The state broadcaster’s lack of balance is dismal.
Given the widespread mistrust of mainstream media and accusations of bias, it seems extraordinary that New Zealand’s taxpayer-owned broadcaster TVNZ seems to be going out of its way to prove that it is — as its detractors claim — incurably partisan.
Last week, a column by John Campbell appeared on TVNZ’s website titled: “Are we on the cusp of something new or something old?” He portrayed the coalition government as likely to be extremely damaging to the nation’s future and decried the “resentment populism” of Act and New Zealand First. He lamented that New Zealand was “entering an age of unenlightenment”. And much more in that vein.
Campbell is perfectly entitled to his opinion, and to express it. It is only a problem because he happens to be TVNZ’s Chief Correspondent. How, for instance, will he be able to interview ministers and other influential people, or write about any government policy, with even a veneer of objectivity after he has nailed his political colours so firmly to the mast?
A similar problem with balance was apparent last month after the government had announced it intended to review the effectiveness of MAPAS — the preferential admission scheme for Māori and Pasifika medical students.
A segment on 1News’ six o’clock bulletin began with newsreader Simon Dallow announcing: “The head of Auckland’s medical school is deeply concerned programmes that give Māori and Pasifika preferential entry could be under threat.”
Māori Affairs Correspondent Te Aniwa Hurihanganui then reported that, overall, Māori make up “fewer than 5 per cent of doctors” while “for Pasifika it’s under 3 per cent”. However, she never mentioned that 30 per cent of places at Auckland’s Medical School last year went to MAPAS candidates.
Hurihanganui concluded her brief report with: “A battle to justify decades-old programmes [is under way] while diversity in the [medical] workforce remains a big issue.”
The latter claim is arrant nonsense — as anyone who has engaged with the public health system and its melting-pot of nationalities knows.
A NZ Medical Council report showed that, in 2022, 6.6 per cent of doctors were Chinese and 6.2 per cent Indian. Nearly 12 per cent were classified as “other non-European”. When Māori and Pasifika doctors are added, it’s very difficult to argue plausibly that ethnic diversity is a problem. However, it fits with the common accusation by mainstream media that New Zealand’s health system is deeply racist.
The council’s report also noted: “The proportion of NZ European/Pākehā doctors is decreasing. Three-quarters of doctors identified as NZ European/Pākehā in 2000 but this figure was down to just under 46 per cent in 2022.”
This didn’t stop Dallow announcing: “The medical workforce is overwhelmingly Pakeha” — or Hurihanganui repeating the claim. In fact, given that Pakeha make up more than 60 per cent of the population, a figure of 46 per cent means Pakeha are, in fact, significantly under-represented.
Three days later on Breakfast, host Jenny-May Clarkson interviewed two senior academics in the Medical and Health Sciences faculty at Auckland University, Sir Collin Tukuitonga and Professor Warwick Bagg. Both are passionate advocates for the MAPAS programme and they were effectively given eight minutes on air to extol its virtues.
Bagg began by declaring himself to be “deeply disappointed” that “this [topic] is even under discussion and we don’t understand why it is under discussion”.
Unfortunately, Clarkson’s soft-ball questions meant viewers would have had no idea by the end of the segment either. Asked if the programme was working, Bagg pointed to the fact that many more Māori and Pasifika students were entering the medical profession — which doesn’t say anything about how effective they are in improving the health of their people.
The academics weren’t asked how many MAPAS graduates actually end up working as doctors among their ethnic communities, or pressed further on why Māori and Pasifika uniquely require a doctor that comes from their own ethnic background.
Bagg’s attempt to illuminate that point was hardly compelling: “If you are a Māori woman with a breast lump and the only doctor in town is a Pakeha male, you might be reluctant to go and see that person. You might not, but you might be reluctant. Whereas if you have the option to see a Māori doctor, you may well present earlier and get the treatment you need.”
Unfortunately, there are too many “mays” and “mights” in that explanation to make it even vaguely convincing.
David Seymour has made it clear that: “If we find [MAPAS] is getting more Māori and Pasifika into medicine, that they are staying in medicine in such a way that they treat more Māori and Pacific patients and that the presence of Māori and Pacific medical graduates is more effective at helping those Māori and Pacific patients than doctors or nurses from other ethnicities, then, sure, I think it should continue.”
The question of why Bagg and Tukuitonga are opposed to a review of the programme if it is working as well as they claim wasn’t put to them either. Surely if the professors’ enthusiastic endorsement is well-founded, it will pass with flying colours.
Certainly, anyone watching these items on 1News and Breakfast would likely conclude there is no need for a review — which perhaps was the point of airing them.
Marked resistance towards another government initiative is also on display in “Trick or Treaty? Indigenous Rights, Referendums and the Treaty of Waitangi”.
The 25-minute documentary — funded by NZ on Air — is the latest in a series of six “mini documentaries” broadcast on TVNZ+ as part of Mata Reports presented by Mihingarangi Forbes.
Forbes’ aim is to show how right-wing networks in Australia allegedly teamed up to smash Australia’s Indigenous Voice to Parliament — and how similar malign influences will conspire to sway opinion to favour David Seymour’s proposed referendum on the Treaty principles.
Forbes seeks to explain how a significant majority in mid-2022 who supported establishing an independent body to advise on issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders collapsed to 40 per cent just over a year later in the referendum.
The answer, according to Forbes and her interviewees, lies largely in the influence of a network of well-funded, neoliberal lobby groups which instilled fear into Australian voters. This network — “bankrolled by some of Australia’s richest people” — is ultimately funded by “oil and gas, mining and uranium interests”. Forbes says these “oil and gas interests oppose Indigenous rights that could threaten the fossil-fuel industry”.
What viewers aren’t told is that the Yes campaign was funded generously by a majority of the nation’s biggest companies, including powerful mining and energy corporations.
BHP and Rio Tinto donated $A2 million each, while resource giants Woodside Energy, Newcrest and Origin Energy, among others, publicly advocated for the Yes vote. The Minerals Council of Australia backed it too.
The ‘big four’ accounting firms PwC, EY, Deloitte and KPMG were in support, as were the ‘big four’ banks and Telstra, alongside supermarket chains Coles and Woolworths and insurer IAG. Qantas decked out three planes in Yes livery and offered free flights for Yes campaigners.
In fact, big businesses and networks of philanthropists stumped up so much money — totalling tens of millions — some analysts claimed it hurt the Yes cause by making voters feel as if they were being steamrolled by the nation’s elites.
The role corporate Australia played in pushing for a Yes vote along with generous donations was widely reported. That this is not mentioned even once by Forbes or her interviewees is an indictment on the integrity of the documentary.
Of course, admitting that inconvenient fact would destroy the narrative of a wealthy and shadowy neoliberal cabal skewing the playing field against Indigenous influence (and climate action) wherever it can.
The Australian Electoral Commission won’t reveal how much was donated to each side of the campaign until April but not having those final figures appears to have been no deterrent to Forbes presenting her thesis of sinister right-wing forces — in thrall to a global movement called the Atlas Network — queering the debate against the Yes campaign.
Forbes also frequently takes her viewers for fools. At the beginning of the documentary, activist Thomas Mayo, who has Torres Strait Islander heritage, warns New Zealanders hoping to defeat a Treaty principles referendum: “You [will] have to be ready for the tactics of intimidation that will come, to try and silence you.”
The same warning is repeated at the end.
Unfortunately for Mayo’s credibility, a wave of dire predictions — which seem to many to be veiled threats — have come almost entirely from those opposed to a referendum. Former Labour Cabinet minister Willie Jackson has predicted “war” if it goes ahead; Greens co-leader James Shaw foresees “wide-scale social disruption that could lead to violence”, while former Kapiti Mayor K (Guru) Gurunathan has alluded to the race riots in Malaysia in 1969 which resulted in the deaths of hundreds and widespread damage to property.
Forbes seems very impressed by freelance journalist Josh Drummond, who has created a spider’s web that links centre-right politicians and an array of think tanks and lobby groups. The Taxpayers’ Union and the NZ Initiative feature but you have to laugh at Drummond’s response when Forbes asks: “How do they get their point across?”
Drummond says they are successful because they “take advantage of how the media works” by energetically submitting articles for publication and will “always pick up the phone, always deliver a soundbite” to journalists.
Less sinister than persistent, you might think.
Of course, no documentary opposed to a Treaty principles referendum would be complete without at least one person effectively pointing out that democracy somehow allows bumpkins and deplorables to vote.In “Trick or Treaty?”, that role is played by Treaty lawyer Moana Tuwhare, who tells us most voters don’t understand the principles of the Treaty. “Let’s not leave it up to the largely uninformed voting public to make a largely uninformed decision about the place of the Treaty,” she advises.
The obvious conclusion to draw from her statement is that this constitutional question should be solely the domain of people who have been educated correctly lest the great unwashed and untutored make a decision she would see as “wrong” or “unfair” (which is how Mayo described the No campaign’s victory).
Needless to say, “Trick or Treaty?” nowhere acknowledges the $55 million the Labour government paid to mainstream media under the Public Interest Journalism Fund and how much that has already influenced the debate with its eligibility criteria requiring the Treaty to be presented as a “partnership”. Seymour’s proposed referendum, of course, is a direct repudiation of that interpretation.
While it is true the PIJF announced its last grants in April 2023, many of the projects and roles it funded will not end until at least 2025. As NZ on Air put it: “The PIJF has a long tail.”
And it is clear that taxpayer funding is still readily available for agitprop like “Trick or Treaty?” that pulls out all the stops to thwart a referendum. And TVNZ is willing to broadcast and promote it.
Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore.