AM Show failed Ashley Bloomfield…and Mike King

The AM Show and its host Duncan Garner failed in their duty last week.

Mental health advocate Mike King made an unacceptable personal attack during the show on Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, calling him “a nasty little man who is killing our kids”.

Garner’s response was: “They’re big claims to make. We’ll give him the right of reply.”

They weren’t “big claims”. They were an extreme attack that could well be found to be defamatory in the unlikely event that Bloomfield took civil action.

Garner’s response to King should have been: “That’s an unacceptable thing to say. Before we go on, I think you should withdraw it and apologise.”

King later did apologise on social media, revealing that he had spent hours the night before at a hospital; supporting a young man who had attempted suicide. King stated he had been “very tired and emotional” but recognised that, even in those circumstances, he should not have made the statement – “…I obviously wasn’t thinking straight.”

King is a decent man who is passionate about his cause, for which he unrelentingly courts publicity. And he had the good sense to unreservedly apologise. However, his on-air comments raise two issues that reflect poorly on The AM show and its host.

Firstly, if they knew of King’s level of fatigue and his emotional state, why did they allow him on the programme? The events of the previous evening had obviously taken their toll on him – to the point where he was unable to recognise that he had passed his own limits. If the producers were aware of the circumstances, they should have deferred the interview.

Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say that King had not shared that information with them. That does not excuse Garner’s reaction to the personal attack on the director-general.

Yes, it was live television. There was no way to unsay it. Therefore, the responsibility lay with Garner to rectify the situation. He did not.

And yesterday on the show, he addressed the outburst in a preamble to his Monday interview with the prime minister, admitting that “at the time we all thought he went too far”.

If so, Garner did little to put the matter right. The offer of a ‘right-of-reply’ was hollow. There was no prospect of Ashley Bloomfield appearing to defend himself — or face a further assault – nor should he need to.

This was not a matter of disagreeing with an interviewee’s opinion. Garner (and the producer with instant access to his earphone) had a responsibility to both Bloomfield and to King himself.

“Nasty little man” may be a matter of opinion, although in physical terms Bloomfield is about the same height as the 170 cm-tall Jacinda Ardern. However, the director-general’s responsibility for the deaths of New Zealand children was stated as fact – “killing our kids”. That is simply not true and, when King calmed down, he acknowledged it.

Garner, who was not “tired and emotional”, had a responsibility to correct him immediately, or at least cause him to reflect on what he had said.

King would have rightly laid himself open to a defamation claim if he had refused to resile from the statement. That, however, was highly unlikely. If he had been given a reality check, he would almost certainly have reacted as he did later in the morning.

The AM Show’s defence might be that they are not there to protect people from themselves and there is some merit to that argument. However, it is an argument qualified by circumstances and there is a duty of care owed to people who are in vulnerable positions. Given the harrowing circumstances that King faced in the hours before the interview, the network owed him some duty of care.

They certainly owed Ashley Bloomfield better protection of his reputation than was forthcoming on the day.

 

Self non-regulation

I’d like to invite New Zealand media executives to get their hands on a report that was launched in Britain last week.

They might recall that when the Leveson Report excoriated the British press in 2012, the industry responded with a new model of self-regulation that seemingly took to heart the criticisms of that wide-ranging enquiry.

Now a study by the University of Westminster has revealed that the Independent Press Standards organisation (IPSO) structure was essentially created by the industry in advance of – and not in response to – the Leveson Report. It was designed to perform the function of a complaints handler rather than a genuine industry regulator, much like its discredited predecessor the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

“It was therefore never intended, nor is it able, to operate according to the clear principles for effective and independent self-regulation laid down by Lord Justice Leveson,” say the report’s authors Dr Gordon Ramsay (no, not that Gordon Ramsay) and Professor Steven Barnett.

Their report demonstrates how self-defeating the media can be when it sets about self-serving forms of self-regulation. In the long run it simply plays into the hands of politicians and bureaucrats who would like nothing more than to have the same control of the press that they claimed over broadcasting.

The Westminster study by its Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) concludes that IPSO is deliberately constrained by the newspaper industry from acting as an effective, independent regulator that can uphold professional standards and command public respect.

“For journalism, the consequences of absent or ineffectual regulation can be profound,” the report states. “It is unfair to the public who see injustices go unchallenged. It is unfair to the vast majority of working journalists who care about standards and follow agreed professional codes, but see poor practices ignored and misconduct go unpunished. And crucially, it undermines trust in a vital democratic institution at a time that professional newsgathering and accurate reporting is under huge pressure from social media platforms.”

The authors claim IPSO bypassed the vast majority of Leveson’s recommendations, but its creation was accompanied by a comprehensive lobbying operation from news publishers designed to create the opposite impression. They say a last minute wording change was inserted by the newspaper industry ensures that IPSO has almost no ability to launch a standards investigation or impose financial sanctions. This meant IPSO was left with no effective enforcement function. This essentially reduces its regulatory powers to that of a complaints-handling body. Ramsay and Barnett say this does not satisfy the definition of a regulator.

“Without major structural reform – as advocated by Leveson in his comprehensive rejection of the industry’s proposed plan – IPSO cannot be anything other than a body that is, as the second Calcutt Report eloquently described the Press Complaints Commission in 1993, ‘set up by the industry, financed by the industry, dominated by the industry, and operating a code of practice devised by the industry and which is over-favourable to the industry’.”

They conclude their summary with a warning that suggests the problems will be fixed only by political intervention: “Both the British public and working journalists deserve regulation that is effective without inhibiting a free press, is genuinely independent, and commands public respect; future public policy interventions must take account of the continuing determination of the industry to avoid proper scrutiny and accountability.”

Reports like this do nothing to give an already cynical public faith in the ability of the press to keep its own house in order.

New Zealand’s Media Council enjoys a better reputation than IPSO but it suffers from some of the impediments highlighted by the Westminster study. It, too, is essentially a complaints handling body. It, too, lacks effective enforcement beyond publication of its decisions in upheld complaints. It does not engage in the wide-ranging research that is produced by the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

Publishers in this country have effectively seen off recommendations over the years for the establishment of a single media regulator. In an age when all media produce text, audio, and video it is inevitable that a single regulator will be proposed again.

State-initiated regulation on that scale is fraught with dangers. Any single regulatory body would need to be independent in every aspect of its structure and function. In other words, it must be as far away from the state and from industry as is practically possible.

When it happens, its creators must also be fully aware of the ultimate folly of gaming the system.

Bouquet

To Newsroom and its investigations editor Melanie Reid for yet another revelation over Oranga Tamariki. This time it led to the closure of Te Oranga (its Christchurch facility) following disclosure – with damning video – of the use of excessive force on young people by OT staff.

Newsroom is performing an undeniable public service in bringing to light abuses and misuse of power in the agency charged with protecting our most vulnerable young people. The fact that is being prosecuted over the initial stage of its investigation – the uplifting of new-borns by OT – shows there is sometimes a high price to pay for speaking truth to power. Maybe it’s time for a give-a-little page for a legal fighting fund.

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