When I first started watching the performance of New Zealand journalists, New Zealand was punching well above its weight. Programmes like 60 Minutes were seen as good reliable sources of in depth investigative journalism, and a crop of talented journalists ranging from Cameron Bennett and Janet McIntyre were delivering work on topics as diverse as terrorism and wars overseas (regarding New Zealand’s involvement in them), to life saving treatment, stories of courage that was award winning.
In the last few decades a blend of information and entertainment, popularly known as infotainment has taken hold in New Zealand and overseas. In that time it has pushed out abstract reporting that reports the known facts and uncovers the rest, which should be the core business for any journalist of repute. Few care how much Kim Kardashian weighs or how big her bottom is, or for Kanye West’s half arsed desire to be President of the United States, but apparently that is news.
Media have the following social obligations, whether they admit to them or not:
- As the fifth estate, they are obligated as free media – harder under more authoritarian regimes, due to fear of being arrested, censored or sacked – to report news of the national interest
- Investigate leaks – and expose them – if found to be real, especially where the well being of the nation and society are in question
Yes, the journalists will make enemies. When corrupt politicians know a reporter has information about a dodgy scheme they were involved in, fear of being caught may drive them to extreme measures. The allure of getting a nationally or internationally exclusive story to air about a scandal or legislative change that has the potential to bring down a Government must surely be the ultimate prize.
One example of good journalism in action was when Heather du Plessis-Allan uncovered a flaw in the Firearms Act, by purchasing a shot gun without any checks on her. Yes, that might have been an improper way of conducting her investigation, but she:
- Proved her case
- Had no malicious intent when purchasing the shot gun – unless investigative journalism is now a crime
Ms du Plessis-Allan was warned by the Police about her conduct – initially they had wanted to charge her, but the public reaction, and the fact that there was no malicious intent involved persuaded them to drop the case.
Unfortunately journalism of this nature is the exception rather than the norm in New Zealand. And some of what gets reported is blatant lies. More galling still, instead of being reprimanded by their bosses or asked to explain, it is assumed that this reporting is just standard “Mainstream Media”. This has been shown up a couple of times in recent weeks, including statements that Opposition parties support having a new building to house Members of Parliament, ignoring New Zealand First’s opposition.