By Chris Trotter


Radio New Zealand has appointed a panel of media experts to diagnose the severity of its present crisis. Willy Akel, Linda Clark and Alan Sunderland have been asked to determine exactly how it was that Michael Hall, working in RNZ’s digital department, was able to insert unauthorised material into Reuters wire stories for five years without being either detected or reproved by his superiors.

This seems unlikely to prove a particularly taxing assignment. Hall has confessed, and, as far as we know, he had no confederates. He was trusted by his employers to play by RNZ’s (and Reuters!) rules, and appears to have betrayed that trust. Either that, or he has for five years been interpreting RNZ’s rules in the most creative fashion. The panel must explain why RNZ failed to monitor Hall’s output. It also needs to discover how a man of Hall’s powerful political convictions could enter the RNZ workforce without raising at least some managerial eyebrows?

Conservative New Zealanders will snort derisively at these questions. To their way of thinking the answers are blindingly obvious. RNZ – a.k.a. “Red Radio” – has been hiring people with “powerful political convictions”, that is to say, with blatant left-wing biases, for decades. The wonder is not that Hall “politically corrected” Reuters wire stories, but that he appears to have been the only RNZ  journalist with the political gumption to do so!

Except, those same conservatives – as is so often the case – simply do not grasp how dramatically the “Left” has changed, or, to what extent the current “culture” of RNZ has changed with it. At the heart of RNZ’s transformation are generational, professional, and philosophical divergences sharp enough to have turned the Radio New Zealand of 15 years ago inside out.

What turned Radio New Zealand into RNZ? The short answer is “Generation X”. It was ten years ago this year that the Board of Radio New Zealand, led by Jim Bolger’s former press secretary, Richard Griffin, appointed Fairfax Executive Editor, Paul Thompson (b. circa 1969) to replace Peter Cavanagh. A champion of public service broadcasting, Cavanagh had fought a noble rear-guard action against the John Key-led National Government’s relentless financial strangulation of Radio New Zealand.

Thompson moved swiftly against the Baby Boomer managers of Radio New Zealand. He restructured them out, and brought a younger, leaner and meaner generation of broadcasters in. These new brooms had a very different take on the profession of journalism when compared to the broadcasters they were replacing. Not so much speakers of truth to power as strivers who reveled in their proximity to it, the Gen-Xers were not the least bit embarrassed or hesitant about wielding power to advance their own agendas. Where their predecessors had set out in search of “The Truth”, these new broadcasters went after scalps – the more illustrious the better.

It made for a very different kind of public broadcaster. The Baby Boomers had tested themselves against a powerful status quo, harassing its leaders and challenging its values. Institutional power was a beast to be mistrusted and confronted. No rumour involving the government should ever be believed until it has been officially denied. And while it may not be possible for journalism to beat the powers-that-be, no self-respecting journalist would ever dream of joining them. Baby Boom journalists leaned towards the maverick outsider kicking against the pricks. Generation X admired those who had learned how to pick the locks to the House of Power.

This divergence wasn’t just generational and professional, it was philosophical.

The Baby Boomers had hero-worshipped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two Washington Post journalists most closely identified with exposing the Watergate scandal and bringing down the malignant administration of Richard Nixon. “Woodstein” led many Boomers to the conclusion that not only could the world be changed for the better by virtuous action, but also that journalism – especially investigative journalism – was one of the most effective means of doing so.

Generation X grew up under the influence of a very different duo – Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. “Virtuous action” was a mug’s game. More often than not, those who spoke truth to power ended up having their tongues cut out. Play it safe, play it smart, play to win. What else were the Eighties about?

The status quo has little to fear from cynicism, which meant that, with one or two honourable exceptions (like the editor of The Daily Blog) the status quo which emerged from the economic and social liberalism of the 1980s and 90s had little to fear from Generation X. After all, the triumphant neoliberal order and the global economy it brought into being was Gen-X’s world, and in it the sunny optimism of the 1960s and 70s was as outré as tie-dyed T-shirts and flared jeans.

The journalism of Generation X followed the neoliberal flag – as evidenced by the fourth estate’s general capitulation to the extraordinary deceptions of the War on Terror. Newspapers that had risked Nixon’s wrath by exposing Watergate, eagerly repeated the Bush Administration’s lies about Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction”. The American motion picture industry, which had given the world Easy Rider and Billy Jack, served up the television series “24” – a cold-blooded primer on the mechanics of torture.

Meanwhile, back here in Godzone, as one-by-one the rearguard actions of Boomer journalists and editors like Cavanagh ended in defeat, the principle of going along to get along became ever more deeply entrenched. Careers were not enhanced by challenging the fundamentals of the neoliberal status quo, nor by questioning the social-liberal values that offered the economic brutalities of neoliberalism such excellent political cover. Paul Thompson’s RNZ led the way. The people’s broadcaster became both the purveyor and defender of neoliberal and social-liberal orthodoxy – as swift to denounce Posie Parker as Vladimir Putin. Contracting-out economic commentary to the Aussie banks’ in-house economists, and political commentary to PR firms. It’s journalists appeared to be more comfortable attacking Hate Speech than defending Free Speech.

At least, they were, until Michael Hall tossed an old-fashioned left-wing spanner into RNZ’s works. The special, three-person panel appointed by RNZ’s board-of-directors will have little difficulty removing that spanner. Their most daunting responsibility, however (the task not specified in the panel’s terms of reference) will be to acknowledge how dramatically Hall’s behaviour has exposed the poverty of RNZ’s journalism. Promoting acceptable ideas, and suppressing everything that challenges the prevailing orthodoxy, may be the winning formula in Putin’s Russia, but it should not be Radio New Zealand’s.

Think about it. If a journalist in Russian state radio had done what Michael Hall’s been doing for the last 5 years, RNZ would have hailed him as a hero. Which is why Willy Akel, Linda Clark, and Alan Sunderland should think long and hard before presenting our public broadcaster’s very own journalistic dissident as a villain.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog on Friday, 16 June 2023.

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