2011 through lens of 'i' word

Traditionally, at this time of year, we look backwards and forwards - and sometimes sideways - to reflect on the world around us, and our part in it.

For a columnist whose focus is, broadly speaking, public affairs, the wish list could be endless.

I'm going to narrow it down to just one thing: "integrity".

A good place to start is the media, because in 2011 the media hasn't exactly covered itself in glory with respect to the "i" word - and because people in glass houses should not throw stones.

Most notably, of course, there have been the revelations in the United Kingdom, over the so-called "phone-hacking" scandal, broadening out - through the Leveson inquiry - into a general examination of media ethics.

What this is revealing, drip by incriminating drip, is the degree to which the once-prized quality of "integrity" in news organisations has been progressively compromised.

And how details of the private lives of celebrities, of murder victims and their families, of politicians and other public figures, have become fair game in assuaging a public appetite - as evidenced in better and bigger sales and viewing figures such stories routinely produce.

I don't buy it. The public's interest in such matters should not be confused with the public interest.

It is the media's role to scrutinise activities or behaviours of those charged with maintaining the public interest regardless of whether the public at large is interested or not.

With respect to the media, this is a good part of what defines integrity, and it has little or nothing to do with the vortex of celebrity, salaciousness and sensationalism into which many so-called news organisations in this country have launched themselves.

There are notable exceptions.

Under its national purview, Radio New Zealand (RNZ) continues, on frozen funds and amid the chill winds of austerity and a prevailing preference for the commercial broadcasting model, to do good work, showing up here and there the shortcomings of some of those whose first duty should indeed be to uphold the public interest.

A recent example brought down on its head the disdain, not to say wrath, of the Government in the person of the then minister of education, Anne Tolley.

Mrs Tolley has been moved into the governance and direction of the New Zealand Police and the Department of Corrections - our prison service - but may begin the parliamentary year in 2012 pursued by the shadow of the "Mutu affair" - entirely avoidable had she chosen to show just a modicum of humility and contrition when confronted with her own fallibility.

Briefly, back in October, in the House Mrs Tolley lambasted a RNZ report, which had claimed a lack of proper oversight in educational appointments in Northland, as "completely false".

The report had alleged that a suspended former kura principal, Deborah Mutu, had been appointed to an expert advisory job in the Ministry of Education.

The subtext was that inappropriately qualified "advisers" were being employed to help principals run their schools - with half an eye to the implementation of National Standards.

Subsequent revelations have shown the RNZ report to have been vindicated and there to be good reason for concern over the appointment processes of these "expert advisers".

Mrs Tolley has danced an energetic cha-cha-cha on the head of a very large pin over the matter, refusing either to apologise to RNZ or to Parliament for having apparently misled it.

The Ministry of Education has taken the fall over the matter for giving its minister a false steer, but Mrs Tolley's demeanour over it does not exactly shout "integrity".

On a parallel theme, last Friday as newsrooms around the country were as good as packing up for the year, the chief executive of Work and Income sent out a press release announcing a "national review" of the "way staff handle client records".

"It is vital New Zealanders have confidence in the integrity of our staff and the welfare system," Ms Grossman said, adding, ". . . There is never any excuse for accessing a client's file without a legitimate work-related reason." When the review is complete it is to be hoped that the first person to receive it will be the relevant minister - for social development - Paula Bennett.

For Ms Bennett herself had the files of beneficiaries accessed back in 2009 to discredit them and their complaints against cuts to the training incentive allowance.

The beneficiaries were subsequently pilloried in the media.

As difficult and maddening as it might be, integrity requires that principle trumps political expediency. Without exception.

Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.

 

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