NZ POLITICS DAILY: The Debate about a debate, and media bias

Bryce Edwards

Mike Hosking is the latest in a long line of media professionals, political journalists, and commentators to be accused of inappropriate political bias. The latest allegations and complaints come from the Labour Party about TVNZ’s decision to use Hosking to chair its election leaders’ debates – see Andrea Vance’s original story, Labour claims Hosking's biased. For even more details, see also, Claire Trevett’s Cunliffe may boycott leaders' debate over Hosking

There seems to be a particularly strong sensitivity in this election year to possibilities of partisan bias. Such sensitivities were obviously fuelled by the saga of TVNZ’s Shane Taurima and his Labour Party electoral ambitions. But there have also been strong complaints and allegations about others such as Patrick Gower, Duncan Garner, Julian Wilcox, Linda Clark, and John Armstrong. It seems that anyone with a strong opinion or analysis is in the gun at the moment. 

For the most interesting and thoughtful investigation of the latest ‘bias’ debate, see the blog post by Geoffrey Miller: Moderator “bias” in TV leaders’ debates – Mike Hosking vs John Campbell. Miller compares the alleged partisan bias of the two election debate moderators for TVNZ and TV3 – looking especially at some of the statements made by John Campbell back in 2003 – and arrives at the conclusion that both broadcasters are in a similar situation. 

Miller believes we should be a bit more relaxed about open bias: ‘There are remarkable similarities between both cases. Finding any difference is akin to splitting hairs. Labour must know it is on shaky ground, and for that reason I think it will not ultimately boycott a debate hosted by Mike Hosking.  In fact, perhaps we should be very grateful to both Mike Hosking and John Campbell. Unlike others in the media, they have openly revealed their partisan leanings. If you, as a viewer but more importantly as a voter, watch the TV debates and detect bias on the part of either moderator, you can take account of that.  We would be ill-served by moderators who claim, impossibly, that they are completely objective’. 

For some similar points, see Jono Natusch’s Mike Hosking is not a thing that matters, and David Farrar’s Labour doesn’t want Hosking

Another very strong argument in favour of accepting and appreciating political bias comes from rightwing commentator Liam Hehir, who puts forward the notion of Bias in the eye of the beholder. Not only does Hehir defend giving Labour a hard time in the media, but he points to strong evidence that those who scream ‘media bias!’ are really just being conditioned by the ‘hostile media effect’ noted in a landmark Standford University study of media consumption. 

Newstalk ZB’s Felix Marwick also takes such allegations of media bias head on, saying: ‘Another conspiracy theory doing the rounds is that there's a media conspiracy against David Cunliffe and the Labour Party. Namely a corporate media is at the National Party's beck and call. I hate to disillusion the tinfoil hat wearers on this, but it too is a load of codswallop. The real truth is that six years of poor performance and slack discipline in party ranks results in a turnoff for voters’ – see: Conspiracy theories

Hosking under attack

Myles Thomas of the Coalition for Better Broadcasting details some of Hosking’s highly political quotes, and complains: ‘Choosing a debate moderator with public links to the ruling party would be expected in Russia or China. But this is New Zealand, a western democracy where journalists are expected to be impartial, and to hold the ruling party to account’ – see: Mike Hosking for PM?

There’s now an online petition which is Calling to have Mike Hosking dropped from moderating the political debates. One of the signatories, mischievously calling themselves ‘John Campbell’ leaves an explanation for signing the petition: ‘Because I want the job!!’

So if TVNZ dumped Hosking, who would replace him in the debates? Stephanie Rodgers of The Standard has an answer: ‘I have a serious suggestion: Rachel Smalley. I’m no fan of her thoughts about the size of Kiwi women’s butts, but she’s an obvious choice for TVNZ: a talented, respected interviewer who’s already on your payroll, who makes for engaging, intelligent television’ – see: Everything in moderation….

But if TVNZ and Hosking stand their ground, Martyn Bradbury has what he reckons will be The list of questions Mike Hosking will use in first TVNZ leader debate.

To get an idea of Hosking’s strong opinions, see his two most recent blog posts for Newstalk ZB, Cunliffe looks like he's given up, and School zoning just a real estate peg.

Labour’s response to Hosking

So should David Cunliffe and Labour boycott TVNZ’s debates? Labour activist Phil Quin says ‘no’, saying that Cunliffe could benefit from being the underdog and the victim of the perception of dealing with a hard or unfair debate – see: Mike Hosking & the benefit of low expectations

Radio New Zealand’s Brent Edwards also says that ‘On one hand Labour has a point. But is it worth giving the news media another distraction to focus on rather than – as Mr Cunliffe said Labour would earlier in the week - on the issues that really matter to voters?’ – see: Power play

It’s worth noting that TVNZ in its own reporting of the story, also draw attention to the fact that ‘Cunliffe promised he would focus on the core issues’ and that this issue might be seen as yet another distraction – see: Labour leader may boycott TVNZ leaders' debate

Furthermore, it could look rather weak of Cunliffe to now boycott the debates after having previously vowed to debate John Key ‘anytime, any place, anywhere, I'll even do it on Mike Hosking's show’ – see Claire Trevett’s Cunliffe's Hosking debate contradictions.

In general, Labour’s Josie Pagani puts forward the argument this week that Labour needs to stop focusing on the media as the cause of its problems – see: What does Labour do now?

Seven Sharp under attack

Mike Hosking’s own TVNZ show, Seven Sharp, is also under attack at the moment, due to Heather du Plessis-Allan’s 4-minute profile of blogger Cameron Slater – watch: Whaleoil Beef Hooked

Arch-enemy of the programme, Martyn Bradbury, has published his response to this and the Hosking issue in his open blog letter, Dear Seven Sharp… I refuse to appear on your show

And it’s not just the bloggers complaining. TV reviewer, Mike Kilpatrick was also unimpressed with Seven Sharp’s profile of Slater, calling it ‘a complete whitewash of who Slater is and what he does’ – see: Wake up New Zealand!

The Herald’s media watcher, John Drinnan also questions Seven Sharp’s orientation to politics in his column today, Building new walled order.

Media under attack

The media should expect to continue to receive constructive criticism about its role in covering the election campaign. Libertarian Peter Cresswell has painted a poor picture of media coverage of the campaign so far: ‘It’s not exactly a contest of ideas out there on the hustings.  Not that you’d know if any ideas were being debated, not if media reports were all you had to go on.  The media, as always, steer clear of ideas and talk only about the race. The polls. The “gaffes.” The details of the campaign to come, without the ideas around which campaigns are supposed to centre’ – see: Politics as horse race

Martyn Bradbury argues that the media has been inconsistent in other areas of reporting on the two main leaders – see: A tale of two men: Cunliffe’s apology for rape culture vs Key’s dismissal of it

And today, Green Party co-leader Russel Norman criticised the NZ Rugby Union for allowing the All Blacks to ‘become political fodder’ in the magazine Rugby News – see Felix Marwick’s Key's AB photo op 'distasteful'

But help could be at hand. More media diversity is promised by a new media outlet being established by Cameron Slater, together with Regan Cunliffe of the TV website Throng – see Victoria Young and Chris Keall’s Former Dotcom backer funds new Whale Oil site with 10 staff

For some other recent discussion of the media’s coverage of politics, see my previous roundups, Communicating politics - the good, the bad, and the 'f&%d', and Judith Collins v the media and Twittersphere

Finally, to see how Twitter is reacting to these issues, see my blog post, Top tweets about Mike Hosking and the leaders” debates

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