Scooped: The Politics and Power of Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Martin Hirst, Sean Phelan and Verica Rupar (AUT Media, 2012) 232 pp. $39.99.
As universities have moved to take over journalist training, a rift has developed between the expectations of traditionally trained journalists and the culture of the academy. Old-school newspaper sub-editors and reporters are likely to grit their teeth in rage as they hear members of university journalism departments pontificate about their industry in a simplified, deterministic and reductive way that packages journalism into ‘concepts’.
Scooped, however, does acknowledges that rift, and its presentation illustrates it nicely. It mixes the turgid and insular prose of academics trying to rack up research credits with tales by working journalists who have learned to see behind the story by pounding pavements or making phone calls, and talking to the people involved.
In their introduction, the editors do acknowledge that contemporary cultural politics about what journalism is, and what it should be, are ‘often fraught’ with misunderstandings or misinterpretations, and even subject to capture by communities of interest, lobby groups and clever spin doctors, creating problems for the ideals of an impartial journalism.
They rightly detect a traditional aversion to self-consciously intellectual and theoretical investigations into journalistic culture and practice locally, but then insist, with pointy-headed enthusiasm, that they are here with this publication to offer ‘new theoretical and analytical perspectives on the condition of journalism and the public sphere in Aotearoa New Zealand’ Do they manage to justify the case for their ‘new perspectives’? Up to a point, Lord Copper, to borrow a diplomatic phrase from Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.
Once you get used to the dense and clinging thicket of references and footnotes hedging their introduction, it’s possible to see that the Hirst, Phelan and Rupar ensemble have come up with some useful insights, even if they conclude by flannelling on about the ‘digital revolution’, oblivious to the obvious boredom this would engender in every reader who hasn’t been buried under a rock in the Gobi Desert for the past decade.
And in fact, having read the introduction, the book ahead actually seemed like depressing heavy weather, until I took a took a tip from a colleague and read the bits I wanted to first, before going back read the bits I felt I should read to fulfil the brief of writing a comprehensive review.
Journalist-turned-journalism-lecturer Richard Pamatatau’s telling of the frustrations at reporting Pacific news for Radio New Zealand resonated with my own experiences reporting Maori news there a decade earlier. Apart from being asked to bring some tapa cloth in to give the newsroom a ‘Pacific feel’, his feeling that his reporting was expected to fit with mainstream New Zealand’s stereotypes about the Pacific showed little had changed since RNZ disbanded its specialist vernacular news service.
Pamatatau summarises what counts as Pacific news as ‘festivals, famines and silence’. That means capsule commentaries on happy kids in costume at Pasifika, or citing the Pacific Island angle in stories about obesity, low wage rates or crime, but leaving Pacific voices out of the conversation on wider political and social issues. This is intellectual laziness on the part of the institutional status quo in reporting on a dynamic and evolving community.
His points on the widespread snarkiness and disrespect shown in reporting on the late king of Tonga, for example, are well made, and remind me of a question soberly put to me not so long ago by a senior Maori journalist about a certain notorious column by Paul Holmes: ‘When did it become okay to be racist again?’
Finlay Macdonald does a not-quite-kiss-and-tell on his years at the New Zealand Listener, but is obviously irked by his successor, quipping that for a long time before her tenure the magazine had been ‘the house journal of the Alliance Party.’ He argues that a trawl through the back issues reveals a comprehensive spread of opinion, and a better description of its historical thrust would be ‘sceptical and non-conformist’. An instructive comparison might have been drawn – though perhaps can be inferred – with the current regime’s devotion to social alarmism, personal therapy and political conformity.
And speaking of dumbing down, Selywn Manning offers a fascinating study of the undermining of quality local journalism in south Auckland by the New Zealand Herald, now giving rein to its tabloid urges, before going on to reflect on his subsequent shift into the complexities of electronic journalism, in particular his involvement with the online website Scoop. The last word, creditably, is given to Nicky Hager, whom the Dominion Post has loftily declared not a journalist ‘in the common definition of the craft’. He is, in my book, and his involvement with Wikileaks shows he is at the vanguard of changes affecting the practice of news. His analysis of the impact of public relations on news should shame many in the media, but it’s actually here where the footnotes that blight some of the more academic contributors’ efforts like incontinent blots would come in handy.
For example, the editors should have demanded a clear reference for his assertion that the campaign against the Clark Labour government’s plan to impose a carbon tax was orchestrated by one particular Wellington PR/lobby firm currently funded by the coal industry. Now there’s a story.
The newspapers where ADAM GIFFORD has worked no longer exist, or have changed almost beyond recognition. He now freelances in print and radio.