Saturday, January 20, 2018

Karl du Fresne: If RNZ caters to all New Zealanders, why have so many given up on it?

A recent Dominion Post column of mine headlined “Dinosaur versus Dominatrix” (reproduced on this site), about an on-air clash between Kim Hill and Don Brash, brought a couple of old-school broadcasting grandees out of the woodwork.

Ian Johnstone, a familiar face on TV screens from the 1960s till the 1990s, and Geoffrey Whitehead, a former BBC deputy political editor who became CEO of Radio New Zealand and now lives in retirement in Napier, both had a whack at me for criticising Hill’s hostile demolition job on Brash.

Both seemed to think that unleashing RNZ’s most aggressive interviewer against Brash, for the sin of criticising Morning Report’s Guyon Espiner over his use of the Maori language, was a perfectly legitimate thing for the state broadcaster to do.

I haven’t responded to either of my critics until now because more important things – family and holidays – have occupied my attention. But before I get on to Johnstone and Whitehead, there are a couple of points to be made about the furore that arose from Brash’s Facebook post about Espiner.

Was it a storm in a teacup, as the leftist comedian Jeremy Elwood (“leftist” and “comedian” are virtually synonymous these days) disingenuously wrote in a column? Yes, it was. But it was the Left that whipped up the storm, and it did so for a reason. It seized on Brash’s objection to the use of te reo on RNZ and turned it into a rallying point in the ongoing culture war between “progressives” and conservatives.

That’s the wider context in which the debate played out, and it explains the ferocity of the reaction against Brash. The aim was to make an example of him: to inflict such bruising punishment that opponents of the Left’s identity politics agenda would be fearful about the consequences of speaking out in future.

Kim Hill’s overtly hostile “interview” [sic] with Brash was part of this response, which brings me back to Johnstone and Whitehead. These two men clearly regard themselves as lofty guardians of the public broadcasting heritage and see it as their duty to correct those of us who, for reasons of ignorance, malice or political misguidedness, don’t properly appreciate it.

Johnstone wrote a piece in the Dominion Post in which he defended Hill's confrontation with Brash as “lively, challenging and entertaining”. It didn’t surprise me that he approved. Johnstone is a genteel old Leftie – too genteel by far to have attempted a Hill-style demolition job when he was still a broadcaster himself, but I’ve no doubt he would have quietly applauded. Brash’s neoliberalism would be anathema to him.

Johnstone adopted a patronising tone toward me, wagging a finger at me for my “comical hyperbole”. Here was the seasoned broadcasting veteran patiently explaining, for the benefit of the irksome johnny-come-lately (hell, I’ve been in the media for only 50 years – what would I know?), that what Hill did to Brash fell within the finest traditions of public broadcasting.

Strangely, he wrote of me: “I guess what he’d really like to say, but dare not, is that he thinks too many RNZ staff are ‘Left-leaning’.” I can’t imagine why Johnstone would think I dare not say that, seeing I’ve been saying it for years, but let me say it again, unequivocally. I not only think many RNZ staff are left-leaning; I know they are, because I know many of them personally and know their political views.

It’s virtually imprinted in the DNA of public broadcasting organisations that they lean to the left. One of the reasons people seek work with state broadcasting organisations is that they distrust capitalism and the profit motive, and regard state-owned media as pure and untainted. And since like attracts like, there evolves a self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing monoculture. That’s true of RNZ just as it is of the BBC, Australia’s ABC and National Public Radio in the United States (all of which I listen to).

This becomes a problem only if RNZ employees allow their political views to influence their work. Many of them don’t, and I respect them for it, but others make no attempt to disguise their political leanings. (I note that Finlay Macdonald, whose wife Carol Hirschfeld is RNZ’s head of content, recently used the RNZ website a to write a piece gleefully rubbing the National Party’s nose in  the dirt over the election outcome. It doesn’t say much for RNZ’s, Hirschfeld’s or Macdonald’s ethics that this cosy nepotistic arrangement is permitted, but it certainly says something about the political ethos of what is supposed to be a neutral organisation.)

Back to Johnstone. He rebukes me for saying that RNZ no longer regards its job as being to serve all New Zealanders, and he asks rhetorically whether I hear its daily news reports from all over the country, as if these contradict my argument. Well yes, I do, but they don’t prove a thing. RNZ generally – generally – plays with a straight bat when it comes to news reportage, and I’ve praised it in the past for adhering to journalism values that have largely been abandoned by other news organisations. The country would be much the poorer without RNZ’s news bulletins. But news reports are just a small part of what RNZ does, and Johnstone can’t expect to get away with the trick of cherry-picking his evidence to suit his argument.

The political taint that permeates much of what RNZ does is found elsewhere – in current affairs and magazine-style interviews and discussion programmes, in the subjects and interviewees selected, in the slant of the questions asked and the stance (either sympathetic or hostile) of the presenter, and in so-called “debates” that are anything but, because only people with views that are deemed acceptable (and who all conveniently agree with each other) are invited to take part.

Even then the picture is far from uniform across all of RNZ, because some of its programmes (Nine to Noon, for instance, and Morning Report, at least most of the time) are generally even-handed. I have huge regard for Nine to Noon host Kathryn Ryan.

I would never subject RNZ to blanket condemnation, because it continues to do a lot of things very well and conscientiously. In a moment of cultural sensitivity, I once labelled it a national taonga. But to those like Johnstone who insist that RNZ caters for all New Zealanders, I can only ask why so many people I know – intelligent, informed people with a keen interest in politics, society and culture – have long since given up listening to it because they object to the relentless political and ideological spin. They ask me why I still bother, and I reply that I listen to RNZ because it it’s my right to listen to RNZ and to expect it to adhere to its charter. I’m a part-owner of it, after all, and my taxes help pay the salaries of its employees. Call me bloody-minded, call me na├»ve, but if more New Zealanders, rather than giving up and switching to NewstalkZB or Radio Live, listened to RNZ and insisted that it cater to a true cross-section of tastes and political views, as is their right, perhaps it would feel obliged to lift its game.

As it is, RNZ will of course continue to be defended by people like Johnstone and Whitehead. They have spent their lives in public broadcasting and regard RNZ’s pervasive soft-Left bias and uncritical embrace of "progressive" causes as the natural order of things.

One last point. In his letter, Whitehead pompously suggested I didn’t understand the role of the public broadcaster. In fact I not only understand it perfectly well, but I believe in public broadcasting and have said so many times. Where I differ with Johnstone and Whitehead is in my interpretation of its role. It is not the function of the public broadcaster to act as an agent of social and political change or to promote ideological views that some of its presenters and producers think would benefit us all. In fact I would say that ultimately, the greatest threat to public broadcasting may come from those within who abuse its power and therefore undermine its standing and credibility.

Karl du Fresne is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Dominion Post. He blogs at


Steve said...
Reply To This Comment

Another excellent piece of journalism Karl. I wholeheartedly agree with your comments re RNZ. I am one of the guilty ones you refer to in having abandoned all public media and their relentless left-leaning agenda of propaganda, social engineering and brainwashing. They have become an insult to the intelligence of anyone who values free speech. The cultural diversity and bi-culturalism preached by our public media is destroying the very fabric of our nation .... it is UNITY and not diversity that has made New Zealand a strong and prosperous country.

Russell Evans said...
Reply To This Comment

As above Karl, and I thank you for remaining a sound voice among the lefty propaganda we are subjected to on a daily basis. I confess that I no longer watch or listen to any news or ourrent affairs programs, I just got so sick of the smug lefty comments from people that should be impartial on air.

Jigsaw said...
Reply To This Comment

I gave up listening to RNZ regularly long ago and disgagree with your assessment of Kathryn Ryan. Like several before her we are never left in any doubt as to her own personal political views which is bad enough as we have them explained to us over and over again but she has the same regular parade of guests of matters financial etc -again over and over again the same people and given the same uncritcal approach.
As you rightly point out 'discussions' generally have only people from the same side. Matters connected to the treaty are a case in point.
I wish that I could listen as I feel that I contribute to RNZ financially-however small it may be! However the fact is that I have come to the conclusion that the left has so perverted public broadcasting that the only solution is to sell it off. If such an organistaion should exist it should be funded on a subscription basis.
All the letters of complaint I have ever sent have either no been not replied to or acknowledged or my comments have been brushed off as not worthy of consideration.
Guyon Espiner has to be the most aggreesive and poorly controlled interviewer ever-perhaps challenged by Kim Hill who does many intereviews well but seems absolutely incapable of putting to one side her only political views and actually listening to what the interevee -like Don Brash has to say.

Anonymous said...
Reply To This Comment

I thoroughly agree with your depiction of the hosts at RNZ as left-leaning. I have not listened for some years to RNZ other than intermittently when driving about the country but on those occasions I have winced at the questions delivered to those who are seen as not "of us!". I have detected a significant swing to the left on Newstalk in recent times, which I suppose is born of the nature of "journalism" these days. Anyway, thanks for your column.

Chris Robertson.

Anonymous said...
Reply To This Comment


Lurching might have been more fitting.

Or shambling towards the nearest statue of Karl.

They're a damn disgrace, utterly useless for any kind of analysis of national or world politics, their only stance being President Trump is the devil and Russia did it.


Geoff Bourke said...
Reply To This Comment

I can't remember when I last listened to RNZ - I usually listen to the Concert Programme when driving, if it's music, but rarely to any verbal programme - especially not, if it is Kim Hill. In general, I do not bother listening to any programme which tries to tell me what to think.

Neville Male said...
Reply To This Comment

Karl Du Fresne needs to be applauded for his article on the demise of RNZ.
For over a decade the National Broadcaster has succumbed to left leaning journalism and it is no wonder many long term listeners have walked away. Messrs Johnstone and Whitehouse obviously are out of touch with reality. They were there in the good old days and should appreciate todays lowered broadcasting standards better than any one.

Dave said...
Reply To This Comment

Excellent piece on RNZ Karl, but your assumptions can be applied to practically all news media in NZ these days, apart from Leighton Smith on News Talk just about every other presenter is a solid lefty supporter.
Another slow change over the last few years has been the change from hard news to entertainment news quite evident on TV news and current affairs. Gone are educational, informative stories presenting the facts. It seems the news bosses would prefer to run stories more on an info-tainment and shock style. Look at the lead stories on TV for example followed by major international news clips of 10 to 15 seconds duration hidden somewhere later in the bulletin if at all. 7 Sharp is an embarrassment and no better than a tabloid trashy newspaper.
All of which is a sad indictment on our society if that is what rates and the majority really want. We really are dumbing down our society and it does not bode well now and for the future the average Kiwis IQ.

The Realist said...
Reply To This Comment

What I don't understand is how Guyon Espiner spouting Maori without contexture satisfies RNZ's understanding of its responsibilities towards te reo.

Peter said...
Reply To This Comment

An excellent article Karl. My letter to TVNZ on a related issue: Re: Discontinuing PRAISE BE
Our Parish has been notified that TVNZ has decided to discontinue PRAISE BE and we are deeply shocked by this announcement.
The value of this programme for viewers on the North Shore in hospitals, hotels and retirement homes, also for people on vacation, people who work difficult weekend shifts, school choirs and church groups dedicated to the role of song in our faith, and as a worthy public service, cannot be overestimated.
The programme always included valuable background on New Zealand’s local history, community development, significant architecture and festivals.
We would like details of how this decision was made and by whom.
Many other religious and cultural groups obviously will continue to benefit from support by TVNZ. So the discrepancy/exclusion is alarming.

Needless to say, their reply was evasive. The 'how' and 'by whom' never disclosed.

Anonymous said...
Reply To This Comment

My impression of the Brash - Hill interview was that Hill lacked professionalism for allowing the "battle" to get in the way of the issue. An example, being she did not seek to define "racism". Don Brash is not a racist by his definition. Others say he is, by their definition. Without nailing that point of difference, the discussion was largely two independent conversations.

During the interview, Don Brash said there were +20 Maori radio stations one could listen to if one wanted to hear Te Reo. That's true, but its also true that there are literally hundreds of radio stations that one can listen to instead of Radio NZ - Spotify offers thousands of alternatives, all Te Reo free.

I suspect that's exactly what many people are doing in response to Guyon Espiner speaking a language that is incomprehensible to most listeners - tuning out of National Radio. I personally was once a dedicated listener, but not anymore and not only because of Guyon Espiner. The problem for Radio NZ is that we are fortunate to live in a consumer democracy and it's for listeners to choose the media they accept into their lives.


Anonymous said...
Reply To This Comment

Brilliant article on TeREORNZ as I prefer to call it now,hopefully with demise of Hirschfeld it may return to its former potential of a public radio station paid for ALL New Zealanders,but not holding my breath.Seems its tainted with a lurch to the left,having total disregard to what the listeners really require,because they can,taxpayer funded,so management can give us the middle finger,with no fear of retribution.

Post a Comment

Thanks for engaging in the debate!

Because this is a public forum, we will only publish comments that are respectful and do NOT contain links to other sites. We appreciate your cooperation.

Please note - if you use the new REPLY button for comments, please start your comments AFTER the code. Also, the Blogger comment limit is 4,096 characters, so to post something longer, you may wish to use Part 1, Part 2 etc.