Tim – you’ve been warned – Parachute Journalism #3

I am putting Gordon Harcourt’s long reply to the ongoing discussion of parachute journalism up as a new post. It deserves a place on the front page, not buried in the comments queue.

If anyone else wishes to weigh in with a guest post, feel free.

Riposte to riposte to riposte – and pull your head in Tim Selwyn

[guest post by Gordon Harcourt]

I’m glad I’m contributing to a conversation, though I have taken exception to the distasteful view of one of the participants – see below, Tim Selwyn.

Frankly, I don’t particularly care about that sort of opinion, as I’m never going to change it.  I’ve entered into this conversation because it’s extremely important to me that Martin’s students get another angle.

Catch up with the backstory here and here.

Let me begin by saying that I’ve apologized to Martin in case my posting was seen as playing the man not the ball.  That wasn’t my intent.  And I’ve accepted that it’s a little harsh – though I don’t for a moment resile from the sentiments.   My only regret is that if you start at full volume, you’ve got nowhere else to go. [EM, apology not necessary, debates need to be robust and friendly]

Martin, you’ve spent a great deal of time quoting various learned sources about the “parachute journalism” (PJ) phenomenon in your reply to my post.    I’m very aware of the debate, and I agree the best informed journalist should always be used.  If possible, you should use your guy on the ground.   BUT WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN HE OR SHE DOESN’T EXIST????

Given that our mythical surviving English-speaking Haitian based journalist clearly was mythical, then the options are to send or just pull stuff off the bird.  TV3 decided to send.   If they hadn’t, then the material they would have used would also have been PJ material.   So what do you do?  Just not cover the story?

Martin, you pose a set of questions:

  • We see buy-in material all the time on TV news, particularly from the USA and the UK. We have no trouble using locals on those stories, why is Haiti different?

TV3 and TVNZ did use that material.   Every night that I saw TV3 coverage, there were at least three or four other “buy-in” stories.

  • If TVNZ and TV3 actually kept bureaus in places like the Carribean, rather than just London, New York and Washington DC, then the argument for sending someone would be stronger.

Come on Martin.   You teach journalism.  You were a journalist.  It’s a real world business.   Even the biggest journalism outfits in the world don’t have bureaux everywhere.  At the margin, you have to send people.  So where do you draw your line?  When does a report become hopelessly compromised in your mind, because the journalist who prepared it hasn’t been on the ground for three years, or whatever?

  • Why do we need a ‘Kiwi’ perspective on disasters like Haiti anyway? Surely we’re global enough to know that it’s going to be horrible and that people are dying etc. We can interpret that for ourselves.

Did Mike McRoberts have a “kiwi angle” in ANY of his stories?

  • But, we can’t fill in the blanks in our knowledge of Haiti all that easily and without it, we end up with a bunch of racist stereotypes and not much else.

There are many arguments to be had about the coverage of Haiti.  My objection was to your apparent quest for a reason not to cover a story.

And I’ve enjoyed the other responses to my piece.  I’ve long since accepted that I have abdicated my right to be taken seriously by a portion of society, because I work in television.  However, I never fail to be astonished by the flat out silliness of some views on my loathsome trade.

Attention Steve Cowan (Steve commented on Gordon’s first post)

Steve Cowan’s response is a masterpiece of naivety.  Sorry Steve, but reporting news is about reporting news.   Much as you might wish to get a lecture from Robert Fisk about the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict as part of every single news story [and]  every broadcast, it ain’t gonna happen and frankly that’s not a bad thing in my book.   It’s incumbent on broadcasters to give a full and balanced picture – cue outraged spluttering from Steve about “balance” – but it’s completely ludicrous to suggest, as you appear to, that a full account of any history to any conflict can be carried in a news broadcast or newspaper, or even a weekly news magazine.   Fisk’s latest tome is 1366 pages.  How many of them should I read out on air when I next introduce a story from Jerusalem on the TVNZ7 news at 8pm?   Which facts (“facts” – there’s an elastic notion) should I include in my potted history primer?

By the way Steve, I saw a great deal of context and history on Haiti in various media during the coverage of the quake aftermath.  In fact, I led a 15 minute discussion of it on Radio NZ, while filling in for Kathryn Ryan.  News coverage provokes wider discussion of context.  That’s how it works, Steve.

And Steve, obviously the evil US military were solely intent on furthering the ends of the industrial-military complex but, um, maybe they had to go in to deliver aid?  Gee, it’s just a thought.

Attention Tim Selwyn (Tim commented on Gordon’s first post)

Tim, go back and read my comments on why news organisations send people to news stories.   I can’t comment but yes, I’m guessing marketing advantage was part of TV3’s calculus.  And yes, the marketing of news is relentless, because news is massively important in the abstract, and – shock horror – to the bottom line of commercial broadcasters.  However, I imagine Mike McRoberts has little or no say in that marketing strategy, and I suggest you go back and listen to his comments about that.

And I actually did see interesting information in Mike’s reports but you clearly weren’t very interested in the content, as you were too busy being appalled by his presence.

Finally Tim, I find your post difficult to take seriously, because of the rather distasteful ad hominen element to it.  As I’ve already mentioned, I apologized to Martin in case he felt my original riposte was playing the man not the ball – that certainly wasn’t the intention.  Your post verges on the offensive.   Firstly, you invent quotes that I didn’t hear in the TV3 report – “unapologetic” and “didn’t care” if someone more seriously injured was bumped because he was “overcome with emotion”.   That’s probably just misguided exaggeration. [*SEE BELOW]   When you go as far as accusing someone of paying a bribe – with no evidence whatsoever – then frankly I cease to be interested in discussing anything with you.

*NB: I went back to check Mike’s original report on the injured girl, but couldn’t find it, at least on a cursory search.  If those quotes are in the story, please let me know.

3 Responses to Tim – you’ve been warned – Parachute Journalism #3

  1. Tim Selwyn says:

    Gordon,
    I was not appalled by McRoberts’ presence per se, or even by what I imagined his conduct may have been – the man is a consummate professional who understands what makes compelling viewing and what it takes to get it – it’s just that he added no real news value to NZ viewers.

    I wanted to explore context in the widest sense. The interesting information that may have been in his report was largely over-shadowed by the “exemplary” child-saving mission – I can’t remember anything novel that he was able to communicate in any of his reports.

    I did not invent quotes – I did not put those words in quote marks and did not claim that they were direct quotes either. If it is a quote I will use quote marks – if I don’t then please do not presume it is a quote. Here is what I said:

    “…[McRoberts] 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…”

    Since both of us have only seen the report once we are on an equal footing: my recollection, I think you will find, is accurate. Near the end of the report he explained that he used his influence to get the victim into surgery, that he got her in ahead of others, that he did so because he was emotional and that he does not apologise for it. I can’t recall exactly what he said or which words he used to describe the situation, but that was the basic content of it as I remember.

    As for the bribery accusation, here is what I said:

    “…May we ask whether his influence was a bribe, or is that not helpful to understand the context?”

    I ask that because he rather begs the question himself. If you did not hear McRoberts explaining the circumstances (the contested “quotes”) then you would be right to take some offence, but in the situation it must be a fair question and I pose it in all seriousness.

    Do you think his influence is just a winning smile? He is a professional, he gets the job done and I don’t doubt, given the added pressure of the emotional investment, he would not have found a way to follow through – even if that was costly.

    In the report we see him physically take the victim from the scene. We don’t see him and the cameraman making a stretcher or a splint, we see him instead taking the girl in his hands. This is very much the McRoberts brand he has cultivated over the years – physically assisting and action shots. (In a previous 3 News promo I recall several shots of him with packs and equipment carrying it through a river). We then see him at the hospital carrying her into the surgery. This leads us to believe he has walked all the way to hospital with the victim in his arms – maybe he did, maybe he didn’t – but it looks as though he has. What we didn’t see is how he got through the overwhelmed hospital queues. He made an issue of it, he mentioned it to emphasise that he had gone the extra mile, but we don’t see how this was done. So, no, I don’t have any “evidence” of it as such; but I can’t imagine he, or Mark Jennings, or the viewers, would find it satisfactory to end the story by dumping her amongst the other victims outside the security cordon… for want of a piece of paper… with Ben Franklin’s portrait on it for example. Paying bribes in certain situations and being a good journalist aren’t necessarily incompatible.

    I do concede an error in my previously posted comment however: his TV3 Haiti ad is on the Link buses – not the 035. The slogan is – and I hesitate to use the quote marks – “It’s all about the story.” And as far as it goes that’s right, but when he can’t add any substantial context or pertinent information about that story he effectively becomes the story: his personal account, his humanity, his feelings become the story. At that point it’s as much about the image – about the promo potential – as it is about recording and analysing newsworthy events.

    I also note McRoberts has voiced over a UNICEF TV ad for Haiti. I don’t know whether it airs on the TVNZ channels or not.

  2. Gordon Harcourt says:

    Hi Tim,
    Thanks for the sober reply. Call it bottling out, but I didn’t get into this to discuss the merits of Mike McRoberts’ reporting, and it’s not entirely appropriate that I do, given my employer.
    I shall now beat a tactical retreat from this exchange, and save my ammo for Martin’s students, for whom I shall be entirely unconstrained – as long as they fully understand explain the Chatham House Rule.
    cheers one and all, Gordon Harcourt
    PS There was a spelling mistake in “ad hominem” in the post to which you have replied – I said ad “hominen”

  3. Steve Cowan says:

    Actually I wasn’t interested in Mike McRoberts delivering me a lecture but I was interested in him asking some basic questions like: Why did Haiti society simply collapse after the earthquake? Could it have had anything to do with a century of deliberate economic exploitation, driven by the US?

    McRoberts never even approached the question, never mind answer it. Rather he made banal statements like ‘Haiti is a country that takes two steps forward, then one step backward.’ Was he blaming the Haitian people for their poverty – it sounded like it to me.

    It certainly didn’t sound like Harcourt’s ‘full and balanced picture’.

    It might offend Harcourt’s naive liberal outlook, but there has been a defacto US military coup in Haiti. Why are 20,000 armed troops needed in Haiti – none with humanitarian training. Once again, McRoberts had nothing to say.

    Doesn’t sound like ‘full and balanced coverage’ to me.

    Perhaps Harcourt is talking about the ‘full and balanced picture’ provided by the BBC’s Matt Frei.

    To quote John Pilger in the New Statesman:

    ”The first TV reports played a critical role, giving the impression of widespread criminal mayhem. Matt Frei, the BBC reporter despatched from Washington, seemed on the point of hyperventilating as he brayed about the “violence” and need for “security”.

    In spite of the demonstrable dignity of the earthquake victims, and evidence of citizens’ groups toiling unaided to rescue people, and even a US general’s assessment that the violence in Haiti was considerably less than before the earthquake, Frei claimed that “looting is the only industry” and “the dignity of Haiti’s past is long forgotten”.

    Thus, a history of unerring US violence and exploitation in Haiti was consigned to the victims. “There’s no doubt”, reported Frei in the aftermath of America’s bloody invasion of Iraq in 2003, “that the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and especially now to the Middle East … is now increasingly tied up with military power.”

    Pilger is probably someone the smug Harcourt would consign to his ‘naive’ camp.

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