Monday, May 01, 2006

The New Crusaders

Recently, my HK-based nemesis Cactus Kate put up a list of her favourite journalists. I don’t know what’s going on in that girl’s head since she started writing for Fairfax, but that assortment of pinko sops is not my idea of a good read. Helen Bain? Temperamental cow. Chris Trotter? Socialist! That other blogging pinko? Nothing more to be said. Shame on CK for appeasing them with mild praise.

Following this post, there was much commentary over at kiwiblog as to what constitutes a journalist. Some carnally self-sufficient cretin objected that a paid writer practicing as a lawyer in an overseas jurisdiction should be allowed to make any judgement on the quality of New Zealand journalists.

Subsequent to that, again at kiwiblog, DPF highlighted the mini-war of words being fought between Ian Wishart and Fran O’Sullivan. I made a comment to the effect that Wishart is a clown, and that I’d back Fran’s serious writing any day of the week. That public address guy then pitched in, quoting and supporting something I had written, attacking Wishart. Shocked and appalled at this recent development, I should clarify my view of Wishart’s work.

There are few quality journalists in this country. The reasons for this escape me. There is certainly no shortage of journalism graduates emerging from tertiary institutions—in fact, there is a vast oversupply of budding Woodwards and Bernsteins. Despite occasional strikes by one of the Labour Party’s funding channels, journalists are pretty well paid. Sure, they do not earn as much as international counterparts, but they’re not paid on performance here, either. Of course, there isn’t a great degree of competition in the New Zealand media marketplace, which doesn’t help, but that alone doesn’t account for media-ocrity.

I am not one of those right-wingers who suggests that New Zealand journalists, as a whole, are captured by liberalism and socialism. I don’t believe that at journalism school, aspiring reporters are put through an ideological washing machine, and emerge as card-carrying advocates for Helengrad. There may well be a washing machine, but that’s no excuse for journalists to capitulate on their personal values and give in to the communists.

And that is the key point. Every person has a degree of bias. The role of a journalist, like that of a judge, is to make an honest appraisal of the facts of a case, and draw conclusions accordingly. The journalist sets out with a relatively open mind. There are rules around what evidence is admissible, with respect to treating subjects fairly, aiming to get a balance of testimony, and making judgements at the end.

Those judgements will inevitably be enriched by bias. That bias makes the reading interesting. Nobody wants to ingest a strict diet of facts without judgement. That’s the difference between Barry Soper and Colin James: the former lists off the facts and draws banal conclusions that are of no value to anybody, whereas the latter lucidly analyses the facts, to the benefit of the reader.

Most New Zealand journalists do not have considerable outward bias. They simply do not draw conclusions. Again, I’m not sure why this is. They might come up with the excuse that they are cynical--but they are presumably not so cynical as to not vote. I believe that they're simply lazy. It would also explain why, for much of the last six years, they consume, without question, the spin that comes from the Prime Minister’s office. Comparatively, the Government’s spin machine has overwhelming resources, designed purely to influence the Press Gallery. The Government’s message is all that most press gallery reporters get. A lazy reporter can get by, quite comfortably, simply recycling the government message.

Of course, there are New Zealand journalists with considerable socialist bias. Chris Trotter is one. Finlay McDonald is another. Oliver Driver—not a journalist, but prominent in the media, is particularly extreme.

On the conservative side, the pickings are much more slim. I’m struggling to think of a single New Zealand journalist with considerable right-wing bias. I suspect that Rob Hosking leans to the right, but that suspicion probably has more to do with him being a GC, and since I loathe all socialists, he must not be one. But enough of syllogisms.

The outcome is that without serious right-wing journalists in New Zealand, with a smattering of left-wingers, and an under-resourced, mediocre core of writers who are dominated by a liberal, socialist establishment, there is very little effective balance in the New Zealand media.

That is why, in theory, Ian Wishart’s Investigate is a good thing. It is useful to have a right-wing journal that critically examines New Zealand government and society, and draws conclusions albeit with a mostly right-wing bias. It gives readers choice. If you want to read about how the world is run by conservative old men who oppress women and minorities through their manipulation of truth, read The Listener. It’s mostly staffed my middle-class, liberal white men with small penises and guilt complexes, and happens to be owned by conservative old men who apparently don’t have any problem with publishing liberal clap-trap, but that’s another story.

Likewise, if you want to read about life from a conservative perspective, Investigate should offer that.

Except it doesn’t. In the Benson-Pope affair, Ian Wishart overstepped the line. He didn’t go seeking the facts. He started with a conclusion, and chose the facts to support the conclusion. That is no longer playing the role of judge-inquisitor. That is stepping down to a role of prosecutor, without regard for the facts. In Benson-Pope’s case, a reasonable conclusion may have been that Benson-Pope was a bully. He probably intimidated his students. Many students disliked him. He probably engaged in the kind of behaviour that would no longer be acceptable in today’s classroom. Sure, it’s appalling that somebody of Benson-Pope’s dubious character should be in Cabinet. Benson-Pope almost certainly misled the House when he stated that he knew of no other complaints against him as a teacher. That would have been a reasonable judgement. But the evidence does not support Wishart’s claims that Benson-Pope was lecherous or a pervert.

Likewise, when Wishart did an exposé on Helen Clark, he went way too far. It would have been reasonable to conclude that Aunty Helen has held a long-term ambition to change New Zealand society. It would have been equally reasonable, from a conservative perspective, to conclude that the Labour Party has spun its way through office, manipulating the media while it makes subtle changes to social policy that fit its outlook on the world, through stealth. That is a fair belief. While it’s amusing to ascribe dubious evidence that the Prime Minister is a closet lesbian with major psychological problems stemming from her alleged confusion over her sexuality, that’s also pretty nutty. Ian Wishart must be out of his tree if thinks that’s a rational argument. It’s not. The conservative reality is that Helen Clark has a liberal agenda because she’s a liberal socialist. Any other speculation from loungechair psychobabblers damages the serious message of serious journalism.

There is nothing wrong with taking on the crusader’s role. I consider myself a right-wing crusader. David Farrar does an excellent job as the pre-eminent right-wing blogging prosecutor in New Zealand. Jordan Carter does a reasonable job as the Labour Party’s defence lawyer on-line. Chris Trotter, a pinko of long-standing, manages to mix the crusader’s role with providing what is often very clever and compelling analysis. But unlike Ian Wishart, none of them put up the pretense of being balanced or neutral. They honestly say: “This is my perspective. Here is the evidence that supports that perspective.”

The only redeeming quality in Wishart’s campaign is that it’s not a socialist campaign. As a campaigner, he is very effective. He’s had one very successful government scalp so far, and a major contribution to the public humiliation of two other ministers. But let’s not kid ourselves that he’s out to seek the truth. He’s there to present his argument. The reader should judge his argument accordingly.

Public Address is also a de facto extension of the government spin machine. They are (mostly) socialists, and crusaders for the filthy garbage that will ruin this country if they continue in government (again, my bias showing through). Keith Ng and Damian Christie are fair and amusing respectively. But that's only a small part of that site. If Public Address also puts up the pretense of being neutral and balanced—or make claims about being serious journalists, as opposed to crusaders for their cause—then they are being dishonest with everybody.

Then again, unlike Public Address, Investigate's heart is in the right place, even if its crusades are sometimes a little extreme, obsessive, and crazy.

The blogosphere has a reasonable balance of socialist and right-wing crusaders. New Zealand media is short on journalists with a right-wing bias (who have a harder job, given the government-controlled flow of information, and have much better career options outside journalism, given that right-wingers are professionally overwhelmingly more talented than socialists). But what we don't need is crusaders masquerading as serious journalists. The Left has enough of those already.