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Gotcha! Journalism

By billralston May 16th, 2012

Having worked in television, radio, print and online media for over thirty years, before retiring gracelessly into public relations and communications consultancy, I can say from bitter experience that the media can get a little precious when it feels it is being criticised. Very precious.

In such cases the media can be so thin-skinned as to be transparent.

The NZ Herald and Dominion Post/Fairfax became positively hysterical this week when Prime Minister John Key voiced his opinion of them on Leighton Smith’s Newstalk ZB programme.

He suggested, “The media are in a more aggressive and hostile mood towards us [National], I am not bent out of shape about that, I expected that.”

The Herald headlined its resulting story as an “attack” by Key. Fairfax’s Stuff.co.nz for a while ran a picture of Key headlined with the words “Poor me.” Words he never used and meanings that he specifically ruled out in the substance of the interview.

Talking of increased media criticism of his government Key said, “I don’t mean that as a complaint, I’m not moaning about it, it’s just a statement of fact.”

Fairfax’s Vernon Small ran a story headlined “Key bemoans ‘hostile’ media.”

Didn’t he actually say, “I’m not moaning about it”? Yes, actually, he did.

In both cases of apparently wilfully misrepresenting what he said, it almost seemed like the Herald and Fairfax were determined to prove John Key’s point for him.

The thrust of what John Key said on ZB was that, after a long honeymoon in the first term, the media were becoming more antagonistic in the second term and, if he won a third, it would increase. “History shows you it’s even more aggressive,” he stated.

Hardly an “attack” or even a “criticism”, let alone an example of “Key slamming the media”, as the Herald subsequently wrote.

Key ventured his opinion that the Herald was becoming more tabloid in format and content to boost sales, describing the Herald front page as “a pretty sensational sort of front page and that’s a deliberate strategy to get more sales at the dairy.”

The Herald’s Editor in Chief, Tim Murphy, tweeted later that day, “More sensational ‘so-called investigative journalism’ coming to your broadsheet Herald Wed. Good yarn. Might even inspire a purchase at the dairy…”

That comment made it difficult not to believe there was some malice in Wednesday’s enormous front-page story, “Minister’s high life”, subtitled “We’re paying for flash hotels … and laundry.”

The story revealed that cabinet ministers Murray McCully, Tim Groser and Jonathan Coleman, when travelling, were getting their underpants, socks and shirts washed at public expense. Shock! Horror!

Strangely enough, in the past, I’ve travelled overseas with Herald journalists and I’ve noticed their employer appeared to be paying their laundry bill. Perhaps the Herald will now set an example by not paying for its staff’s laundry bills when abroad and the government will follow suit.

Although the spectre of Murray McCully or Coleman washing their smalls in their hotel room hand basins is too awful to behold.

McCully and Groser were taken to task for running up travel bills and staying in expensive hotels. They are the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Trade. They have to travel. It’s part of their jobs. They end up staying in expensive hotels because that is usually where the talks are being held and the other delegations are staying. What are they supposed to do? Check out and stay in a backpackers?

This week McCully goes to North America for a series of international meetings and Groser is off to Washington DC for a conference. Both should cancel their meetings, stay home, and do everything by Skype. It would be much cheaper. FFS!

Wednesday’s Herald front page was a classic “Gotcha!” story and a superb illustration of the sensationalism practiced recently by the paper. His comments were no more an “attack” than what Dr Brian Edwards and I have been saying on the media panel on TV3’s The Nation on Sunday mornings over the past couple of weeks.

To reassure the Herald’s Shane Currie and Tim murphy, and the delicate flowers at Fairfax, I am not “attacking” or “slamming” them. Like Key, I’m just stating facts.

The media’s role is often to be “hostile, aggressive and antagonistic” to governments and politicians when they merit it. That comes with the job of being the “Fourth Estate”. I was once so hostile, aggressive and antagonistic” that Prime Minister Jim Bolger banned me from his press conferences.

It is the media’s job to apply scrutiny, to critique, and to commentate on events and individuals. It is just a shame that it cannot stand it when others do the same to them.

Message to Media: Stop being so pathetically thin-skinned and get on with the job.

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