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Karl du Fresne

Journalism or Indoctrination?

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We should be deeply suspicious of the phrase “public interest journalism”. It sounds harmless – indeed, positively wholesome – but it comes laden with ideology.

Like “social justice”, it’s a conveniently woolly term with no settled definition. It sounds like something we should have more of. Who couldn’t be in favour of it? But those who promote “public interest journalism” generally have a very clear idea of what they mean, and it’s not necessarily how ordinary people might interpret it.

This becomes especially problematical when “public interest journalism” is cited as the raison d’être of a government fund set up with the supposed aim of enabling journalism to fulfil its vital purpose in an open democracy, but which closer investigation suggests is intended to create a vehicle for state-approved indoctrination. But more of that later.  

In a sense, the phrase “public interest journalism” is tautological. Most journalism serves the public interest in some way or another, simply by informing people about matters that it might be helpful to know about. At the risk of repeating myself, I can only quote from The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel: “The purpose of journalism is … to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies and their governments”.

That remains as good a definition of journalism as any. Note that Kovach and Rosenstiel make no mention of telling people what to think. But when leftist media academics (another tautology) use the phrase “public interest journalism”, they have a specific purpose in mind. To them, public interest journalism is journalism that actively works toward political, economic and social outcomes that they perceive to be in the public interest. In other words, it serves as a cover for the pursuit of a progressive agenda.

Public interest sounds noble. I mean, who could object to something being done for the public good? The crucial question, though, is who decides where the public interest lies. That’s the trap with so-called public interest journalism, because it usually reflects a narrow, fixed, elitist and ideologically slanted view of what’s best for the public. Whether or not the public actually wants it is often immaterial. They’re left out of the equation. 

To put it another way, public interest journalism is a coded term that disguises an ideological project. Far from viewing the role of journalists as being to convey information in a non-partisan way, advocates of “public interest” journalism regard journalism as a tool for the pursuit of particular goals.

This highlights a fundamental change that has taken place since the training of journalists shifted from newsrooms, where it was based on practical experience attained under the supervision of older hands, to academic institutions where tutors – many with minimal or no journalism experience themselves – approached the subject from a theoretical rather than a practical standpoint, often influenced by the ravings of deranged left-wing sociologists.

Journalists of previous eras had no fanciful notions about functioning as champions of social or economic reform. Very few had been to university, where such ideas tended to be promulgated. They regarded themselves as gatherers of information and tellers of stories. Any with pretensions beyond that were likely to be sharply pulled into line.

That now seems almost quaint. Journalism training has long been ideologically captured, resulting in the emergence of a generation of journalists who see themselves not as passive and impartial observers, conveying important information and leaving it to readers/listeners/viewers to form their own views, but as active agents of change.

This not a hidden agenda; it’s out in the open for everyone to see. In a recent Letter from the EditorDominion Post editor Anna Fifield, as is her habit, introduced readers to one of the paper’s journalists – in this case, reporter Ethan Te Ora. Asked what was the best thing about being a journalist, Te Ora answered: “The trust shown to you by people, often at distressing times in their lives.” Fair enough; journalism can’t function properly without trust. But then he added: “The responsibility to frame those experiences in ways that can lead to systemic change.”

That dangerously blurs the line between journalism and propaganda. It’s true that journalism can lead to systemic change, and often does, but that shouldn’t be its purpose. To put it another way, journalism provides the information that often serves as a catalyst for change; but to actively work toward that end leads to the arrogant assumption that idealistic young reporters know what’s best for society and should be free to angle their stories accordingly, emphasising whatever supports their case but excluding evidence or opinions they disagree with.

Objectivity in journalism is fashionably denounced as a myth, thereby giving reporters licence to decide what their readers should know and what should be kept from them. The worthy idea that journalists could hold strong personal opinions about political and economic issues but show no trace of them in their work, which used to be fundamental, has been jettisoned.

All of which leads us, in a roundabout way, to the government’s proposed Public Interest Journalism Fund, which should be viewed in the context outlined above – in other words, with deep scepticism. 

The PIJF should be seen not as evidence of a principled, altruistic commitment to the survival of journalism, which is how it’s been framed, but as an opportunistic and cynical play by a left-wing government – financed by the taxpayer to the tune of $55 million – for control over the news media at a time when the industry is floundering and vulnerable.

The guidelines covering applications for funding from the PIJF are explicitly politicised. Media operators seeking funding are advised, for example, they must “actively promote the principles of Partnership, Participation and Protection [their capitals] under Te Tiriti o Waitangi acknowledging Maori as a Te Tiriti partner”. All applicants must show a “clear and obvious” commitment to the Treaty and te reo; no exceptions.

Another of the guidelines (drawn up by New Zealand on Air, which is administering the fund) requires that applicants must “seek to inform and engage the public about issues that affect a person’s right to flourish within our society and impact on society’s ability to fully support its citizens”. Insofar as this gibberish can be interpreted as meaning anything at all, it suggests a leaning towards activist journalism that seeks to improve the status of disadvantaged groups. Identity politics, in other words.

This interpretation seems to be supported by a further suggestion – no, let’s call it a very unsubtle  hint – that applicants  are likely to be regarded favourably if their journalism proposals “meet the definition of Maori and iwi journalism” or “report from perspectives including Pacific, pan-Asian, women, youth, children, persons with disabilities [and] other ethnic communities”.

“Maori and iwi journalism”, incidentally, is defined as being “made by Maori about Maori perspectives, issues and interests prioritising the needs of Maori”. But that’s not journalism; that’s advocacy. The two are quite different and may often be at odds.

Nowhere in the guidelines is there any explicit commitment to the publication of a range of competing views on vital issues – for example, race relations and the Treaty. In fact the guidelines pretty much rule it out, since recipients of public money won’t be able to acknowledge the existence of Treaty sceptics, still less give them space or air time, if they’re required to promote the principles of a Treaty “partnership”, the very existence of which the sceptics challenge.

Overall, the guidelines read like an identity politics charter. In other words the PJIF, for all the fine words about the importance of the Fourth Estate as “a central feature of a healthy democracy”, promises to deliver unprecedented power to government commissars who will serve as media gatekeepers, using our money to facilitate content they deem acceptable and shutting out anything (such as, for example, scepticism over climate change policy) that doesn’t conform with officially approved orthodoxy – and all this under the guise of helping the media though a rough patch. 

Ask yourself which is preferable: a hollowed-out news media, unable to properly fulfil its functions (which, to all intents and purposes, is what we have now), or a more powerful one whose priorities are determined by apparatchiks of the state? I’m sure I know which presents the greater hazard.