Time to review media culture

The alarm bells are ringing and New Zealand media organisations should take heed.

They should not wait for a complaint of serious misconduct before initiating independent enquiries into their workplace culture. 

Last week MediaWorks announced the appointment of Queen’s Counsel Maria Dew to carry out an independent workplace review following allegations of serious misconduct against an employee at The Rock radio station. 

To its credit, MediaWorks says the review will be company-wide. That is a recognition of the likelihood that instances of sexism (at least) are not limited to a single employee. 

If Maria Dew finds there is substance to the complaint and suggestions of wider issues, I doubt that MediaWorks will be an isolated instance of toxic workplace culture in the New Zealand media. 

After Stuff’s Alison Mau broke the story of the complaint, social media posts pointed to other parts of the industry and at the weekend Polly Gillespie (who has worked for both of the major commercial broadcasters) wrote in the Sunday Star Times about the condoning of “outlandish behaviour” by male staff and sexist attitudes toward female employees at radio stations.

However, sexism and sexual harassment are not limited to the airwaves. Media organisations are fertile ground.  

At the very least they can be ‘blokey’ places where a testosterone-fuelled culture is justified — for example as part of the cut-and-thrust of journalism. The justification goes like this: A hard-arsed environment prepares you to cover car crashes and human tragedy…harden up…work hard and play hard…it’s only a bit of harmless fun and anyway you’re just one of the boys, aren’t you?

Mindless sexism is not uncommon in many environments where women and men work alongside each other but that does not excuse it. And in a media environment laden with other pressures and stresses it is an unacceptable additional burden for women. 

Of course, sexism is not the only pressure point. Newsrooms, for example, are not democracies. There is a hierarchy that is intended to reflect the balances and responsibilities of media production. And, increasingly, there is a ‘star’ culture that reflects ratings and, in commercial media, advertising pulling power. In other words, there is a power structure in which imbalance can be exploited.

Gillespie wrote of “one big boss [who] made me feel crippled with anxiety and fear for years”. And, although not suggested in her case, such imbalances can be a key factor in inappropriate personal behaviour, sexual harassment or assault that may go unreported.

Why single out the media for pre-emptive reviews of their internal culture? There are two reasons: Firstly, a sector that seeks to hold others to account should ensure its own house is in good order; and, second, the online dialogue following the complaint about The Rock suggests there is dirt in the corners of some of its rooms. Such pre-emptive reviews may well be unprecedented – it usually takes a brave soul to lay a formal complaint before action is taken – but that is no reason to shy away. 

And Maria Dew’s investigation could provide other media with the road map to follow. She is a good choice.

She has a wealth of experience investigating issues such as those that now confront MediaWorks. She was involved in Dame Margaret Bazley’s enquiry into workplace practices at law firm Russell McVeagh, and was commissioned by Hockey New Zealand to carry out an independent review in relation to the team culture of the Black Sticks. That review found almost three-quarters of players she interviewed had serious concerns about a “negative environment” and that Hockey NZ had not done enough to ensure player welfare was adequately considered. However, much of the detail of her report was kept under wraps by the sporting body.

Not that a Dew investigation is a foregone conclusion of misconduct. Her 2019 inquiry into complaints of sexual assault against a former Labour Party staffer did not back the complainant’s version  of events.

So MediaWorks did the right thing in widening the independent review. However, it has further obstacles to negotiate before it can be seen to have handled the matter well.

The most significant issue it has yet to confront is the terms of reference. While announcing Maria Dew’s appointment, the chief executive Cam Wallace said the terms of reference for her enquiry were still being determined.

Two things have to happen. First, the terms of reference must be both wide and comprehensive – designed to give the Queen’s Counsel a broad mandate to enquire into any areas she deems appropriate. Secondly, the full terms of reference must be made public. The sole exceptions should be the name of the complainant and (pending outcomes) the name of the subject of the complaint.

MediaWorks must not follow the well-worn path of setting up an enquiry and then producing narrow (and undisclosed) terms of reference that serve no other purpose than to limit reputational damage.

Ali Mau put it well when I asked her about such reviews: “This a really common ruse and often leaves complainants devastated, because when they hear “independent investigation” they breathe a huge sigh of relief and throw themselves into the process because they’re so elated something official is happening. Often, they don’t even ask to see the Terms of Reference and end up bewildered that the resulting report (which sometimes they are not even allowed to see) does not look/feel anything like they expected. It’s very retraumatising.”

There is no suggestion to date that MediaWorks is doing nothing more than damage control but the proof of that will lie in the terms of reference and what it does when the review is completed. If it makes a full disclosure of the contents and acts on the recommendations, it will have served its employees and itself well. If it doesn’t, it will bear the stain of hiding its dirty linen.

Any pre-emptive reviews by other parts of the industry would need to be equally transparent at both stages. Of course, that would not be the end of the process. The reviews would be only a beginning. I have no doubt they would find things to fix and attitudes to change. 

Banging on…with good reason

Readers of the Tuesday Commentary will be well aware of my trenchant view that social media platforms are illegitimate appropriators of content they have not paid to create (some call that theft).

I suppose I should be relieved that New Zealand mainstream media are now negotiating with Google over payment for content that will appear on a new news curation service provided by the search engine operator.

However, I think it’s safe to say the money involved will be a fraction of the $A30 million deal Google has signed with Nine Entertainment in Australia for use of content from sources including the Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review (or the undisclosed sum being paid to News Corp).

And it will pale alongside what Google extracts from this country in digital advertising.

The 2020 Digital Advertising Revenue Report produced by Interactive Advertising Bureau New Zealand shows search engines (and that largely means Google) produced almost $833 million in revenue last year. That is 62 per cent of the country’s total digital revenue and roughly the same amount as the combined advertising revenue of all of our newspapers and television. 

I’ll say it again, it’s time for Google – and Facebook – to pay their way and not a pittance.

Bouquet

We are being well served by our news media in ongoing coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic but one piece particularly took my eye. Dave Hansford, writing in New Zealand Geographic provided an absorbing comparison with the polio epidemic of my childhood. It began the year I was born (1947) and was raging when I started school. It was finally banished when I started secondary school and received the Sabin vaccine. His article brought back memories and childhood fears. Now I’m waiting for a new jab and the prospect that this particular coronavirus will go the same way as infantile paralysis.

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