Best of both worlds

New Zealanders with experience on a world stage are a formidable force. 

It’s good news that two of them are filling key vacancies in our news media organisations.

Washington Post correspondent Anna Fifield took up her role as editor of the Dominion Post yesterday. By the end of the year Al Jazeera and Bloomberg news executive Paul Yurisich will be in place as TVNZ’s head of news and current affairs.

Both bring to their respective roles the knowledge and experience garnered from years working in the most challenging news environments. Crucially, it is married with their innate understanding of what makes their fellow New Zealanders tick – the social, cultural and historical contexts that colour our view of the world and of ourselves.

Yurisich’s new role, in particular, could have gone to a brash Aussie keen to show the country cousins how it should be done, or a Brit incapable of quite shaking off the attitude that he was dealing with a bunch of colonials.

Instead, the state broadcaster has appointed a Kiwi who began his journalistic career in newspapers (The Auckland Star) and worked as a news producer on both TVNZ and TV3 before moving to Al Jazeera in Doha then Bloomberg in Hong Kong. While with Bloomberg he oversaw significant digital and data upgrades to the Asian operation. Since last year he has been back at Al Jazeera as its English channel’s executive producer of news. 

Fifield, the Washington Post’s Beijing bureau chief before her return, began her career on Rotorua’s Daily Post and New Zealand Press Association before a decade-long spell with the Financial Times as a correspondent in Asia, the Middle East and the United States.

Significantly, both Fifield and Yurisich have maintained close personal ties with New Zealand throughout their international careers. Neither will be bewildered by changes that have occurred since they moved offshore.

On Sunday, Fifield spoke with Colin Peacock on RNZ National. She made it clear that she would not have been interested in the Dominion Post editorship if Stuff had still been owned by Australia’s Nine Network. The local management buyout by Sinead Boucher had been a key factor in her decision.

That sense of nationalism, and confidence in our own people, is vital for the future of journalism in New Zealand.

That is not to say that we should not have any ‘imports’. Our newsrooms have been enriched by journalists from other countries but, if they aspire to the top job, it’s best if they serve an ‘internship’.

Editorship (or whatever title is conferred on the person responsible for leading a news organisation’s journalistic endeavours) requires qualities that are not as transferable as reporting skills. A nuanced understanding of the country and community is an indispensable asset in guiding daily coverage and strategic direction. Australian Andrew Holden was an inspirational editor of The Press in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake but also had four years in the deputy editor role. His fellow countryman Murray Kirkness was a perceptive custodian of the Otago Daily Times before moving his skills to the New Zealand Herald. He had been at Allied Press for seven years before becoming editor. 

Importing an outsider to be editor is another matter entirely. While I was editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, I was asked to consider a prominent London-based British journalist for the post of editor. I rejected the suggestion because I was not confident that person would understand our culture or our readers.

Yurisich and Fifield will need time to re-absorb the finer points. Fifield told RNZ that, while she had ideas for changes to the Dominion Post, she needed time to get reacquainted with the city, hear from readers on what they wanted covered and also get to know her staff.

Writing in yesterday’s newspaper she started as she means to carry on. In a signed letter on page 3 she told readers “As I start in this position, I want to know how we at the Dominion Post and at Stuff can better serve you. Over the next few months I will be inviting you to comment on our coverage. In the meantime, I welcome your constructive feedback…If you can, please consider joining us in this shared effort to make Aotearoa New Zealand a better place”. And she signed off with Ngā mihi nui. I can’t imagine an import doing that.

Contribution to public trust

Anna Fifield started work yesterday under the provisions of a new Code of Conduct and Ethics that has been adopted by Stuff. It is a comprehensive, fair-minded and constructive set of values and expectations that does the news organisation credit. 

It is clearly aimed at giving the public confidence in the company’s print and online editorial content and, as such, is a vital addition to its campaign to raise the public level of trust. 

Two entries may merit small revisions.  The section on falsification and hoaxes states: “We take the trust of our audience seriously and do not attempt to fool our audience, even for satirical purposes.” It would be unfortunate if the final section of that undertaking ruled out satire altogether. And the definition of ‘off the record’ in the section on interviews – “cannot be reported unless the journalist obtains the same information from another source” – should stipulate that the alternative source is one that can be reported.

Those, however, are minor matters in what otherwise is a code that Stuff can wear with pride. Take a look: https://www.stuff.co.nz/about-stuff/300106664/stuff-editorial-code-of-practice-and-ethics

Why I’m empathetic

Ever since Alison Mau and her colleagues engaged New Zealanders in the #Me Too Movement I have felt empathy for their cause. 

What right-thinking person would think otherwise? Numerous accounts of sexual harassment or assault against women have painted pictures of unacceptable behaviour and a poisonous culture even in places we did not suspect.

However, my empathy runs  deeper than that because I know how those women feel.

I had not intended to state that publicly but in Mau’s Sunday Star Times column last weekend she wrote about the men who have gone public with allegations that they were groomed or sexually assaulted by New Zealand composer, the late Jack Body, when they were students at Victoria University of Wellington.

In her column she wrote: “The other reason we don’t often get to write men’s stories comes down to us (all of us – the ‘team of five million’ I mean). Our society simply does not permit it. In New Zealand there is still a thing that goes along with being a bloke; an expectation that if something bad happens to you, particularly something sexual, you’ll just suck it up, go to the rugby with your mates and never mention it again.”

She’s right. And it’s a bad reason to stay silent. So I won’t.

I have never written about my confrontation with sexual harassment and I think the only time I have spoken openly about it is to my wife. 

It happened 55 years ago and I remember it as clearly as if it was today.

I was a young reporter in the days when we had ‘rounds’ and the time to visit our contacts for a chat in the hope that a story might emerge.

One morning I visited such a contact, knocking on the door of his empty office in the small otherwise deserted building and announcing my presence.

“Just go in. I’ll be with you in a minute.”

So I went into his office and waited.

A minute later he appeared in the doorway, wearing nothing but a t-shirt.

He complained that his testicles were heavy and invited me to feel them.

I was horrified…and afraid. He was larger than me and was blocking the only way out.

I was speechless, literally speechless. I did not know what to say and I felt trapped.

To this day I do not know what his next move might have been, but two men appeared at the door. They looked at him, saw the look on my face, and told him in no uncertain terms to get out.

I thanked them and left. I went back to the newsroom and told no-one. I did not lay a complaint. Who would back me up? I didn’t know the men who had appeared so fortuitously. I hadn’t had the presence of mind to even ask their names. And, perhaps worst of all, the harasser worked for a highly reputable organisation whose standing could  be damaged by a complaint. I stayed silent.

It’s wrong to say no harm was done to me. Had it been harmless my less than faultless memory would have forgotten it by now. It hasn’t.

Yet there is a positive side to it. It has led to a deeper level of empathy with the victims of sexual harassment and with Mau’s campaign: # Me Too.

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