On Shane Taurima, Linda Clark and conflicts of interest left, right and centre

Unless there is an outright denial of Key's accusation, Clark should not be fulfilling any role in TV3's current affairs or election coverage.

There was nothing terribly complex about Shane Taurima’s situation with regard to his job as Head of TVNZ’s  Maori and Pacifica Department once he had, albeit unsuccessfully,  sought the Labour Party nomination for the Rawhiti Ikaroa seat following the death of Parekura Horomia. Taurima had very publicly nailed his political colours to the mast. In doing so he had effectively disbarred himself from any further involvement in News or Current Affairs broadcasting with the state broadcaster. The potential conflict of interest could not have been more clear.

Television New Zealand apparently did not see it that way. Perhaps they thought that Taurima’s failure to actually win the nomination made all the difference. He had been a would-be Labour candidate, not an actual Labour candidate.  (And, as it turned out, would be again.) That rationalisation is so facile as to be laughable. Taurima was politically tainted. He should not have been re-employed in his previous role. But he was.

When he took things even further and  turned his TVNZ office into a Maori/Pacifica Labour Party branch, Taurima did his employer a favour.  Without actually hanging portraits of Savage, Fraser and Kirk on the walls, the conflict of interest in which he and others in his department now found themselves could not have been more patent. To his credit, Taurima had the grace and good sense to resign.  

There is actually nothing new about all of this. The list of television and radio  broadcasters working in news and current affairs who are or have been simultaneously engaged in activities which conflict with their obligation to be and be seen to be utterly impartial in all matters relating to their jobs, is extremely long. They may well be in the majority. Conflicts of interest among such practitioners abound.

The most common is in the area of media training. You can make a lot of money training politicians and people in business to handle approaches from journalists and to come across well in radio and television interviews. The ideal background for the job is clearly to have had extensive experienced as a press, radio or television journalist or interviewer oneself. ‘Gamekeeper turned poacher’ as those who disapprove of the trade like to say. It’s an understandable reaction perhaps, but you won’t survive long as a media trainer if your advice to clients is to duck and dive their way through interviews. Your clients will come to grief and so will you.

The real trouble with the media training business is that some of its practitioners are still working journalists, reporters and interviewers. That makes them both gamekeepers and poachers, who can potentially end up reporting on or interviewing their own clients. Now that is as good a definition of ‘conflict of interest’ as you’ll find.

How do we know this? Because it’s not entirely uncommon for our clients to be the disgruntled former clients of these practitioners. I’ve previously referred to one spectacular case where a prominent current affairs interviewer charged a business group $10,000 for a day’s media training. When members of the group subsequently appeared on the interviewer’s programme, they were surprised to find that he didn’t treat them with kid gloves. You could argue that this spoke well of him, but the really significant thing in this episode is their expectation that they would be given preferential on air treatment by their trainer. Media training is simply incompatible with a career as a journalist or radio or television interviewer in news or current affairs.

So where does Linda Clark’s alleged media training of Labour leader David Cunliffe fit into all of this? I say ‘alleged’ because I have absolutely no idea whether Clark is training Cunliffe or not. John Key claims that she is. Neither she nor the Labour Leader have confirmed or denied the claim.

So in the absence of a denial let’s assume that Linda Clark is media training David Cunliffe. She’s also been employed by TV3 on its current affairs programmes The Vote and The Nation and may be included on a panel during the channel’s election night coverage.

In defending Linda Clark against suggestions of a conflict of interest between her (alleged) media training of the Leader of the Opposition and her work for the channel, TV3 was at pains to emphasise that she was not employed “as a journalist, interviewer or host” but as “a moderator and political commentator”.

Well, that’s all right then. Quite clearly there’s no way a television moderator or political commentator could be influenced in favour of someone who was paying her for advice on how to handle the media. The very thought is unworthy. [nota bene: this paragraph is ironic]

Now I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that Linda Clark would be influenced in such a way. I’m not questioning her honesty or integrity. But conflicts of interest aren’t just about reality; they’re also about perception. And it isn’t a good look for someone who is media training a political leader to be involved in any way as a neutral moderator or commentator on a news or current affairs programme. Unless there is an outright denial of Key’s accusation, Clark should not be fulfilling any role in TV3’s current affairs or election coverage.

Or unless she wants to do a Brian Edwards or Michelle Boag and openly declare her political allegiance. Then we’ll all know exactly where she and we stand and can judge the merits of her commentary accordingly.

Media trainer and commentator Dr Brian Edwards posts at Brian Edwards Media.

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