Television New Zealand does not need a Covid-19 revenue nosedive as a reason to rethink its two-person early evening news hour. The format is a 1980s American import that should have disappeared with power shoulders and Miami Vice.
There is no journalistic benefit in presenters taking turns in reading from a teleprompter and if female/male partnerships are a gesture to gender equality, who says a single news reader must be male?
The double act hit our screens in 1989 after TVNZ brought consultants from the United States to tell it how to face competition from TV3. The advisors were surfing the wave of neoliberal marketing and peddling razzle dazzle formats.
‘Barbie and Ken’ presenters were just part of a toolkit that drilled right down to create ‘news morsels’. Academic Joe Atkinson charted its evolution in a 1994 study titled The Americanization of One Network News and concluded: “In short, what has happened to One Network News is neither good communication nor good journalism.”
In the study he revealed that the double act was pure marketing. And every aspect of their appearance on screen was carefully managed: “Presentational intonation and gesture were altered to convey warmth, intimacy and informality. Camera shots were revised to make viewers identify both with the individual presenters and with the news family.”
He also noted that the remarks by each news reader at the end of items were not intended to aid the viewers’ understanding of the subject so much as to make the anchors appear more authoritative. And what appeared to be ad lib banter between presenters, and with their sport and weather counterparts, was also scripted. Spontaneity, apparently, was rehearsed.
Maybe today’s news presenters are more practised in the art of ad libbing but what hasn’t changed is the reason we have two of them on the news set. It remains simply a marketing ploy…and one we don’t need.
The Covid catharsis is an opportunity to do more than remove surplus presenters. It should also lead to a re-examination of the role of the news reader who simply reads the news in an updated version of Dougal Stevenson’s role when NZBC Network News was first seen up and down the country in November 1969.
The world is very different 50 years later. We live amid a multiplicity of information sources – some good, some bad, and some malevolent – that many of us are ill-equipped to navigate. It is time for the news reader to be replaced by an objective news interpreter.
In a way, it means going back to the future. It means a return to the authoritative news anchors that characterised the American television networks in the last four decades of the twentieth century. Walter Cronkite and his successor Dan Rather imbued the CBS Evening News with a sense that it served to help viewers understand what was happening in the world. They earned the trust of many Americans, so much so that when Cronkite stated during the 1969 Tet Offensive that the Vietnam War was ‘stuck in a quagmire’, President Johnson was reported to have said “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America”.
‘News anchor’ suggests someone who holds the news in place. It should mean more than simply reading bulletins and linking to pieces of video, but the interpretive element is missing from the current roles.
Let me throw into the hat a couple of names who could fill the position: Guyon Espiner or Jessica Mutch McKay. Both know the difference between analysis and opinion. And, of course, there are the seasoned troupers: John Campbell or Hilary Barry (although I suspect she enjoys sitting on the Seven Sharp couch with Jeremy Wells).
The job must not, of course, be given to someone who might use it to persuade the nation to her or his opinion. It must go to someone with the experience and authority to apply the tenets of objective journalism: To produce not personal opinion but objective explanation and analysis. The late Sir Paul Holmes could have filled such a role but, instead, he represents what must be avoided: Ego dictated that his opinions were as important as fact (sometimes more so).
If gender balance remains an issue, TVNZ could follow the lead of Australia’s ABC News at 7pm. Juanita Phillips anchors Sunday to Thursday and Jeremy Fernandez Friday and Saturday.
TVNZ’s tipping point could go even further than redefining the role of the anchor. It is time to revisit the news hour.
It is increasingly rare for broadcast networks to devote sixty minutes of prime time to a news bulletin. The ABC News bulletin is 30 minutes, as is the BBC national news and the CBS, NBC and ABC network bulletins in the US.
I must say emphatically that this is not a call for less news. It is a suggestion that a tighter format could relieve the bulletin of fillers and concentrate the minds of both news producers and news consumers. And the 30 minutes that is freed up could be put to very good use.
In many overseas cases the half-hour bulletins are followed by either regional news or current affairs programmes. In this country, Q&A could become a 30-minute weeknight staple after 1 News at 6 – leading into Seven Sharp. I don’t accept that the population of this country is so mindless that it cannot cope with the nightly current affairs that have been absent since the demise of Campbell Live on TV3 (no, Seven Sharp and The Project are definitely not current affairs programmes).
Both networks have been hard hit by the coronavirus’ effect on advertising. It is deeply saddening that people will lose their jobs as a result. Rethinking 1 News at 6 – and its TV3 counterpart – would at least mean some lasting good might come out of the crisis.
Timely and brave self-examination
Yesterday the New Zealand Herald carried an opinion column by Teuila Fuatai entitled “Why I found it so hard to write about racism in New Zealand for the Herald”. It also carried a response by Herald Editor Murray Kirkness. Both were part of a wider series seeking a deeper look at New Zealand’s race relations in light of the international Black Lives Matter campaign.
Fuatai’s column had its origins in a refusal by the Auckland chapter of the campaign to be interviewed by the newspaper, which it accused of bias on race-related issues “and how this upholds white supremacy”. Its spokesperson said it was up to the Herald to do its own due diligence on the matter. Fuatai, confronted by that challenge, admitted that it was time to re-examine her role within the newspaper.
“This piece is an account of that,” she said. “Through it I have highlighted to my editors the difficulties of writing for an organisation that I feel is yet to properly examine how racism operates within its own walls.”
Kirkness’ response began by saying that being accused of racism “is a difficult pill to swallow”. However, what followed was not a denial. It was a thoughtful acknowledgement of unconscious bias and acceptance of stereotypes. It did note steps the organisation had already taken to address diversity and inclusion but accepted Fuatai’s criticism and pledged to do better in future.
Both Fuatai and the Herald are to be commended for confronting the issue openly and honestly.
They are not the first to confront racism in the newspaper and, if we’re being honest, they probably won’t be the last. It is an evolutionary exercise.
When I was appointed editor of the Herald, one of my first acts was to stop the practice of adding ‘s’ to a Māori word to denote a plural. It’s incorrect and there is no ‘s’ in the Māori alphabet. It may seem a small thing, but it was significant. The word “Maoris” rankled with me but, much worse, it was an affront to our Polynesian brothers and sisters. We Pakeha were not even affording them the dignity of correctly naming them. We had done the same to “Tuis” and “Kiwis” and “pois” and it was a colonial practice that had to stop. It took longer to introduce the macron but that came eventually. We also made moves to improve our reporting of ethnic issues and I despatched a news executive to the United States to investigate how news organisations had improved engagement. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that I was as guilty of unconscious bias and stereotyping as my successors were in yesterday’s Herald.
Long retired from the newspaper, my contribution to redressing the shortcomings can be no more than an apology for the past. And praise for Teuila Fuatai and Murray Kirkness, who are showing the way to a better future.
To Simon Farrell-Green and his team who have risen from the Bauer ashes to publish – in an astonishingly short timeframe – the first issue of Here. He describes it as “an architectural magazine about houses first and foremost, but also about community, independent business, art, design and making.” And a posy to each of the people who responded to his crowdfunding campaign and contributed a total of $22,940, which was 182 per cent of his target.
Death of the white knight
You may have noticed that the white knight from the Lewis chess pieces has disappeared from the site. Someone whose opinion I respect thought the change was necessary to remove any suggestion of a connection to white supremacy. The walrus bone figurine has been replaced by a dragon-slaying knight – fitting imagery for a profession that fights monsters in many shapes and sizes.