Decline of the Fourth Estate and investigative journalism: Part I.


Blog No. 123.

Many years ago, attending a business luncheon in London, I found myself sitting next to an executive of a Russian shipping company. We got into conversation and found that we both had past military service in common. I had spent ten years in the British infantry and he had been conscripted into an infantry unit of the Red Army and spent several years in Afghanistan. We started to exchange humorous tales of military servitude. I set the ball rolling with the story of the British cavalry officer who was so stupid that even his brother officers noticed it. My Russian friend responded with the tale of the flying crocodiles.

His platoon, in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan, had been sent to a training camp somewhere in Siberia. At the morning muster parade, their sergeant started to prepare them for the rigours of the campaign that lay before them. He told them of icy mountains, of jungles and wading through swamps inhabited by flying crocodiles. One bright conscript with a university education, contradicted the sergeant’s story with a claim that there was no such thing as flying crocodiles. The sergeant angrily responded that there most certainly was.

On muster parade the following morning, the sergeant announced for the benefit of the know-all conscript, that he had looked further into the question of flying crocodiles. Yes, they certainly existed, but it was also true that they only flew very, very low!

I quote the above story to illustrate the point that those in authority never like to admit that they were wrong. The first essential incentive to an official acknowledgement of error is that someone should point it out in a forum that is sufficiently public to cause embarrassment if the complaint is not addressed. In the case of the errors of the NZ media, as the media is itself the vehicle by which such unwelcome truths have to be disseminated, this situation is particularly problematic.

In New Zealand the integrity of the media is subject to three ‘independent’ watchdogs. Television and radio media is watched over by the Broadcasting Standards Authority. Advertising, on which the media depend for their existence, is overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority and the print media is controlled by the Press Council. Each of these apparently ‘independent’ authorities are not independent, but are self-governing bodies established and funded by the media themselves, or in the case of the BSA, by the government.

In the past, I have brought a different case to each of the three of them. Each time, as it is obviously asking too much to expect poachers to act as gamekeepers, with the same outcome: ‘complaint not upheld.’

BroadcastingThe first case involved the Broadcasting Standards Authority and an American husband, with a previous and long-expired drug conviction, married to an Australian veterinarian, who shared an interest in dressage with my wife. Some ardent, born-again Christian TV producer had discovered her husband lurking in New Zealand’s pure and unblemished land and taken it upon himself to hound the couple out of the country. The full case is reported here the report does not make clear the extent to which the couple were besieged and their lives in their remote, rural farmhouse rendered intolerable by camera crews lurking at the gate and daily banging on their doors. Though the Authority refused to admit to any wrong-doing by the TV company, the camera crews never returned and the couple were thereafter left in peace.

AdvertisingThe second case involved the Advertising Standards Authority It was clear from the outset that, given the power of the Zionist lobby, this was going to be a hard furrow to plough. (The Zionists continue to exercise influence over the BSA – see the recent finding on Gaza in favour of Shalom Kiwi and Against TV NZ.)  Initially, the authority flatly refused to accept my complaint that a series of pro-Israeli, anti-Palestinian advertisements appearing in the NZ newspapers were deliberately designed to misinform the NZ public. On appeal (keep on reading – the hyperlink report on the case is lengthy) the case was accepted, heard and ultimately, declined. However, no more of those advertisements from the Tel Aviv front organisation that had placed them were printed in the NZ mainstream media.

Press CouncilThe third case involved the Press Council. It concerned a scurrilous and highly damaging series of articles written about Harmon and Carolyn Wilfred by the Christchurch Press’s leading investigative journalist, Martin Van Beynen.

Needless to say, the Press Council rejected the complaint, with the Press’s editor defending his journalist on the grounds that he could do no wrong as evidenced by his many awards for outstanding journalism and, to quote from the above report:

“Despite Mr Steadman’s view that their sources were unreliable, staff had spent considerable time on the matter and were satisfied the sources were genuine and truthful. Further, the editor claimed that the police investigation had been concluded and no charges had been laid.”

In fact the editor of the Christchurch Press misled the Council in that the police investigation had not been concluded and Beynen’s prime source was subsequently convicted in a criminal court for the crime for which she had been dismissed: theft from her employer.

It would appear that the editor saw nothing untoward in publishing his ace reporter’s extremely damaging articles, even though he must have been aware that Beynen had never once spoken to, met or even visited the place of work of his victims. The articles, judging from the long list of hostile comments from anonymous trolls, which accompanied the electronic version of each article (some of which were clearly written by the dismissed staff-member, who had supplied Beynen with the excuse for the untruths he printed) incited just the sort of circulation-boosting outrage against American ‘overstayers’ that the editor must have foreseen and welcomed. However, the complaint did at least bring an end to Van Beynen’s kicking of the innocent while they were on the floor after the Christchurch earthquake had obliterated their charitable endeavours. His victims were left alone thereafter.

Which story brings me to the purpose of this blog: the sorry state of investigative journalism in New Zealand.

Orwell quoteBefore the advent of social media, the upper tiers of the main stream media (MSM) competed with each other to provide reliable news and insight into the conduct of the nation’s affairs. Investigative journalists were funded to delve deeply into matters that those in authority, or in other walks of life, would prefer not to have had brought to public attention.

As errors in such reporting were liable to land the media with serious litigation costs, journalists had to be extremely thorough and careful in allegations they made. Many stories would have much time and treasure spent on them, before having to be spiked through lack of utterly convincing corroboration. For the MSM, running investigative journalists is an extremely costly activity. It could only be justified if the breaking of such stories gathered not only reputation and readership, but most importantly, attracted the increased advertising revenue, without which the enterprise would cease to function.

Over the past twenty years or so, as the social media and other activities of the Web have drawn advertisers away from the print and broadcast channels, the MSM’s revenues have shrunk. Advertising revenue, which used to go to independent news-centres and be fed back into Journalists’ salaries, now goes to Google and Facebook and to other corporates, who are themselves members of the global news filtration and suppression mechanism. The Christchurch Press’s shoddy conduct over the Harmon Wilfred matter epitomises the consequences.

Over the same period, the tendency away from investigative journalism has been accelerated by the consolidation and homogenisation of multiple and locally owned media outlets into a relatively few umbrella organisations with overseas ownership. Such ownership has little concern for the welfare of New Zealand society per se, other than its ability to extract revenue from it.

This decline of serious investigative journalism has three major consequences:

Firstly, the public is less well informed. Becoming habituated to less exposure to such factual information about matters that would otherwise remain shrouded, the public demand for it atrophies. The veracity of existing and constrained sources of media information goes unquestioned. A downward spiral into a well of public ignorance and apathy ensues. Fed a diet of manure, the public, on whose attention the effective functioning of democratic government depends, become mushrooms.

mushroomsSecondly, the government and its agencies, in the knowledge that investigative journalists are verging on extinction, is given impunity. It is thus increasingly empowered to deceive, or at least bemuse the public and abuse its position of trust.

Thirdly, with a decreasing ability to generate their own news stories, MSM editors become increasingly dependent on PR agency press releases, on articles syndicated from ‘reputable’ overseas media (which are mostly in thrall to the same dysfunctional forces, only more so) and on news items handed down from the government. This tendency not only inserts increasing amounts of spin and fake news into the public arena, but more worryingly, makes newsrooms more dependent on maintaining good relations with government and that much less likely to publish stories that might aggravate that relationship.

In Britain, at least, we can be certain that the government’s ability to influence the media has been enhanced by the D-Notice system. This system has been in place ever since the inevitability of  WWI had become apparent. It allows the government to block the appearance of news items, which it chooses to argue are not in the ‘public interest.’ The existence of the system remained hidden from the public for more than fifty years, only coming to light in Harold Wilson’s time

D-NoticeIt is not unlikely, given that so much of NZ government practice has been taken from the Westminster template that, behind the scenes, such a system also exists in this country. As in Britain, any such D-Notice system, given its secret nature, would not be included on the statute books and therefore, would not be enforceable at law. Nevertheless, the media’s increasing dependence on the government for the news it prints, gives government ministers leverage with which to persuade editors that they should suppress an item that the government wishes suppressed. The seemingly miraculous way in which the National government’s recent donation of $13.7 million to the Clinton Foundation slush fund failed to become a matter of interest to NZ’s MSM could well be explained by the operation of such a D-Notice system.

So too could such a system account for the recent spiking by the editor of the Otago Daily Times, of a full-feature article on the Wilfreds’ case. This report, as with the NZ government’s Clinton Foundation donation, would not have endeared the government to the newly elected and unanticipated Trump presidency.

The article had been expensively and painstakingly researched for several months by a well-respected investigative journalist. It had past all the hurdles of editorial approval prior to its last minute spiking. This occurred just four days before it was due to be published and just two weeks after the government had been inadvertently tipped off about the ODT’s intention to publish.

Though Britain’s D-Notice system is not enforceable at law, other legal avenues around this obstacle can be found. In the case of Edward Snowden’s dossier on the illegal eavesdropping of the NSA, British Intelligence Service agents stood over the Guardian’s employees while they were forced to destroy their hard-drives with angle-grinders. .

Nor are New Zealand journalists immune from physical interference from government. New Zealand’s, leading investigative journalist, Nicky Hager, after his publication of ‘Dirty Politics’, a book revealing the National Party’s less than savoury election tactics, was subjected to the direst intimidation on government instruction.

Dirty PoliticsThough, as it did in Hager’s case, the judiciary can come to the rescue of embattled journalists, it cannot replace the journalism that has been lost. Though the truth will ultimately come out in court, it only emerges after alarmed citizens have come up with substantial costs. The essential trigger for the funding and bringing to court of such cases, is the prior arousal of public interest by increasingly absent investigative journalism. Unless the case is so prominent, as in the case of climate change, multiple government shortcomings will go unremarked and un-remedied. Even NZ has had a protagonist in this arena

Though the judiciary look set to become an increasingly important recourse for members of the public concerned about government failures, they cannot perform the essential but fast declining function that was once performed by investigative journalism. How this growing threat to NZ’s democracy might be remedied will be the subject of Part II of this blog.


Footnote: This blog was written before last week’s launch of Nicky Hager’s and Jon Stephenson’s ‘Hit and Run.’ The initial furor of government denial  that it has generated, serves well to emphasise the need for New Zealand to preserve and cultivate a healthy investigative journalism sector.

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