Laws: Journalists can't handle the truth

MICHAEL LAWS
Last updated 05:00 04/08/2013
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HUNTING AS A PACK: Parliament's press gallery is rife with competing egos and God complexes, says Michael Laws.

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OPINION: One of the great dichotomies of democracy is that we don't trust those that we elect to lead us. This does not stop us getting very passionate and involved every electoral cycle. We have one of the highest electoral turnouts in the Western world.

The same point might be made of the relationship between the New Zealand news media and the public. We are avid consumers of news - we just don't trust the people charged with managing that information.

There's good reason for this. Politicians have acquired an unenviable reputation for promising sunshine and delivering rain. Journalists, for reporting the rain as snow. Charged with delivering the truth, they deliver their own version. It's the final scene of Orwell's Animal Farm made post-modern.

The best example of this is the parliamentary press gallery - a gaggle of competing egos, and any number suffering a God complex. TV3's Patrick Gower was a perfect example last week, claiming that his job "is to hold the Government accountable . . . we're the eyes and ears of the public".

No, it isn't. And no, he's not. His job is not to act as judge and jury - it is to relay the facts and let us make up our own minds. That's the fatal misstep that so many journalists make: they really do believe that they're our moral arbiters and secular priests.

They are over-sensitive to any criticism or to having the same principles applied to them. Gower's employers, for example, wanted me sacked from my job as a radio talkback host, because I had the temerity to contribute a column in this newspaper, criticising their news staff objectivity over the John Key-John Banks "teagate" affair.

Indeed the problem with the whole parliamentary press gallery last week was that they refuse to have the same principles applied to them as they sought to apply to others.

In arguing that the Henry inquiry was snooping on one of its own, Andrea Vance, they forget that theirs is a vocation that regularly invades the privacy of New Zealanders. That regularly employs unethical practices to acquire information - that actively encourages the illegal leaking of confidential information. And yet habitually claims the moral high ground.

There's also something of a piranha mentality at play. If there's the faintest hint of blood in the water, the whole pack is at play. And there's an audacious hypocrisy at play. I'm told numerous Official Information Act requests came from journalists - many from the parliamentary press gallery - seeking exactly the same information as Parliamentary Services provided to the Henry inquiry. If the press had obtained it, they would all have published.

A couple of years ago, fellow Sunday Star-Times columnist Andrea Vance wrote a fascinating account of her time as a News of the World reporter. She described the high pressure tactics and threats that were routine in trying to prise information from reluctant members of the public.

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In the past five years, I've both witnessed and experienced similar tactics here. And they clearly win those practitioners media awards - such as the New Zealand Herald's David Fisher, the current Canon Media Awards reporter of the year.

So when the parliamentary press gallery tries to claim the moral high ground, it is never an easy climb. Especially when their latest mini-scandal has all the hallmarks of a cock-up.

After all, it's hardly Watergate.

- Sunday Star Times

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