Media capers in the land of the free

By Dev Nadkarni

New Zealand has retained its place in the top ten nations that enjoy the freest media according to the World Press Freedom Index released last month. Global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has been compiling the index since 2002. New Zealand is placed several notches above Australia and far ahead of any other South Pacific island nation.

That reputation was put to the test last month, just ahead of the publication of the ratings result with two unrelated events. One made instant world headlines and nearly caused a diplomatic imbroglio while the other raised hackles of media people and assorted libertarians about a government body’s potential high-handed interference in the media.

Television New Zealand’s (TVNZ) morning programme host TVNZ resigned after being stood down for what was widely perceived as racial and derogatory remarks about Sir Anand Satyanand, the country’s Governor General of Fijian Indian heritage and Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit – and Indians in general.

During the Monday morning interview with Prime Minister John Key, host Paul Henry, asked Prime Minister John Key if the next Governor General would look and sound like a New Zealander questioning him whether Sir Anand was indeed a New Zealander.

Sir Anand was born and raised in Auckland and rose to be a well-respected legal luminary in New Zealand. Those comments snowballed into a huge crisis for TVNZ with Key also copping flak for his lack of a strong response to the offensive comments.

Just days before, in the much criticised, chaotic run up to the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, Henry had been making a series of derogatory remarks about India, which culminated into his deliberate mispronunciation of the family name of the Delhi Chief Minister Dikshit by splitting its syllables to sound offensive – despite being corrected by his onscreen colleagues – and then finally by rounding it off with the comment “It’s so appropriate – because she is Indian.”

The Governor General remark and the derogatory reference to the Delhi Chief Minister and Indians proved a double whammy for TVNZ, which has been for long been accused of instigating its anchors – particularly Henry – to be controversial and keep stirring the pot in a bid to boost viewership ratings.

The Prime Minister, who later confessed to having been taken aback with a comment like that, also said that it was not just the anchor who was to be blamed but his bosses too who often put pressure to deliver more eyeballs for attracting advertising.

As the controversy broke out, Sir Anand happened to be in India for the Games and it was reported that some Indian dignitaries stayed away from an official reception accorded to him as a token of protest. The Indian government then issued a demarche and summoned New Zealand’s High Commissioner in New Delhi, Rupert Holborow, who promptly apologised – something that was criticised in the New Zealand media.

Some commentators also accused India of making a mountain out of a molehill by raising a TV presenter’s comments to the level of a possible diplomatic standoff and there was speculation if the High Commissioner had sought clearance from Wellington before delivering the apology.

Henry’s resignation has been seen by some commentators and libertarians – backed by results of unscientifically conducted polls posted on online media – as an assault on the freedom of expression and bowing too much to political correctness.

This is fallacious. With people of multiple ethnicities toting up half a million, New Zealand is no longer the bi-ethnic milieu that it has always been. Advertisers and marketers have correctly acknowledged the reality of this rapidly changing demographic when at least two major advertisers said that they would consider pulling advertising from TVNZ if racially loaded comments were aired.

That may well have been a factor in turning the screws on Henry to resign.

It is not for nothing that advertisers everywhere are increasingly featuring Kiwis of all ethnicities in their promotional communications. Countries like Singapore have honed the idea of projecting and celebrating multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism to a fine art in their advertising and tourist offerings with amazing results.

A few years ago I was at a tourism seminar in Fiji where international branding experts advised Tourism Fiji to project its inherent multicultural and multi-ethnic composition better in its tourist literature. Back then it tended to project only ethnic Fijians on its visual advertising and surveys showed tourists were actually surprised to find people of so many different ethnicities when they landed there. That suggestion seems to have been taken on board, going by its visual communication today.

‘Draconian’ law

The other instance that did not make world headlines but did create a stir in the local media in New Zealand was the one involving investigation into the collapse of one of the country’s biggest, oldest and trusted finance companies, South Canterbury Finance. The company was put into receivership a couple of months ago and the government guaranteed to pay back some NZ$ 1.3 billion to investors in a scheme devised before the company unravelled.

A reporter of the country’s leading business weekly, the National Business Review (NBR), stumbled on to a murky trail of related party dealings in the failed company where the ownership of a top, up-market hotel in downtown Auckland was for a period of time according to the Companies Office records shown in the name of a meat worker who happened to be a relative of the company’s directors.

When the story appeared in print, the government’s powerful Serious Fraud Office, which was already investigating the company but seemed not to have stumbled on to this particular aspect despite its ongoing detective work, demanded that the publication hand over all documents, notes and material it had collected while investigating the story.  NBR at first refused to hand over the documents but under legal advice did so after the deadline for the handing over had passed.

Under what it termed a draconian law, NBR said its lawyers advised it that the law was powerful enough to jail the editor and fine the publication $40,000 if it failed to hand over the documents.

Though it handed over the documents, the publication said it did not reveal the names of its sources and demanded an assurance that the Serious Fraud Office would not return to ask for any further details. It received no such assurance but the office tried to downplay the episode in the media and the government stayed silent.

Media commentators were critical of the demand to hand over documents, saying it was redolent of bullying in the Soviet era.

Despite being ranked so high in the media freedom index, this episode – though just a storm in a teacup – did bring a whiff of high handed, authoritarian from a government organisation in New Zealand.

First appeared in Islands Business, November 2010