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Journalists Clash on Media7 Over War Reporting

Journalists Clash on Media7 Over War Reporting

AUCKLAND (Pacific Media Centre/Pacific Media Watch): Two speakers from the AUT Pacific Media Centre's Media, Investigative Journalism and Technology Conference have featured in a controversial episode of Media7.

Host Russell Brown also included New Zealand Herald columnist Garth George, who has had a running feud with conference presenter and investigative journalist Jon Stephenson.

George had earlier attacked Stephenson’s military reporting from Afghanistan in the Herald’s pages.

However, Stephenson had done his homework on George’s own piece and the result was an entertaining experience for Brown, who sat quietly as the two journalists clashed.

Stephenson had interviewed about 100 people in the province of Bamiyan, asking them what they thought of the Kiwi soldiers and their work in the province. While most were happy with the way the soldiers treated them, two out of three were dissatisfied with the soldiers' reconstruction efforts.

George criticised Stephenson’s article for what he claimed were its lack of balance, despite Stephenson recording a number of positive responses to the Kiwi troops’ efforts.

Tough questions
Stephenson expressed his frustration: “This is the irony of all this work,” he said.

“The dangers are real in places like Afghanistan but often they are more real in a place like New Zealand because there are a lot of powerful people who don’t want the predominant narrative challenged.

“And they will pick up the phone, they will call your boss, they will send emails, they will call taint journalists at papers like the Herald and they will try to get their counter-narrative out there.”

The comment was clearly a broadside at George. Stephenson then went on to say that George was entitled to his opinion, “bigoted and ill-informed though I find it”, but also said he would not apologise for asking the tough questions about New Zealand’s involvement in the war.

George did not come out fighting as strong.

“Oh, he’s probably right,” he said.

“I don’t know what the fuss is about Russell. I considered that Mr Stephenson’s report was negative and biased. 100 people out of 400,000 in one city in a huge area. What does that tell you about anything?”

The host responded that it was 100 more interviews than he or anyone else had done in Afghanistan.

George then explained that he had read Stephenson’s article and then contacted the New Zealand Defence Force for some information.

“They sent me a whole heap of stuff which I went through and I used quite a bit of that in my column.”

The problem, as Brown pointed out, was that there was a “lot of cut and paste".

Stephenson agreed, and had all the paperwork to prove it.

“Garth made the claim in the introduction to his story that my work seemed to be a premeditated attempt to belittle the work of the Defence Force,” he said.

“Now he offered no evidence for that. I think that’s an outrageous claim to make about a journalist whose integrity, credibility and impartiality are central to their work.

“This column from Garth is little more than Defence Force spin.”

On the attack
Stephenson then went on the attack.

“I’ve got a question for you, Garth, you know, Garth, what are you?

“Are you a news man or are you a PR man? Because if all you are going to do is regurgitate the spin that you get from the army we may as well take you out of the equation and just let the military write it for you and that way the reading public will know to turn the bullshit indicator up a couple of notches.”

George got defensive: “Well that’s form. You know I get read. I get read by hundreds of thousands of people every day.”

But Stephenson did not hold back: “You say you stand by everything you wrote. The only problem is that you didn’t write much of it, do you not see that as a problem?”

George then went on to defend the admirable work that Kiwi troops were doing in Afghanistan.

“It all comes back to the question that every journalist has to ask himself or herself: What is my relationship to power?

George defended his credibility as a journalist, but was not concerned about Stephenson’s claims.

“Well so what, who cares? Who cares for God’s sake?” said George.

Embedded reporters
Earlier on the programme, Brown spoke to Dr Paul Buchanan about embedded journalism. Dr Buchanan, an international relations and security analyst, also presented to the MIJT Conference last weekend.

Dr Buchanan spoke about the issues of when media personnel are granted protection from the military to report from the ‘frontline’. He said that it made for “raw and edgy” television, but that reporters did not give the full picture.

“It provides the reporter with tactical depth, and what it sacrifices is strategic breadth,” he said.

“You’re not getting the context of the war; you’re not getting the collateral damage. What you’re getting is the reporter who is both narrator and protagonist – he is the centre of the story.”

Dr Buchanan said the idea of imbedded journalism seems attractive, but it creates problems for journalistic integrity.

“The synergies involved are really quite delicious – the reporter again gets his credentials burnished, the media outlets get access, and the military gets its preferred narrative,” he said.

But Dr Buchanan said that when reporters are not tied to the military for their protection and yet are granted access, “they re-achieve objective distance". He called this the “Trojan horse of military reporting.”

“I have no doubts that the reporters now who are embedded in the ISF command in Afghanistan are acutely aware that the cause is lost and now it is a matter of extrication gracefully,” he said.

“But they can’t write about that until they leave the embedded situation but I am sure we are going to see a lot of this in the build up the proposed withdrawal dates in 2011.”


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