Is there a place for an honest person in the mainstream media?

Aug 11, 2023
New Zealand map and flag.

It is becoming increasingly unlikely. Julian Assange is in prison; the dissenting voices of Seymour Hersh, John Pilger, Glen Greenwald and Tucker Carlson have been excluded from the mainstream, moving into self-publishing; and Mick Hall has resigned from Radio New Zealand after it tightened control to safeguard the pro-American narrative.

“You haven’t been here long enough”.

Mick Hall was an idealistic journalist who had worked in various media outlets in Australia and New Zealand.

Inspired in his 20s, by Hunter S Thompson, the legendary iconoclastic American journalist, Hall had become jaded with corporate media and was excited at the prospect of a new career in Radio New Zealand (RNZ), the state-owned, public service broadcaster which he joined in 2018.

He liked the idea, he told me, of working in an organisation not in thrall to advertisers and dedicated, according to its Charter, to providing ‘comprehensive, independent, accurate, impartial, and balanced regional, national, and international news and current affairs’. He continued:

“I remember being introduced to a presenter of one of RNZ’s news programmes at the time and talking effusively about the merits of the company and how good it was to be there, cloistered from a shoddy corporate news model. He looked up at me, smiled awkwardly and said, “You haven’t been here long enough”. He was unfortunately right.”

The reality came to bite Hall when, according to RNZ, ‘a tweet from New York accused (sic) a Reuters wire story on the RNZ website of containing “utterly false Russian propaganda”’.

RNZ management went into panic mode, tweets from New York, even by unnamed persons, were not to be ignored.

The CEO of RNZ, Paul Thompson, reacting by vehemently denouncing the “pro-Kremlin garbage”; that had been edited into stories on the war in Ukraine and vowed that steps would be taken to protect New Zealanders from such corrosive disinformation. The article in question was temporarily removed subject to it being restored to the original Reuters text, and Mick Hall, who had edited it, was suspended. It was announced that stories that Hall had previously edited would be scrutinised and a three-person Independent Panel to look into affair would be established.

In fact, as described in a previous article, Mick Hall’s edits of the Reuters article were quite minor, were factually correct and really added a bit of depth and balance. That is how Hall saw it; RNZ took a different view. It was an ‘inappropriate’, unauthorised alteration to a text that was sacrosanct, legally and administratively. This is RNZ’s note on that article:

“An edit to this story, “The conflict in Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian elected government was toppled during Ukraine’s violent Maidan colour revolution. Russia annexed Crimea after a referendum, as the new pro-Western government suppressed ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine, sending in its armed forces to the Donbas.” was made. The story has been restored to Reuters copy, ‘The conflict in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and Russia annexed Crimea, with Russian-backed separatist forces fighting Ukraine’s armed forces.’”

Violent? yes. Referendum? yes. Suppression of ethnic Russians? Yes. Incontrovertible facts which would add to the reader’s understanding of the course of events, but that was not what Reuters wanted to convey.

The audit of Hall’s stories is now complete. 1319 stories were examined, 49 corrected. We are told that ‘the inappropriate edits identified ranged from the addition of incorrect information to the removing of sentences or words that provided balance’. No instance of ‘incorrect information’ are actually specified as such and the edits to the Reuters article above give a fair picture of the whole. If this was a load of ‘pro-Kremlin garbage’ it was meagre in quantity and scarcely odoriferous.

The Independent Panel has also now issued its report, and an adroit piece of work it is.

First it chastises RNZ management for mishandling the business with the hysterical claims of ‘pro-Kremlin garbage’. This unnecessarily diminished public confidence in RNZ, the most trusted media organisation in New Zealand. Better to have downplayed the affair.

Secondly, it wants to avoid the danger of making Mick Hall a martyr, a courageous whistleblower who reveals the unwelcome truth. It says he ‘genuinely believed he was acting appropriately’, but his ‘inappropriate editing ….’ damaged ‘RNZ’s reputation for accurate and balanced journalism’. Moreover, he is not mentioned by name, and anonymous martyrs are easily airbrushed out of history.

These rather sophisticated efforts of damage control elicited howls of anger from a least one traditionalist hack.

Thirdly, and predictably, it comes up with various measures to tighten editorial control so that the message will not again be altered by journalists with conscience.

What does the episode tell us about the state of the media?

Mick Hall’s edits seemed to have had no impact; there was no sign of a surge of enlightenment amongst RNZ’s audience. What did attract some attention was an interview he did in May 2022 with two prominent members of the NZ Left, Matt Robson and Mike Smith. When management discovered the article they quickly ‘added balance’ by appending comment from two ‘national security experts’ and Foreign Minister Nainia Mahuta deriding the criticism of NZ policy on Ukraine, telling us what we really should think. Again no sign that the interview precipitated any informed debate. Hall’s quixotic efforts to defang the Reuters behemoth can be seen as noble but ineffectual gestures; there is too much pig, not enough lipstick.

Is there a place for an honest person in the mainstream media? It is becoming increasingly unlikely. Julian Assange is in prison, and the dissenting voices of Seymour Hersh, John Pilger, Glen Greenwald and Tucker Carlson have been excluded from the mainstream, moving into self-publishing. Mick Hall has resigned from RNZ. He is currently focused on his own permaculture project and has taken up the offer of freelance work with Consortium News, but the journalist of 19 years faces an uncertain future in media. Even pillars of the American academic establishment such as John Mearsheimer and Jeffrey Sachs are no longer tolerated.

RNZ, and media outlets around the world, will be content to regurgitate the suave, unobtrusive state-aligned propaganda of Reuters and the other news agencies. But even in this dystopian landscape there are unexpected shoots of discovery. Don Brash, a right-wing former Leader of the National Party has done a Malcolm Fraser, somersaulting on the road to Damascus by condemning New Zealand’s dangerous embrace of US policies on NATO expansion and confrontation with China. Significantly, despite his stature in NZ politics, Brash’s criticisms have not been reported by RNZ, or other mainstream media.

In the mainstream, ersatz journalism is the order of the day.

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