Hill Cone on NZ journalism

Missed this yesterday as I’m normally not interested in her therapy group sessions and glimpses of personal life, but she actually had the guts to call out some of her colleagues yesterday for … well, you read

As a young female journalist I was probably sadly before my time in shamelessly trying to schmooze my way to notoriety of any kind like an overpainted attention-seeking goose. Back then, how I would have loved to have been in Andrea Vance’s position, the famous Fairfax journalist who brought down a Cabinet minister. How glorious to be feted for your special powers of turning a powerful man to mush, leading him to say he “made errors of judgment” while in your thrall.

Whether their relationship was romantic or not scarcely seems to matter. Although it does seem disingenuous for Vance to now play the victim. Whatever the background, Vance still exhibited a degree of influence – for that week anyway she was more powerful than any politician – that made her the envy of her colleagues.

Especially those who are a little too dangerously in love with the romantic image of their profession – they are the noble crusader, the Katharine Hepburn wisecracker, the reincarnation of Martha Gellhorn. Even if these days being a female reporter is more like being an “It” girl than a hack.

You have to be good at putting on the different personas that are expected of you, whether that be vampish, coquettish or as “enchantingly nasty” as Rita Skeeter. Most often young female journalists still seem to be cast in these starring roles by older tweedy men. It is in the classic tradition of Pygmalion – anyone remember Maddie in House of Cards?

I wonder how many female reporters in the parliamentary Press Gallery have unresolved “daddy issues”. (Oh I know they will all deny this strenuously, they are tough, independent and staunch. I’d have said the same, too.) I just can’t help thinking it would be progress if female journalists were writing their own parts rather than continuing to play the role of temptress to male politicians.

Personally, I can’t think of anything I’d less like to do these days. I’m not quite Germaine Greer, who in her 50s decided gardening was better than casual sex, but at 45, perhaps not far off.

Female reporters are like prima ballerinas or elite gymnasts; with a few notable exceptions (Kim Hill, Fran O’Sullivan, Susan Wood) for most of us our career is over and our waistlines are expanding by the time we’re 30. But the tweedy old men can blithely carry on with a new retinue of young proteges.

These days the female journalist I most admire does not resemble Andrea Vance with her high-profile “scoops”. Janet Malcolm (aged 70-something) is most famous for her quote: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

Malcolm has what Slate writer Alice Gregory calls “terrifying neutrality – like a teacher who is capable of handling even her most despised pupils no differently than the ones she secretly adores”. But I can’t imagine Malcolm flirting on Twitter or wearing disco pants.

It’s all rather come about because of a number of factors all coming together like an imperfect storm.  New Zealand hasn’t had an effective opposition since 2008.  Pressure on the media means less time for investigative work, so the empty space is filled with cheap ‘opinion’ by various ‘names’, and of course the rise and rise of social media stars who would simply not have the audience nor the feedback loop they so crave.

Media is odd this way, in the sense that most other endeavours is sheeted home to the team.  Individual stand-out performances are highlighted, but in the end, the World Cup is won by the All Blacks, not Richie McCaw.

In media, these days the scoops are credited against individuals, rather than an effective and rapacious newsroom.

Tradition and current practice mix in the most incongruent way, where journalists at all levels of skill are clearly by-lined, sometimes with photos, and can be followed and interacted with as both individuals and professionals on Twitter, Facebook and other online venues.   At the same time, the “Editorial”, remains uncredited, and you don’t always know who wrote it.

When called on their activities, they are quick to tell you that all their interactions are personal, and not professional.  But it doesn’t take a genius to see this is hardly true or consistent.  The same journos that scoffed at Key saying he wasn’t speaking as a Prime Minister work social media contacts as journalists, but when they get a little criticism, we are to assume they are speaking personally and off the clock.

All this is a developing situation, and it will be fascinating to see where it goes over the next few years.


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  • Murray Smith

    A clever one. Quick ,take a photo before she’s corrupted.

  • jaundiced

    This is a great article, by someone who should know.
    And no better illustration of this than this morning’s article by David Fisher on the fact that people here to visit a known criminal wanted by the FBI are given special attention by Customs.

  • Euan Ross-Taylor

    “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

    What a great quote!
    Sadly it seems in NZ we are really short of journalists that are not stupid or full of themselves. I wonder if Deborah has had an epiphany and has a made a New Years resolution to be above the rabble. You will find support here Deborah, though I expect that is not really something at this point you would cherish.

  • Cadwallader

    Well written but I have never been convinced that any of her writings are sincere. She routinely adopts a style which is glib and borders on the “smart-Alec” which I suspect is to replace depth of thought. Still, good luck to her!

  • Ross15

    “for most of us our career is over and our waistlines are expanding by the time we’re 30.”
    Incorrect. All she and her fellow journalists have to do is produce QUALITY journalism and they have a good career for as long as they like.

  • cows4me

    She hints at the secret of what I believe it takes to be a good journalist, neutrality. I remember watching a film about a fashion photographer in New York. This old guy would ride a push bike to a formal social, ball, gala and any fashion opportunity that involved societies elite and aristocracy. He never excepted a ride or a meal or a place at the table. He was/is the most admired fashion photographer and has received numerous awards for what he has done for world fashion. When asked why he has never taken a free meal or a trip he replied, “as soon as you except any sort of inducement you become compromised”. I wonder how many journalists in NZ could say they have not received “inducements”. Is it any wonder the Horrid is having such grief, they are well and truly compromised.

    • Sunshine

      Bill Cunningham is the photogher. There is a fantastic documentary that was made a few years ago. Well worth the watch.

  • MAWG

    I had the opportunity to chat with a high profile TVNZ journo recently, and I found that this journo had been hoping for a far worse result for National than what actually occurred. Our Fourth Estate is acting more like a Fifth Column.

    • Dave

      Luckily with four solid pillars to the kiwi economy and country, the fifth column has been noted as unnecessary, and most dont bother with it. The young Bradford is a perfect example.

  • pak

    I find Hill Cone can be a bit angst-ridden but this is an entertaining read. Particularly enjoyed the sledge about the disco pants Laura McQuillan thought were appropriate to wear to a murder trial. Meantime McQuillan has been Twittering on about being “tagged” on Whaleoil in this article, blathering about her birthday. “Off the clock” or is checking out this site part of the research she does to get some real news?

    • Dave

      Perhaps to find if there are still opportunities for tea lady or similar at Freed? Her career as a junior Journo seems to have taken a setback lately.

      • pak

        That could be it. Seems like some sort of New Year life review underway – the gold sparkly pants are up for sale on TradeMe!

  • JR

    This article was published in June 2013. I’m not quite sure why you are presenting an article that is 18 months old as new.