The Harawira junket, and Sean PlunketNovember 6th, 2009
At least the coalition government has shown itself to be united this week – it seems intent on junketing at taxpayer expense across a broad and unified front. Hone Harawira of the Maori Party, Rodney Hide of the Act and the deputy leader of the National Party have all of late been displaying a keen appetite for shaking down the taxpayer for travel perks and expense claims that – given the strife the country is in – they might have felt a moral duty to forego. Evidently not.
Harawira is a repeat offender, having skived off from his official duties a couple of years ago, in Australia. The man has set himself such low standards, criticism is superfluous. Like Michael Laws, he relies on baiting the media, since media criticism helps him pose as a victim to ‘his people.’ Well, Harawira isn’t an outsider anymore. He’s a well paid, well cushioned insider who is better placed to afford to pay for his own holiday to Paris than 95% of New Zealanders. This po’ boy minstrel act that he puts on
– “ How many times in my lifetime am I going to get to Europe? So I thought, ‘F*** it, I’m off. I’m off to Paris’,”unquote –
– does collateral damage to his colleagues and ultimately, to his people.
No doubt, Harawira would be the first to protest in Parliament if anyone else in power publicly portrayed Maori as being a lazy bunch of grinningly irresponsible Horis – which is why you might have expected him to think twice about acting like one. I’m not talking about any Victorian-era obligation to be a ‘credit to the race’ This is about having a personal code of honour, as the leader of a three person delegation of MPs representing New Zealand overseas in order to exchange information with his hosts about EU and New Zealand stances on family and youth policies, and multiculturalism.
It is embarrassing that Harawira felt no shame about asking the European Parliamentarian who was his host, if she minded him skiving off from part of the arranged itinerary to go sight-seeing in another country. Again, one can imagine how a guest on a marae who acted with similar discourtesy would be viewed. Still, the holiday in Paris won’t entirely be wasted. Next winter, when the kuia and kaumatua come to Parliament to complain that the government that Harawira and his colleagues are propping up is kicking Maori off the sickness and invalids’ benefit, he will be able to show them his holiday snaps of Paris.
Rodney Hide has had a bad fortnight. The perkbuster and scourge of wasteful spending by local councils has been caught out spending $25,000 of taxpayer funds on his girlfriend’s travel – as part of a trip costing over $50,000 in all, which seems to have been timed to co-incide with her brother’s wedding in London.
The other appalling aspect of Hide’s recent behaviour has been his sense of grievance that Act is doing all the policy spadework for the government – with Key ending up loved as a result, and Act ending up hated. This would be pretty amusing, if Hide hadn’t deliberately positioned himself from the outset to hold far more power than his miniscule public support would justify. As Scoop pointed out at the time, the fact that Hide is the ministerial head honcho on local government and ditto on regulatory reform by central government this means that virtually everything done by local and central government has to pass over his desk – everything from water safety to deciding how democracy should function in Auckland.
Hide can thereby inflict a lot of damage on Auckland and to local government around the rest of the country, without Act having earned any mandate at the last election to do so. In that sense, any hatred is well earned. The vision though that Hide painted in his comments to the Act party faithful – of him turning up with his papers, and Cabinet distractedly rubber stamping them into service – certainly does rings true. After all who, conceivably, would be chairing Cabinet discussion in any substantive way?
Not Key, who is the guy brought in to do a patchover job with the public with a charm offensive when whoops, things unexpectedly start to go wrong. And not Bill English either – who has the intelligence to say “No” to the weirder agendas that Hide and Treasury wheel up, but who seems to lack the ability to devise and steer any alternative agenda. One shudders to think how the Buckle tax review bunfight between English’s pragmatism and the ideologues in Act is going to play out in December-January. Come to think of it, wasn’t there a December tax package once before, in December 1987 – that actually derailed a popular government? It is hard to imagine John Key brooding like David Lange over its implications in the holiday recess, though.
Neutralising Sean Plunket
The sometimes fractious relationship between RNZ and its high profile presenter culminated this week with the Employment Relations Authority ruling that yes, RNZ’s was exercising a valid managerial prerogative when it denied Plunket his wish to write a political column for Metro magazine.
On paper, it always looked that Plunket was pushing it uphill to argue that his rights of free expression – under the Bill of Rights – were being violated by this interpretation of his conditions of employment. A human rights victim? Not so much. Nothing personal, but RNZ’s 2007 editorial policy guidelines do make the situation pretty clear. For example :
“To be professional is not to be without opinions, but to be aware of those opinions and make allowances for them, so that reporting is, and appears to be judicious and fair. Audiences should not be able to detect a presenter’s or correspondent’s personal views….There may be particular sensitivities concerning on air talent. It is important that no off-air activity, including writing, the giving of interviews or the making of speeches, leads to any doubt about their objectivity on air.
If presenters or reporters publicly express personal views off air on controversial issues, then their on air role may be severely compromised. It is particularly important that such employees do not on air or in a public forum: state how they vote or express support for any particular party [or} express views for or against any policy which is a matter of current party political debate ‘ etc etc.
No doubt, it must be highly irritating at times to have to work within those kind of strictures. One could even argue with their illogic. Going by the above for instance, one can have opinions and still be professional, provided those opinions are undetectable on air – and regardless of the fact that in many ( or most) political stories, right and wrong and the public interest do NOT fall neatly into packages of equal size, on either side of the political fence. There are some excellent journalistic critiques of the harm done to journalism and political coverage by this ‘ on the one hand, on the other hand’ approach to the job. In the debate on climate change for instance, the maintenance of a bogus even handedness (that treated science and climate change deniers as having equal merit) has ill-served the public, and the debate.
In other words, the statutory and editorial framework at RNZ offers little leeway for viewing opinion in a positive light, or for seeing it as a valid tool of journalistic analysis that can sometimes serve the public as well – or better – than a façade of neutrality. Furthermore, one person’s ‘opinion’ can often be another’s analytical acuity. And as for those political opinions of its presenters being ‘undetectable” – at RNZ, that boundary line has often depended on who has been doing the detecting. Traditionally, the sensitivities of aggrieved politicians have been taken far more seriously by RNZ management than the perceptions of ordinary members of the public. All of which, I think, bolsters any argument by Plunket that him being allowed to express his opinions in a reasoned way, in a political column, would not necessarily mean the end of journalism as we know it.
Even so, the striving for an imperfect neutrality still seems the only course open to RNZ in the Plunket case. RNZ’s ruling legislation requires neutrality and independence, and its editorial guidelines are its best attempt at putting those demands into practice. Metro was hiring Plunket to express his opinions in print on current political events and policy developments – that’s what a columnist does – and one can safely assume they wouldn’t be quite so interested in him if he wasn’t simultaneously on air, on Morning Report.
It is that frisson of him being on air as a neutral presenter while in their publication in his full opinionated glory – as much as his name recognition and analytical skill – that currently makes Sean Plunket a marketable media commodity. It is just as likely that this situation would have had downstream consequences. It would mean that any harried politician on Morning Report in future could always create a diversionary escape by throwing those published opinions back in the interviewer’s face. ( Even so, and for similar reasons, Metro’s sister publication North and South hired TVNZ ‘s Guyon Espiner as a political columnist. It is interesting to speculate why different standards apply at TVNZ than at RNZ. It may have something to do with television news being more clearly in the entertainment business.)
Even so, that doesn’t mean RNZ has any ownership hold on Plunket, as was intimated in the ERA hearings – or that he owes any allegiance to the RNZ ‘brand’ above and beyond what he is paid to do. Plunket has earned his current status, and given back to RNZ anything it has ever offered him as a career platform. The situation, however heated, is not really about personalities though. Currently, the simple reality is that the institution’s best shield against political pressure is its imperfect stance of neutrality. Leaving aside its statutory obligations, RNZ simply could not afford to provide its potential critics with the ammunition that a signed opinion column by one of its key frontline news and current affairs presenters would entail. To that extent, Plunket’s rights of free expression were to be treated as expendable by his employer – not because they don’t exist. but because the potential damage to the programme and to the organisation had to outweigh them.
RNZ is not being paranoid in making that judgement call. In early 1993, (see NBR, 8 April 1993) the Broadcasting Minister of the day Warren Cooper called in RNZ’s then CEO Nigel Milan and confronted him with a handful of complaints against Morning Report and Good Morning New Zealand ( now Nine to Noon) by various political colleagues. Namely : Wyatt Creech, Simon Upton, Tony Ryall, Roger Sowry, Jenny Shipley, Murray McCully and the Prime Minister’s then press secretary, Michael Wall. To NBR these complaints – which were compiled in the wake of a message from a Beehive researcher trawling for grievances – were to be seen as the “first stage of the government’s election year offensive against the broadcasting media.”
The episode makes fascinating reading now, in the light of the Harawira/Hide/English shenanigans that are doing a lot to lower politicians in the esteem of the public. In 1993, the public were about to deliver their own verdict on lying, self-serving politicians by voting for MMP. Regardless, Cooper was more than willing to treat any anti-politician sentiments among the public as being purely the product of a media plot, by the ‘egotists’ within the media ranks.
In the House on March 23, 1993, Cooper launched an attack on broadcasting producers, directors and interviewers in these terms : “We must be careful lest we let these people take over completely and destroy our democracy by that insidious inculcation…about how bad the body politic is.. I do put these people on notice when I say that we politicians will not tolerate it too much longer. It has to be changed…because we are a better nation that it portrays us as being.” The media’s role, in other words, was to be an extension of the government’s spin machine, and not to provide a Fourth Estate challenge to its designs. Some of the same people – McCully and Ryall – snow occupy senior Cabinet posts in the current government. Quite co-incidental with the sustained campaign of pressure on Morning Report, interviewer Kim Hill ultimately chose to shift to the Nine to Noon slot.
Plunket is aware of these kind of political pressures, because he has experienced them personally. In this 2007 interview with the student magazine Salient, he had this to say:
“I’ve been subject to political pressure in my time at Radio New Zealand,” he says. Most recently when Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey complained to management over what he claimed was being accused of racism on air. But Plunket is pleased with the way it was dealt with. “I think we dealt with that in an entirely appropriate way, and I have to say I wouldn’t always have been in the past as confident that we would have dealt with it as well as we did.”
“There is no doubt that RNZ is by and large a far more socially aware organisation, it runs a far higher proportion of government news and therefore it can be criticised as being left-wing. Once again, I come back to I do what I do and the rules that I impose on myself. But I’d also say, it is an organisation that takes the delineation between an impartial news service and other parts of the organisation which are charged with reflecting the government of the day’s desire for social change very seriously.”
So seriously, that Plunket’s desire to be more of a commentator than a mere conduit of news and information pales by comparison. Once the precedent of allowing Plunket to come out of the political closet had been set, it is hard to see where any line on neutrality or editorial balance could be drawn. No doubt, to many on the right, that neutrality is a sham anyway – but for them, nothing short of a fullblown surrender to the Fox News syndrome would suffice.
Even on those nutty Fox terms, Morning Report can point to a history where its in-house commentary, by past right wing political and business editors such as Richard Griffin and Peter Verschaffelt hardly supports any notion of a left wing conspiracy or brand by the programme. In fact, there has never been a left wing equivalent voice on Morning Report to those two long –serving worthies. So far as his own political inclinations can be detected, Plunket himself is probably not a left wing cabalist, either.
Will RNZ’s current defensive stance always be so? It is hard to see a valid Third Way. Much as we might talk of the Fox News syndrome eroding the pose of journalistic neutrality, the dubious path to Foxdom is not a desirable or a feasible option for an RNZ dependent on state funding. It might be a different story if the current government ever did revive its former interest in splitting RNZ news and current affairs into a separate structure, or in directing Morning Report to be put out to private tender. Hopefully, we have gone beyond those ideological checkpoints. If we haven’t, Sean Plunket will be the least of RNZ’s problems.