Tuesday, January 23, 2024

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 fa├žade 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, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at - where this article was sourced.


Anonymous said...

Is TVNZ a State Service. If so, and John Campbell is therefore a Public Servant, he should read the NZ Public Service Code of Conduct:

"Individual Comment (on Government Policy)
Generally, public servants have the same rights of free speech and
independence in the conduct of their private affairs as other
members of the public. However, they also have a duty not to
compromise their employer or their Minister by public criticism
of, or comment on, Government policy.
Public servants should ensure that their contribution to any public
debate or discussion on such matters is appropriate to the position
they hold, and is compatible with the need to maintain a
politically neutral Public Service. Public servants occupying senior
positions or working closely with Ministers need to exercise
particular care in this regard."

Anonymous said...

I think you nailed it. Journalism isn’t activism. He’s in the wrong job if he thinks that’s the game.

EP said...

Entirely agree - not that I ever listen to him, because I can't stand the sound of his voice (-let alone I don't use MSM) I wish someone would start a petition - I can't because I belong to the Free Speech Union - but I'd happily ditch my principles for this.

Robert Arthur said...

prsumably Karl does not fritter much time listening to RNZ for he would find numerous parallels there. How often can Boards (and esp their chair) be replaced?

Anonymous said...

It goes beyond his personal activism. It has the appearance of a coordinated strategy pulling together various individuals and organisations across the country. I would bet that there is much communication going on in the background.

Majority said...

Reading this article and the comments thereto makes me wish BreakingViewsNZ offered the opportunity for Upvotes.

Instead, an old-fashioned “hear hear” to Karl and commenters!

Anonymous said...

Labour/Ardern govt was not fair nor impartial - so its lap dog, the MSM, could not be expected to do otherwsise.

The Minister of Broadcasting ( Ms Lee) could issue a letter of warning.

The bias of Campbell and co. does massive damage to the Coalition.

Anonymous said...

Similar to the bleeding heart syndrome in Aus after failure of the YES vote.

Anonymous said...

In a way he is accelerating the decay of the MSM.
Will it even exist in 10 years given the rate of decay. Just a quick glance at the US where Trump is very likely to implode what remains of this redundant industry.

Anonymous said...

Firing a journalist will never look good. The blame sits firmly with the directors of TVNZ. They should maintain the overall balance in broadcasting - so where is the other side of the story? How many opinions reflecting non-left views have been published? Is the behavior of the Chief Correspondent consistent with his PD? These are all management issues! Absolutely agree with ED - it is time for a petition!

Anonymous said...

Suggest close down (not sell) TVNZ and RNZ and recoup money from sale of associated assets to repay government debt. Even tabling the idea would wake a few people up!

Anonymous said...

TVNZ is bias and left leaning. Not exactly a news flash.

Anonymous said...

Does Luxon ever read Breaking Views?
It should be compulsory reading for him over his breakfast.
Then maybe he will understand the angry mood of NZ

Anonymous said...

Also the tvnz board should be held accountable for enabling this to occur. Time for a new board imo, as the current lot have a very nasty agenda.

DeeM said...

There's only one John Campbell question?

When is he being made TVNZ's special overseas correspondent to Yemen?
Send him in first class, strapped to a tomahawk missile. His career will really end with a bang.

Anonymous said...

John Campbell has always been a left leaning whiner .he often reminds me of a geriatric slobbering labrador who always wants to lick your hand!personally i have no time for him,hes long past his use by date like a few of TV1 hacks.

Anonymous said...

I'm not even aware of John Campbell's reporting or 'activism' because I don't watch the news, anymore. The irrelevance of NZ's MSM became apparent quite a while ago, so I switched it off.

This summer, I came across a book 'Stop Reading The News' by a Swiss author, Rolf Dobelli. So refreshing, and highly recommended. Not easy to buy a hard-copy in NZ, but a Kindle version is easily sought. The tide on the MSM is rapidly going out.

Anonymous said...

Stop all funding for Public Radio RNZ and TVNZ .
Also Maori radio and Television and NZ on Air.
These organizations were established when there were no alternatives, now with podcasts and on line platforms we don't need them anymore.
The above organizations have been so radicalized and corrupt they are beyond fixing anyway.
The hundreds of millions saved would be better spent on health.

Anonymous said...

We remember when John Campbell interviewed the "perpetrator" of the theft of medals from a military museum. All fake. Campbell made it up. Then his attack on estate agent Wayne Heron regarding a house sale in Te Aroha. Campbell is evil, a menace, and nothing coming from his mouth is good.

Anonymous said...

The PIJF should be ceased forthwith as it was motivated by the last government's decision to have the media push the government line in exchange for huge funding to help them through the Covid lockdowns. Much of the media (print, radio, television) is beholden to the PIJF for their very existence. If they're worthy of the responsibility and privilege placed in them, they will survive, perhaps even thrive without the political interference.

Anonymous said...

Campbell must be the most disingenuous, over the top gushy reporter I've ever heard. Any thinking person must surely know he's full of himself and not much else.

Anonymous said...

I record the TV1 News at 6pm and view it later, fast forwarding to check for serious items, then watch the weather report. Commentary is irrelevant. Any Government only needs to convey regulatory controls of impartiality to the State owned broadcasters. That would then apply to every reporter, without distinction. Report the events and leave opinions to the privately owned media. Then the viewers have a choice.

Anonymous said...

Karl, keep fighting the fight for the good against what is the evil left. Their agenda is very nasty and the people elected by the left to implement the agenda are mostly truely disgusting individuals. I wonder who will come out of the woodwork next disgraced.....?

Anonymous said...

Well Karl, you certainly seem to know how to push people's buttons and that activities of the effusive leftie, John Campbell, certainly does polarise people.

I, like many, immediately switch channels, or completely off at any utterances from the fawning little creep. The TVNZ management need to rein him in, or all face the sack. If any tears were to be shed, it would only likely be over the money these incredibly partisan prats have cost us all.

Anonymous said...

Journalism has gone to the dogs and those to the fore of our MSM have long-since taken the place of tax collectors and used car salesmen at the top of the disliked profession table. Good investigative journalism which I regard as the pinnacle of that profession is now rare and instead of reporting, we now get opinion pieces where the reporter's biased opinion is presented as the irrefutable truth. It is the main reason why so many have long abandoned TVNZ and Three News, daily newspapers and Stuff.
I haven't seen Campbells antics post-election but can well imagine that he is performing, as usual, like a trained seal. The man is a buffoon. You have rightly pointed out that he is obviously acting in clear breach of the Public Service Code of Conduct and should be appropriately censured, as should his bosses who are tacitly complicit.
As usual, Karl, a very good summary.

Rob said...

Unfortunately, journalistic integrity and objectivity went out the door with the Liebour Party's PIJF and the acceptance of conditional funding from same by MSM. Sadly the corruption continues with most so called journalists simply using this as a platform to express and advertise their own left wing biases at the expense of credibility, and impartiality. It is time the new Government put an end to state funding of all media organisations including RNZ et al and let them sink or swim on their individual merits and efforts. Let the public and the commercial world decide who the survivors are to be! The likes of Campbell are simply tired, and sensationalist , media hacks and hand wringers who are well past their "use by" dates. I hesitate to use the term "journalists" to describe any of them, because most have lost sight of the meaning of the word!

Anonymous said...

The problem was clear years ago when the odious man cried on air over losing his job and he should have been pilloried and Deep Sixed then. The trouble now is that as "democracies" sink into UniParty anarchy "journalists" have clearly chained themselves to this and into the deep they go.