NBR stands by coverage of govt's ‘infotainment stunt’
NBR stands by its reporting of the government’s Christchurch rebuild plan last Monday (July 30).
This website reported details of the city’s new blueprint at 5.15pm, and Sky’s Prime TV followed at 5.30pm – both ahead of the official news release time of 6pm.
The move prompted Interest managing editor Bernard Hickey to write to the government, requesting that NBR be banned from under-embargo briefings, such as those given for the budget, and Reserve Bank updates.
NBR supports embargoes for the budget and similar market-moving briefings. The process allows journalists to study information in-depth before everybody publishes at the same time – a process that prevents a publish-first frenzy, and potential misinformation.
But NBR reporter Chris Hutching – who wrote the Christchurch blueprint story in question – says Monday’s briefing was “an abuse of the embargo convention.”
With most of the plan (by Mr Browlee’s own admission) broad brush, conceptual and uncosted, there was only one hard news angle: the compulsory acquisition of land.
Mr Hutching had covered that story days before - not through a government briefing, but by talking to sources.
“This was pure political theatre," Mr Hutching says.
Canterbury University journalism lecturer Jim Tully agrees, telling Radio New Zealand’s Media Watch yesterday:
“There are two kinds of embargoes: those that are inherently worthy and should be honoured and those set up to give preference to certain media and/or highlight an event or launch. In those circumstances, journalists should do everything in their power to subvert it”
MediaWatch presenter Colin Peacock noted there was some irritation from journalists that the Christchurch briefing appeared to be pitched as a party with “join us for a celebration” invites sent to selected journalists.
For an official embargo, such as a budget briefing, details are sent to editors, who in turn assign reporters.
“Many feared the 6pm embargo tailored to the needs of the 6pm news,” Mr Peacock said.
The fears seemed justified.
Mr Peacock went on:
“Irritation in the media rose as the clock ticked to 6pm and the Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee addressed the audience… seemed to be sure precisely what 6 o’clock news viewers at home were about to see.”
It started to look more and more like carefully crafted hoopla, and less and less like a serious lockup.
MediaWatch played a recording of Mr Brownlee addressing the audience.
“What I do need to let you know is that the big event, which will come just a few minutes after 6 o’clock when the prime minister will come back on the stage and on cue he’ll have a few things to say and that will be going out live over both TV1 and TV3 in their news bulletins and it will cutaway to a flyover that is quite a magnificent representation of what the city has been, what it’s been through and what it could be.”
Once the TV news shows were under way mayor Bob Parker joked with the prime minister. “I could be the floor manager?”
Mr Hutching had not waited around to be stage-managed.
But in terms of news coverage, the strategy worked. One News offered uncritical coverage of the Christchurch blueprint, MediaWatch said.
Like 3News, it only spoke to three property developers hand-picked to attend the event – all of whom sung the plan’s praises (TV3 did also note there was a protest outside. Both networks later followed up with harder coverage).
Mr Hutching had interviewed CBD landowners who had concerns about the plan.
Reaction to his “embargo breaking” was vitriolic from public relations staff, he says.
“The PR people must have put a lot of time and effort into lining up their ducks.”
But the earthquake recovery minister took things with better humour.
“I don’t think Brownlee himself, who I saw later in the evening, was as worried as his underlings,” Mr Hutching says.
“He made a joke about it and said, ‘Hutch, we might have to do a Muldoon on you' [a reference to Tom Scott being banned from the former prime minister's press conferences for asking questions outside the official agenda]."
RAW DATA: Listen to Huching, Tully and Hickey on MediaWatch here (the NBR discussion begins at 2 minutes 30 seconds into the clip).