Espiner: Media can't afford to take sides

New Zealand's small media market means we can't afford to take sides.

So a banker, a Daily Mail reader and a refugee are sitting at a table sharing 12 biscuits. The banker takes 11 and says to the Daily Mail reader: "Watch out for the refugee, he wants your biscuit!"

This joke is doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, and it's funny because it has a ring of truth. Britain's bastion of conservative Middle England has been beating up on refugees for eons, pandering to the fears and prejudices of its middle-class readers.

Bankers are a target because of all the hoo-ha in Britain at the moment over their margins, and a push led by a number of high- profile liberal actors - all of whom have appeared in at least one film by Richard Curtis - for a "Robin Hood" tax on financial transactions.

The Daily Mail is not alone, however, in targeting a segment of the British public with such surgical precision. Most of the British papers do it. "He probably reads the Telegraph," you'd mutter as a man in a suit clutching a briefcase dropped his children at a fee-paying school in his Range Rover.

Guardian readers are bookish, Left-wing, artists and media types who have a beef with any Conservative government and are paranoid they're being spied upon. The Sun appeals to the working poor and aspirational lower/middle class without a tertiary qualification who love their sport, distrust immigrants and are patriotic when it suits them (when England's in the World Cup final for example, or about to start a war with somebody).

The Independent once attempted to change this thinking; a relative newcomer to the British media scene, it opted for a mix of smart, sharp news with a Euro-friendly bent, heavy on arts and media but politically neutral. Of course, all that happened was a new pigeonhole was created for the Indie Reader.

When I lived in Britain I used to confound my local newsagent by buying all of the aforementioned titles. Coming from a country with far less diversity in its newspaper scene I was like a kid in a candy shop, grabbing piles of tabloids, broadsheets, and so-called compacts (basically "quality" papers that had gone tabloid but refused to use the name) and staggering home under their combined weight.

I'd probably find the trip home a bit easier these days, given the width of the typical newspaper in Britain has shrunk along with declining print fortunes around the world. But the basic premise remains: in a country with 80 million people, media can afford to offend 90 per cent of the population as long as they appeal to the other 10.

It's a similar story in Australia, where the sometimes feral Murdoch-owned press is so Right- wing that they make the Fairfax papers look positively liberal by default. At the paper I worked at, refugees were also the No 1 enemy; followed closely by the Labor Party and New Zealanders.

This probably explained the Murdoch press' fascination with the criminal exploits of ex-union boss Craig Thomson, who was both a member of the Labor Party and a Kiwi. (Ironically, the Murdoch papers employed piles of Kiwis and were unfailingly pleasant to us, beyond some ribbing about our accent.)

Things are a little different in New Zealand. Say what you will about the newspaper you are holding - or its sister publications, or indeed the vast majority of traditional media outlets - we can't afford not to appeal to the majority because our market just isn't big enough.

All of which is a rather roundabout way of getting on to the subject of ex-TVNZ broadcaster Shane Taurima, who was forced to resign last week after rival media outlet TV3 outed him as a Labour Party organiser.

"Outed" is perhaps too strong a word. Taurima had already (unsuccessfully) pursued the Labour nomination for the Ikaroa- Rawhiti by-election, stepping aside from his post at TVNZ while he did so.

Perhaps surprisingly, he was given his job back afterwards, despite making noises publicly about standing for Labour at this year's general election. So Taurima's political affiliations could hardly have been a surprise to the state broadcaster.

Neither should they matter - if handled appropriately. Of course journalists have political views and affiliations. The key is declaring them. Our media is full of examples: Paul Henry, a former National Party candidate, has his own show on TV3.

Another National Party candidate, Maggie Barrie, hosted the drive show on Radio Live before a second tilt at politics saw her elected. Willie Jackson has had a distinguished career as a broadcaster (last year's RoastBusters misstep excepted) despite being a one-time far-Left Alliance MP. Former Act MP Deborah Coddington worked for the Herald before joining the Sunday Star-Times stable of columnists.

The difference is that Taurima organised and participated at a hui for Labour and spoke about ways to get out the Maori vote for the party. He used TVNZ resources to organise for Labour. And he used the broadcaster's own offices to hold a party meeting.

TVNZ has launched an inquiry into whether Labour's tentacles reach any further into its organisation. It should be careful, however. The freedom to hold a political opinion or join a political organisation is a fundamental human right that even journalists are entitled to.

TVNZ needs to distinguish between political opinion and political activity. And to be fair, its coverage of politics is pretty much straight down the middle. Taurima himself was always fair to both sides - on camera, anyway. And that's the upside to New Zealand's lack of media diversity. It's not that we don't hold the same range of opinions you'll find elsewhere. It's just we can't afford to take sides.

Sunday Star Times