Some journalists don't want a free press

New Zealand media bosses are worrying about the financial viability of news yet don’t seem to be losing any sleep over the collapse of quality journalism.

They have a lot on their plate with the advertising world dominated by Facebook and Google. Maybe it will help if Silicon Valley has to stump up cash to pay for the news industry it destroyed.

The other big hope is taxpayer handouts.

Nobody talks about how many media outlets and journalists have forsaken free speech, objectivity, and balance in favour of promoting a woke ideology they hope will appeal to young consumers sought by advertisers.

In considering the economic situation, and the appalling state of some (not all) journalism - is media worth saving?

A free flow of information is becoming rarer, with blockages even here in New Zealand.

Increasingly, our media is promoting narratives about what should be true and what drew attention on Twitter, rather than reporting the world as it is and trying to explain it.

Objectivity has been out of vogue for a long time - but the slide against free speech, or at least a nuanced view of the concept is more recent (I would argue in the past three years).

A desire for drama and the need to feed into accepted narratives, along with peer pressure have always been factors in journalism. But it’s getting harder to refute that some New Zealand media people are picking sides in the culture wars.

Journalists are on the hunt for people who disagree with the narrative – the message underlying reportage - with some seeing fascists, racists, and white supremacists at every turn. Admittedly this is mostly in opinion articles and is an accepted part of the free flow of information. But this one-sidedness can drift into the news.

The heart for free speech might still be ticking. But too often debates have been shuffled into an ideological cubby hole of “problematical thinking” by journalists – Goodies and Baddies.

It is not rare to find journalists who agree with Cancel Culture and that fashionable but contentious views must not be challenged. 

Political views are obligated to be balanced, especially during an election campaign.

But for most of the year we have seen stories that promote one side of the story.

This is due to two factors. The first is a condition in media standards that balance is not required for individual stories. But over an extended period, we used to see many perspectives on a topic. The fact is with some topics today, the media will only cover the one side.

News stories will inevitably focus on one angle. That is how it works. But (call me old fashioned) the expectation for a balancing paragraph - even at the tail-end of a story - has lapsed.

Secondly, New Zealand journalism has tended to favour authority. Think back to the days of media being obliged to oppose workers in the 1951 Waterfront Lockout. But authority now is represented by university-inspired elite philosophy that is essentially middle class and just as divorced from many Kiwi’s everyday reality as those who opposed the workers of 1951.

This trend is killing free speech both internationally and here.

The former editor in chief of the NZ Herald - Gavin Ellis - wrote in Newsroom:

"It is time for New Zealand media to shift to adversity journalism.”

“This will require journalists and news organisations to see themselves as part of the national effort to defeat the enemy and not as dispassionate observers.”

Yeah, Nah.

I'd also like journalists to remain focused on scrutinising a burgeoning new authoritarian state - rather than expend energy dobbing in people spotted outside their designated neighbourhoods during the lockdown.

Media should not be ignoring a growing mood to censorship within the profession along dwindling support for free speech.

Then there is Cancel Culture – a global trend of media tacitly supporting moves by activist groups to de-platform people who say things they don't like, often resulting in firings.  It may not have happened here, but we can expect it in short time.

The highest profile campaign was against the Harry Potter author JK Rowling who made the “dangerous” comment that men cannot literally become women just by saying so.

Stuff added some balance to its dubious coverage after I lodged an official complaint. The gender issue and its attempts to shut down naysayers is the canary in the coalmine for attacks on free speech.

Indeed, in my opinion Stuff is the worst offender in regard to wokeness and one-sided stories. Some will tell you such views on pervasive lack of balance are paranoid - that talk of woke agendas and Cancel Culture are part of the same Right-Wing conspiracy that gave us white privilege. According to this view journalists must intervene to set us all straight – there is nothing to see here.

But many journalists will tell you sotto-voce that there are some views that are not acceptable in newsrooms – red button issues like gender, race and immigration. The problem is said to be advanced at Stuff and Radio New Zealand. But as George Orwell wrote, “Journalism is printing what someone does not want published, everything else is public relations.

The appearance of a new, freewheeling and largely uncensored private discussion group on Facebook, “The Press Club”, gives an aerial view on the rocky landscape for free speech for New Zealand journalist circles. One senior journalist had a nuanced view that his mission was to provide free speech to underprivileged minorities and groups who were otherwise shut out. While wealthy people like JK Rowling had the resources to have their views aired, trans people, people of colour, Indigenous people, and recent immigrants, too, should be able to speak without being further marginalised by privileged people.

Another high-profile journalist on the page was unhappy journalists were group traversing the trans-gender issue. It was dangerous, ill-informed, bigoted, transphobic, while hiding it behind some kind of “free speech” or “bad journalism” ideology. The journalist withdrew from the discussion group over the issue. They are entitled to their opinion, but I was still shocked a journalist would quit a group of their peers because it didn’t conform to a specific, and contentious ideological position.  

To me this runs counter to the spirit of journalism, and liberalism. 

Author: John Drinnan