17 Jun 2020

Midweek Mediawatch - Covid's compassionate comeback

From Mediawatch, 6:00 pm on 17 June 2020

Mediawatch's weekly catch-up with Lately. This week Colin talks to Karyn Hay about a Fawlty woke joke that turned out not to be a Major, some deep and troubling stuff from Stuff - and how the comeback of COViD-19 didn't bother broadcasters who urged more compassion from the government.  

Covid-19 comeback - with compassionate cause  

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Photo: screenshot

The big news on Tuesday was two new cases of Covid-19. 

Two women were given permission to leave their hotel nine days after arriving from the UK to travel to Wellington to visit their dying parent. They have since both tested positive for the coronavirus. There was also the case of two teens who fled a funeral and went awol

The health minister temporarily suspended all compassionate exemptions.

It was no laughing matter but former Herald editor Tim Murphy - with tongue in cheek - suggested a reprise of the Herald’s ‘PANDEMONIUM’ headline it ran the day we had our first case back in March. 

The Herald resisted the temptation - but did re-up this piece from 2018 Driving Auckland-Wellington on a single tank of gas - in response to claims the couple concerned make the trip without using “any public facilities.” 

On Wednesday, that story has moved on considerably with Michael Woodhouse's "kiss and cuddle" claims - and the PM calling in the NZDF to run quarantine.

Newshub tonight revealed a series of Covid protocol breaches - including an exclusive by Newshub’s Michael Morrah about a group of around 10 people, who were in quarantine in Christchurch, were allowed out early to attend a burial with more than 150 people on Tuesday.

Announcing the news of the new cases on Tuesday, director of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield had a hints of ‘I told you so’ in his voice when he said:  

"Today's news underscores the recent decision to not grant exemptions for funerals and tangihanga,"  

He and the government copped a lot flak for the initial refusal to grant compassionate exemptions - and there was some strident opinionising by big name broadcasters. 

On The Project on May 5, Patrick Gower asked quarantined woman Hannah McBeth to send a message directly to the PM. 

"I know what it is like to be with a loved one with terminal illness. We must not deprive people of this. Change the rules tomorrow," he told viewers.(Hannah later got an exemption and Patrick Gower tweeted thanks to the government.

Patrick Gower did say a test result should be a pre-condition to exemptions (a rule only put in place on June 9) but others simply called on the government to have more "heart". 

The same day on Newstalk ZB, Heather Du Plessis-Allan talked about a woman in quarantine in a hotel in Auckland whose mum was dying but was also denied an exemption. She said the government and health ministry were "heartless" had "no empathy" and were "the stupidest public servants in the world”. 

The next day Newstalk ZB’s political editor Barry Soper on May 6 said in the Herald

“If we accept it's permissible to allow someone to die alone, it's a democracy that I'm not happy to live in. New Zealand is surely better than this.”

None of these broadcasters has had much to say about the Covid-free status being compromised because of compassionate exemptions they called for.   

The closest we could find was Heather Du Plessis-Allan on her show on Tuesday

“I just can’t understand how the system allows people out of managed isolation and quarantine without a negative test,” she said.

It's pretty much what she was urging for from "heartless and stupid bureaucrats" to do last month without delay to maximise time spent with loved ones.  

The day before the new Covid cases were revealed, Du Plessis-Allan's daily editorial argued we must capitalise on our Covid-free status:    

"Now’s the time to take risks and make that expensive lockdown pay for itself as much as it can."

She meant political risks - not health ones - but the compassionate exemptions were one case where health authorities were taking a risk she and others had called for - and look what happened.

Amid the layoffs - new jobs for reporters

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This week, TVNZ became the latest big media company to announce major post-Covid-19 job cuts, but last week there was one bright spot for journalists’ jobs. In its most recent newsletter, New Zealand On Air announced  - in a pretty low-key way - a funding boost to the Local Democracy Reporting Service.  

The LDRS was set up as a pilot scheme last year with $1m from NZOA’s Joint Innovation Fund, which was established by the government in the 2018 Budget to create “more public media content for under-served audiences”.

Then the fund was scrapped just after the LDRS got underway, throwing the whole project into doubt. 

Eight reporters were recruited for newspaper newsrooms around the country in its first year, reporting on local institutions like councils, community boards, council-owned businesses, trusts and health boards. RNZ administers the scheme and its appointments. 

RNZ, the country’s main newspaper publishers and small local publishers can all use the stories and content they create.   

The broadcasting minister had already signaled it would be beefed up as part of its post-Covid investment in media sustainability. But the funding decision means the scheme is now entrenched and lifting the funding to $1.5m will mean four more reporter posts around the country can be created. 

It’s a pragmatic part-solution to the problem of under-reported news in many regions - but it means many papers are now reliant on public funding for reporters. And the fact that such an ad-hoc solution has had to be found by banding together RNZ, New Zealand on Air and newspaper publishers shows how untidy public media funding has become.

Meanwhile in Australia, the news boss of their public broadcaster the ABC, Gaven Morris, pointed out this week that even his relatively well-funded and nationally-present operation needs functioning local newspaper journalism around the country to keep the news ecosystem alive - and it's under threat from a wave of closures and titles going online-only and publishing a lot less news as a consequence. 

Deep - and troubling

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Photo: screenshot / Stuff

A five-strong Stuff team has produced an excellent and data-rich multimedia explainer about unemployment and how it will probably hit parts of the workforce which have never experienced it before. 

Part three is a timely analysis of existing ethnic disparities which the auhtors argue will be made even more stark by the the government's interventions so far.

“There is a phrase circulating that the Covid recession is a great leveller. That’s just not true, I’m sorry. It is not a great leveller at all.” - Economist Michael Fletcher

Fawlty's woke joke not really a major

Last weekend this appeared in Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Herald in Australia  - by veteran columnist Paul Glesson about the Black Lives Matter protests: 

The use of ‘negroes’ prompted a lot of outrage among journalists on social media  and online petitions demanding is sacking. But no major news outlet there reported it as news.   

Ironically the rest of that double-page spread was taken up with opinion piece responses about another ‘out of time’ use of derogatory language: the Major using the N word (and a W one) in the ‘Don’t mention the war episode of Fawlty Towers dating back to 1978 - a bona-fide comedy classic. 

Both were much younger female reporters - Claire Harvey and Anneke Smehthurst - and both argued you shouldn’t judge old comedy by the standards of today. 

The prompt for this was reports from the UK that UKTV (available here on Sky) had cut the ‘offending’ scene from the version it occasionally airs - because of heightened sensitivity in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. (UKTV subsequently backtracked on that)

Major Gowen in the now nororious scene from Fawlty Towers.

This isn't a new story though. Photo: screenshot / YouTube

Every few years UK tabloids have beaten up ‘PC gone mad’ stories about alleged efforts to censor this classic comedy episode. 

The best rebuttal was from British arts historian and writer Mark Lawson back in 2013: Fawlty Towers isn't racist. Major Gowen is.

Lawson points out that it is clearly an anti-racist joke lampooning the ingrained and out-of-date racism of older elites in the UK.   

TVNZ reported on this on Monday, also wrapping up other post-BLM cleansing of the archives around the world. Reporter Kim Baker-Wilson put TVNZ itself in the spotlight.    

"In a statement, a TVNZ spokesperson said while the New Zealand broadcaster has not "identified specific shows or episodes that need to be removed from our channels or platforms right now, we’re open to having an ongoing dialogue with our viewers about what they want to see and what needs to be rethought."

Kim's piece was illustrated with a couple of brief scenes of Jon Gadsby in blackface alongside David McPhail in a political M&G sketch from the 80s. 

It remains to be seen if viewers want that expunged from the archives on the off-chnace it would ever be screened again. 

Tweet of the week - good: 

RNZ's Jo Moir gently pointed out to Speaker Trevor Mallard that tweeting his delight about one of Tuesday's 'shovel ready' projects breached the government's own embargo on the information - a breach a reporter would be hauled over the coals for: 

Tweet of the week - bad: 

Why - in tight times for the media - is publicly-funded NZ on Screen handing out $$$$ to prompt us to vote on old bits of Kiwiana TV? We either care enough to play the game - or we don't.