A rare Hosking U-turn

Radio host Mike Hosking displayed his impressive intelligence last week.

No, not by spitting the dummy and saying he did not want the Prime Minister on his show, but by eating those words and admitting he had overstepped the mark.

On Wednesday, in an all-too-obvious reaction to Jacinda Ardern’s decision last month to forego the pleasure of a regular weekly dressing down by Mr Hosking, he admitted to listeners that “management and production argue she should come back on a periodic basis” but he felt Ardern “didn’t want to be here” and “are we not better on this programme … not having her on the show?” He said he did not “want her back”.

In the same breath he accused other journalists (more of that later) of being asleep on the job and failing to pursue his particular gripe that morning over a reduction in managed isolation beds following the introduction of the trans-Tasman travel bubble.

He was wrong on both counts and his NewstalkZB colleague and political editor Barry Soper wasn’t slow to tell him so.

The fact that NZME was prepared to carry Soper’s stern rebuke both online and in the print edition of the New Zealand Herald suggests it was a signal to Hosking that management was not best pleased…even if they would not go so far as to openly criticise their star turn.

Soper began by informing Hosking that Press Gallery journalists had, in fact, raised the issue of a reduction in MIQ beds. He then went on to provide the radio host with a reality check: 

“After accusing the media of being asleep, Hosking went on to interview the Prime Minister but was clearly frustrated with her answers about the MIQ wind-down – welcome to our world Mike. After the interview, Hosking declares he doesn’t want Ardern on his show any more, which won’t lose her any sleep given that she’d decided she didn’t want to be on it anyway. But that was her mistake, and this was Hosking’s – he can’t have it both ways.  Hosking accusing the media of being asleep at the wheel, and then refusing to take the wheel himself is cutting your nose off to spite your face.”

Hosking won’t lose any sleep over the equally stern, if more erudite, rebuke from left-wing commentator Chris Trotter. Writing on The Daily Blog, Trotter characterised the broadcaster’s encounters with Jacinda Ardern as “an unpleasant mixture of lofty condescension, contemptuous disdain and outright aggression”. While that may be in the ear of the listener, what he said next was undeniably correct:

Surely Hosking’s listeners would be better served by a radio host who, through a combination of thorough preparation, astute questioning, and palpable on-air charm, was able to elicit from the country’s political leader information from which his large radio audience could draw its own conclusions and form its own judgements? If the Prime Minister finds herself unable to add anything to Hosking’s show, is that her fault – or his?

Hosking’s call on Wednesday for his audience to “give us feedback” appeared to me to be no more than a cynical attempt at positive reinforcement, certainly if these two examples are anything to go by: “Our Prime Minister lives in a fantasy world” and “Oh my god, how can you stand it? How patronising is this woman. Why do you waste your time?”. 

However, by the following day Hosking’s intelligence had won the battle with his ego and he backtracked. He credited Soper with his epiphany and apologised:

“…he did say – and this is why he deserves the apology – you can’t be someone like me, banging on about the media not doing their job and then when you interview the Prime Minister, not want her back on the programme because she doesn’t answer the questions – you can’t have it both ways. And Barry, of course, is right. I can’t ban Ardern and leave her to others and then complain others aren’t doing their job. The least I can do is do my part and have that part open to scrutiny. You can’t criticise from the sidelines, you’ve got to be in the scrum with everyone else.”

I agree. However, there is another reason why Hosking’s ‘de-platforming’ (Trotter’s word) of the Prime Minister was wrong.

Despite his claims to the contrary, Mike Hosking is a journalist.

What is a journalist? Some say that to define journalism is to limit it but Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, who wrote the seminal book The Elements of Journalism, provide one that is hard to pass over: “The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing”.

That final phase – “free and self-governing – will be music to Mike Hosking’s neoliberal ears but, as Barry Soper says, he can’t have it both ways. He aspires to provide citizens with information for that purpose. In my book he functions as a journalist, but that needs to be qualified.

Journalists accept that their profession requires them to observe commonly agreed standards such as accuracy, fairness and balance. 

Hosking eschews the title of journalist because his role as radio host requires him to be opinionated. But he is more than that: A central element of his programme format places him in the role of interviewer and, in that role, he performs the information-seeking functions of the journalist.

Those functions require him to seek information from the sources most likely to possess the facts on the matter under discussion. And that includes the Prime Minister.

He cannot say “I will hold power to account, but not the principal holder of that power.”

The inconsistency of that position has obviously dawned on him and, to his credit, he has acknowledged it.

When the issue requires it, the Prime Minister will be invited onto the show.

Mike Hosking is a man with a well-developed ego that is continually massaged by his employers. It would have been difficult for him to make such a complete U-turn. He should see that, by doing so, he does himself more credit than by trying to tough out a position that had no merit.

As I said at the outset, Hosking is intelligent. He can be one of our most incisive interviewers, when that intelligence is not undermined by ego. His meal of humble pie shows he has the capacity to let that intelligence shine through.

Fragments of the past

Last Tuesday I exhorted journalists to preserve recollections of  their careers “before we are caught in the cross-hairs and join the mortality list”. That Tuesday Commentary was the result of the sudden death of a former colleague Tony Verdon.

At Tony’s funeral in Whangarei two days later I was given a sharp lesson in not relying on memory for those recollections. It was a reminder that memoirs require diligent research.

In one of the eulogies, relying on memory, I credited Tony with being the first editor of the Weekend Herald. In fact, he was its second editor.

The first editor was the formidable Jane Phare, who had been involved from the outset in the concept and design of the replacement for the Saturday edition of the New Zealand Herald.

After the funeral she gently pointed out my error and had the good grace to make light of it while I tried to find a rock under which to hide.

I think I may have made a lame excuse for my awful mistake but I can’t remember.

Death of a prince

The Otago Daily Times provided a treat for royal followers yesterday with a comprehensive and well-designed tribute edition of its World Focus section dedicated to the Duke of Edinburgh.

The paper had managed to get no more than a double column panel on its front page on Saturday announcing Prince Philip’s death. The Dominion Post and The Press similarly were limited to front page panel stories on Satruday and the announcement came too late for most regional deadlines. Only the Weekend Herald managed to devote its entire front page (a commendable effort).

2 thoughts on “A rare Hosking U-turn

  1. Gavin, you say “Hosking eschews the title of journalist because his role as radio host requires him to be opinionated.” I disagree. It is not an essential requirement of a radio host to be opinionated. The best, most intelligent, and cleverest radio hosts are able to hold those in authority to account, without betraying their biases. It is required of journalists working for public broadcasters like the BBC, ABC (Australia), RNZ and TVNZ. That such broadcasters are criticised by all sides of the political spectrum can be taken as a badge of honour. And another golden rule of journalism used to be that a journalist had failed if he or she became the story. This happened with ITV’s Piers Morgan in the UK recently, where he aired his personal animosity to Meghan Markle.

    1. Gavin Ellis – Gavin Ellis is a media consultant, commentator and researcher. He holds a doctorate in political studies. A former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, he is the author of Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights (London, Palgrave) and Complacent Nation (Wellington, BWB Texts). His consultancy clients include media organisations and government ministries. His Tuesday Commentary on media matters appears weekly on his site www.whiteknightnews.com
      Gavin Ellis says:

      Paul, I am not saying journalists cannot voice opinions. Rather,I’m saying Hosking uses it as a justification for his claim that he is not a journalist but a commentator. I say he can’t have it both ways. As an interviewer he acts as a journalist…whether he likes it or not. Of course, as you note, as a journalist he can voice opinions — so long as his audience knows when he’s doing so (his audience deserves to know whether he is voicing facts or opinion)

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