Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

< Columns

TV ONE Journalists fail to Notice there's a new Government


As we already know, adjusting to the arrival of new leaders in the Beehive is proving difficult for the Mainstream Media (MSM). Many journalists seem not to have noticed that the public voted for change. They need to recognise this fact. I suspect the problem might be with the journalists' education. What are they taught these days? Remember, educational standards have been declining in New Zealand for some years: school truancies are truly appalling, and many university students are refusing to attend lectures, preferring to listen on line when it suits them. The latest crop of journalists probably reflects these baffling developments. Many haven't learned that to be a newspaper reporter or a TV correspondent carries with it a responsibility to report fairly. It isn't a licence to peddle one's personal political prejudices.

Never was this problem on clearer display than on the 6pm news on TV One on Sunday 10 December. I tuned in, hoping to get the latest news. The first item wasn't "news" at all. It was a carefully contrived piece attacking the new government's decision to remove the recent free pharmacy prescriptions and return to the former $5 charge per item, with safeguards for those on low incomes, special needs, and the elderly. Whoever were the journalists in charge of the item had equipped themselves with a "poll "supplied by pharmacies themselves who were licking their chops at free prescriptions that guaranteed them more over-the-counter business. Did the journalists involved not realise there could be a problem with the poll that was central to their story? Did no one who was in charge of the editorial process notice?

Item number two of the so-called news on Sunday night was a school in the Bay of Plenty worried about a reduction in the amount of compulsory teaching of Maori in school hours. A couple of carefully selected teachers and mums expressed their displeasure. The journalist involved didn't think to question whether more teaching of Te Reo, and therefore less English, might not be in the best interests of today's children who need English if they are to survive in the wider world. Besides, there is nothing to stop Te Reo classes being taught if parents want it. Reading, maths and science should occupy only three hours of the school day. Besides, there should be after-school options as well.

Neither of these TV One items I've mentioned was "news". Both were produced by journalists peddling their personal prejudices against policies the public voted for.

The third item WAS news, but slanted. It was about a group of pro-Palestinian protestors marching in Auckland that day, shouting slogans bordering on antisemitism. The marchers were calling for an immediate cease fire in Gaza. An indication could have been given in the news item, even if briefly, that there are pros and cons to an immediate ceasefire. There are, admittedly diminishing, arguments for Israel's stance on the one hand, as well as growing international unease about the daily carnage in Gaza. But it's not good enough just to fall in behind local protestors, leaving the impression with the final sentence of the story that they are correct.

The MSM have a challenging time ahead of them. Many of the policies the voters approved on 14 October and which are part of the Coalition's plans, involve repealing legislation or changing policy directions. Journalists need to come up to speed. The election is now over; many of their personally preferred options were voted down. Now is the time to report on the implementation of the replacements. It's true that some of the new ministers have been extraordinarily sloppy, for example, with their public relations around the changes to Labour's smoking legislation. A full explanation of what they were intending, and why, should have been given before the first complaint about the new smoking policy appeared. Instead, the Ministry let journalists in all of the MSM carry shrill criticisms for days. It only gradually emerged that Labour's legislation that will be repealed isn't yet fully in force. Nor did journalists make any effort to point out that under the laws that are still operating, huge progress has been made in reducing smoking in New Zealand. As an aside, I was the first Minister of Health to push for steady increases in tobacco taxes. They appeared in the 1984 budget. At that time more than 25% of the population smoked. Today it is fewer than 8%, and still falling. Repealing Labour's yet-to-be enforced legislation will not be the end of a very worthwhile trend that has had huge benefits to the population as well as to our Health services. This was the story that journalists could have told, rather than the confusing shock-horror-probe style of reporting that appeals to too many of them.

After six years of conniving leadership from the last Minister of Broadcasting, Willie Jackson, the new minister, Melissa Lee, will have her work cut out for her. A stern talking to the head of TV One about the journalistic standards that the government expects from a publicly-owned station would be a useful start.