I probably should have commented on this story earlier, but the repossession of Q and Livy’s car, sold to them by an unlicensed dealer on Trade Me with a $7,000 debt owing to Pacific Dawn Finance, rather took precedence over everything else. But this story is important. It strongly suggests improper editorial interference by TVNZ management in its high-profile consumer protection programme Fair Go. The issue was brought to light by Labour Broadcasting spokeswoman Clare Curran when TVNZ management appeared before Parliament’s Commerce Committee. Curran asked: ‘How can you explain reports that TVNZ’s Head of Programming called a meeting of Fair Go staff, including all reporters, together in the last couple of weeks and instructed them not to produce programmes that would upset advertisers?’
TV1 and TV2 head, Jeff Latch, said he had been invited ‘as a guest’ to the meeting. He went on:
‘The key points I made at that meeting were the fact that the heart of Fair Go for the last 20 plus years that it’s been on New Zealand television, is that it represents the underdog and the small guy and stands up for them and that’s what’s made it a special programme for New Zealanders for a large period of time. ‘I also made the observation that we operate in a commercial environment and that Fair Go like all our programs needed to exercise care in terms of the way they handle stories, they need to make sure they’re always balanced because in a commercial environment a story that is not balanced could be something that we would not want to run on this network.” ‘It wasn’t an instruction per se. I asked them to contemplate and think about when you’re looking at stories it’s very important that they’re balanced and we actually show both sides of the story and I think Fair Go does.’ This is a fascinating reply.
Latch finishes by saying that he reminded the Fair Go team of how important it was to be balanced and show both sides of a story. But he then adds, ‘and I think Fair Go does.’ So why was there any need to remind them? More importantly, why did he need to remind them that the network operates in a commercial environment and that they ‘need to make sure they’re always balanced because in a commercial environment a story that is not balanced could be something that we would not want to run on this network.’ I would have thought that TVNZ needed ‘to be balanced and show both sides of a story’ in every environment. Indeed the Broadcasting Act requires it. Lack of balance is one of the cardinal sins in radio and television broadcasting in this country. So why the special emphasis on the commercial’ environment? Well, it’s really pretty obvious – the advertisers pay around 95% of TVNZ’s bills and everyone knows it’s unwise to bite the hand that feeds you.
Could that really have been what Jeff Latch was telling the network’s consumer advocates? Well, not really ‘telling’ them. ‘It wasn’t,’ he said, ‘an instruction per se’. Per se is such a convenient little Latin phrase. Its literal meaning is ‘of itself’’ or ‘intrinsically’. But it’s actually a handy way of saying, ‘yes but not really’ or ‘kind of’ – a sort of Clayton’s denial. So I take Mr Latch’s, ‘It wasn’t an instruction per se,’ to mean, ‘It was an instruction.’ Ironically perhaps, Latch began by stressing that ‘Fair Go represents the underdog and the small guy and stands up for them and that’s what’s made it a special programme for New Zealanders for a large period of time.’ He was right about that. Fair Go has always been a David and Goliath show, undeterred by the power or influence of the companies and institutions it called to account in the interests of ordinary people. Never in the 8 years I was involved in the programme was the fact that the complainee was an advertiser on the network mentioned, let alone regarded as a factor in whether to proceed with a story.
And advertisers did complain. The Insurance Council was frequently unhappy with the volume of complaints against insurance companies that featured on the programme and made its displeasure known. Yet, despite the fact that the companies were major advertisers on TV1 and TV2, no-one ever suggested that we should pull our woolly heads in. Philip Alpers’ investigation into rusting Toyota cars would cost the company millions, but there was never any suggestion that we should downplay the seriousness of the problem. Over the 35 years that the programme has been on air there have been hundreds of such examples. Fair Go has been the court of last resort for thousands of ordinary Kiwis. If it is to continue in that role, it cannot concern itself with the impact a story might have on any company or organisation which advertises on the network. A willingness to bite the hand that feeds it, is the ultimate evidence of the programme’s journalistic integrity.