Haiti & parachute journalism – response: Guest blog by TVNZ’s Gordon Harcourt

This commentary was supplied by TVNZ’s Gordon Harcourt. He was upset by my comments on Mediawatch a couple of weekends ago about the coverage of the Haiti disaster.

You can remind yourself of what I said by re-visiting my earlier posts on Haiti.

You can listen to the full discussion between Colin Peacock, Mike McRoberts and myself at the Mediawatch site.

I am happy to publish Gordon’s response in full. I haven’t got time right now to answer his criticisms, but I will come back to this issue, perhaps over the weekend.

“Parachute journalism” and why journalists should ignore Dr Martin Hirst

As a former student (many, many years ago) of what is now AUT, I was genuinely shocked to hear Dr Martin Hirst’s comments on Radio NZ’s Mediawatch last month. Rather than silently fume, I think the responsible thing is to vent openly, so that Dr Hirst’s students – and readers of this blog – can get a different viewpoint.

In his criticism of TV3’s Mike McRoberts and his Haiti quake coverage, Dr Hirst dutifully trotted out the old ‘parachute journalist don’t have context’ line, as though it were some appalling sin for journalism companies to send their correspondents to do some journalism by covering the vast humanitarian disaster of the Haiti quake.

Then Dr Hirst took his argument to a startling new level:

“There are plenty of journalists in Haiti already who don’t have this parachute thing, they know what the story is on the ground and can give you the background and context and all that kind of stuff. And you could actually make a counter humanitarian argument and suggest that what TV3 could have done is actually pay the Haitian journalists on the ground to cover the story for them and thereby indirectly donating money back into that community.” [Emphasis added]

This is utterly fatuous on a purely practical level. More seriously, I argue it implies that not only is no journalist capable of doing their job in another country, but that it is somehow morally corrupt for them to try!

Hirst’s Law

Firstly, the practical: A journalist’s job is to supply material to his or her outlet. That’s why you send people to a story.

How does Dr Hirst know that this legion of broadcast-capable Haitian (or Haitian-based) journalists exists? And did they and their families and their staff and their equipment all miraculously survive the quake?

And do these surviving, broadcast-capable Haitian journalists all speak broadcast quality English? (Or should NZ broadcasters only hire Creole- or French-speaking journalists, for the correct “context”?)

And will these surviving, broadcast-capable, English-speaking Haitian journalists put New Zealand television at the top of their client list, despite the fact that – in deference to Hirst’s Law – no international media organisation has sent staff to Haiti?

While I paint an extreme scenario, every element of it is consistent with what I am calling Hirst’s Law. Genuflecting to “context”.

Secondly, and far more seriously, I find it repulsive to imply that journalists cannot and should not attempt to cover foreign stories like the Haiti quake. Instead, they should only sub-contract their trade to the ready and waiting locals, to ensure the correct “context”.

This is pernicious nonsense. How about trying to do your job better, understand the “context” and convey it to your audience? Genuflecting to “context” is an excuse for not doing your job. “Context” is what every Israeli foreign ministry official and Palestinian commentator demand every time they see a news report they don’t like.

Sorry, but you can’t give a history lesson in every news story! It’s just not practical to include a full account of Haiti’s catastrophic history of US-sponsored dictators and rapacious French reparations. In my book, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run the news story. I readily agree, however, that news outlets should provide context and background in their overall output.

Locals at risk

Thirdly, in many bits of the world it’s actually dangerous for journalists to do their job honestly. If I were commissioning coverage of events in Sri Lanka right now, I would not hire a Sri Lankan for commentary on the most loathsome excesses of the Rajapakse regime. He or she would risk arrest (or much, much worse) by telling the truth right now.

Local fixers

Fourthly – and I attribute this point to my colleague Tim Watkin of Q&A, even though he was not a fan of TV3’s despatch of Mike McRoberts – almost all foreign media do employ local “fixers”, so they are “donating money back into that economy”. Why do they not simply employ these people to do the job directly?

Bluntly, they are extraordinarily unlikely to be capable of doing all the things a staff correspondent can do, under extreme pressure. I was a fixer/producer for the BBC’s Australia correspondent Nick Bryant, in his coverage of the Hillary funeral two years ago. Why didn’t the BBC just hire me directly, given my six year service with the BBC? That’s easy – I’m not as good a correspondent as Nick Bryant.

I would probably not be capable of filing numerous radio and TV packages, and World Service despatches, and BBC Online stories. That’s Nick Bryant’s job. He’s got the kit, he knows how to use it, he knows the multitude of outlets he must serve, and those outlets trust him to deliver. But mostly, the bulletin producers – and, more importantly the BBC viewers and listeners – know and trust Nick Bryant as a journalist. They know he operates within BBC editorial principles. And I think they trust him to understand the “context”.

Journalists and the injured in Haiti

Finally, Dr Hirst made his comments in a discussion that began with looking at the many instances of journalists making a story of treating or helping an injured Haitian. Mike McRoberts delivered a quite compelling report about a young woman with a broken leg. I thought TV3’s treatment of that story – including “context” – was exemplary, and working journalists should completely ignore Hirst’s comments.

Gordon Harcourt Reporter – TVNZ Fair Go 10th February 2010

Gordon Harcourt has been a journalist for 20 years. He was there when TV3 first went to air in November 1989, and since then has worked for every major broadcaster in New Zealand. From 1998 to 2000 he was Producer of backchat, TVNZ’s arts and media commentary programme, presented by Bill Ralston. Following its demise he left New Zealand, and worked as a news producer for BBC World Television till 2007, based in London. He is now a reporter for TVNZ’s Fair Go, and has recently filled in for Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ’s Nine till Noon, and for Kim Hill on Saturday morning.

4 Responses to Haiti & parachute journalism – response: Guest blog by TVNZ’s Gordon Harcourt

  1. Tim Selwyn says:

    “Mike McRoberts delivered a quite compelling report about a young woman with a broken leg. I thought TV3’s treatment of that story – including “context” – was exemplary…”
    – It was a made for TV moment from start to finish. He would have dredged someone up and gotten involved because it makes good viewing. It could have been an old man, a pregnant woman, a limping dog or whatever – but in a position of abundant human props it appears he picked – shrewdly – a little girl. It was a fantastic choice and it worked very effectively. He said in that report Harcourt considers exemplary that he was unapologetic about using his influence as foreign media to queue-jump his chosen victim into surgery. He claimed he didn’t care if someone with a more acute injury was bumped because he was overcome with emotion. May we ask whether his influence was a bribe, or is that not helpful to understand the context?

    It’s great TV, but let us be quite honest about what is going on and why.

    I found Harcourt’s attempted reductio ad absurdum – as quoted in the post – to be wholly unconvincing. If Harcourt really is concerned with context – in the widest sense – he really ought to reflect on the reason the anchor was sent: to gain an advantage for TV3 in the relentless self-promotion and competition game with TVNZ news.

    McRoberts’ reports added nothing more than what was already available from other international media – that cannot be in dispute. The exercise was more about branding TV3 news than anything else. It was no surprise to me when I saw a bus (on Tuesday in Auckland) which had McRoberts posing with the Haitians plastered all over it. That’s the context – ten feet tall all down the side of the 035.

  2. Steve Cowan says:

    I refer you to this blog post I did on McRoberts.

    Why is Mike McRoberts in Haiti?

    There are a couple of other posts as well.

    I think Harcourt’s assertion that ‘It’s just not practical to include a full account of Haiti’s catastrophic history of US-sponsored dictators and rapacious French reparations.’ is ridiculous.

    Why isn’t it ‘practical’ – especially since it helps to explain why the earthquake has had such a massive impact on Haiti.

    Of course McRoberts completely ignored that under cover of providing humanitarian support, the US has implementing what amounts to a de-facto military coup. Not once did McRoberts ask why the US was flooding Haiti with military troops.

    I guess Harcourt would say this wasn’t ‘practical’ either.

  3. […] you came in late, this post is a response to a riposte by TVNZ reporter  Gordon Harcourt to some previous comments of mine on National Radio’s Mediawatch about parachute journalism […]

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