Brian Edwards Media

Why Fair Go must never be afraid to bite the hand that feeds it.

I probably should have commented on this story earlier, but the repossession of Q and Livy’s car, sold to them by an unlicensed dealer on Trade Me with a $7,000 debt owing to Pacific Dawn Finance, rather took precedence over everything else.

But this story is important. It strongly suggests improper editorial interference by TVNZ management in its high-profile consumer protection programme Fair Go.

The issue was brought to light by Labour Broadcasting spokeswoman Clare Curran when TVNZ management appeared before Parliament’s Commerce Committee.

Curran asked: ‘How can you explain reports that TVNZ’s Head of Programming called a meeting of Fair Go staff, including all reporters, together in the last couple of weeks and instructed them not to produce programmes that would upset advertisers?’

TV1 and TV2 head, Jeff Latch, said he had been invited ‘as a guest’ to the meeting. He went on:

‘The key points I made at that meeting were the fact that the heart of Fair Go for the last 20 plus years that it’s been on New Zealand television, is that it represents the underdog and the small guy and stands up for them and that’s what’s made it a special programme for New Zealanders for a large period of time.

‘I also made the observation that we operate in a commercial environment and that Fair Go like all our programs needed to exercise care in terms of the way they handle stories, they need to make sure they’re always balanced because in a commercial environment a story that is not balanced could be something that we would not want to run on this network.”

‘It wasn’t an instruction per se. I asked them to contemplate and think about when you’re looking at stories it’s very important that they’re balanced and we actually show both sides of the story and I think Fair Go does.’

This is a fascinating reply.

Latch finishes by saying that he reminded the Fair Go team of how important it was to be balanced and show both sides of a story. But he then adds, ‘and I think Fair Go does.’ So why was there any need to remind them?

More importantly, why did he need to remind them that the network operates in a commercial environment  and that they ‘need to make sure they’re always balanced because in a commercial environment a story that is not balanced could be something that we would not want to run on this network.’

I would have thought that  TVNZ needed  ‘to be balanced and show both sides of a story’ in every environment. Indeed the Broadcasting Act requires it. Lack of balance is one of the cardinal sins in radio and television broadcasting in this country.

So why the special emphasis on the commercial’ environment? Well, it’s really pretty obvious – the advertisers pay around 95% of TVNZ’s bills and everyone knows it’s unwise to bite the hand that feeds you.

Could that really have been what Jeff Latch was telling the network’s consumer advocates? Well, not really ‘telling’ them. ‘It wasn’t,’ he said, ‘an instruction per se’.

Per se is such a convenient little Latin phrase. Its literal meaning is  ‘of itself’’ or ‘intrinsically’. But it’s actually a handy way of saying, ‘yes but not really’ or ‘kind of’ – a sort of Clayton’s denial. So I take Mr Latch’s, ‘It wasn’t an instruction per se,’ to mean, ‘It was an instruction.’

Ironically perhaps, Latch began by stressing that ‘Fair Go represents the underdog and the small guy and stands up for them and that’s what’s made it a special programme for New Zealanders for a large period of time.’

He was right about that. Fair Go has always been a David and Goliath show, undeterred by the power or influence of the companies and institutions it called to account  in the interests of ordinary people. Never in the 8 years I was involved in the programme was the fact that the complainee was an advertiser on the network mentioned, let alone regarded as a factor in whether to proceed with a story.

And advertisers did complain. The Insurance Council was frequently unhappy with the volume of complaints against insurance companies that featured on the programme and made its displeasure known. Yet, despite the fact that the companies were major advertisers on TV1 and TV2, no-one ever suggested that we should pull our woolly heads in.

Philip Alpers’ investigation into rusting Toyota cars would cost the company millions, but there was never any suggestion that we should downplay the seriousness of the problem.

Over the 35 years that the programme has been on air there have been hundreds of such examples. Fair Go has been the court of last resort for thousands of ordinary Kiwis. If it is to continue in that role, it cannot concern itself with the impact a story might have on any company or organisation which advertises on the network. A willingness to bite the hand that feeds it, is the ultimate evidence of the programme’s journalistic integrity.

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18 Comments:

  1. I was disgusted when I heard this,a prime example of why we need true public broadcasting.

  2. Maybe that is a little over the top Brian.
    Looking at the issue from the view of a story which was not balanced, gives you a different interpretation of Latch’s comments. If stories regularly failed the balanced criteria, then that could mean a loss of commercial support from many customers if a competitor were more likely to deliver a more balanced but similar programme. ie advertisers would vote with their feet during such programmes.
    Any advertiser that supported a station or programme on condition that they were never criticized would risk exposure and loss of consumer support.
    I think if Mr Latch was invited to present to the group then this form of reminder is an important one.

    BE: You seem to have missed the point that Latch said that Fair Go was already balanced in its coverage of stories. In any event, the newest cub reporter would know that there is a requirement for balance on all news, current affairs and public information programmes. The highly experienced staff on Fair Go would need no such reminding.

  3. This is what happens when the programming of a network becomes subservient to advertising sales. This “suggestion” to the Fair Go staff should never have happened and is cause for concern.

  4. Point taken Jeff, Fair Go will no longer run stories about companies numbered among TVNZ’s shrinking advertiser base. I did wonder the other day why I bother watching that McNews crap the FTA channels serve us. Now I have my epiphany: in the twenty-noughties, the term editorial integrity is an oxymoron. More emphasis on the moron and fra less on the oxy.

  5. First it was the displeasure with the airing of a documentary before the elections. Now the “It wasn’t an instruction per se”. We are on the slippery slope of a dictatorial-democracy.

  6. Good call Brian. We all should be extremely worried about the tide of editorial interference that is starting to emerge in our media and elsewhere. Pre-election it was the ombudsman, a high court judge and the Herald on Sunday who made conveniently safe decisions for the government. Since the election we have seen a TV network pressured because they showed a doco that raised uncomfortable questions for Key and now we are seeing interference in Fair Go. And let’s not forget the fate that awaits TVNZ7 while TVNZ pour resources into the Heartland channel which we can only see by filling Rupert Murdoch’s already overflowing pockets. What’s next?

  7. 7

    BE: “Fair Go was already balanced in its coverage of stories.”

    I’m not sure that I can say in all good conscience that it was all the time. I recall, for example, the story of the young couple who accidentally ordered a very expensive bottle of wine in a restaurant. Now to my mind, there really wasn’t any legal obligation on the restaurant to make any gestures of good will. We don’t expect restaurant staff to nursemaid us through meals – there are certain expectations about ordering protocol. And yet, Fair Go effectively bullied the restaurant into wiping the bill. To me that was an extraordinary misuse of media power.

    It is, perhaps this sort of slant TVNZ management was alluding to, and that I would understand, but to make it about sponsors and advertisers is an appalling lapse on TVNZs part.

    BE: I agree that FG has made errors of judgement, but not in my experience to appease advertisers.

  8. Television companies are largely run by youfs, it seems to me. That being the case, it is improbable that Mr Latch ever studied Latin and therefore his use of the term “per se” is likely only a phrase he heard once and now uses at will, typical of the meaningless jargon of the age, much like “in the future, going forward.” However, we should not be perturbed nor alarmed by Mr Latch’s attempted (hopefully) strictures. TV One is NOT a public service broadcaster. “Fair Go” was public service broadcasting once upon a time. Today we should accept that anything coming out of TV One is primarily intended as entertainment and for the capture of some advertiser’s dollar.

  9. This is an issue not just for Fair Go but for the entire News & Current Affairs department of TVNZ. There must be a firewall between TVNZ’s “independent” News & Current Affairs operation and the network’s sales and advertising executives. I’m sure there once was. If advertisers ring TVNZ’s top brass complaining they’ve been mistreated by Fair Go or any other of TVNZ’s News and Current Affairs programmes, they must be told to complain through the normal complaints channels…or sue. They should be told that TVNZ’s News and Current Affairs programmes, including Fair Go, are independent and calls to individual producers from TVNZ executives on behalf of clients are simply not on. I raised this “firewall” matter with Jeff Latch and news/c.affairs bosses 2/3 years ago when an issue arose but none seemed to appreciate its importance. I warned them then, that if it wasn’t dealt with it would come back to haunt them. News/CA should not only be free to attack the network’s advertisers…but TVNZ itself. I’m not sure the current breed of executives get that. One thing though – in fairness to Jeff and Fair Go, I find it impossible to believe that he ever “called a meeting of Fair Go staff to instruct them not to produce programmes that would upset advertisers”. I believe that to be a considerable exaggeration. Fair Go wouldn’t stand for it and Jeff’s not that stupid. I suspect he was invited to speak by Fair Go and offered some thoughts. But his comments both then and in Parliament, would seem to be both unfortunate and somewhat revealing.

    BE: Thanks Kev, no-one is better informed to comment on this than you.

  10. This parallels the charter loss exactly and is very predictable, plus it shows just how out of touch we are with the power of money to corrupt all we see.
    The onus of employee responsibility at TVNZ has simply shifted in a typically matter of fact Kiwi way from not biting “the hand politigue”, to not biting “the hand that feeds you”. The new order has been adopted and stamped. “Yassa massa jokey, I’ll do what you want me to, jusz donna hit me so”.
    You should know about this Brian, you bit the hand politique. I remember it very clearly (was doing audio that night)and you paid a heavy price if I remember. The hardest thing of all in life is to come to terms with the existence of serious bullies both on the playground and in your career (especially if youre small or poor). Bullies feast on power, the more power they have the more they abuse those around them, simple as that! Nothings changed has it matey, nothing at all!

  11. Judging from recent FG programmes I would have to say that the watchdog has lost its teeth and should be put down. It has become a programme of ‘puffery’ and light entertainment with an emphasis of the quirky rather than hard investigative journalism.

    The tone was set with the decision to front the programme with Alison Mau; pleasant but lightweight. I have not yet seen her ‘get her hands dirty’ as have previous hosts. A punch on the nose would do wonders for her credibilty.

    In its current format I would think TVNZ’s advertising sales staff and advertisers have little to fear on a Wednesday night.

  12. So instead of tackling the deep-pocketed and potentially far more litigeous big companies, does this mean Fair Go will turn its jets onto small time operators who are easy to hit, don’t have the resources to defend themselves, have a more desperate need to cut corners simply to survive (sadly), and who cumulatively do about 1/1000th of the social damage caused by one big corporate?

    I don’t want to defend small time crooked operators, nor demean the pain they can cause to some people, but they’re incapable of causing widespread harm compared to a big company – think back to the Ford Pinto debacle.

    Frankly, the only news and current affairs with any real depth are on TVNZ7. Firstly ghettoised there, soon to be sacrificed for NZ’s Got Talent.

    Sad.

    BE: Hmmm, I omitted to mention that on last week’s Fair Go, fairly significant plugs were given to Bunnings, Roofing Industries, Dulux, Winstone Wallboards and Ryobi. These companies had given their time and products to restore an appalingly built house for a distraught couple. That’s good. But it does leave the question: If FG receives complaints about any of those companies next week, will it be less inclined to take them on? It might be best for FG to stay at arm’s length from and not be indebted to businesses who might well come to its attention for negative reasons in the future.

  13. Since we are concerned about the matter of independence at FG, what’s with the former FG presenter selling carpet? And taking his time to ensure that we all know that his FG background is important for credibility? I have heard you, Brian, on this matter and approaches that were made to you. But if everyone’s favourite uncle Kevvy can roll over in front of the first advertising juggernaut to roll down his highway, what hope for the independence and credibility of those he left to carry on the fight?

  14. Not wanting to stimulate any increase in the size of your head Brian but Fair Go lost its edge when you left. The media in general appears to have been blunted and become soft. No one is allowed to ask the hard questions. Probably all that ‘PC’ Helen Clark’s fault coupled with the usual ‘right wing conspiracy’. Ooops, heard a keyboard creak, look out, here comes Kimbo!

  15. I also noted from the credits last night that the programme advertises the store that provides the clothing for Alison Mau; another potential conflict of interest. FG is no longer a consumer affairs programme; it is a consumer promotion programme. It is licking advertisers to death.

  16. I shouldn’t have to say it again, but Justices Leveson & Finkelstein would have a lot on their plate if they were brought to NZ to sort things out.

  17. There is so little worth watching with mediocrity the measure across the networks with few exceptions. Gratefully free-to-air Maori TV keeps a higher standard.
    I miss a decent current affairs interview show with an able journalist good at grilling the victim in the chair.
    Paul Holmes is a national embarrassment. Perhaps he could also try his luck over the ditch? Increasing the IQ of both nations simultaneously?