31 Aug 2014

Dirty Politics: warnings for the media?

10:19 am on 31 August 2014

The subtitle of Nicky Hager's much-discussed book Dirty Politics is 'How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand's political environment'. Has it also poisoned the media?

Author Nicky Hager.

Author Nicky Hager. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

When Horizon Research asked 1752 people if the media act had acted impartially with bloggers offering information, more than half said they had failed to do so.

According to Horizon Research, that means mainstream media's alleged association with political attack bloggers would be of concern to around one and half million adult New Zealanders.

One of them was the Internet Mana press officer Pam Corkery, who last weekend called reporters glove-puppets of Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater.

And another is the New Zealand Herald journalist David Fisher, who now regrets dealing with Mr Slater for stories in the past.

"It is my opinion that Slater has cultivated on his blog such a nasty environment there can be no genuine benefit in dealing with him as a source".

But as Mr Slater himself has pointed out, many journalists have been willing recipients of news tips in the past.

So will that change after Dirty Politics?

New Zealand's longest-serving broadcast news chief is TV3's Mark Jennings.

Mark Jennings – Newsroom.co.nz co-editor.

Mark Jennings – Newsroom.co.nz co-editor. Photo: MediaWorks

He said his political journalists in Wellington were not surprised by the revelations, but his Auckland staff were - including himself.

He told Mediawatch senior politicians have abused their power over information for political impact - and journalists have been caught up in politically-inspired "black ops"

"When you are offered damaging information, you've always got to ask yourself: 'What is the outcome they want here?' Perhaps they haven't asked that question enough lately".

So should journalists go public if a senior politician tries to manipulate them to damage a political rival? Would that be a better story than the one the source was trying to create?

"It is not ethical to turn on a source, says Mark Jennings. "You are better to refuse the information".

But his former political editor, Duncan Garner, did not expect reporters to turn down good scoops.

Duncan Garner  - radio Live host and former political editor of TV3.

Duncan Garner - radio Live host and former political editor of TV3. Photo: MediaWorks

"Don't underestimate how competitive journalism is. From now journalists will be more aware of who they're dealing with - and that nothing is secret or private anymore. But some journalists will continue to do business with information - no matter who it's with".

In the closing chapter of Dirty Politics, Nicky Hager said blogs like Whale Oil and David Farrar's Kiwiblog were "wholly partisan and dishonest" - and "No credible news media should use Mr Slater or Mr Farrar as commentators.

Some clearly agree.

But business journalist Pattrick Smellie - formerly a political reporter and a press secretary for finance minister Roger Douglas back in the 1980s - said there was no need for that.

"Experienced pollsters know what they're talking about and usually have a useful take on this stuff. It's not as if he writes news - he writes commentary. Every day of the week you'll see op-ed pieces by people with an axe to grind".

However, some media are becoming more wary about disclosure.

Radio New Zealand for example now refers to Mr Farrar as a National Party pollster - and Mr Farrar himself has promised changes to his blog "to improve trust in it and himself".

This week he joined the Online Media Standards Authority which will make him accountable to its code of ethics and a complaint procedure.

It will also help him distance himself from the worst elements exposed in Dirty Politics.

TV3's Mark Jennings approved:

"Accuracy and fairness will come in to play. I can't think of a better way of cleaning things up".

The network of bloggers, lobbyists, politicians and journalists exposed in Dirty Politics has now been broken, but Mark Jennings expected new ones to emerge.

"Spin merchants are in all part of society - politics, sports, fashion, you name it. We're never going to break the spin machine. But a powerful light has been shone on this and there will be some real introspection in the media".

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