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

February 11, 2010

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.


Haiti: history and the shock doctrine

January 31, 2010

I made a welcome appearance on National Radio’s MediaWatch programme this morning to discuss the recent coverage of Haiti with TV3’s Mike McRoberts and MW host, Colin Peacock.

MediaWatch 31 January – on coverage of Haiti – MP3

MediaWatch 31 January – on coverage of Haiti MediaPlayer

The initial prompt for the chat was the rash of stories about TV reporters rescuing survivors and getting them to medical aid – without which they faced an uncertain, if not shortly to be fatal future.

But I also was keen to make the point that, for me a real problem with the coverage was context.

Why is Haiti one of the poorest nation’s on earth? Why did the TV reporters keep referring to Haiti as “doomed” and “blighted”?

My argument is that without this context, it just seems like the reason is the “foreignness” of the Haitians. They’re black and they don’t speak English and when we see them on television they are either “victims”, or they’re criminalised into some large, organic faceless mob that has to be kept in line by the blue-helmeted UN troops wielding riot shields and pepper-spray.

UN blue helmets pepper spray hungry Haitians

This leads to a situation in which the Haitians are seen as “animals”, as this report from the Australian ABC suggests, quoting a UN soldier:

A UN trooper, who declined to be named, struggled to hold back the jostling crowd with a hard plastic shield.

“Whatever we do, it doesn’t matter – they are animals,” he cried in Spanish, when asked why the peacekeepers were not trying to explain anything in French or Creole.

Troops waved pepper spray into the queue’s front line. Others standing atop a grubby white UN armoured vehicle fired off steady rounds of rubber bullets into the air.

Well actually, the hungry people demanding food and shelter are not animals. They are human beings whose dignity has been stripped away from them in the aftermath of an awful tragedy. An earthquake is a natural disaster, but the humanitarian disaster that is now affecting Haiti so badly is of human design.

What we are seeing today in Haiti is the application of what Naomi Klein has christened the “shock doctrine”. This is the policy of taking advantage of natural disasters in order to impose some kind of austerity programme, or other unpopular measure, on a civilian population that is too traumatised to resist. Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine devastatingly demonstrates how this has been done time and time again-particularly by the Americans-in Latin and Central America, Eastern Europe and Asia. Most recently we’ve seen it used internally in Burma and in China.

Read the rest of this entry »


Mike McRoberts: our man in the middle while Haiti rots

January 20, 2010

Donate to Haiti relief at the grassroots level, not through the pockets of dubious religious charities.

You can make a donation to the Haiti aid effort via:

TUC Aid-Haiti Appeal The British trade Union Council is sending aid to the trade union movement for emergency relief in collaboration with the International Trade Union Confederation.  » www.tuc.org.uk

In Australia: APHEDA-ACTU Haiti appeal Any funds raised in this appeal for Haiti will be directed to the relief efforts being undertaken by the Canadian Auto Workers and other Canadian unions.

Haiti Emergency Relief Fund: organised by Haiti Action, an organisation which directs resources to grassroots organisations in Haiti. Donate at » www.haitiaction.net

It’s interesting that when there’s a gut-wrenching, heart-string tugging, tear-jerking human interest story of tragic proportions that the network’s star reporters can safely own up to having a heart of their own and to becoming emotionally and physically involved in a story.

So it is with TV3’s Mike McRoberts who’s in Haiti covering a real tragedy. He explained his involvement in the story on his Mediaworks/TV3 blog:

Whether or not journalists should be part of a story or not is one of those issues that surface from time to time.

I was reminded of it again today when I “stepped in” to a story. We found a five year old girl at a relief camp who had a badly broken arm and a gaping infected wound in her leg. She hadn’t been treated since the earthquake and medics at the camp were concerned she may lose her leg if she wasn’t operated on that day.

Trouble was neither they or anyone else at the camp had a vehicle. We did and we stepped in.

I carried her around the hospital grounds as we sought the right treatment for her and after the best part of the day waiting she had her operation.

Clearly I have no problem with journalists stepping into a story. The whole “a journalist must stay detached” stuff is just crap.

I’ve always said that I’m a human being first and a journalist second, and if I’m in a position to help someone I will.

In saying that I don’t think a journalist should be the story either. Unfortunately too many reporters these days seem to get the two things confused?

Yes, the question mark is there in the original.

But, Mike’s been upstaged by the BBC’s Matt Price. He and his crew were able to save two lives… Read the rest of this entry »


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

February 15, 2010

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. Read the rest of this entry »


Parachute Journalism debate #2

February 14, 2010

OK, so it’s not complete and it’s nearly the end of the weekend, but I felt the need to start my defence strategy – you know: “Strike while the iron’s hot”.

Or in this case, “Write while the brain is febrile”.

If 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 in the recent (Jan-Feb 2010) earthquake and humanitarian crisis in Haiti.

I’ve already told Gordon – via email – that I think he’s possibly over-reacted to my Mediawatch commentary, but I want to consider his points one-by-one here to a) defend myself and b) put the discussion about “parachute journalism” into some context. Read the rest of this entry »


What would you do?

February 2, 2010

Imagine, reader, that your city is shattered by a disaster. Your home no longer exists, and you spent what cash was in your pockets days ago. Your credit cards are meaningless because there is no longer any power to run credit-card charges. Actually, there are no longer any storekeepers, any banks, any commerce, or much of anything to buy. The economy has ceased to exist.

When the media is the disaster [hat tip, Mr T]

What would you do?

Read the rest of this entry »