An Investigative News Media Blood Bath |500 Words
By Alastair Thompson
Last week was a bad week for NZ Media. And for much more than just the announced "review" of Campbell Live.
One of NZ's best newspaper editors Tim Murphy resigned as editor of the NZ Herald. According to sources he decided to go over differences in opinion on how the editorial side of NZME. was being managed by its CEO Jane Hastings. Its an interesting story which I go into in detail in the second part of this article. [Update 8:30pm: Herald Editor Tim Murphy has responded to this article and his email is included in full below.]
For working journo's the other shocking public news in the week was the decision of Phil Kitchin to take up a job with Paula Bennett in the Beehive.
The reason this news is notable for media old-timers is that Phil is also a complete legend of investigative journalism - probably the longest serving investigative reporter in the Fairfax stable - he is responsible for a bunch of huge Scoops, the biggest being exposure of the rape culture being perpetrated inside the Police Force and the case of Louise Nicholas.
Bit Phil is not the only leading Fairfax investigative journalist who has left the publisher recently.
Michael Field - who recently published an in-depth expose of fisheries abuse in the Pacific Ocean - has resigned.
Scoop understands he was effectively forced out in the fall-out which followed a legal threat from a Kiwi businessman and one-time a minor Russian oligarch - Stephen Jennings - who has recently got himself into a spot of bother in Africa. You can read the apology here.
While hanging out an investigative journalist when a news organisation is threatened is not uncommon, when it happens is particularly bitter blow. For the same reasons that police investigators need their superiors to play the role of protector in TV dramas, so do editors.
Dig a bit deeper at Fairfax and you discover that in the space of a few months they have lost several more senior reporters.
According to inside sources the driving force behind this has been the rise of Stuff the Nation as a priority for the organisation. Hank Schouten, Tim Hunter and Tim O'Donoghue have also gone, and legendary sports editor Trevor Mckewen apparently walked out when he saw what was happening.
There have been more Fairfax casualties in the South Island and according to an unconfirmed report yet another redundancy meeting was held in the Wellington based group sub-hub yesterday.
All of which goes a long way to explaining why Paul Thompson, the former Group Editor at Fairfax, told RNZ staff last Wednesday that they were very lucky they were working for a publicly funded broadcaster with no exposure to the advertising market.
The Role Of Sky City In Tim Murphy's departure
Unquestionably the best real deal investigative crew in NZ at the NZ Herald. The Herald is home to David Fisher, Jared Savage, Phil Taylor and Matt Nippert whose depth of investigative experience is unmatched in NZ media. Backed up by an experienced Gallery crew it has arguably been the NZ Herald that has been holding back the barbarians at the gates of NZ Media.
And because of this the reasons behind Tim Murphy's departure are interesting.
Also interesting was the timing, on the day that the Campbell Live story broke.
The explanation for Murphy's departure that follows is not sourced from him.
The story begins with the appointment of Jane Hastings.
Her predecessor Martin Simons was an old time journalist. For much of his lengthy period as editor of the NZ Herald Martin was Tim's boss. Martin was a believer in the old-school idea of editorial separation. Tim himself was at the NZ Herald for more than 30 years, the first two thirds of which he spent as a front line reporter. Jane Hastings came in with a background more in Radio and marketing than news.
Tensions quickly emerged over The Radio Network and its competition Media Works.
For years there had been an unwritten rule at The Herald that TRN and The Herald were allowed to slag each other off - and they did so - a lot. They did this partly because they were commercially joined at the hip - in order to be seen to be independent and free.
But under Hastings that has changed. Plugs for TRN hosts and initiatives and reporting anything Mediaworks was doing, except negatively, was discouraged.
According to Scoop sources Tim tried hard to resist commercial demands from the publisher - and it eventually ground him down - and this ongoing battle is held by many to be the reason for his departure - a departure which was not a surprise to many.
There is one example of editorial pressure being applied which is a good example of the genre.
In October last year Anne Gibson wrote this story : "Tears flow from worker at SkyCity meeting", the union had turned up and spoken about work conditions at NZ's gambling giant, the highly politically connected Sky City Casino company.
Anne Gibson, wife of NBR Editor-at-large Nevil Gibson is a hugely experienced business reporter and lightyears away from wet when it comes to business matters. Sky City was livid. They wanted an apology. (It's worth pointing out at this point that Sky City's PR chief is former Christchurch Press Political Editor Colin Espiner.)
Sky city went over Tim Murphy's head direct to Jane Hastings. In the wash up Tim apparently looked at the story closely and decided that there was nothing in it that warranted an apology. But then some strange events occurred. A senior [UPDATE: Colin Espiner has confirmed it was Liam Dann that met with him over coffee to discuss this. An extract from his email is now included below. ] Herald editorial staff member was sent over to Sky City to discuss the story. And shortly after a right of reply editorial piece appeared in the paper in which Sky City discussed its contributions to the community.
Now this Sky-City story is not a huge scandal. It is in fact typical of how these things work.
NZ's business leaders have a love hate relationship with the media - which is for the most part rather naïve and remarkably self-interested.
Fair-cop is a concept that appears to disappear from the lexicon once salaries cross the $300k a year mark. And political leaders are no different. With great responsibility often comes great hubris.
But this background story about Tim Murphy's departure is useful as an example of what happens in media organisations when they are under financial pressure. The barriers which protect independence and truth get attacked all the time. They stand a chance of remaining in place if they are defended by experienced media players - but there is a constant tension.
All news organisations in NZ are under financial pressure and in these circumstances it gets worse. The barriers are coming down. NZ's media companies used to be managed by news professionals, ex journalists. Now they aren't. This is progress. However it comes with consequences.
Editorial excellence in news can only be maintained if journalist are empowered to work with out fear or favour.
And that is simply not possible if NewsRooms are run by marketing and money people.
Thompson, 15 April,
UPDATE 8.31pm : Email from departing Editor in Chief NZ Herald Tim Murphy
"Hi Alastair I saw your piece on the media ‘bloodbath’, and the bit about me and leaving the Herald.
I’ve got to say, you’ve got the wrong end of a wrong stick or two here. There was no dispute between Jane Hastings and me over the Sky City complaint on Anne Gibson’s story. Sky did complain and as with all complaints that come in via Jane or anyone else it was referred it to me and I dealt with it, with the business editor Liam Dann. Independently.
On the other matter, which you claim was at the heart of this, I have no issue with making sure different parts of our company don’t publicly, personally, criticise colleagues – unless a real news story demands such a view. It has always been the case in the Herald newsroom – Herald staffers and columnists don’t write about each other and don’t write about Herald on Sunday staffers or columnists or about our bloggers online. I’ve happily explained its extension to include radio colleagues to all-comers in our newsroom and beyond.
It doesn’t apply to reporting real news involving well known radio stars, of any company. Neither of those things played the slightest part in my decision to step down. I am going because it has been a long, long run of responsibility and with a whole lot of new things happening and about to happen it is the right time to let a new voice come in.
On a couple of other things: The timing of my announcement was set well before anyone had a clue Campbell Live was under review – and I announced the day after, not the same day -- so I can’t get what you mean by that being ‘interesting’. Other than two media things happened…..
(Happy for this to go into or on the end of your piece)
UPDATE 5.44pm - Email from Colin Espiner PR Chief at Sky City:
"I’ve never met, spoken to or emailed Tim Murphy. Or Jane Hastings for that matter.
We complained about the story you mentioned, sure enough. It was way over the top. But contrary to your sources, we did get an apology. Business editor Liam Dan agreed it wasn’t written or presented as well as it could have been. He suggested a right of reply – the usual redress in these circumstances. Since the focus of the article had been on the alleged mistreatment of a staff member (it turned out not to be the case), we angled our right of reply on our credentials as a good employer.
As you yourself point out, this is typical of how these things work – it’s called balance and right of reply.
As you know, I spent 25 years in journalism. And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve placated an irate official/politician/judge/real estate agent/business leader with a right of reply when it’s been warranted. It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with political connections, or money, or influence. And it’s got nothing to do with the financial pressures the media are under.
Alastair, the Herald always has and I’m sure will continue to, give SKYCITY a hard time. It’s their job, and it’s fine with me. All I ask for is balance and accuracy – the same things I asked of myself when I was a journalist. Most times they get it right, but occasionally they over-step the mark. This was one of those occasions.
As I say, I don’t know Tim, but I know he was a hugely admired and respected journalist. I was sorry to hear of his departure from the Herald. I know nothing of the internal battle with Jane Hastings you mention. But I hardly think it’s fair to blame SKYCITY for his departure."