Moderator “bias” in TV leaders’ debates – Mike Hosking vs. John Campbell

In New Zealand, this week has seen some discussion about Mike Hosking hosting leaders’ debates on state-owned, but independent and commercially-driven broadcaster TVNZ. It has been reported that Labour leader David Cunliffe is considering boycotting them because of Mike Hosking’s alleged leanings towards National, the main centre-right party.

Hosking last year introduced current National Party leader and Prime Minister John Key at Key’s “State of the Nation” speech, telling the audience “We have bright prospects for the future, so long as you keep them [National] in Government”.

The right has been quick to compare Hosking’s supposed right-wing leanings with a penchant for the left-wing by TV3 (a private broadcaster) debate host John Campbell. Is this fair?

Origins of John Campbell bias claims – a 2003 Sunday Star-Times article

On 14 December 2003, the Sunday-Star Times ran a story based on an interview with John Campbell.  The article was headlined “Let me be a campaigner, says ‘leftie’ Campbell” and included the following:

Campbell, who is keen to expand his role back into reporting at TV3, said he had never made any secret of his “liberal left” leanings. “I voted for the Alliance. They’re good people.”…

He told the Star-Times he had an interest in pursuing a more campaigning, subjective style of journalism.

“I think the old style, the old model, of dispassionate objective, reporting is passing. I believe that, by and large, it was a fraud anyway and that we can always see the pro-establishment bias of the media.

“I think the fact that we report everything now, in almost all branches of media, almost all the time, without context and without history and without analysis. We report everything as if it were spot news, as if it were a car crash. It’s problematic.”

Campbell cited essayists including John Pilger, literary critic Edward Said and social commentator Noam Chomsky as inspirations. He was also inspired by the open agendas of broadsheet newspapers in Britain.

“Actually, the essayist, subjective model, which people like Pilger and Chomsky would do, is actually more honest. You have to rely on the ethics of the journalist, but the thing is you have to do that anyway.”

Ongoing references to alleged bias

The 2003 Sunday-Star Times piece has probably been the inspiration for references to alleged left-wing bias by Campbell over the years – such as the remark yesterday by John Key that Campbell had voted for the left-wing Alliance party. Other references since 2003 to Campbell’s leanings include a 2005 blog entry alleging bias on Campbell’s behalf and discussion in a 2008 Sunday-Star Times piece. (Of course, 2008 was also an election year.)

More recently, in a blog post by Brian Edwards from 2013, Campbell was taken to task for his approach to an interview with John Key, with Edwards claiming Campbell was in the “red corner”.

Reaction to allegations

It’s worth noting that John Campbell was quickly reined in by his bosses at TV3 after this story was published. The National Business Review reported on 19 December 2003:

TV3 news anchor John Campbell was taken aside by news boss Mark Jennings on Monday and lambasted for his comments to the Sunday Star-Times about his leftish political leanings. Mr Jennings is said to have read the riot act to Mr Campbell and secured a promise he will never talk about his personal politics to the media again.

The Sunday Star-Times profile of Campbell in 2008 again brought up the issue of bias. This time, there is noticeable backpedalling by the broadcaster:

Campbell’s politics also annoy some viewers: he doesn’t keep them a secret, as most broadcasters do, and he once notoriously revealed that he had voted Alliance. Now he seems to want to change his image as a left-winger.

“I don’t know where people get the idea that I’m a socialist… People have got it into their heads that because I like the arts and because I like music that I am some kind of parody of a white liberal,” he says. “In fact I have a profoundly idealistic attitude towards just about every political persuasion as long as there’s no bigotry there.”

He was not party-political left, and he had voted for the Alliance’s Laila Harre because “she was doing fantastic work on paid parental leave, she was a bright really impressive dedicated MP who even her opponents I think begrudgingly admired…

“And, in good faith, I believe it’s inappropriate for me to support either of the two major parties. No, I just don’t think that’s right, because I interview them both. I feel very strongly about that.

Is there a difference between Mike Hosking and John Campbell?

Not greatly. Both men have worn their political hearts on their sleeves. However, I think a couple of smaller distinctions might be made.

  1. Self-awareness

The  hard word put on Campbell by TV3 immediately after his 2003 comments, and the backpedalling on his leanings five years later, indicate a degree of awareness on Campbell’s part of the possible difficulties created by revealing his partisan leanings. By contrast, Mike Hosking appears to have changed little in his approach since his supportive remarks of National in January 2013, as the left is currently keen to document.

That said, Campbell’s admission of voting for the Alliance in 2002 will forever be on record.

  1. Time.

Campbell’s comments on voting for the Alliance were made 11 years ago. Does this make him forever tarnished? There will be plenty of people involved in the New Zealand media who have had a party affiliation at one time or another – does that mean they should never be allowed to work in an interviewing role again?

By contrast, Hosking’s comments were made much more recently and were directly in support of Key – who will be going head to head with David Cunliffe in the debate.

Of course, Campbell also hosted a debate a couple of years after making partisan remarks – in 2005 – but as they were no longer in Parliament, no-one from the Alliance was involved. Perhaps that was fortunate for Campbell.

So what to do?

There are remarkable similarities between both cases. Finding any difference is akin to splitting hairs. Labour must know it is on shaky ground, and for that reason I think it will not ultimately boycott a debate hosted by Mike Hosking.

In fact, perhaps we should be very grateful to both Mike Hosking and John Campbell. Unlike others in the media, they have openly revealed their partisan leanings. If you, as a viewer but more importantly as a voter, watch the TV debates and detect bias on the part of either moderator, you can take account of that.

We would be ill-served by moderators who claim, impossibly, that they are completely objective.

Discussions of media bias are fraught and generally fairly unproductive. But they are discussions worth having.

Featured photo credit on homepage: ValerioVeo / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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