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KARL DU FRESNE: The John Campbell question

Once again, state-owned TVNZ has obligingly provided a platform from which its best-known (and no doubt highest-paid) journalist, John Campbell, can flail the government.


This is extraordinary and unprecedented. The government’s most potent communications medium has been hijacked by one of its employees and co-opted in a highly personal political mission.


Campbell’s anti-government agitation is more than simply provocative. It can only be seen as a direct challenge to the government and a gesture of contempt to all the deplorables who voted for change because they didn’t like where we were going under Labour.


Campbell clearly decided on October 14 that New Zealand had made a grievous mistake in electing a centre-right government and set himself the task of leading the Resistance.


Someone in authority should have told him then that this was not his function as a journalist. If he refused to accept that, he should have been told to pack his bags.


That this didn’t happen tells us that TVNZ is happy for its Chief Correspondent, aka the nation’s Hand-Wringer-in-Chief, to continue his crusade. Now we’re in the unfortunate situation where someone in government may be tempted to strike back, because no government is likely to tolerate a situation where one of its own employees is so feverishly working to undermine it.


Journalism is in a potentially perilous situation here. Battles between the state and the media rarely turn out well.


The danger of vindictive politicians punishing troublesome journalists hardly needs to be pointed out. But Campbell has put us in this invidious position by brazenly abusing his power and thus inviting retribution. A combative politician like Winston Peters, whose early role model was media-baiter Robert Muldoon, would need little encouragement to retaliate.


The finely balanced relationship between journalists and the government, whereby politicians accept the inconvenience of a critical press as the price of an open democracy, is at risk of being destabilised when one side is seen as wilfully defying the established norms – which is what Campbell has been doing with his series of assaults on a government that’s ideologically not to his liking.


The danger for the government is that unless it acts to deter egregiously partisan journalism from its own media outlets, Campbell and others like him – including some in RNZ – will feel emboldened to continue.


As a product of the corporate world, Luxon will be familiar with the management maxim that “What you accept, you approve”. Well, it applies here. As long as Campbell and others like him feel empowered to attack the government with impunity, National and its coalition partners can expect to endure a prolonged and self-inflicted form of Chinese water torture.


Lest this article be misinterpreted, I’m not presenting an argument for more pro-government journalism. That phrase is a contradiction in terms, because it is not the function of journalists to support governments.


Neither am I rushing to the defence of this government because I support it. I didn’t vote for it and I have little confidence in it, but the government was legitimately elected and it deserves a fair shake. It's impossible not to be struck by the sharp contrast between media attitudes toward the previous government and this one.


Rather, I’m appealing for a return to traditional journalistic values of impartiality and balance, the decline of which can be blamed for steadily diminishing public trust in the media. Contrary to what budding journalists are taught in universities (of which Campbell is a product), journalism is not activism.


Campbell’s attacks on the government – and in a broader sense, the sustained offensive from the media at large since last year’s election – place National and its coalition partners in difficult territory. Convention says the government shouldn’t interfere in the editorial decisions of its media outlets. Any such intervention would be portrayed as an intolerable attack on freedom of the press.


There would be uproar from the media and their academic fellow-travellers. Those with long memories would recall the bad old days of the 1960s, when the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation was firmly under government control.


Fear of such a backlash is what Campbell and his bosses will be counting on to prevent the government from acting, but there comes a point when Campbell’s moralistic crusade becomes so brazen and arrogant that it can’t be ignored.


The question then becomes, what would be an appropriate response? In different circumstances, a stern word in private with TVNZ management might have done the job. But Campbell’s adversarial attitude to the government is so public and so obvious that a low-key strategic retreat is not possible. We’ve moved beyond that point. In any case, TVNZ is complicit in his misconduct.


Besides, this is an open democracy and the conduct of government affairs shouldn’t be carried out via covert, Yes, Minister-type manoeuvrings. If action is to be taken, it should be done in such a way that we can all see it.


That points to the nuclear option: a brutal, decisive and very public sacking on the basis that Campbell has betrayed the fundamental duty of impartiality that the public is entitled to expect of journalists in a state-owned media organisation.


If the TVNZ directors objected – as they would presumably feel bound to do, given that they have at least tacitly condoned Campbell’s activism – then they should be encouraged to go too.


In those circumstances, the government would need to be cleaner than clean in its appointment of a new board. Nothing would destroy its credibility more surely than the recruitment of political favourites and brown-nosers.


All this must sound odd, coming from someone who has written two books about the importance of media freedom (the only ones, to my knowledge, that examined the issue in a New Zealand context). The suggestion that a journalist should be fired because of his political views goes against the grain.


But media freedom cuts both ways. Journalists must be able to report vigorously and fearlessly on matters of public interest. Generally speaking, in New Zealand the law allows them to do so.


But if the media are to retain the trust of the public, they must demonstrate that they can be relied on to report on issues of public interest in a fair, balanced and non-partisan way. Once the media betray that trust, they put their protected status at risk.


It goes without saying that Campbell is as entitled as anyone to say what he thinks about the government. The crucial difference, in his case, is that his personal opinion is seen as carrying the weight of a major state media organisation which is supposed to be apolitical.


He would be in a very different position if he worked for a privately owned media outfit, but employment by a state-owned organisation imposes a special obligation of impartiality. TVNZ is owned by the people, whose allegiances and sympathies cover the entire political spectrum. It takes a special type of hubris to assume that being the Chief Correspondent (whatever that title means) for such an organisation entitles him to impose his own narrow political biases on his audience.


Mention abuse of media power and people tend to think of press barons such as Rupert Murdoch, but Campbell is guilty of abuse in a more subtle form. In fact it could be argued that Murdoch is a more honest abuser of power because he doesn’t seek to disguise his actions behind an ostentatious façade of morality and compassion.


Campbell presents himself as the conscience of the nation, but by positioning himself as the implacable opponent of a democratically elected government, he’s effectively spitting in the faces of the majority of his fellow New Zealanders who voted for it. He clearly regards himself as above them and above democracy.


He appears to interpret media freedom as giving him licence to wage a divisive and potentially disruptive political campaign, with the backing of a powerful state institution, against a government that he doesn’t think deserved to be elected. It needs to be made clear to him and TVNZ that his position is offensive and untenable, even in a liberal democracy. If that means sacking him, so be it.


Karl du Fresne blogs here

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