfast news and morning business show have been cut, but

3 News

,

Campbell Live

,

60 minutes

, and

Nightline

are all still there - even though pundits predicted some of them would be gone by now - replaced with

The Simpsons

or

CSI

or similar.

Turning to the print media now... eighteen months ago, the then-editor of

The Dominion Post

Tim Pankhurst gave a bullish speech in which he said his Fairfax bosses in Sydney backed his investigations which led to The Terror Files story, and the award winning Louise Nicholas / Clint Rickards scoop - and they didn't baulk at the legal bills.

That wouldn't happen if profit was the over-riding concern, he said.

And on the matter of trivialisation and celebritisation of news (is that a word?), Tim Pankhurst said critical journalists and academics need to get real.

He talked about getting panned for putting Paris Hilton on the front page of

The Dominion Post

when she was sentenced to jail in 2007 - but his argument was:

"We're in show business"

, he said.

"And our front page is the box office.

"We want to sell more papers. If that means quality investigative reporting as well as Paris Hilton or David Beckham on page one, so be it".

"If you want journalism to be worthy and dull, you will go out of business. And how will that serve the greater good of journalism?

Similarly, many critics slammed TV One's

Close Up

show for bumping the Prime Minister to carry Robin Brooke's confession, as mentioned earlier.

But when Robin Brooke was doing his excruciating apology on TV1, the PM

was

talking tax on TV3's

Campbell Live

show.

The viewers did get a choice from two commercial TV broadcasters.

What commercial media companies may say

So - to sum up again: editors and executives at commercial media companies may say:

"You critics may not like our approach, our style of presentation, or our news judgment on any given day - but where's the evidence that its actually sub-standard?

If it was true that they'd do anything to sell papers or inflate the audience on a given day, you'd expect to see solid gold examples of ethical failures fairly frequently in the news media.

But we don't.

In 2008 John Campbell did deceive us by mocking up that interview with one of the Waiouru media thieves (who was actually a part time actor lifted from his day job as a barista on Ponsonby Road I believe).

But we're assured that what

was

said in the broadcast was what a genuine medal thief

had

told John Campbell in an earlier interview.

Are there many stories prove to be

outright

fabrications?

Back in 2004, a

Herald on Sunday

journalist (John Manukia) was found out for one and he lost his job.

The following year, Newstalk ZB had to withdraw a news report in which a journalist pretended he was reporting from Solomon Islands with New Zealand forces when he was still at Christchurch Airport, waiting for the flight with other journalists about to make the trip.

The news editor of a rival radio network said he hadn't seen anything like it in 33 years in journalism. Good.

I'm not aware of another anything like it since then either. Even better.

In 2006, Alan Samson of Massey University researched plagiarism. But even though it so easy to do in these digital online times, he couldn't point to many clear cut cases in the mainstream media.

In 2007, Deborah Coddington wrote an article for North and South magazine called "

Asian Angst: Is it time to send some back

". It was all about crime committed by people of Asian origin - and also mentioned their rates of abortion.

The Press Council condemned the article, and said it breached its principles on both accuracy and discrimination".

But there's been nothing like that since.

At least not by journalists - most complaints for discrimination or denigration concern radio shock jocks and talkback callers. Or Paul Henry.

And while there's a common feeling that the news media are routinely exploitive and unnecessarily intrusive, there are also cases of restraint.

Some examples:

* a recent survey of into the reporting of suicide over a 12 month period found the vast bulk of media reports observed the agreed guidelines - guidelines the media have often complained about because they're quite restrictive.

* last year, some papers and TV programmes held back on planned reports about broadcaster Tony Veitch and interviews they'd conducted when they found out he was in a highly vulnerable state.

* And remember that contractor employed by Vector who switched off the power supply to Mrs. Muliaga's oxygen machine prior to her death? His identity has never been revealed by the media. It probably would have been in Britain or Australia, where there's a more ruthless culture.

In Australia, ethical failures, beat-ups, breaches of standards, chequebook journalism and conflicts of interest far more frequent - and flagrant - than they are here.

If you want evidence, the ABC has a TV show called

Mediawatch

- which you can watch online. Every week they have examples of this sort of stuff.

If our media were as bad as

that

, the courts would be clogged with defamation cases against the media, and people who thought their privacy had been violated for no good reason would be following Mike Hosking's example - and going to court over that.

But that's not the case.

-

Sometimes that's because the media settle out of court to avoid the hassle and expense, but another reasons for

that

is the complaints process here in New Zealand.

For publications, there's the Press Council, which requests that anyone using it

forgoes

the option of legal action.

For broadcasters, there's the Broadcasting Standards Authority, charged with upholding agreed codes of practice laid out in the Broadcasting Act of 1989, which also give it some hefty powers.

These bodies test standards in the news media today, and while its far from a perfect test, they do shine a light on the way standards are changing.

If standards were really plummeting, we could expect a surge in complaints considered by these bodies year-on-year - and more complaints

upheld

by them.

But on the face of it, the news media also come out of this looking not

that

bad.

The Press Council upholds about one fifth of complaints - a shade more on average - and the total number hasn't skyrocketed in recent years.

The Broadcasting Standards Authority upholds about a quarter of complaints, and these are going up - but only after a major drive to publicise the Authority as an avenue for complainants.

So mainstream news media companies can justifiably say that only a tiny fraction of their output is ever formally challenged - and even when it is, they're not often sanctioned.

And they can also claim the public still watch, read, listen to what they put out in big numbers - and they wouldn't if it was sub-standard, or they weren't fit to be the fourth estate.

-

So where does this leave us?

A win for the populist news media over whingeing pointyheads and chin-stroking critics?

Not necessarily.

If you look at the editorial guidelines major media outlets expect their journalists and programme makers to abide by, they're not that far out of line with what's in the Press Council's published principles and the BSA's codes of practice.

In effect, the watchdogs and the media have both pledged to uphold very similar standards, values, and ethics in regard to accuracy, fairness, balance, respect for privacy and so on.

So when either watchdog

does

uphold a complaint against a publication or a broadcast, we get to the nub of what the media are doing that's causing a problem.

Last year, I looked at dozens of complaints the BSA upheld in recent years - and in many cases it was the desire to maximise the impact of the story which led to standards being breached.

(My report's available on the

if you really don't have any other hobbies... )

Three examples for you:

* a TV report in which young and clearly distressed children in a Chinese family were interviewed about the prospect of their mother being deported.

* a TV report about a doctor accused of failing to care properly for a ten-year-old boy with a serious tumour. Important facts about the boys care were not in the report - and the doctor wasn't given a reasonable opportunity to respond.

* a current affairs TV show which claimed Pharmac's unwillingness to fund the cancer drug Herceptin cost 66 lives a year. The figures came from lobbyists and were misleading. And Pharmac was excluded from the programme, which the BSA found to be both unbalanced and inaccurate.

In each case, there was a valid newsworthy story or issue to be explored, and in my view there would have been no problem if the broadcasters concerned weren't trying to maximise the

impact

of the information they had.

In each case it would not have taken a lot to make them fair and balanced stories either. Or it wouldn't have taken much for them to hold back on the aspects which sent the story over the edge; for instance: not dwelling on the distress of a seven year-old girl forced to contemplate the deportation of her mother.

But it would have made the resulting broadcast less

dramatic

.

-

I should say at this point it's not only competing commercial TV news and current shows which milk stories for maximum impact in this way.

For example, earlier this year Wellington's city-wide paper

The Wellingtonian

had a front page headline which screamed "Skateboard Menace".

It was about a woman knocked down and hospitalised after colliding with a young skateboarder on a downtown Wellington street.

There were photos and an exclusive interview from her hospital bed, and angry quote from her husband and others.

Many letters about this were published the following week showing it had touched a nerve.

But so too was a clarification, because the previous week's story was not what it seemed.

At the time of the accident the youth was

on foot

.

He helped the woman when she fell, and even gave her his name and address.

Some menace. And this from a giveaway paper that doesn't need to sell itself.

-

So why

do

journalists, who

are

by and large ethical and responsible, as I hope I've pointed out, pump up emotions and sift facts to an extent which can distort the story and compromise the truth?

I'd like to give you another view on that now from someone who has put it better than I could hope to do.

It's Jonathan Holmes, presenter of the ABC's Mediawatch show, speaking in a recent debate about whether the media can be trusted to tell the truth:

"The media isn't in the business of telling us the truth. The media is in the business of telling us 'stories'. That simple word is at the core of any journalistic endeavour.

In any exchange between journalists at work or play, you hear it all the time: "I'm working on a story. It's a good story, a great story, a ball-breaker of a yarn. Or - "it's a non-story, it's a dud story - there's no story".

What's true and what's a good story are different things.

Since January 2009, the incidence of robbery with violence in Sydney has been going down. It's true. But it's not "a story".

In the same period though, breaking and entering in the suburb of Auburn are going up. Also true, and if you're the editor of the local paper there, that's a ripper of a story.

The idea of the story goes back to the time when people made little distinction between fact and fiction.

Was Homer telling us the truth about the Trojan wars? Did the Cyclops really have one eye - or Perseus winged feet? Does it matter? Great stories...

They stir us and intrigue us and capture or imaginations. Love and fear and rage and jealously and courage in adversity - and those emotions which kept enthralled the audiences of the Homeric bards in draughty palaces 3,000 years ago - sell copies of the Daily Telegraph and hold the viewers of 'Today Tonight' right now".

Jonathan Holmes went on in that debate to say it's all to common now to "not let facts get in the way of a good story," as the cliché has it.

This doesn't necessarily make the stories untrue - but they're certainly not the whole truth.

And at times, I think this also happens here, even when there's really no story any more, but reporters want to persuade us there is one.

Think of the way MP Chris Carter was vigourously pursued for an apology over his credit card spending recently. He appeared to be defying his party leader by not apologising - so it was a good story for the press gallery.

Chris Carter was literally cornered by reporters who wanted to know if he was sorry. They pursued through the stairwells and the car park - and turned

that

into the news.

But during the day Chris Carter did apologise in writing.

End of story? Not for those reporters.

Because they wanted it done in front of their cameras - and their recorders.

That was the great story they were after.

What's the effect of all this?

What's the effect of all this? And does it really matter?

People in public life get fed up with it certainly, but if they complain about this sort of treatment, they end up looking whingey and self-serving.

"Not a good look", as the pundits are fond of saying.

But in the UK a few years ago, one man in public life did speak out.

He was tired of hearing everything reported as a triumph or disaster. Every problem as "a crisis". Every criticism becoming "a savage attack".

And he told journalists this to their faces and on their turf at the Reuters HQ in London.

He told them they had made accuracy secondary to

impact

in their reporting, and this was unraveling standards, driving them down - poisoning public life even.

This brave man - the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair - went on to describe precisely how he thought their reporting was being undermined by it, like so:

"The consequences of this are acute.

First, scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down. News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light.

Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgment. It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial.

Watergate was a great piece of journalism but there is a PhD thesis all on its own to examine the consequences for journalism of standing one conspiracy up.

What creates cynicism is not mistakes; it is allegations of misconduct. But misconduct is what has impact.

Third, the fear of missing out means today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no-one dares miss out.

Fourth, rather than just report news, even if sensational or controversial, the new technique is commentary on the news being as, if not more important than the news itself. So - for example - there will often be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying as there is coverage of them actually saying it. In the interpretation, what matters is not what they mean; but what they could be taken to mean.

This leads to the incredibly frustrating pastime of expending a large amount of energy rebutting claims about the significance of things said, that bears little or no relation to what was intended.

In turn, this leads to a fifth point: the confusion of news and commentary.

Comment is a perfectly respectable part of journalism. But it is supposed to be separate. Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible. The truth is a large part of the media today not merely elides the two but does so now as a matter of course."

Okay. That was Tony Blair, who was of course no innocent victim of the press.

And when he gave that speech he was on his way out as PM - so it wasn't as brave as it would have been earlier in his career.

Arguably no British politician had done more to mess with the media, and he employed one of the spin industry's most devastating spin doctors - Alistair Campbell - to help him do it. But even taking all

that

into account many in the British press subsequently conceded he did have a point - pretty galling for them, I imagine.

But there was one aspect of that speech by Tony Blair which wasn't talked about very much - but is relevant to the topic of standards - and possibly even to us here in new Zealand.

In the UK, the papers have self-regulation through the Press Complaints Commission - bit like our press council. And for broadcasters there's OFCOM - a powerful regulator which handles breaches of standards among other things.

And Tony Blair

also

said in that speech in 2007:

"Viewers or readers have no objective yardstick to measure what they are being told. In every other walk of life in our society that exercises power, there are external forms of accountability, not least through the media itself.

Tony Blair went on to warn that this "greater external accountability" could be coming:

He said:

"As the technology blurs the distinction between papers and television, it becomes increasingly irrational to have different systems of accountability".

How this is done is an open question - but at some point the system of regulating the media is going to change - and the importance of accuracy will not diminish, whilst the freedom to comment remains".

Now what he was saying there - without actually saying it - was that if you don't clean up your act you might find that when media regulation is reworked for the future, there might be new rules to stop you doing what you're doing now.

And if that happens, it'll be the politicians who consider themselves the victims of the media's quest for impact - at the expense of fairness and accuracy - who may have the final say.

-

Now if politicians do try to rein in the British media, there'll be a monumental scrap - with the media fighting tooth and nail to preserve their freedoms.

And they'd surely want the public to be on their side - after all they're the fourth estate, speaking truth to power on their behalf, and so on.

And if there was any attempt to regulate the media more tightly

here

, you'd expect the same.

But the question is: would the public automatically side with the media in any effort tighten the rules in five, ten, fifteen years time if the quest for impact and "good stories" compromises accuracy and truth?

And if relatively trivial news continues to take up more space and time than the truly topical and important stuff?

It could just be that - in five, ten or fifteen years time that more people will end up with the same cynical view of the media that they sometimes express about the politicians they've heard about in the media:

"They're all as bad as each other - you can't trust any of them".

And I don't think any of us really wants it to come to that.