Producer of ‘The Nation’ hits back at “interference” allegations over ‘Campbell Live’
Current affairs programme producer, Tim Watkin, has vigorously denied any outside interference in his weekend show, ‘The Nation‘ .
In an email, to this blogger, dated 18 April, Tim asserted his editorial independence,
“Let me reassure you, most importantly, that not a single ounce of pressure was brought to bear on me or anyone in my team. It was our decision alone (and some felt strongly it would be a waste of our time)…
What was most frustrating about your blog was the utterly unfounded assertion that we would give in to pressure from management to not cover that, or any, story. “
On 9 April, news broke on the announcement that the last remaining investigative/advocacy, current affairs show on free-to-air TV, ‘Campbell Live‘, was facing a “review”. In commercial media parlance, “review” is often a euphemism for staff to prepare to pack their bags and vacate their desks by lunch-time.
Strangely, announcing an impending “review” is hardly ever a precursor to a 20% salary increase for staff; more allocation of resources for the producers; and a more favourable time-slot for the show.
On 14 April, this blogger reported in The Daily Blog that neither TVNZ’s ‘Q+A’ nor TV3’s ‘The Nation’ that weekend (Saturday/Sunday, 11/12 April) had mentioned this story which had featured in every other main-stream media;
As well as the msm, most of the top blogs in the country covered the story, one way or another (see: Other blogs)
So I was looking forward to see some serious analysis on ‘The Nation‘ and/or ‘Q+A‘, on this issue.
Incredibly, and alarmingly, none was forthcoming, except for a brief throw-away-line by comedians Jeremy Corbett and Paul Ego, during their sixty-second satirical-slot on ‘The Nation‘ (though without any actual direct reference to John Campbell), to “being replaced by Jono Pryor and Ben Boyce“.
TV1’s ‘Q+A‘ was also strangely silent on an issue that had been a nationwide talking point.
Instead, on Saturday’s ‘The Nation‘, we had stories on;
- Legal highs, with interviews with Peter Dunne and Matt Bowden
- the booming Auckland Property market, with interviews with Mayor Len Brown; Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse; Kate Healy from Ngati Whatua Orakei Whai Rawa Ltd, and property developer David Whitburn
Sunday’s ‘Q+A‘ on TV1 gave us;
- an interview with HSBC economist, Paul Bloxham, who coined the phrase “rock star economy”
- urban-designer, Charles Montgomery, on how to improve our cities
Considering that ‘Campbell Live‘ is one of the last serious current affairs programme remaining on free-to-air television, one would have thought that this was worthy of scrutiny by either ‘Q+A’ or ‘The Nation‘.
Understandably, perhaps, TV3’s executives Julie Christie and Group Chief Executive Officer Mark Weldon – who have allegedly expressed a dislike for ‘Campbell Live‘ – may have dissuaded ‘The Nation‘ from enquiring further into the matter.
On the weekend of 18/19 April, TV3’s ‘The Nation’s‘ stories focused on;
- An interview with Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf
- Australia’s “obsession” with ANZAC celebrations
- An interview with Tony Blair’s former press secretary, Alistair Campbell
On 19 April, TV1’s ‘Q+A‘ focused on;
- water ownership rights & Iwi claims
- an interview with Lt Gen Tim Keating, on our troop deployment to Iraq
- historian, Dr Vincent O’Malley, on our own land wars
Again, it was left to the satirical componant of ‘The Nation‘ (on Saturday 18 April) to refer obliquely to the issue, when ‘Animation Nation‘ poked fun at “the entertainment value of Campbell Live“. (More on the repeat broadcast of ‘The Nation‘ on Sunday 19 April, below.)
On 18 April, I asked Tim Watkin why there was no mention during the body of the programme regarding ‘Campbell Live‘. Considering the national interest involved in this story, I found it strange that ‘The Nation‘ has not looked into the issue. Could he shed any light on whether or not the issue had been discussed by ‘The Nation’s‘ Producers, for possible inclusion?
“Journalism struggling is not new and, to be honest, many journalists shy away from such stories because it looks self-indulgent and the public appetite for us navel gazing (and the political appetite for public service broadcasting, for that matter) is not high in my view. Programmes like The Nation and Q+A have no history of reporting media stories, beyond coverage of Dirty Politics etc (which we did extensively), so why start now? We didn’t cover the end of Close Up. Or the rise of Paul Henry. Or Tim Murphy’s resignation… I could go on. There are lots of media stories that matter, but it’s not our core business.”
Tim did admit though;
“Having said that I accept this is bigger than most, which is why we made sure we did discuss it both weeks, on our Sunday panel…”
Tim’s reference to “Sunday panel” repeats an earlier statement in his 14 April email where he asserts “you must have missed the fact that we talked about Campbell Live in our extra Sunday panel“.
The Sunday edition of ‘The Nation‘ is a few minutes longer because of a lack of commercial advertisements on Sunday mornings. Hence, more of the panel discussion is broadcast on Sunday than it’s original airing on the previous day, Saturday morning.
So if the viewer watches the Saturday morning broadcast, but not the Sunday morning, extended version, she/he will miss a few extra minutes of chit-chat.
Hence Tim Watkin’s reference to the “extended panel”.
The question for the reader is threefold;
(a) is a panel discussion sufficient coverage of an issue that Tim himself concedes is “bigger than most”?
(b) is a panel discussion a suitable alternative to an actual interview and story by trained journalists?
(c) how many viewers are aware that the Sunday version of ‘The Nation‘ is extended by a few minutes, because of a lack of commercial advertising, and therefore a need exists to fill in a gap that would otherwise be left, if the original Saturday version were broadcast? Unless a viewer was aware of the extended version on Sunday mornings, why would anyone watch the same show twice?
Given Point C, most viewers, having watched the early morning Saturday version of ‘The Nation‘, would miss the repeat (albeit extended) broadcast on Sunday, and any additional material therein.
This blogger will raise his hand and say he was unaware of the extended panel version, and would have been oblivious to this situation had Tim not referred to it, and a close friend (hat-tip, Freda) not alerted me to having heard the panel discussion on Sunday morning.
Tim further stated;
…Our kind of programme is not made in a few hours. Sure, we can dump everything when major news breaks, but that’s a big ask of my already over-worked team (which is currently preparing for six hours of ANZAC Day coverage on top of their day jobs). So you pick your battles. While the CLive story matters it’s hardly 9/11 or Dirty Politics. Next, you have to think about what talent you can get to talk to and what you can add to the public debate. The newspapers were all over CLive, so what new could we add? Who would talk in a studio programme that would be useful and wouldn’t look indulgent? .”
No one is suggesting that the ‘Campbell Live‘ story is “ 9/11 or Dirty Politics“, and we can dismiss that strawman/woman reference right here and now.
However, considering the very nature of ‘Campbell Live‘; it’s reputation for investigative journalism; it’s reputation for advocacy journalism; and John Campbell’s outstanding, impeccable reputation – this blogger believes that it does matter. It matters very much.
Referring to coverage of any story on ‘Campbell Live‘ as “self indulgent” seems an exceedingly weak excuse to ignore it.
Tim’s question as to who “you can get to talk to and what you can add to the public debate. The newspapers were all over CLive, so what new could we add? Who would talk in a studio programme that would be useful and wouldn’t look indulgent” is a question for a current affairs producer to answer. S/he is paid to come up with such names.
But off the top of my head, I can think of Kim Hill, Brian Edwards, Bill Ralston, Andrea Vance, Fran O’Sullivan, to name a few. Or ex tv company executives. Perhaps even staff willing to talk, off the record, under a guarantee of anonymity.
Critiquing and scrutinising media events that impact on our country and the way investigative journalism is carried out is hardly “indulgent”. For one thing, it addresses the ages-old question; Who Watches The Watchmen?
On the issue of “Who Watches the Watchmen”, I asked Tim; in your experience, do media outlets (eg; TV3) ever investigate themselves when they are the focus of public attention?
“Yes, many do investigate themselves. Look at the BBC on Clarkson. Indeed our host Lisa Owen, when at TVNZ, was often used to stories on TVNZ.“
So, it’s not “indulgent” when Lisa Owen did stories on TVNZ?
“It’s always delicate reporting on yourself, but it’s important to be able to do (arguably more so at TVNZ than at TV3 because there is public money involved there while Mediaworks is just a private business).”
“Mediaworks is just a private business“?
I leave the reader to draw his/her own conclusions to that one single sentence. To this blogger, it raise more questions than it answers – especially when Tim described how “it’s always delicate reporting on yourself”.
I then referred Tim to a recent story by Matt Nippert in the ‘NZ Herald‘ on 18 April; “Campbell’s sponsor cut months ago“. I asked if he thought Nippert’s claims warranted further investigation on ‘The Nation‘, and if not, why not?
Tim was categorical;
“No. By this time next week, I’m sure that angle will have been fully investigated and played out one way or another. It also might be useful to consider the differences between the strengths and weaknesses of print vs studio-based TV programmes. That’s a great print story, but how would you cover it on TV now that it’s broken? It’s a newsworthy reported fact, but doesn’t suggest a compelling 10 minute interview or 10 minute track, which is what we do.”
I am intrigued that Tim asks, “but how would you cover it on TV now that it’s broken?”
If a blogger – untrained in media or journalism – has to advise a TV producer “how to cover it on TV now that it’s broken“, then one of us is in the wrong job. I would assume, just for arguments sake, that Nippert’s story would be covered in the same way that Nicky Hager’s story on ‘Dirty Politics‘ was covered.
To determine whether Nippert’s story is “compelling” or not, I refer the reader to the full article;
On one point in Nippert’s story, I will add my own observation. Reference Bill Ralson’s comment;
Bill Ralston, a former TVNZ head of current affairs, said the short-term deal was highly unusual and only made sense if a decision about the future of the show had already been made…
Mr Ralston said longer-term sponsorships made more financial sense for broadcasters.
“If you’re a cash-strapped TV channel like they are, you’d want that cash booked in for at least a year.”
In the 1990s, this blogger worked for a community newspaper, in the advertising department. When seeking clients to advertise, we were told to encourage clients to book advertisements for long periods – the longer the better. It meant guaranteed income for the paper.
Given a choice between a three month contract and a year-long contract, any advertising rep would have pushed for the latter. No advertising manager in his/her right mind would willingly give a client only a three month contract when a twelve month version was available.
Otherwise, you would be throwing potential revenue away.
This point alone warrants a full investigation by any current affairs team worthy of the name. It raises questions. I suggest to Tim Watkin that might be a valid starting point; why was a cash-strapped TV channel that has just come out of liquidation turning down year-long sponsorship contract
On 14 April, Tim strenuously also rejected any executive interference in his show, and expressed umbrage at impugning the integrity of his team;
“…you suggest that we “may” have been “dissuaded” from covering the story by Weldon or Christie. Clearly given my first point, that’s wrong. But what has prompted me to drop you this personal note is that it also impugns the integrity of my team without any supporting evidence. Let me assure you that it is entirely incorrect.
That I’m always happy to debate, but I get very protective when people make stuff up, make lazy assumptions or get personal, especially if it reflects on the integrity of my hard-working team of journalists, who more than most have put their skin in the game and chosen to work on a NZOA funded programme trying to make the type of television that is thorough and thoughtful and holds power to account without fear or favour.”
Two points require addressing here.
1. The point made in my previous blogpost (The Curious World of the Main Stream Media) stated;
“Understandably, perhaps, TV3’s executives Julie Christie and Group Chief Executive Officer Mark Weldon – who have allegedly expressed a dislike for ‘Campbell Live‘ – may have dissuaded ‘The Nation‘ from enquiring further into the matter.“
Note the two words I have highlighted; “allegedly” and “may“.
I have no evidence except other media reports which have carried this suggestion. (Hopefully Tim will be contacting them, seeking a “correction”?) Indeed, I purposely left out a damning allegation which had first been reported on social media (and since published on another website) simply because I could find no corroborating evidence to support it.
However, let me make this point. Tim refers to Nicki Hager’s investigative book, ‘Dirty Politics‘.
When ‘Dirty Politics‘ was released and the contents of National’s dealings with a far-right blogger became public knowledge, several individuals, from the Prime Minister up, were quick to shrug and respond;
So what? We all knew this was happening. There’s nothing new here.
I make no claim what influence – if any – Mediawork’s executives Julie Christie and Mark Weldon made to keep the ‘Campbell Live‘ issue out of their current affairs programmes.
We simply don’t know for certain. There have been unsubstantiated claims, but no evidence.
But – if evidence does surface that pressure has been exerted from MediaWork’s lofty towers, or further afield, from a certain Ninth Floor, will we be hearing the same cynics dismissively protesting;
So what? We all knew this was happening. There’s nothing new here.
2. This blogger rejects any suggestion that Tim’s Team has been insulted or in any way had their integrity impugned.
If legitimate questions cannot be asked of politicians by the media; and of the media by the public – then someone is holding themselves above any form of accountability.
For the record, this blogger does not question the hard work or integrity of the workers involved in ‘Q+A‘ and ‘The Nation‘. Nothing I have written comes close to suggesting otherwise, regardless of Tim’s long bow which seems to stretch from Bluff to Kaitaia.
Also for the record, despite not questioning the dedication and integrity of workers involved in both shows; my question remains; why was the ‘Campbell Live‘ issue not considered worthy of scrutiny by either/both ‘Q+A‘ and ‘The Nation‘? Tim himself concedes that this is an extraordinary, on-going story.
When the fate of television’s last, prime-time investigative tv show is under threat – then we, the public, deserve to at least ask why?
Are we still permitted to ask questions? Especially when the msm won’t ask on our behalf?
I invite producers of ‘Q+A‘ to answer the same questions I have levelled at Tim Watkin. To date, I have had no response to queries sent via Twitter to the show’s producer.
Meanwhile, news for ‘Campbell Live‘ just gets better and better;
As I tweeted back, “I guess with those figures, Mediaworks will be canning Jono & Ben and 3 News?”
The near-full version of emails between myself and ‘Nation‘ producer, Tim Watkin, is available for viewing here.
Frankly Speaking: Campbell still Live, not gone
TVNZ: Q+A (19 April 2015)
TV3: Animation Nation
NZ Herald: Campbell’s sponsor cut months ago
Mana Party: Key – I want that left wing bastard gone
Twitter: Campbell Live
Previous related blogposts
This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 20 April 2015.
= fs =