IT IS DIFFICULT to know where to begin with today’s NZ Herald editorial. There is a thinness – bordering on transparency – to the newspaper’s case against charges of political bias that calls into question its right to be taken seriously as either a “fair” or “balanced” publication.
Let’s start with the editorial’s headline: “Cries of bias will not stop reporting”. As if somebody, somewhere was threatening to stop the Herald from reporting the news! No one, especially not the leading complainant, David Cunliffe, is demanding that the publication be closed down. All that the Leader of the Opposition asks of the Herald is that its reporting be factual. An understandable concern, given that amidst all of Mr Donghua Liu’s claims of donating upwards of $100,000 to the NZ Labour Party, hard facts have been very difficult to find.
The Herald virtually acknowledges this singular deficiency when, after its lengthy parade of straw men and non-sequiturs, the editorial finally declares: “We regret having reported inflated and conflated dollar figures.”
All well and good, but coming after a sentence in which Mr Liu is again credited with making “donations” and the Labour Party is again accused of “claiming” it has no record of same, the reader could be forgiven for questioning just how much “regret” the Herald’s leader writer is truly experiencing.
Indeed, the writer’s almost unconscious depiction of Mr Liu as a person dealing with facts and the Labour Party as an organisation issuing “claims”, offers the reader startling confirmation of precisely the political bias the Herald has been accused of displaying throughout its recent coverage of the Liu story.
The bias lies in the Herald’s assumptions. Mr Liu, a wealthy businessman who enjoys the patronage of senior Government figures, is believed when he states that he has donated many thousands of dollars to the Labour Party. Labour, on the other hand, is merely claiming that it can find no record of doing so. The assumption being that the former can be trusted but the latter cannot.
Such assumptions have a very long pedigree at the NZ Herald. The notable New Zealand poet, Robyn Hide (1906–1936) back when she was known as Iris Wilkinson, cub reporter, tells of receiving strict instructions from the Herald’s Chief Reporter that under no circumstances was she to report anything said or done by anyone representing the NZ Labour Party. If any reference was to be made to the “socialists” it would be made by the paper’s leader writers, its trusted parliamentary reporters, or with the pen and ink its formidable (and fiercely conservative) cartoonist, Gordon Minhinnick.
Such frank political bias was commonplace in the 1920s and 30s when newspapers and periodicals made no secret of their political leanings and when working-class oriented publications still boasted circulations in the tens-of-thousands. It is only relatively recently (in historical terms) that the demise of so many independent mastheads and the consolidation under foreign ownership of so much of the New Zealand news media has given rise to the expectation that a city’s one and only daily newspaper should provide “fair and balanced” coverage of political matters.
It is the contention of the author of this morning’s Herald editorial that the paper has made and continues to make every attempt to live up to this expectation. They cite examples from past elections where the paper’s journalistic fire was directed at both major parties without distinction – beholden to nothing and no one but the facts.
In doing so, however, the writer undermines their own case. In the stories they cite: the Exclusive Brethren’s association with the Don Brash-led National Party back in 2005; the “Teapot Tape” story which played such an important role in the last election; there was never any question that the Herald was reporting reality. The Brethren had spent a million dollars undermining support for Labour and the Greens. Bradley Ambrose had left a live microphone on John Key’s and John Banks’ table at the Urban Café. To date, however, no one has been presented with the slightest conclusive evidence that Mr Donghua Liu has donated a single cent to the NZ Labour Party.
It has been the Herald’s willingness to simply take Mr Liu’s “written statement” on faith, without demanding the slightest corroborative evidence – bank statements, receipts, letters of thanks – that has prompted Mr Cunliffe and numerous Labour Party members and supporters to cry “foul”.
They cast their minds back to the General Election of 2008 and the other example cited in this morning’s editorial: the “exposure” of Winston Peters’ “dishonesty” in denying the receipt of a sizeable donation to the NZ First Party from Sir Owen Glenn. Inevitably they draw comparisons with the Herald’s treatment of Mr Peters then, and Mr Cunliffe now.
They are right to do so, because in both cases the primary motivation of the NZ Herald seems to have been the discrediting of the politician most likely to prevent National from winning the imminent election. In other words, the readers of the Herald are not being presented with fair and balanced journalism but politically-biased propaganda composed in the interests of – and quite possibly facilitated by – the NZ National Party.
If the Herald’s protestations of fairness were genuine Mr Liu would have been required to swear a formal and legally binding affidavit attesting to every one of his funding allegations. This is what Mr Cameron Slater of the Whaleoil Blog did when he exposed the Len Brown Scandal. What’s more, Mr Slater was willing to post the sworn affidavit of Mr Brown’s paramour on his blog for everyone to read. It is highly significant that, to date, the Herald, by steadfastly refusing to release Mr Liu’s “signed statement”, has treated it readers with less consideration than the Whaleoil blog. A professional discourtesy which Mr Cunliffe has quite understandably construed as a breach of “natural justice”.
It simply will not do. The morning’s editorial is not an explanation, much less a justification, of the Herald’s coverage of Mr Liu’s claims, it is a continuation of same. Even after admitting they got it wrong, the Herald heaps insult upon injury:
“The core issue remains, however: At a minimum, removing Mr Barker’s China trip and a donation to a rowing club the MPs daughter belonged to, Labour faces Liu’s claim that he made $38,000 in donations to the party and anonymously through MPs.”
But for an ethical journalist a “claim” is not proof, nor is it a justification for blackening a person’s name. Before trashing someone’s reputation – especially a political leader’s three months before a general election – a professional journalist requires evidence.
Nothing of the sort is required, however, if the what a newspaper is engaged in isn’t “fair and balanced” journalism but a politically-motivated exercise in character assassination.