A few weeks ago I blogged that Mike Hosking was a terrible choice as moderator for the TV One Party Leader’s Debate, because he is so embarrassingly biased in favour of John Key. So I watched the show with curiosity, an excel spreadsheet and a cup of Be Happy Tea, ready for near certain demolition of democracy at the hands of Mike Hosking.
But by the end my scorecard was even. To my pleasant surprise Mike Hosking was pretty even-handed. If anything he seemed tougher on his mate Key – if he’d said to Cunliffe “calm down, we’ve got an hour, there’ll be time to talk about that later” as he did to Key, it would’ve confirmed my expectations. Instead he actually let Cunliffe interrupt Key and gain an upper-hand while Key’s interruptions seemed like a weak attempt to keep up. Cunliffe seemed buoyed by the free-rein, though you got the impression that he was ready to take them both on, had he needed to.
So top marks to Mike Hosking for keeping his views to himself. The problem was, we already knew what his views were. No amount of poker-face could stop us seeing John Key and David Cunliffe through the Hosking lens.
Don’t get me wrong, Hosking is a great talker, very confident, very quick and no-nonsense but ultimately he’s tainted. And that rubs off on the programme because when we see an audience on screen, we put ourselves in their shoes. Mike Hosking was ostensibly the studio audience, and thus our impression of the debate was subtly skewed to favour John Key.
I felt it. Whenever Hosking was on screen I found myself doubting Cunliffe, and thinking Key was nicer, more reasonable and knew his facts better. Then when the camera cut back to the speakers, that Hosking-empathy disappeared and I was judging the speakers on their merits. Maybe I was looking too hard for imbalance, maybe not, but it doesn’t get away from the fact that despite his fair treatment, Hosking influenced us by simply being there on screen.
And like most of the problems with broadcasting and media in NZ, it’s not the fault of the individual, it’s a systemic problem. TVNZ should’ve hired a neutral presenter with impartial credibility. And TVNZ shouldn’t have to return hefty profits to the government. By forcing TVNZ to do so, the National government has indirectly helped themselves look better in the political debate. Commercial media prefers reactionary politics which often favours right-wing politicians.
That may seem a bit of a stretch but the connection between commercial broadcasting and conservative government is strong, all over the world, and there’s a very good reason for that. The leader’s debate subtly demonstrated that connection again.
Myles Thomas is Chief Executive of the Coalition for Better Broadcasting.